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Late-night magic at MJQ: An oral history, Part I

How a Swedish Chinese tastemaker, and a generation of artists, thugs, club kids, DJs and urban intellectuals turned Ponce de Leon Avenue on its ear



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Ryan Murphy and Ben Lukens circa '98. - PHOTO COURTESY BEN RHOADES

Rose: George wanted to renew the lease and was supposed to tell the landlord within 30 days. He called on the 30th day, but it was after 1 a.m. Technically, he was a day late and the landlord had done a back-door deal with a guy named Ray Burton Jr. In the end, Ray was just young and made a mistake. He paid more money for the lease and eventually opened a club there called Vox.

Though details have never been made public, at some point Chang was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. MJQ's presence continued to grow throughout 1996, and he kept his health issues quiet.

Ben Rhoades, current owner of MJQ: At some point George decided to sell the club, so I put in a bid, but I needed a partner [so] Ben Lukens came on board, and Michael Payne stayed on board as well. George gave us the name and we paid him like $4,000 for the bar stools and a couple of coolers. Wayne Briggs was a local promoter back then. He's the one who found the current space.

Wayne Briggs: I used to book a night at Lou's Blues Revue with Speech [of Arrested Development]. One night, Lou asked if we wanted to take over the lease. Speech wasn't into it so I told Ben about it. I didn't hear anything else, until one day George and Michael called and said, "Meet us at this address." When I got there Michael had already started painting the place.

Psomas: We had a sledgehammer party on the last night the old club was open. All of the regulars came in and ripped out everything that George had put in there.

Rose: George created MJQ out of an empty shell and it was gratifying to make sure that the next owners couldn't build off of anything he had done.

MJQ is on the move. 1997. - COURTESY JOHN ROBINSON

Rhoades: Ray [Burton Jr.] opened Vox about a month before we opened in the new spot. His father was a big business guy around town and was somehow involved with Vox. He was this old Southern guy who just sat at the door and made sure that they charged everyone who came in, even the old regulars, so they immediately lost any of the good will that the location once held. They closed just a few months later.

Rose: Ray died in a scooter accident sometime later.

The newer, larger MJQ Concourse opened up at 736 Ponce de Leon Ave. in September of 1997. Michael Payne adopted the role of conceptualizing and designing the new club's look, and started throwing more of his elaborately themed parties. In addition to his leisure parties, there were Vegas-themed nights and events with titles such as "Electroport to the Orient" and "Radio Now," set to futuristic theatrics, costumes and a variety show. All who attended were encouraged to wear costumes.

Errol Crane, doorman,1999-2003: We did some immersive mass media exhibitions with fine art and live theatre performances with music. We did fashion shows and things like that. Michael Payne was throwing parties that transformed the whole space for one night, too.

One of the parties we did was a "Naughty Girl Slumber Party." The first time we did it, it was unanticipated — sort of innocent. A lot of times nightclubs get overly sexual and become a good excuse for people to dress trampy. But for the first one, no boys were allowed. They had to find a way to sneak in, so we had a lot of "pizza delivery guys" show up. I was at the door and dressed as a dad, I was the chaperone. Someone else dressed up as one of the blue dots on the walls down there.

George Chang and close friend Dorothea Bozicolona-Volpe. - PHOTO COURTESY DOROTHEA BOZICOLONA-VOLPE
  • Photo courtesy Dorothea Bozicolona-Volpe
  • George Chang and close friend Dorothea Bozicolona-Volpe.

Ryan Murphy, current manager of MJQ: Me and Michael and Jody Drake, who used to do Britpop night, Tina and another friend named Pete Fineman moved here from Miami. Michael came here before me, and he and George were fostering the same kind of music scene that had been going on in Miami. When the club was moving, Michael called to ask if I was interested in managing the place. I had fuck-all to do, and was about to join the Army, so I came here. The new club was built on Ben Rhoades electrocuting himself every 10 minutes, Michael painting the walls and Ben Lukens keeping us all organized.

Rose: There was some discussion about there being a fundamental shift from the old place to the new one because they wanted to push it in the direction of a bigger club with more room for live music.

Psomas: Adding "Concourse" to the name was definitely Michael's doing. He wanted to create the feeling of being in a Pan Am airport lounge in the 1960s. The idea was that you were rushing through this futuristic airport setting.

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