First Avenue might not be the Twin Cities’ oldest venue, and it’s definitely not its most glamorous, but it’s hard to deny that the understated one-time Greyhound station on the corner of 1st and 7th is its most iconic. An early champion of major acts ranging from Hüsker Dü, Prince, and Atmosphere to U2, Nirvana, and The Arcade Fire, the midsize Minneapolis rock club formerly known as The Depot, Uncle Sam’s, and Sam’s has borne the heavy footsteps of rock and roll history with the stories to prove it. On the occasion of its April 3 birthday, we decided to pay homage to those 45 gritty, grimy, glorious years by doing what one does when honoring longtime friends: losing ourselves in their best stories. We commissioned three of the more accomplished short story writers to emerge from the contemporary Twin Cities scene—John Jodzio, Laurie Lindeen, and Ethan Rutherford—and tasked each with finding a First Avenue tale to tell. The result is a triptych of vivid creative nonfiction stories that weave their way from Jodzio’s portrait of a pimply-faced, early-’80s Bono to Lindeen’s peek inside the mind of legendary production manager Conrad Sverkerson to Rutherford’s take on the godfather of Twin Cities cool, Prince, crashing the biggest show of 2010. Happy birthday, First Avenue. Here’s to a raucous 45 more. -Drew Wood
BONO HAS A COLD
by John Jodzio
Bono has a cold. He got it from The Edge who got it from Adam who got it from Larry who got it from that blonde he made out with in Dallas, Texas, the one with the heart-shaped lips who gave him a hickey that looked like a parallelogram.
It’s April 1981, the first time U2 is touring the United States. At this point, it does not feel like they’re making history. At this point, there are no inklings of great fame. They’re grinding, they’re paying their dues, they’re 30 cities into a 59-city tour, and all of them are sick to death of looking at each other’s pale and pimply faces. Bono is tired of traveling in a tour bus that smells like burnt toast no matter how many gas station air fresheners they buy. He’s tired of hearing The Edge threaten to quit the band and join the seminary. He’s tired of hearing Adam ask everyone he meets if they’re holding any weed, and he’s tired of Larry making out with anything that moves.
“This might be our only go ’round stateside,” he writes on a postcard to his girlfriend, Allison, who is back in Dublin, Ireland, “and right now I kind of want it to be.”
Two nights ago they played a church in St. Louis, Missouri. Tonight it’s a nightclub in Minneapolis called Sam’s. Everything inside Sam’s is painted black—black walls, a black bar, black bathroom stalls. Lately Bono appreciates anything dark. His eyes have gone wonky over the last month; any time he looks into bright light, his vision is clouded with sparkling floaters for hours afterward. He’s toyed with the idea of wearing sunglasses on stage to protect his eyes from the glare, but he thinks it will make him look like a dumbass.
Bono blows his nose, coughs into the sleeve of his jacket. He pulls two Sudafed from his pocket and downs them with a swallow of beer. It’s 5 p.m. and they’re on stage at Sam’s now, sound checking for a 9 p.m. show. They’re such a young band they still haven’t written enough songs for a proper set. They’ve been playing their radio single “I Will Follow” at the beginning of their show. If there’s an encore, they dash out of the greenroom and play it again, louder and faster.
“Write new songs during your sound checks,” their manager, Paul, tells them. “That’s what The Beatles used to do.”
Bono pulls a piece of notebook paper with the lyrics to “I Threw A Brick Through A Window” from his new briefcase. His old briefcase, with all of his lyrics to their next album stuffed inside, was stolen after a show in Portland, Oregon. Three months of his hard work gone. For a week after that, Bono was sullen, couldn’t bear to write anything. After their show in Lubbock, Adam handed him a new briefcase, wrapped in a red bow.
“Time to stop grieving,” The Edge told him. “Time to move forward.”
Bono took their advice. As they’ve pushed north, he’s started to cobble together all the missing verses and choruses he could remember, filling in the gaps for anything he could not.
“Let’s try ‘Brick Through A Window,’” he tells them now.
While The Edge messes with his delay pedal, Bono looks out into Sam’s, watching the bartenders wash and rack glassware. He misses Allison so damn bad. He’s only talked to her on the phone once since they started the tour. It was a bad connection, a phone call full of hissing and popping, which made him more aware of the distance between them. He keeps penning postcards to her, sometimes two or three a day, but it does nothing to solve his loneliness. Postcards are a one-way conversation.
