The legacy of the iconic, long-defunct St. Paul gallery and punk venue Speedboat has been a lasting one. After opening in 1988 as an excuse to host underground rock shows, the venue quickly drew national attention and the best punk acts from around the country, like NOFX, Green Day, Bikini Kill, Jawbox – the list goes on – remaining a staple of the scene until police shut ‘er down in 1994. It also drew some great art, in the form of artists like Frank Gaard, Bruce Tapola and others.
This weekend’s Speedboat Gallery retrospective “A Punker’s Revenge” at CO Exhibitions celebrates that legacy, showcasing art from past exhibitors, like Gaard, Tapola, Alexa Horochowski, Scott Dolan, Sean Smuda, and Michael Thomsen; art from up-and-coming local artists; and photos and other relics from the gallery. It will also include a live performance by Speedboat co-founder Paul Dickinson’s post-punk band Frances Gumm. In anticipation of that celebration, we present “The Oral History of the Speedboat Gallery” in its entirety, as compiled by Erik Farseth in 2001, republished with permission.
Curating the Audience
Larry-bob Roberts: The summer after I graduated from college, Paul and Scott and some other people like John Pucci started Speedboat Gallery on Selby, a little bit south of Lexington. They basically had art shows with people who had been associated with Art Police. Various people that they knew had art shows there. I’m not sure how soon it was that they started having rock shows in the basement. But I think it was pretty soon. They were doing shows downstairs. There was already sort of a precedent for these alternative art spaces in Minneapolis. A pretty well known one was Rifle Sport… There was also this place called Circus to the Trade, which was near where the Metrodome is now. It was people from this band Rendered Useless. And one of the guys from Rendered Useless is in that noise band Savage Aural Hotbed now: Bill Melton. There was sort of a history of these alternative art spaces. And then there was Speedboat.
Paul Dickinson: It was me and three other people: Scott Dolan, Stuart Wick—those two guys went to St. Olaf—and then my childhood friend (the bass player from Manifest Destiny) Mike Prichard. We first started the art gallery as just a cover for the rock ‘n’ roll. Because we figured, if you say that its an “art opening”, then you can get away with whatever you want. It was just a cover. And then the art took off on its own! I really knew nothing about the art business. And then we really got into it after that. It was all seduction and trickery. You’d bring in the rock people, and then they’d have to see the art. And you’d being in the art people, and they were subjected to the rock. That was the idea. We really wanted to mix things up. Someone told me [that] I wasn’t really curating art as much as I was curating the audience. Everybody’s into their little groups – to hell with that! That’s not where real shit happens.
Illegal Underground Rock Concerts in the Basement
Paul Dickinson: We were living illegally in the basement. Which was the only way we could make it survive financially for the first couple of years. There’s a great American tradition of small businesses with people living above or below their stores. Just read any immigrant story you want. We loved it though.
Vi: I lived in the basement of Speedboat during the rainy season, till I found a good squat to live in. With a roof.
Paul Dickinson: I was working with record labels – Dischord and Lookout – and we started booking shows just because we could get away with it. That was our motto at Speedboat: “We’re gonna get away with whatever we can for as long as we can.” That was our mission statement. That was our only rule. That, and you couldn’t hurt anybody else, and you couldn’t mess with the artwork. And please don’t drink outside. And to tell you the truth 98 percent of the people who came there were totally well behaved. They were there for the music. They weren’t even drinking!
