Listen to Looch: digging into First Avenue history with The Current Rewind

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Mary Lucia talks to The Current Rewind producer Cecilia Johnson about the history of First Avenue. (MPR Video)

Mary Lucia talks with Cecilia Johnson, producer of The Current Rewind podcast. In season two of The Current Rewind, the program looks at 10 pivotal dates in the history of First Avenue. Johnson talks about what it's been like working on the new season of the program, and she also discusses First Avenue's past, present and future.

Watch Mary's conversation with Cecilia Johnson in the video player above, and read a transcript of their conversation below.

Interview Transcript

MARY LUCIA: Hey guys, it's Looch, and I'm talking to my friend, Cecilia Johnson, and she is here to talk about the podcast, The Current Rewind, and it's in its second season. Cecillia, miss you.

CECILIA JOHNSON: Augh! I miss you. I do.

You've gotten married.

I have.

What else has happened? Everything?

I mean, let's see… This Rewind thing is a process.

Are you from Minnesota?

Yeah, I am.

You are. OK. So were a lot of the names and players and things that were being talked about and referenced brand-new to you, or were you just researching them as they were brought up?

Hmm… generally, I had some grounding, some understanding. Well, for the first season of The Current Rewind, we kind of went all over the map. We did the Andrews Sisters, who actually were born in Minneapolis, or born in Minnesota. Then we did, like, Pachyderm Studio and the story about Tou Saik Lee, the rapper who did music with his grandma.

But for this second season, we're just doing an arc of First Avenue stories, so we were like, "How can we make this interesting and not just rehash the same old stories?"

Yes!

And we ended up picking 10 dates; most of them are shows, but then there's, like, the bankruptcy on November 2, 2004, which is obviously no shows happening. And we kind of made an arc out of these 10 dates, so I was familiar with kind of a lot of them; like opening night was like, "All right, we'll do opening night, even though…"

It's been covered.

…most of the stories — yeah! It's been covered. But hey, it's a foundation.

But then I had no idea about the Ice Cube show on March 4, 1991.

You know, the thing about doing a podcast about a local, legendary club, is that you have to think like, there are people who are going to listen to this podcast that don't know Steve McClellan by name, and don't know X, Y and Z, but the Ice Cube show.

Ice Cube in a 2015 publicity portrait
Ice Cube, pictured here in a 2015 photo in promotion of the film Straight Outta Compton. (Rebecca Cabage | Invision | AP file)

Yes. The Ice Cube show. It's like it's so complicated. The crowd was super packed in there; it was so hot. Like, it was humid and there was water dripping on the bathroom walls just because there was so much body heat.

And a bunch of fights sprang up that night, so it actually got to the point where it was kind of the crowd versus First Avenue security.

Mm-hm.

And some people would say that that led to a drought of hip-hop bookings over the next several years, until the late '90s. Some people might not make that leap, but we talk about that in the podcast.

Yeah. I remember thinking — and I don't remember if it was pre- that Ice Cube show — but I went and saw Ice-T's Body Count, and it was the first time I remembered the security that was at the door was intense, and it was really profoundly noticeable that I'd never been to another show where there was that kind of security, and I didn't know if that was then, they thought, "Oh, this has got to be the protocol for all rap shows," you know? And yeah, that's sort of dangerous to make that statement.

Totally. Yeah, we talk about the Ice-T show a bit as well. We get to bump the song "Body Count," which is so good!

Yeah! I've always wanted to play that for No Apologies but there was too much editing in most of that record.

But, you know, the legacy of First Avenue, which people have written about and documented and photographed, and again, for somebody who's only visited maybe and gone there and seen a show or two, you know, it's allegedly haunted. Who that you spoke to said that they've seen or felt the ghost?

A few people, particularly the former employees. Particularly the former employees whose tenures were in the '90s or so.

Yes. OK.

Yes. We've heard about ghosts. Not too much ghost material, actually, has made it into the podcast so far, but you know, there's always the possibility of a bonus episode to talk about the creaks and the…

Yeah! Well, and then, you know, the fact that it's had this loyal staff; I mean, some people have really been in there and, well, starting with Steve McClellan, who was there for so long, and then Allan Fingerhut just passing away, just last week?

Yes.