“You’ll be back in Dublin soon enough,” Allison told him when they talked. “Make use of this time away.”
Larry counts them in and then he starts pounding on his toms like he’s leading a marching band. The Edge comes in with a wailing riff. Bono clears his throat and then leans into the microphone and sings:
I was talking, I was talking to myself
Somebody else talk, talk, talking
While Bono sings, the lighting techs test the stage lights, randomly flipping them on and off. Bono shields his eyes whenever the spotlight bank flashes on. When it gets too bright, he turns to look at his bandmates. He’s known the three of them most of his young life; they are the three people in the world who understand him better than anyone ever could. Maybe it is some sort of residual effect from all the cold pills Bono’s taken today, but when he looks at them now, instead of being annoyed at their flaws and faults, his heart floods with joy.
I couldn’t hear a word, a word you said
He was my brother, brother
Bono shuts his eyes as he sings these words. He’s hoping when he opens them all of the sparkling dots that are floating in front of his face will have disappeared. It doesn’t work. When Bono opens his eyes nothing has changed; the dots are still circling around in front of his face. When he looks at Larry and Adam and The Edge, little halos are still suspended in the air around their bodies, floating there like tiny gold coins any of them could reach out and grab.
YOU DON'T KNOW ME AT ALL
by Laurie Lindeen
Laurie Lindeen, the author of the rock memoir Petal Pusher, is a writing and literature professor at the University of St. Thomas and The Loft Literary Center, co-curator of the music and story series Morningside After Dark, and the former front woman of ’90s Minneapolis riot girl band Zuzu’s Petals. She sat down with her old friend Conrad Sverkerson, First Avenue’s legendary production manager, to mine his brain for a good story from his decades at the venue. What she got was the story of his life.
My first day of work at First Ave was July 11, 1988. I began working the door, the floor, and as a bar back. This means I checked IDs, controlled the crowd, and monitored the booze supply.
When my dreadlocks were cut off on a golf trip, I lost four and a half pounds. I don’t know why I started growing them, but they went down past my butt.
I am a very good golfer; as a younger chap I was an extremely good golfer. Some of my friends claim that I’m scary good.
My 90-year-old mother knits the hats I wear over my crazy red curls. She would like it if I sported my cap with the back-droop like all the youngsters.
I once lost nine hours of my life during which I have no recollection. I was found unconscious next to the Mississippi River with a badly broken back.
I first worked as a doorman at the 400 Bar. I started looking for a different job after an underage drinking sting.
When I started working at First Ave, I was a southern-fried BTO, Skynyrd guy.
Ice Cube’s posse was terrifying.
I laugh the most at work whenever a percussionist or stage manager falls off the stage behind the curtain where the audience can’t see.
I have been sober for nine months.
I work in a bar and live above a bar.
I’m on the 22-step program; there are 22 steps leading up to my apartment from the bar.
Everybody knows my name.
I have my own star out there on the First Ave wall of fame.
I come from a family of 10 children: six girls, four boys. Two of my siblings have died in the past year.
My mom slipped the priest $20 at my sister’s funeral as he exited the pulpit from the center aisle. He promptly walked back to her casket, kneeled, said a prayer, and crossed himself. My mom said she was determined to get her offspring into heaven even if it took greasing the palm of a Father.
My mother and I are very close.
I care. A lot.
I am kind.
On the one-year anniversary of my brother Billy’s death, my family came to The Depot for a meal and a toast to commemorate the day. I told my family members to not even ask the name of the band playing next door. Of course they did. Death From Above, I told them. We had a laugh/cry.
My job title is prod. man. That means production manager, but another way of saying it is “babysitter.”
I listen to the Twins on the radio and go to games whenever I can. Harmon Killebrew signed a Manny’s menu for me; it’s one of my prized possessions.
Every night there are wardrobe malfunctions.
Every night is different.
One night Aerosmith joined Cheap Trick on stage for “Train Kept A Rollin’”; it was incredible. The following night, Cheap Trick stunk up the joint.
Many great artists need a private toilet before going on stage.
