An oral history of the crackheads, the Christmas lights, the PBR, the punks, the one-room shack, the strip mall, the graffiti, the noise, the corn dogs, the tornado, the losers, the legend and the end
The story of its origins rests more on folklore than fact. But even before it came to be known as the CBGB of Atlanta, Lenny's Bar was the very definition of a dive.
In its original location at 307 Memorial Ave., it stood as a derelict shack some say was built out of two double-wide trailers butted together, slathered in graffiti and left to decay on the edge of a kudzu wasteland. In the mid-1950s, according to legend, it was called Saba's and had a dirt floor. At some point in history it may also have been called Red's Place. It eventually became Dottie's Food and Spirits — by day, a home away from home for work-hardened Cabbagetown drinkers; by night, a grimy, smoke-filled music room, comfortably broken in by years of hardcore revelry.
Acts ranging from a burgeoning turntablist by the name of DJ Klever to an unhinged singer/songwriter known as Cat Power honed their skills there in the '90s. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, it was christened Lenny's, the name that would become synonymous with everything off-brand about Atlanta music, from punk to noise to alternative rap.
If a band couldn't book a show anywhere else in town, Lenny's was the launching pad. With a back door underage kids could sneak in and quarters so tight that a friendly gathering could feel like a packed living room, the Memorial Avenue location became the playground for Atlanta's underground.
As the decade churned on, Lenny's turned into an accidental incubator for the city's musical misfits. Nameless acts grew into name brands. A precocious kid and his freaky experimental act Deerhunter, Atlanta's hardhead provocateurs Black Lips, even an angelic pixie named Janelle Monáe all played some of their earliest shows and came of age there. Some of Atlanta's most urgent acts were born out of nothing on Lenny's stage; one of them tragically died there.
After surviving an ill-fated move a few blocks away, to the ass-end of a mostly vacant strip mall — and leaving much of its tattered soul behind — Lenny's suffered a tornado that left a leaky roof and dwindling local relevance in its wake. In the end, the same PBR-soaked, devil-may-care attitude that led it to local prominence will punctuate the club's last hurrah. On Dec. 31, 2010, Lenny's will host its final show, putting an end to the musical legacy it unwittingly fostered.
For this oral history, CL talked with musicians, promoters, sound guys, and door men who were part of the era that made Lenny's so legendary.
David Railey, Corndogorama music fest founder and booker at Lenny's former incarnation, Dottie's: When I started booking at Dottie's, bands had been playing there since the '80s. Moe Tucker from the Velvet Underground and all of the good, weird Atlanta bands like Smoke and Dirt had played there. Cat Power, too, and when she wasn't playing a show, Chan Marshall hung out and played pool. On one of my first nights booking, I walked in and there was Dottie — this woman who was probably in her 60s — on a pair of roller skates, and she was just beating the crap out of another lady. It was crazy! When she saw me walk in she straightened herself out and said, "Hey hun, what can I do for ya?" She had such a sweet voice, and she pointed me to where the bands should load in their stuff. Then she went back to fighting with this poor woman.
After Dottie died from cancer, her son took over and the bar's reputation plummeted. It no longer had a liquor license, and Railey, who had staged the first four Corndogoramas at Dottie's, moved it in 2000 to the Earl. That same year, Clermont Lounge owners Kathi Martin and Tracy and Elwood Brown bought Dottie's, but Dottie's son refused to vacate. According to Martin, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms had to kick him out.
Kathi Martin: Dottie's son was running the place into the ground. We were lucky to get a liquor license because he had been terrorizing the neighborhood, which was dead set against opening another bar there. We did, and we wanted to keep the name Dottie's, but her son threatened to sue us.
He wouldn't leave, so the ATF came in and closed the place down. It was a big mess. My business partner was there, and the ATF guy said, "We need to know the name of the new business right now!" Just off the top of his head he goes: "Lenny's." It was a spur of the moment thing. We did have a Lenny working there when we opened, and everybody thought he was the owner, but we hired him after the fact.
