The End of the Triple Rock Social Club, Minneapolis' Most Important Punk Bar
A night of mourning (and celebration) for the venue that was the heart of the Midwestern music scene.
Photos by Dan Wallach
In the history of punk, there have been clubs that have transcended the idea of what a venue is and what it can mean for a community. They aren’t just rooms where bands play and people sing and dance, they become linchpins of scenes, helping foster growth and development within the worlds they occupy. But despite their impact, venues never last forever. Defunct spaces like New York City’s CBGB, Chicago’s Fireside Bowl, and Gainesville, Florida’s Hardback Cafe may be long gone, but their legends live on. And now, the people around Minneapolis are in their mourning period for the Triple Rock Social Club, which just closed its doors last week after 19 years in business.
In the mid-90s, the husband-and-wife pair of Erik and Gretchen Funk started to think about what their city and scene were missing. Though there was a hearty selection of basements for bands to play in, the volunteer-run punk record store Extreme Noise (which Erik was an original owner of), and plenty of bars and restaurants, none of them merged all these interests, allowing friends to meet for drinks, vegan dinner, and a show without traversing all around town. So, on a lark, they decided to create the place they wanted to be there all along.
“It was pretty much Gretchen’s idea,” says Erik, who has been a vocalist-guitarist in Dillinger Four, a Minneapolis punk band that’s grown in esteem over the past two decades. The couple was out to dinner with some friends one night when Gretchen realized there were no good vegan options on the menu. “We had friends who were vegan, we had friends who were straight edge, and they were bored out of their skulls when we went out,” says Gretchen. “They couldn’t eat, and it just felt like there was this inclusion that needed to happen where people needed something to enjoy no matter what they wanted or what their lifestyle was like.” While most ideas sparked during late-night outings dissolve the second the sun rises, this one was different. “In the morning, when she started talking about it, we realized we could do it,” says Erik.
It’d take a couple years and a handful of loans—as well as Gretchen enrolling in a business planning class—for the idea to gain traction, but once they discovered the space at 629 S. Cedar Avenue in the city’s West Bank neighborhood—an artsy, up-and-coming area that was home to new restaurants and cafés—they’d found the final piece of the puzzle. And on December 4, 1998, the Triple Rock Social Club first opened its doors.
The bar would quickly gain a reputation as the meeting place for people looking to toss back a few drinks, soak it up with a hearty meal, and listen to a jukebox that never disappointed, no matter if it was playing Motörhead, Atmosphere, or AVAIL. “It was one of the first places I could go in the city where it felt like everybody in here is cool. It was just that spot,” says P.O.S., a Minneapolis rapper who has long bled the lines between punk and hip-hop. And while it seems quaint now, the menu that Gretchen designed offered something most vegan and vegetarian people couldn’t find elsewhere. “Our whole point was to make food for vegans where they could go out and have an indulgent meal,” she says. “It’s like, you get to have junk food at a bar just like I do.”
Though people were already flocking to the Triple Rock, there was one part of the Funks’ vision that wasn’t completed when the bar first opened: There wasn’t a space for live music. “It was always part of the plan,” says Erik. “We thought it would be smart to just do the bar first and, if we could manage that, and we could prove it, then it made more sense to reinvest and do the venue. But it was the goal from the very beginning.” In 2003, the Funks expanded into the vacant lot next to the Triple Rock, building a venue from the ground up. Having spent the past decade touring with Dillinger Four, Erik had a wealth of experience to pull from, allowing him to create the kind of room he’d like to play. “It was all based on my own personal experiences,” says Erik, “But it’s funny, because my experiences were all limited to what I had really done with my own band to that point which, mostly, was basements.”
