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The Current Rewind

April 3, 1970: The day it all began

The Current Rewind
The Current RewindKaitlyn Bryan | MPR
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April 3, 1970: The day it all began

The Current Rewind's First Avenue season kicks off with the story of opening night. Grab a carnation and travel back to the dawn of the '70s, when Joe Cocker and his "Mad Dogs & Englishmen" packed the former bus depot that would later become First Avenue. The club's rookie owners had a lot to learn, but thanks to this show, they earned the attention of Minnesotan music fans and media.

Transcript of The Current Rewind season 2, episode 1: "April 3, 1970"

[Joe Cocker, "With a Little Help from My Friends" — applause, organ intro, and opening guitar riff]

Mark Wheat VO: [over organ] Rock venues tend to last as long as rock bands — that is, not very long. The ones that do last either adapt to the times — or lead them. And no rock club in America has done those things with the kind of staying power of Minneapolis's First Avenue.

This year, First Avenue celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. It's been a wild ride — from the Woodstock era to the Internet age, from punk to funk, from disco to hip-hop, from barely scraping by to becoming a local music venue empire. Along the way, the club, its patrons and employees, and the artists who've played there have all endured some scrapes. It's changed names and even been shut down a couple times. Yet First Avenue is not only still standing, but thriving. How did a former bus depot in the middle of the Midwest manage such a feat?

[Icetep, "Hive Sound"]

Mark Wheat VO: [over theme] I'm Mark Wheat. This is The Current Rewind, the show putting music's unsung stories on the map. For our second season, we're looking back at one of the Twin Cities' — and the country's — greatest live venues through some of its most significant events. That's some, not all — 50 years is a long time. But far-flung as it may be, the story of First Avenue is the story of a place — and the story of the club is, in some ways, the story of the music business over the last 50 years as well.

To help us out, and to showcase the breadth of First Avenue's musical history, each of this season's episodes will feature a different guest host. For this first episode, we've tapped Craig Finn, who grew up in Minnesota and would go on to front the Hold Steady and Lifter Puller. He'll share the story of First Avenue's beginnings — when it opened, in April of 1970, in a former Greyhound bus station, as the Depot.

[rewind noise]

Craig Finn VO: In the 35 years I've been going to First Avenue, I've come to depend on it, first as a fan, and then as a performer. My first show there was the Violent Femmes in '85, the summer after eighth grade. A couple years later, they started doing all-ages dancing on Sunday nights, with hardcore shows next door in the Entry; I went almost every week, especially in the summer.

When I was 15, my high school band performed at New Band Night in the Entry. Lifter Puller played a number of times in the Entry and the Mainroom, sometimes opening for touring bands like Sleater-Kinney and Built to Spill. After I moved to New York and started the Hold Steady with Tad Kubler, we came back to headline the Mainroom in 2005, for Separation Sunday, and we've played there regularly ever since.

You know, clubs in other cities tend to not last for 50 years. Sometimes you get in these situations where it's a new PA, the promoter is M.I.A., the sound guy doesn't know what the hell he's doing, you know, whatever. So when you roll in to First Avenue, you know it's going to be very, very good, from the sound to the hospitality to the people. You know you're going to see Conrad [Sverkerson], Sonia [Grover], Nate [Kranz], etc. There's a feeling that you can relax, that the club, the people there, are going to be doing their job really well, so you only have to worry about doing yours.

But being at First Avenue wasn't always such a smooth experience. In fact, when it opened in 1970, the whole country was on a bumpy ride. That spring, air-traffic controllers and postal workers went on strike, and the Vietnam War continued to rage, despite civilian protests. In the Twin Cities, University of Minnesota students were fighting invading chain restaurants, and new suburbs were booming. But not much was going on downtown.

Michael Anthony: There was no nightlife — I mean, it was sporadic.