And the legality part of the history is messy, and I'm not even sure that I've ever fully understood, like, one person thought, "Well, I was doing the books and I was doing this…"

It seemed like it was just, I don't know if it was miscommunication, if it was just personal fallings out.

Yeah, like what happened with the bankruptcy?

Yeah.

Yeah. Yeah. I'd say a combination of the above, you know? Like, these people had been running the club together, I would say it's like a quartet: We've got Allan Fingerhut, who was the owner but who lived in California for many of the later years of his time at the club; and then Byron Frank, his childhood friend, who was there, I think pretty much from the beginning as well. And Steve McClellan, the general manager since, oh man, the '70s all the way up to 2004. And then Jack Meyers, who was kind of the numbers guy, perhaps, or the assistant manager.

Steve McClellan portrait
Longtime First Avenue manager Steve McClellan. (Nate Ryan | MPR)

And it was in 2003 where, as the story goes, Allan Fingerhut had said that a piece of paperwork that Byron Frank had with him was, like, Byron had forged Allan's signature. It all started going downhill. He fired Byron; eventually, he fired Steve and Jack, but the complicated part was that Byron had a 40 percent — which was sort of a majority share — in the building itself, because you know, the building and the business of First Avenue had different owners, weirdly, up until 2000; then Byron had that 40 percent share, so yeah. Ugh, just so complicated, and you know, it's terribly sad that Allan passed away.

Yeah.

And despite all these messy feelings, everybody will tell you, "Without Allan, there would be no First Avenue to this day," because he kept it open when he did not have to.

It's true. And, you know, we've heard the stories of the earlier days when they were booking acts and shows based on just, like, personal taste and gut instinct and sort of the tastemakers of Kevin Cole and Roy Freedom, who both, in old footage and old photographs, looked like waterbed salesmen. They just happened to be captured at whatever year that was and it's like, "Wow!" But it's really cool and it's almost unheard of that you'd think a club would allow DJs to say, "Well, I'm really into this" or "I heard this" and "I bought this import, let's book that band," and McClellan seemed to sort of throw everything against the wall; like, every genre, every, you know, whatever. Taking a chance on a band like the Ramones or U2 or whatever. And I think that it's funny that you've been doing this, all this research about this club that's been sitting empty for six months now.

I mean, you have to probably give me a pep talk. So, everybody's worried about the live-venue industry, of live music, and yet personally, I think, we think First Avenue's going to make it through. We're going to be back in that room. Right?

First Avenue empty interior
The First Avenue Mainroom sits empty during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Daniel Corrigan)

Hmm. I mean, where do I even start? This goes through my head, you know, every day, whether it's a work day or a weekend or a day when I just want to, have had a long day and I just want to go see a show, you know?

Yeah.

Well, something I talked about in the trailer, once we were in the middle of the coronavirus deal, is that these stories do give me inspiration. Like, having learned about sometimes the dysfunction of this place over the last 50 years and everything that they've gone through. I mean, if they can make it through the last 50 years, we've got to get another 50, right?

Yeah. I know.

But then, at the same time, Dayna Frank is now the owner, and she's like, "Yes, but ... you have to make it happen."

First Avenue owner Dayna Frank
First Avenue owner and CEO Dayna Frank stands inside the Turf Club, one of the company's other music venues. (Evan Frost | MPR News)

Like, the club didn't make it through the last 50 years because they were just skating. It was, like, people stepped up, you know?

And it's interesting because since the pandemic, I mean, First Avenue's gotten really creative in terms of, well, now they're offering "get married at First Avenue." Which is actually very cool, and I think it would appeal to a lot of people. And it's sort of, they're not the only club, clearly, that's feeling this desperate pressure of "What can we do to maintain until it's safer to open up." But they've had to get creative, and I think people almost look to them to be creative about their merch or whatever they happen to be doing for the last six months to keep people on their website.

Oh, totally.

Yeah, I mean, let's think. I saw the Save Our Stages fest, which was just, you know, October 16 through 18, and they had this live set of Dizzy Fae and a couple of her dancers and a DJ performing onstage at First Avenue. Hippo Campus is also streaming a couple of shows in October. I think that's one of the ways. I also heard that they are planning to open up to the public for the first time on Halloween, and it's going to be just, like, super limited capacity. I'm not sure exactly what they're going to be doing, but Nate Kranz was just talking about that—

Really?

