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The Current Rewind

Oct. 22, 1990: Sonic Youth/Cows/Babes in Toyland

The Current Rewind: 10/22/90
The Current Rewind: 10/22/90Kaitlyn Bryan | MPR
  Play Now [25:42]

by Cecilia Johnson and Michaelangelo Matos

October 20, 2020

Alternative rock stayed underground throughout the '80s, but in the early '90s, that distorted, furious sound burst into the mainstream. In this episode, members of Cows and Babes in Toyland talk about sharing a bill with Sonic Youth at First Avenue.

This is the fifth episode of The Current Rewind's "10 Pivotal Days at First Avenue" season. Catch up below.

• April 3, 1970 (The day it all began)
• Nov. 28-29, 1979 (The days that told the future)
• Sept. 27, 1982 (Bad Brains/Sweet Taste of Afrika/Hüsker Dü)
• Aug. 3, 1983 (The birth of "Purple Rain")
• Oct. 22, 1990 (Sonic Youth/Cows/Babes in Toyland)
• March 4, 1991 (Ice Cube/WC and the MAAD Circle)
• Nov. 2, 2004 (The day the doors closed)
• Aug. 12, 2015 (The day the sky fell)
• April 21, 2016 (The day the streets turned purple)

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The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Culture Heritage Fund.

Transcript of The Current Rewind season 2, episode 5: "Oct. 22, 1990"

[ Sonic Youth, "Tunic (Song for Karen)"]

Cecilia Johnson VO: "I ain't never going anywhere," Kim Gordon sings in "Tunic (Song for Karen)." She's singing from the perspective of the late Karen Carpenter: one half of the '70s sibling duo The Carpenters. And for Karen, this line makes sense. But with this 1990 album, Goo, Sonic Youth were just starting to "go places," at least in terms of platform and fame. Given how closely associated grunge and indie rock are with the '90s, it's easy to forget how underground "alternative" music once was. In this episode, we're getting out our shovels and taking you back to the underground, right before it blew up.

Cecilia Johnson VO: I'm Cecilia Johnson, and this is The Current Rewind, the podcast putting music's unsung stories on the map. In this season of Rewind, we're zooming in on several important dates in the history of First Avenue, one of the Twin Cities's–and the country's–greatest live venues.

[Icetep's "Hive Sound" fades up]

Cecilia Johnson VO: To help us out, and to showcase the breadth of First Avenue's musical history, most of these episodes will feature a different guest host. This time, Kiss the Tiger's Meghan Kreidler joins us to tell the story of a sold-out show featuring three artists – Sonic Youth, and Minneapolis's Cows and Babes in Toyland – who represented an alternative rock scene at the cusp of mainstream popularity. Meghan is a magnetic frontperson – I've seen her band Kiss the Tiger so many times – and she's one of my favorite theater actors in town. Enjoy!

[rewind noise]

[Kiss the Tiger's "Bad Boy" plays underneath Meghan's intro]

Meghan Kreidler VO: Hey, it's Meghan from Kiss the Tiger. I've seen a lot of shows at First Avenue, and along with my band, I've performed in the Mainroom and at the 7th St Entry next door. We were actually scheduled to open for Golden Smog the week of First Ave's 50th anniversary, but thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, that gig got canceled.

I've been performing rock music in Minnesota for five years, and I'm proud to join a lineage that reaches back to Augie Garcia's work in the 1950s. The '80s were a big decade for Minneapolis rock; back then, bands like Soul Asylum and the Replacements reached cult status in town. Then, in the early '90s, the epicenter of U.S. alt-rock swayed to Seattle, where grunge and flannel were entering mainstream consciousness. In this episode, we'll witness a moment just before Nirvana blew up, when artists from Minneapolis and the coasts were befriending and playing shows with each other. It all culminates in one historic, sold-out concert, the night of October 22, 1990.

Downtown, First Avenue was entering something of a heyday. The club's musical menu was always wide-ranging. In 1990, the calendar included everyone from jazz legend Sun Ra, to reggae greats Black Uhuru, to DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. But the music that filled the place up most regularly was the punk and indie rock that had been its bread and butter for years.

That year's last few months included a two-night stand by Bob Mould – who'd left both Hüsker Dü and Minneapolis a couple years earlier for a solo career – plus shows from Iggy Pop, Billy Bragg, Skinny Puppy, the Lemonheads, Jane's Addiction, and the Pixies. Few of these artists sounded much alike, but they were increasingly lumped together as "alternative," or "college rock," since they got most of their airplay on college radio.

Chrissie Dunlap: That was the only radio we had.