Craig Finn VO: Michael Anthony, a longtime music critic at the Minneapolis Tribune, remembers downtown Minneapolis as a relatively sedate place during the sixties. There were a few jazz rooms and a couple of nightclubs.

Michael Anthony: The Roaring 20s on Hennepin Avenue; there was the Flame Room at the Radisson that did the best nightclub acts there were — I mean, they spent a lot of money. The Flame, up there on 14th and Nicollet; Freddie's was a very hip nightclub on 6th Street. And then there was — there were actually more jazz places at that point — the Key Club and Big Al's, and of course later came Duffy's. There were concerts — Labor Temple, and one of the crummiest of all venues in the entire universe, I believe, the Armory was a toilet, quite frankly. And then it was parking lots for the next 40 or 50 years — very underdeveloped downtown, as many people have said.

Andy Sturdevant: I'm Andy Sturdevant. I'm a writer from Minneapolis. I am the co-author of Closing Time: Saloons, Taverns, Dives and Watering Holes of the Twin Cities.

Bill Lindeke: And I'm Bill Lindeke. I'm the other co-author of Closing Time, and I live in St. Paul.

Andy Sturdevant: In 1970, when the Depot opened, downtown was still kind of in a transitional state. The epicenter of drinking in downtown Minneapolis had been the Gateway district, what was called the Lower Loop, and those were all the bars that were located down by the end of Hennepin Avenue, by Washington Avenue, and all of that was torn out in the 1960s, the early 1960s, in an effort to make downtown a cleaner, maybe more corporate — a slightly tidier vision of downtown Minneapolis. And so all of the skid row bars had been gone for about ten years by the time the Depot had opened in 1970.

Bill Lindeke: The club First Avenue is located kinda behind the Block E area, which was right on Hennepin Avenue, and there was a real mix of places that were there. There were old hotels; movie theatres; lots of bars like Brady's and the 620 Club, it was originally called. It was "where turkey was king," and it was sort of an older dinner club that had kinda fallen on harder times, and it had been a place where all the real hotshots, the mayors and businesspeople of Minneapolis had gone ten years before. But by the time you get to 1970, the 620 Club was starting to become less of the hip place to be.

Craig Finn VO: The hip place to be in the spring [of] 1970 was in the movie theaters showing Woodstock, a three-hour documentary of the August 1969 festival in upstate New York, which featured rock's royalty of the time: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Who, and Sly & the Family Stone, among others.

One of the acts that Woodstock catapulted to fame was the British rock and roll singer Joe Cocker, who'd already become a live draw around the U.S. with his reinterpretations of the big rock hits of the day. One Twin Cities musician was a particularly big fan.

Steve Miller: Yeah, my name is Steve Miller and back in the '70s, I played in a band called the Del Counts.

Craig Finn VO: Steve was the Del Counts' lead guitarist. The Del Counts formed in 1961 and had a sizable local hit with "Let the Good Times Roll," released by Soma Records in 1965.

["Let The Good Times Roll" by The Del Counts]

Steve Miller: A couple of us in the band were huge Joe Cocker fans. We had seen him at a teen club called the Prison in Burnsville, and we also, after a job at the Prison one night, we drove all the way to Milwaukee, for the Milwaukee Rock Festival, which was about a month before Woodstock.

Craig Finn VO: The Del Counts were part of the Twin Cities' slammin' garage-rock scene. That scene produced national hits, like the Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird" and the Castaways' "Liar Liar," respectively. These bands played a number of short-lived Twin Cities venues, from the Crystal Coliseum, out in the northern suburbs, to Magoo's, a pizzeria on Lake Street and Nicollet Avenue.

In the late '60s, one of the most popular Twin Cities bands was Danny's Reasons, who formed in 1964 and were soon opening regularly for big touring acts, like Janis Joplin and Ike & Tina Turner. But the lead singer, Danny Stevens, had even bigger dreams. He wanted to open up a venue of his own.