Yeah! Isn't that crazy? They're like, "We gotta do something!"

I know. I know. They're known for their Halloween.

Yes!

You know, I also feel, too, like, when people — it's like a terrible cliché — but it's like, not appreciating what you have until it's taken away. I want to know what the first show you saw at First Avenue was, and what the last show was.

All right, the first show was Punch Brothers, and I went to it because I was listening to The Current way back when, and I was like, "OK, I'm over 18 now; let's go see the Punch Brothers!"

My last one was probably Dessa in, I think it was late February 2020. I had been at 100 Gecs at the Fine Line earlier in the evening, and then a whole bunch of people were like, "Let's head down to the Dessa show," and I was like, "OK, I'll tag along." So I really could not have asked for a better evening for a last evening of seeing shows. It was really wonderful.

You know, when you were interviewing all these various staff members throughout the years at First Avenue and everybody has sort of their own idea of what was maybe the peak. And I can remember an interview once with Dan Corrigan, house photographer, saying, "I don't even think the peak has happened yet."

I love that.

Yeah, everyone was like, "Eighties, Eighties! Soul Asylum! Husker Du!" And he's like, "Eh, yeah, great, great stuff. I believe that that peak hasn't even happened." Which I love the idea of that, you know?

It is true; I mean, there is sort of the hierarchy of a band working their way from playing the Entry to finally getting to the Mainroom, and, you know, it's just interesting for me to see that when bands come into The Current and they're playing a show at First Avenue, I mean, the reverence and the respect and familiarity and just, like, "Can't wait to see Conrad!" I mean, I don't know if it's like that in most cities in terms of a club's relationship to bands.

Hmm. Yeah. Yeah. There's definitely the history there. It's like, you have this relationship with so many people for so long. Or that you have the reputation of having had those relationships.

And as far as the peak, I just don't know. I love that question, and some people would say the '80s. Some people would say the '80s pre-Prince, because as Steve McClellan tells it, you know, they wanted to have regular folks who would just be like, "I don't know what's going on at First Avenue tonight, but I'll swing by," and they built that up; they had that in the early '80s. And then "Purple Rain" happened and then the tourists started coming in!

Totally.

And then you had the '90s, where you know, like Sonic Youth, Nirvana, these alt-rock bands who were playing First Avenue became mainstream; they blew up.

And then, I'd say, like, I've only been at First Avenue since, like, I've only been at First Avenue post-bankruptcy. So I don't know what that pre-2004 really felt like.

Right.

But I've really enjoyed going to shows in the "new era" of First Avenue, post-2004, owned by the Franks.

Well, you know, it's interesting, because an issue that certainly I remember seeing some documentation about those some of those earlier nights when they would have one designated night as like, "This is industrial music," "this is funk music," and it seemed predominately that the audience was Black that went to the more funk night, and I've always wondered how they've felt about their integration of their concertgoers in terms of, does it specifically have to do with the band that's booked? Or the club's atmosphere?

Yeah, I mean, I don't think I could even answer that sufficiently, you know?

Like, having had that limited show-going experience, but I do think that demographics are something that they pay attention to.

Mm-hm.

I think… hmmm… just personally, I really noticed a shift in demographics. So, you know, it's one piece of evidence that maybe it does depend by night. When I went to the Kehlani concert honoring Lexii Alijai back in, I think, February 2020. So, I love Kehlani; I think she's an incredible artist, and I think it's so amazing that such an artist with such stature would fly into Minneapolis, do this tribute show to Lexii Alijai, who collaborated with her. But yeah, the demographics were a lot different, to be honest, than a lot of the shows that I go to; like, many, many younger people. I would say I was one of the older people in the room, which is like, "Yikes!", you know, for me! And tons of kids of color and just, like, all sorts of folks. Versus, yeah, you can definitely get that kind of, older-white-dude rock and roll sort of crowd.

So do you feel now that you have — do you feel a sense of completion? I mean, it is an ongoing story, and it is a legacy that's got legs. I mean, do you feel a sense of completion with the podcast, or do you just feel like, "No; there is way, way more to do" ?

There's more. I mean, I feel like that's the researcher's curse, right? You go back in time and you look through all the stuff, and you're like, "No way! This? And then it goes to that?" and then you're like, "Ahhh! I had no idea!"

Mm-hm.