We had Green Day play there twice, and we paid them $100 the first time, and $150 the second time. And that was a good paying night! You could tell they were different because they knew how to harmonize. I think rock ‘n’ roll belongs in a firetrap. If you wanna go to see an opera, [then] you go to the opera house, you know? We had so many amazing shows down in that cramped basement, because of the intimacy, and because of the lack of oxygen. These are all environmental advantages to seeing a show! There were couches that people could make out on – we certainly wanted to encourage that. It was a truly liberating environment. And amazingly, it was a very peaceful bunch. I come at putting on rock shows from a real criminal standpoint, where you’re always running from the cops. Its almost like you’re a graffiti artist, or something. You’re putting on these shows, and – technically – they weren’t happening. I’d tell the bands “I will pay you on the night of the show. Don’t come back here looking for the money.” And these idiots would leave, and then a week later they’d come in saying “We want to get paid.” I’m like “I don’t even know what you’re talking about, dude. That didn’t happen.” [Laughs.] It was like the CIA. Cash-and-carry. And we paid extremely well, I thought. ‘Cause we’re all in bands ourselves.
John Pucci: Bands got 50 percent of the door, split three ways, or two ways. Nothing less than 25 bucks.
Paul Dickinson: Alternative music hadn’t proved itself in the marketplace yet. This was pre-Nirvana. We weren’t trying to be obscure, or elitist, or anything. As a sleazy rock promoter, of course I always wanted to pack the place with as many people as possible. And that was why I was constantly torn, because we would have to turn down shows. I turned down a Fugazi show because I knew that I didn’t have the capacity. That would have been the end. Because it was illegal – because of the fire codes. Basically, you just wanted to [keep a low profile].
Try to Keep a Low Profile
Paul Dickinson: The whole irony of the Speedboat is that we were too successful! Suddenly, I was getting my rock shows announced on [commercial radio on 93.7 FM]! And I was sitting there thinking: “There’s going to be hundreds of people here, and I’m going to go to jail tonight!” It was great but it just got too big for the space. But the space dictated what was so cool about the project. It was tucked-away there, on Selby Avenue. We had a nice parking lot out back. We called it the Bat Cave. But it just turned into a juggernaut. Since we never admitted to doing rock shows down there, we never had an occupancy permit. Because I know that once you have an occupancy permit, the cops can show up and say: “Well, your permit is for 52 people and you have 110 here.” But we did have kind of an informal deal with the police, who came and gave me shit for a while. I just said: “Look, we’re responsible here.” So they said: “Listen, you just have to have everything wrapped-up by 11:00.” And I’m like “Fine!”
My least pleasant job there was throwing bands off stage. You couldn’t have people playing rock star, because everybody had to fit into that time frame. And if you took too long, or were a prima donna of some sort, then you were cutting into someone else’s time. But once again, 98% of the bands that showed up there were really easy to work with. We had really loose policies, but we did have them. We just learned when you had to lay down the line. And if you cooperated and were easy to work with, then you usually got paid more and were asked to come back. When we first started out, that neighborhood was so wild that we would go till 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. We really got away with a LOT! I’m so lucky not to be in jail, or seriously injured. But we worked really hard to make it a safe place. There never was a fire in the firetrap. No one ever got hurt (unless they were somehow hurting themselves). And we all had jobs while we were doing it. Shit jobs. So that kept us from being apparatchiks, like, “I’m salaried for running this foundation…”
We had a sound man who worked there named Frank Rawlings. And he just showed up one day and said: “I know how to twiddle the knobs.” Frank was a great sound man, I tried to pay him at least $20 a show. I didn’t have guarantees, because I got burned a few times after making guarantees when I was just starting out. People who were like: “Oh yeah! We’re great! People love our seven inch!” – and you’d promote the hell out of it, and nobody would show up. We weren’t a bar. We weren’t making money selling drinks. The money that we made at the door was the money for everybody. Our motto was that “If we make money, then everyone gets money.” If we don’t make money, then we have to scale it back. But everything was cash. And then we got into art sales, too. It was kind of one of those things where just when you needed money the most, some weird person would show up out of nowhere and buy a painting. We pumped a lot of our own money into it, too. The [original] four partners each pitched in $226 to get the place going: to get the rent, to get the damage deposit. And that was money that I had saved up from washing dishes. No loans. No grants. No strings attached.
Why Mimic a Corporation?
