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The enduring, evolving and soot-encrusted legacy of 7th Street Entry

First Avenue has become an international tourist attraction, galvanized as the set of Prince’s performances in the 1984 movie, “Purple Rain,” and a spot to pay homage to his legacy since his passing in 2015. The Entry has a very different cachet. Less renowned, but, in its own singular fashion, potent.

During the ’80s, the Entry blossomed into a hallowed dump.
During the ’80s, the Entry blossomed into a hallowed dump.
Courtesy of First Avenue

The 7th Street Entry emblazons memories with the subtlety of a cattle prod. It is a vivid, visceral, intimate space that connects performer and audience in a way that can resonate for decades.

Chrissie Hynde, an ageless piece of rock ‘n’ roll barbed wire as the leader of The Pretenders, knows this. That’s why after playing in front of 50,000 people at the Rogers Centre in Toronto this weekend as the opening act for Guns N’ Roses, The Pretenders will cut loose in front of the 250 people who can be packed into the Entry on Thursday night.

The Pretenders could have just as easily opted for First Avenue, the neighboring nightclub connected by a doorway that hogs most of the space it cohabits with the Entry in what once was a Greyhound bus terminal. Indeed, The Pretenders first tour included a First Avenue stop in April 1980 that helped transform the club’s identity away from disco music.

But First Avenue has become an international tourist attraction, galvanized as the set of Prince’s performances in the 1984 movie, “Purple Rain,” and a spot to pay homage to his legacy since his passing in 2015.

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The Entry has a very different cachet. Less renowned, but, in its own singular fashion, potent.

A venue is born

The first official gig at the Entry was Curtiss A (Almsted) in March 1980, but Steve McClellan, who managed both the Entry and First Avenue for more than 30 years, recalled that, “The Wallets were playing there informally before that.”

“I was there that very first night of music,” said writer and musician Jim Walsh, who played the Entry with two separate bands and wrote about it for years for the U of M Daily, City Pages, and the Pioneer Press. (He’s currently a contributing writer at MinnPost and still performs occasionally.) “(Wallets front man) Steve Kramer jumped on the bar and tightrope-walked his way down to the cash register, ripped out some bills and started throwing change, singing a song I don’t think they had even recorded yet.”

For its first two or three years of operation, the bar was where the stage is now, and vice versa. McClellan laughs ruefully about how jerry-rigged and under-financed the whole thing was. Originally, the room was a place to check coats for the disco bar then known as Uncle Sam’s, the precursor to First Avenue. When they knocked down a wall they discovered the space was once a diner in the Greyhound station.

“I still have an old menu in a box somewhere,” McClellan said. “I didn’t keep the jars of pickles that we found.”

During the ’80s, the Entry blossomed into a hallowed dump. The roof leaked. The toilet in the lone bathroom was frequently stopped up and its walls were swarmed with continual layers of graffiti. The color scheme was even more relentlessly black than at First Avenue, and with low ceilings in an already tight space, the constant smoking still allowed indoors had some referring to the venue as The Ashtray.

7th Street Entry
Courtesy of First Avenue
Until Prince put First Avenue on the map, the Entry was actually the meal ticket for the building.
But the claustrophobic confines created uncommon intimacy and immediacy for the music being made and heard. The low ceilings, hard, albeit soot-encrusted walls and angular contours of the room miraculously combined for a vortex of acoustic perfection, even at high volumes.

Plus, you never knew who was going to be at arm’s length — or, at worst, 20 yards away — up onstage. In the early days, McClellan sought to program reggae and “world music” acts. Flyte Tyme — the version of The Time before Morris Day was lead vocalist, fronted by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis — played the Entry.

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“I remember a night when the Pedal Jets, a band from Lawrence, Kansas, was going to play,” Walsh said.  “At the beginning of the night, Prince came in with three members of The Revolution — this was just as Purple Rain had crested — and he said we’re not as good as the band that’s here tonight, but we’re going to play a little. And they did about 30 minutes.”

Aside from those spectacular exceptions, the Entry in the ’80s and early ’90s increasingly became a haven for hardcore rock ‘n’ roll. The other downtown venue that catered to punk and “new wave” music, the Longhorn, abruptly closed shortly after the Entry opened. While McClellan noted that acts and audiences were put off by the dilapidated conditions in the venue, local punkers likened the tiny space and scuzzy atmosphere to the seminal punk club, CBGB in New York.

“Within a few years, the market, not me, had decided the Entry was not going to be a diverse room. It was going to be a punk club,” McClellan declared.

But what a punk room it was. The bands that led the punkish contingent of the “Minneapolis Sound” —the Replacements and Husker Du — flourished in the Entry while paving the way for the grunge and harder-edged rock of Nirvana, Green Day and The Pixies nationally. Husker Du’s first album was recorded live in the Entry, and the Replacements played a week of shows at the venue that became legendary, and had Slug and Atmosphere following suit with their own week of gigs when hip hop became more prominent in the space beginning in the mid-to-late ’90s and onward.

Until Prince put First Avenue on the map, the Entry was actually the meal ticket for the building. And after First Avenue gained national prominence, successful local bands in the Entry were rewarded with opening or even headlining slots in the larger room.