Danny Stevens: I got an idea that, God, we should have a place that teenagers can go plus the adults. And one thing led to another. So I met Jack Dow. Jack Dow, he had a place called Diamond Lil's that was almost as big as the Depot but more one level, not two floors.

Craig Finn VO: Danny's Reasons became the house band at Diamond Lil's in the winter of 1969. Eventually, Danny started running the club under the name Times Square. Owner Jack Dow wanted to sell the property, and when he learned Danny wanted to open his own club, he made Danny an offer.

Danny Stevens: He said, "Let's work a deal out." He says, "I'll pay you what your fee is, but I'll also make sure you have a Class A — which means you can do any type of entertainment — liquor license." I said, "But they all have a value. I can't afford one of them," because a Class A would've been anywhere from $100,000 up.

Andy Sturdevant: One of the most valuable things that you could have in Minneapolis before about 1970, 1975, was a liquor license. They were like these spirits that kind of went from one host body to another, and the only way you could get a liquor license was if another place had closed or another place, the owner had gotten busted, or it was somehow transferred to you.

Bill Lindeke: Part of the problem is that there was a limit on the number of liquor licenses the city was willing to give out, so it became very valuable, and traded around like these assets.

Andy Sturdevant: Exactly. So the liquor license for the Depot came from a place called the Callboard, which was at the Hotel Hastings, which was at Hawthorne and 12th, and it was condemned in 1969 because the freeway was coming through. So when it closed, the owners of the Depot acquired the liquor license. So that just gives you a real sense for kind of, spatially, what's happening in downtown Minneapolis. I mean, the reason why First Avenue has a liquor license is because an old residential hotel from the nineteen-teens got torn down to make way for the freeway.

Craig Finn VO: Danny Stevens planned to open his club with a financial partner named Elizabeth Heffelfinger. But she became too ill to proceed with the project, so Stevens found someone new.

Danny Stevens: By the end of '69, we already knew that we were going to open up the Greyhound Bus Depot. But in this case, Allan Fingerhut had come in.

Chris Riemenschneider: Allan Fingerhut was the son of the founder — one of the two brothers that co-founded the Fingerhut Corporation.

Craig Finn VO: Chris Riemenschneider is a music critic for Minneapolis newspaper the Star Tribune, and the author of the book First Avenue: Minnesota's Mainroom.

Chris Riemenschneider: They were one of the first mail-order, kind of on-credit kind of places. You can order floor mats and seat covers for your car, and that turned into kind of household items. So Allan was basically the rich kid. Danny actually did come from a family with money, too, but Danny was the rock and roll guy.

Danny Stevens: When I went to tell them, I called the license department and said, "I have a different partner." They were very nervous about Allan. I said, "I've never heard of the guy, so I don't know anything about him. What I know of Allan is spectacular, and he says he's got a lot of money, so whatever." So my dad went down and talked to them. We went full steam ahead.

Craig Finn VO: To bring local bands aboard, the Depot's owners went to the man who handled bookings for Danny's Reasons.

Marsh Edelstein: My name is Marsh Edelstein, and I had the opportunity of doing a lot of booking for my company at the Depot, and then eventually Sam's/Uncle Sam's.

Craig Finn VO: At that point, Marsh hadn't worked with many clubs.

Marsh Edelstein: Most of our bookings were with schools — high schools for graduations, for parties, for events.

Craig Finn VO: But he gravitated toward Allan Fingerhut's enthusiasm for the Depot.

Marsh Edelstein: He said, "It's going to be huge and it's going to be big and it's gonna be with the lighting." I said, "You do something like that and there's no way it can't be a hit. No way it can't be big."

Craig Finn VO: Fingerhut also brought in Byron Frank, another key part of the initial team, who would play an even more dramatic role in the club's story three decades later.

Chris Riemenschneider: Byron Frank was a childhood friend of Allan Fingerhut. Like, they actually used to go into the Depot together — Allan and Byron — playing pinball when it was the bus depot, which is very charming in hindsight. Byron actually worked for Allan's dad for quite a while as an accountant, and so when Allan went to open this place, Byron was involved as his personal accountant.

