First Love

Daniel Corrigan

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?

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?



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 [email protected]. 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.

I went in and looked at the building, and I noticed there were great sightlines. Every other building out there had all these posts and poles. Here, the mezzanine was perfect for seeing the stage. The rent was right, because at that time it had been empty for about 15 years, and it was gritty downtown. I was young and foolish. But to me it was a magic room.

Until 2000, when we bought the property, I leased that building for 30 years from Ted Mann. I started off paying about $1,200 or $1,300 a month. It made sense to own the property because there was always a demolition clause in our contract, for 30 years. If Ted Mann decided that he wanted to knock down the building and put a hotel there, or a parking lot, we'd be out.

Byron Frank, First Avenue property co-owner, 2000-present: I guarantee--if they could have sold it to somebody else for more money, they would have.

Allan Fingerhut: So in the summer of '69 we hit the walls with a sledgehammer. That was while Woodstock was going on. We put in several bars, but the renovation wasn't that expensive. I sprayed the curved wall with this white iridescent paint and put overhead projectors on the mezzanine. On the wall between the men's room and the women's room there was a yellow submarine. All the walls and carpeting were purple, because I was always a Vikings fan.

A month before we opened, we put up 30 billboards that said, "I demand to be invited to the Depot--signed, Harvey Dubisch." It was just a funny name from north Minneapolis, where I grew up. Harvey Dubisch is a real person. He was in the rubbish business--Dubisch Rubbish. He agreed to it and signed off on it, and Grain Belt paid for the billboards. Then Harvey Dubisch's wife sued us. When she settled, as she was walking off, she said, "Why isn't Harvey Dubisch invited to the Depot?"

The club opened on April 3, 1970. I stood up there in the booth and saw all those people there. I was just thrilled. The first show was Mad Dogs and Englishmen, with Joe Cocker. There were 36 people onstage, a child and a couple dogs. I handed out something like 2,000 carnations and they were throwing them all over the place. I was just in heaven.

Curtiss A, musician: I played at the Depot in 1970 or '71 in a band called Wire--not the one from England. I was 18 or 19. Allan Fingerhut was the main owner, and the guy from Danny's Reasons, Danny Stevens, represented himself as an owner. But I don't know what percentage he actually had. He walked around the place like he was somebody, which he still does.

Allan Fingerhut: Danny's Reasons played on our beer and wine nights on Mondays. You paid to get in, five dollars or something, and you could drink all the beer and wine you wanted until 12. We'd go through 150 gallons of beer and 150 gallons of wine. It was fun to watch them carry each other out. MADD wasn't around at that time. Now they have laws, you can't do it. We didn't hear about people running each other over, probably because they were too drunk to get behind the wheel.

Curtiss A: About the fourth or fifth time I played there, I said something to my manager about an advance, and he said, "Oh, we didn't get paid for this." I got so mad I went upstairs, walked up to Allan Fingerhut, and spit on him. Of course, that's where punk rock was invented--much before Johnny Rotten or the Ramones.

The next day I had to go in and apologize. Allan is sitting there with the fat guy and the skinny guy from the Fifth Dimension. But he was real nice. He didn't break my balls at all.

Allan Fingerhut: We followed Joe Cocker with Rod Stewart and the Faces, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Al Cooper, Al Jarreau, the Kinks, and Jethro Tull. B.B. King was a sweetheart. He kept coming back. It got around that it was good luck to play the venue. We were like the big Buddha before they went on to the big rooms. It wasn't luck: We were just booking the best available groups.  

Marsh Edelstein, promoter: In those days it was cool to be late. With every group, the later you could come on, the better. But Tina Turner wouldn't get onstage. We were in the upstairs office and she said, "I want to get paid now." You used to get paid half now, half afterward. So we had a big fight with me and Tina and Allan. Allan paid her--in pennies.

Allan Fingerhut: I don't remember that. The only thing I said was, Have my security go onstage and surround their equipment.

Danny Stevens: What was expensive was, we would have up to a million dollars out in advance. Your down payments just became astronomical. All of a sudden you had more and more money out there that wasn't getting any interest. And then when the acts would decide not to show up, you'd have to fight a little bit to get it back. You'd eventually get it back, but it wasn't like a phone call.

Allan Fingerhut: In the early '70s, I was pretty much hands-on. I did all the ads and all the booking. If you wanted a light bulb changed, I did it. It burned me out. When we went from 18 to 21 years of age for drinking, boy, that caught us off guard. That was when American Events came in.

Kevin Cole, DJ, Uncle Sam's/Sam's/First Avenue, 1978-1992: The Depot became a franchise as "Uncle Sam's." It became part of this national chain.

Allan Fingerhut: They said, "We do disco," and everybody was saying, "You've got to do disco." But I said, "That's not my thing, I don't want to do it." They said, "We will, and we'll pay you a certain amount of money a month to take over the club." I said, "Fine, go ahead, but I can't handle it. I like soul in my music."

Grant Hart, Hüsker Dü: I remember going by Uncle Sam's as a kid and going, Wow, here's this red, white, and blue, psychedelically painted hippie building, and it wasn't on the West Bank.

Jimmy Jam, Flyte Tyme band and studio, the Time: Sundays at Uncle Sam's was for teenagers, the roller-skating crowd. You'd peep kids from Hopkins, Minnetonka, Wayzata, mostly a lot of cute girls.

Curtiss A: The bands they had at Uncle Sam's were safe. A great band like Willie and the Bees couldn't play there. For me it changed when Steve McClellan came in.