“It was a breeding ground,” Walsh said. “You’d play the Entry and then Steve might say, ‘Hey, you want to open for the Ramones?’ And then when they started the Best New Bands of the Year, they’d all play at the Entry around New Year’s Eve.”

Hip-hop belatedly arrives

A decade after Walsh, another musician and former City Pages writer, Peter Scholtes, also played in bands and chronicled the scene at the Entry. Asked about the sense of community fostered there, he recalled, “ … going to Stereolab (an indie rock band) in the early ‘90s and the whole room vibrating to the same pulse. It’s this joy, like when everybody is laughing together in a theater. There is no better place to see a great live band. The sound and sense of togetherness is just so immediate.”

Scholtes, who has written extensively about the history of hip hop in the Twin Cities, credited the Entry as a vital catalyst of the genre locally, beginning with I Self Divine with the Micranots, and then Atmosphere and others in the Rhymesayers Entertainment collective.

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It was the infusion of hip-hop into the Entry mix that spurred John Labree to become a chronic patron of the club, a practice that continues to this day. “It became a scene spot, where you knew Headshots or Rhymesayers were going to be playing.”

The unpredictability of the shows is another thing that keeps him coming back. “It could be just you and the guy who sells merch for the band in the place, or it could be a bunch of fanatics who are super into it and (the performer) is inspired and meets the moment. But knowing you were there watching people break into the scene, where the Entry is a big gig, and seeing them get bigger, it is pretty cool.

Singer-songwriter Gracie Abrams performing in the 7th Street Entry.
Photo by Tony Nelson
Singer-songwriter Gracie Abrams performing in the 7th Street Entry.
“Then there is the setup of the space itself,” Labree continued. “Like I came out of the restroom and took a picture of (the Australian jazz band) Surprise Chef, and people on my feed were saying, ‘Are you in the band?’ and ‘Were you on stage?’ No, it’s just everything is so close together.”

Still unpredictable, and rewarding

There are two bathrooms in the Entry now, mostly spic and span and graffiti-free. There has also been some behind-the-scenes remodeling, but the basic layout of the club for the general public has remained the same — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Seating is still at a premium — along the back wall there is extended, two-tiered place to sit and put your feet up, like a shoeshine stand, and a series of stools, about a dozen in all, are lined along the ledge that separates the back level from lower floor in front of the stage, which looks like it can hold about 70 people.

My first show at the Entry was shortly after I moved to town in the spring of 1985, to see the thrash group The Minutemen, who almost literally blew me away — it sounded like a tuning fork striking the Liberty Bell in the canals just outside my ear drums. I’ve been back on a semi-regular basis ever since (with a break for COVID), but returned with a gusto, with about a dozen gigs in August, to get a more comprehensive update on the venue.

The first inclination is to acknowledge that the place will probably never reach the heights of its ’80s prime as a punk mecca, or the hip-hop revelries that had Atmosphere commanding the club for a solid week in the early aughts. But that perspective may stem from the fact that the most vivid, positive memorie, are the ones that survive.

Labree is right — if you have the time and the cash (although almost all shows are under $20, constant attendance can add up), the unpredictability can be a charm. The diversity of genre and band notoriety has perhaps never been broader. I saw country-folk music and hip-hop, aggressive punk rock, tuneful soft rock, and bubblegum pop with singers using computer mixes instead of a live group.

Singer-songwriter Billie Eilish performing in the 7th Street Entry.
Photo by John Lukas
Singer-songwriter Billie Eilish performing in the 7th Street Entry.
Even the sparsely attended shows brimmed with community. A gender-fluid, and gender-carbonated, trio of Black performers brought out a dedicated LGTBQ+ throng who spontaneously broke out into a gleeful line dance as a drag queen lip-synched Erykah Badu’s song “Tyrone.” A pair of earnest hard-rock opening acts each brought an enthusiastic throng that looked like ongoing cliques from high school. And, almost invariably, regardless of music type or overall popularity, parents and/or grandparents of the local acts are easily spotted among the audience. “My mother still talks about the time she went to the Entry and saw all three of her sons in different bands on the same night,” Walsh said.

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You never know when you are going to hit the jackpot. Scholtes estimates that he was one of about 20 people in the room the night a fledgling White Stripes played the Entry. Walsh took his daughter to see Billie Eilish at the Entry in 2017, a year before she really broke through to stardom.

During my August sojourns, I caught Sweeping Promises, a Boston duo transplanted to Lawrence, Kansas, and touring with a drummer. The singer was a volcanic banshee and brilliant lyricist; the guitarist was a sublime minimalist. I doubt I’ll ever see them in such an intimate setting again.

I also saw Student 1, the third of five acts in a hip hop showcase that evening. A first-generation American of Ethiopian descent who moved from Maryland to Minneapolis at the age of three; his demeanor was confidently carefree, he movements lithe and efficient, his raps airy yet incisive, catchy and charming. Where the previous (and succeeding) acts too frequently lapsed into clichéd belligerence or exhortation, Student 1 seemed reflective on even the most quicksilver phrases, and lay down on the stage during one of his two “slow songs.” It was a unique, but successful, way to emblazon a memory.