PAUL METSA - MUSICIAN ON
From West Bank bars with his band
Cats Under the Stars to solo gigs at Nye's narrow polka bar, Paul Metsa's
musical torch has burned for 25 years. The Iron Range rocker has won eight
Minnesota Music Awards and continues to pack them in at local venues.
Or, as his 50th birthday party/concert invitation this fall, wisecracked:
"5,000 gigs and liver still works."
But Metsa's music has often been mixed with activism. He's performed benefit
concerts for striking workers, played at Willie Nelson's Farm Aid, and
is now singing and fighting to save his beloved Guthrie Theater.
Metsa's new CD on Loudhouse Records - Texas in the Twilight - is a collection
of acoustic remakes from his eight other albums plus four new songs. His
new band, Paradise Alley, will make its debut December 21 at the Uptown
Famous Dave's. And on December 18 at Mayslack's, he'll perform an autobiographical
one-man show of his songs, poems, and storytelling as part of his annual
"Holiday on Icecubes," which raises money for the food shelf
at a senior high rise in his Northeast neighborhood.
"It's a kind of low-rent version of Hal Holbrook doing Mark Twain,"
he laughs. "Working title: 'Sometime Over The Rainbow.' Call it a
dry run of the show-though that's really a misnomer-since it's in a bar!"
Iron Range Youth
Unlike the Iron Range's most famous musical native son, Metsa unabashedly
embraces politics and easily laughs at himself.
"Growing up in my town, you had people who were really vociferous
on both sides of every argument-in church, school, city council meetings,
bars, football games," Metsa says of his youth in Virginia, Minnesota.
"Where my musical, spiritual, and political lives start and end,
I don't know. It's like breathing."
His roots run deep in the Iron Range, proud site of some of the bloodiest
battles of 20th century labor. During the major strikes of the 1970s,
Metsa saw firsthand the struggle for safer mines and better wages. And
it transformed his life and his music.
"Slow Justice," which Metsa calls his "most enduring song,"
was written for an album benefiting the Hormel P-9 workers during their
1985 strike that divided Austin, Minnesota.
Listen to Metsa's whiskey-tinged voice singing anthems like "Wall
of Power" and "Another Man's Chain," his "Second Avenue"
tale of homelessness, or the elegiac "Kitty Genevese" about
violence against women, and it's clear that idealism and outrage propel
his artistic vision.
"I grew up watching Westerns," Metsa recalls. "As a boy,
there was a lot of resonance in that lone figure doing right for his county.
There were only a few black people on the Iron Range but the civil rights
movement was on TV. Watching Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson, I got turned
on to Ray Charles, B.B. King, Richard Pryor, Jimi Hendrix-all this beautiful
music that really resonated with my soul. Then, there was Martin Luther
King," he adds. "Just the power of his voice. The poetry and
magic. You didn't have to be very old to realize he was a very powerful
John F. Kennedy was also a major influence. After JFK's assassination
in 1963, Metsa followed the Warren Commission, acquired a "bookshelf
of books" on the topic, and easily sidetracks into analysis of the
evidence, arguments he's eloquently put to music.
"I realized there was evil in the world. I grew up middle class.
The assassination broke that bubble of safety. I saw Jack Ruby shoot Oswald
live on TV," he recalls. "It was a one-two punch of violence
into my life."
Poetry of Politics
Metsa calls himself a "great believer in democracy," but says
he has become disenchanted with the political process. "There's not
a lot of poetry left in politics," he declares. "Washington
seems to be nothing but a snake-oil grease-pit of backroom power plays.
These politicians should know how kids take their cues from them."
Metsa learned the art of political debate early on. His mother was his
town's only Republican.
"I miss the time when people of different political perspectives
could talk to each other with respect. My mother and I always had very
respectful, complex conversations about politics. She was conservative
in the best sense of the word, and I've got a lot of conservative traits,"
he observes. "I believe in conserving civil rights, conserving the
environment, conserving my pocketbook. I believe in conserving liberty
and conserving architectural and cultural history."
Putting those values into action led Metsa to create an organization devoted
to saving the Guthrie Theater, which is slated for demolition next year.
He recalls making a snowy drive from his Iron Range home in 1972 to see
folk guitarist Leo Kottke at the Guthrie. "It was so magical, so uplifting.
There was no doubt in my mind that this was what I had to do with my life-become
a professional musician," he says. Of his own performances at what
he calls "the Carnegie Hall of the Midwest," Metsa says: "Being
on that stage is to commune with the ghosts of the 20th century."
The Guthrie is "completely functional," he argues, with perfect
acoustics and no seat farther than 54 feet from the stage. Metsa envisions
the Guthrie as a multicultural center. "Leave us a place where we
can come to know each other's culture, manners, and arts, and get to know
each other as people."
The Guthrie effort is just another way that Metsa is building community,
using his talents as a musician and activist to make a better city. Like
his musical hero, Pete Seeger, Metsa knows that the real work of an artist
is "not about Hollywood. It's about your hometown." - Lydia
Howell - The Minneapolis Observer - December 5, 2005