Allan Fingerhut: When disco ended, American Events didn't know what the hell to do, because that's all they knew. So I sat down with Stephen, the manager hired by American Events, and we said the same thing: Let's get back into rock 'n' roll. Steve had started off as a bar boy back in the early '70s, I think. So when American Events left, we took off "Uncle" and just called it Sam's. We said, Let's just go for it and start all over again. Take the lights out of the floor and put them back in the ceiling where they belong.


Tim Kennedy, First Avenue employee, mid-'80s-1992: Steve McClellan is First Avenue, pure and simple. His business partner is Jack Meyers, the biggest odd-couple scenario you've ever seen. I don't think Jack likes music one bit. But he does the accounting and the books. Jack comes to work in a suit. I don't think Steve owns a suit.

Steve McClellan, employee, operations manager, Uncle Sam's/Sam's/First Avenue, 1973-present: We both graduated from De la Salle High School in 1968. Jack was in ROTC; I was anti-war. He went into the air force and when he got out he was going to become a commercial pilot. That was his dream. For kicks he started bartending at Uncle Sam's, because there was girls and free beer. American Events was leaving--and leaving Allan with all the bills. Jack was waiting for his commercial airplane job. But he failed the airline test.

Jack Meyers, finance director, Sam's/First Avenue, 1979-present: They didn't count cholesterol when I joined the air force, but the airline did. I went to my doctor and he told me, "Did you know about your cholesterol?" and I said, "What the hell's that?"

Steve McClellan: When I dropped out of the U of M to work here, it was just a temporary thing. I was going to make enough money to go back to school and get my last 15 credits--in speech communications, I think. I had no intention of sticking it out. I was going to be an attorney for Ralph Nader or something.  

Chris Osgood, Suicide Commandos: Before he was a club manager, Steve was a taxi driver and he worked for Minnesota Public Interest Research Group. So there was that community spiritedness in his background. He sort of reminded me of Hilly Crystal from CBGB's: the same kind of tough-talking guy, but when you got to know him, you realized he was in the business because he loved the musicians.

Chan Poling, the Suburbs: Steve was scary at first. He had a giant, grouchy-bear personality.

Daniel Corrigan: [Local writer] Michael Welch used to theorize that Steve was so crabby because he always wore his pens clipped to the center of his shirt, and whenever he pulled one out, it pulled on his chest hair.

Jack Meyers: Allan would pretty much let us do our own thing, so it was an opportunity to run a business as our own. We wanted to paint it black immediately. The carpeting was awful. We had shag. They called us "Auntie Slum's," that was our nickname then. It was already painted black for a while by the time we dropped "Sam's" and renamed it First Avenue.

Kevin Cole: I had this horrible job transferring x-rays to microfilm and I heard they needed a DJ at Uncle Sam's. I had no club experience and didn't really like disco music, so it was kind of bizarre that they hired me. It was 1978, the tail end of the Saturday Night Fever days, and the weekend nights were still really crowded. It was my sense that Steve felt like things were changing but he didn't know what the next thing was yet.

Chris Osgood: I just remember the day somebody brought home the first Ramones record and we flipped. We started laughing and we couldn't stop laughing. There was somebody out there that was making music like us.

Billy Batson, employee, soundman, Uncle Sam's/ Sam's/First Avenue, 1978-present: My band the Hypstrz was the first live band on a Friday night at Uncle Sam's. We did 10-minute cameos at 11 and midnight. The first 10-minute set we did, there were 750 people in the audience. 250 walked out the door. The median age was 28 years old at the disco. It was polyester Saturday Night Fever motherfuckers. These beautiful-looking people, spitting at this bunch of fat guys onstage, throwing bottles. We were the first. McClellan tossed us at 'em.

Kevin Cole: I was living in south Minneapolis and you had this small scene that was really edgy and exciting: the Longhorn, with all these bands that people thought were freaks, and Oar Folkjokeopus Records. I had never been to Uncle Sam's and knew of it more as a suburban-type disco. I had to do a crash course in disco. I remember going down there every single day for a week or two, listening to all the records and writing notes. But I had a goal: I was going to get one song an hour that they weren't expecting. Then two. Then three.

It was still part of American Events at the time, and I would get critiqued by the national consultants who would come out and see how the club was doing. I had to send tapes into their Cincinnati office--a lot of times I just sent fake ones. My look was very much Joey Ramone. I didn't really fit in. But I was feeling more like, If I want to play the Talking Heads, I'm just going to do it. It would basically clear the floor. Imagine this elevated dance floor with lights. There'd be 800 people dancing to "Disco Inferno," and I'd go into a rock set and five people would dance. I was clearly the longhaired, new wave, punk rock dude playing records in the disco world.

When the club became "Sam's," we did that Dump Disco Weekend. We were going to create a stir. We just went exclusively with all this incredible new music, everything from Devo to the Suicide Commandos. But we didn't dump disco entirely. It's still around as house music and underground club music.

Curtiss A: I don't think disco ever died. They've always had that residual Saturday night.

Kevin Cole: We went from this really successful mainstream disco to a club that had to do male strippers and women's mud wrestling on Tuesday and Thursday nights just to pay the bills. We would do crazy things. One summer we installed a pool in the middle of the dance floor. If you wore a bathing suit you got in free. There was a period when the music alone wasn't enough. And we felt like the music should be enough.  

Grant Hart: They were really trying for the next big thing. Fortunately punk came along before Urban Cowboy.


