The Minnesota Historical Society preserves local music history

First Avenue's Frankensteinian light board, used from 1974 to 2000

First Avenue's Frankensteinian light board, used from 1974 to 2000

Harry's handwriting looks too nice.

"Hi guys!" he purportedly wrote. "Would you like to sleep over at my house?" The letter E's were formed with an expertly curved half-loop—clue number one. And the "I" in "I like to turn your music up very loud and sing along" lacked the telltale serifs every second-grader learned during writing and spelling drills.

In the end, it was the signature that blew Harry's cover. A quick analysis revealed it didn't match the rest of the writing: a capital H with a wiggly right side; an A that looked more like a Q; two mismatching R's and a backward Y. Harry, the little boy smiling in the attached school photo, did not pen the letter; his mother transcribed it. And in a separate note she wrote, "P.S. No, you may not spend the night!"

This is just one letter in a file of fan correspondence to Soul Asylum now residing in a back room of the Minnesota Historical Society. There are many others, like the one from the man in Houston who wrote to singer/guitarist Dave Pirner on the back of a Taco Bell bag, "There was once a time when I had no hope. I finally realized that life sucks + there's no point in living . . . But, to make a long story short, I discovered Soul Asylum + completely rearranged my life." And this one that starts, "Bet you thought you'd never hear from us this soon. I'm in a band called 'The Melvins.' We played with you guys on Halloween in Tacoma."

The letters boast the spectrum of human emotion, from loneliness and desperation to gratitude and romantic obsession. Taken as a whole, they tell Soul Asylum's story. This is why the Minnesota Historical Society goes to great lengths to gather and protect these artifacts—the big, the small, the precious and the why'd you keep this?—so people don't forget their story and, in turn, Minnesota's story.

Protecting history is Matt Anderson and Dennis Meissner's job. Mostly through donations, they have collected thousands of items documenting Minnesota's rock 'n' roll legacy, focusing on acts from the Twin Cities' heyday: the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Soul Asylum, and, of course, Prince.

Grant Hart Mask

Grant Hart Mask

"The whole Minneapolis music scene was so big in the 1980s and 1990s that we wanted to capture a part of that and make sure we could preserve it for future generations to study and figure out what it was all about," says Anderson, the historical society's curator of 3D objects.

Deep in the bowels of the St. Paul-based organization, past a labyrinth of hallways and locked doors, Anderson strolls beside neatly organized rows of metal shelving housing all sorts of local artifacts. An enormous Pillsbury Doughboy with huge, creepy eyes stands post a few rows away from a collection of antique toothbrushes—all cast in an eerie yellow glow. The storage rooms use special bulbs to reduce deterioration caused by UV light, and humidity and cooling controls keep the rooms at a steady mid-60s.

Anderson stops, pointing to a silver drum set sitting in pieces on the middle shelf. Lyrics are written in a spiral on the drumhead. "A nine digit number for every living soul/ That is all they talk about at data control," they begin. These are Grant Hart of Hüsker Dü's drums.

"You can have all the promotional flyers and giveaways that you want," Anderson says, "but there's nothing quite as primal or immediate to the music-making experience as the instruments themselves. So to have that is really special."

Another of Anderson's favorites rests in boxes in the next room: a series of 49 hotel room keys drummer Chris Mars collected from the Replacements' tours.

"They would liberate those keys from the room. I'm tempted to drop them in the mail and see if the postage guarantee still holds," Anderson jokes.

While 3D objects invoke immediate reactions from music fans, sifting through the print archives, the collection of which spans nearly 100,000 cubic feet, is exciting in a different way. Mounds of financial papers and other documents, which are available to the public through the historical society's library, show the minutia of local rock 'n' roll, revealing an often hidden side of the business.

"These [First Avenue] band files are among my favorite things," says Meissner, head of collections management for the society's print archives. "They're just such a great reflection of how the business works and such a good basic documentation of all these thousands of bands that pass through. For every act that went on to become a nationally or internationally known act, there were a hundred that really didn't develop beyond seeing their name in files like this. They toured for a while and were gone. But there's a little bit of documentation left behind for these hundreds and hundreds of acts that passed through here."

For instance, the files, dated from 1977 to 2004, document that Prince played First Avenue in 1981 for a $2,500 guarantee; the Ramones demanded a "proper container with ice" in their meager rider; and in 1983, U2 played in front of 1,372 fans. For every concert, there's a pile of paperwork: copies of guest lists (with spots for employees of Sweet Potato, the former name of City Pages), contracts, and lists of technical demands.

There's a strange juxtaposition of awed faces staring at Prince's $60 piano tuning bill and Anderson donning white cloth gloves to handle the Replacements' room key from the Hicksville Motor Lodge. For sure Chris Mars was not so delicate with the key during on-tour shenanigans. He and others might find it odd that Anderson and Meissner are being so serious with a part of history that seems inherently unserious. And it might be easy to think of the historical society, considering its filed-away concert flyers, worn band T-shirts, and promotional coffee mugs, as a resting place for junk memorabilia. Not all of the items can be the stars of the show, like Prince's bedazzled Purple Rain suit or Bob Dylan's handwritten lyric sheet. But it's all these pieces that tell the future who we were and are. These are our ancient clay pots. The Hicksville Motor Lodge should be proud to be a part of our story.

For more photos and tidbits from our visit to the Minnesota Historical Society, visit