Songwriter-producer-bandleader — and friend-father-husband — felled by cancer
Twin Cities musician Ed Ackerson has died today at age 54.
An amazing musician, songwriter, producer and scenester, Ed had the courage of his convictions. At the peak of Minneapolis indie punk, where The Replacements, Husker Du, Soul Asylum and a hundred others elevated torn jeans and drunken sloppiness into a city-specific art form, Ed was the embodiment of the modernist aesthetic. Clean living under difficult circumstances.
I first came to know Ed Ackerson in the mid-80s. His band The Dig, who looked and sounded like an American version of The Jam, had put out a spellbinding single. “Problem With Mary” was as good a song as has ever been recorded by an American mod band. And that’s not to ghettoize it. Ed’s musical interests were incredibly varied. The first time I ever spoke to Ed was at The West End, where Craig Ziegler had booked The Dig to open for The Slugs. I have some vague memory of a van breakdown, but Ed told me that I couldn’t really be a mod unless I explored Thee Milkshakes and Syd Barrett’s solo work and with early Pink Floyd. I was 16 and he had to be about 21.
A couple months later, in March 1986, my best friend and I ditched a week of our senior year in high school to drive up to Minnesota. A crew of Stillwater people headed to see The Dig at 7th Street Entry. Also from Stillwater, Ed had such bad flu that he had to perform the show sitting down in a chair. And it was still amazing. The guy had to rock.
Ed started the Susstones label with John Kass and put out records by many Midwestern jangle pop bands, including a growing number that Ed produced as he honed his chops in the studio. He was already starting to show the craftsmanship that would make him an in-demand producer, especially for bands who valued authenticity and live-room sounds over ProTools perfection.
Ed’s next band The 27 Various began to achieve a measure of mainstream success. The group started to release their music on Twin-Tone/Clean Records and their most significant albums, Approximately and Up, included at least one moment of perfection each, including “Love Somebody” and the gem “Like The Poison,” as good a song as has ever emerged from the Prairie.
Ed found his greatest commercial success with his next band Polara. After a debut album on Clean, they made the leap to the majors with C’est La Vie (1997) and Formless/Functional (1998) coming out on Interscope Records. Ed told me in 2015, “Polara was the closest I’ve come to operating in the mainstream as an artist, and the experience of being on a major label and operating on that scale was fun for a while. But ultimately I prefer the autonomy and spontaneity that the DIY path allows. I still do a lot of work with big companies as a record producer (The Replacements, Motion City Soundtrack, Jayhawks), so I keep a foot in both games, but for my own creativity, I like to be my own A&R department.”
His final band was BNLX, which featured his wife Ashley Ackerson and another Chicago rock guy made good, guitarist Jim McGuinn Slusarek.
Ed contacted me frequently via Facebook after he’d see one of my posts when he didn’t care to remark publicly but had thoughts to share. If he noticed I was going to be in town, or for some reason he was in London when I was in Liverpool, we’d try to connect. Usually unsuccessfully, but I was always grateful that he reached out because I was such an admirer.
Ed was a talented and enthusiastic photographer, as well. He had a large collection of unusual vintage instruments and amps. He’d photograph them, and sometimes he would alert me to a special one knowing that I liked to share that kind of stuff on our guitar globe Instagram, like this one of Ed’s 1972 Telecaster.
The last time I saw Ed was in Brooklyn at a BNLX show when they were opening for Swedish psych poppers Les Big Byrd. Ashley was seven months pregnant with their first child, a now four-year-old named Annika.
This morning, Ashley wrote, “Today I lost my best friend, my companion, my collaborator, my co-conspirator, my globe trotting partner, my rock touring buddy, my true love, my joy, my other half, my heart, my everything.”
Ed kept working even as his condition worsened, and most of his friends, including me, didn’t realize he was sick until recently. And even that, the reveal, came about in the most stylish and Ed way possible. The Who came to Minneapolis last month to play a concert at the Xcel Energy Center. Somehow the mod patriarch himself, Pete Townshend, had heard of Ed‘s battle with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Townshend mentioned from the stage in front of a whole arena of people who either knew Ed or had at least been touched by his music, that a friend of a friend named Ed Ackerson was sick.
“His name’s Ed Ackerson, he’s here tonight with his family. Ed, I hope you recover. It’s one of those stories. God Bless, Ed.” And then 1-2-3-4 and the D chord inversions that start “Substitute.”
With that, Ed and Ashley decided it was time to let people know. The outpouring has been intense and amazing to behold, but not a surprise.
A friend and former bandmate, Daniel Boen, created a gofundme to support the family. I contributed and I hope you do, as well, but the description alone is heart-rending. “He is tough as nails and he has fought back with everything he’s got, but this is a deadly disease with a low survival rate. Ed, his wife Ashley and their beautiful 4-year-old daughter Annika all need your help to keep fighting for now and for the future.”
Now that that fight has ended, Ed leaves behind a long list of great songs—written, performed and recorded. It’s impressive. It’s enough. But his real legacy lies in the lives touched by his warm and generous spirit.
Ed‘s friend John Strohm, now the head of Rounder Records and a former member of Blake Babies and The Lemonheads, wrote of Ed, “Over the years we’ve made many records together, crashed on each other’s couches, logged many thousands of road miles, and shared the deepest bond I’ve known with anyone who didn’t share my last name. Ed challenged me every step of the way and made me a better person in many respects. He used to always inspire and challenge me to be a better and more ambitious musician, songwriter, and record-maker.”
In June, out of the blue, Ed sent me a photo of him holding the 1991 EP of my band The Lilacs. That’s Ed’s left hand you see in the selfie, the signature calloused pinky of a guitar maniac, along with about a million other records that mark an obsessive fan. “Organizing singles for the first time in over a decade, and I struck gold! Hope you have a lovely weekend.” He was already sick then, but it would take someone more sensitive than I am to notice it through his optimism and kind message.
On August 15, nearing the end, Ed wrote to congratulate me on The Lilacs dusting off the cobwebs to record a new record. “Congrats on the new EP!” he wrote. “And it makes me happy to know you love rock just as much now as you did then.”
I thanked him and told him, “Your BNLX project was partly responsible. I figured you’re still playing with joy and heart … maybe I could, too.”
“You absolutely are, very happy to see/hear it,” Ed replied. Cheering on the music, til the very end. That’s Ed Ackerson.
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