Meghan Kreidler VO: Chrissie Dunlap worked at First Avenue's office for most of the eighties.

Chrissie Dunlap: There wasn't anything else, so yeah, we relied on college radio and KFAI. Did ticket giveaways – got all the promo stuff and whatever we could do to get them to play the music, talk about the show, and try and get some people interested.

Meghan Kreidler VO: A lot of people were getting interested. In the late '80s, songs from college radio favorites like Love & Rockets, New Order, Living Colour, and R.E.M. started getting mainstream airplay. So did a wave of folky singer-songwriters, including Indigo Girls, Tracy Chapman, and Natalie Merchant, who broke big with her band 10,000 Maniacs. College radio and clubs like First Avenue were becoming an on-ramp for the big time, and a number of bands who once worked with small indie labels were beginning to sign with the majors.

[Sonic Youth's "Kool Thing"]

Meghan Kreidler VO: One of the key bands to make that leap was Sonic Youth, which had formed in New York in 1981. The band's guitarists, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, would tune all their strings to one note, or shove a drumstick under the strings – anything to sound unique. For years, they seemed one of the least likely groups to get big – too weird and noisy. But as the '80s progressed, the band – which also featured bassist Kim Gordon and drummer Steve Shelley – wrote catchier songs, and in 1988, after they released the highly acclaimed Daydream Nation, the majors began calling. In 1990, they signed with Geffen Records. Thurston and Lee discussed that deal with The Current's Mary Lucia in 2009.

Mary Lucia: Did you ever have one of those – 'cause I've heard other bands describe them, and they sound almost surreal – in which you had to sit in some corporate boardroom, playing demos of your new, upcoming material to suits?

Lee Ranaldo: Never. No.

Thurston Moore: They knew that we would never . . .

Mary Lucia: Did they want you to do that, though?

Lee Ranaldo: No, not really. It was kind of in our contract from the beginning that we didn't have to submit demos or anything like that. They pretty much left us alone.

Mary Lucia: Cool.

Lee Ranaldo: We had a pretty good relationship with them.

Meghan Kreidler VO: The band also had a good relationship with Babes in Toyland.

Rod Smith: The Sonic Youth association, I'd say, starting probably not until 1989 or '90, at least in the Midwest, was a big deal through 2000.

Meghan Kreidler VO: Rod Smith worked at First Avenue between 1986 and 2002. He spoke with us by phone, and the audio is a little rough.

Rod Smith: If you toured with Sonic Youth, if you got a Sonic Youth endorsement, if Thurston Moore really liked you, it was a big deal.

Meghan Kreidler VO: Talking with Looch, Thurston said about 40 people showed up at their first Twin Cities show, at the Walker Art Center in 1982. But by the '90s, they were a big deal in Minneapolis. And whenever they came to town, they knew just who to call.

Lori Barbero: Hello, my name is Lori Barbero; born in Minneapolis and later was a founding member, drummer, and singer – part-time singer – in Babes in Toyland.

Meghan Kreidler VO: Lori has fond memories of taking Thurston and Kim, who were then married, on excursions around the Twin Cities.

Lori Barbero: They hung out together, but they're both so quiet, and Thurston's more outgoing and more – he likes to chat, and he's very curious and stuff – and Kim is way more reserved. But they used to come to town, and they would always get hold of me, and they sometimes would come to town a day early, because they knew that I'd take them thrifting and record shopping, because I'm the queen of both. [Lori laughs]

Meghan Kreidler VO: Babes in Toyland formed in 1987, after Kat Bjelland, who moved to Minneapolis from Oregon and played rhythm guitar, met Lori, who took up the drums to play with Kat. The original Babes lineup also featured bassist Kris Holetz and a full-time singer, Cindy Russell.

Michelle Leon: It was a four-piece. They had a lead singer and I saw them at like some warehouse.

Meghan Kreidler VO: Michelle Leon was a teenager from Hopkins when she saw her first Babes in Toyland show. She says Kat only sang a couple songs.

Michelle Leon: It was still those songs, like, Kat still wrote the songs, so it was still that really weird, raw – just really crunchy and creepy. But then Kat would sing and it was like, "What is that? Like, that's cool. That's crazy. I love it." And just seeing her: I'm like, "That's the coolest girl in the world."

Meghan Kreidler VO: Minneapolis was a small enough city that even the coolest girls in the world were relatively easy to reach.