But we just kind of focused on those 10 dates, but it is funny because we keep adding bonus episodes, like, at first there was just going to be one bonus episode about the stars, and then we were like, "Oh, let's turn this Mark Wheat interview into a bonus episode." Mark Wheat talking about First Avenue and his time there. And then we were like, "Oh, you know what? We should really do a coronavirus, like, 'What's going on during coronavirus' episode."

And now, a fourth bonus episode is Steve McClellan and LeeAnn Weimar talking about their Thanksgiving feast tradition at First Avenue. It's just going to be a shorty, but it'll be in the feed the week of Thanksgiving.

I'm glad you brought LeeAnn up, because it's interesting because I think sometimes she doesn't get the credit because she sort of fell somewhere between Chrissie Dunlap and Sonia Grover. Right? And Maggie McPherson, too.

Yeah. Yep. Maggie McPherson. Yeah, there's all these incredible women, you know, who don't necessarily always get the shine, but that's another thing.

Yeah.

With LeeAnn, specifically — big sigh, I felt that — with LeeAnn, I don't know. She was really endearing to me because she is so smart. She came along as one of Steve's, you know, quote, "adult caretakers." You know, Steve was like, "I'm going to come in, do this interview for the podcast, and then I'm going to bring LeeAnn with me so I don't say anything stupid, so she has my back."

Right.

And LeeAnn was the director of marketing. So smart. But it does seem like, personality wise, maybe she just like, she hung back from the microphone the whole time, so she's quieter than Steve on the track, and I'm like, "Oh my goodness."

Well, Steve was lying in a chair.

Steve was comfy!

I could see you through the glass from my studio, and I was like, "Who's the guy that's like, sleeping in a chair? … Oh, that's McClellan." But LeeAnn, I mean, I probably don't have this right, but she would have been during that era of the Nirvanas and those bands of the '90s that did go on to be just monstrous. And that's the time that I associate her with, anyway.

Yeah, and I'm not totally, like I don't remember off the top of my head where exactly she was, but it was a long stretch of time; just a long time. I would say maybe even earlier than the '90s, even though I'm not sure.

Yeah. I guess, again, it's like, you know, here we are in this dumpster fire of a world right now, trying to find, you know, all of a sudden I feel like everything starts to feel nostalgic, and that seems crazy, because I would like to think we've all got many, many, many years of shows left in us to go to at all these different venues, and especially First Avenue, and when you were talking to people about this period of closure during the pandemic, what's the vibe or the sense of employees? I mean, did you get a sense of hopefulness or just, "Oh, crap; I better learn a new skill."

As far as present-day employees, I haven't spoken to a ton of them yet. I'm kind of wrapping up the back half of the production here, so mostly I've been talking with former employees, and now is the time where I'm scheduling interviews with current employees. But I have spoken with a couple, and I don't think anybody knows what's going to happen.

Right.

Obviously, folks have had to pivot at this point, you know; pick up either food-service gigs or just like other side hustles. Or, I mean, even, my husband is a freelance lighting tech for theater, and he's had to totally, like, find a new career. He's working at a liquor store now, which is, you know, more stable and more income than he had before, which is funny!

Right. Totally.

But it's rough. It's dark out there.

I know. I know.

Well, what do you want people to know about the podcast, as we sort of conclude this, in terms of, for somebody who, you know, these 10 specific dates, or 10 periods, that you guys chose, what do you think most listeners will get out of that choice that you guys made?

Hmm… I think it's a good mix. I am proud of the curation of these 10 dates, because we have a mix of genres. We have a mix of sources and of eras, and yet, there's this through line through it all. So like, theoretically, you could drop in just for the Sonic Youth episode or just for the bankruptcy or whatever, but I hope that if folks try one, they'll be like, "Oh, I gotta start from the beginning" because it's, I think the episodes are dense in a good way; like, packed with research. I feel fulfilled as kind of a journalist about that! And there's all these, like, characters; I have a lot of fondness for pretty much everybody that we interviewed.

Well, Cecilia, it's good to see you, and (laughs) yeah! This is crazy! But I want people to listen, and I want people to learn, and I want people to have the hope that, yeah, we're going to be back there, sooner than later.

Yeah. Me too.

Thank you so much for talking to me, and great job! Congratulations!

External Link

First Avenue - official site

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