The John & Curtiss Show

December 8th was a warm, dampish day in the media: John Lennon had been dead for a quarter-century, and everywhere tears came down. But in Minneapolis it was dry and well below freezing, with heat provided by anger, dancing bodies, and some very loud music. People did their crying in private; in public they raved it up.

The Minneapolis rock scene is a place where extremes meet: cold and clear outside, hot and smoky inside, a lot of pale skin and Nordic accents on people who are just as wired up and bugged out on rock 'n' roll as anywhere else in America. There's madness up there among the lakes. Lennon's spirit inhabits the Twin Cities, sure enough, but not as some objective, spectral essence -- more like a found object that's been welded tightly and inextricably into a preexisting structure.

Godfather to the whole scene is Curtiss A, who has been performing a Lennon tribute show at the legendary First Avenue club in downtown Minneapolis for the last 26 years. (Yes, 26: the first tribute was a basement jam with local musicians the night of Lennon's murder.) Curtiss is a local boy, spawn of Elvis, Little Richard, and the Beatles, a gifted screamer who first punched through in the post-punk days with indie singles (the classic “I Don't Wanna Be President” backed with “Land of the Free”) and acclaimed albums (1980's Courtesy -- five stars in Rolling Stone) that shot warped humor through traditional but high-energy rock settings. Over the years he kept punching, paying dues in rotten heartland clubs and releasing albums to little notice, never quite making it out of his local dominion. Now 53, a bearish figure with a mop of gray hair, he still plays and records, but like all true American cranks, he covets his obscurity.

Curtiss A's friends call him a character. If by that they mean “too weird for words,” they've got him nailed. John Lennon, world-class eccentric, would not have known what to make of this guy. To enter his world is to enter his world -- a place ruled by rock 'n' roll, bottomless hatred of the government, and utter belief in all the dark conspiracies that for many Americans comprise the history of their country since World War II.

Get him started and he'll tell you how he detests the music of the last three decades (“All of it. Pteh!”). He'll describe his several UFO sightings (the first was over Tulsa in 1966, the second over Neillsville, Wisconsin, three years later, “the weekend of Woodstock -- but we weren't on acid”). He'll suggest that his late stepfather, once a military policeman who guarded the gates of Los Alamos, was a CIA plant sent to derail Curtiss's unofficial inquiries into alien phenomena (“Why else would anyone marry my mother?”). He'll describe in clinical detail how he believes Republicans ought to be publicly eviscerated. (Not metaphorically, but actually.) He'll explain that only humans can feel the effects of marijuana, because only humans have THC receptors -- and that therefore, “Someone must want us to smoke weed!” He'll talk about opening for the Four Tops, stepping into the wrong dressing room, and finding the great Motowners eating fried chicken in their underwear. (Curtiss dropped his own pants instantly; the Tops laughed and offered him a drumstick.) Climactically, he'll demonstrate his prowess with blow-darts by piercing, from across the room and with chilling accuracy, his own image -- or half of his own image, the other half being that of John Lennon, the two combined into a single face for the poster advertising this year's tribute concert.

Get Curtiss A started and he'll test your limit of personal intensity. He'll also be generous, forthright, self-deprecating, and utterly unconcerned with whether you like him or not. You can't help but like him.

His kingdom every December 8th is the First Avenue club, and the First Avenue, like Curtiss himself, is a functioning piece of hardcore Americana. Proving ground to Prince, the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and other local legends, it's a throbbing cavern-cum-roadhouse, as intimate as a club, as glamorous as an arena. The stage rises in a white glow high over a generous dance floor, around which wind mezzanines, bars, private-party alcoves, and a secondary performance space. A world-class sound system is wired to a board attended by focused professionals. (Historical results of which are heard on The Bootlegs, Vol. 1: Celebrating 35 Years of First Avenue, a compilation of raw, tuneful performances by Joe Jackson, Patti Smith, and Richard Thompson, among local faves like Hüsker and the Jayhawks.)

The audience for the Lennon tribute, ranging from ragged hippies in full freakwear to housewives in teddy-bear pullovers, lined up early in the cold: the show is famous in the area, and draws heavy publicity. And when Curtiss A came out to the warmth of hometown cheers, he was not immediately recognizable as the conspiratorial ranter of the night before. Offstage, he's a loose cannon; onstage, he's in control. A ranter in his element.