Though the Triple Rock would carry the intimacy of a basement show—keeping the stage low, lacking a barricade, and holding around 300 people—it also attempted to subvert the idea of what punk clubs look like. Unlike the sticker-coated CBGB, or the graffiti-laden Gilman Street, the Triple Rock went for a clean layout and a minimalist aesthetic. Instead of painting the walls black (though they’d ebb this way over time) and covering it in store-bought punk accoutrements, the Funks went for hardwood and metal beams, a choice they thought would make them standout from similar venues. But, when their friends first entered the space, they got some less-than-stellar feedback. “If you go in that club room, and the lights are all up, it looks kinda like a Chipotle,” says P.O.S. In fact, the Chipotle comparison was so common that the Funks still riff on it. “Everyone said it looked like a Chipotle,” Erik says, before reminding me that “Chipotle was a very exciting restaurant at the time.”
But once people filed in, the Triple Rock no longer felt like a fast food joint. Much like the band Erik fronted, the Triple Rock was a shining example of playing against first impressions. Glancing at Dillinger Four, you see four burly, Midwestern guys who are keen on extolling the virtues of Motörhead. In a way, they seem like the kind of band you’d find playing an empty club in the suburbs any night of the week. But once they kick into their set, the songs borrow as much from pop punk as they do 80s hardcore, and their lyrics effortlessly alternate between socially conscious screeds and biting humor. In that same way, though the Triple Rock feels sterile when it’s empty, the room teems with life the second the lights go down and the people on the dance floor come alive.
While the club would open with a bang, and host national touring acts regularly, it became best known as the place that young local bands would be able to play regardless of draw. Not only that, there was a premium placed on mixed-genre bills, keeping it from merely being just a punk club. “For us, for me, for Doomtree, it wasn’t like we were getting on all the great rap shows. We would have a way easier time getting on a metal show or a punk show,” says P.O.S. “The Triple Rock felt like our place for a long time.”
It makes sense then that P.O.S. would give a shout-out to Triple Double Tuesdays, Triple Rock’s weekly DJ night, in his song “Optimist.” But he wasn’t alone in championing the club in song. Motion City Soundtrack did so on “Better Open the Door.” And soon, bands from all over the country would be singing about how much they loved the place. Everyone from Limbeck to Bomb! The Music Industry would make some kind of reference to the club, but no band took it as far as NOFX, who forever immortalized the place with “Seeing Double at the Triple Rock.” The song sees the band snowed in, enabling Dillinger Four bassist Patrick “Paddy” Costello to regale NOFX with his colorful stories while keeping the liquor flowing. The lines “When in Minnesota and you got a drink quota” painted a picture of a place where hard drinking wasn’t looked down upon, but outright welcomed. And when it came time to make a video for the song, the band traveled to Minneapolis and did it at the Triple Rock so people could get the full experience.
Though all these songs were meant as loving odes to a bar that bands viewed as a second home—in part because it offered food discounts to bands rolling through town, regardless of whether they were playing there—but it ended up mythologizing a place that was too humble for all that mythmaking.
Part of what people loved was not just the space, the food, or the venue, but the atmosphere it fostered. “It’s never been anything like a collective, but I feel like a lot of the personality of this place isn’t just an extension of Gretchen and I’s personality,” says Erik. It’s the reason why the Funks so rarely take credit for what they built, instead passing it on to anyone that ever bartended, worked the door, or cooked a food order. “We started it, but let the good people involved with it run with it,” says Erik.
It’s why, when the Triple Rock announced that it would be closing for good on November 22, people were shocked. Like so many venues before it, there was the idea that the Triple Rock would always be there, its doors open to anyone who wanted to drop in for a drink, and a place that bands would be able to rely on as a pillar of their scene. It was, in no uncertain terms, the end of an era. But in true Triple Rock fashion, it planned to go out in style. A final show was announced for November 21 and tickets sold out almost instantly, as people from Minneapolis and beyond were eager to see Dillinger Four close down the venue one last time.
Unsurprisingly, at the final show, every opening act eulogized the place. Jesse Thorson of The Slow Death talked about how, if you would have bet who’d live longer, him or the Triple Rock, the smart money would have been on the latter. Kitten Forever offered a reminder of the club’s community focus, noting that, even though they didn’t go there to get drunk, the Triple Rock let them play shows to 30 people because it was the kind of space that saw importance in their art. And before Negative Approach, a traditional pipe and drum band marched through the venue in full regalia, offering funeral hymns to a room full of punks.