In early 2001, Lenny's opened in a primordial state. Bands played there, but promotion was an afterthought. Booking stumbled along for about a year until a recent college graduate from Ohio and Tower Records employee, Ben Worley (aka Bean Summer), took on the job in the fall of 2002. His philosophy was simple: Book whoever will play.
Bean Summer: The first time I went to Lenny's was after a Young Blood Gallery art opening. One of the artists in the show invited me over to see his friend's band play. I remember pulling into this totally sketchy parking lot, and there were a bunch of homeless people standing around. When I walked in there was a crazy mix of rednecks, older homeless people and cool hipster kids just hanging out. It was cool but freaky, an old piece of Atlanta, and there weren't many places around like that.
One night I was at the Clermont and the bartender asked, "Why don't you book a Friday night at Lenny's?" She knew that I had booked Q and Not U in the basement of a church when I was in college, but that was about all the booking experience I'd had. So I went in on a Thursday night and met Rick Dang, an old Atlanta rock 'n' roll guy who was doing sound at the time. There was a Peavey board from about 1985 and four microphones. Making the sound system work was a MacGyver job every night for a while. We had to duct tape and rewire everything just to get the two mains to work.
The first couple of years I didn't even have a computer. I went to the library to book bands, and then friends like Brian Parris would come DJ at night. Then after a while Preston Craig started doing his KISS Atlanta dance parties, which brought a whole lot of people through the door. But I was focused on keeping bands coming through the door, too.
Lenny's began attracting an off-kilter music scene that generated a strange energy when the older, daytime drinkers mingled with the younger crowd. Local bands and smaller touring indie, punk and experimental artists became the new nighttime regulars. One of the young faces among this budding scene was a freakishly gaunt kid with a penchant for surrealism named Bradford Cox. He had a fledgling noise band called Deerhunter that played its first show at Lenny's in 2002.
Bradford Cox: The first time I went there it reminded me of my cousin's double-wide trailer. My family is kind of country, but at that point in my life it was exactly what I was looking for, the spiritual equivalent of CBGB. For the first Deerhunter show, Moses Archuleta played bass with a pair of scissors. Dan Walton played drums. It was a different time for Deerhunter. We had a song called "Nylon Girls," and we were very inspired by Perverted By Language-era Fall and bands like Sightings. Randy Castello of Tight Bros. Network and Gavin Frederick of Stickfigure Records were putting on shows there. Bean glued it all together.
Cyrus Shahmir, member of the N.E.C. and former Lenny's soundman: I saw Deerhunter there when they were playing songs that would become Cryptograms and Fluorescent Grey. They had developed that five-piece, all-encompassing sound that was so striking to me at the time. They sounded creepier back then. The fucking Christmas lights behind the stage and the tarp on the ceiling made for an effective ambiance, and you could gather people to come to a show and it didn't have to be sold out to be really cool. If it was packed-out, the whole place rocked. It was intimate and crusty.
Analucia McGorty, a Lenny's regular who went on to sing for Chicago punk-pop quintet the Busy Signals: My friend Lis and I were hanging out there one night and we got into a fight with some dumb girls. During the fight these crackheads that were constantly hanging out stole Lis' purse. After it was broken up we realized that her bag was gone, so my friend Jeremy Thompson and Jared Swilley of the Black Lips ran and caught up with them at the gas station down the street. Jared was trying to get her purse back when this giant crackhead grabbed him by the shirt and raised him off the ground. Jeremy ran up and punched the crackhead in the face, causing all of his teeth to crumble out of his mouth. Seriously, his teeth just broke. He dropped Jared and Lis' purse fell out of his jacket.
Jared Swilley: We had recently had a lot of equipment stolen during load-in and were still pissed off about that. I saw them running up the street after these crackheads, so I caught up with him. He started punching me, so I punched him back right as a cop pulled up. I thought I was going to go to jail, but the guy who stole the purse kept saying that it was his, and the cop just made us leave.
Bradford Cox: There was just as much negative interaction as there was positive interaction, like when a bunch of skinheads would show up and everyone was just fucking bummed. We were truly hopeless people back then. No one had ever heard of Pitchfork, and no one had ever heard of Coachella. That stuff wasn't even on our radar. What was on our radar was trying to pay rent, and thinking about how nice it would be to one day have health insurance. I had a lot of panic attacks at Lenny's back then. You could really feel the darkness coming from the kudzu.