Danny Stevens: Punk music was easy and cheap. The groups could draw well and they weren't the type of artists that needed 52 limousines and five tons of cocaine. The black groups were also cheap and had a built-in audience.

Steve McClellan: In this market, it had really polarized between black and white. If you were white and went to Fox Trap, you'd better go with a friend who was black. If you went to Scotties and you were black, you'd better have triple IDs.

Jimmy Jam: If you were a black band in the 1970s, you could play the Elks' Lounge, the Nacirema Club--there were clubs you could play, and pack 'em. But you couldn't play the downtown clubs. It was never said, but we knew what the score was.

Danny Stevens: They didn't want too many black groups playing the Depot in the beginning. It was a hippie club; they wouldn't stop you from smoking a joint during a show. But once you lost the white audience you couldn't get it back.

Sonny Thompson, bassist, the Family: There used to be a time when if you got too many blacks in a club, they'd switch to country and western.

Danny Stevens: Thing is, except for Cain and the Del Counts, the majority of the big, drawing local groups of the late 1960s were "mixed" groups: the Mystics, Dave Brady and the Stars, and Danny's Reasons. The Big Ms packed the Armory. They were the Temptations before the Temptations. But there was such an underlying current of anti-Afro-American groups. Stop and think where Prince was playing before he had his first hits--the Capri Theater.

Sonny Thompson: The Family started in 1972, and we basically started everything. I taught most of the cats to play. We were teenagers, and they'd come over to my house. The bands would play community centers around the 'hood: the Blue Note, the Cozy Bar, the Nacirema--that was American spelled backwards.

Jimmy Jam: Sonny Thompson was always in the band that was competing against us. He was ridiculously talented. Prince was coming up, Morris Day, André Cymone. It was so competitive that one day you might have the best band, the next day somebody might raid your band, steal your bass player. But that's what made everybody so good. Grand Central was not as popular as Flyte Tyme, but for other musicians, Grand Central was the bomb. Prince was a genius and you just knew it.

Allan Fingerhut: We used to let Prince in to Uncle Sam's to watch the black groups when he was underage--he came up to my booth--because there just wasn't any way to listen to it in the late '70s. There wasn't black radio. And he'd hear a lot of the black music in our club.

Pete Rhodes, director, WRNB/Black Music America: KUXL was a daytime-only station, and even then they'd only play black music on certain days of the week. People would just listen to music in the stores.

Spike Moss, activist, The Way Community Center: By not having a black radio station, what ended up happening was, the bands had to perfect the latest record like it sounds. We didn't even have Soul Train--it didn't come on here until the '80s. So you had to be a good musician, because you had to play those records.

Bobby Vandell, musician: When I was in L.A., "Funkytown" was the number-one hit in America, and I got a call from Steve Greenberg in Minneapolis to come back and tour with Lipps, Inc. live. I called maybe a half-dozen of my friends in Minneapolis to tell them the news, but none of them had heard the record. The reason was that it wasn't on the playlists in Minneapolis, or any of the Top 40 stations. It was too funky, too R&B. They picked it up later, but not for a while.

That's largely why people like Prince and Terry [Lewis] and Jimmy got to where they got, because they weren't able to make this meager living that we made. We could work. The black groups had one of two choices: Either hang it up, or transcend that scene. Move ahead and say, okay, fuck you. You won't let us play your club? We'll own your club. It's a double-edged sword. It was racist, but it kicked a lot of people in the ass.

Jimmy Jam: The first club that really let us play with any kind of regularity was First Avenue. Steve McClellan really gave black bands a chance, I thought. He didn't care about color; he just wanted whatever was new.  

Curtiss A: I opened for Prince the first time he played First Avenue in 1980. I have this great memory of thinking that it was nice of him to allow me to open for him, and then later realizing that he really did that just to crush me. You know: "You guys think this is the top thing in town? Well, here: Minneapolis got a brand new bag."

Grant Hart: What was liberating about the opening of First Avenue was that all of a sudden the younger people felt like they were part of something rather than just being tolerated. There were a lot of cool people at the Longhorn, but there was a real pecking order. It was like, "You're not getting a gig unless you kiss up to Twin/Tone bands." Hüsker Dü didn't bring a lot of fans over from the Longhorn to the 7th St. Entry, which is pretty much where we got established.

Billy Batson: The Entry was a short-order café at the Greyhound bus depot and a coat check for Uncle Sam's. It was also a fallout shelter. It's still the safest spot on the block. I've sat through three tornadoes there.

Lori Barbero, Babes in Toyland: [Entry booker] Danny Flies used to put up posters for Uncle Sam's, and he suggested putting a rock club in that space.

Chris Osgood: They were trying to come up with what it was going to be called, and I remember there were a lot of votes for Son of Sam's, after the Son of Sam serial killer.

Lori Barbero: I saw Flyte Tyme there all the time. I saw every show that Hüsker Dü, Loud Fast Rules, and the Replacements ever did. The Replacements were the best band in the whole wide world ever, basically.

Peter Jesperson, Replacements manager: We did a show in the Entry and I remember I tried to put something on the flier that said "rock 'n' roll" and [Paul] Westerberg got pissed at me and said, "We ain't no rock 'n' roll band." I was like, What do you mean you're not a rock 'n' roll band? Of course you are. I finally convinced him to let me use "low-class rock." That was acceptable.