Craig Finn VO: The Depot was named for its previous incarnation. The distinctive, curved-facade building had opened in 1937 as the Northland Greyhound station, before the bus company relocated in 1968. The new owners leased the building from local theater magnate Ted Mann. Fingerhut sank $150,000 into renovating the place, right around the time the youth of America were communing in a muddy field at Woodstock. From there, months of hard work resulted in an exciting new venue.

Michael Anthony: When the Depot opened in early 1970, it was a big deal, and it was a big deal for the audience, and it was a big deal for those of us covering it. Newspapers did a lot with it. After all, it was youth culture.

Craig Finn VO: The Depot's first headliner, April 3 and 4, was Joe Cocker.

Danny Stevens: We originally were gonna open up with Santana. And I can't remember who it was that told me no, no, no, there's a show out there you should have — Joe Cocker/Mad Dogs — and he said, we'll take care of talking to Carlos. [Danny laughs]

I was there the night that we picked them up from the airport. We were at the airport, went in, and they had a private prop plane that came in, and the first thing I noticed is when they opened the door, anybody within 100 feet of that plane was gonna be high. [laughs] I went, "Whoa!" And everybody was happy, hugging, and they came, and they said, God, we're happy to be here, this and that, we hear it's a Greyhound Bus Depot. And then when I got there, I drove the Bentley. So Joe Cocker jumped into the Bentley. Being English and that, he says, "What's a Bentley doing here in Minnesota?" I said, "I love Bentleys," and got there. Then everybody hooked up at the hotel. Then Joe and the manager and that came over to the Depot afterwards to look at it.

Craig Finn VO: What they saw had many of the same features as the former Greyhound depot — notably, the black-and-white tile floor that, 50 years later, is still the club's dance floor.

Here's how the Twin Citian, a local magazine, described the scene at the time: Quote, "The curved wall, which used to embrace the gates to departing buses, is now the backdrop for a large, purple plush-covered stage [. . .] On the wall above the stage, Cinemascope style, there is a large screen. While the performers are wailing, batteries of projectors [. . .] shoot images onto the screen from either end of the horseshoe shaped balcony which surrounds the main floor."

Chris Riemenschneider: Supposedly from the get-go, the sound in there, and just the vibe in there was great. The famous thing that supposedly makes it sound good is the wall behind the stage there, which most people don't see, is curved, because those were the exits to go out into the garage to get on the bus, so there was like door one, door two, door three. And so that natural curve supposedly helps the acoustics.

[Joe Cocker, "The Letter"]

Craig Finn VO: Remember Joe Cocker superfan Steve Miller? He and his band The Del Counts got an incredible opportunity on opening night.

Steve Miller: We played in between his two sets. And at the time we were doing a number of original tunes. And we actually had three or four Joe Cocker songs on our list, but we didn't dare touch those that night. When we were done with our set and they were to go on, they were all bumping tequila before they went on. I just was amazed by how many people were on stage, and I believe there was maybe even up to 20 musicians and singers, and I think they had their wives and girlfriends.

Craig Finn VO: Despite the hoopla, Steve wasn't totally enchanted by the show.

Steve Miller: I had seen Joe Cocker three times previous with the Grease Band, which was a small group, just a four-piece conga group. And his voice would always just stand out. With all the musicians on stage, it kind of covered him up a little bit. I was a little disappointed at the time, because I wanted to hear him more than the musicians — who were great, great musicians.

Craig Finn VO: Years later, when Jon Bream of the Star Tribune asked Cocker if he remembered the show, the singer didn't. But many of the people who'd played with Cocker did — partly because the Depot was the smallest venue on the tour.

