Vi proponiamo un articolo che pitchfork.com ha scritto e dedicato al celebre First Avenue di Minneapolis.
Everybody Is a Star: How the Rock Club First Avenue Made Minneapolis the Center of Music in the ’80s
In its heyday, fabled Twin Cities venue First Avenue fostered the legend of everyone from from Prince to the Replacements to Hüsker Dü, becoming a mythic musical destination in the process.
First Avenue circa 1986. Photo by Larry Smith.
The grassroots touring circuit for independent American rock bands was just beginning to cohere in 1981. “Booking was like being an explorer,” says Jefferson Holt, who managed R.E.M. at the time. “Punk” of whatever stripe was still viewed with extreme suspicion by middle America. “The people who were running discos and blues clubs just didn’t get it,” says Holt. “I remember us playing this cavernous place in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. [The promoter], a young Italian-American guy, took me back to this room, and there were all these older guys. I felt like I had walked into a Scorsese movie. There was nothing to be afraid of, really, but we were the aliens.”
“Alien” is precisely how R.E.M. felt when they pulled into Minneapolis on the freezing afternoon of Thursday, November 26, 1981. Holt was behind the wheel; the gig paid $300, a kingly sum for a group whose members were on a strict $2 per diem. A blizzard was underway, and the venue where R.E.M. was to play—the 7th Street Entry, the 225-capacity side room of a disco called Sam’s, located at 701 First Avenue North, smack in the middle of downtown—was still closed when they arrived. So was nearly everything else—it was Thanksgiving. “The only place open was a Greek restaurant,” says Holt. “There was a Greyhound sign spinning around. It was like an Edward Hopper painting. We were… concerned is an understatement. We didn’t know who was going to turn up for an unknown band on Thanksgiving night.”
Steve McClellan, the general manager of Sam’s and the Entry, wasn’t sure, either. Though R.E.M. had made some national noise that July when they released the 7″ “Radio Free Europe” on the small Hib-Tone label, they were barely known outside their hometown of Athens, Georgia. That night, the Sam’s Mainroom headliner cancelled, and McClellan moved R.E.M. into the bigger room. “They didn’t want to do it,” says McClellan. “And they were right: We should’ve kept it in the Entry.” McClellan later estimated the night’s attendance as 88 people—in a room that held 1,200. “It was pretty sparse,” says Paul Spangrud, one of the club’s DJs, who was working that night. “But everybody was on the ground floor, right in front of the stage—everybody who was there wanted to be there.”
That included Peter Jesperson, a pivotal figure in the local indie rock scene who co-founded Twin/Tone Records and manned the counter of south Minneapolis record store Oar Folkjokeopus, hawking indies and imports as pop radio drowned in REO Speedwagon and Air Supply. He also managed a fledgling group of punks called the Replacements, whose teenage bassist, Tommy Stinson, attended the show with him. “[R.E.M.] were every bit as great as we’d hoped they’d be,” recalls Jesperson.
“Bands don’t like playing to that emptiness,” says Holt. “But because of the enthusiasm of the people that came out, it was one of the best shows that they ever did. When we showed up to disasters, their attitude, especially [guitarist] Peter [Buck]’s, was, ‘Fuck it. If eight people are going to show up, they’re going to leave and say: We saw the best band in the world.’”
R.E.M. would appear at the venue two more times the following year: On April 26 they drew 347 people, and then 942 came out to see them on September 22, a month after the release of their first EP, Chronic Town. By then the club was no longer Sam’s. “On New Year’s Eve of 1981 we changed the name to First Avenue,” says McClellan. “Everybody had a million ideas [for a name]. First Avenue was a default.” Thirty-five years later, it remains one of the longest-running rock venues in the country—birthed, more or less, by accident.
You didn’t have to play music to be in the business in the Twin Cities of the ’60s and ’70s. Minneapolis-St. Paul was the record-distribution capital of the U.S., handling roughly one-third of the nation’s vinyl and cassette trade, and local musicians made regular, if fleeting, appearances on the Billboard charts, from ’60s garage-rockers the Trashmen and the Castaways (“Liar, Liar”), to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks (half-recorded in Minneapolis), to Lipps Inc.’s 1980 #1 hit “Funkytown.”