Michelle Leon: I was dating Grant [Young], who was in Soul Asylum, and then he knew Lori and knew everybody and just met all those guys just from going to parties, and just, there would be bands playing at like a warehouse over in Northeast before like anyone ever went Northeast. There was like nothing, nothing, and then like a warehouse where people had their art studios, and you would go see shows, and there'd just be all these great parties. So just getting to know people, and then especially like all those guys in Soul Asylum – you know – everybody knew Lori.

Meghan Kreidler VO: Once Kris and Cindy left the band, Michelle asked Lori and Kat if she could join.

Michelle Leon: And they were like, "OK."

[Babes in Toyland's "Swamp Pussy"]

Meghan Kreidler VO: From then on, Babes had no problem getting booked.

Michelle Leon: 'Cause again, like Lori knew everybody. And she booked the shows. We always were able to get shows, or sometimes it was, like, too many shows. You know what I mean? Like, it's maybe not good to play once a week. You want it to be special when you have a show. From, like, "We're on New Band Night at the Entry." "Okay, now we can headline, but on a Monday." "And now we can headline the Entry, and on a Saturday," and now, like, "We get to be in the Mainroom."

Meghan Kreidler VO: Thurston Moore caught a Babes show at 7th St Entry, thanks to a certain Soul Asylum drummer.

Michelle Leon: Again, Grant. I hate to have to have, like, a boyfriend connection, but it kind of did – I think they had played with Sonic Youth, and we were playing in the Entry and they were just like in town, and they came and saw us. It was shortly after that that they asked us to come to Europe with them . . .

Meghan Kreidler VO: Babes were already making waves in Europe when Sonic Youth took them on tour in September of 1990. The trio's first album, Spanking Machine, was released in April of 1990, on Minneapolis's Twin/Tone Records, and the influential British radio DJ John Peel named it his favorite of the year.

Michelle Leon: I mean, that was definitely a huge point in our evolution as a band, from all those brutal little tours, and then going to Europe and there was, like, people yelling our names and taking out pictures. It was so weird. We were just like, we would just look at each other and crack up like – it was just very surreal.

Meghan Kreidler VO: Touring with Sonic Youth was Babes' first taste of the rock and roll big time.

Lori Barbero: I felt a little bit more special, 'cause I was in Europe, and I was in Europe with the band that started in my dirty, nasty basement in South Minneapolis. And I was in Europe with one of my all-time favorite bands. Even getting to the venue and then just spending the day with them until we did the show, you know? It was just so much fun. [Learning,] where are the best places to go in every town? What the best thing to eat is and what you get on your rider. Ask for more than cheese, because in Europe, alls you're gonna get is cheese.

Meghan Kreidler VO: Babes may not have played overseas prior to that tour, but they were hardly strangers to the road.

Michelle Leon: Just touring, touring, touring, like, "Let's get in the van, and we're gonna come home in eight months," - you know. Just like every little club all over all the lands. Driving through mountain ranges, driving through the desert, driving through the farms. Sleeping in the van, sleeping on top of the van, sleeping at really weird houses with – meeting great people. Those are the things that I remember really well.

Meghan Kreidler VO: The year before their European trek, Babes went on tour with another noisy band from Minneapolis.

[Cows' "Memorial"]

Chris Riemenschneider: Cows were one of those bands that played the Entry innumerable times, and each one was wildly different. I mean, some of the wildest stories I heard were from Cows shows in the Entry.

Meghan Kreidler VO: Chris Riemenschneider is the author of First Avenue: Minnesota's Mainroom.

Chris Riemenschneider: Shannon, the singer – Shannon Selberg – somehow brought a live crab out onstage, and, I don't know, was serenading it or something. And then, a few minutes later, a woman in the audience started screaming, and sure enough, there was a crab – has latched onto her leg.

Meghan Kreidler VO: That, believe it or not, was a mild Cows performance. The quartet – which also featured bass player Kevin Rutmanis, guitarist Thor Eisentrager, and several drummers, including Tony Oliveri and the late Norm Rogers, both of whom played in the band during 1990 – was known for an outlandish, unpredictable stage show. Shannon Selberg recalled the band's origins for The Current Rewind.

Shannon Selberg: Cows actually began technically, I believe, in about 1985, but it started as a bunch of people who worked at a home for mentally challenged children, and for Halloween and Christmas, they would put a little band together and play for the kids. And on a lark, eventually, they decided to play a couple shows at like the Entry and the Uptown Bar, and I wasn't the singer then yet. Norm Rogers was, and I noticed he seemed very, very uncomfortable up there, so I talked them into letting – "What you guys need is a monkey running around in front of you. That'd be awesome." That's when I started singing.

Meghan Kreidler VO: The band signed with the local label Amphetamine-Reptile, whose logo, visible on jackets at First Avenue throughout the '90s, read, simply, NOISE.

