Rock and Roll Book Club: 'First Avenue: Minnesota's Mainroom'

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'First Avenue: Minnesota's Mainroom.'
'First Avenue: Minnesota's Mainroom' by Chris Riemenschneider. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Who played First Avenue's opening night? There are more correct answers than you might imagine.

One would be Joe Cocker, whose sprawling Mad Dogs and Englishmen revue opened the venue in 1970 when it became the Depot — a name inspired by the building's previous life as a bus station.

Another would be the Ramones, whose 1979 show marked the venue's transition from the disco-minded Uncle Sam's to a room that was again focused on live music, soon to be known as simply Sam's. The following year, Curtiss A played the first show at the 7th St Entry, and longtime DJs Kevin Cole and Roy Freedom spun wax for a dance night on the 1981 occasion of the club's official transition to "First Avenue."

Then there was Gwar. The monster-suited metalheads played the Mainroom on what author Chris Riemenschneider calls "a crucial night in First Avenue history" in his new history of the venue. That was in 2004, the club's first show after co-founder Allan Fingerhut declared bankruptcy and it looked like the future of First Avenue was in jeopardy. As long as Gwar were up there spewing blood, fans could continue to believe that the legal filing hadn't hit an artery.

Riemenschneider aptly titles his book's final chapter "The Real Heyday," a bold statement given that previous chapters charted the rise of Prince and the Replacements, as well as inaugural early gigs by bands like U2, R.E.M., and Pearl Jam.

While Riemenschneider tactfully declines to demonize villains, there's no doubt who the real heroes of this story are: latter-day general manager Nate Kranz and booker Sonia Grover, along with accountant Byron Frank and his daughter Dayna. They've parlayed the club's legend into real security, ensuring the club's survival and even expanding the First Ave empire across town to rooms like the Palace Theatre and Turf Club.

If you suspected that it's the people behind the scenes who make a venue great, you'll definitely believe it after reading this new book, a coffee-table tome full of artifacts from the vaults of the Minnesota Historical Society. Riemenschneider quotes LeeAnn Weimar saying that "Mary Tyler Moore [was] probably a really wonderful person, but there should be a statue of Stephen McClellan somewhere." McClellan, first hired as a bartender in the '70s, became the venue's manager for two-and-a-half decades during which he built First Ave into an iconic club that nurtured an entire scene.

Riemenschneider's one of the Star Tribune's staff writers on popular music, and the combination of his journalistic instincts and relatively young age (his first visit to the club was in 1986, for an Anthrax show) makes First Avenue: Minnesota's Mainroom an affectionate but clear-eyed look at the storied establishment's long history.

Another thing you learn in Riemenschneider's book is that the stars on the building's wall are just the tip of an iceberg. The number of great performers with histories at First Ave is simply astonishing, and a subtext of Riemenschneider's book is the story of how the club's story can almost serve as a proxy history of the ideal post-punk rock venue.

Looking at photos of the club's early years as the Depot, you can see how the room initially reflected the dying gasps of a school of thought that believed a rock venue should look anything at all like a supper club. (There was even shag carpeting — purple, natch.) After several years of disco hell as one of a national chain of "Uncle Sam's" clubs, First Avenue emerged at the cusp of the '80s as a building that couldn't have been better-designed to incubate careers. The Mainroom was big enough to draw a critical mass but small enough to have an intimate vibe, while the adjoining Entry brought smaller, often louder acts into the mix.

Riemenschneider points out that the number of actual concerts Prince played at First Avenue is, amazingly, in the single digits (it's nine) — but they were some of the greatest shows in rock history, and they happened because Prince recognized that First Ave was the perfect room at the perfect time. "First Avenue was a game-changer to his whole reality," Riemenschneider quotes Prince's friend and bandmate André Cymone as saying.

First Ave gave Prince the perfect platform to shape his image, and in return he gave it the kind of immortal status a venue can only achieve when it finds perfect synergy with a legendary artist. Hank Williams and the Ryman Auditorium, James Brown and the Apollo, the Allman Brothers and Fillmore East, the Ramones and CBGB, Prince and First Avenue.

In addition to Riemenschneider's accounts of First Avenue's unforgettable moments, he also chronicles some that could have been forgotten — but shouldn't be. Did you know that Babes in Toyland drummer Lori Barbero used to light up the (already illuminated) disco floor at Uncle Sam's? Or that Revolution drummer Bobby Z made his Mainroom debut as a drummer accompanying the disco DJs in that same era?

Or that for a period in the Mainroom's experimental phase between Uncle Sam's and First Avenue, McClellan installed an actual swimming pool? (There were underwater kissing contests.) Or that Curtiss A once caught Wilson Pickett in a side room, simultaneously smoking crack and getting a blow job? Or that Frances Bean Cobain was conceived in a hookup between Kurt and Courtney after Nirvana's Mainroom show in 1991?

It's a fascinating read, and Riemenschneider's careful to get the details right. There are still many more First Avenue stories to be told, but this new book is the perfect way to unofficially kick off the countdown to the club's 50th anniversary.

Among release events planned for First Avenue: Minnesota's Mainroom, author Chris Riemenschneider will talk with The Current's Andrea Swensson at 7 p.m. on Nov. 29 at the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis.

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