Kevin Cole: People think of the Entry as this punk rock breeding ground for local bands, but it was also this place where we experimented with new sounds that weren't ready for the Mainroom. I remember we did these sort of Wild Style events with break-dancing and open mics in the Entry.

Tim Kennedy: Billy Batson, the Mighty Mofos' lead singer, he did New Band Night in the Entry. To me that was maybe the greatest part of the club. Every band had a chance to play; it didn't matter who you were. I remember seeing Run Westy Run's first show there. It's pretty much still the same. Billy is the most honest man. Not brutal, but honest.

Billy Batson: New Band Night was McClellan's idea. The very first one in 1984 was also the first time we had an underage band. I didn't X their hands. They were such little shits, I Xed their foreheads. Their parents went fucking ballistic on me.

Randy Hawkins, First Avenue soundman, 1989-present: The first time I was ever in the Entry was 1986. I played New Band Night with my first band from high school, Spit Monkeys. Bill Batson came in and knocked all the stools off of everything and started screaming at us about how we were new and didn't know anything. He scared the hell out of us.

Bill used to do that to new bands. He was a total sweetheart after that. He just kind of did it to intimidate you, put you in your place. Steve did the same thing when we went up to the office. He knocked everything off his desk. I think it's one of those things with them--shock value.

Billy Batson: I did Tina and the B-Sides when she was in high school and it was a high school band. She had the fucking drummer telling her how to sing. I'm not saying that she's a good singer, but after sound check I walked up to her and said, "You know what, you're the star. Fuck these guys. Maybe they're your friends, but don't ever let a drummer tell you anything."

Chrissie Dunlap, manager, Sam's/First Avenue, 1979-1989: It was the nature of my job to nurture and encourage a lot of struggling new bands. Loud Fast Rules was the most obvious band with that, the one that went on to have their platinum-selling album as Soul Asylum. You wouldn't have expected that when four scruffy guys show up at your door looking for their first gig.  

Peter Kohlsaat, scenester, cartoonist, dentist: Peter Jesperson brought Lucinda Williams to the Entry before anybody had heard of her.

Peter Jesperson: We did that a couple of times--with Alex Chilton, with Ted Hawkins. We called them the fly-in series. Steve and I just did it for kicks: Here's someone we're in love with, they're not on tour, let's just fly them here.

Grant Hart: It wasn't uncommon for there to be something like Wazmo Nariz in the Entry and Charlie Daniels in the Mainroom. For a number of years there was no bathroom in the Entry. People going into the Mainroom would do so in large enough groups to ensure their safety. There'd be times where it was like, "What the fuck happened to your hair?"

Peter Jesperson: The Entry was still open when they were filming Purple Rain. One night when the Neats were done playing, I took them upstairs to get paid--it was late and the bar had been closed for a while. I remember walking through the Mainroom, and there was Prince sitting on the edge of the stage, playing guitar. We watched quietly from the shadows until four or five in the morning.

Alan Leeds, Prince's former road manager: When I got here in July of '83, Prince and the band, the Vanity 6 girls, and Morris Day and the Time were all completely ensconced in rehearsals for Purple Rain. Prince had organized dance lessons for everybody, which was a quasi-aerobics thing more than anything. My first project was a one-off show at First Avenue, a benefit for Minnesota Dance Theater. Prince's managers were all off in L.A. trying to get the funding for this movie that was scheduled to start shooting a couple months hence.

So this whole show fell in my lap and I was actually scared shitless: I was a tour manager, not a production manager. That's when I met Steve McClellan and found the most remarkable support system I've ever seen in a club. It was such an anomaly, particularly coming out of the disco era. Needless to say, the show went off without a hitch and a couple of the tracks on the Purple Rain album actually came from that live recording.

Peter Kohlsaat: When the word came that Prince was doing an unannounced show, you'd just drop everything and go down there. I was pretty well tapped in, but even when I'd get there, there was always a line around the block.

Alan Leeds: I can remember Prince one day turning to me suddenly and saying, "Let's play First Avenue tonight." He had no idea what the club had booked. It was probably the first of these spontaneous gigs, and it became part of the ritual. Every time Prince had a new album he'd play First Avenue.

You'd get Steve on the phone: "What are you doing tonight?" He'd tell you, and you'd say, "Okay, that's what you think you're doing tonight." It wasn't belligerent. What was so remarkable about Steve was that he'd say, "Oh, that's fun. Yeah, let's do that." You'd make one call to KMOJ: "Listen, there's something special going on at First Avenue." Everybody could read between the lines. Within a couple of hours my phone was ringing off the hook with people who wanted to get on the guest list.

Tim Wilson, DJ, promoter: For a while everybody was all Purple Rained-out: They had the long coats and the curly hair. I can still remember DJing parties and playing every Prince record. The dance floor would be packed. It wasn't until Run-D.M.C. that I put all them records at the back of the crate.

Christine Knox-Davidek, scenester, makeup artist: Women would run after him just screaming, "Prince! Prince!" They usually were wearing lingerie. I wasn't comfortable being quite that naked.


Steve McClellan: I attribute it to Jimmy and Terry, and certainly to Prince, but music brought audiences together. Nothing was more redeeming to me, after it being so stressed between black and white. Tuesday night was like a members' night, and I remember it was just amazing to go through the club and see a very mixed audience having a good time. Now things have polarized again. The only place I see that kind of mix is AA meetings.

Peter Jesperson: If you look at Steve's friends, he's got a diverse group of friends. That's kind of one of his hallmarks. He wanted a place where people could come and be exposed to all different kinds of music.  