Chris Riemenschneider: They also remember it because of the flowers. Allan Fingerhut had ordered carnations — thousands of carnations to be handed out. We were at the height of the flower power [movement] at this point, 1970. As you can see in the footage from that night, which is in the Mad Dogs and Englishmen movie, I mean, there's Bobby Keys, the saxophone player has a flower sticking out of his saxophone. And Joe has a — they come up and put a lei around him, made up these carnations, around his neck.

Craig Finn VO: For all the communal vibes, there was some tension backstage, as Danny Stevens remembered.

Danny Stevens: The night of Joe Cocker, I'm standing next to Manny Fingerhut. Joe Cocker's manager comes up to us, and he says, "I see the crowd. We want $7,000 more for this weekend." And I said to Manny, I said, "Manny, he's got a signed contract." Manny said to the manager, he goes — whatever his name was — he says, "If you do well for us there will be a bonus. But if you won't play like you're threatening us now, unless we give it to you right now, you'll never get this equipment out. I know the people that it takes. You won't have a truck that'll come in here to pick that stuff up. So you either play and get a bonus." Well, we thought it was done. Well, behind our back, he goes and gets that cash and pays him.

Craig Finn VO: Steve Miller was right — there were a lot of people onstage that night. The musicians who played with Cocker at the Depot included musical director Leon Russell; percussionists Chuck Blackwell, Jim Keltner, [and] Jim Gordon; and singers Rita Coolidge, Nicol Barclay, and Pamela Poland...whose dog, Canina, became part of the act as well. As record producer Denny Cordell put it, Mad Dogs and Englishmen was, quote, "bound to disintegrate." And opening night in Minneapolis was crushed by a turnout the Depot's owners hadn't anticipated: With doors at 6:30 p.m., the club had to replenish its liquor stock at eight.

Danny Stevens: Nobody expected there'd be thousands of people. We thought it might be 800-900, maybe, at the most. We were wall-to-wall all the way up the steps. If it wasn't for my friendship with Eddie Phillips of Phillips Liquor — he had a truck over with what we needed right away, and then they resupplied it again.

Craig Finn VO: One local columnist sniffed that the Depot offered "an environment in which no creature born before 1940 can survive." That said, most reviewers were impressed by the music, if not the venue. After the Paul Butterfield Blues Band headlined the club's second night, the Minneapolis underground newspaper Hundred Flowers sized things up this way, quote: "The decor: amazingly tasteless. The room: amazingly tiny. The floor: amazingly crowded. The liquor: amazingly costly. The sound: amazingly loud. Cocker and Butterfield: amazing!"

Hundred Flowers was highly critical of the Depot, accusing its owners of being rock 'n' roll carpetbaggers. But these carpetbaggers weren't bagging much cash. Two months after the Depot opened, the club opened its books to the newspaper, which published cost breakdowns for the club's first six big shows. Only two of them had turned a profit, and neither was robust enough to offset more than $20,000 in losses. Sixteen thousand dollars of those losses had come from Joe Cocker alone. Danny and Allan had deep pockets, but you can only bleed cash for so long.

Danny Stevens: We would have our monthly meetings, and they weren't corporate meetings, they were just, "What are we gonna buy, how much, and what should we pay," and da-da-da-da-da. His wife wanted to meet Tiny Tim for $5,000 on Sunday at The Depot. You could see him free Friday and Saturday at the Auto Show three blocks away. I said, "Allan, this guy is not that big a draw anyways. He's great for Johnny Carson and that, but why did you take our corporate money and do that?" "Well, Sharron wanted to see him." I go, "Allan, you can't do that."

Craig Finn VO: The Depot's management team had shrunk by the end of 1970, and so had security. In mid-May of 1971, the Minneapolis Police Department disallowed its officers to moonlight at the Depot, where arrests, a deputy patrol chief said, "averaged about one a day." This was partly due to the widening generation gap — something the local media was trying to adapt to. In April 1971, the Tribune hired Michael Anthony, who'd just finished grad school.