Jared Swilley: Lenny's was a wild place. I remember being bummed that no one would pay to get in. People would just walk in through the back door and 60 people could fill up the place, but there was never any money and they only gave the bands one pitcher of beer, which really sucked.
In March 2004, promoter Randy Castello of the Tight Bros. Network began booking an experimental open mic night called the Kirkwood Ballers Club, which generated a new wave of avant-garde energy within the local music scene. It occasionally caught the attention of a few notable out-of-towners passing through, such as King Khan of the Shrines and Greg Gillis Girl Talk, both who played their first Atlanta shows at Lenny's Kirkwood Ballers Club.
Randy Castello: Talent was brimming over with all of these kids but they couldn't get gigs anywhere. It was punk and it was small and the energy was right. The PA wasn't great, but if you're playing punk or free jazz or noise it was perfect. The bartenders were surly, but that was part of the charm.
Bradford Cox: I wanted some kind of surrealist punk theater from Kirkwood Ballers Club, but what I usually got was a dude with a laptop playing IDM. But that's what made it cool. There wasn't a script. It was an interesting mix of people and ideas.
Adam Bruneau, local filmmaker and part-time member of folk-noise band Back Pockets: I really liked being able to collaborate at the Kirkwood Ballers Club. Everyone was open to experimenting with weird lineups. You would just show up with an instrument and play with somebody that you hadn't ever played with before, and play some kind of music that you wouldn't normally get to play. There would be old jazz guys there doing crazy breath stuff. I even jammed a few times with Don Mumford, a homeless guy who used to play drums with Sun Ra.
Jared Swilley: I was there every week for the Ballers Club. Sometimes it was really amazing, and sometimes it was really bad.
Bradford Cox: We were all sort of losers, and we were all ugly, and if we weren't ugly we had mental problems. Lexapro was being passed around like candy, and it was like where the gifted kids went to spend their ex-prodigy years. The Drunken Unicorn, Eyedrum and Echo Lounge were all going for a specific thing, but Lenny's was like the meth'd out dude who works at Wal-Mart, but secretly collects Coil records.
In June of 2006, real estate along Memorial Drive skyrocketed as gentrification struck. The Capitol Homes public housing project just down the street was demolished, and construction on Capitol Gateway, a $200 million development, got underway. Lenny's days at 307 Memorial Drive were numbered, but nobody knew exactly when they were getting the boot.
Tuk Smith, of Biters: I was a bartender there and playing in the Heart Attacks, so I started milking the whole "final show at Lenny's" thing. For like two months, every show was the last one ever. Then we'd do another one.
After the property sold, Lenny's moved to 486 Decatur St., on the backside of a strip mall. It was three times the size of the former location, and somewhat cleaner. The old regulars complained about the change of scenery, but business was booming. Trashed Fridays dance parties became the new hipster hangout. In July 2007, David Railey moved the Corndogorama from the Earl to the new Lenny's and utilized the entire strip mall to facilitate indoor and outdoor stages. No one knew it at the time, but neither the bar nor Corndogorama would ever surpass the success and notoriety of that year's event, mostly due to an epic headlining performance by Atlanta metal gods Mastodon.
Lenny's crowds soon began to thin as established bands such as Black Lips and Deerhunter began to play shows around the world. Smaller bands without much draw took their place, but they only made the larger room feel painfully empty.
Bean Summer: During that first year we did twice as well as the old Lenny's ever did. Deerhunter and Black Lips could bring double the people and we could fit them. King Khan and the Shrines played, Jay Reatard — we did a lot of big shows there.
Jared Swilley: The new place always felt like a sports bar in the suburbs. It was never as comfortable as the old place. It sounded like shit.
Bean Summer: I wanted the new Lenny's to be two separate rooms, have an 18-plus room so there was a music room and another room for the bar, but the owners didn't want to do it. That was a big part of Lenny's failure.