But a music scene was something else. For most of the ’70s, cover bands were the rule in Twin Cities clubs. That began to change mid-decade, when groups like the Suicide Commandos, the Suburbs, and Curtiss A found places to play. In particular, Jay’s Longhorn opened in 1977 and immediately became Minneapolis’ pit stop for new wave touring acts, from Elvis Costello to the B-52’s. Peter Jesperson was that club’s DJ—a lightning rod for all things punk.
Steve McClellan wasn’t punk. The first time he stepped foot into 701 First Avenue North, when it was still a Greyhound depot, he was a teenage runaway hightailing it to San Francisco during the summer of 1967 because, he says, “My dad was going to make me cut my hair.” The Nebraska Highway Patrol sent him back. “I could see my dad glaring at me across the lot,” says McClellan. In 1968 he enrolled at the University of Minnesota during a heady period of social change: The American Indian Movement was founded on campus that year, and in 1971 Jack Baker became the first openly gay president of the U of M’s Student Association. McClellan took to the atmosphere like a loon to a lake. “I’ve only voted for two major-party candidates in the last 40 years: George McGovern [in 1972] and Obama [in 2008],” he says. “I was third party all the way.”
McClellan loved rock’n’roll in high school, having seen the Yardbirds on the eighth floor of the downtown Dayton’s department store, but gave his records to a neighbor upon entering college. Readying himself for a lifetime of public service—he worked for the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group and nursed ambitions to join Ralph Nader’s organization—he recalls thinking, “I was no longer going to waste money or time on music.”
He was wrong. In the early ’70s he took a part-time bartending job at Uncle Sam’s, the downtown club located in the old Greyhound station at First Avenue and 7th Street. Originally opened in 1970 as the Depot, the venue hosted a number of major acts—the Allman Brothers Band, B.B. King, Ike & Tina Turner—before excessive police attention shut it down a year later. It reopened in 1972 when the building’s owner, Allan Fingerhut, sold controlling interest to American Events, a disco chain headquartered in Cincinnati. The emphasis was on DJs playing current hits; live bands were an afterthought.
McClellan got the job alongside an old friend from De La Salle High School, the straitlaced Jack Meyers, and soon dropped out of college to join the club’s management, earning the company’s Rookie of the Year award in 1974. Four years later, McClellan booked Nick Gilder and Starbuck, figuring they would be easy draws since each had #1 hits that year (“Hot Child in the City” and “Moonlight Feels Right,” respectively). Both tanked. “I paid too much and lost money,” says McClellan.
He had better luck a year later when, back-to-back, he booked Pat Benatar and the Ramones. Both were rousing successes, and American Events noticed. “They let me do whatever I wanted after that, ’cause I sold out two shows like I knew what I was doing,” says McClellan, who was nevertheless surprised by the Ramones’ sellout. “I thought, They don’t even have a [hit] record out. How come people are buying these tickets? There was something exciting going on.”
On March 21, 1979, Curtiss A and openers Wilma and the Wilburs played the first show at the 7th Street Entry, which had previously been Uncle Sam’s coat-check room. McClellan cold-called Jesperson and introduced himself. “He invited me down to see [the Entry] before they opened,” says Jesperson. “He and I clicked instantly.” The core Longhorn crowd, about 250 people, followed suit.
There was a marked contrast between the Mainroom and Entry crowds—punk versus disco, basically. When McClellan hired DJ Kevin Cole, who wore peg-leg jeans with holes, T-shirts, and a black leather jacket, Uncle Sam’s employees signed a petition insisting that he start sporting polyester. “You only really went [into the Mainroom] to use the better bathroom,” says Chrissie Dunlap, McClellan’s onetime assistant, whose husband Bob, aka Slim, played guitar with Curtiss A. “The Entry people hated the Mainroom and the Mainroom people hated the Entry,” says McClellan. “But the Entry was packing out all the time and the Mainroom kept sliding. So the writing was on the wall.”
By the end of the ’70s, disco was “dead,” and suddenly Minneapolis didn’t look so good to American Events. Fingerhut bought back the corporation’s half of the venue and began plotting a new course with McClellan, who brought in Jack Meyers to run the club’s business end. The entire staff took pay cuts to keep the place afloat. The mainstays included DJs Cole and Roy Freedom. Cole was a punk with radio experience who picked up a taste for disco and funk on the job; Freedom had done stints at both hardcore discos and alongside Jesperson at the Longhorn.