Paul Dickinson: We knew the way that you had to play by the rules, to a certain extent: you pay your rent, you keep the power on, you don’t antagonize the neighbors… And it lasted for seven years. It took them that long to figure out what was going on! The [authorities] had no idea that bands from England and Japan, and from all over the United States, were playing in a basement on Selby Avenue. That’s why we never went looking for funding or any kind of grant. I’m not one for paperwork. We just didn’t want to be that organized. Why mimic a corporation?! That’s not why we’re doing it! We’re doing it to have our own rules! – to do it our own way. Not to mimic Pillsbury, with a Board of Directors, and all that crap! What fun is that?! Another reason why we didn’t take grant money is that we wanted to be spontaneous. I didn’t want to plan the calendar three months in advance! I wanted to sit there in the office, and if the phone rang and someone had a wacky idea, I wanted to be able to say “Yeah! We’ll try that!” We tried a lot of crazy ideas. Some of them worked, some of them didn’t. But you’ve got to take risks to achieve anything.
The Minnesota grant culture, they kind of confuse social services with art. Heck! Some of the very best art may be very bad for you! It might even hurt you! I’m not the hospital! I’m not there to make you feel better. I think there’s this liberal notion that artists are nice people. No. You might read a Charles Bukowski book, but you probably wouldn’t want to have him over for dinner! [Laughs.] I don’t think artists should have to explain what they do. I don’t want to have to explain what I do, or justify it. Because that’s what’s going on. The paragraphs [that describe the art] keep getting bigger in order to “put it into context,” and the art is getting smaller… It took me a while to realize that [actually], we were doing a positive thing. I came from such a criminal background when it came to putting on rock shows. After a while, we realized: “Hey! This is a positive thing! This is a healthy thing for kids (and everyone else) to do!” But you’d get this underground mentality: like we’d have a bunch of shows, and then we’d lay low. That’s what you had to do. Sometimes, I wish it would have been legit, because then we could have made more money. We could have been doing it every single night. But that really wasn’t the reality.
Paul Dickinson: We got to know the Riflesport [alternative art gallery] people, kind of towards the end of their time on Block E, and when they were [in their second location] down by the Loring. And then we got to know the Artpolice really well: Frank Gaard and Mike McCoy, who was a great painter from St. Paul. [Mike] later joined our team, after Scott Dolan moved to New York. To tell you the truth, I was so busy running the place that I didn’t get out to see the other stuff as much as I wanted to. I felt a real kinship with the Riflesport and the Art Police. They were like us. It was all informal. They didn’t have much of a paper trail, except for the Art Police magazine.
Ruthann Godollei: I think Speedboat had the idea of not competing [with other galleries]. I got a solo show [at Speedboat], and I couldn’t have done that at Rifle Sport. Paying the rent on a place that is dependent on the sale of something that is risky and insulting (or critical), is difficult. Certainly the culture needs it… They don’t have enough to make them think.
Paul Dickinson: The Bruce Tapola show called “Work” was really popular. There was a woman down at the Pioneer Press named Diane Hellekson who was really big fan of Speedboat. And a big promoter. So she wrote up that show, and many other ones after that. We finally got Mary Abbe from the Star Tribune over there, but she took some convincing. I think she’d much rather write about some lady’s jade collection in Kenwood. W.C. Wormley – that was a real popular show. It just had all sorts of plastic sculpture and stuff. He took these stuffed poodles and sprayed them with some kind of plastic foam. They looked like they were poodles from Pompeii covered with toxic slime. The Frank Gaard and the Art Police shows always stuck out. “The Beauty of Subversity” was a show of punk rock flyers from all over the world. We had flyers from Germany, and England, and Australia. I took out an ad in MRR [Maximumrocknroll] and Fact Sheet 5 and Option. It was aesthetically really beautiful. From floor to ceiling, it was all flyers. But the big regret of that project was that we didn’t document it enough. I don’t even have a picture of that. Beause not only are photographers the flakiest bunch of people–all these people who claimed that they were going come and take pictures, and then they’d never show up—but we were also so busy doing the show… that we never [had enough time to actually document it ourselves]. We always took pride in our spread. The tradition at Speedboat was to get a keg of Schlitz malt liquor, and then serve it in a bowl. And we all worked at restaurants and stuff, so we would beg, borrow, and steal as much food as we could. We really saw it as a mission. We wanted to eat. We knew that everybody else wanted to eat too, so would get as much food as we could. Real food, not just mineral water and blue corn chips! That’s why what’s going on now in the art scene really pisses me off. These people with huge budgets are giving out these thimbles full of beer… Only in art do you have such a collection of poseurs. If you’re a scientist, you can either do the equation, or you can’t! Whereas in art, if you can walk the walk, and talk the talk, you can just fake it!
