John Lamb column: Rest in peace, Kirby's
When Kirby's closes its doors at the end of the month, it will signify the end of an era, an aura and an odor. For years, the smoky bar filled a niche for touring bands, penny-pinching college students and regulars alike. The corner in Moorhead w...
When Kirby's closes its doors at the end of the month, it will signify the end of an era, an aura and an odor.
For years, the smoky bar filled a niche for touring bands, penny-pinching college students and regulars alike.
The corner in Moorhead was a stopping point for acts coming out of Minneapolis or continuing east from the West Coast.
In the last five years, national acts like the Rev. Horton Heat, G. Love and Special Sauce, Faster Pussycat and L.A. Guns stopped in on tours.
Known as "the Corner That Rocks," Kirby's stage was also a showcase for the best and brightest of the Twin Cities music scene. Everyone from Stick Man and Ipso Facto to the Gear Daddies and Soul Asylum played there.
Even the Replacements played once in the mid-1980s, but the band was so drunk they were booed off the stage, prompting bassist Tommy Stinson to vow they would never play the town again.
"They were only on stage for 20 minutes I think," says current owner Joe Kuklenski.
Bands that played Kirby's often had a contentious relationship with management, in particular the bar's namesake and former owner, Ray "Kirby" Kuklenski.
In the early '90s, the Minneapolis band Farm Accident was a steady draw for the bar, but believed they were being shortchanged. One night they stationed friends by the door to take their own count.
"Kirby just went off the deep end," Joe says, remembering his father. "So Kirby told them to pack up and get out. It was just such a hassle."
A testament to Kirby's legendary toughness was kept in an envelope labeled "Nail from Kirby's lung."
Kirby died last November and the story made for a fitting eulogy when it was recalled in The Forum.
As legend has it, the elder Kuklenski accidentally swallowed a couple nails while weather-proofing a porch. After choking, he coughed and thought he spit them out.
But it was much later, when he was varnishing the bar, that he surprised himself by coughing up one of the lingering nails.
"You never outgrow the Gold Gloves," says Chuck Nelson, a former bartender, referring to Kirby's boxing career.
"He would be cracking this putter against the bar yelling, 'Get the hell outta here' at closing time," Nelson laughs.
In his time behind the bar, Nelson poured his share of beer on Thursday nights when pitchers cost $1.50. The special packed the house, but there was no guarantee what was advertised on tap was actually in the keg.
"There's a good chance that when you asked for a pitcher of Miller you were getting a pitcher of Rough Rider," Nelson claims.
In addition to working as a bartender, Nelson played on stage with Ugly Stick and rented the main floor of the house behind the bar, which Kirby also owned. He says the house was an architectural curiosity, but paled in comparison to the apartments above the bar.
"It was like something from a Charles Bukowski book," Nelson recalls. "Nothing was plumb, things were surfing from left to right. It was like a funhouse."
The apartments were a convenient home for a number of regulars who called the bar home.
"I'll miss the regulars, the old-timers who came in for a cup of coffee or a couple of beers before noon then went home to take a nap," Joe says.
Kuklenski says he'll have an auction to sell some of the items in the bar, like the "shotski" -- a ski that held four shot glasses. He's also trying to line up a last bash for June 28.
Tommy Stinson probably doesn't remember playing there, but those of us who counted out quarters to buy pitchers won't forget Kirby's.
Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533