"Could you not put that part in there, the part about the money? I don't want it to sound like I'm bragging," said James Loney, leaning across the table near the end of our interview for this story.

Loney had just mentioned that one of the highlights of his music career was placing his song "Book About Dreams" in two Hollywood movies. Both films stiffed at the box office, but the soundtracks have earned the songwriter more than $20,000 in royalties over the past 10 years. Not bad for a guy who's just coming into his own on the local music scene.

"I know reality," he said. "I'm 46 years old." It was near closing time at Bullwinkle's Saloon; the bar owner's pug, Yoda, sniffed patrons' feet and a bouncer pushed a broom.

"I'm not going to be a rock star. It's 20 years too late for that. But you know what would be nice? A publishing deal."

Hey, a guy can dream. And Bullwinkle's is the sort of colorful watering hole that requires of its performers a certain dreamer's spirit and tough exterior. Loney can be found here every Wednesday, hosting the West Bank war horse's open-mike night and providing encouragement to his fellow singer/songwriters — even when the night falls on the eve of the host's hernia surgery, as it did in mid-December.

"The show must go on," he said with a smile and a shrug, fingering an unlit cigarette. "It's just important to me. It feels good to play music. If I don't play, I don't feel good. Plus, I have the microphone and cords, and if I don't show up, these guys can't play."

Perhaps because he's living it, Loney sympathizes with the plight of the struggling artist more than most (the hernia surgery went swimmingly, he thanks you very much). Bullwinkle pays him in a hot meal and beers, and for a while the weekly open mike served as a welcome respite from his day job as a car salesman.

He quit the afternoon of Feb. 9, and that night, as giddy Wild fans streamed into the Wild Tymes in downtown St. Paul, Loney opened with John Lennon's "Working Class Hero." Mid-song, he quieted the band and let the room know he'd freed himself of his reptilian boss after nine spirit-killing years. Then he howled Lennon's class-war anthem into the night as if he'd penned it himself.

He since has found a great new job at a Luther Kia dealership, but the moment was just one more reason why so many folks root for the guy. While there may be millions of would-be songsmiths out there, pouring their lungs out to indifferent audiences, few possess Loney's soulful voice, massive chest cavity or hardscrabble back story.

• • •

Born in Hopkins, where he still rents an apartment from his father, Loney found himself at age 12 "hating life" and living at St. Joseph's Home for Children in Minneapolis. The one perk of the correctional facility was that it had a guitar.

"That saved me, and when I got out, my father bought me a guitar," he said. "Music has just always been the thing. If I'm doing music and I'm really actively participating in it, my life is pretty good."

The guitar alone was, and is, no magic fix. When he was 14, Loney and a friend stole and totaled a car in a high-speed chase with Lakeville police. He spent three years in various centers for wayward youth, and learned to live by his wits.

At 17 he became a roadie for local punk-pop kingpins the Flamin' Oh's. Two years later he formed the band House of Mirrors, which broke up after recording an unreleased album at Paisley Park Studios.

Out of habit, not passion, Loney spent the next few years playing the occasional gig, but baring his soul to non-listeners eventually lost its appeal.

"It wasn't fun; it wasn't spiritual. It was a drag," he said. "I didn't want to haul my stuff down to the Cabooze on a Tuesday night and play for no one. So I just walked away from it."

He continued to write and record on his own, which is how the soundtrack deals happened, but for much of the past decade Loney's creative juices were siphoned off by a wicked addiction to crack cocaine.

"It's hell. You never stop craving it. Your mind tells you, 'I don't want to go there.' But you have to. You'll be in the car, hitting the ceiling with your fist because you're angry with yourself. You can't write anything because your mind is so screwed up.

"All I did was work and get high. I kept my day job because that was my source of income to get high. I had seven years where I couldn't keep a guitar for longer than a couple of weeks, because I'd sell them for drugs. Three sober houses, two treatments, I just tried to do everything I could to get off that [crap]."

Three years ago, Loney checked himself into a treatment center in Florida. As he underwent the drudgery of getting clean, he borrowed a patient's guitar and started playing, writing songs and performing. When he returned to Minneapolis, he was determined to stay crack-free.

"I was on it for seven years, and off it now for three, and I totally attribute that to music," he said. "I discovered really quickly that I had a choice: I could either play music or get high; doing both was not an option. And the music makes me feel so much better."

• • •

His new drug of choice is his bands, Lolo's Ghost and James Loney & the Midnight Troubadours.

Clad in a stage wardrobe recently given to him by his old friend Curtiss A, the avowed bachelor ("I like living and being alone. It's not a sad thing; I'm happy") cuts a gritty Prohibition-era gangster figure on stage, sweat often dripping into his squinting eyes as he unfurls folk-rock-blues tunes that echo the answer he gives when asked to sum up his current post-crack days:

"I feel good. Really good. It's like a miracle."

While other artists his age may complain about lack of attention and the "politics" of the Twin Cities music scene, Loney knows he's lucky to be alive. His goals remain modest.

"I asked [a local songwriter friend] what her goals are the other day," he said. "She goes, 'I want to win a Grammy, and be on Letterman.' And that's cool, but I'm more realistic. Having this little write-up in the Trib is good for me. Playing in front of 30, 40, 50 people like I've been doing? Fine by me.

"Of course I'd like more, but I'm happy doing it. It's not for glory or anything like that. You want to touch people, if you can. But as long as I can eat, and have a guitar and a notebook and some songs to work on and some really good friends, that's it."

Jim Walsh is a Minneapolis-based writer and songwriter. He can be reached at madripple@earthlink.net.