In January 1981, Paul Spangrud joined them after management at the nearby Saloon didn’t like him spinning Devo and Madness alongside disco—which was exactly what Sam’s wanted. Like Cole and Freedom, he became an Entry stage manager as well as a Mainroom DJ. “First Avenue was open every night, and the Entry was closed on Sundays,” says Cole. “We would work 13 nights in a row, alternating between the two rooms, and then have a night off. We were driven.”
With American Events out, the club went dark, literally. “We took out the neon dance floor,” says McCellan. They painted the whole place black, inside and out; the exterior would eventually accommodate silver stars with the names of the venue’s top draws. And they tossed the “Uncle” out of the name to become just Sam’s. But McClellan wouldn’t cut costs on bands. “I wasn’t looking at it in terms of a business plan. I was coming out of ’60s radicalism,” he says. “The only reason you exist is to make change. That’s why I was so hard on pure pop bands: I had no time for bands that didn’t have a message.”
One of the Longhorn bands that moved into the Entry was a trio that had formed in St. Paul in 1979. Pure fury surrounded by Minnesota Nice, Hüsker Dü immediately impressed everyone who heard them. The group became a favorite of the blooming national hardcore scene, but it didn’t take long for them to outgrow it. “I didn’t enjoy playing hardcore,” drummer/singer Grant Hart told The A.V. Club. “I’ve never really enjoyed that macho, ‘Here are the rules, here’s how you conform’ stuff.”
Over the course of 1980 and 1981, Hüsker Dü played the 7th Street Entry nearly 60 times total (along with three shots in the Mainroom). Singer/guitarist Bob Mould became tight with McClellan, whom he would credit with helping him learn the business. Even numbers guy Jack Meyers noticed the young punk’s acumen, though he usually had no engagement with the talent side. He would say to McClellan: “Steve, I don’t want to know the name of the band. Just tell me ‘band.’”
Three nights, three shows in March of 1981: On the eighth, the influential NYC no wave trio DNA; two nights later in the Entry, Jesperson’s charges, the Replacements; right in the middle, on the ninth, playing his first gig in the building, a young black artist from Minneapolis’ north side named Prince. The 22-year-old had landed a contract with Warner Bros. in 1977 and nearly reached the Top Ten two years later with “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” He began his first extensive tour in 1980, beginning with a date at the Orpheum Theater, near Sam’s, which held 2,300—but only sold 1,000. “They were giving away tickets to try and get people in there,” says Cole. “He hadn’t really found his audience yet.”
Prince was not unknown at Sam’s. Fingerhut used to allow him in as a teenager to see shows featuring black bands, which were unusual for the time: “If you were a black band in the 1970s… you couldn’t play the downtown clubs,” Jimmy Jam once told City Pages. “It was never said, but we knew what the score was.” But McClellan was game to have the kid at his club in ’81 and paid Prince $2,500 plus a sliver of the gross. “That first Prince show was one of the best shows I ever saw,” says Cole, who mixed sound that night. “You could see him connecting. I got a sense that he felt like, ‘This is my audience.’”
Prince had hardly come out of a vacuum. A number of black bands that orbited him in north Minneapolis were making decent bread on the local circuit, such as Flyte Tyme, featuring vocalist Alexander O’Neal, drummer Jellybean Johnson, keyboardists Monte Moir and James “Jimmy Jam” Harris III, and bassist Terry Lewis, among others. “Flyte Tyme were a huge suburban cover band,” says Rod Smith, a First Avenue employee for two decades. “That was a time when you could get two G’s a night [playing covers], so they were comfortable.” But Chrissie Dunlap encouraged them out of that comfort zone: “Those guys were all top-notch musicians, but it was like, ‘No, you’ve got to write your own material,’” she says. When they did, she booked them in the Entry; ditto Enterprise, featuring bassist Sonny Thompson, whom Prince later tapped for his early-’90s band the New Power Generation.
In addition to playing in Flyte Time, Jimmy Jam was also a DJ at the Fox Trap, a black club downtown, and worked alongside Kevin Cole at Hot Licks, a nearby record store. Jam was one of the Twin Cities’ most plugged-in and well-liked musical figures, and became part of McClellan’s informal advisory board. One Friday afternoon at Hot Licks in April 1981, Jam told Cole, “Prince is having us over to the studio to record some demos.” That weekend, Jam and most of his Flyte Tyme bandmates, minus O’Neal, cut the Time’s self-titled debut with former Prince drummer Morris Day on lead vocals. Warner Bros. released it on July 29.
