Prince: The Star of First Avenue
Nate Kranz was pulling onto the exit ramp of Interstate 94 West when he heard the news. Kranz was heading from a meeting in St. Paul to his office in downtown Minneapolis, where he is General Manager. The 46-year-old nightclub’s black exterior is covered with silver stars featuring the names of the musical greats who’ve played there over the years—most prominently, hometown hero Prince, who filmed 1984’s Purple Rain there.
During the meeting, says Kranz, “Somebody texted me that they'd found a quote-unquote ‘body’ over at Paisley Park. Obviously, this was just on the heels of the airplane incident.” Prince’s private plane had made an emergency landing in Illinois just days earlier, fanning rumors that the star had passed—which, Kranz discovered, had sadly come true.
“By the time I was pulling off 94 on the way into Minneapolis, I'd already been on the phone, trying to figure out something we could do downtown that night,” he says. “There was twenty minutes [before] I pulled into the garage at First Avenue. When I walked in the door, there were already five or six people standing in the Depot Tavern [the club’s adjacent eatery] and around the club. Once people started figuring out where Prince's star was on the side of the building, they started to gather pretty quick.”
That evening and the next, First Avenue would hold a pair of all-night dance parties, pointing their speakers outside to blast Prince’s music—by himself and with Chaka Khan, the Time, Sheila E., Vanity 6, and a host of related artists—to a blocked-off First Avenue North, with permission from the city. It was the only reasonable way to send off the performer who, more than anyone, had turned First Avenue from a beloved local showplace to one of rock’s best-known clubs around the world.
Beyond spending a month filming the movie Purple Rain at First Avenue in late 1983, Prince played on one of its two stages a total of 13 times, all but one between 1981 and 1987, with an encore in 2007. First Avenue wasn’t simply Prince’s hometown club—it was his playpen, his manor, his trusty test-lab.
For decades the space was a Greyhound bus station, later known as the Depot when a young impresario named Allan Fingerhut opened it as a rock venue in 1970. Two years later it became Uncle Sam’s, part of a national disco chain where live bands were secondary to DJs playing hits. In 1979, general manager Steve McClellan turned the side room—a one-time diner, coat-check room, and bomb-shelter—into a “punk rock room” called the 7th Street Entry. Around the same time, the disco chain divested. Fingerhut and McClellan led an employee buyout, and the club was redubbed Sam’s.
The teenaged Prince would go to shows at both Uncle Sam’s and Sam’s before he ever set foot onstage (Fingerhut would let him in to see bands with an X on his wrist). Unlike most downtown Minneapolis clubs, McClellan was unique: he booked black bands. By the time the club’s name was changed to First Avenue in 1981, McClellan and the staff shared a social progressivism, rooted in ’60s activism and counterculture, that was a perfect match for Prince’s artistic temperament.
Prince did things his own way. Unlike the soul stars who projected a cute teen image with pre-fabricated stories to match, Prince took to the stage in his underwear. He was a misfit, and First Avenue was his Island of Misfit Toys.
In the early ’80s, First Avenue booked everything from punk to country to jazz to jam bands (including Bobby and the Midnites, the side group of Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir) to African and Jamaican acts. Its eclecticism matched its greatest star’s. And Prince wasn’t the only act playing at the club who was getting national recognition: he came up at the same time as The Replacements and Hüsker Dü, as well as such later breakouts as Soul Asylum and Information Society. The club’s wide-open weekend dance nights of the ’80s were crucial in forging the city’s underground dance scene of the ’90s.
The artist and the club forged a symbiotic relationship in the ’80s and beyond. First Avenue is where Prince would bring his brand-new tracks to see how they played on a bustling dance floor. And the First Avenue stage is where Prince felt free to disrupt whatever else might be happening — something he did numerous times throughout the ’80s, curtailing performances by avant-jazzers Defunkt, local rockabillies Safety Last, and ex-PiL bassist Jah Wobble, among others—because he had the itch to play.
“I can remember Prince one day turning to me suddenly and saying, ‘Let's play First Avenue tonight,’ ” former tour manager Alan Leeds once told City Pages. “He had no idea what the club had booked. It was probably the first of these spontaneous gigs, and it became part of the ritual. Every time Prince had a new album, he’d play First Avenue.”
The club was always more than accommodating. “You'd get Steve on the phone: ‘What are you doing tonight?’ He'd tell you, and you'd say, ‘Okay, that's what you think you're doing tonight.’ It wasn't belligerent. What was so remarkable about Steve was that he'd say, ‘Oh, that's fun. Yeah, let's do that.’ You'd make one call to [radio station] KMOJ: ‘Listen, there's something special going on at First Avenue.’ Everybody could read between the lines. Within a couple of hours my phone was ringing off the hook with people who wanted to get on the guest list.”
First Avenue was Prince’s workshop, where he would preview his forthcoming arena tours. It’s where he debuted the material from Controversy a month ahead of a worldwide jaunt, and also where he debuted material from 1999, Parade, and Sign o’ the Times. Kevin Cole, programming director and afternoon DJ at Seattle’s KEXP-FM, recalls Prince’s bodyguard, Big Chick Huntsberry, handing him a freshly waxed copy of “Erotic City.” It had just been edited at his house in Chanhassen with engineer David Z, who told the Star-Tribune, “It was a hot summer day, and I wore this loud Hawaiian shirt. I said, ‘I can't hear the bass drum too well.’ [Prince] said, ‘That's ’cause your shirt’s too loud.’ ”
Former bartender Lisa Palac, who joined the staff in early 1984, recalls, “When I first started working there, all of the employees were still high from the filming of Purple Rain, and they were telling stories about it all the time. I felt like, ‘Oh, I missed that. I guess that was as fun as it ever got here, and then it’s all downhill from here.’ In fact, I found there was a lot to come. It was a really exciting time.”
The star was clearly in his element; the club became his playpen. Peter Jesperson related to City Pages his memories of being at the club after hours and “walking through the Mainroom, and there was Prince sitting on the edge of the stage, playing guitar. We watched quietly from the shadows until four or five in the morning.”
Thirty-two years later, a very different scene took place at First Avenue, as a crush of fans swarmed the streets outside the building. “It was [around] noon when the word came out,” says Nate Kranz. “It had to be over ten thousand people by nine [p.m.].” Luckily, the club’s staff was prepared. “Because of an event that we were working on, we already had barricades ordered. The barricades on one side of First Avenue stayed up for two weeks, just because there were so many people standing around, bringing whatever—flowers, cards, guitars, lots of poems or personal messages that people either taped to the building or left on the ground.”
Two nights later, the club’s staff painted Prince’s star gold.