He started with “(Just Like) Starting Over,” Lennon's final single, a choice whose obvious ironies were negated by Curtiss's inspired vocal, which brought out the full Elvisoid persona only implicit in the original (“Huh-well, it's huh-been too long ...”). It was clear he wouldn't be merely impersonating Lennon, though his vocal ability made it equally clear he could. As pictures of a gorgeous, grinning Lennon in all his phases flashed from twin TV screens on either side of the stage, the audience's emotions bent and stretched like rubber under Curtiss A's inventive phrasing. Each of the show's peaks had this quality of being happy and harrowing at once. There was a lot of silliness and humor throughout the show, a lot of soapbox cursing and rabble-rousing, but sadness ran deep beneath the joyous release of the show: "John is dead. Elvis is dead. We're alive. Let's dance." The music rocked, the club shook, and the show was off and running.

Curtiss was backed by a floating assemblage combining members of his two backing groups, Amen and the Jerks of Fate, with drop-ins by local luminaries and assorted pals. There were five guitarists in all, two drummers, two keyboardists, one bassist, one percussionist, and guests on string bass, cello, and flute: the full blast was reminiscent less of the Beatles' lean stage presentation than of a big, sweaty soul revue. Some 70 songs were performed over four and a half hours, mainly Beatles-era, but some from Lennon's solo years. The arrangements didn't seek to reinvent that body of work so much as pack it to the utmost with musical noise and the focused passion of a committed, idiosyncratic voice -- just as Lennon had once done with Barrett Strong's “Money,” or the Marvelettes' “Please Mr. Postman.” Reinvention, then, was the natural result. Everything was familiar, everything was new. Pressing its capacities with slide guitar and feedback, the band made a roaring, soaring cacophony of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and took psychedelia back to hard rock on “I Am the Walrus.” The glistening post-Beatles paste-up “Real Love” was stretched raw with a long outro of James Brown shrieks and declamations, and came out bearing beautiful scars.

It was musical tribute as it should be paid, with muscular throats and calloused fingers. Homilies about our fallen hero were conspicuously absent; in fact, between-song patter was generally minimal, though ample air was given to Curtiss A's politics, which (like Lennon's own, at times) might be described as vengeful liberalism, or perhaps carnivorous humanism. An aggressive, unpeaceful “Give Peace a Chance” opened the second set, and Curtiss grounded the lofty aphorisms of “Imagine” with several richly profane, religion-debunking, conservative-denouncing, government-damning thoughts of his own. (“Don't tread on me” is Curtiss A's motto: he represents all the pluribus who refuse to be unum, except on their own terms. You don't get more American than that.)

There were the drags and lulls endemic to any multi-hour performance, but the climaxes took the show beyond tribute and into itself, made it a free-standing event -- a rocker inventing music, not feting a dead star. Cueing a song, Curtiss said, “They always ask me, ‘What's your favorite Beatles song?” In his tone was the crank's savage contempt for all banal questions and conformist thoughts. So he answered the question by shouting it: “Any Time at All!” A surprising choice, maybe, a minor song -- but suddenly it was a major one. The band filled out the Beatles' functional rendering with Byrdsy guitar chimes and full-chested harmonies, and Curtiss gave it as free and imaginative a vocal as he achieved all night. Flying far above the melody, then swooping low to grab it by the testicles, he ripped the padding out of any soft memory a fan might have brought to the song. He made it strange, brutal, and beautiful: you had never heard this before.

And a moment passed in the midst of that, a moment that crystallized the night. Curtiss got off a particularly good shout, a hot holler. He looked at the dancing crowd below him, and this angry man, this belligerent ranter, smiled a small, warm smile -- as if, for that second, all the disappointments and conspiracies and Republicans had vanished, and the world was nothing but music, movement, flying sweat: pure deliverance, rock 'n' roll's sweetest dream of itself. That was what the moment you took home at the end of the night, if you were fortunate enough to see it.

John Lennon was John Lennon, and Curtiss A is Curtiss A. One was English, one is American; one is dead, the other lives; one changed the world, one has fashioned his own. But for that smiling moment one saw that they were, in the private-club, secret-handshake sense, peers. In this vibrating nightclub in the hot heart of a frigid heartland, this place where extremes meet, Curtiss A's smile looked like it carried some secret knowledge. It's a secret that old rockers like he and John Lennon commit their lives and bodies to learning, and that you and I will never know as long as we live.

Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (Harvard). His essay “Cruising a Road to Nowhere: Mechanics and Mysteries of the Pop Moment” is in the current issue of the journal Popular Music.