The Twin Cities landmark music venue First Avenue is 40 years old.
Since opening its doors in December 1970, the former downtown Minneapolis bus depot has hosted some of the biggest names in rock and roll. The Kinks, R.E.M. and U2 all played there. The main room and 7th Street Entry stages have served as launching pads for local acts like Prince, the Replacements, Soul Asylum and Brother Ali.
Chris Osgood was on those stages early on with his seminal punk band The Suicide Commandos. He's now the vice president of organizational development at McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul.
He discussed the history of First Avenue on Wednesday with MPR's Steven John.
Steven John: You're also still making the occasional appearance as a performer at First Avenue.
Osgood: Yeah, that's right. My band, the Commandos, we were spanking the plank about a month ago with the Suburbs. We did a couple of shows on the 19th and 20th of November.
John: What do you remember about the first time you played at First Avenue?
Osgood: I was recalling that. The first time we played there was when it was ... either the Depot or Uncle Sam's. And we opened for the Dwight Twilley band, and their hit at the time was a song called I'm On Fire. And we thought it would be clever - we knew they were going to close with that song, so the Commandos decided to open with that song.
And we just covered I'm On Fire note for note.
John: A very punk thing to, wasn't it?
Osgood: Well, we thought it would sort of bookend the night, if you know what I'm saying. And actually the Dwight Twilley Band thought it was very funny.
John: What year was that?
Osgood: That must've been 1976.
John: How has First Avenue changed since those early days? Other than non-smoking music fans are breathing a bit easier.
Osgood: The most important and most noticeable difference is the smell. You're right. At first, and this is with all due respect to First Ave, it was a little shocking to go in and smell it without the blanket of cigarette smoke because you could detect other nuances and aromas that ... weren't apparent before that.
But here's the cool thing about First Ave, and I was thinking about this when us and the Suburbs were down there a few weeks ago ... The feeling of being there was just like going back in time and going home, in a weird sort of way.
And the other thing that I was thinking about and laughing about with Sam Choo, your producer, is that when we were playing at First Ave originally, it was such an icon of anti-establishment-ism. It's where you would go downtown to experience the significantly different or other. And the fact that that anti-establishment place has become an institution in its own right says something. I haven't figured out what that is.
John: First Ave ran into some financial problems and nearly closed five years ago or so. How has it changed since then to keep operating profitably?
Osgood: A couple of things have happened. And at the time when ... it was going through those transformations, there were some people that served on a nonprofit board, people like myself and (others) were a part of, you know, what can we do to keep this great place going, moving forward? And that was a situation that we worked with Steve for a few years to do.
Eventually, for reasons beyond me, that became untenable, and the owners ... stepped in and redid things. And what has happened since that time is there have been steady improvements, where things as mundane to you and me as the ventilation, but as important to you and me as the ventilation, have gotten improved, the stage, the monitors, all of the gear, and sort of the infrastructure of the place. So it works now better than ever.
John: A lot of changes going on in the music business these days. What do you think the next 40 years hold for First Avenue?
Osgood: You know, who knows what things are going to be like 40 years from now, but live music is more important than ever. And live shows are more important to the economic vitality of bands now than they ever have been, because if you take a look at your comparative revenues ... you see that you don't sell CDs anymore. You sell a ton of downloads, but you never get paid.
The two ways that you still make money are from live shows and merch. And if you're selling merchandise and you have a chance for your fans to support you in that way, maybe the way that they used to buy a CD, that's a very significant thing for bands.
John: Chris Osgood, it's been a real pleasure speaking with you today.
Osgood: Steven, thank you very much, thanks everyone. And viva First Avenue!
First Avenue's 40th Anniversary Party kicks off at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Chris Osgood, along with Dave Campbell, Mary Lucia and Mark Wheat of our sister station, the Current, and other Twin Cities DJs and music critics will host an all-star 18-plus event.
(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR News reporter Madeleine Baran.)