Michael Anthony: Publications were trying to figure out youth culture. And so I came aboard in 1971 and went — my first concert to review at the Depot was Ike & Tina. And they were of course terrific. There was — as I found out later there was all kinds of stuff going on backstage, a lot of tension.

Craig Finn VO: Ike & Tina were scheduled to play two shows on April 21, 1971. They showed up hours late and demanded their whole fee up front. Outside, as the second-show crowd waited, a downpour began, and some irate fans tried crashing the gate, then climbing through the upstairs windows.

Danny Stevens: My partner had a problem sometimes with acts a little bit. They were a little bit late, but a lot of the groups were like that. But something happened to make them not even want to go onstage right away.

Craig Finn VO: Marsh Edelstein, the Minneapolis booking agent, remembers fearing for his reputation.

Marsh Edelstein: And Allan was going, "What the heck are they doing? Why are they doing this?" And I could see why Allan was getting upset. At the end, when Tina finally left the office upstairs of the Depot, he said, "Marsh, I'm gonna pay her off the balance in pennies." I said, "Allan, don't do that. I'm gonna be working with her down the line. Don't do it." He said, "Marsh, I have to," because he was so angry.

Craig Finn VO: The Ike & Tina show was the beginning of the end for the original incarnation of the Depot.

Michael Anthony: So Al was losing money and the violence was — oh yeah, and then the cops pulled out the security thing. That was a big issue. Because the summer of '71, Al Fingerhut — we made much of this at the Tribune — "Fingerhut Veers Away From Rock" could be one way that the headline went. Because this was going on around the country. Bill Graham's two big Fillmores, East and West, he was shutting them down.

I did a quick interview with Bill Graham, a pretty feisty guy, and I said, "What's going on?" And he said, "It was two reasons we're shutting down. One is that I'm not making any money and the fees were going way up. And I'm losing my shirt. And reason number two is there's just too much violence — kids vs. the cops." And I think that could be translated to The Depot situation that Fingerhut was having to deal with. You know he wasn't really experienced in this area — doing the best he could, and kinda learning on the job. But the thing is that this was police versus the kids.

Craig Finn VO: Fingerhut was tired, he said, of being called a "capitalist pig." He decided to veer toward adult audiences, booking the Stan Kenton Orchestra for three shows in late June. But the club didn't make it through the month. The Depot ran out of money, forcing Fingerhut to cancel the Kenton gig as well as an upcoming appearance by the piping-hot Allman Brothers Band.

Chris Riemenschneider: The Allmans never played there, and some people say they did. They were booked there, but that was the nail in the coffin. All combined, he had to pull the plug there in the summer of '71.

Craig Finn VO: After a jam-packed finale on June 14, 1971, featuring the local jazz-rock band Big Island, the Depot went dark for a year. But hope sprang eternal. Allan Fingerhut told the Tribune that he hoped to reopen the Depot as a concert hall. He explained it this way: "Once you start, you just can't walk away from this business." And over the next decade, Allan's business would evolve decisively — from hippie rock to disco and punk, under a new name, Uncle Sam's.

["Feel This Way," a disco song from APM Music, thumps before morphing into Hive Sound" by Icetep]

Mark Wheat VO: This episode of The Current Rewind was hosted by Craig Finn and me, Mark Wheat. It was produced by Cecilia Johnson and scripted by our head writer, Michaelangelo Matos. Marisa Morseth is our research assistant and Jay Gabler is our editor. Our theme music is the song "Hive Sound" by Icetep. This episode was mixed by Corey Schreppel. Thanks to Brett Baldwin, Rick Carlson, Shelby Sachs, and David Safar for additional support. [Producer's note: We also owe Jeanne Andersen and her website Twin Cities Music Highlights a debt of gratitude for her original research and archiving.]

What's the coolest thing that's ever happened to you at First Avenue? If you'd like to share a story, we'd love to hear it. Send us an email or voice memo at

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The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. It is a production of Minnesota Public Radio's The Current.