It's a bar, a rock venue, a dance hall, a downtown landmark and a music scene's epicenter. In the end, though, most of us still think of First Avenue nightclub as only just a building -- an old, weathered, colorless, ill-lit, oddly shaped, occasionally smelly, always under-ventilated building at that.
Spend a whole day there, and you're likely to see it differently. We did, anyway.
We arrived the morning of Nov. 20, a Tuesday, the day of British dance/hip-hop star M.I.A.'s sold-out performance. We didn't leave until long after the burly guy with the dreads (operations manager Damon Barna) sang those dreaded words: "Last call."
"It's always dark in here when I get here -- or at least it better be."
Day manager Dan Finn is almost always the first one in the club, although night staffers are sometimes there late enough to greet him.
He goes in through the side entrance, a k a Conrad's Door, and heads to the box of light switches. In the daytime, the place somehow looks darker and a little creepy. Never mind the ghost stories that date back to the building's previous life as a Greyhound bus station (1937-68).
"Somebody must've gotten mad at the ATM," Finn says, pointing to the punched-in plastic sign over the cash machine, which he always checks right away to see if it still has cash. "They probably didn't like the $3 service fee."
Since there are two busy (read: boozy) nights ahead, with M.I.A. tonight and the Ike Reilly Assassination tomorrow, Finn goes straight to work checking the alcohol stock. He heads down to the club's dark, dusty, dungeon of a basement, where the hard-liquor supply is kept in a cage that looks like something out of the Spanish Inquisition.
You don't know "dark" and "creepy" until you've been in the basement.
"I like working for a place I believe in."
Amy Williams arrives next and heads straight to the second-floor offices, where the view of the Hard Rock Cafe across the street is thankfully blocked by the paint, dirt and marquee that cover the windows.
Williams became the club's bookkeeper in 2001 after quitting a way more lucrative job at a law firm. As she waits for 150 or so employee checks to arrive (payday!), she turns to a chore she never would have faced at her previous job: uploading songs by Doomtree and Robert Randolph to the website to promote future shows.
Yes, even the bean-counter at First Ave deals in rock 'n' roll.
"I never know what's going to await me when I come in."
Facilities manager Brad Hertko is carrying welding gear from somewhere in the club's depths out onto the dance floor. He needs to piece back together one of the large metal barricades that keep fans from jumping up onto the stage. It will prove humorously unnecessary in the case of M.I.A.
"We want to give him the option to at least consider it."
Jack Meyers has Prince on his mind the moment he walks through the front door. One of the few people who has worked at the club long enough to remember "Purple Rain" being filmed there in 1984, Meyers is now the general manager and more or less top dog. He plans to call around to City Hall today to ask for a waiver that would allow the club to go past its required 3 a.m. closing time on very special occasions -- like when Prince played his first gig there in 20 years in July and didn't go on until 2:45 a.m. Police shut down the show around 3:50 a.m., and the club wound up paying the city about $1,500 to cover overtime for the officers on duty outside.
"Today, it's mostly just upset people."
Answering the club's main phone line, Megan Netland gets the same questions over and over: Are tickets still available? Where can they be bought? Will they sell out? What are the set times?
But M.I.A. sold out a couple weeks earlier.
"Once in a while I get offered a bribe," Netland said, "but not today."
"I was here when we had to worry about them bouncing. I'm glad those days are over."
Amy Williams has moved on to writing checks on the club's behalf -- one for workers-comp insurance, another for some bathroom remodeling supplies.
"It's three years ago this month. Wow!"
Jack Meyers is seated at his desk in the corner office (or as near to a corner office as can be had in the curved venue), remembering the darkest day in the club's history: Nov. 2, 2004.
That's when original owner Allan Fingerhut declared bankruptcy for First Ave. The doors stayed shut for three weeks. The staff was let go. A court battle ensued that now seems as blurry and embarrassing as a night of heavy drinking at the club.
Fingerhut's accountant and childhood friend, Byron Frank, wound up with the keys to the place, and he essentially handed them over to Meyers and the other longtime manager, Steve McClellan (who now runs the nonprofit DEMO and teaches at McNally Smith College of Music).
Munching on carrot sticks and a homemade sandwich -- his wife packs him a healthy lunch since he suffered a heart attack in March -- Meyers rates his health as "pretty good." As for the club, it's never been better, he says: "People talk about the golden age of First Avenue. I believe we're in it."
"Should we close the guest list?"
Koreen Valdovinos, the club's PR/advertising coordinator and resident roller-derby girl, yells this through the office as she peruses the 62 names already getting in to see M.I.A. for free. More requests are coming in by the minute via email.
She hastily denies one: "They couldn't even spell my name right."
"The agent gives us an idea of what they want for ticket prices, and then we send them an offer of what we think we can pay them."