Chris Riemenschneider: Amphetamine-Reptile was really an influential noise punk label – primarily real noisy and heavy stuff, really kind of a counterpart with Sub Pop in Seattle. But those bands were very much a big part of the underground, nationally, in those days, and really a big part of the Minneapolis scene, and what a lot of people from outside the Twin Cities knew us for, were those Am-Rep bands.

Meghan Kreidler VO: And Cows were popular with other Minneapolis musicians, if not always with Minneapolis venues.

Shannon Selberg: Well, the first couple shows were at the Uptown and the Entry, and the Uptown Bar just straight up said, "You guys will never play here again. I mean, you guys are a bunch of animals." But the band Run Westy Run, we were friends with them, and they really liked us, so they went to First Avenue and the Entry, and said, "If you don't let the Cows open, you don't get us." And there was a guy who worked at First Avenue named Fred Darden, who was a big fan, and Steve [McClellan] liked us a lot. He ran everything, so, yeah, we were in good there right away. And we sold a lot of beer. We would set records for beer and liquor sales in the Entry. They liked us.

Michelle Leon: Shannon was just – you know – bigger than life like cartoon-come-alive, with like that cowboy hat and the horn and then like all the marker. He'd draw, like, a fetus on his belly, like he had a baby in there... [Michelle laughs]

Lori Barbero: He's one of the best front guys ever. His girlfriend was my roommate, but he was at the house for months on end, even when he had two broken arms at once.

Randy Hawkins: It was at the Entry, and Shannon, the singer, had broken both of his arms on tour doing something...something.

Meghan Kreidler VO: Randy Hawkins began working for First Avenue in September 1989 and currently works at the Palace Theater, which First Avenue co-manages.

Randy Hawkins: And so they had a bugle duct-taped to a broom, and when he played his bugle, he had to [stomp] on it. It hit him in the face and gave him a bloody lip, and he hugged it and blew his part on the bugle. The whole thing was something – I would never forget that kind of thing. It was the kind of thing I was like, "Well, that was memorable." I thought it was great, but I can also see other people just saying, "What the – what's going on here?"

Meghan Kreidler VO: The 1989 Cows/Babes tour had its share of bizarre moments.

Michelle Leon: We were in Texas, and there was no heat, and it was like 30 degrees in Texas for some reason. And we're all just like, playing in these winter coats, with a heater in the middle. We would just play for the Cows, and then they'd play for us and there'd be, like, two other people there.

Meghan Kreidler VO: Like Babes, Cows attracted the attention of a certain couple from New York.

Shannon Selberg: Our first tour, we had a single called "Chow," which, completely unbeknownst to us, had apparently blown up. So on our very first tour out to the East Coast, everywhere we went was packed. I think it was that first tour, we played at CBGB's, and it was real packed. But we were just these hicks from Minneapolis. We didn't really understand what was going on around us. CB's has this dressing room that's just a tiny little room with a fluorescent light and no door on it, and it's in the hallway on the way to the bathroom. So you got crowds of people walking by, looking at you like you're in the zoo, and so me and the bass player, Kevin Rutmanis, we were sitting in there waiting to play – not talking, just kind of staring at our feet. And all of a sudden, an older couple comes in and they sit down. And we didn't know who they are and what they wanted, and we talked extremely awkwardly for about ten minutes, and finally they just got fed up and left, and people started pouring into the room and asking us, "What did they say? And what did they want?" We're like, "What did who want?" And: "You idiots. That was Kim and Thurston from Sonic Youth." [Shannon laughs] After that show, I guess they weren't mad at us because they stayed and watched the show, and then after that they started wearing our T-shirts all over MTV, and we were kind of like their baby band for six months or a year.

Meghan Kreidler VO: Shannon sensed plenty of differences between Sonic Youth and Cows fans, though.

Shannon Selberg: Their crowd would be a little more intellectual, let's say. We were just animals up there. But then again, they liked us. But the show we played with them in the Mainroom was probably one of the worst shows we ever played. I don't remember much about that show, but I do remember that. It was a rare miss for us. Maybe we got too drunk or something, I don't remember.

Meghan Kreidler VO: Cows' performance wasn't the only awkwardness afoot. In a preview of the First Avenue show, Kim Gordon told the Twin Cities Reader, quote, "We did more with Babes than we could really afford. This is the first time we actually took a band and they traveled in our bus. We rented a van, and they were in this plush bus with our it was kind of weird. I don't think we'll ever do that again."