Paul Dickinson: It was a really organic kind of thing. Everyone who worked at the place just showed up. I never looked at a one resume. It was almost kind of Marxist in a way. If you wanted to make decisions about what bands played there, and what art we were going to show there, then you could start by picking up beer cans and cleaning the bathrooms – which everybody did. We didn’t get into that whole hierarchy bullshit. On the other hand, I think that [other alternative spaces] with a lot of committees and stuff are really doing themselves a disservice, because power is too diffused. There were many times when the cops would show up at the door, and I would say: “Yeah, I’m in charge. Here is my driver’s license.” There’s a point where you take the risk and say: “Yes, I’m the one who said that this guy could put up this incredibly obscene art in here. And I’m going to stand behind it.” I think that’s where some of these organizations get into problems. We had a lot of fun, but we were also very serious about the pursuit of both the musical and artistic expression. And if you’re going to be a curator, you have to go beyond your tastes. You have to do stuff that maybe you don’t even like, but that you see the value of.
The Alt-Rock Explosion
Paul Dickinson: When I started the Speedboat in 1988, there wasn’t this whole business of “alternative music.” People used to call us up and say, “I’m the band’s manager.” And I’d say, “Just let me talk to the guitar player.” Because usually back then, if someone claimed that they were the manager, it was just some dorky friend who was hanging-around, who wasn’t actually in the band. So you weren’t really talking to the person in charge. But by the time that the Speedboat got closed down, I was dealing with managers and agencies. I saw this whole sub-industry grow. Now even the all ages thing has turned into a business – like the shows at the Quest.*
Erik J. Cruelty: In my mind, punk rock will always be associated with people playing in a basement. For me, that’s what it all comes down to: a few dozen people packed-in like sardines, with the low ceiling overhead, and a bunch of cheap carpeting, and egg cartons on the walls. People hanging from the pipes… paying three-to-five dollars at the door to get in, and seeing three really excellent bands, who are standing no more than 10 feet away from you at all times. That is the essence of punk rock. Everything is just stripped-down to the basics. No fancy lighting. No bouncers. No high stage. Just the unadulterated power of rock ‘n’ roll. The best clubs were always the ones that managed to capture the intimate sort of feel of being in a basement. Places with a really low stage (or no stage at all) where the band was right at eye-level. The 7th Street Entry was great in that regard, as long as you were standing down on the floor near the front of the stage. The Whole was another example. But the Speedboat was always the yardstick by which I measured all of the other clubs.
Andy Sheie: I ran sound at Speedboat during the summer and the fall of 1993. It was actually the experience of running sound at every show that Speedboat put on that summer that [finally] cured me of wanting to see every band who came through town. I did get to see a bunch of great bands for free (Unwound, Cupid Car Club, Huggybear), but I had to sit through a lot of trash, too… Running sound was easy, though: set up the mikes, make sure they were all plugged in, and then try to keep the system from blowing. Which, I might add, was easier said than done when bands would come in and turn their amps up so loud in that little basement that there was no way you could possibly get the vocals loud enough to hear without destroying everything in the process.
