Planet Pickett

 

Another bright moment: organist Jo DeFrancesco—known as the
undisputed king of the Hammond B3 organ—and his band onstage last year.

 
Suddenly law school and an MBA didn’t seem all that important. Lowell teased it out until he was a semester away from graduation. Although he has never gone back to college, he claims that "I didn’t really drop out so much as I decided to take a break for awhile. I realized I was interested in other things." Like making films, writing songs, and acting in local theater. Then he began plotting bright moments on a larger scale. He promoted concerts by Muddy Waters, Leo Kottke, and Doc and Merle Watson at the Northfield armory. He planned to start a film society and rented a storefront to screen movies in Northfield, but somehow that idea morphed into The Argus record store, which survived for eighteen months.

Perhaps a more succinct thumbnail sketch of The Argus days comes from Pat Pollard, the much-beloved bartender at the Bandana Square Dakota location for nearly its entire history. "When I first interviewed for the Dakota job, someone told me that Lowell Pickett once ran a head shop in Northfield, stepped out one day for a cigarette, and came back two weeks later. That’s when I knew I would be in good hands," Pollard says. Anyone who was hanging around a college campus during the mid-seventies knows that drugs were omnipresent. "There was certainly marijuana around back then, but I wasn’t a big drug user," Lowell demurs. "I wasn’t pristine. But I saw what it could do to people, and I was just into too much other stuff."

Yet a mischievous smile flashes across Lowell’s face when he’s asked about rumors that he and a bunch of people lived in a commune on the outskirts of Northfield by Fox Lake. "Oh no, it was just two farms across the road from each other where eight or nine of us lived. We grew some vegetables, had gardens, but they weren’t working farms. Oh, and we raised chickens," Lowell says innocently. "That was pretty neat."

"We had a dinner-table discussion about getting some chicks," says Phil Sims, who also lived at one of the farms with his then-girlfriend (now wife) Meredith. "So we got this catalog from a hatchery in Iowa and decided to get like two dozen of the Bard Rocks breed. We left it to Lowell to actually place the order. But when we went down to Faribault to pick up the shipment, there were all these three-foot-square boxes. He’d gotten 318 day-old chicks! We said, ‘Lowell, what were you thinking?’ And he said, ‘Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.’ It cost us like $100 a month to feed them; our rent was $55."

The chickens were part of a flurry of activity at the farms. Lowell and another housemate rigged up a system where they could control the lights and heat in their makeshift chicken coop with the use of lasers, low voltage relays, and speaker wire. There were plenty of other ventures as well: the company Lowell started to dismantle dilapidated barns in the area and sell the vintage wood. Or the system to vacuum-pack the vegetables grown at the farm. Or the trips up to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis for mind-blowing rock shows in the relatively tiny venue. Lowell recalls the first time he saw John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra there: "It totally transformed my concept and sense of what music was." Bright moments all around.

The farm experience ended with a spectacular explosion on the night of the winter solstice in ’73. Normally the house would have been full of people-in fact Phil Sims had planned a party but cancelled to catch a flight home to Texas for the holiday. Others were also with their parents, or working, or, in Lowell’s case, in Minneapolis at a party. A gas leak blew out the kitchen walls and demolished the home, which was insulated with corn cobs. Lowell lost thousands of records, "including all my Dylan bootlegs"; thousands of photographic prints and his darkroom equipment; rugs he’d haggled over in Greece and carted across Europe; his then-girlfriend’s father’s vintage Leica camera, and many musical instruments and personal writings.

"The things I thought I couldn’t live without were all gone-everything I owned could fit in a cardboard box," Lowell recalls. "But it felt very light, and kind of liberating. I realized how fortunate we were that nobody was hurt."

 

Just as there are people in life who are said to march to the beat of a different drummer, Lowell Pickett measures time by the shadows of a different sundial. "Lowell has been late for everything he’s ever done in his life," says Marty Walter, his classmate at St. Olaf and later his partner in a filmmaking business. "It’s not because he’s lazy; it is because he’s always going in eighty directions at once. Even in college, he’d take your car somewhere and was supposed to be back by six, then call you at midnight. You’d be ready to strangle the guy but at the same time you knew he was always coming from a good place."

"One year for Christmas, we all chipped in for a deed to a planet out in the galaxy that you can officially buy online for a couple hundred bucks," recalls Pollard, the former Dakota bartender. "That was our present: a deed to Planet Pickett, so he would know we knew where to find him." Longtime Dakota employee Andrea Myers also remembers the gift. "The great thing is that I’m still not sure Lowell knew what it was we were giving him," Myers says.

Not surprisingly, I had my own close encounters with Planet Pickett in the course of trying to gather information for this story. After more than a half-dozen potential meeting times set out weeks in advance came and went, I called the Dakota and left word at the club that I was concerned the story might not happen. After putting me on hold, an employee returned and told me that Lowell might have forty-five minutes to an hour to talk if I could be down there by six. It was 5:10.

I made the appointment with minutes to spare. We went up to a private dining area on the second floor and talked for more than two hours. Approximately half of that time was consumed by the fantastic, intricately detailed stories Lowell recounted about his filmmaking partnership with Marty Walter and a third person at their nonprofit Minnesota Public Programming Corporation. As he discussed the MPPC’s first project, a proposal for a television documentary, you could still sense his enthusiasm for a thirty-year-old venture that never even got off the ground due to lack of funding.

By the second hour, Lowell’s phone would vibrate every five minutes or so. He’d get it out from his jacket pocket, flip it open, scowl, then flip it shut and resume talking. It was a glimpse at life on Planet Pickett, orbiting while the tour guide pointed out all the bright moments in the constellations.

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