There’s A Starman Waiting In The Sky. Ed Ackerson: A Celebration Of Life.


Saturday night was billed as a Celebration Of The Life Of Ed Ackerson.  I think we all tried.  In some ways, it felt as though sufficient time had elapsed since his October 4 passing to celebrate.  In other ways, it felt as though the wound still has a long way to go in order to fully heal.  Maybe it was simply that so many of us grieved in small groups or primarily through press and social media.  When we gathered in a full Mainroom, the sheer number of people touched by this remarkable man drove home just how much we lost. 

We will find a way forward because in life we are always tasked with overcoming loss.  Some losses have impacts not just personal; we realize we’re not just there to come to grips with our own pain.  Or to support the immediate family.  Ed’s wife Ashley and four year old daughter Annika have challenges we can’t comprehend.  Last night we gathered to support an entire community that is still in recovery.

I got to thinking that when Ed left, it was a akin to a stroke.  His friends are still here.  The music goes on.  But the brain has to find new pathways in order to do so many of the things we used to take for granted.  Ed Ackerson was not just one of our favorite rock stars, producers, studio executives or recording engineers.  He was the nexus of so much of what makes the Minnesota rock scene so vibrant.  Often working quietly behind the scenes, his fingerprints are all over so much in which we take pride.  Minnesota has always punched far above its weight when it comes to the music we send out into the world.  No individual was more intimately involved in making it great than Ed.  

So it’s understandable that our collective, musical brain will need to re-wire itself to move forward.  Saturday night was a good attempt to find some new pathways.  To get back on our feet.  Together, we celebrated the music that he created with his many bands over the years.  We marveled at the material he helped other artists create in Flowers Studio.  More importantly, it felt like a commitment on the part of the community to pick up the pieces and find a way forward.  Ed’s mission in life was to always create no bullshit, authentic music.  That passion rubbed off on those he touched.  We’ll find a way.

The evening began with friends and family seated on the Mainroom floor.  Stories of Ed’s life, told by his friends, along with video that was created during his last days, comprised the centerpiece.  People described it as emotional, heavy and genuine.  A four year old called out to Daddy when his face appeared on the screen.

Through it all came repeated confirmation of his generous spirit.  It was never just about Ed.  He was driven and genuinely happy to see others succeed.  At the same time, he never stopped driving himself to keep pace with his own eclectic muse.

DJ Jake Rudh guided the between set playlists, full of Ed’s work and music that he loved.  Ed’s label Susstones set up the most elaborate, not in glitz and glamour but choices, merch booths ever seen at First Avenue. One of the presenters referred to it as a “Mini Record Store”.

The rock portion of the night began, of course, with Polara; the launch point. This was the band that was signed to Interscope and put him on the map.  Rather than piling the signing money into lifestyle, Ed built Flowers Studio and helped create Susstone Records.  Last night, Susstones re-released the band’s self titled debut for the first time on vinyl.  John Strohm and Kris Johnson filled in and the music sounded as fresh as it had when it was issued 25 years ago.

BNLX, the group Ed created with his wife Ashley was up next with Chris Pavlich and Kris Johnson helping out.  This reviewer always thought that the most underrated, under the radar band in the Twin Cities music scene was BNLX.  Wildly creative and driving.  Had Ed not been as dedicated to the needs of others and focused solely on this project, I’m convinced that band would stand shoulder to shoulder with names like The Replacements, Soul Asylum, Husker Du and The Suburbs.  The first song Vibrant was the perfect metaphor for the evening:

After the roar has faded from our ears
And the smoke has cleared from the sky
I hope we find solace
I hope we find peace surrounds us
For it was not my intention
To leave here
But this fate is not of ours
Or design

Two Harbors sound was a departure from the BNLX vibe.  Heavy on guitars but again Ed’s touch was there. Chris Pavlich explained how Ed shaped the band’s sound.  How, from his command module, he would always challenge them. “That sounded good, but have you tried…?”

Mark Mallman’s set started with him standing atop his keyboard (to nobody’s surprise) with a love note to Minneapolis.  The city that Ed chose to call home. He described how fitting it was to celebrate Ed’s life in the “hallowed halls” of First Avenue. 

Perhaps it was that choice to stay, to remain one of us when the money and allure of the coasts beckoned, that was at the root of why we loved him.  He traveled the world and like Dorothy, Prince and Puck he must have always felt like ‘there’s no place like home’.  That kind of affirmation is rocket fuel to a music scene.

Kraig Jarrett Johnson resurrected The Program with his friend David Poe.  They were introduced by beloved long time First Avenue stage manager Conrad Sverkerson.  A man often seen but never heard front of house.  Conrad of the star on the wall by the stage door.  He spoke of the friend that Ed had always been to the establishment.  “Whenever there was any kind of problem, he was there to make it right.”