Fancy Ray, performer: When I went to college I did an essay about how First Avenue is such a melting pot of so many different styles and classes and music. You could go down and see punk rockers next to guys in business suits next to Prince freaks. You had druggies there, alcoholics, people just hanging out, gay people. Everything and everybody hung out at First Avenue, man. In many ways it was like nothing that had been before.

Michaelangelo Matos, First Avenue employee 1997-1999, music writer: Every kind of music fan who was underage would go to Sunday Night Dance Party, and it kind of indoctrinated you into this belief in the place. They got you early. You'd hear 20 minutes of ska followed by 20 minutes of hip hop and then 20 minutes of hard rock. And during these sets, you could watch the different groups sort of falling in and out of formation. The ska kids would skank, and when it switched to hip hop you'd see two or three of those kids stay and dance, usually the girls. Then the hard rock would start, and about three of those kids would stay. You were sort of watching this new consciousness take shape.

Kevin Cole: Steve never told us what to play, but we would analyze what we were doing. If he didn't know the music, he didn't pretend to know it. But he knew what he wanted.

I think part of my overall goal as a DJ was, and still is, to get people to experience a type of music that they didn't think they liked. We had to make hits at First Avenue. And seeing what people really responded to turned out to be invaluable when it came to programming REV 105.

Alan Leeds: Steve would be the one booker between the two coasts that would get African bands. The first time I saw King Sunny Ade was at First Avenue, not in New York. And Steve would take a chance on stuff because he liked it. He would nurture bands in the Entry and lose money on bands because he liked the band and thought they deserved a shot. It was like a storybook. I couldn't believe there was a club guy like this.

Kevin Cole: As the club became more and more established, you had these turning-point concerts. In the early stages of bands' careers, in the development of alternative rock, First Avenue played a huge role. You had bands like U2, R.E.M., the Cure, Jane's Addiction, the Chili Peppers, New Order, Nine Inch Nails, the Pixies, Nirvana, Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, Oasis, Pearl Jam, the Fugees, Outkast--all these bands that became arena bands played First Avenue first. And then you had these legendary musicians playing there: James Brown, Tina Turner, Tito Puente, King Sunny Ade, Linton Kwese Johnson. I think what First Ave. cultivated was a music-loving audience.

Tim Wilson: That was the first club where I saw rap music. I remember seeing Run-D.M.C. there. Jam Master Jay had his turntables kind of hanging from the ceiling because the story with First Avenue was the stage moved--which it really did when you were on it. I remember Public Enemy being onstage and Chuck D. stopping the show because Terminator X's records were skipping. He said something to the effect of, "We're gonna have to do it like we do it, but we're gonna have to tiptoe." So him and Flavor Flav are tiptoeing around the stage, but with all that rage they used to have, so the records wouldn't skip.

Up to that point I saw mostly DJ'd stuff. We couldn't wait to get into First Avenue when we were of age, because Roy Freedom DJ'd More Funk night on Thursday. We DJ'd all the street parties in all the parks around town, so we would go to see what new records Roy had. He used to work at Northern Lights down the block, and we'd go see Roy on Friday and get all the records he played the night before.

Daniel Corrigan: We used to call it More Fights with Roy Freedom. One night there was the biggest fight I've ever seen at First Avenue. There were like 60 people involved. It started on the dance floor and spilled all the way out into the Entry.

JonJon Scott, promoter: First Avenue tends to switch 'em up if anything negative happens, no matter how successful it is. So Thursday nights went from being very successful to being zilch because it wasn't what people wanted. They went from straight R&B to, like, house music. So the crowds quit coming.

Slug, Atmosphere/ Rhymesayers: The first time I went to First Avenue was for UTFO in 1986, with the Ecstasy Crew--I could be wrong about the name, but Almond Joy was the rapper and Tim Wilson was the DJ. I pretty much went to every all-age rap show at First Avenue until the Ice Cube show in 1992, when everything went hectic and they quit booking rap.  

Tim Wilson: Coolio and WC beat up the soundman that night. It was WC and the Maad Circle, before Coolio went solo, and they were opening. What happened was, WC was up there rapping and he's getting frustrated 'cause the mic keeps cutting out. He kept saying, "If you do that one more time I'm coming out there." Finally, halfway through the show, he throws the mic down and he and Coolio jump offstage, run right by us, and proceed to just beat the crap out of the sound guy.

Randy Hawkins: They completely ignored the monitor guy that was right next to them. Instead they jumped off the stage to do it out in the middle of the audience and be roguish or whatever. The managerial staff at the time brilliantly hired a bunch of gangsters to do security. I don't know what the theory was.

Molly McManus, First Avenue security, director of operations, 1986-2002: When I started, there was no way to communicate with another person unless you hunted them down. If there was a situation in the club that warranted having a lot of the staff, we had a trouble-light system. The bartenders or the cashiers could throw a light and that would alert people where to go. But you never knew what it was: You could be walking into somebody passing out, or a fight, or a broken ice machine. Radios were a great tool in this business.

Randy Hawkins: At a bad concert the trouble lights will go off maybe five times. At that Ice Cube concert, four of them were going off continuously for about an hour. People had bottles of booze waving around, and I'm looking at the other guys at the barricade, "You want to go get that from him?" "No, I don't." I think that night sobered us up to what kind of acts we could book. We've done a million great hip-hop shows after that, but not the gangster thing.

