Lean and lanky with a kind grin, 70-year-old “Spider John” Koerner is debatably the most influential West Bank musician you’ve never heard of. An unassuming Minnesota legend, Koerner is a celebrity in the folk music community and a living encyclopedia of West Bank music history. If you were to stop by Palmer’s Bar, a dingy, hole-in-the- wall pub that he frequents on Cedar Avenue, you would probably pass him off as just another worn, tear-in-the-beer regular. But he is more than a regular. Like Seven Corners, Koerner is a fixture on the West Bank. He’s been attending Palmer’s and other Cedar-Riverside locales long before the surrounding modernist-era sky-rises that now define the area even existed.
If you were to ask the bartender at Palmer’s who Spider John is, as I did, he would point and say, “Spider John sits at that end of the bar, orders a brandy manhattan, and has been coming here since before I was born.”
Palmer’s, Spider John’s hangout, is a blue-collar joint. You don’t go there expecting anything fancy. It’s been named Palmer’s since the 1940s and seems to have a knack for keeping West Bank residents coming back. Maybe that’s because it’s the last bar for the older crowd that grew up in the Cedar-Riverside area. The Viking Bar closed down; the Triangle Bar in the building across the street from Hard Times is just a ’70s memory. The Nomad World Pub facing Palmers on Cedar Avenue still has its older charm from when it was the Five Corners Saloon, but its crowd has changed. They are younger and they come mostly for the trivia or the bands.
Keith Berg, the current owner of Palmer’s, is a good example of the long-term local connections that the bar seems to create. In 1978, Berg was working at Palmer’s while going to school at the University for math and chemistry. He quit school, but found a job in his field doing environmental testing, then in 2001 when the previous owners of Palmer’s wanted to get out of the business, they contacted Berg.
“I knew this place pretty well and it was an easy fit,” Berg said.
Palmer’s is, in a way, a sad, last stand for locals, one of the few places that hasn’t changed within the multicultural amalgamation that is the West Bank. Spider John is the beacon of light cutting through the fog of disconnection between Cedar-Riverside’s young and old. He does not attempt to bridge barriers, in fact if you are in Palmer’s having a beer, he probably prefers you to stay at your table and leave him to his drink. This is only if you don’t know who he is; if you are a fan, I am sure he would be flattered by your observation.
Throughout the changes in the neighborhood, Spider John has been the constant. He has seen people and businesses come and go, but he continues to make music and go back to the things he knows.
“I hate to say it, but we’re almost used to it,” replied Spider John, when I asked him about the deadly shooting out front of Palmer’s last summer. It isn’t the first time a shooting has happened there, but that hasn’t stopped him or the other regulars from coming back. They are the reassurance that Palmer’s will stay open and offer an outlet to local bands for years to come. Without Spider John and the old-timers, the bar would have faded at the whim of constantly moving students. Palmer’s is the neighborhood bar in a neighborhood that doesn’t know what it is.
Spider John could have gotten his nickname any number of ways. The truth of the matter, it turns out, is more interesting than deducing that the nickname refers to his physique. But before I tell his story, I first want to tell you how we met.
Across the street from Palmer’s, during the Nomad World Pub’s third-anniversary party, I was talking with the Nomad’s owner, Todd Smith, trying to get some history on the West Bank bar scene. Smith told me to talk to his daytime caretaker, a particularly weathered, older man named Carl.
“He’s been here for almost 30 years, before this place was the Nomad,” Smith said.
Smith pointed him out for me and when he went outside to smoke I followed. He was sitting down. There was a brisk wind even though it was a nice, sunny day, and his eyes were watering from the cold. I introduced myself and asked if I could join him. We talked a bit, but he was very modest, a little shy, and he kept mentioning Spider John.He told me he’s the person I should talk to.
“He’s been around for a long time in the music scene,” Carl said.
