A broken-down electric piano, a smattering of tables and booths, dim lighting, ice cubes clinking in stout highball glasses.
Lou Snider, a small woman with a big blond bouffant, a trembly soprano voice, wearing reading glasses attached to a jeweled chain, presides over the piano. Gracious and elegant, she takes requests from an audience consisting of devoted regulars and ragtag hipsters, all of us burning to sing songs from the Great American Songbook.
Next door in the adjoining bar — we always called it the cowboy bar for reasons I no longer remember — a full polka band on a tiny stage churns out “Roll Out the Barrel” to a crowd clutching bottles of Grain Belt. It’s 1989 and we’re all partying like it’s 1959.
I first was brought to Nye’s in the mid-1980s after moving to Minneapolis from my hometown of Madison, Wis. Nye’s was an old-school supper club adjacent to Minneapolis’s newly refurbished hot spot, the promising Saint Anthony Main complex.
Saint Anthony Main had boutiques and bistros. Nye’s had gold sparkly booths, a prime-rib special, a cowboy bar AND a piano bar.
Saint Anthony Main still stands, a shell of a dream-vision that never panned out. Now endangered, Nye’s continues to tirelessly churn out comfort and charm, promising the possibility of joy. It has, thankfully, remained unchanged.
My friends and I were a group of arty, musically inclined free-thinkers with penchants for alcohol and nicotine (before those things were considered problematic). Perhaps we hung out at Nye’s ironically at first. Didn’t we look cool in that quiet throwback on the edge of Nordeast, well before the area was even remotely hip?
But in no way were we above the rarefied air inside Nye’s. It was infused with a cloud of smoke and an aura of magic.
We knew the lyrics to Ann Murray’s 1970 hit “Snow Bird” because it was a great song in spite of the fact we were all forming alternative rock bands at the time.
Our neighbors on the stools, scattered around Lou’s piano, were businessmen, teachers and couples on dates. Together we released our inner crooners with reckless, sometimes stunning, abandon.
For me, returning to work the following morning, to sling hash at Al’s Breakfast, was somehow sweeter and less of a grind after a night of singing around Lou’s piano.
The interior of Nye’s could have been any nightclub in a Dean Martin “Matt Helm” detective movie. It was moody and dim — the adjoining cowboy bar even moodier and dimmer.
There was a portrait of Mr. Nye prominently displayed as you walked in from East Hennepin. The portrait hung right next to the coat check booth manned by a bored coat check woman hunched over a magazine.
There was a 1960s-era asymmetrical metallic wall sculpture to consider as you walked downstairs to use the powder room, which was equipped at all times with a large can of Aquanet.
None of this has changed in the 30 years since my first visit.
Not changing is almost an act of subversion in today’s brand-obsessed age of never-ending tweaks and updates, always bending to the demands of time and trends.
Nye’s is slated to close its heavy doors sometime in January 2016.
Lou has already retired. On Tuesday nights, one of my favorite, criminally under-appreciated local musicians, John Eller, occupies Lou’s old piano bench. Eller knows the entire Elton John catalogue, and yet he, like Lou before him, kindly endures and encourages the college students who need to sing “Rainbow Connection” from their beloved Muppets movie.
In keeping with tradition, Eller caters to show tunes enthusiasts, both young and old, but if you happen to love David Bowie and the Monkees, nobody, except the original artists themselves, can rock those tunes like John Eller can.
On the same Tuesday night, in the cowboy bar, Terry Walsh and his St. Dominic’s Trio (an abbreviated version of the Belfast Cowboys) can throw down everything from Van Morrison, to the Rolling Stones, to beautifully crafted original songs, to requests. All on a Tuesday night in northeast Minneapolis!
Naively, I thought Nye’s was impervious to the changing times. I thought it would always be there for me when I needed a night of fun and community. Had we sentimentalists made a point of heading down to Nye’s more often — not just for our birthdays — could we have spared it from the demands of progress? What if we hadn’t become too busy, too complacent, to support the place we love? Could we have saved it?
I’m certain that I’m not the only person with these thoughts.
The time has come for us to make the effort to go out on work and school nights, to clear our day-worn throats, and come down and hang out at Nye’s a few more times before it’s gone.
We will be shocked at the hour as we head to our cars and cabs after an evening of brutalizing “Delta Dawn” and “Mack the Knife.” We will leave richer for the experience, but with lumps in our throats.
Laurie Lindeen is author of the memoir “Petal Pusher” and a professor at the University of St. Thomas.
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