Q. So you were the general manager of First Avenue for more than 30 years. You’re like a legend around here. What was it like to literally build the rock music community in Minneapolis?
Steve McClellan: Not quite the truth. It was more like I was at the “right place at the right time” or for another perspective, the “wrong place at the wrong time”. There were thousands of people with me “building the rock community in Minneapolis”.
I was a part time bartender and bar back at a “blue collar” disco called UNCLE SAMS in 1973 and 1974 while attending the University of Minnesota. I dropped out of classes in 1974 to participate in the management program American Events (corporation out of Cincinnati that operated Uncle Sams and a chain of “discos” nationwide). In 1975, after some training in Des Moines and Lincoln, Nebraska, I returned as the manager of the Minneapolis venue and was awarded the company’s “Rookie of the Year” plaque that year.
But, after booking some national acts, as well as running the corporate disco into 1978, American Events pulled out of Minneapolis (beginning of the end since the company went out of business by 1980). Thus, leaving me unemployed and the venue about $80,000.00 in debt and in much need of an upgrade. So, with a college friend, John Meyers, we went to Allan Fingerhut (owner of venue) with a proposal to keep the club open, change the name and re-direct the marketing to more “live shows”. Despite the advise of his attorney and financial partner to close the venue, Allan decided to allow us to try to keep the facility open as long as he didn’t have to put any more money into the place.
As late as 1983, the club was still in debt, although we were booking a great many of the new up and coming as wall as established, yet, diverse artists like CULTURE CLUB, UB40, WYTON MARSALIS, KING SUNNY ADE, RUN DMC, NICK LOWE, OINGO BOINGO, BURNING SPEAR, METALLICA, MOTORHEAD, BUCKWHEAT ZYDECO, and DAVE ALVIN to name just a few of the hundreds of “critic’s choices” the venue received in the early to mid-eighties. During the very same time period, the 7th St. Entry was hosting a variety of indie, punk, and alternative music acts including BLACK FLAG, THE MINUTEMEN, 7 SECONDS, and MEAT PUPPETS along with HUSKER DU in the “punk” category, but also the Entry hosted artists like LOS LOBOS debut dates in the market and other notable artists like MOJO NIXON & SKID ROPER, T-BONE BURNETT, and THE RAYBEATS to name a few.
Needless to say, after PURPLE RAIN was released in 1984, First Avenue was deluged with mainstream audiences looking for PRINCE. We continued to book both commercial and non-commercial touring acts. Wonderful bands like SNAKEFINGER, JAH WOBBLE, INNER CIRCLE, would show up on the main stage along with the more commercially acceptable artists like BIG COUNTRY, THE WATERBOYS, and WILCO. Besides PRINCE, we were booking a multitude of R&B artists from GEORGE CLINTION & PARLIAMENT FUNKADELIC, SOS BAND, DAZZ BAND, ROBER ZAPP and more. Locally, artists like HUSKER DU, REPLACEMENTS, GEAR DADDIES, SUBURBS and others were successfully filling the main stage. Besides METALLICA there was a constant supply of metal and hard rock bands that included MOTORHEAD, WHITE ZOMBIE, ANTHRAX, PANTERA, and a great number more. Country was less available to an urban club, but still DAVID ALLEN COE, JOHNNY PAYCHECK, STEVE EARL would make it to the downtown main stage. A great number of reggae and world beat artists were constantly on tour including BURNING SPEAR, THIRD WORLD, BLACK UHURU, KING SUNNY ADE, FELA KUTI, TABU LEY ROCHEIRU and many more.
This is where I lose track without doing research, since when Uncle Sams started, major agents would not get back to me and it was tough to get the attention of many artists management, BUT after several years of producing a great diversity of artists AND Purple Rain being released in 1984, the venue First Avenue received a constant barrage of calls to book artists of all sorts and sizes. From Gene Pitney to Cheap Trick to Ray Charles, we did them all in the the “golden era” – the 80’s.
Q. The 80s….Prince….He was ALWAYS in there playing and testing out new stuff. What was it like to have him make First Ave his unofficial stomping grounds?
SM: Ok, let’s set the record straight – Prince played First Avenue about twelve times in the 80s before he opened his own club GLAM SLAM. This amounts to less than two shows a year on the average. My opinion – after TINA TURNER, SUNNY ADE, U2, REM, THE RAMONES, PAT BENATAR, WYNTON & BRADFORD MARSALIS, THE PRETENDERS, and hundreds of other artists played the club SAMS in the late 70’s and early 80’s, it looked like an appropriate venue for a developing rock influenced R&B artist to perform. AND, yes he did come down and found both KEVIN COLE and ROY FREEDOM to be very cooperative in working with testing new materials. Roy and Kevin were intelligent artists on their own, who knew how to work audiences with their music mixes and had a very acute knowledge of new music and the new audiences coming into the clubs and record stores. Why is it NOT surprising he’d want to hook up with these guys? Not only these guys, but PAT EPSTEIN of the VJ’s was “stolen” from First Avenue for video projects out at Paisley Park. First Avenue was a breeding ground for entertainment staff around the city. Many of the sound and production crew moved onto the road with touring bands and/or started working other venues when First Avenue couldn’t provide the work.