Ed played guitar in that band producing a really fine album in 2018.  The album release party at The Turf Club, during a blizzard, made my Best of the Year List.  Last night’s band was a rotating mix of friends and family.  It struck me that, in many ways, this was a signature sound Ed often pursued.  It felt raw, informal and communal.  The antithesis of pop slick.  Rock music comes in many flavors and levels of sophistication.  But organic always translates.  This, more than anything, describes the quality he relentlessly pursued.

Long time Ackerson friend and Swiss Army knife manager, activist and publicist PD Larsen introduced the headlining Jayhawks, who had a bit more time to spread their wings.  I suspect there were many in the room who were in attendance simply because it was an opportunity to catch one of Minnesota’s most beloved bands.  Gary Louris and band mates deflected the attention and continually brought it back to their departed friend.  They worked together on many projects, beginning with the debut Smile.  Over the years the band became even more associated with Ed and Flowers Studio.  The demos for their break out album 2002’s Rainy Day Music were recorded in the space, as was 2018’s Back Roads and Abandoned Motels.  The Jayhawk’s upcoming 2020 album was also tracked at Flowers.  Unfortunately, Ed didn’t see its conclusion.  Time ran out before the final touches could be made.  Kris Johnson, who will continue to operate Flowers, finished the project.

Louris and Ackerson also collaborated on the recordings of the band Golden Smog.  To many of us long time fans of the scene, this remains the ultimate Minnesota super group.  It’s hard to imagine any person or band being a more appropriate choice to headline this tribute.

Louris kicked things off by saying the set to be delivered would be comprised of songs recorded with Ackerson at Flowers Studio.  Or songs that he knew his friend Ed always enjoyed.  As the set flowed, it seemed to me sublime.

I found myself reflecting on a whole range of thoughts and emotions as the band played.  The Jayhawks and their beautiful four part harmonies have always had a sound long on longing.  There is this touch of Midwestern reserve and humility.  A grounding on which those plaintive harmonies float; like a bright balloon firmly tethered on a gentle summer day.  

The evening, which began with no small amount of pain, kept trying to turn into a rock and roll affair.  Yet, it seemed there remained a bit of a somber cap on the room.  It’s hard to dance in the face of loss.  The Jayhawks broke through that cap; the tension eased. They were a balm to a lot of folks who were still very sad.

Like the bands before them, they opened the stage.  Friends joined, particularly former ‘hawk, the aforementioned Kraig Johnson.  It wasn’t just another concert.  There was genuine joy which flowed from the stage.  As the set drew to a close, the band offered up a remarkable version of Bowie’s Starman.  Louris must be commended.  It was a perfectly selected and timed idea. Who couldn’t finally dance and sing along with the band?  The mixture of joy and tears was palpable as the dam finally broke.  Together we sang for Ed:

That weren’t no d.j. that was hazy cosmic jive
There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us
But he thinks he’d blow our minds
There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’s told us not to blow it
Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile
He told me:
Let the children lose it
Let the children use it

As the last notes faded, I turned to go.  Glad for the darkness which hid my tears.  A perfect ending, it seemed.  Once again, Louris was a step ahead.  He invited any and all back to the stage.  They joined together for Golden Smog’s Byrds like classic Until You Came Along.  Ed would never have sent us away in tears.  That’s one happy song.

On the drive home I reflected on all the connections in this small world.  How in so many ways the Twin Cities music scene is like a family.  It collaborates and supports.  It sees competition as a strike against the strength of the whole.  It builds community.  Community in the good times and the bad.  When Louris and the crowd sang Starman, I cried not just for Ed but for a mutual friend named Dale.  And a friend named Debi, who also loved good music.  For David Bowie.  For the father in law I never met.  For my Mom. For all of us who have lost someone to that horrible disease.  It reminded me that together we carry on by continuing to sing.  We make a difference to those most affected by contributing to research and buying records and merchandise which benefits survivors.  Music is a healer. 

Ed Ackerson was a musical medicine man of the highest order.

The night’s emcee, friend and former BNLX band mate, Jim McGuinn summed it up: “I just wanted to help everyone there gather their feelings and love for Ed and each other.  To push them up to wherever Ed is at, in our hearts or the cosmos. Seeing those videos, hearing the music was amazing and brought him back to me.  I caught myself more than once thinking:  ‘You know you would have loved this, Ed!'”

He would. Even if he would have been embarrassed by the adulation. Because nobody in the history of Minnesota music found more joy in seeing music heal and challenge.  Today we can choose to be sad again.  Or we can set his last gift, the posthumous Capricorn One, on the turntable. Then we’ll spend some time with BNLX and Polara.  It will bring some joy and healing.  It will help those who deserve it most, Ashley and Annika Ackerson.  Not to remind them of what they lost.  But how gifted they were to be the centerpiece of a very special life.

Thank you, Ed Ackerson.  You gave so much.  You remain the harmony in our hearts.