Erik J. Cruelty: The list of bands that played at the Speedboat was a virtual “Who’s Who?” of the underground scene: Bikini Kill; Unwound; Jawbreaker; Citizen Fish; Circus Lupus; Lungfish; Cupid Car Club; Nomeansno; The Nation of Ulysses; Slant 6; The Coctails; Huggy Bear; The Dog Faced Hermans; Jonestown; Green Day; Spitboy; NOFX; Fifth Column; Godheadsilo… and the list goes on and on. A really definitive moment for me was seeing [future Sleater-Kinney member] Corin Tucker’s first band Heavens To Betsy, who were touring with Bratmobile, who were opening for a local band called Monster Zero in the summer of 1992. They were playing to an audience of maybe 15-20 people. That show totally changed my whole conception of what it meant to be a punk band. Heavens to Betsy was so bare bones, it was almost frightening. Just two girls playing drums and bass—with no guitars—totally belting it out. This was before the first Kill Rock Stars compilation had come out. All the Riot Grrrl bands were still selling their own homemade cassette tapes.
Andy Sheie: Punk… back then it meant DIY, anti-authoritarian, creative, loud and sweaty, do things for the sake of doing them. It was music. It was a lifestyle. It doesn’t mean those things to me now, but that’s because I’ve gotten old and crotchety, and a lot of punk music has just gotten sort of conservative and worn out. And I don’t know enough about current punk scenes to know if there are still creative and interesting places. When NoMeansNo played at Speedboat it was over a hundred degrees outside, and probably hotter inside in that cramped little basement. There were one or two incredibly bright lights focused on the band. I was sitting near one of the support columns, right behind it, leaning on the column, and I could watch beads of sweat dropping off this guy’s elbow, glinting in the light. The lyrics: “Comrade! Buddy! Friend!” and the smell of sweat, cigarettes, and coffee, are forever etched in my memory.
DJ Smitty: I loved the Speedboat! Not the best place for shows, but very important at the time. I’m always a big fan of venues that you can go to for more than just a show. They were really trying to put together a meeting place for the scene. I liked that. You could go buy zines there, and hang out. And they did interesting bookings.
Erik J. Cruelty: You could always tell when a band from Washington was going to be playing that night because you would see these people coming into Motor Oil who were really conspicuously over-dressed in this very distinctive faux-retro style clothing. At first I thought I was just imagining “the look,” but I had pen pals in other cities who had noticed the same thing. People in the Twin Cities still tended to wear just your basic t-shirt and jeans, so it was a bit of culture clash. The Cupid Car Club was the worst – the people in their entourage were all walking around wearing sunglasses in the dark. Bands from the East Bay had their own distinctive look. It got to the point where I could pick out the members of a touring band and know what city they were from, just on the basis of their clothes. How pathetic is that?
Paul Dickinson: Some real crazy-ass people showed up. They would find you. But back then, it was really hard to get Minneapolis people to over St. Paul. So I just decided I’m going to get the hippest bands in Minneapolis, and then they’ll have to come over here!
Erik J. Cruelty: I remember one time, this group of weird middle-aged men were opening up for Third Eye (who later became Green Machine). They were really fucked-up. The drummer kept shouting stuff at the audience like “Yer all a buncha God-damned Icelandic fucks!!! Fucking Icelandic fucks!” The bass player was so messed-up, he didn’t even realize that he wasn’t plugged in. He just sat down in the middle of the floor, and started banging on one string. One of the local high school kids kept pointing at the drummer and yelling: “That’s my uncle! That’s my uncle’s band! They’re all on mushrooms!”
Paul Dickinson: The first Friday of every month we had poetry readings. We also had this thing called the Shameless Poetry Festival. Kelly Green was the host. He was like the MC. Basically anybody could show up and do it. That was before the whole poetry craze. So in that way, it kind of intensified everything. Because [Speedboat] would be the place where all the weirdo poets would show up. Believe it or not, the Loft had several readings at Speedboat. We did interact with other organizations. I later went on to get an MFA in creative writing. I started writing punk rock lyrics when I was 18, and kind of went on from there. I did poetry chapbooks, and that kind of thing. And then I got into the world of sleazy rock journalism. I still do that now for The Pulse.
