Paul Metsa's kitchen is a vignette of haphazard domesticity, as though Martha Stewart has given it up to a couple of frat boys. Pots and pans from some recent culinary experiment sit on the stove. Open boxes of Cheerios and Ritz crackers stand on the refrigerator in dangerous proximity to cat food that looks like Chex Mix.
There are a half-dozen prints on the wall that feature someone holding a guitar, and an adjacent hallway seems like a shrine to Bob Dylan, an Iron Range model for Metsa.
Metsa's buddies from Virginia, Minn., Timothy O'Keefe and John (Jack) Pasternacki, crowd around a yellow 1950s Formica table. They run through a menu of songs they plan to play at a concert Friday to celebrate Metsa's 30 years on the rough edges of the Minnesota music scene, a raconteur who became a local legend while maintaining a lingering obscurity.
For many of those years, Metsa, now 54, was known to be a back-room, after-hours kind of guy. But tonight, it's a little after 8 and all he has cooking is a pot of coffee. Half decaf.
Metsa cradles his Takamine guitar and lunges into one of the old tunes they played in bars growing up on the Range, and later, in Twin Cities dives and juke joints as the band Cats Under the Stars. O'Keefe is having so much fun he's laughing. Metsa nods at Pasternacki: "Johnny, take it."
Metsa grew up in the Iron Range's boom time. The mines offered good union jobs and people had disposable income. At one point, there were more than 40 bars in four blocks in Virginia, Minn. The immigrants loved music, so Cats played a never-ending succession of gigs. They got the attention and they got the girls, but they never got rich. O'Keefe's mom called them "the fun-and-games boys."
Metsa's grandfather owned the Roosevelt Bar, and Metsa helped out as a kid while listening to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash on the jukebox. His father and mother played instruments, and the region is a populist hotbed, so Metsa melded his skills and sensibilities into a politically tinged musical thread. The first political song he wrote was in seventh grade, about the 1967, Six-Day War in the Middle East, sung to the tune of "Universal Soldier."
Eventually, Metsa sang at union rallies and DFL fundraisers, but he also voted for Arne Carlson and became friends with former Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican, "back when you could have different political persuasions and still talk to each other with respect."
Dylan was an obvious influence. Metsa recalls hitchhiking to Hibbing and staring at his house. "A guy walked out of that door and changed the cultural world," he remembers thinking.
Metsa got his themes, of loss and compassion, from the miners and lumberjacks in Virginia, and later the haunts in the city. "The swampers and bartenders, the patrons who seem faceless at first, they all have interesting lives," he says. "The nightclubs and blood buckets are rich territory for the storyteller."
One guy at the 400 Bar who smoked Camel straights and took notes near the stage for years agreed. Metsa later discovered it was Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson.
Raymond (Reggie) Colihan got Metsa his first gig in Minneapolis, at the Skyway Lounge, a strip joint on Hennepin. "I like to say Reggie brought the Rolling Stones to Big Reggie's Danceland, the Beatles to Met Stadium, and Metsa to the Skyway," he deadpans. "Thirty dollars and all you could drink. I could easily make that into a $75 gig."
New York Times columnist David Carr traveled with Metsa during "a pretty madcap run through Minneapolis."
"It's easy to turn Paul into a cartoon because he's somebody who gets back into the ring, again and again," says Carr. "But as a songwriter, he's pretty underestimated."
Carr says Metsa was known to work hard and play hard, as well as display "a scabrous sense of humor," and really cool sun glasses.
Metsa's modest duplex, right on the 17D bus line in northeast Minneapolis, attests to the fact Metsa has never made much money. He paraphrases Van Morrison in response: "He said it doesn't matter what you've done, all that matters is that you are still around," he said. "The music is a rich representation of the friendships that become more special over the ages."
Wearing a Nye's sweatshirt with a picture of a martini on it, Metsa and the fun-and-games boys run flawlessly through a Buddy Holly tune in his kitchen, including some made-up lyrics about Chisholm. Metsa smiles. "Just like it always was," he says.
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