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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
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