You probably never met Mary Ellen Loney, who passed away last Monday. She wasn’t in a band. She didn’t promote, DJ, or put out records. But if you went to a show at First Avenue at any point in the last 25+ years, you definitely knew her. You stood next to her as the band played or eyed her jealously as she got a stiffer drink than you from any number of bartenders she’d befriended over the years.
The term “regular”—as in “regular customer”—doesn’t do her justice. She was pre-hipster and utterly non-scenester; unlike many others who by innate compulsion or deliberate intent have sought legend via ubiquity in Minneapolis’s storied downtown scene, she wasn’t there because it upped her cool points. She was there because First Avenue was a second home to her, and its staff a second family. As bands, employees, and lesser venues came and went, Mary Ellen was constant, holding up her corner of the radiant, dysfunctional rock and roll world that’s immortalized from every silver star to every corner so dirty you’re glad you’ve never been there with the lights on.
When I worked my debut shift at First Ave in January 1994, my training consisted of things like “here’s where we keep the beer” and “sometimes people shove the plastic cups in the toilets and they flood,” but was sorely lacking in the important stuff, like “people like to sneak under the stage to have sex” and “there are certain people you simply do not ID, and the lady with the eyes that say ‘I’m older, wiser, and still more fun than you’ is at the top of that list.”
So I carded her, because I carded everyone. Even though she was closer to my mom’s age than mine, even though she looked like she felt more comfortable in that room than I did as a socially awkward 18-year-old, even though every other person I worked with treated her like family. And night after night, I kept carding her, even joking on multiple occasions that with last names like Loney and Lunney, we were probably related in some mangled Irish surname sort of way. She always handed over her ID with a smile, she never complained, and even though I was just one of a thousand employees who would come and go while she remained an immovable constant, she never once said, “Don’t you know who I am?”
She was a social worker from a big family, but I never knew that. It didn’t matter. For some of us, whether we worked there or just hung out there, First Ave was a place to distance ourselves from the crap life served up during the daylight hours. When she walked through those doors, she was MEL, the lady with the Bettie Page bangs and the glasses and the smile that said, “I’m home.” That never changed in my half a decade there in the 1990’s, and it remained true until the very end.
“Mary Ellen was the number one regular and the biggest fan of First Avenue,” says First Ave GM Nate Kranz. “It's going to be weird not seeing her at the concerts. We lost a great one of a kind woman.”
“I first met her when I was really young and stupid, as opposed to old and stupid like I am now,” former First Ave Manager Jermar Arradondo adds. “Age 20, working security at First Ave. She would see me over the years after my time at First Ave was done and I was building my own family. She would congratulate me for being a good dad and eventually a grandfather. I always loved her ability to just appear out of nowhere. Always humble, always warm and friendly.”
Former First Ave bartender Paul Wentzel: “I've known her through First Avenue for longer than I can remember. She wasn't just there to hang out and be seen, she was there as a friend and music lover. She cared about the employees, and the employees cared about her. How many customers at a bar do you truly get to know and hang out with outside of the bar?”
Mary Ellen spent much of her non-First Ave time on cross-country road trips, but her First Ave family was always with her. “After Mary Ellen retired, she must have traveled all over the place,” says former First Ave staffer Tony Digatano. “We'd get stacks of postcards from all the classic Americana vacation spots. We bumped into her once and got to tell her how much we enjoyed getting them. She told us it was really a ton of work to write all those cards for so many people. My wife Amie thought it would be funny if Mary Ellen could get labels made to save time. Sure enough, the next time we got a postcard it had a label that said ‘Having a ______ time. Wish you were _______ .’”
Amie adds: “We started talking about shortcuts and creating some sort of postcard form, hence the birth of the postcard labels. I loved getting those postcards & saved so many. To me it shows how much she wanted to include everyone and how much a part of the First Ave family she was. Being on her mailing list and saying hello at shows, maybe sneaking in a chat or two a night, that's part of how I knew that I was in the First Ave family, too.”
It’s been nine days since Mary Ellen’s death. Those nine days have been pure torture and joyful celebration of great memories. It’s been floods of e-mails and Facebook messages from friends and former colleagues sending tributes, many of which I haven’t been able to include here. It’s been endless rounds of e-mails I’ve sent my editor swearing that I was close to getting this right, even as I hit Ctrl-A and deleted everything yet again.
I wasn’t as close to Mary Ellen as some of my former colleagues. I can’t tell you the last time I saw her, although I guarantee it was at a show at First Ave. It’s been 23 years since that first time I carded her. In that time, I’ve gone from being a seriously awkward punk rock kid to a somewhat less awkward punk rock adult who yells at his kids to eat their breakfast and slips in the shower while washing fresh tattoo work. But that’s exactly why Mary Ellen touched me, why it’s been days of agony to write this. Because she never gave it up. The pure joy she got from shows and the community she held so dear never faltered. Never got diminished, never got pushed aside by mortgage payments or 401(k)s or any of the other keystone landmines of adulting. Her passion is just as inspiring to me today as it was 23 years ago. She drank Scooby Snacks and Johnny Walker Red and loved music in a way I, as a writer, musician, and fan, couldn’t touch on my best day. She walked the floors of First Avenue with the grace of a stateswoman. If there’s a heaven hers has black walls and a checkered dance floor, and she’s blowing minds there too.