It’s a big deal for bands when they play on the stage in the Mainroom for the first time. We want it to be special; we want to take good care of them. If that sounds cliché, go ahead and make it weird.
Pulling off a show is a top-to-bottom team effort; it takes everyone from the janitor to the talent buyer.
I love my co-workers; they’re like a second family. I get to work with many of my longtime best friends. That’s pretty lucky.
Some musical acts show up with attitude and ego, but they usually return to our stage as much nicer people after having sampled the nightclubs across the country.
I don’t kiss and tell.
There is absolutely no reason for exhaustively long sound checks. None.
I did like it better when folks actually played their instruments instead of just pushing buttons.
I guess I am feared. It’s helpful in my line of work.
I don’t care who you are, who you think you are, who you know, who you think you know, or who you want to get to know; if you don’t belong backstage or in the dressing room, you’re not getting in.
I don’t cotton to bribery.
Sometimes I’m in a bad mood.
I hate people when they’re not polite; that’s from a song.
Sometimes my job is a love-hate thing.
I recently got a message from Bob Mould thanking us for a wonderful weekend. Stuff like that means a lot to me.
I asked my friend who’s trying to extract these First Ave stories from me if she’d written a children’s book or something. “Not yet,” she said.
My eyes are light brown and clear. They’ve seen it all. They do not look tired in the least.
THE LAST PROM ON EARTH
by Ethan Rutherford
Ethan Rutherford’s fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, American Short Fiction, and The Best American Short Stories. His book, The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories, won the Minnesota Book Award in 2014. He’s taught fiction at The Loft, the University of Minnesota, Hamline, and Macalester, and he is a founding member of the band Pennyroyal. From his new home in Hartford, Connecticut, where he “misses Minneapolis at least five times a day,” he spoke with Ryan Olson (the mastermind of Minnesota supergroup GAYNGS), First Avenue staffer Sonia Grover, Dessa, and others who were part of the 2010 GAYNGS CD release show when Prince showed up with a guitar strapped to his back. From Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon to Dessa to Har Mar Superstar, all 25 musicians who shared the stage that night had a different take on what unfolded next. This is Rutherford’s blend of them all.
Some nights you remember for what happened, and some nights are memorable for what almost happened but didn’t, but if ever there was a show that was made for the collective musical yearbook, man, this is it. It’s May 2010; the venue is the First Avenue Mainroom. School is out, and this is how it goes down: GAYNGS, the of-the-moment all-star group led by Ryan Olson—a group that features at least one or two members from every great young band to come out of the snow hills of Minnesota—has assembled to play two sets to celebrate the release of their debut record, Relayted.
The night is being billed as “The Last Prom on Earth,” and that’s exactly what it feels like. There are balloons hung in the rafters, waiting to drop. There’s a slow-twirling mirror ball. Streamers and confetti that make the room feel like the high school gym from a memory you can’t quite place. It’s an occasion. The whole night has a once-in-a-lifetime feel to it1. There are 25 musicians rotating on and off the stage, stepping up to the front, vamping for the crowd, for each other. Look up and you’ll see Dessa, Ryan Olson, Justin Vernon, P.O.S., Har Mar Superstar, Mike Noyce, Zach Coulter, Channy Leaneagh, Jake Luck, Maggie Morrison, Mike Lewis, Brad Cook, Ivan Rosebud, Phil Cook, Grant Cutler, Adam Hurlburt, Shon Troth (you need to look these guys up? No you don’t. They’re Marijuana Death Squads, they’re Poliça, they’re Solid Gold, they’re Leisure Birds, they’re Megafaun, they’re Digitata, they’re Doomtree, they’re Happy Apple and Alpha Consumer, they’re Bon Iver). They’re bumping into each other, swapping inputs, cutting mics, singing their hearts out, having the time of their lives. There are like 30 keyboards set up on stage. The sequencing is a fever dream. To pull a show like this off, with so many moving parts, requires both a professional dialing in and dialing out, but if there is any strain on stage it’s not coming across. What is coming across is joy. Two sets in one night, they’ve played for hours, and it’s effortless. And the band is dressed: sunglasses, white suits, evening dresses. As the night goes on, hair is let down and shirts come off.