Sonia Grover, one of the club's two talent bookers, is sending out "offers" -- official concert-biz lingo, like "rider" and "settling" (words that come up later in the day) -- to bands including Tokyo Police Club, Panthers and the Black Lips. If you haven't heard of them yet, Grover hopes you will soon.
The "guarantee" to each band will ideally be covered by ticket sales. In the dream-case scenario of a sold-out show like M.I.A., the club also takes a 15 percent cut of ticket-sale money above the guarantee. More often, though, the club makes little to nothing off tickets and instead relies on bar sales (which the bands never get a piece of).
"My job is to turn this into a five-star dressing room."
Anybody who has seen the puny backstage area at First Ave -- actually to the right of the stage -- knows hospitality coordinator James Baker is kidding. It's not the spacious, vanity-mirrored dressing room filmed in a sound studio somewhere for "Purple Rain." It's the broom closet seen in the Wilco documentary "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart."
A Brit by birth, Baker is the guy who fulfills the artists' backstage "riders" -- the lists of food, drink, etc., required to make them happy little rock stars. One day, he spent hours tracking down a brand of almonds for the metal band Disturbed. His weirdest request in five years on the job: Going to a butcher shop for a batch of pigs feet requested by porn star Ron Jeremy. I was genuinely afraid to ask any more.
"I'm not all that technical a guy, so to me the job is more like babysitting."
Conrad Sverkerson, stage manager and babysitter, has just pulled up on the bike he rides to work every day. Hired in 1988, Sverkerson is the club's most recognized employee. Or at least he was until he cut off his 20 years' worth of reddish-brown dreadlocks a couple years ago.
Today, his job actually is quite technical. While awaiting M.I.A.'s tour bus in his little office, next to the side door marked with a star bearing his name, he looks at a chart mapping out M.I.A.'s equipment. It includes a row of large video screens and eight extra subwoofer amplifiers.
"It's more or less my job to get it all plugged in," he says.
M.I.A.'s tour manager, Gabe Kerbrat, comes through Conrad's Door rolling a dolly full of T-shirt boxes. He is warmly greeted by Sverkerson and Baker, who know him from tours with the White Stripes, Murder City Devils and other bands.
Wearing a suit, hat and beard that makes him look more like a Hasidic rabbi than a tour manager, Kerbrat immediately hands over M.I.A.'s rider to Baker. Some sandwiches and two packs of Marlboro Lights are all that's on it.
Kerbrat heads to the office to get $200 in cash from the club -- spending money for M.I.A.'s crew.
"It can change just like that."
Baker's day just got more complicated. M.I.A.'s driver needs help finding some parts for the tour bus, and chore that moves to the top of his list. Says Baker, "Getting to the next gig is the No. 1 priority."
"We got tired of playing the X-Box on the bus."
Two 20-something guys -- one of whom bears the same Sri Lankan looks and British accent as M.I.A. -- are shooting pool in First Ave's arcade area. They ask about Prince. I ask about their duties in M.I.A.'s crew.
"I'm her brother," says the one, Sugu Arulpragasam, not offering any more of a job description. He does, however, convey his sister's anticipation for the show, what with the Prince connection, their fun the previous night in Minneapolis (they ate at McCormick & Schmick's and strolled the Nicollet Mall). The club, he says, "isn't like all the other plain, box-shaped" venues on the tour.
Roy Freedom, an employee since 1978 (the longest), drops by to put his daughter on tonight's guest list. A DJ at the club, he goes over a few technical matters with lighting director Tiffany Clean in the second-floor DJ booth that now houses lighting and video equipment. He and Clean have a laugh about how much things have changed in the booth.
"A lot of bands nowadays come with their own lighting director instead of a sound man," Clean says, "especially the British bands."
"It's cleaner and smells better."
Daniel Corrigan drops by the office to put in an invoice and check on tonight's set times. The club's house photographer since 1982, Corrigan has the best view on how the club has changed over the years. He cites the cleanliness first, then the light/sound improvements, and then the people.
Going down the list of the many principals who've come and gone, he picks out one: "Nate pretty much is First Avenue now."
"We can't say no to the Rhymesayers guys."
Nate Kranz, the club's other talent booker, pushes a few more names on the guest list, from the local hip-hop crew that sells out the main room eight to 10 times a year. A 31-year-old Minneapolis native, Kranz then turns his attention to another hip-hop crew, one from New York coming in a few weeks.
"The Wu Tang Clan are always interesting. The contract says we have to pay each of the eight guys individually. They don't trust each other enough to divvy it up themselves."
"Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!"
Ah, sound check. While his teammate Greg Huber yells into the mikes on stage, Lee Marcucci is tweaking the mother-ship soundboard in the middle of the main room. A wit as sharp as his sideburns, Marcucci is amused that M.I.A. brought in eight extra sub-woofers on top of the club's already sizable sound system. Not that he's complaining.