Relations with the Neighborhood
Paul Dickinson: We just didn’t want people to really know what we were doing. We knew that it was under control, and we knew that we could control it. But anybody that had just walked in—particularly a police officer—might have had a different assessment. Speedboat was our turf. That was the way we looked at it. But we were also made to feel that way, too… I was not out to prove that “I have a right to do this, and you’ve gotta let me.” The first few times that I did get pressure from the community, I didn’t take the arts stance at all. I just said: “Hey! I am a businessman. I’m trying to run my business. Leave me alone.” They did make us take down our graffiti sign. A bunch of kids showed up at our door one time, and we actually took them to Target, and bought them a bunch of spray paint. And they did New York freestyle graffiti for our sign. It was really cool. And the Community Council freaked-out. We got in this big battle royal, because they said that it was “gang related”. These kids weren’t in gangs! They were just kids from the neighborhood. And then we let them paint the basement. We blasted their music through the PA, and they just went ape shit! It was fun for them, because they were used to doing graffiti really quickly and then running away. So they just went crazy, and they did the whole wall. The only thing was that it just got tagged, and over-tagged, by East Bay punks, and whoever else. Every band that came through town felt like they had to tag the downstairs.
Larry-bob: John Pucci and Andy Upright and his brother Craig started doing Motor Oil coffee in one half of the Speedboat space. Eventually John and Paul started not getting along so well. There was sort of a barrier put up between the two spaces. Motor Oil had a lot of zines around. It was sort of a meeting place where people connected with each other, and met other people who were doing interesting things.
Paul Dickinson: When we first started out, we called it the “Power Lounge”. And then we sub-leased it to John Pucci and the Upright brothers, and they set up their business in there. It was really nice to have the coffee shop around because we could keep the gallery open until midnight. That was really important to us. So many of these alternative places are never open. The hours would give you a headache! And we wanted to have a place that was consistently open. If you wanted to buy a painting, or do business, you still had to come between the hours of Noon and 5:00 PM, but [Motor Oil] kept the lights on. The other thing that was great about the coffee shop was that they were really cool about feeding the bands. And I know from being someone who has toured that if you can just give someone a meal, it means so much! Plus, it was another place where people could go to help diffuse the crowd. If you couldn’t take it, having some insane Marshall stack next to your ear, you could come upstairs and have a cup of coffee.
Shut Down by the Cops
Paul Dickinson: We had a really wild 4th of July party that featured Slant 6 from D.C. The Fourth of July fell on a Monday, and we had fireworks [which were still illegal at that time], and it got really out of control. We were just trying to be patriotic! Some neighbors called the cops. I don’t know what happened, because they never tell you who turned you in for that shit. … Any number of things could have happened. Little Billy Bob from the suburbs might have told his dad what was going on… It was like an Orwellian thing. We got a cease and desist order from the St. Paul Fire Department. And then the cops came by personally – Mayberry-style – and told me that my goose was cooked. And that we had better not be having any more parties. It was like: The Man, Inc. And then the landlord refused to renew our lease, at any price – that jackass! We fixed up and revitalized that whole building. We turned a total dump into a thriving business, and then we got kicked out. That’s American development. The artists and weirdos go in and take risks, and then the other people show up who were too chicken to do it in the first place. We loved that neighborhood! We totally felt a part of it. We were never robbed. We were never messed with. And furthermore, we really felt like we were contributing to our community and doing our part. And to eventually have a legal injunction against us was really insulting! I have a letter from Rudy Perpich, the then-Governor of Minnesota, saying: “Hey guys, great job!” That’s the one thing from the authorities that I really treasure.
*Big, corporate-owned nightclub in downtown Minneapolis that closed several years ago.
© 2001, 2012 by Erik Farseth, All rights reserved