Cyrus Shahmir: The problem with the new Lenny's was that the people who ran it refused legitimate input from people who wanted to make it better. If you have a sound problem in an echo-heavy room, you should invest in sound reinforcement. If you give a shit about what your patrons think, you'll do that. It sounded like shit, and it trickled down to a bad reputation.
In July of 2007, Bradford Cox and Deerhunter guitarist Lockett Pundt were robbed at gunpoint outside of the club after playing a Friday night show. The bad nights started outnumbering the good ones. But while much of the punk rock scene Lenny's had nurtured was abandoning the new location, others were going through a formative experience there. A new and distinct, off-the-radar rap scene was on the rise. MCs including Yelawolf, Hollyweerd, Sean Falyon, Spree Wilson, Pill, Killer Mike, Grip Plyaz, even future-soul starlet Janelle Monáe, were becoming new fixtures at Lenny's.
Yelawolf: The first time I played Lenny's was in the Fuggin Awesome days, back in 2007. That was an event that me and a bunch of other local underground guys on the scene put together: Brian "BP" Parks, Chris from the Hydrilla, and Skape Zilla. It started over at the Drunken Unicorn, but we outgrew that place so we moved it over to Lenny's. Fuggin Awesome really created a scene. Hollyweerd, Killer Mike, CyHi da Prynce, they were all coming out.
Bean Summer: They were ready and they were real, and they had something cool happening. At the same time, some of the older bands that had been playing there were getting to be too big and had moved on to play shows at Variety Playhouse. I had to change things up.
Grip Plyaz: I was playing at Lenny's back in the old spot, when it was still called Dottie's, with Atlanta hip-hop act Collective Efforts. They didn't do a lot of hip-hop shows there, but they did their share, and it was a cool spot to go hang out. I liked the newer one, too, but it ain't nothing like the old Dottie's.
Yelawolf: That place had a vibe like no other. You could go nuts there and no one cared. Security wasn't trippin' and they just let artists be artists. If the door guy was cool with you and the bartenders were cool with you, they'd have you back until you did start pulling a crowd, and the biggest crowd that I have pulled as a headliner in Atlanta was at Lenny's.
One night this old lady came up and flashed her titties at everyone during one of my shows. She was probably 60, and just bar-hopped in there. She came up front and was peeping me, and then she got on stage and: Bwahhh!
Grip Plyaz: It seems like there are fewer and fewer places that even fuck with the underground hip-hop scene anymore. Lenny's was one of the only places that would take us in and let us do what we want to do, so we stuck with it.
Yelawolf: I've left Lenny's smelling like a fucking garbage bin — from cigarettes, being wet with beer, and from falling on the ground, shirt-ripped, scratched on the face. They let you be who you are. I grew up as an artist at Lenny's. I went from performing with a DJ, to straight DJ and a drummer, to rocking with a full band, and back to straight rap shit. Lenny's was our spot.
Though home to another emerging scene, Lenny's still wasn't out of the water. On March 14, 2008, the club came face-to-face with nature's fury when a tornado swept through parts of downtown Atlanta, Cabbagetown and Old Fourth Ward. Portions of the nearby Cotton Mill Lofts were left in near ruins, and Lenny's sustained significant damage.
Bean Summer: I thought a jetliner had crashed outside. I was sitting at the computer and the lights literally started exploding. When I looked outside there was a roof lying in the parking lot. Two months before, the building had been sold, and the new group refused to fix the damage to the roof. It was a leaking nightmare and there was no air conditioner. We had tons of shows booked and there was a crazy heat wave going on. The Sword came to play and were really upset about the A/C situation, which burned us out with their booking agent.
Kathi Martin: The building's owner wouldn't fix nothing and said that we were in charge of maintenance. But when a tornado comes along and takes your air conditioner, that's the people who own the property's problem. There was water everywhere. I finally made a deal that we would get out and they would take a year off the lease. They finally fixed the roof and wound up keeping us after that.
