It may have been the alien abductions he claims to have suffered. Or that one fateful 1981 gig he believes Prince set up for him to fail. Or his “Rain Man”-like obsession with watching “Jeopardy!” every day. Or the tragic loss of his infant daughter in 1987.
Or it could have just been the mouthy, erratic, headstrong stubbornness that even his most ardent supporters — and there are many of those — admit can be debilitating.
Whatever the explanation, the fact that Curtiss A never became a rock star might actually be the weirdest thing about him.
Finally, 33 years after the release of his last proper studio album, the guy known to Twin Cities music lovers as the Dean of Scream, leader of First Ave’s annual John Lennon tributes, flagship artist at Twin/Tone Records, cool big brother to the Replacements and Suburbs and Soul Asylum, first headliner of 7th St. Entry, literal wall-breaker at the legendary Longhorn Bar and sometimes just Curt Almsted has a new record that proves he deserves more notoriety than all this local lore.
“This is the record I’ve wanted to make for 30 years,” Almsted said, taking a rare moment to think before he speaks. “I guess I just got in my own way.”
The album’s release Friday is timed to both the monthly no-fees sale at Bandcamp.com and to the fanfare Curt deservedly generates each year off the Lennon tribute — a 41-year tradition that will live on as a virtual concert Tuesday, the 40th anniversary of the Beatle’s murder.
Boasting songs he’s been playing live for decades, the album is titled “Jerks of Fate” after his long-standing band of the same name. The commitment his top-notch sidemen have shown all these years might be the greatest testament to his underrated talent.
“They know me, they know my smirk, my smugness,” Almsted said. “They knew how to bring my personality to this record.”
“Jerks of Fate” also underlines what’s been missing in Curtiss A’s career.
He finally got to work again in a primo recording studio, Creation Audio in Minneapolis, where “Surfin’ Bird” and many other legendary cuts were made.
He also at long last got to record with a reputable producer again, John Fields (Soul Asylum, Jonas Brothers), a longtime admirer but never an associate of Almsted.
“I just knew him as this great rock singer and sort of a kooky, larger-than-life character,” Fields recalled, “which is how everyone in the Minneapolis music scene knows him.
“I was thrilled to find out how meticulous he is about his songs, and how much of a pro. He’s as energetic about making music as anyone.”
Fields was paired with Almsted through another vet of the local scene, Flipp frontman Brynn Arens, who’s the album’s executive producer.
Pushing him to finally make just such a record, Arens pored over 100-plus songs Almsted had stored up on demo tapes. They wound up picking many written just after his last album for Twin/Tone, 1987’s “A Scarlet Letter,” produced by NRBQ’s Al Anderson.
Among those older songs is “Excitement,” a snarling and howling rant penned the same day as his similarly toned fan fave “I Don’t Wanna Be President,” as well as the Southern rocker “Cottonmouth,” about a 1974 gig in South Dakota that ended with a pot bust, and “No Ambition,” a Tom Petty-flavored gem fittingly considered for the album’s title.
“I think I’m good at what I do,” Almsted said to explain the latter song, “but I just hate the idea of being a product.”
Another one that rose to the top, “You’re Gonna Die Someday,” poured out of Almsted the day after his friend and bass player Paul “Frankie Paradise” Peterson died in a motorcycle accident in 1993.
“I just felt so sad, I didn’t really know what else to do,” Almsted remembered.
Jerks of Fate formed in the long shadow left by the loss of Curt’s third of four daughters, Alyson, to sudden infant death syndrome. He said he didn’t leave the house for a year. He avoided playing music, too, until drummer “Bongo” John Haga started prodding him to collaborate in 1988.
Haga still anchors the Jerks of Fate lineup, which includes guitarists Steve Brantseg (the Suburbs, the Phones) and Terry Isachsen (Flamin’ Oh’s), keyboardist Gregg Inhofer (Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks,” Joey Molland’s Badfinger) and bassist Jeffrey Willkomm.
Said Haga, “We’ve played together so long, we’re tighter than a pair of new shoes on the first day of school.”
He emphasized their familiarity with these “new” songs, too: “We knew them and loved them already, which I think you can hear on the record.”
So why not record them sooner?
“A lack of financing, for one,” Haga said. “And because it’s Curt. He marches to his own drum.”
A Minneapolis native who turns 70 next month, Almsted bounced around Moorhead, Oklahoma and Indiana in his youth after his mom remarried. He called his teen years “a whole lotta trouble.”
Rock ’n’ roll became his comfort zone when he started gigging in the late-’60s. He would tour the Midwest fronting various bands throughout the ’70s, including Wire (not the English band of the same name), Thumbs Up and the Spooks.
After his first Twin/Tone solo album “Courtesy” earned a four-star review from Rolling Stone in 1980, Almsted got held up as the great white hope of the Twin Cities indie-rock scene. That’s why, he believes, Prince invited him to open his first gig at Sam’s (later First Avenue) on March 9, 1981.
“[He] was kind of like, ‘Really?! This is who you all like?’ ” Almsted said. “He wanted to show me up, especially at that club. Which of course is exactly what he did.”
That legendary night humorously comes up in what amounts to the new album’s core anthem, “Never Gonna Turn My Back on Rock.”
“Along came Prince/ And ever since I guess I knew I’d probably never be king,” he sings. “Some guys learn to play guitars and they grow up to be rock stars/ Some guys lose control and blame it all on rock ’n’ roll.”
Actually, Almsted doesn’t blame anyone but himself and his disdain for managers and the record biz.
“I’m the worst businessman ever,” he added. “Ever!”
He leads a very non-rock-star-like life nowadays on St. Paul’s East Side with his girlfriend of 18 years, Gini Dodds, also a known local rocker. Their rambler looks remarkably normal until you head down into the basement, where Curt stores all his action figures, comic books, sci-fi memorabilia and other truly odd odds and ends.
It was Dodds who wrote the new album’s heavy opening track, “Lonely Cult of Myself” — which sounds like it could’ve been written about Almsted but actually predates their relationship. (First line: “I’ve always been a loner, a prisoner of my own skin.”)
“She’s not only made me a very lucky man, she’s written one of my all-time favorite songs,” Almsted said.
He even used that song to sum up his contentment.
He still gets to perform often, he pointed out. And he claims to love playing to 150 people at the Schooner Tavern (a monthly gig he plans to resume after the pandemic) as much as the 1,500 at the annual Lennon tribute.
“I may not be a rock star, but I can still act like one,” he said with unmistakable Curtiss A flair.
“When I do that ego thing, though, it’s really mostly a joke. Honest it is. The truth is, I’m so [bleeping] sick of myself I can’t stand it.”
What is rock ’n’ roll good for, if not for getting outside yourself?