And you—the audience—you’ve come turned out too. And maybe you told yourself that you were doing this ironically but also definitely not ironically as you dug around earlier in the night to find an appropriate outfit: sequins that catch the light, poofed-out gowns, tuxedos. It’s a boutonniere kind of night. The nerds, the jocks, the freaks, the a cappella kids, the goths—everyone in the Mainroom is ready, has arrived ready, for whatever it is that this night will turn into. Everyone is taking photos. You can sense there’s a hot tub after-party in the works. Calls have been made, everyone knows which house is hosting the party, whose parents will or will not be home, whose parents don’t care about stuff like this.
There’s a rumor going around, of course. On nights like this, there are always rumors, but this one seems, somehow, less like a rumor and more like certainty: Prince is in the building, and he’s going to play. The band has heard it, though no one has seen him. And though no one has said anything at all to the audience, they’ve heard the rumor too, or they’ve felt it. He’s here. How could he not be? He ghosts this place; it’s his house. There’s always a chance he’ll arrive—materialize, sit in—but especially on a night like this, that feeling, that possibility, is very real. Everyone’s looking over their shoulders. Because you’d want to know if he was there; you’d want to be ready. You’d want to see him the moment before he steps on stage.
But that’s for later. Right now, the set is coming together, this whole day is coming together, and there’s the music to consider. Turn all the dials to 69 BPM and allow the airy, mechanized falsetto to chop its line and wash over you. Give yourself over to the accumulated mood of the evening, which was hard to locate at first but comes out, eventually, as sincerity: an appreciation for a particular drugged-out synth sound and a time you didn’t even know you were nostalgic for. The band is locked in now, and they’re playing. Someone is singing (many people are singing): This will be our last prom, full of nothing but silly love songs. . . . One last prom, for me and you. A saxophone cuts in, elegantly, gracefully, with perfect manners. Slow jam is both the wrong word and the right word for the music washing over the room. But people are dancing. They are turning from the stage, and looking toward one another, and dancing—slow dancing—turning small circles in the lowered light of the mirror ball.
So maybe you don’t see him when he arrives. But the band does. During the second-to-last song of the night—“Faded High”—someone looks over, and there he is, standing side-stage. He’s shown up. He’s smiling beatifically. He’s looking at the singers, making eye contact with anyone who can stand it. He’s nodding at the keyboard guys, who find themselves, shockingly, nodding back. People are missing cues. They’re hitting each other on stage, going: Look. Prince has come. He’s wearing a fedora; he’s dressed to kill. He’s brought his guitar, and he’s playing along to the changes. The guitar isn’t plugged into anything, he’s just playing it, warming up perhaps, trying to find his own way into the song. And then his eyes are closed, and he’s nodding to the beat. Someone goes over, puts a hand on his shoulder, and says: You want to jump in? And he goes: Yes. It is the best possible thing—the whole evening seems to have been leading to this precise moment: Prince’s arrival, the most welcome party crash anyone in this particular building at this particular time could imagine. And this is where the story begins to break apart and become even more interesting, because no one on stage has a true understanding of what happens next. “Faded High” cuts out, and there’s a massive changeover for the final song. Twenty-five musicians, a bunch of techs, and gear hustle around; some stuff gets pushed offstage, other stuff comes on. The crowd knows this is probably it, the last song, the night’s big close, and people are showing their appreciation. No one in the audience has seen Prince yet. And when the band looks up, to see just when and how Prince is going to step onto the stage and sort of . . . what, give this night his blessing? Take an already amazing show and walk it straight into history? . . . They realize he’s gone.
What do you do? What can you do? The final song’s started; the balloons are mid-drop. Those in the audience, even though they have no idea Prince had actually materialized, are into things in the fulsome way you get into things at the end of a long, happy, and strange night. They didn’t know the difference; they were having the time of their lives. And so was the band. Just take a look at the pictures from that night. Flip through your yearbook. Pure joy.
This was something it took me a long time to wrap my head around, but everyone I talked to in the band said the same thing, which was: Who cares if he didn’t get on stage? He was there. He came to listen. To hear the news that Minneapolis was bringing him. He was playing along on a guitar that wasn’t plugged into anything at all, he was making no sound, and even so he was still the coolest guy in the room, the purple chaperone everyone was happy to see, though few people did. And isn’t it better like that, anyway?