Exactly Where Does The Song “Skyway” Take Place?

Here’s a question left hanging downtown for more than 30 years: If Paul Westerberg was singing about a particular skyway in the 1987 Replacements song, “Skyway,” which skyway was it?

That mystery lies at the confluence of two local cottage industries of inquiry: The history of skyways and the geography of the Replacements. Studies of skyways started almost as soon as there were skyways (in 1962), and continue to the present day, while interest in local sites related to the Replacements gathered steam with the band’s 2014-15 reunion shows and Bob Mehr’s 2016 band biography, “Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements.”

But no one with expertise in either area appears to have nailed down the precise location of “Skyway.” The song’s spare lyrics offer few clues. A quiet acoustic number that would make many people’s shortlists for Minneapolis’s official theme, “Skyway” paints a simple but vivid picture in three short verses: The singer and his beloved — one of them on the street, the other on the skyway — repeatedly fail to meet.

 

You take the skyway, high above the busy little one-way

In my stupid hat and gloves, at night I lie awake

Wonderin’ if I’ll sleep

Wonderin’ if we’ll meet out in the street

 

But you take the skyway

It don’t move at all like a subway

It’s got bums when it’s cold like any other place

That’s warm up inside

Sittin’ down and waitin’ for a ride

Underneath the skyway

 

Oh then one day, I saw you walkin’ down that little one-way

Where, the place I catch my ride most every day

Wasn’t a damn thing I could do or say

Up in the skyway … (skyway, skyway, skywayyyyyyy)

 

Okay, it’s a metaphor, using Minneapolis’s signature urban feature — the second-story pedestrian bridges between buildings that are called skywalks or skybridges elsewhere — to describe interpersonal disconnect, with an added dollop of implied urban-design social critique. And on the face of it, the song’s street and skyway seem pretty generic. But with a little close reading and some outside context, could “Skyway” turn out to be about a specific spot downtown?

Probably the best hint in the lyrics, the “busy little one-way” detail, is there for meter, rhyme and shorthand scene-sketching, not GPS coordinates. But let’s take it literally, one word at a time: 

  • Busy: Could describe most downtown streets. (In fact, the busy-ness of the streets in the 1950s was the original impetus for creating the skyway system — to separate pedestrian traffic from motor vehicle traffic.)
  • Little: Suggests a stub street like LaSalle, or perhaps Nicollet Mall, with its narrowed roadway, though neither has one way traffic downtown.
  • One-way: Again, could describe many downtown streets, most having been converted to one-way traffic from two-way during Westerberg’s lifetime. (He was born on the last day of the 1950s.)

Seems like you could find a street in downtown Minneapolis where two of these were true, but not three. 

Then there are the lines “Sittin’ down and waitin’ for a ride” and “Where, the place I catch my ride most every day.” That could be anywhere under or close by a skyway. The skyway system came into its own with a growth spurt in the 1980s, meaning the number of places on the street level under or near skyways rapidly multiplied. 

OK, then what kind of a ride? A regular lift home in a car? Very possible, considering Westerberg, a non-driver, devoted one of the band’s early revved-up songs to passengerhood: “Takin’ a Ride.” 

But “sittin’ down” conjures up a bus stop bench, and he was a regular bus rider. When Westerberg, as Mehr tells it in “Trouble Boys,” first met his future bandmates the Stinson brothers, he recognized guitarist Bob Stinson as the “‘stoned, weird-looking guy’ he’d sometimes see riding the Bryant Avenue bus.”

Then as now, the Bryant-Johnson bus, the Route 4, traveled through downtown on Hennepin Avenue. Two things were different about Hennepin Avenue in the 1980s compared to today: The downtown stretch was one-way, with only buses in both directions (hey, great!), and it had no skyways over it (oh darn).

Hennepin Avenue at left and the skyway over 5th Street S., between Hennepin and Nicollet, 1983. Source: Minnesota Historical Aerial Photographs Online from the John R. Borchert Map Library.

If Westerberg was returning to south Minneapolis from his janitorial job at Butler Square (where he cleaned the Minneapolis office of U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger), the closest stops for the 4 bus would be near 5th or 6th, within sight of skyways connecting buildings over those streets on the other side of Hennepin.

That’s my best guess as to a specific setting that inspired the song (unless he was sitting on the Nicollet Mall, say, directly under a skyway and waiting for another bus to south Minneapolis, such as the 18). The distance from the far side of Hennepin would be great enough to guarantee that any multi-level romantic attraction would stay safely unrequited. Although, admittedly, it would probably be too far away for the kind of people watching Westerberg described in an interview at the time:

Westerberg: A lot of people don’t know what the skyways are. 

Interviewer: They don’t have skyways in too many places. 

Westerberg: I know, that’s kind of why I liked it too, cuz it’s our own little private song for Minneapolis. They’re basically the sidewalks above the streets, because it’s too cold in the winter to walk, and the businesses, y’know, feel they won’t get people to come downtown. It’s like you can walk for miles and not ever go outside. You can walk around the whole city through the skyway system. And it’s generally the people who are shoppers and [who] work. And so this song was sort of written from the point of a guy who’s like myself who — I don’t go up in the skyways, y’know. [laughs] What do I have to do up there? I never go shopping or anything. So I sit down there and watch the people walk by. 

Anyway, Westerberg is on record in another song, “Hangin’ D.T.,” describing that part of Hennepin Avenue:

One thing is for sure: No stupid hats or gloves are allowed in the skyways.

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5 Responses to Exactly Where Does The Song “Skyway” Take Place?

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke July 20, 2018 at 2:24 pm #

    Bravo!

  2. Matt Steele July 20, 2018 at 3:14 pm #

    As a member of the Skyway Avoidance Society, I always felt a little dirty playing this song as a drummer in a cover band.

    • Chris Steller July 20, 2018 at 4:03 pm #

      Is “Skyway Avoidance Society” the name of the band, and are you the house band at the Bachelor Farmer?

  3. johnny guitar July 24, 2018 at 8:01 pm #

    I think that is talking about Nicollet Mall. By the way… great song

  4. Middle Minneapolis July 31, 2018 at 9:17 am #

    If I had to guess, the closest skyway that made any sense would be the one from City Center to Daytons. It’s the closest to 1st Avenue and would have probably been seen often by Westerberg, especially as he came/went from block E to 1st Avenue or the Entry.

    The reality is that he probably didn’t go into the skyways much if it at all, so it’s probably not about any specific skyway. And the album it appears on, Pleased to Meet Me, was recorded in Memphis. There’s no telling whether he showed up in Memphis with that song fully formed or whether he showed up with a few acoustic riffs and added lyrics during the recording session, musing about life back home.

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