When Anoka-Hennepin schools Superintendent Dennis Carlson needs to escape, he reaches for a guitar or harmonica or simply turns up his car radio.
The superintendent of Minnesota's largest school district always carries two guitar picks because, he says, "you never know."
Dennis Carlson's mouse pad depicts a Fender Stratocaster guitar. A framed photo in his office shows Carlson with Keb' Mo', the Grammy-winning blues singer and guitarist. Carlson's computer screen shows him on stage playing guitar with his band, PC2.
His phone vibrates constantly, occasionally interrupted by a blues-riff that he uses as a ring tone. ABC-TV in New York is calling, requesting an interview, presumably to talk about the lawsuits against the Anoka-Hennepin School District alleging harassment of students based on sexual orientation.
But for two hours on a recent afternoon, Carlson, 63, retreated to his office to talk about the passion that drives him through good times and bad -- his music.
Talk to Carlson long enough and you realize that the roadmap tracing his life's journey is a book of sheet music. In fact, he keeps sheet music in the notebook by his desk.
"Music has been huge for me," he said, showing off the guitar picks, one for an acoustic guitar and one for an electric -- because you never know.
"This job has provided some of the best days I've ever had and some of the worst days. When I've had a bad day, I hop in my car, turn up the music, and it takes me away."
Stop children, what's that sound?
It follows him everywhere. Ask him about the love of his life, his wife, Edee, and he talks about their first date; it was a concert featuring Buffalo Springfield, his favorite group of all time, at the old Minneapolis Armory in 1967.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Carlson said. "Edee was working at the Aitkin Dairy Queen at the time and I was a sophomore in college. Neil Young wasn't there -- he'd left the band not long before -- and the Springfield played only a 30-minute set. The Jefferson Airplane followed with a 20-minute blues jam and then their regular set.
"I would have loved to have seen Neil Young then. But I was here and Stephen Stills was there, just a few feet away. It was magical."
There's something happening here. And for Carlson, it's all too clear.
He hears James Taylor singing "There's something in the way she moves . . ." and instantly thinks of his daughter Sarah, who was killed in a car accident at 16, some 24 years ago.
He talks lovingly and often about his daughter Annie, an off-Broadway actress who lives in Saugerties, N.Y., in the Hudson Valley, and has worked several side jobs over the years to support her art. He loves telling about how Annie worked at Pastis, a restaurant in Manhattan, and, at various times, ran into Mick Jagger, Bono and Young.
"I'd love to meet Neil Young," Carlson said. "Annie said he carried a bottle of wine into the restaurant and placed it on the floor, which struck her as a little unusual. But it's Neil Young!
"I think it's very important to christen a new house with the right music," he said. "The first album we played in our new house was Neil Young's 'After the Gold Rush.' It's as close to a perfect album as you'll get."
All shook up
Carlson owns four guitars, plays harmonica and sings. If you were a member of the conservative Methodist church his family attended in the Deerwood-Aitkin area, you had to learn to sing. His mother was a soprano, his sister sang alto, and young Dennis learned to harmonize.
He loved the Everly Brothers. He was among those to huddle around a small black-and-white TV at a neighbor's house to watch Elvis Presley for the first time. He was working at a store near Aitkin when he heard his first Beatles song, "From Me to You." The entire family was mesmerized on a frigid February Sunday in 1964 as they watched the Beatles sing "All My Lovin'" on the "Ed Sullivan Show." He remembers it the way people recall where they were when they heard about the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, or where they were when President John Kennedy was killed.
Carlson saw Gene Pitney in Duluth and the Sir Douglas Quintet in Grand Rapids. He followed any Minnesota band of note and heard some of them in "hay sheds."
"I feel so fortunate to have grown up in the '60s," he said. "It was a fun time to live and a great time to fall in love with music."
When he heard that first album by Buffalo Springfield -- a Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame band whose members would have highly successful solo careers and form popular acts like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Poco, and Loggins & Messina -- he wasn't sure what to think. He soon fell in love.
In search of the lost chords
During his freshman year at the University of Minnesota, he learned how to play poker. By his sophomore year, he began learning basic guitar chords -- "the universal language," he calls it. He was hooked.
"If athletics got me through high school and art got me through college, then music has gotten me through life ever since," he said.
He remembers seeing a concert by The Band at the Guthrie in 1971 and then driving all night so he wouldn't be late the next day to teach school in Mercer, Wis., the Loon Capital of the World.
One of his students, a 16-year-old who played in a polka band with his dad, would bring Carlson sheet music. Carlson, who claims he could play only three chords before that, was suddenly exposed to chords he didn't know existed.
Today, he says he's a "fair" rhythm guitar player at best and just "OK" on harmonica. As a singer, he says he sounds like Neil Young. When he played a recent gig in front of students, he could sense the moans and sighs -- until he blew into his harmonica.
"I was introduced as the superintendent and they thought I was a doofus," he said.
"I play the harmonica and they applaud."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419