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The Current Rewind

The Current Rewind: First Avenue's stars

The Current Rewind
The Current RewindKaitlyn Bryan | MPR
  Play Now [11:04]

by Cecilia Johnson

December 01, 2020

Before we wrap up our First Avenue season, we must pay homage to the stars.

This is a bonus episode from The Current Rewind's "10 Pivotal Days at First Avenue" season. If you missed the nine full episodes, 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, bonus episode: "Seeing stars"

DJ Smitty: I like my star because it's up real high, and it can't be vandalized. I use it as my Facebook picture, so everybody knows that I'm not another John Smith.

[🎵 "Hive Sound" by Icetep fades up 🎵]

Cecilia Johnson VO:That's DJ Smitty, a mainstay of First Avenue, and one of the few staff members who has a star on the building's outside wall. Throughout this season, we've dug into several of the biggest music moments at First Avenue. But to tell you the truth, there are hundreds more stories we could tell, as symbolized by the white stars that line the venue's black exterior walls. Around 440 stars feature names of artists who have played the venue, in big capital letters. Each one has a compelling story behind it, whether it's a hidden local gem or a legendary show. Some are dedicated to community members, such as longtime staffers, or even a former mayor.

I'm Cecilia Johnson, and this is The Current Rewind, the show putting music's unsung stories on the map. The stars have become part of First Avenue's identity. Soon after the coronavirus pandemic started, the venue partnered with VANS to sell a star-covered shoe to boost income. Earlier in the year, it created an Instagram filter which matched the user to one of the stars. Even so, they're something you might take for granted until they're gone, like Sonia Grover found out when they repainted the wall in 2010.

Sonia Grover: So when we did it, we initially painted the building white. Right? Would you call it whitewashing or whatever?

Nate Kranz: Primer. We primed the building.

Sonia Grover: Primer! And people were freaking out.

Cecilia Johnson VO:Talent buyer Sonia Grover has been with First Avenue since 1998. We talked to her and general manager Nate Kranz pre-pandemic.

Sonia Grover: Because they were like, they had no idea! We didn't tell them what we were doing. We were like, we're just gonna repaint the stars, whatever. It was our 40th anniversary and decided it was as good a time as any. But again we didn't alert the public, and oh my god, our social media feeds and phone lines and emails were blowing up from people, like, a lot of them scared that we were not gonna put the stars back up. And then some of them, like, "Why didn't you tell us?"

Cecilia Johnson VO:Sonia started at the club in 1998. But even before then, when she first visited Minneapolis, she says she made her dad take her to see First Avenue.

Sonia Grover: 'Cause obviously, it's a legendary club; I had heard a lot about it, and I wanted to go there and just see it. Like I didn't know anything about it. It wasn't open for a show. And then I got there, and I was like holy cow, look at all these awesome band names on the side of the wall, and then I found the Replacements star, took a picture of it, still have it. Yeah. So it's obviously very impressive, whether or not you grew up from here, especially when you look at some of those names. I walk to work a lot, and sometimes I'll walk down First Avenue, sometimes I'll walk down 7th Street. And not every day, but often, I feel like, oh my god, I didn't realize that star was there. Did this person really play at First Avenue? But even so, it's a little bit of a trip to see some of those names on the wall, even after working at First Avenue for all those years.

Cecilia Johnson VO:A marketing idea from the '80s has become a hallmark of Minneapolis, a living document commemorating legendary shows and local artists. Over the years, it's become the Minnesota version of Hollywood's Walk of Fame, where people come to pay tribute to artists and pose for photos. It also stands as a testament to First Avenue itself, as a 50-year-old independent music venue booking an eclectic mix of acts. The marketing project first began in the '80s, with Steve McClellan as general manager. He and the club parted ways in 2005. Steve and longtime door staffer Richard Luka said staff collaborated on picking the names, but the process evidently wasn't anything ceremonious enough to remember today.

Steve McClellan: I think it was a teamwork. The DJs had input. I think it was a combination of people. When they first went up, I certainly didn't trust me totally. I didn't even know I had as much input as you're giving me. I thought I just said, "Here, get this done." I didn't –

Richard Luka: Well, the thing about the stars is that I remember when they first started putting them up and I go, this idea isn't gonna float. And it was like, I was wrong.

Cecilia Johnson VO:The project took several weeks. The painter, Steve's brother Kevin, would work on Sundays when traffic was slow, so that he wouldn't have to worry about splashing paint on cars.

Steve McClellan: The first time we did it, it was a total painting. We had to scrape off all the old – it was like, totally, painting it black and then putting the stars on. Kevin was the maintenance guy for years. He would come down on a Sunday. I remember a Christmas Eve, he had to come down. He'd do it.