The Time’s tightly choreographed show was unveiled at Sam’s on October 7, 1981; the near-sellout earned the band $1,500, with 75 percent of the tickets purchased at door. First Avenue’s eclectic musical approach can be seen in the pair of videos Roy Freedom played before the headliners: OMD’s “Enola Gay” and Grace Jones’ “Pull Up to the Bumper.”
Jimmy Jam was now in one of the biggest bands in town. But he and Terry Lewis were already looking beyond that. They began writing and producing their own songs in 1982, starting with Klymaxx’s “Wild Girls.” By early 1983, when Prince fired the pair for missing a Time concert due to a snowstorm while working with the S.O.S. Band, they quickly became R&B’s most in-demand writer-producer duo, making hits for Cherrelle, Janet Jackson, and their old Flyte Tyme bandmate Alexander O’Neal.
Most American bands playing Sam’s in 1981 were on independent labels and had only seen bits and pieces of the rest of the country. But the headliners on April 9 were a couple months from finishing a 157-date world tour. “Everybody was working hundred-hour weeks just to push the rock up the hill,” Bono once said of that early U2 tour. After a March show in Portland, Oregon, the singer left behind a briefcase containing a number of papers, including a notebook of lyrics intended for the band’s second album. (He finally got them back in 2004.) Cobbling the songs together from memory, the band worked them out during sound checks—including a three-hour marathon the afternoon of their Sam’s show.
“I was up in the mezzanine pretending to be busy, listening and watching the whole thing,” says Cole. “And they ended up writing three or four of the songs that ended up on October”—notably “I Threw a Brick Through a Window.” Paul Spangrud had a rare night off, but came as a fan. He brought company: Several members of the Harlem Globetrotters and their opponents, the Washington Generals, who had played downtown that afternoon. “Of course, the black guys didn’t know what to think of U2,” he says. “But it was fun.”
At that show, a local musician watched U2 run through its biggest hit, “I Will Follow,” twice. With a mixture of inspiration and bemusement that would become his calling card, Paul Westerberg then went off and wrote an answer song. Soon his band, the Replacements, were performing “Kids Don’t Follow” along with a torrent of other similarly snotty material.
Westerberg had handed Jesperson a tape at Oar Folk two years earlier, hoping to get a Longhorn gig. Jesperson flipped; he was telling friends, quite seriously, that they were “the greatest thing since the Rolling Stones.” Not everyone agreed: “With the Replacements, one out of 10 shows—maybe one out of 20—was good,” says McClellan. Daniel Corrigan, a longtime club photographer who still works for First Avenue, adds, “I remember watching one of their drunken shows where I just thought, This isn’t artistic; this is stupid.”
Jesperson’s immediate and intensive championing of the Replacements put the band on a lot of local side-eye lists, but even when they got shit-faced and played joke covers—which they did a lot—their cocky exuberance was hard to resist. Even Corrigan admired it at times; he recalls seeing guitarist Bob Stinson hock a loogie onto the ceiling of the Entry dressing room and then just walk away. “It’s going to come down eventually, right?” Corrigan says with a laugh. “Whenever I was in the room [with Bob] I’d always check the ceiling, just to see what was up there.”
As an eclectic New York jazz trombonist who played in both rock and jazz venues for a decade, Joseph Bowie had heard everything. In 1982 he visited Minneapolis twice with his band Defunkt, and their van pulled in the first time on a wintry day in March. “This was the last part of my drug-use period, so I was stoned, driving out there in the middle of the snow,” he says over the phone from his Netherlands home. Following sound check, Bowie got word from club management that another band had asked for the stage after the headliners’ set. Could Defunkt finish early? No problem. Their truncated set was well received; the club brought them back that October. “We really kicked some sand and the people loved it,” says Bowie.
One guy apparently didn’t—the bandleader curtailing Defunkt’s performance. It was the first time, but not last, that Prince would take to the First Avenue Mainroom stage in spite of a prior billing. The night before, he headlined the Met Center, in suburban Bloomington, on the Controversy tour, and as word got out, the half-full crowd for Defunkt quickly ballooned.