BUT, certainly PRINCE hanging out at the venue and the release of PURPLE RAIN brought the mainstream audiences streaming into the club, almost displacing the “music audiences” that were coming in to to see all sorts of new artists and the variety that came with them. Whereas, the “mainstream” audiences would come in to see if they could see Prince hanging. They could be annoying if you were trying to see JAH WOBBLE or DAVE ALVIN on the main stage.
Q. How were you able to make First Ave a place where all types of rock and hip-hop were welcome?
SM: We booked a great amount of diversity constantly. This is not as easy a task as it sounds and financially risky in that it doesn’t always work out. First Avenue lost money on CULTURE CLUB (because I added a second show after the first show sold out, but came far short of selling out the second show), SHERYL CROW, when her first date in the market ended up on July 4th weekend, when most of her audience was out of town, and HUNDREDS of other artists who just didn’t sell the tickets they needed to for the venue to cover it’s expenses. Traditional “jazz” acts like MCCOY TYNER or the YELLOW JACKETS, to name a few, didn’t have the numbers to fill the main room, nor did the traditional jazz audience find a “rock” venue a place they comfortably sit and view their traditional “jazz”. BUT, overall, the only manner to book a great number of diverse audiences is to constantly book a diverse calendar of artists.
Q. How do you think the music scene in Minneapolis stacks up with other cities?
SM: THE TWIN CITIES (you have to include St. Paul), is a very artist friendly scene. This includes visual artists and theater along with musicians. There are numerous artist-friendly venues that cater to large and increasingly diverse audiences throughout the cities. We tend NOT to see the “underground” culture because the need for MONEY constantly pushes the “real” developing arts into the mainstream. I can use the FRINGE FEST as an example. When the event first started it was a truly underground event totally dependent for both artist and audience on an underground scene. Over the years it’s developed into a vastly successful endevour covering two weeks and a multitude of venues. So successful that many “new” underground artists exclaim that they can’t get booked – thus, the origins of a “new” festival called “BEYOND THE FRINGE”. Musical venues have certainly increased over the years, where you have hip-hop venues like the Red Sea and the Blue Nile, Americana, roots venues like Lee’s Liquor Lounge, jazz venues like the Dakota and Artists Quarter, and a multitude of alt rock venues from the Triple Rock Social Club to Big V’s to the Turf Club and the Nomad to name a few. There has to be support to have this many venues survive.
Q. The way you introduced punk music to the scene really got acts like Green Day going in the 90’s, which helped define the punk genre. Tell us how the musical “American Idiot” at the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Orpheum Theatre infuses that punk rock feel into a Broadway musical?
SM: Actually the introduction of “punk music” really started in the late 70’s and early 80’s with locals like THE SUICIDE COMMANDOS, THE SUBURBS, and THE FLAMLING OH’S and touring artists like BLACK FLAG, THE MEAT PUPPETS, and THE MINUTEMEN. The late 80’s brought the “next” wave starting with bands like NIRVANA, ALICE IN CHAINS, RED HOT CHILLI PEPPERS to name a few that evolved into the 90’s punk or rock bands like GREEN DAY, OFFSPRING, RANCID, to name a few. Of course, AMERICAN IDIOT certainly kicked GREEN DAY into the arenas after being a club act for several years. In fact AMERICAN IDIOT with tracks like “Boulevard of Dreams” took the band to a more expanded “pure American pop rock”, not nearly as hardcore as earlier releases. The transition to Broadway is really not that difficult to envision. Didn’t Chan Poling from the Suburbs just produce a “rock opera” recently called “Venus”? Another local rock outfit called the Famous Volcanos has just produced another rock opera they are releasing the Southern Theater in the near future. Music evolves as does industry and government.
Q. Last question. What was the craziest (publishable) experience you had when managing First Ave?
SM: Unknown. I think my entire thirty two years in that downtown Minneapolis venue were crazy. You can’t dissect the heart from the human body and discuss it out of context. All the events over the years had to be taken in context. When Prince first played First Avenue along with U2 and REM, they were starting careers. When Green Day first played the 7th St. Entry or the main room at First Avenue they were just starting careers. If you don’t remember the time and all the other unknown artists playing a role at the time, you are not remembering correctly.
To see the rest of the awesome shows like American Idiot that the Hennepin Theatre Trust is rolling out in 2013, check out this cool video .