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R.I.P. Lenny's

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.

A regular known only as “Cowboy” (smiling) holds down the bar with some old-heads. - COURTESY OF BEAN SUMMER

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.

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