When Pete Townshend wished Ed Ackerson well from the stage during the Who’s concert at Xcel Energy Center in September, he at once gave the Twin Cities musicmaker and superfan the thrill of a lifetime but also inadvertently revealed he was sick.
The frontman for the loudly reverberating bands Polara, BNLX, the Dig and 27 Various as well as a reputable producer, engineer and studio owner, Ackerson kept his battle with pancreatic cancer quiet for a year outside of his closest circle of friends. He died Friday afternoon at age 54.
Much like Townshend, some of the Twin Cities’ more famous rock stars were the ones to most loudly tout Ackerson’s talent over the years.
“He was just a musical wizard,” said Jayhawks bandleader Gary Louris. “He was always the best drummer, bass player and guitarist in the room. He knew more about music than any of us.”
At his Flowers recording studio in Minneapolis’s Uptown neighborhood — housed in a former greenhouse and flower shop — Ackerson hosted and co-helmed recordings by the Jayhawks, the Replacements, Soul Asylum, the Motion City Soundtrack, Golden Smog, Mason Jennings, Mark Mallman, the Melismatics, Faux Jean and many others.
His wife and BNLX bandmate Ashley Ackerson said he died “peaceful and at home with his family and friends,” including their pre-schooler daughter Annika. He was apparently making music up until the end.
“Ed never looked to the past, he always looked to the future,” Ashley wrote on Facebook.
“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.”
Townshend’s comments prompted Ackerson himself to post about his illness on Sept. 11, when he noted he had been seeing specialists at the Mayo Clinic.
“One of the reasons I’ve kept it quiet is because 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,” he wrote.
“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 strong wave of support quickly grew for the Ackersons in recent weeks, including a GoFundMe fundraiser started by his Polara bandmate Daniel Boen this past week that topped its goal in mere hours.
“He is tough as nails, and he has fought back with everything he’s got,” Boen wrote.
Polara was the closest Ackerson got to his own stardom.
The heavily distorted but richly melodic, My Bloody Valentine-channeling group earned a national underground buzz off its 1995 self-titled debut and eventually signed with Interscope Records, but the record deal came toward the end of the alt-rock commercial boom of the ’90s before CD sales started plummeting.
“I thought it was some hot new British band I was about to get into,” Motion City Soundtrack singer Justin Courtney Pierre recalled of when he first heard Polara on REV-105 FM as a high schooler.
Upon learning it was actually a local band, Pierre said, “It opened my mind to the possibility of making music for people other than my friends.”
Before Polara, Ackerson made noise locally with the Britpoppy bands the Dig and 27 Various and became a fixture at First Avenue and 7th St. Entry, where he also served as a sound engineer and honed his audio know-how in the 1990s.
“He always had a strong musical vision,” said drummer Michael Reiter, who played with Ackerson in 27 Various, the Mighty Mofos and various other projects. “So many nights playing and talking about music, which is all we wanted to do.”
His ‘halcyon dream’
A Stillwater native who seemingly couldn’t move to Uptown fast enough, Ackerson had admired the former flower shop building that became his studio when it was used as a warehouse space for guitar shop Knut Koupee in the interim.
Once he turned it into a recording facility around 1999, Flowers quickly became one of the most in-demand recording studios in town, and it remained so in recent years with sessions by such stars such as Lizzo and Jeremy Messersmith.
In a 2005 interview with the Star Tribune, Ackerson described Flowers as his way to pay back the music scene he said he “got so much out of when I was a kid.”
“So many people were supportive and gave me a chance,” he said. “It gave me this halcyon dream of what the Minneapolis scene can be. I’d like to think I provide that kind of help to some of the people coming up now.”
Flowers also gave Ackerson the chance to actively participate in albums by some of the local bands he looked up to.
The Replacements reconvened at Flowers to finish two unreleased tracks for the 2006 anthology “Don’t You Know Who I Think I Was,” and then they reunited there again in 2012 to craft the “Songs for Slim” EP (benefitting guitarist Bob “Slim” Dunlap) — all with Ackerson’s anchoring guidance.
Soul Asylum also made “Delayed Reaction” there with him in 2012, its last album with original guitarist Daniel Murphy.
“He was among the brightest and most creative musicians ever in this orbit,” raved Murphy, who also worked work Ackerson on assorted tracks by the all-star group Golden Smog. “Funny and kind, he will be profoundly missed.”
Fellow Golden Smog member Louris fondly recalled recording the Jayhawks’ 2000 record “Smile” at Flowers not long after Ackerson opened it. Those ambitious sessions found Ackerson working side-by-side with legendary Pink Floyd and Kiss producer Bob Ezrin.
“Ed already knew very well what he was doing and wasn’t at all intimidated [by Ezrin],” Louris said.
Conversely, Pierre said Ackerson never made younger bands who looked up to him feel nervous when they recorded with him at Flowers, as Motion City Soundtrack did for its 2010-2012 albums “My Dinosaur Life” and “Go.”
“I knew 1/100th as much about music as he did, but he made us feel like equal collaborators,” Pierre said. “And he was willing to get weird, too. He wasn’t afraid to try things to the extreme.”
Ackerson continued to push the envelope as an independent record-label operator with Susstones and as a music maker with his husband/wife duo BNLX. He and Ashley took advantage of their hi-fi studio by crafting a steady series of 10 inventive EPs through the 2010s.
Maybe the best thing about Flowers is that the studio also neighbored the Ackersons’ personal home, which became convenient once their daughter was born.
“It allowed him to be around Annika as much as possible, which I know meant a lot to him,” Louris said. “He was one of the most dedicated dads I’ve known.”
Reaction to Ackerson’s death has been swift and widespread around the Twin Cities scene Saturday. Public-radio rock outlet 89.3 the Current has been regularly spinning tracks by Ackerson’s various bands. Tributes and personal memories abound on social media.
“He was a pillar of this wonderful music scene, constant contributor in more ways than we know and will truly be missed,” rocker Chris “Little Man” Perricelli posted.
Club DJ and radio host Jake Rudh noted, “I looked up to you for decades and was honored to call you a good friend since the birth of our daughters.”
Former Uptown Bar talent booker and First Ave stage manager Maggie Macpherson simply wrote, “What a difference you made in this world.”
Tributes also came in from outside Minnesota. John P. Strohm of Boston band the Blake Babies said of when he was named the president of famed indie label Rounder Records, “Ed is the first person whose counsel I sought.”
“Ed challenged me every step of the way and made me a better person in many respects,” Strohm said.
Parents Robert and Rosemary Ackerson preceded Ed in death. Memorial plans have not yet been confirmed.