As strong a testament to his talent as any of the recordings he played on, guitarist, bassist and songwriter Caleb Palmiter’s resume reads like a who’s-who of Minnesota rock bands, with stints in the Jayhawks, Bash & Pop, the Mighty Mofos and the Magnolias.
His stay in those groups never lasted long, however, and to many people he remained one of the Twin Cities music scene’s great unsung forces.
Palmiter, 53, died Monday in Minneapolis from heart failure after several years of deteriorating health. He checked himself out of a hospital earlier that day, friends said.
Former Nick and Eddie owner Doug Anderson, a longtime friend, said Palmiter had been living a clean life in recent years after decades of struggling with addiction — demons that many of his admirers say kept the musician from enjoying a level of success befitting his talent.
“He had gotten very rigorous about sobriety, but he was still not physically well,” said Anderson, who called Palmiter “one of the most talented musicians in town,” particularly excelling at left-handed guitar playing. But he “sabotaged himself many times,” Anderson said.
“He had his own issues, but he hated the music business, too. Every time something good would get going for him, he would get nervous or disgusted, and it would fall apart.”
Palmiter was known to be a stylish dresser and avid reader who was rarely without a book in his hand. He had a nomadic childhood that included a long stay in a hippie commune. After high school in Madison, Wis., he made his way to Minneapolis and entrenched himself in the then-flourishing punk scene with bands including Bwana Devil and A Single Love, the latter of which would be his main vehicle off and on for many years.
In 1984, Palmiter teamed with singer/guitarist Mark Olson in an early version of the Jayhawks. He was out of the pioneering alt-country group by mid-1985 when it made its first recordings. The band’s current lineup (now without Olson) posted a tribute Wednesday that read, “It’s important at this time to acknowledge Palmiter’s contribution to the formation and naming of the Jayhawks.”
Veteran rocker Curt “Curtiss A” Almsted, who recruited Palmiter to play in his band in the ’80s, said, “He was a good kid and a great player. He had a strange origin, and I guess kind of a sad ending.”
Magnolias frontman John Freeman, who counted Palmiter as a bandmate during the making of 1992’s well-received album “Off the Hook,” said, “He was a soft-spoken, gentle, funny guy and stellar musician with great style and taste. We were very close when he was in the band.”
In 1993, Palmiter joined Tommy Stinson in his first post-Replacements band, Bash & Pop, after the recording of the group’s debut album, a stint that included an appearance on “Late Night with David Letterman.” Not long after he was on national TV, though, his life turned destitute.
In 2003, he wrote a column for the alternative weekly Pulse of the Twin Cities that detailed how he went from being hired in 1993 for an album by Bangles singer Susanna Hoffs to spending “several thousand of my newfound dollars on tar heroin in the ghetto area of Los Angeles.”
Calling for better state funding of treatment programs, he wrote: “It takes more than my will alone to keep my hard-earned sobriety and freedom.”
Radio jockey Mary Lucia of 89.3 the Current — a friend and a fan — called Palmiter “truly singular and beyond talented” in a video tribute. “He had some issues and I think really struggled a lot in life, but I can’t think of one person that would say a really bad thing about Caleb. His imprint is on so many of our great local bands.”