By the time Dillinger Four finally took the stage, there was an air of finality seeping through the room. But while people in the crowd came prepared to mourn, the band was there to make a mess of things in the way only they can. Costello told a long, embellished version of the venue’s history, saying the Triple Rock started so the band would have a place to listen to the classic rock band Boston, free of judgement, with some like-minded folks. But as the set wore on, things started to become sentimental. Guitarist Billy Morrisette talked about how he worked there for 18 years, noting that the Triple Rock changed him for the better. And, when it came time for Erik to do so, he couldn’t find the words. “I want to say something, but I just can’t. I just can’t do it.” So, instead, he thanked the staff, the people who showed up, and his wife Gretchen, offering a humble toast before carrying on with the set.
As expected, Dillinger Four played their hits and people sang along vigorously, flinging beers from one corner of the room to the other in an attempt to add a few final stains to the walls before the night was over. But when D4 finished and left the stage, it was only then that everyone got what they came for. As attendees made their way into the bar, hoping to get one last beer before they ran out, others milled about the dance floor, looking lost—not from drunkenness, but disbelief. It was only then that everyone realized what had happened, and it was only then it became real. Outside, the heat of the room sent steam billowing out the front door, as if the Triple Rock’s aura was escaping before everyone’s eyes.
Earlier in the night, I’d overheard two people bragging about what mementos they’d stolen in the weeks leading up to the bar’s closure, as well as what else they planned to swipe that night. “I got a brunch menu last week,” one guy said with a smile. And the other, in a classic case of one-upmanship, said he was going to make off with the vintage, 40-inch TV that was perched in a corner of the bar. But whatever plans they had were foiled. Not because the staff had dutifully cleared the place of any precious objects a sentimental thief might want, but because there were never any to begin with.
The Triple Rock was a room, and a rather bare one at that. The bar had decor befitting of an Irish pub, but its most definable trait was the brick wall covered in people’s names, becoming a ramshackle wallpaper of its very own. It wasn’t a place full of needless decorations, it was just a space that allowed people to come together and have a little fun. It’s why so many people wonder why, after nearly two decades, that party had to finally come to an end. And while there is no clear reason, the best answer the Funks have is that, after all these years, it just felt like the time was right.
“Gretchen and I, we have younger kids now, there are later nights now,” says Erik. “And just the liability with a bar like this, you just know that you’re one weird incident away from being in a major situation in terms of liability. And that weighs on you, it really does. You can lose everything pretty instantly and our tolerance for that just waned considerably every year. And that’s when we started to ask if we pictured ourselves doing this in our 50s and 60s, and we had to start to consider how to round it up.”
The building at 629 S. Cedar Avenue still remains, but, just days later, it’s already changed. Much like you can walk into the space that was once CBGB and see its visage partially preserved behind plexiglass, it’s a designer clothing store even if it’s kept some historical grime. Similarly, the Triple Rock sign still hangs high, the names of its loving patrons remain on the bricks in the bar, and the vacant, Chipotle-esque music room is still there; but as soon as Dillinger Four walked off that stage on November 21, it ceased being the Triple Rock.
But even as things change, the spirit that inspired the Triple Rock lives on. Though it was a cleaned-up, professional version of a DIY space, the Triple Rock maintained that community ethos to its final hour, becoming a place where everyone who’d ever stepped foot through its doors was a part of its history and its legacy. When I ask the Funks what they hope people remember about the Triple Rock, they dodge the question, instead hoping that their venue will inspire others to create a new space for a new generation. “People should start bands, and people should play music, and people should make menus,” says Gretchen. “Don’t question it, just do it.”
The Triple Rock Social Club may be gone, but the next great punk club is already being built—and you’ll know it when you find it.
David Anthony is on Twitter.