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Ed Ackerson, pillar of the Minnesota music scene, dies of cancer

Ed Ackerson performs at The Current with BNLX in 2010. (Laura Gill/MPR)
Ed Ackerson performs at The Current with BNLX in 2010. (Laura Gill/MPR)

by Jay Gabler

October 05, 2019

Ed Ackerson, the prolific and iconoclastic rocker whose Flowers Studio was a go-to hub for generations of Minnesota artists, died yesterday after being diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. His wife, Ashley Ackerson, wrote, "He was peaceful and at home with his family and friends. He left this world smiling."

She continued, "Ed never looked to the past, he always looked to the future. I’m sitting here right now listening to his brand new, soon to be released record from his next project. He made art until the day he died and I think it’s some of his best work yet. He never stopped learning, dreaming, loving, exploring, finding new music and inspiration."

The artist posted a statement revealing his diagnosis on Sept. 11, after Pete Townshend wished him well onstage at the Who’s Xcel Energy Center show on Sept. 6. “I want to keep my focus on the positive energy of rock and roll, and my family and friends, rather than dwelling on the illness and attempting to answer unanswerable questions,” wrote Ackerson on Facebook. “Despite it all, I’ve been in an amazingly creative period musically, with a couple of brand new sonic collaborations in the works. I can’t wait to share some of these new sounds soon.”

A Stillwater native, Ackerson was a fixture on the Minnesota music scene for decades: he played in several bands as well as releasing solo recordings, and ran the Susstones label. He built Flowers Studio as an intentionally airy space in the Lowry Hill East neighborhood.

Since opening in 1998, the studio has hosted innumerable sessions by artists ranging from legends like the Replacements, Brian Setzer, and Golden Smog to younger artists including Lizzo, the Shackletons, and the Happy Children.

Starting with a stint in Mr. Slate in the early 1980s and a series of 7-inches by the Dig in 1985, the bands Ackerson himself played with include the 27 Various, Polara, Sideways, the Mood Swings, and BNLX; he also performed and released music as a solo artist. His primary instrument was the guitar, but he could play many of the instruments he kept available at the studio.

Several years ago, Ackerson took some time off from the rock and roll life to start a family with his wife Ashley, a BNLX bandmate. “I never really experienced adulthood until about two years ago,” he told City Pages in 2018. The Ackersons’ daughter, Annika, is now preschool-aged.

Susstones, the label Ackerson founded with John Kass, has released music by artists including Mark Mallman, Stereo Confession, Two Harbors, Faux Jean, and Blue Sky Blackout. As engineer, Ackerson was an encouraging presence who would jump in when needed but also knew when to step back.

"I don't like to get hierarchical about relationships with people," he told Andrea Swensson in 2008. "Sometimes it's good to be a mentor, but it's also good to stay out of the way, and just appreciate and encourage people. I think of myself as more of a kid than a man on a mountain, you know?"

In a Southwest Journal interview last year, Ackerson reflected back on his days growing up on Harriet Avenue, making his first recordings in his parents’ basement. “It’s really important to not sell that out,” he said, “and stay true to what that kid believed in.”

Flowers Studio was a former greenhouse; a skylit space became the studio’s greenroom. The space’s musical legacy dates back to its days before the flowers arrived, when it was the Knut Koupee guitar shop. That’s where Prince commissioned his iconic Cloud guitar from luthier Dave Rusan.

Ackerson is already immortalized on the wall of First Avenue, where Polara has a star. Recently, his Polara bandmate Daniel Boen launched a fund to support Ackerson's family; it quickly exceeded its initial $25,000 goal and is now aiming at $50,000.

Tributes from peers and friends on the local and national music scenes have been pouring out on social media. "He wasn’t set in his ways, defending the status quo and raging against what was going on in music and culture now," wrote Christian Erickson. "He was helping young bands make crazy cool shit while also pushing older musicians to keep making their brand of crazy cool shit. A lot of people have a brief, highly creative period in their lives and then settle into a comfortable way of seeing the world. Ed wasn’t like this, thank god."

“I love rock,” Ackerson told the blog Sixty to Zero in 2008. “Full stop. I think and I feel, so I write and I play and I produce. Rock is how I communicate, how I make order of the chaos of my loves, dreams, crises, and fears. I've never been into this to ‘make it,’ whatever that means to anyone. Music is how I interface with reality, and music culture is the culture I live in.”

Andrea Swensson contributed to this story.

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.