“I never actually met Prince that night because he had a huge bouncer by the [backstage] door and I didn’t feel like begging to get in to say hello,” says Bowie. But he still got a greeting of sorts once Prince took the stage. “The first thing he did as he opened his show was say: ‘Jazz is dead!’” recalls Bowie with a huge laugh. “I was like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’”
Prince became a regular presence at First Avenue, hiring Kevin Cole to play private events and bringing him test pressings of new songs to try out. “He would run down and dance in the middle of the floor,” says Cole. “He was hearing how it sounded on a big PA, mixed with other music.”
On May 16, 1983, while touring behind 1999, Prince heisted the Mainroom for yet another impromptu gig. By then, he had been collecting ideas in a purple notebook for a film—not a video, a movie, for a performer with only one Top Ten hit to his credit at the time. His managers were charged with getting him a motion picture deal or else he wouldn’t re-sign with them. Eventually, against long odds, they did.
That summer, the Time, and another new Prince-sired act, Vanity 6, led by the singer’s real-life girlfriend Vanity, began learning new songs for the movie at a warehouse on Highway 7. They also took acting and dance lessons, the latter courtesy of the Minnesota Dance Theatre, led by Loyce Houlton. Prince agreed to play a benefit show for them at First Avenue on August 3, where the dance troupe performed four numbers, including a dance to Prince’s “DMSR,” choreographed by Houlton—the first time for ballet on the First Avenue stage. Tickets were $25, and the show sold out well in advance, raising some $23,000 for Houlton’s group.
Two incidental expenses from the benefit’s paperwork stand out: A dozen tambourines for Prince to toss to the audience, totaling $127; and $35 to the City of Minneapolis to use “the curb lane of the street, 200 lineal feet in front of Sam’s [sic]… for filming purposes.” There sat a recording truck from New York studio the Record Plant. “They had everything set up,” recalls Spangrud. “They were there at 8 a.m., loading in. They brought in tons of extra PA. Prince spent a lot of time on sound checks.”
Former First Avenue VJ Spot was involved with Jack Meyers’ video-making side enterprise, AVE Productions, which filmed a number of the club’s shows—including the benefit. A lot of AVE footage did not survive a major club cleanup around 2010: “It was all down in the basement, basically moldering,” says Corrigan. “We needed the space.” At least one thing did survive: the performance of the full, unedited version of “Purple Rain,” which pops up on YouTube every few months. (First Avenue’s DJs also recorded several concerts: “We had microphones hung from the ceiling in the Mainroom that you couldn’t see unless you specifically looked for them,” says Spangrud.)
“Purple Rain” was one of several new songs premiered at the benefit. Along with a medley of “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m a Star,” the show on August 3, 1983, would provide the source recordings for the final three songs on Prince’s next album, the soundtrack to the movie he was about to start filming in his hometown—and at his home club.
A letter of intent dated September 22, 1983, was sent from management firm Cavallo, Ruffalo & Fargnoli to First Avenue. It offered $100,000 to use the Mainroom between November 26 and December 20, “for dressing, filming, and strike during our filming of Purple Rain.” The Entry would stay open. “Every effort will be made by my company to employ as many of your personnel as may wish to work in our film, so as to ease their fears of employment,” wrote the production manager.
“Almost every single person that worked [at the club], even up in the office, was in it,” says Dunlap. VJ Spot, who stands at five-foot-two and had worked with Prince in other capacities, became the star’s stand-in after the first one violated the set’s strict confidentiality by talking to City Pages. Prince went even further with Daniel Corrigan. “I was not allowed in the building,” says the photographer. “I was the only one specifically banned from First Avenue for the entire filming of Purple Rain. There was a no-photograph rule. He’s always been twitchy about photos.”
In her living room, Dunlap pulls out Albert Magnoli’s shooting script for Purple Rain, dated Nov. 30-Dec. 1. “[It was] on one of the bar tables, so I took it. It’s early, too—with Vanity. Then she and Prince broke up, so that was the end of that.”
Cole, who missed the job call and wasn’t in the picture, hung out regularly nonetheless. “I recall them filming concert scenes at eight in the morning, full volume, with the room packed out with [extras],” he says. “It was so loud and so powerful, and to see Prince looking like he’s playing along, and it seeming like a real live performance, the emotional quality behind songs like ‘Purple Rain’ was just stunning. Nothing about it felt like he was lip-synching or air-guitaring. They were feeling it, and the audience was feeling it.” The staff was abuzz. “I remember hearing stories about getting paid $100 to go buy a sandwich,” says Cole.