Same thing happened with Biohazard. We ended up throwing all their shit in the parking lot and calling the cops on them 'cause they wanted to take on everybody. They didn't want us stopping them from stage diving. The problem was there weren't enough people in the audience to catch them.

Tim Kennedy: Whenever it got to the point where we had to hold someone down for the police, I noticed this one staff member would always work his way down by the guy's feet. And I'm like, "What the hell are you doing?" Let's say his name was Roger. Every time we held somebody for the cops, you'd find at the bottom of the guy's shoes, "Roger was here." I think he still works there.

Rod Smith, employee at large, 1986-2002: I was in charge of design at Sex-O-Rama, and one day I walked into First Avenue and decided to TP the place. That night some meathead decided to ignite the toilet paper. It burned very brightly, went up to the ceiling and went out. Nothing caught. First Avenue is too dirty to burn.

Steve McClellan: We're all concrete and cement. The place in Rhode Island was a cardboard box. Great White came here 10, 15 years ago. They thought they were going to play the Mainroom, took one look at the Entry, got back in their bus and left. Most bands at least come upstairs to the office and say, 'We're not going to play here.' So I guess we dodged a bullet.

Rod Smith: There have been a couple times when what could have been fires smoldered for days before they were discovered--one behind telecheck, one behind stage right. Eventually somebody came across them.

Gretchen Williams, promoter, Sound Unseen festival: I saw a woman actually disappear in front of our eyes on New Year's Eve in 2000. This poor girl was really trashed and she was ripping off her clothes as she tried to shut the bathroom stall door. About five seconds later her friend came in with a security guard and they looked up and down the stalls and couldn't find her. We would have seen her walk out. She was just swallowed up by the millennium.

A girl committed suicide in the fifth stall in the bathroom, so it's always been legend that that's not a good one.

Tim Kennedy: One night I see this girl with straight brown hair, straight-out-of-the-'70s look. Come the end of the night we're upstairs getting people out, and I see her by the girls' bathroom. I go, "Okay, hon, you gotta get going." Me and Betsy went into the bathroom to get her out and there was nobody there. We both saw her walk in, and she was gone. That was a ghost, absolutely.  

Molly McManus: I think there's probably ghosts, but you also got to think about how many millions of people have been there. There's a lot of energy in that building.


Grant Hart: Steve had an early fascination with heights. There were a couple times when he would be hanging from high balconies in a drunken state. Steve cleaned up--first went the blow, then went the alcohol, finally the cigarettes. But even in his worst substance-abusing days he was doing a better job of running the club than anybody that he's tried to pass it on to in the meantime.

Rod Smith: In the early '80s coke was so prevalent that when Cabaret Voltaire came to town, someone arranged to have the area on the balcony to the left of the stage guarded, and everyone was just chopping up lines and hoovering them up in plain view of staff. There were maybe two or three coke dealers working at the club at any given time. It dropped off in the '90s because the coke dealers all either quit or got fired.

Tim Kennedy: Drug use--it was there, but it wasn't the focal point. It's just the same as any rock club.

Rod Smith: Heroin has always been a very rare commodity at First Avenue. There wasn't a lot of interest. I remember one night I was doing door and Layne Staley of Alice in Chains had escaped from Hazelden and made his way to First Avenue and was looking to cop. We had to tell him to try the Uptown.

Randy Hawkins: I had Elastica refuse to go on because I couldn't find them heroin. This tour manager calls up the office and says, "Yeah, the girls are sick, they've got the flu, they can't go on." The Entry's already sold out, and I'm like, "Gimme that phone." The tour manager asks me, "Did you happen to have any luck with that?" And I'm like, "No." Just out of regular policy, I try not to buy acts drugs.

Chan Poling: When we were younger and first starting out, this is the one business, the one milieu, where you're going to run into a lot of drugs and booze and people who love it. If we were all dentists, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation. I mean, when the Replacements and the Suburbs would tour together, if you'd thrown a match in there, it would have been the end of the world. So the logical outcome of that is people sober up or die.

Peter Jesperson: The day I got out of drug treatment, Steve took me to a bar. We went to the Fine Line to see Steve Forbert. That's a pivotal moment in anyone's life, and I felt really safe, you know: I'm with Steve, nothing bad's going to happen to me.

Rod Smith: First Avenue had an after-hours shooting range in the basement, I believe in 1996. People would bring guns. Usually there'd be a lot of alcohol and weed. There'd be anywhere from five to 10 people in the basement, all at least moderately fucked up, but all very careful, holding their guns vertically as they waited to take their turns.

Tim Kennedy: Let's just say I may have heard about it. But I'm sure there were never any rifles there.

Mike Wolf, First Avenue DJ, 1991-1995: There's a door between the men's room and the women's room--that was the record room, which had a lot of what Roy Freedom and Kevin Cole had built up over the years. I know that more pot was smoked there than in any enclosed space of comparable size in the world.

Rod Smith: The Subhuman Room was under the stage. It was named that thanks to Tom Surowicz, who was writing for the Twin Cities Reader at the time. He had complained about going to see some Entry show and having it blotted out by subhuman disco. It was just a room where staff people and sound people would go and smoke pot and do coke and drink. Jack Meyers finally demanded that it be boarded up.

Kelly O'Brien, publicist: People used to hide coats under there, so you almost had a bed, practically. It was a good place to go and have a little privacy in the dark.

Rod Smith: Access to secure rooms has always been the secret to sex at First Avenue.  

