First Love

The legendary bands. The terrifying toilets. An oral history that goes so far behind the music it will leave you at a gun range beneath the stage.

 Rob Levine: Did you hear the rumor that First Avenue is going to close?

Daniel Corrigan: Every year. I think it's just a continuing rumor. It comes from them always hanging on by the skin of their teeth. I think they went through some substantial paring down this year. The two owners [Byron Frank and Allan Fingerhut] have lawsuits going against each other. I don't know if I should be saying that....

Levine: Can they sell the building?

Daniel Corrigan

Corrigan: I think that's why they're at odds.

Levine: Because that land is worth a goddamn fortune now. Which is interesting. Wouldn't that be a clusterfuck: If First Avenue closed because the land had become so valuable? The land became valuable because of Target Center and Block E, obviously, which are both paid for by the city. So did the city create this monster that will end up closing First Avenue?

--CONVERSATION BETWEEN ROB LEVINE, LONGTIME MUSIC SCENESTER, AND DANIEL CORRIGAN, FIRST AVENUE PHOTOGRAPHER SINCE 1981

 

She's all curves. She wears black. She smokes. She knows a hell of a lot more about cool music than you do. She's got more going on upstairs than you would ever guess. And her drinks are as strong as she is.

If there's a spiritual equivalent to lust--and Prince knows there must be--I've felt it for First Avenue ever since I first set foot there. That was 1990, so my feelings don't have much to do with Purple Rain, the Minneapolis nightclub's only real claim on the national imagination. But look at the crowd shots in that 1984 movie and you'll see a social mixture that really did exist at First Avenue. The movie mythologized something true about the Minneapolis that Prince helped create. But it didn't tell an even better story: how a bunch of ambitious black teenagers and crazed punk rockers saved live music here, and helped reinvent rock 'n' roll worldwide.

Prince and the new wave were no further from each other than First Avenue and its adjoining room, the 7th St. Entry. The dance nights and live music in both venues reflected the uniquely cosmopolitan vision of the club's longtime manager, Steve McClellan.

Now, as First Avenue struggles amid club competition and real estate development, it seems like a good time to tell this story again--and let those who were there put things in their own words. The history of First Avenue is the story of segregation in downtown Minneapolis, of sex, cocaine, mud wrestlers, businessmen, gangsters, and idealists. It's your story, too, if you are among the millions of people who have passed through the venue's doors since it opened in 1970 as a hippie rock and soul club called the Depot, in the old Greyhound bus station.

If you'd like to add your own voice to the dozens included here, send e-mail to firstavenuestories@citypages.com. With any luck, First Avenue's story is far from over.

Danny Stevens, co-owner, the Depot/Uncle Sam's/Sam's, 1970-1982: I got into the club business through Jack Dow, a very wealthy businessman in Minneapolis. He owned Diamond Lil's, where the Lincoln Center is now, and for years they had vaudeville-type stuff there. But all of a sudden that era was disappearing and they were left sitting with this monstrous nightclub. We took over and changed the name to Times Square. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, everybody automatically went there. I was in a band called Danny's Reasons, and we were always the supporting act. David Zimmerman, Bob Dylan's brother, was our manager.

At the time, the name groups in this city were either mixed or all black, and they played there, too. Eventually Jack said, "I'll give you the Hotel Hastings liquor license if you move your club elsewhere." He didn't want the black community making this their area, because he was planning on selling the property.

Allan Fingerhut, owner, the Depot/Uncle Sam's/ Sam's/First Avenue, 1970-present: Danny Stevens's involvement in the Depot was that he got the license. In those days it was tough to get one.

Danny Stevens: To buy licenses, you had to pay up to $200,000. Now you just go apply. But back then, there were only so many licenses and you had to get it from somebody who already had one.

My original partner in the Depot was going to be Elizabeth Heffelfinger, who owned Peavey Plaza. She was quite sick and said that, if need be, she'd still live up to her commitment, but she wanted to back out. So somebody introduced me to Allan and said he was interested in doing something. I had the building. I had the liquor license. Now the harder part would be the money.

Allan Fingerhut: I had never been in the business. I didn't care about the liquor so much as I cared about pushing the music. Honestly, I don't know how to pour a drink.

The concept of the Depot was to be somewhere between a barroom and a big room. Groups would play in a barroom and then go to the big room. Or they'd come through and play someplace like the Labor Temple, because there just wasn't anything in between. So when I got out of the army, I was looking, and this came up and I jumped on it. [Theater-chain magnate] Ted Mann had the old Greyhound bus depot and he was offering it out.

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