Bean Summer recalls the day the tornado hit
As things were seemingly getting back to normal, tragedy struck just after midnight on Nov. 4, 2008. Hip-hop mainstay Binkis Recs was performing for a modest crowd when group member and champion of the city's longstanding indie rap underground, Christopher "Jax" Thurston, collapsed on stage in the middle of his performance. He was rushed to Grady Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead. An autopsy would later conclude that he died of natural causes related to hypertension.
D.R.E.S. tha Beatnik: I was hosting the show. I got there early and I saw Jax and Flux from Binkis Recs hanging out waiting for the festivities to get started. It was a regular night and I introduced Binkis like I had always done: I looked at my watch and asked, "Do you know what time it is?" People were looking at their watches, and I said, "Nah, it's not that time. It's Binkis time!"
Midway through the set I could see Jax stepping back a bit. I thought he just needed to catch his breath, and when he collapsed it took everybody by surprise. We called the ambulance and followed it to Grady and waited. Then the news came. It was the night before Obama was elected president, and he didn't even get to see it happen.
Bean Summer, a member of the Wheeler Boys, and Ricky Raw recall the night Jax died at Lenny's.
Nearly a year later, on Sept. 15, 2009, Bean Summer accepted a job with PBR, and gave Lenny's his two-week notice. Darby Wilson, who had been booking mostly punk and metal shows under Bean for about a year and a half, carried on. After New Year's Eve 2009, Lenny's bartender Shannon McCarty and Steven Hicks bought Lenny's, but Kathi Martin retained a small percentage of ownership in order to grandfather in the liquor license. But with Bean out, things spiraled downward. There were strings of nights when no bands were booked at all. Sean McPherson, who had booked the Atlanta Room at Smith's Olde Bar, came on board for awhile, but his plan to attract a new clientele failed.
Darby Wilson: Shannon and Steve thought if they brought in a singer/songwriter crew they would sell more liquor because they weren't making enough money on PBR, which is ridiculous. Lenny's always sold big PBRs for cheap, which was kind of the idea behind the place. Sean wanted to treat Lenny's like it was the Earl or Smith's, but you can't change the demographic of a dive bar. Rich, older white people don't go to the corner of DeKalb Avenue and Boulevard.
Jamie Karns, Lenny's longtime door guy and last de facto booking agent: Steve and Shannon wanted to diversify so they could make money. Darby was only booking punk and metal shows. He was booking the same 12 to 15 bands over and over. There were a few touring bands every now and then, but he just kept rotating the same locals. There was one month when Royal Thunder played three times!
Less than a month after Karns took the reins in October, he announced via Facebook that Lenny's would be closing at the end of the year, when the venue's liquor license is set to expire. Though Kathi Martin had agreed to sublease the license, she's refusing to pay the $5,000 renewal fee since the venue is no longer making any money.
The weeks leading up to Lenny's closure have been quiet. A handful of nights are being billed as "the last show ever at Lenny's" — but this time no one is milking anything. The schedule on the website hasn't been updated since September. Though co-owner Steven Hicks says he may reopen the space, the end of Lenny's feels unavoidable and unceremonious. But news of its impending death has renewed talk of saving the club, however far-fetched that might be.
Ques, member of hip-hop duo Southern Folk, one of the last acts to perform on Lenny's stage: I was kinda hurt to hear about Lenny's closing down. It's where we honed our performance skills and developed our stage presence. If I had the money to buy it I would and keep it alive, because Atlanta will suffer when it's gone. There ain't many places where underground rappers can go get they shine on these days.
Yelawolf: Can we save Lenny's? If it's a matter of raising $5,000 we could do that with one concert. Everybody in our family would play for free and give the money to keep Lenny's open.
Jamie Karns: It would be awesome, and it makes me happy that people feel that way, but if we were to go after a new liquor license it would cost a lot more than $5,000. When you start talking about fees, licenses, and insurance this and insurance that, you're talking more like $50,000 to keep it going, and Lenny's doesn't have that.
D.R.E.S. tha Beatnik: More than the tornado, and more than anything else, Lenny's didn't open its door to another generation of kids, which really added to its demise.
Darby Wilson: It's still a bummer, but I'd rather see Lenny's go than see it continue the way it has been going.
Audio produced by Alejandro A. Leal