Tim Kennedy: When the Target Center was being built, it was a race to see who could have sex in the foundation. Lots of the staff's couples were over there trying to see who could get in to break it in first.

Rod Smith: I was barbacking in the early '90s when Molly McManus was managing. One night I went to change one of the Entry kegs, and I found two people having sex. I went back up to the office and said, "Molly, two people are having sex by the cooler door." She said, "Well, do they seem to be enjoying themselves?" I said, "Yes." And she said, "Good."

Molly McManus: I was probably joking. You've got to have a sense of humor about a lot of things that happen there. I've had pretty much every sort of bodily fluid you can imagine on me.

Paul WonSavage, promoter, Ricochet Kitchen: Kristin and I got married onstage at First Avenue on September 25, 1999. We did a performance-art wedding with 22 people in our wedding party. We actually had a justice of the peace come down and we costumed her. There were pyrotechnics for our kiss, flames going off on either side of the stage. Everyone was wearing red and black and amber. Kristin's dress was this little hot dress that covered the naughty parts and that was it. Otherwise she was in body paint. I had a cape and pants.

Kristin Freya, choreographer, Vox Medusa: My girls were fairies with wings and the men were drumming or carrying torches, more like warriors.

Paul WonSavage: Everybody cried, even Steve McClellan, who all day was running around saying, "You know, you don't really have to do this." We walked by him after the kiss, in the parade out, and he's tearing up.


Heather Van Norman (formerly Deatrick), First Avenue manager, 1996-2000: I was a women's studies major and I came out into the world ready for this big fight: Okay, where's all the sexism in the world? And I was pretty impressed with First Ave. Maybe it isn't exactly feminism that women have to haul trash at the same rate men do there, but it was one of those issues that didn't come into play.

With most people at First Avenue, I think, it becomes your life. I lived with people who worked there. I married somebody from there. It's hard to do outside things because of the crazy hours and the crazy job you have, just staying up all night. My big goal was always to get home before the sun came up. It was hard to have a normal life.

Daniel Corrigan: The person at the club that most bands remember is Conrad [Sverkerson]. Once the performance has been booked, Conrad is basically in charge of everything having to do with the show after that. He's been there for at least 15 years.

Molly McManus: You've seen all those giant hats he has, right? Putting his dreads through?

Randy Hawkins: One time Conrad, Blake, and I tied our hair together and got stuck. All three of us had dreadlocks. It was one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time.

Tim Kennedy: The loyalty factor at First Avenue was amazing. We loved the club. We all grew up there together. Not to be cliché, but it was a family. People stayed there longer than in other clubs. There've been people that have been there 15, 20 years. Paul Spangrud [DJ Spinlove] did security in the early '80s, and was a floor man, and became a DJ. He never left. The club's part of him now.

John Smith, First Avenue employee, DJ, 1993-present: There was a big slew of firings in the summer of '99. I got fired for playing a song with a sample of one of the managers firing somebody. The DJ who made the song had already got fired. So I played it and then I got fired. It was a weird time at the club, anyway. Management was going through a very vicious us-versus-them cycle. I was back by November.

Randy Hawkins: I got fired for insubordination in 2001. I came back when the people who fired me weren't there anymore. There's massive political angles to that place that have gone on for years depending on who's in charge of what. The manager was an old friend, so whatever. Shit happens.

I go on the road and get paid much better, but come back because it's a lot of fun.

Molly McManus: McClellan is so into that job, and he's been doing it for so long. It's just his life. Everything about him is First Avenue, and First Avenue has been about him for so many years. He sort of changed a lot when he had kids. Where First Avenue was always his baby, as soon as he had his two little girls and his stepson, he sort of became a kinder, gentler Steve. He's been married for 10 years or so.  

Nate Kranz, First Avenue booker, 1998-present: There's a few nights a year--the night before Thanksgiving, Halloween, New Year's Eve--when McClellan's in rare form. That's when you can catch him in a good mood for once.

Heather Van Norman: Every year at Thanksgiving, Steve does the big Orphan Thanksgiving Dinner, and takes so much pride and care in that. He gets turkeys and stuffing for everyone that wants to come and the bands that are playing that night, and it's a great big family event. That comes from him. Even though he sometimes gets a bad rap for his Steve ways, he's a genuinely caring and brilliant man.

Nate Kranz: This year we couldn't afford it too well. And it was kind of a bummer because this was going to be the first year that we didn't get to do it. And then all of a sudden Patrina from Asase Yaa restaurant, who sells food down here, she cooked us a huge Thanksgiving dinner and brought it all in, free of charge. Which is pretty nice, 'cause I know it's one of those things that means a lot to Steve. That's what his family does every year--come to First Avenue for Thanksgiving, ever since his kids were born.


Molly McManus: It's a hard time for the club right now. I've taken some no-pay weeks. I've worked events for free. You have to change the way you staff a lot of times. You know: "Don't use any paper this week." Or "Nope, we're not buying any more vodka. You'll just have to serve gin."

John Smith: Ten years ago, you had nowhere else to go. Now you have tons of places to go.

JonJon Scott: I booked Ghostface Killah with [Clear Channel booker] Rich Best, and Steve McClellan called me at the Electric Fetus and screamed my head off for about a half hour. "Goddammit, you got to know who your friends are in this business," blah blah blah. Since then, First Avenue has not let me do a show there.