"I'd rather they get their own stuff instead of risking blowing up everything we have," he says.
Has anybody ever done that?
"Yeah, that metal band Celtic Frost."
"We actually don't have anybody whose job title is 'security.' It puts people in the wrong mindset."
Operations manager Damon Barna, who looks like the head of security because of his size and serious demeanor, is on a computer filling in everyone else's job titles for the night -- who works where doing what. About 60 employees are in the mix. Barna is one of three nighttime managers who oversee them.
"It's not a very aggro crowd. We've never seen anything close to a fight."
M.I.A.'s tour manager is telling this to Sverkerson and a few other employees at a pow-wow by the T-shirt stand. There is one danger, Kerbrat warns about tonight's headliner: "She likes to work the crowd. We might need your help getting her on and off the stage."
M.I.A. is in the house. Baker confirms as much as he brings in some last-minute requests to the dressing room, including bottles of wine and Smart Water. Emphasizing his accent, Baker says, "They're English, so of course they're nice and easy to work with."
"She's short, so we came early to get down front."
Ticket holders Jackie Soto and Yahaira Toribio, both in their early 20s, are first in line outside the club. They came all the way from New York to see M.I.A., so a couple hours in the cold is a relative pittance to pay. They're standing with Thomas Schaefer, 23, who only had to travel a mile or two but didn't buy an advance ticket.
"I can't ever plan far enough ahead," Schaefer says. "Hopefully, I'll get lucky."
"That sounds like crap. But that's what's sound check is for."
One of the members of M.I.A.'s opening band, Chicago hip-hop trio the Cool Kids, makes that wise statement on stage as the band rushes through its sound check before doors open. He'd have been smarter to get his band to the club on time.
"We drove straight here from Winnipeg. Eight hours. Nonstop. Pure hell."
Kevin Hilliard and the rest of the Toronto-based quartet Small Sins -- tonight's 7th Street Entry headliners -- are stretched out in a row along the back wall of First Ave's tiny sister club. All four are checking emails on their laptops.
They, too, are a little late for sound check, but they have the post-9/11 border security to blame.
"They put the dog through the van and everything," Hilliard says. "I'm flattered they thought we might have $10,000 in cash, though. Apparently they've never been out on tour with a band."
"It seems like there's at least one drawing of a giant penis in every club's dressing room."
Lance Conrad, frontman of Minneapolis band the Alpha Centauri, points out the phallic wall design amid the myriad of graffiti in the 7th Street Entry's "backstage" area, which is actually in the basement. Yes, that same horrendous basement.
One of two local bands booked to open for Small Sins, the Alpha Centuari nonetheless shows the affection for the Entry that so many Twin Cities musicians seem to share.
"It's small and personal and you always kinda know what to expect," Conrad says.
Bassist Linnia Mohn adds, "And tonight, it's especially nice because we found a metered spot right outside to park the van. We just need to keep feeding the meter till 10."
"We're still waiting for the Ticketmaster list!"
A small panic arises just as the front doors are about to open to several hundred people waiting outside. Ticketmaster neglected to send over its list of ticket buyers who opted to have their names left at will call.
Sam Peterson, one of the three operations managers standing watch by the door, calmly deadpans, "Looks like the folks who paid the $8 'convenience' fee are gonna wind up having to wait."
"Sorry, hun, a high school ID doesn't cut it."
One girl gets turned away in the first rush of patrons through the doors (it's an 18-or-older show) but two other underage girls have better luck. They claim they drove all the way from Iowa but forgot their tickets at home. Tears help sell the story. A few calls are made over the employee walkie-talkie system. Somebody finds their name on a credit-card buyers' list. They're in.
Even though the show was declared sold out a couple weeks earlier, 25 tickets were quietly made available at the door. Thomas Schaefer, at the front of the line, got one.
"I just moved here from Nashville. This is one of the first places I hit."
New Minneapolis resident Matt Melton, 27, has been to First Ave several times already and loves it.
"I've been playing this Foosball table since I was 14."
Greg Lierwood of Mound has been to First Avenue countless times and still loves it, especially now when he comes with his son, Abel, who's been beating him at the table. But Lierwood has something else to brag about: "There's a video on YouTube playing 'Powerline' here, and you can see me dancing in it."
"Conrad negotiated 15 extra minutes."
With the Cool Kids already onstage, Barna spreads the word that M.I.A. will go on 15 minutes later than planned. It's 44 minutes before her scheduled start time, and half the crowd still hasn't shown up. Sverkerson had asked M.I.A.'s tour manager for an extra half-hour or more, but the crew has to make it to Chicago by 9 a.m. for an especially early load-in at the House of Blues. So 10:15 it is.