By chance, as we were sitting on the patio, Spider John pulled up in the parking lot next door, Carl pointed him out and I caught a glimpse of him through the fence. He wore a puffy blue coat, jeans and a grey derby cap.
“Tell him Carl sent you,” he said. When his cigarette burned out, our conversation ended and I headed across the street where Spider John was grabbing a drink.
“Spider John,” I said.
“Yeah,” He replied.
“Carl told me to talk to you.” We organized a time to meet, and at 10 o’clock the next morning over a cup of coffee, growing cold from inattentiveness, I listened to his story.
Becoming Spider John
John Koerner was born in Rochester, N.Y., in 1938. Both his parents were from Minnesota, which, as Koerner stated, may have affected his decision to attend the University in 1956 and pursue an engineering degree.
Koerner soon found himself caught up in the Minneapolis folk music scene. He was turned on to it when a friend named Harry Weber invited him to his dormitory to listen to some records.
“He lent me a guitar, and that’s when I stopped being an engineer,” Koerner recalls.
Between 1958 and 1959 Weber and Koerner hopped in a Cadillac and headed west. While in California, Koerner joined the U.S. Marine Corps for a short stint, but found himself back in Minneapolis before 1960. The two moved into an apartment in southeast Minneapolis along with their friend Dave Ray. Ray, like Koerner, was also just entering the burgeoning folk music scene.
“We were into the old, black country and blues music recorded from the ’20s to the ’40s. Back then they all had nicknames. There was Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lightning Hopkins,” Koerner said.
“We wanted to be like them, play like them, party like them. We wanted our own nicknames. Dave ‘Snaker’ Ray got his nickname from the way he danced. Tony ‘Little Sun’ Glover, because of his bright personality, and I got mine from when I worked at an automotive parts shop. I had to climb the shelves and one of my co-workers called it spider-like.”
Koerner would meet Tony Glover, a harmonica player, through Dave Ray in the early ’60s. They would go on to form the group Koerner, Ray, and Glover, and release several records on the Elektra label throughout the decade.
10 o’clock scholar
In Dinkytown in the early ’60s, folk music found a home in small coffee shops like the 10 O’clock Scholar on 14th Ave., or in houses across the river in Cedar-Riverside where people would throw “Rent” parties, all-night folk and blues music events where a cover charge went to pay the rent of the house they were hosted in.
The 10 O’clock Scholar was where Koerner and his friends met up in those days. It was also a spot were Koerner played on a regular basis, along with another local folk singer – Bob Dylan.
“Folk music in coffee houses was getting popular,” Koerner said of the coffee house scene in late 1959. “I was over at the 10 O’clock Scholar and he (Dylan) was there. I remember we got some wine, probably Chianti. It was popular back then. We went back behind one of the University buildings and sat there, on the dock, drinking with friends.”
According to Dylan in his autobiography “Chronicles: Volume One,” Koerner had a huge influence on his music.
“I was looking for players with kindred spirits,” Dylan wrote. “The first guy I met in Minneapolis was sitting around in there (the 10 O’clock scholar). It was John Koerner and he also had an acoustic guitar with him. Koerner was tall and thin with a look of perpetual amusement on his face. We hit it off right away. Ö When he spoke he was soft-spoken, but when he sang he became a field holler shouter.”
Koerner traveled throughout the ’60s and ’70s touring the country, getting married in Denmark and bouncing between Europe and the United States. He eventually settled down into the West Bank area in the ’70s and started working at the Triangle Bar, taking breaks from time to time to play shows.
Koerner continues to play shows and make a modest living with music. Between traveling and performing he spends an ample amount of time at Palmer’s. Both Koerner and Palmer’s are a part of West Bank history; they have stories to tell and when they are gone, so too many of those stories will disappear. Not all is lost – the regulars, getting older and paying less attention to the new bands coming through their bar, are in the midst of an ever-changing music community. New stories are created, those same bands that the old-timers pay little attention to are making their mark, featuring young idealist guitar players trying to create their own legends.