Cecilia Johnson VO: First Avenue has repainted their walls multiple times, occasionally replacing names with new ones. During the most recent repainting, Prince's star was moved closer to the main entrance, about four or five feet above the ground. When he died, his star turned into a gathering site for fans to pay tribute – and his star got a surprise coat of paint. Here's what longtime employee and photographer Dan Corrigan remembers.

Dan Corrigan: I was working on the ceiling coming down, and I got a text: "Oh my god, Prince is dead." And I walked over to the window right above his star and I saw the first lady coming over with some flowers clutched to her breast, sobbing, and she laid it down. [She was the] very first person to go down there, and I thought, god, this is gonna be huge. This is going to be huge. And I was totally right. So three days after he passed away, I come in, and the star is gold, and it's like, well, I'm really surprised – that I don't know anything about this. Turns out it was some of the people from his art department at Paisley came and did it. And they didn't paint it gold, they actually applied gold leaf which is, like, really beautiful.

Cecilia Johnson VO: Generally, the venue redoes its wall about every ten years, which is when they make bigger changes like moving stars or changing their design. But they also add names sporadically – sometimes without much fanfare, or sometimes to surprise a guest of honor. Right now, about 80 of the stars are dedicated to Minnesotans. They include former mayor of Minneapolis, R.T. Rybak, who really wanted to talk about his star in his interview with me.

R.T. Rybak: "Gee, R.T., what's it like to have a star on the wall at First Avenue," you could ask perhaps.

Cecilia Johnson: Oh, let's see. You know I was just thinking about the stars the other day and I thought well, doesn't the former mayor of Minneapolis have a star on the wall. [laughs] Can you tell that story?

R.T. Rybak: Yes. I would say that of all of the wonderful things that I got as part of being a mayor, [number] one, two or three is the idea of having a star at First Avenue. I didn't wanna have a big, stupid, stuffy gala dinner when I left office. I said, let's do this party at First Avenue, and my friend Peter Taylor named it "the unaugural," and it was super fun, and we did all this. But as I was walking up to go there, I turned the corner, and there's this star, which just blew me away. It was just the coolest thing. I would, a number of months later, have a heart attack. I'm certain that's where it began is when I first saw the star at First Avenue. I was really, really excited.

Cecilia Johnson VO: We wanted to ask more people about their stars in person, but then the pandemic sent many of us home. So we asked local artists what the honor meant to them and had them send a voice memo. This is Tina Schlieske, who led Tina and the B-sides. After taking off in Minneapolis, the New Wave group broke into the national scene in the late '80s and '90s.

Tina Schlieske: I can't really remember the moment I found out about our star, but I do remember the feeling I had was just immense pride, and if I'm honest, probably a little disbelief. But I also had this feeling of validation. You know, growing up in the Minneapolis music scene, First Avenue was it. It was the ultimate goal to get a show there. I mean, even to this day, playing First Avenue is such a thrill. Just thinking about all the other bands and artists that have played there. All that sweat soaked into that stage. It just makes you want to play better. I think it's because First Avenue just reflected everything that was, and is, Minneapolis: the scene, the musicians, the love of music that city has and continues to have. Playing First Avenue meant you've arrived. And having a star on the wall helps you to remember that it wasn't just a dream: that it actually really happened.

Cecilia Johnson VO: Karen Grotberg played keyboard and sang for The Jayhawks, an influential alt-country group from Minneapolis. Fun fact: The Jayhawks's Spotify profile pic is a photo of their First Avenue star.

Karen Grotberg: I can say that those iconic stars seem like some sort of family tree. They're a visual representation of not only the history of First Avenue, but also the connection people feel to the place, whether you're a friend or you're a fan. It's a familiar place, kind of a musical home, you know: the room, the stage, the friends who work there and who strive to keep it going. I can't imagine the city without this venue. First Avenue has a long and rich history, and I'm honored to be a part of it, stars and all.

Cecilia Johnson VO: The Wallets, a Twin Cities band from the '80s, were known for their new wavey, polka punk sound. Here's saxophonist Max Ray.

Max Ray: We played clubs and bars all over the place, and the fact is, First Avenue was by far the best. Steve McClellan was a phenomenon as a club manager, passionate about bringing music to the community, and a very entertaining guy besides. The Wallets got a star in the first installation on the outside of the building, though I don't really remember where it was. Then the stars were redone, and the Wallets' star was moved to the top of the chimney over the front of the building. It's not good for selfies, of course, but I don't care about that. What I like is that the light from the billboard shines on it, so it can always be seen, day or night. Thank you, First Avenue, for a lifetime of good music and good vibes. Keep it up.

[🎵 "Hive Sound" by Icetep 🎵]

Cecilia Johnson VO: This bonus episode was produced by Jackie Renzetti and me, Cecilia Johnson. It was hosted by me and mixed by Johnny Vince Evans. The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Culture Heritage Fund. It is a production of Minnesota Public Radio's The Current.

Note: To listen to playlists of all of the artists honored on First Avenue's wall, click here.