Music Critic Chris Riemenschneider Unpacks First Avenue’s Legacy

April 3, 1970. That’s the night Joe Cocker and his entourage of over 40 people and a dog formally opened the doors at the Depot, which later morphed into Uncle Sam’s, then Sam’s, and finally First Avenue, the name Minneapolis’s storied live music venue holds to this day. Over five decades, the club has gone through numerous changes beyond its namesake, hosting a bevy of acclaimed artists and bands, including prominent out-of-town acts U2, Nirvana, Ice Cube, and Green Day in addition to local favorites, such as the Suburbs, Atmosphere, and, of course, Prince. It’s also added a second live-music room in the form of 7th Street Entry and expanded its business to other venues around the Twin Cities.

In October 2017, Minnesota Historical Society Press published a new 264-page hardcover book by longtime Star Tribune music critic Chris Riemenschneider chronicling that opening night and all the other days and nights the club has existed, leading up to last year. First Avenue: Minnesota’s Mainroom is an illustrated tour de force showcasing what happens when an informed and skilled writer gets to chronicle the legacy of the landmark located on the corner of First Avenue and Seventh Street in downtown Minneapolis, where he’s spent countless nights working.

Chris Riemenschneider in conversation

Chris Riemenschneider in conversation at Talk of the Stacks at Minneapolis Central Library on November 2, 2017. Photo by Paul Patane

“The book had been a loose idea in my head for years, probably going back to 2004 when the club closed during the bankruptcy battle,” Riemenschneider said. “It was an ownership battle between the guy who opened the club, Allan Fingerhut, and the guy who was his childhood friend and his longtime accountant, Byron Frank. I covered that. It was kind of a dramatic court case—these childhood friends suing each other. I kind of thought, ‘Jeez, this is kind of a dramatic centerpiece for a book on this club.’”

The idea, however, sat for years before Riemenschneider revisited it. “I was preparing an outline of it and preparing to pitch it to publishers, and I happened to write a story on Dayna Frank—who was the daughter of Byron Frank—who basically took the place over and is running it now. When that ran, the director of the Minnesota Historical Society Press at the time emailed me.” With that, the project was up and running.

For Riemenschneider, the book’s publication brings everything full circle in a way. When he was a teenager going to First Avenue for the first time, he likely didn’t realize his closely tied he’d become to the Twin Cities’ live music scene or the club he would later write about. “For St. Paul kids, going over to Minneapolis in general was like another world. It was a huge deal to go over there,” he said, reflecting on his first visit to First Avenue for an all-ages Anthrax show in 1986. “I went to metal and punk shows in those days—it really seemed like a scary place. It was dark, and everybody had on black leather. Here I was, this little geeky kid from St. Paul, so I was always kind of scared to go there, but I suppose that was part of the thrill of it.”

A music geek and student at St. Paul’s Harding Senior High, Riemenschneider used his paper-route money to fuel his record-buying habit at Northern Lights record store (now Urban Lights Music), which helped spawn his interest in live music. But then his father, a longtime 3M employee, moved the family to Austin, Texas, where Riemenschneider finished high school and later attended college before working a variety of internships and journalism jobs. Those led to his eventual return to the Twin Cities and becoming a music critic at the Star Tribune.

Given his absence from the Cities and the career trajectory he was on, much of what Riemenschneider writes about in First Avenue came from experiences and events he wasn’t able to witness firsthand. He had to conduct rigorous amounts of research, do interviews, and comb through old news articles and criticism. The events he attended himself, and covered for the paper, are mostly chronicled in the book’s final pages. “The last 15 years of the club is kind of crammed into the last chapter, which is how long I’ve been at the Star Tribune. That’s the chapter [for which] I could have easily kind of regurgitated stuff I’d written at the Star Tribune, but I think there’s more interest in the earlier history,” Riemenschneider told me, noting why he did so much digging to flesh out the history of the club’s early years.

First Avenue: Minnesota's Mainroom cover

Minnesota Historical Society Press

In addition to focusing on First Avenue’s entire history, including the disco era of the 1970s when the club wasn’t holding many notable live music shows, Riemenschneider details everything—even the club’s infamous ugly carpet, the swimming pool, and the building’s ghost stories. To pair with the book’s elegant and journalistic prose are a wide assortment of photographs, many of which were provided by longtime First Avenue employee and club photographer Daniel Corrigan. However, like most books, there wasn’t room for everything, and Riemenschneider had to make some difficult cuts. “The one thing I most regret losing is I was going to do a kind of play by play of some of the big ’90s rock shows—Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against the Machine. There’s some of that in there, but I had a whole kind of pullout section I was going to do describing each of the shows,” he said.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Riemenschneider’s new book is the fact that its focus is a place still in business, and that by this title coming out when it did, the book itself becomes part of its living history. First Avenue is approaching its 50th birthday, yet the club is as popular as its ever been and seems destined to remain open for the foreseeable future, due in part to savvy business decisions, local loyalty, and fierce independence. By expanding its business model to other venues, such as the Turf Club and now the Palace Theatre, arguably the greatest fight First Avenue has waged since emerging from bankruptcy has been against Live Nation, an entertainment company holding a monopoly on the live music scene in many other urban markets. Riemenschneider said, “For First Avenue to stand up to [Live Nation] all these years has really been an extraordinary thing that hasn’t happened in a lot of other cities, where an independent concert company like this has been able to not only survive but thrive in recent years.”

You can follow Chris Riemenschneider on Twitter at @ChrisRstrib.

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