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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



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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.

FLOOR TO CEILING: Carbonas rock the casbah on Memorial Drive. - COURTESY OF BEAN SUMMER

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.

EVERYTHING MUST GO: Even the disco ball made the move from Lenny’s original location to a nearby strip mall. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • EVERYTHING MUST GO: Even the disco ball made the move from Lenny’s original location to a nearby strip mall.

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.

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