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Nuçi's Beautiful Place

A musician's death gives birth to healing

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It seems more like a dream than a real story. Nuçi Phillips was the great-grandson of Koço Kotta, the prime minister under King Zog of Albania in 1939, before Mussolini's troops invaded.

Growing up in Atlanta, Nuçi (pronounced NU-chi) was so intuitive that a pre-school teacher predicted he would become a great psychiatrist. His parents called him "Dr. Freud."

"When he was 6, he came home and asked, 'When are you going to get divorced?'" recalls his mother, Linda Phillips. Nuçi had noticed that the kids whose parents were divorced got to stay longer in the after-school program and had more fun.

Nuçi and his older brother, K.P., shared a never-ending joke about the hapless Jon Koncak, the Atlanta Hawks' 7-foot center who never seemed to score any points.

"It was hilarious to them," Linda recalls. "They used to laugh so much about that."

Nuçi's father, Pierre, was a diagnostic radiologist. Linda, who had been a nurse, stayed home in Druid Hills with her boys.

Nuçi was an athlete. He played basketball, soccer, tennis and golf. But most of all, he was a musician. He fell in love with the guitar and began to write songs. He did it with such skill and originality that he eventually built a reputation in the rock music crucible of Athens, where he studied psychology at the University of Georgia.

He formed a band and called it -- what else? -- Koncak. The group put together a CD, Only When the Right Side Glows, which featured "X-Mas Time," a song selected for Flagpole magazine's 1996 Christmas CD collection. The competition for such exposure is staggering: Flagpole's annual directory of Athens bands has topped 400 listings.

Another artist on that Flagpole collection, Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers, says Koncak's CD is "one of the most overlooked and underappreciated albums that I have ever heard. The songwriting is fantastic. Every song is a gem. ... The lyrics to the Christmas song are as good as anything [Kurt] Cobain ever wrote. Simple and beautiful. Very sad song. Very clean lines and almost minimalistic, yet at times musically quite complex. I absolutely rate it in my all-time top five best albums from Athens, Ga."

But by the time Koncak's CD was released, Nuçi Phillips was dead.

Linda and I spent an afternoon talking in the living room of the condo near Phipps Plaza where she and Pierre now live. She told me what happened. Nuçi changed at age 17, in the summer of 1991 before his senior year at the Paideia School.

"He started withdrawing from us," Linda says. As Christmas approached, Nuçi played his guitar at a school assembly. "He came home, and he was on top of the world," Linda says. Two days later, the family planned to see the "Messiah" at Symphony Hall. About 4 p.m., Linda saw Nuçi leave the house with a can of lawn mower gas.

"I said, 'Has somebody run out of gas?' He said, 'Yeah, a friend called and I'm going to take the gas to him.'"

Two hours later, the police called. They told Linda that Nuçi had been in an accident and wasn't hurt. But they were taking him to Grady Memorial Hospital. And they explained why.

Linda, as stunned as if she had received a call from another planet, turned to her husband and her other son, who were eating dinner, and said, "Nuçi just tried to kill himself."

At Grady, Nuçi's face exhibited the blank look that psychiatrists call "flat affect."

He had driven to an abandoned warehouse near a tennis court where he practiced. He poured the gasoline on himself, drove his car to the end of the parking lot and floored it to build ramming speed as he crashed into the warehouse, smashing through three concrete walls. He thought the car would explode and he would immolate, but he only scratched a finger.

Nuçi spent weeks in a psychiatric hospital. Linda says he was one of the 20 percent of clinical depression patients who don't respond to medication. But he did recover well enough to go to UGA and pursue his music. You can hear his joyous laughter on his CD.

In 1996, Nuçi didn't come home for Thanksgiving as planned, and he didn't call. Linda and Pierre drove to Athens and met Nuçi's producer, David Barbe, at the apartment where Nuçi lived alone. They knocked but got no answer.

"The landlord went in and Nuçi was dead in his room, sitting in a chair with a shotgun in his hand," Linda says. He was 22.

"I think Nuçi was very pessimistic about making a living from his music," Linda says. "A few days before he died, he said to me, 'It's too bad I'll never make it with my music.' That's how he felt when he was depressed -- distorted thinking."

Since then, Linda has read everything in the field and settled on the work of New York psychiatrist J. John Mann, who believes there is a gene or cluster of genes that make some people more prone to suicide. "It was the only thing that ever made sense to me," she says. "Nuçi had it. I think he got a double whammy from both sides of the family."

In 1998, Linda was running on her treadmill when it occurred to her that she could build clean, safe practice rooms for musicians in Athens. Then she realized she should add mental health to the mix.

"It's almost a no-brainer," she says. "Athens is a big music town and none of the musicians have insurance, no money." She would draw the musicians to a practice space and "if they needed help, they would ask for it."

Last fall, Nuçi's Space celebrated its fifth anniversary in a converted warehouse with four rehearsal rooms, a coffee bar, a library and a stage for live shows.

Through the center, which is next to the steeple that remains of the old church where R.E.M. began, any musician in Athens can get psychological counseling for $10 a session from professionals in an office across town. Nuçi's Space pays the rest. So far, in direct financial aid, the space has helped 360 musicians and artists receive counseling, from individual therapy to family-style counseling for entire bands.

"Artistic people have always tended more towards a little insanity than the population at large," says Hood. "If you walk around hearing songs playing in your head, it can tend to make you a little crazy."

Of all the bands in Athens, Hood's Drive-By Truckers have been most helpful to Nuçi's Space. The center was initially bankrolled by Atlantans, including one who gave $200,000. It also has received grants and help from two foundations and Atlanta radio station WNNX-FM (99X).

What makes Nuçi's Space work is that it doesn't proselytize, says Randall Bramblett, a respected Athens musician who's toured with Widespread Panic, Traffic and Steve Winwood.

"Nuçi's Space is a unique and very cool thing," says Bramblett, a former social worker. "It could have turned in another direction. It could have been not a hip place that people might associate with a religious thing. The way they've managed it, it is a cool, open, supportive place. It's a huge success."

Linda drives to Athens twice a week and is on call by phone around the clock. She handles every inquiry about counseling. The other day, I was speaking with her, Executive Director Bob Sleppy and Development Director Will Kiser in the Nuçi's Space library. Suddenly, I noticed Linda was gone. I got up and saw that she was sitting at the coffee bar, talking softly with a pretty blond girl who had tears rolling down her cheeks.

Nuçi's Space's website is www.nuci.org. You can reach Doug Monroe at doug.monroe@creativeloafing.com.

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