Maggie MacPherson, an ’80s staffer, told Seattle’s EMP Museum, “Almost every night when they would get done filming they would have these little cast parties, and Prince would jump up onstage and play acoustic, and everyone else would grab an instrument.” The stage also received a parting gift. “First Avenue had shitty lighting prior to Purple Rain,” says Rod Smith. “They actually put in the patch bay and the dimmer packs.”
Though any film set can be full of tedium, the club was essentially going 24/7, and it was well-fueled. “There was a lot of cocaine being done during that movie,” says Spangrud. “Morris Day did most of it, I think.” This was hardly a new development at First Avenue: Rod Smith quips that AVE Productions, unlike many such companies, “wasn’t a front for a coke dealer; it was more like a front for a coke den.”
Soon after filming stopped, on December 28, the Mainroom hosted the Minneapolis debut of Run-D.M.C., whose self-titled debut album came out the following March. The trio received $1,150 to appear on a Wednesday night. Their to-the-point rider indicated either inexperience or the awfulness of venues they had already played: “Professional sound system, including voice monitoring equipment. Professional lighting with at least one spotlight for center stage… Liquid refreshment made available and readily accessible.”
“I had to leave town that night, but I did sound check with them,” says Spangrud. “A lot of feedback came through that hollow stage. You had to tippy-toe when you had DJs up there—the records would skip all the time.” Just to be safe, Jam Master Jay spun the show with his turntables hung from the ceiling. Dunlap recalls a mere 64 people showing up. “Rap music was a new thing,” she says. “We bombed on that show, and we should not have, because that was a great fucking show.”
Over in St. Paul, a couple of Grant Hart’s friends had purchased a deconsecrated church where the Hüsker Dü drummer slept in a tent, and his band began to rehearse. Though guitarist/singer Bob Mould was a speed-head for much of this period, Hart and bassist Greg Norton were ingesting far more colorful substances—psilocybin and LSD. “After a while, I felt a contact high—I could see it in the air,” Mould wrote in his memoir. At the church, Mould and Hart had always written new material at a furious pace, and over the course of 1983 they shaped a number of these songs into an arc. Wouldn’t a concept double-LP with incursions from acoustic guitars and backward tapes get up the noses of the hardcore punks Hüsker Dü were leaving behind?
In late October 1983, the trio headed to Redondo Beach, California, the home of their label, SST Records. The session started late, and the band, who had been sipping meth-laced coffee for hours, attacked their first song, a warm-up cover of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” like a rabid timber wolf. Then they recorded and mixed their 23-song opus in three days. When their labelmates the Minutemen heard about it, they too decided to make a double-LP, and SST opted to issue them simultaneously. In April 1984, Hüsker Dü put out a 7” of “Eight Miles High” and blew a hole in the universe. The album that followed, Zen Arcade, would be just as overwhelming—and 17 times as long.
Their crosstown rivals were feeling nearly as ambitious. “We were grooming [the Replacements] and hoping they would go to a major label,” Twin/Tone co-founder Chris Osgood once told Magnet. “We saw ourselves as a minor league, trying to develop talent.” There was certainly a groundswell: The ’Mats now handily outdrew Hüsker Dü. Between 1982 and 1986, the latter’s average show attendance hovered between 400 and 600. By contrast, on December 26, 1984, the Replacements brought in over 1,500.
“We’re more conscious of trying to become a national label instead of a little regional independent,” Jesperson told City Pages as 1984 dawned. The Replacements, he promised, had the goods: “We’re making a hit right now, boy. That sucker’s gonna be a monster! We might actually have a hit single!” The title of Westerberg’s song summed up the tenor of things: “I Will Dare.”
On the evening of July 28, 1984, Kevin Cole was loading a band into the 7th Street Entry’s stage door when a man from Detroit pulled up in a Cadillac. “I’m the first guy he sees,” says Cole. “He pops out, holding a cassette in his hand, and goes, ‘Where’s Billy Sparks?’” He was looking for the “manager” of the club, as depicted in Purple Rain, which had opened the night before in 900 theaters. “He saw the movie and drove to First Ave. the next day,” says Cole. (The movie’s “Billy Sparks” was actually played by a concert promoter named Billy Sparks—who, ironically, was from Detroit.)