At the front doors, a girl who had been kicked out for being too drunk attempts to sneak back in with the smokers. She's recognized by Barna and other crew members and politely turned away.
"We the minority have no hope in this government."
M.I.A.'s set starts with a tirade-like message that scrolls across the video screen stretching across the back of the stage. The audience cheers the political lashing and then goes nuts when the star of the night walks out, wearing a policeman's cap, loose knit shirt and tight, colorful leggings.
Those extra subwoofers kick in, and what little dance room remains is eaten up in seconds as 1,500 bodies begin moving in unison.
The view from the so-called Owner's Box, next to the DJ booth on the second floor, shows pure pandemonium downstairs. Like most nights, the owner isn't here, and neither are any VIPs (although everyone from Jack White and Elvis Costello to various Timberwolves have used the box in recent years). It's mostly staffers from the office, plus a local hip-hop promoter and somebody's sister.
Back at the front doors, the drunk girl tries to sneak in again. This time, she's not so politely turned away.
"Where my crazies at?"
M.I.A. calls for about 30 or 40 women to climb on stage to dance with her during the jungly romp "Bird Flu." Among the dancers are the two New York girls who were at the front of the line.
The only real security issue of the night arises. A guy tries to weasel his way onstage, and shoves a First Ave crew member known as Science. He gets his dance, alright, as a half-dozen staffers hastily "usher" him out of the club,
During the song "Galang," it becomes obvious what M.I.A.'s tour manager meant by his warning that she "likes to work the crowd." First, she climbs from the speaker racks onstage to the second-floor balcony, then works her way down the staircase, rapping the whole time. Once at the bottom, she surfs atop the crowd's hands all the way back to the stage.
After one encore, M.I.A. exits to the dressing room. The audience cheers for more but stops suddenly when the curtain-like movie screen rolls down in front of the stage -- First Ave's way of saying "Show's over."
The crowd slowly files through the front doors, their sweat turning to instant chill. Two major figures of the local hip-hop scene are standing just outside: Doomtree rapper P.O.S. and Heiruspecs bassist Sean McPherson, each handing out flyers to tout their own upcoming shows -- a reminder why indie-rap is so big in this town.
The coat-check line is about 150 people deep. Also deep is the pile of beer bottles and plastic cups that Barna and other crew members are sweeping off the dance floor. A snow shovel is brought in to hasten the work.
"I'm by the stairs!"
A woman looking for her friend yells/slurs her location into her cell phone three or four times. She seems oblivious to the fact that there are four different staircases in the club.
"$14,709. That's what I have, too."
M.I.A.'s tour manager Kerbrat is in the office with talent bookers Kranz and Grover. This is the part of the night known as "settling," when the artist's rep sits down with a club rep to get paid. They haggle over expenses and fees and settle on a price, which tonight is paid by check (some artists still want cash).
The only snag comes when Kerbrat asks about the club's five cocktail tables (reserved for $35 apiece). M.I.A. earns a little extra take-home.
With most of the crowd dispersed, operations manager Peterson goes bar to bar, taking tills out of the cash registers. Most of the bartenders gather around one of the downstairs bars, reaping a bit of what they sowed all night.
In the Entry, following a nifty trick where Hilliard plays a keyboard with his feet, Small Sins finishes its set before 100 or so fans. The band seems happy it made the eight-hour drive.
"Usually, the bands steal these."
Happily holding the wine screw from the dressing room, hospitality guy Baker reports that M.I.A. has left the building. This is sad news to the couple dozen fans still loitering around the stage for an autograph.
"Perfect! Right on the money."
Kerbrat is saying goodbye and thanks to Sverkerson. Minutes later, M.I.A.'s tour bus pulls away.
The third operations manager, Emi Widmark-Sundahl, sits by the front door with her arms around a drunk young woman in tears. The staff won't let her leave until she has a safe ride home. They're waiting for her mom to pick her up.
"This is actually pretty early for me. But I'll be back tomorrow."
Sverkerson wheels his bike out Conrad's Door and rides off down the dark, cold street.
Kranz and Grover recline in the office, discussing upcoming shows. Ops manager Barna comes in, and the conversation turns to the staffers' fantasy sports league -- just as in any other office.
"It's a well-oiled machine. I think we have this business figured out as well as anybody else in the country."
Barna ushers out the last few employees and gets ready to lock up, content the club had a good night. The discussion turns to "tomorrow night's show" with the Ike Reilly Assassination (by now, it should be "tonight's show"). A band of hard-rocking Irish guys from the Chicago area, the I.R.A. should draw an older but rowdier and heavier-drinking crowd than tonight's show, er, last night's.
"Every day is different," Barna says, sounding unfazed. "But not all that different."
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658