Michelle Leon: Kim said something like, "They were in our van for us, and I don't know why." [Michelle laughs] It was really, like, embarrassing for us because we were like, "We're sorry. I don't know why." She was like, "I don't know why they didn't have their own van," and we're like, "I don't know why either." That's kind of like all the things I've already suspect – like oh my god I'm getting on Kim Gordon's nerves is like my biggest fear or whatever, or I'm in her way, and then it kind of came true in the paper. I think she felt really bad. It was, like, embarrassing for everybody because she probably didn't mean to, like, say it for the newspaper.

Meghan Kreidler VO: But the show itself was a triumph for the headliners. This was the biggest Sonic Youth audience in the Twin Cities yet.

Rod Smith: The '90 show was great. And it was a definite watershed moment for them, here, at least.

Meghan Kreidler VO: According to the First Avenue band files at the Minnesota Historical Society, 1,749 people attended the show – 1,386 of them paid admissions. Many of the guest-list spots were radio-station giveaways. Only one of those was through a commercial station: In 1990, KJJO-104 FM had switched from a hard-rock format to what was then called Modern Rock. The bulk came from KFAI, still a Minneapolis community station, and seven college stations – six all over the state of Minnesota, as well as the nearby University of Wisconsin-Superior.

DJ Smitty: Kids would travel in all the time. I mean, when I was cashiering in the '90s, it was not unusual for you to get eight people in from the KVSC, which is St. Cloud, to come in on a random Wednesday night for a local band showcase.

Meghan Kreidler VO: This is one of First Ave's most veteran employees, John Smith.

DJ Smitty: ...aka DJ Smitty. I've worked at First Avenue since 1993. I am a bartender, cashier, and concert DJ.

Meghan Kreidler VO: Nowadays, First Ave charges for most of their tickets, but Smitty remembers giving away hundreds of comps.

DJ Smitty: Comp tickets for concerts at First Avenue were a thing that Steve did, to make sure that bands that didn't draw that well were actually playing in front of people, and to make sure that we had people to sell drinks to. We would give these comps to customers who tipped well at the bars. The ticket people, like, at the record stores, they all got comps too. And because I was a teenager, and all the guys who worked at record stores were adults, they generally didn't care about all-ages shows and would give me the all-age comps. As I aged into bar age, I was in the network, so I would get comps to damn near anything.

Meghan Kreidler VO: By the time Sonic Youth came to town, the music world was embracing alternative rock. Here was a band who'd never filled the Mainroom before, and suddenly, even Smitty couldn't get in.

DJ Smitty: Sonic Youth show was a show I could not get comps to, I could not get a guest list to, I could not buy a ticket to, I could not stand out in front of the club and hope that somebody could get me in. It was the only show I ever wanted to go to at First Avenue that I did not get into.

'Cause I'd seen Sonic Youth in the Mainroom on the Daydream Nation tour, and that was a half-full room, and that was with a strong opener with Die Kreuzen from Milwaukee and Pussy Galore, who evolved into Boss Hog, more or less, and Jon Spencer's Blues Explosion. Both were pretty good draws at that time, too, so I was kind of surprised at how few people were there. But it was 1987, '88, maybe. Whereas, fast-forward to '90: Sonic Youth's "Kool Thing" video had hit, and that was just kind of the lightning rod for the Sassy magazine/Spin magazine/120 Minutes crowd.

Meghan Kreidler VO: That crowd would form the base of rock's next big moment. Only a month prior to their European jaunt with Babes in Toyland, Sonic Youth had toured the West Coast with the Seattle band Nirvana, whose furious energy and walloping hooks were beginning to attract notice from the majors. On Kim Gordon's advice, Nirvana would sign with Sonic Youth's label, DGC, in 1991. Lori Barbero would become good friends with Kurt and the band, and Michelle Leon caught both of Nirvana's Minneapolis shows that year – first at the Uptown Bar, and then, in October, in the First Avenue Mainroom.

["Hive Sound" by Icetep starts fading up]

Michelle Leon: It was just weird and surreal and was kind of the opposite of selling out. It was, they're changing their thing to meet you where you are, and that's amazing.

Cecilia Johnson VO: This episode of The Current Rewind was hosted by Meghan Kreidler and me, Cecilia Johnson. It was produced by me and Jesse Wiza 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, and Johnny Vince Evans mixed this episode. Thanks to Brett Baldwin, Rick Carlson, Shelby Sachs, and David Safar for additional support.

If you want to learn more about Lori Barbero's friendship with Nirvana – and there is a lot to learn, it's so wonderful and magical – go back to our season one episode about Pachyderm Studio.

If you'd like to read or search a transcript of this episode, find one 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.