The film’s impact was forecast when its first single, “When Doves Cry,” reached #1 a few weeks earlier. It would become the year’s biggest hit, while the Purple Rain soundtrack topped the album chart for six months. A young audience that had already made hits of music-driven movies from Flashdance to Footloose to Breakin’ to Talking Heads’ art-house smash Stop Making Sense, ran to see the most head-turning pop star this side of Michael Jackson do his thing on a big screen. “People really resonated with the story,” says Cole. “And the time was right for a new sound.”
Prince had kept his visibility high at the club all summer. One hot night, his enormous bodyguard, Big Chick Huntsberry, tapped Cole’s shoulder and handed him the acetate of a new duet with Sheila E. called “Erotic City.” Cole put it on immediately; the room went berserk. “He was still there at the end of the night and he asked me if I thought it needed anything,” recalls Cole. “‘No. It was incredible.’”
On June 7, his 26th birthday, Prince played an exclusive concert for First Avenue members only, the set full of rare and unissued material. “I brought him a strawberry shortcake, his favorite thing,” says Dunlap. “Somebody ate it, but probably not Prince. I don’t think he really eats.” He came back on August 14, in the midst of Purple Rain fever, when 1,616 fans got an embryonic tour set: 1999’s three biggest singles plus seven from Purple Rain.
That September, a young woman in D.C. sent the club a letter addressed to “Mr. Stark”—i.e., Billy Sparks. “I plan to move to Minneapolis in the near future but would like to secure a job before moving,” it begins. “Would you consider interviewing me for a position?” Soon she reveals her hand: “I’m sure that you realize I am definitely a PRINCE fan. I know you and he are very close friends and I hoped you would convey my message to him… Is it possible that he needs someone to answer his mail?”
“Prince was getting all the credit for what Steve felt he had built,” says Dunlap. “The rumors were, ‘That’s Prince’s club.’ And Steve would be like—[imitates steam coming out of ears]—because that was his whole identity.” McClellan had particular scorn for the William Morris agents suddenly leaving him messages. “Purple Rain had to come out before they finally decided I was an OK venue,” he says. “It changed the club from a real music crowd to a lot of tourists.” On the other hand, after five years of just scraping by, the boost in revenue was more than welcome. “Jack [Meyers] said up until Purple Rain, he didn’t think we were gonna make it,” says McClellan.
Minneapolis music peaked in the middle of 1984: Purple Rain in theaters, the release of Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, and the 12″ of the Replacements’ “I Will Dare”—featuring a sandpapery Paul Westerberg flirting shamelessly over a bright beat, bouncy riff, and a zippy solo played by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, the song hit college radio like a pipe bomb.
On October 25th, Prince made his final First Avenue takeover of that year—in the 7th Street Entry, where he led his bassist Brown Mark and drummer Bobby Z. “We had to shut the door to the Mainroom—like, ‘If you’re in the Entry, you’re in the Entry and you get to see this. If you’re not, you’re not. Tough shit,’” says Dunlap. (The policy extended to a frustrated Paul Spangrud, who had to keep DJing in the Mainroom.) Two weeks earlier, the Replacements released Let It Be, and suddenly their onstage screwing around and offstage insolence cohered into something like a worldview: Few albums ever got the knowing-but-still-agitated teenage blues so right.
By 1987, that crazy peak had subsided. Hüsker Dü released another double LP in January, Warehouse: Songs and Stories, but broke up shortly after their manager David Savoy’s suicide. On May 27, the Replacements played First Avenue for the last time. By then, Slim Dunlap had replaced Bob Stinson: The two worked together as part of First Avenue’s daytime cleaning crew, and Stinson had urged Dunlap to take the gig. It was a first-rate fiasco: “We’re shit and we know it,” Westerberg taunted the crowd at one point. And in September, Prince opened Paisley Park Studios way out in Chanhassen, where he could throw impromptu concerts to his heart’s content.
Since then, the club’s mission has remained intact even as its foundational employees have moved on; McClellan left in 2004. Looking back, he says, “I never really booked shows as moneymakers. Sometimes we’d cross over to a new audience, just ’cause it was good music. I was serious about that.”
Special thanks to the Minnesota Historical Society’s collection of First Avenue/7th Street Entry band files for invaluable data.
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