The First Avenue Massacre
The bulldozers finally came to First Avenue last week. As a handful of bystanders stood by, the plows methodically bashed into the landmark's walls until a heap of black concrete filled Seventh Street. Some brave onlookers jumped the barricades to grab shards of the building's fallen stars for their music rooms or mantles--a piece of the Mighty Mofos here or a Prince there--before it was all swept away to make room for the parking ramp that begins construction next month.
Actually, none of that happened. What happened was, I walked into the club Tuesday night with my friend Brianna, who wanted to see Patti Smith for the first time. I was getting cash at the ATM when club manager Steve McClellan's ex-wife Cindy Lawson came to me and said I should go up to the office right away. She wouldn't say why, but the expression on her face said something was wrong.
She banged on the office door and we walked in. Depending on the time of day or night, First Avenue's administrative area is either a bustle of activity or of businesslike concentration, but the mood this night was tomblike. I turned the corner and nodded at a sober-faced Dan Corrigan, longtime First Avenue photographer. He was in front of the window from which McClellan has been known to shout good-naturedly at folks leaving the club, sitting in a chair where countless musicians have spent after-hours bull sessions. "We play First Avenue because of Steve," Billy Bragg said a few years ago, and he has never performed on a stage in the Twin Cities that wasn't affiliated with McClellan.
I walked into Steve's tiny office. Upon seeing me, he laughed and handed me a letter from the club's San Francisco-based owner, Allan Fingerhut, which said that Steve and business manager Jack Meyer had been fired for "disloyalty" to the club. Steve was folded up against his cramped desk in front of his computer. Posted on the bulletin boards in front of and behind him were pictures of his family, baseball cards, gig posters, a scathing review of Ike Reilly's album Salesman and Racists from this newspaper, and various motivational quotations, one of which read, "Success is a journey, not a destination."
"Shit, I'm gonna cry," he said, and then he did, in a burst. Just as quickly, he shook it off, got it together, and talked about how relieved he is to be getting off the merry-go-round that has been his life for 31 years. The club has been through hell over the last three years, between internal club politics and brutal competition from Clear Channel. McClellan has tried to fight off that behemoth's encroachment the same way mom-and-pop record stores have tried to fend off the likes of Best Buy--tirelessly and, in the end, mostly fruitlessly.
As he sent e-mails to friends and associates before packing up his computer, a few well-wishers--including longtime music scenester Mary Beth Mueller, who brought good news about her husband Karl's last chemo treatment that day--stopped in to find out what was going on. When Steve showed her the letter, her face went from ebullient to slack-jawed.
Downstairs, the news hit some old-timers with a similar shock. To a backdrop of footage from historic peace protests and labor revolutions, Patti Smith sang such anthems as "Ghandi" and "People Have the Power." And it was impossible not to think of what McClellan--who got his start in public service with Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) in the '60s--has brought to the club in terms of a social conscience and true musical diversity. The Star Tribune headline the next day got it right when it called McClellan the "heart and soul" of First Avenue.
"All I can say is, I woke up Wednesday morning hugely relieved," said the 54-year-old McClellan on Friday from a friend's home in Taylors Falls, where he was taking a break from phone calls, tying up loose ends, and thinking about what to do with the rest of his life. "All I know is, I have not been unemployed since 1966, and I have worked at the club since '73. I'm terrified I won't have health insurance, and with the kids"--he and Lawson have two daughters--"that's huge. But it was a huge weight lifted off me."
For the record, McClellan will only say that it was "philosophical differences" with Fingerhut that led to his exit from the club. But though the burly man in shorts and suspenders may be gone from the building, part of him is still there. "I mean, I still wake up and go, 'Did I call the Yellowman agent?' And then I go, 'Wait a minute. I don't have to worry about that.' Although I am worried about some things," he says. "You know, there are shows I want to see, and I want to make sure they don't get screwed up. Burning Spear's wife has always dealt with me direct, and she knows Minneapolis, and she moves dates if I don't have the right date available. Quest tried to get her when Clear Channel went in there, and she said, 'Oh no, we're just happy with the people and Steve at First Avenue.'"
He also worries about Richard Thompson, with whom he has had a long working relationship, and who performed at the club Monday, and about Jonathan Richman, who was scheduled to play last Sunday, but who called McClellan personally to cancel his show due to an illness in the Richman family. He says he knows he leaves the club "in good hands with Nate and Conrad and everybody." And his status in the music community and as a board member of the Cedar Cultural Center ensures that he's not about to fold up his tent and go away. "There's shows I want to do," he says, "because they're friends."
So no, the building at Seventh and First is still standing. And yes, things change. Sonic Youth will play the Quest, you and I will continue going to First Avenue, and there may or may not be great music there for years to come. But what will not be there is the specter of Steve, ever grumpy and roaming the Entry and mainroom in search of warm bodies to talk to about how much he hates music and the state of journalism and why everybody wants to be on the guest list for the Strokes or Lucinda Williams but few turn out for the amazing world music shows he cares most about. What will not be there will be Steve's ever-ready earful, which was usually as entertaining as whatever he was putting on stage that night.
Which is why I stole something from Steve's office Tuesday. It's an envelope, the one that contained his pink slip and which says on the front, simply, "Steve." I grabbed it to take some notes, and now it's in my collection of ticket stubs, flyers, and setlists--an artifact from the night First Avenue was gutted.
Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected] .
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.