Play until you drop

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December 5, 2011 // UPDATED 8:49 am - December 5, 2011
By: Drew Kerr
Drew Kerr
Paul Metsa’s new memoir reflects on four decades in the music biz

Paul Metsa’s new book may be billed as a memoir, but it is as much a story of what it means to be devoted to your work as it the tale of a boy from the Iron Range who has spent the last 40 years strumming his guitar.

The book, “Blue Guitar Highway,” charts Metsa’s path from his first paying gig at the Lion’s Club for $12.50, to the stage of the Guthrie Theatre and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

And while the 271-page work is full of telling, humorous anecdotes from Metsa’s life — including the time he slipped Grateful Dead front man Jerry Garcia some leftover, psychedelic mushrooms  — the story’s primary message is one of perseverance and passion.

It is, in other words, the story of any musician that aspires to make it big, winds up playing low-key gigs in the same club for years on end but labors on because, well, there really is nothing else they’d rather do.

“Any aspiring musician who reads this book may immediately apply to law school, but it is also a reminder that, at the end of the day, you only have one life to live,” said Metsa, who has recorded multi-year stays at Nye’s Polonaise Room, Williams Uptown Pub, Mayslack’s and 237 consecutive Tuesdays at the 5 Corners since moving to the Twin Cities in 1978.

Metsa, who has lived in Northeast Minneapolis since 1996, certainly doesn’t have any regrets about the choice he made to make a life of music. Asking what if, he says, is a “useless exercise,” and even without achieving fame he has led a memorable life full of rich anecdotes and memorable performances.

Those stories are the lifeblood of Metsa’s book, which begins in his hometown of Virginia, Minn., peaks with the story of his pitching his first band, Cats Under the Stars, to Columbia Record’s John Hammond, then winds through a fair share of Minneapolis music history.

Sharing the stage at the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame alongside such music luminaries as Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, seven appearances at the Guthrie Theatre — the old one, that is — and a 1991 gig alongside Ken Kesey at the Walker Art Center are among the musical highlights.

Those experiences, Metsa says, are more valuable than the elusive fame he never achieved. They were also a rich well from which to draw in writing his memoir.  

“I almost think in a way that I was supposed to have led this life in order to write this book,” Metsa said.

Not that Metsa’s life has been a glorious, musician’s romp. The book also includes some sobering stories, including band break-ups, the death of his mother and a descent into drugs that ultimately led to his arrest.

Metsa said retelling some of those stories was “horrifically painful,” but that he followed his father’s advice and never papered over the truth.

“I do feel ashamed of my at times abusive lifestyle, but time does heal thing and I’m not ashamed to write about it,” said Metsa, who at age 56 said he has grown less reckless with age. “I’m pretty frank about everything. You can’t undo the truth.”

Though his life is rife with memorable stories, Metsa says he never imagined writing a full-length book until recently.

A longtime essayist, devout letter writer and “back alley poet,” the idea of authoring a memoir surfaced only after he asked an editor out of the blue for an objective view of his writing. That editor told him he had the beginnings of a great book and urged him to flesh out some of his writings.

Metsa got to work interviewing old friends and family, took a hiatus from music to focus his attention on writing and began pitching publishing houses.

The University of Minnesota Press gave him a deal on Oct. 30, 2010, and Metsa spent the next six months in what he calls an “author’s bubble,” fueled by coffee, the company of his dog and an occasional late-night merlot. He came away with 400 pages that were later edited down to a more manageable 271.

While writing was “easy and exciting” when it was going well, the process at times was  at times “like being submerged in a one-man submarine under arctic ice,” Metsa said.

“I didn’t play any gigs. I just became obsessed with this book,” he said in a recent interview over hazelnut coffee and an egg sandwich. “Even when I wasn’t writing it, I was dreaming about it.”

Metsa, who calls the book “as grand as any of the gigs” he’s ever played, has been giving readings and promoting the work around the state since its release in late September. His next appearance is on Dec. 10 at the Northeast Public Library, where he will read and sign copies of the book.

Such appearances have already opened new and unexpected doors. People Metsa had met over the course of his career are reaching out, and he’s getting invitations to play all over the country.

Metsa says he hopes to harness that excitement and hit the road — something he’s never done in all his years as a musician. The hope is to visit each state as part of a combined book-music tour.

“The conundrum of my career is that there are so many places to play here that I never had to hit the road,” he said. “I’ve never had the wherewithal to tour properly. But that’s all changed with the book. I now that the reason and the want to travel.”

Wherever the road takes him next, though, Metsa says there is no doubt he will continue playing.

“You understand early on that you play until you drop,” he said. “It’s part of the musician’s code.”

What: Paul Metsa reading and sign for Blue Guitar Highway
When: Saturday, Dec. 10, 1-2
Where: Northeast Library, 2200 Central Ave NE
More information: blueguitarhighway.com