Steve McClellan: When Rich Best left us and went to Compass, then Clear Channel, he took some of the bands he was working with and a lot of the agents he was working with. I would call up an agent and say, "Hey, we lost all the money on this band [the last time they played First Avenue], how come Compass has it now?" And they'd say, "Well, Rich is the promoter of record." And that's total bullshit. The promoter of record is the person who put up the money for it. In fact his tuition was all paid for by First Avenue losses.

It does aggravate me. It's kind of a betrayal. But at the same time, when the assistant coach at the Vikings became head coach at an opposing team, well, he knew all of the coach's moves. He knew how he operated. Rich worked with me for 10 years. We worked very well together. And now he's working with the same agents against me. He's younger, he knows the music better, and he knows all my moves.

Rich Best, First Avenue booker, 1988-1998: As weird as it was for Steve to have me go and compete against him, it was equally weird for me to be his competitor. He's my friend. He gave me my start.

Did he pay my tuition? In this game, you lose money from time to time. There are shows that don't work. I will say that if you looked at the calendar when I booked the club, it was exceptional. I built my career on relationships, not by paying the most money.

Randy Hawkins: I think Rich was a more aggressive booker at First Avenue than the people that have been there since.

Nate Kranz: When I started in 1998, the big agencies just wanted to pump as much money out of each act as possible and then let them go. We pretty much had to stop dealing with them. What we found was that Clear Channel didn't really have to break even on shows here. You'd end up with a show that should be a winner, but the ticket price would get too high, and the [band] guarantee would get too high. The average person would walk in and see a thousand people, and it would look great, but you're actually losing thousands of dollars.  

Steve McClellan: In the '80s a band like the Chili Peppers would play the club level eight times while they were developing, so the smaller rooms would get the payback before they went on to the big-money gigs. Now a band like Bush played the Entry once, pissed and moaned that they were way too big for it, and then pop, the next time they're playing a goddamn 5,000-person room. You can't develop bands and not have some kind of return.

I started the nonprofit [Developing Arts and Music Foundation] basically to be able to continue to develop bands, and bring in the diversity of the non-commercial. I realized I was losing more bands to nonprofits than to Clear Channel. We want to continue doing what we've been doing successfully for 20 years. But because of the changing landscape, we're going to close if we don't do it without more support.

I often threaten the staff here that I'm going to let everybody go. I'm going to sleep in my office again and I'm going to run this club right. It's kind of a silent threat, because I'm too old, I can't stay out all night and party with the bands. I'm not interested in talking to them the way I was when they were my peers. I can't force that change. But I can still tell the difference between somebody that's in it for the music and somebody that's not.

Tim Kennedy: I hate to see that some nights the Mainroom is closed. We used to never close, so Steve's adapting to the times. Used to be he'd rather take a hit and lose money than close the doors, and I think times have gotten too tight to do that.

Chris Osgood: It used to be that the life cycle of a club was two years. It was the nature of a club in those days. But, amazingly, First Avenue hung on, as did the Metro down in Chicago and some other places. They went on to become, in their own weird sort of way, the preservation halls of pop music.

Billy Batson: Why do I keep coming back to work here? Because I love Steve McClellan. I figure, as long as he'll fight for it, I'll fight for it.

?uestlove, the Roots: My only complaint is that First Avenue needs to clean that goddamn bathroom.

Grant Hart: Byron Frank is as good a person to actually own the physical plant as anybody out there. He was very active in the Fingerhut Gallery.

Byron Frank: I met Allan Fingerhut in Hebrew school. We were eight or nine years old. [Years later] I was an accountant and he had businesses, and he hired me as an accountant for his businesses. I left accounting in '87 and I worked for the Fingerhut family until '99, when I retired. In 2000 Allan asked me to invest in the First Avenue property with him.

I own part of the property, Allan Fingerhut owns part of the property, a couple trusts for Allan's kids own part of the property, and Jack and Steve own part of the property. Allan owns the business.

Danny Stevens: They bought out my license in the early '80s. I had lost interest in doing it.

Allan Fingerhut: Byron Frank is no kind of a partner. I am 100 percent owner of Committee Inc., which owns First Avenue. I don't want to talk about Byron Frank.

Byron Frank: There's a legal dispute between me and Al. I don't want to get into it. Let me tell you this: I don't think there's any question at all that Steve McClellan and Jack Meyers will be there as long as there's a First Avenue. And to the best of my knowledge, First Avenue ain't going nowhere.

Chris Osgood: Steve has always followed his tastes. Steve is much more interested in people that make music than people that make money.

Slug: Steve really believed in what we were doing aside from our numbers. Which was good, because if what we were doing didn't have the draw, they still completely had our back. I really see myself in the years to come finding a position in life that's somewhat similar to his.

Steve McClellan: Working with Rhymesayers now reminds me of working with Jimmy Jam and Prince in the early '80s. They want to mix audiences. Their whole attitude about what music does correlates with what we believe. The Rhymesayers do what Hüsker Dü used to do. They play every little market, bring Chicago people in to play with them. It's the closest thing I've seen to that early-'80s camaraderie and community. They're loyal. They're there for the right reason. They deserve all the success they're getting.  

Nate Kranz: Right now the Jayhawks are coming in and doing a benefit show for us on September 20, and I think that's about as cool as it gets. Steve ran into Gary [Louris] one night, told him about how bad financial things have been, and right away they stepped up and said they'd do a benefit show for us. There's no doubt in my mind that if we asked Rhymesayers or Dillinger Four--all these acts have expressed that if we ever needed anything like that, they'd step up.

Curtiss A: I hope I die before First Avenue does.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >