Lucy's Record Shop

A Dog's Life - The Times of Lucy's Record Shop, by Jim Ridley, Nashville Scene, January 29, 1998

A Dog's Life - The Times of Lucy's Record Shop
by Jim Ridley

Link to the Nashville Scene

From the moment it opened, in the summer of 1992, Lucy's Record Shop was destined to close. A pop-culture movement is by nature ephemeral: It emerges in the moment and flickers briefly, and its demise is inevitable. In its moment, it may embody the exuberance and spirit of its time so precisely that it seems poignant in retrospect. But any movement defined by youth is destined to end just like youth. The cyclical nature of rock 'n' roll demanded that Lucy's wouldn't last.

Slightly more than five years ago, Mary Mancini, a transplanted New Yorker turned record-store owner, formed an alliance with two young veterans of the local rock scene, Donnie and April Kendall. They banded together out of a common love of underground rock 'n' roll and a respect for its principles. Working in tandem, they established Nashville as a link in a nationwide underground that heralded coming movements in music, fashion, and thought. Now they're older. They have husbands and babies and ambitions apart from music. Some of them want new careers. Others want to get away from Lucy's just to remember what music feels like as a release, not as a job. These are all sound reasons but they're also reasons that Lucy's teenage clientele have a hard time sympathizing with.

When the record store and all-ages club announced that it would not renew the lease on its Church Street space at the end of January, the news came as a shock to local scenesters. On a rainy Friday night in front of the venue, on the crowded sidewalk tha t has served as the city's informal meeting place for teen punk fans, dozens of kids jostled, pantomimed, and ground cigarettes beneath their sneakers into the cold, wet concrete. But a strange uncertainty was felt, in the whispers and the too casual con versations on the pavement.

"Coming here is a whole social thing," said Ruzena Jata, a Nashville School for the Arts student. Her sister brought her to Lucy's for the first time two years ago. "It's a way to meet people who don't go to your school." She doesn't know where she and h er friends will go once the club closes. "It's really sad," she says, and her friend and classmate Cassandra Laux agrees. "Why not have a place for everyone to go?" asks Cassandra, whose white shoes peek from beneath her baggy cuffs like a mandarin's slippers.

Onstage, the Murfreesboro band Serotonin bashes out the final chords of its feverish set, its seventh appearance at Lucy's in two years. This will be its last. After lead singer Andrew Walker thanks the bookers, club owners, and fans, guitarist Ryan Snyder leans into the microphone and meets the eyes of the crowd. "Somebody has to keep these all-ages shows going," he implores. "We can't let this die." The band that follows, From Ashes Rise, makes the point even more forcefully. In the name of Lucy's, a band member rips off his overalls and performs one last fire-breathing song. Members of band and audience alike writhe in a surge of cathartic energy.

On weekend nights, the front sidewalk, the record-store lobby, and the carpeted playroom are as crowded as ever. The kids who form Lucy's loyal but contentious audience still turn out for touring acts and hometown bands, some of whose members attend the same high schools. That only makes it harder to believe the city's dominant all-ages venue will close for good Jan. 31.

In many ways, it's a miracle Lucy's lasted this long. The tiny Church Street hangout, named for the owner's gentle, sad-eyed Weimaraner, has been an underdog in every sense. It's an independent, locally owned record store, an anomaly in an industry that saves all its perks for national chains. It books punk and independent-label rock bands in the breadbasket of country music. Most daunting of all, it caters to underage audiences, who can't buy the alcoholic beverages that keep most clubs afloat. Any one of these factors would be enough to doom most clubs.

But for all these obstacles, Lucy's has been the flashpoint for a small but intensely creative local music scene, a scene that has included kids, parents, poets, skatepunks, lesbian performance artists, headbangers, and disenfranchised music fans whose hi gh-school years are long past. Whenever movements in youth culture exploded throughout the country - grrrl power, tribalism, skacore - Lucy's brought the blast to Nashville.

In the history of a city, five years and five months is a footstep printed in sand. In the rock underground, where the lives of bands are measured in name changes per nanosecond, it's an era. When Lucy's Record Shop closes this Saturday night, it indeed marks the end of an era, a brief but remarkable period in Nashville's musical history, when the do-it-yourself precepts of underground culture were put into practice and a community grew to meet them.

August, 1992. George Bush is president. Dan Quayle is veep. At the Republican Convention, Pat Buchanan describes the coming election as a "holy war." Bill Clinton is too busy denying Gennifer Flowers even to worry about Paula Jones. Metal is out. Grunge is in. It's the year after Nirvana's Nevermind, and it seems like every band in Seattle has been sucked along to major-label glory in its wake. Kurt Cobain still has two years to live.

Here in Nashville, the city is in the thrall of unprecedented country sales, fueled by the likes of Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus. Civic change is yet to come. There's no Arena, no Oilers; there's not even a Batman Building. Lower Broadway shows flickers of life, but it's still mostly a strip of coin-op porn machines and dying businesses, offset by the occasional honky-tonk outpost. The Wheel is open. The Ryman is closed.

Depending on whom you ask, the local music scene is either gathering steam or pushing up daisies. At the end of the year, the Nashville Entertainment Association selects about a dozen local bands for its annual Extravaganza, including Mouth Full of Bees, Valentine Saloon, and The Velcro Pygmies. Few people show up for the show. Those who do wished they hadn't. So much for all that "local buzz." As a final insult, MCA is shutting down its Nashville pop division. No sense keeping an office here.

If you're under 18, the scene is especially frustrating. If you have a band, you have nowhere to play. You can't get into shows because the drinking age is 21. That leaves few places to hang out. Meet in the Dragon Park, you're told to move on. Meet on E lliston Place, you're told to move on. You don't have a vote, you don't have rights, that's the deal.

At least that's how it was in the summer of 1992, when a tiny record store called Revolutions Per Minute opened for business in a vacant storefront on Church Street. In 1992, Church Street east of Ninth Avenue North was dying, its buildings and trend-setting department stores rapidly becoming a line of ghosts. But on the other side of I-40, Church Street was already dead in spots. Near the interstate, it was brick and concrete and boarded-up windows. One of the only thriving businesses on the block was The World's End restaurant and its sister dance club, the Midnight Sun.

Mary Mancini was spinning records at the Midnight Sun when she got the idea to open a record store in the empty space next door. A native New Yorker, Mancini had worked in the A&R department at Elektra Records. But she wanted a change of scenery, and Nashville, with its vast music industry, seemed like the place to go. No jobs were forthcoming. To make ends meet, she temped in the daytime, and she deejayed in the early-morning hours. All the while, she noticed the lack of independent record stores in Na shville.

"We weren't even carrying punk at first," says Mancini, reminiscing one quiet afternoon in the Church Street storefront. "I didn't even know what to carry." The room was stocked with a grab-bag of vinyl dance singles, import CDs, and albums by bands obscure to most Nashvillians: Pavement. Unrest. Yo La Tengo.

The first few months, there was no money for advertising, and most of the sales came from Mancini's friends. Mancini herself slept in the back of the store, accompanied by her steady companion and watchdog, Lucy. The store might have folded if Mancini hadn't been approached by people as hungry and desperate as she was.

Throughout the 1980s and the early '90s, entrepreneurs made stabs at providing music venues for teen audiences. On Harding Road, the Glass Onion tried to lure kids with shows by Fur Trade, Jet Black Factory, and other local bands. A sushi bar now stands in its place. The popular late-'80s Nashville punk band F.U.C.T. founded Club ROAR, a converted warehouse in a Berry Hill industrial district. Skittish city officials shut it down a week later after learning the young owners didn't have a business license .

Roosters, a subset of the Cannery complex, tried all-ages hardcore punk shows, as did Douglas Corner. Renegade club owner Tommy Smith launched all-ages matinees at Elliston Square. A moped-riding scenester named Kon Molder even instituted punk shows at a parking garage down the block from Tower Records on Elliston Place. He named the semi-regular gigs after a sign that hung above the entrance: Clearance 6-7.

Ironically, the problem with most of these efforts was that teens were all too aware of the all-ages tag. "There'd always be this sense of, 'Now, don't get too wild,' like they were afraid you'd knock over a table," says Cole Carter, who grew up attending shows in Nashville's all-ages underground. The more "hip" adults tried to make the venues, he says, the lamer they seemed - an example being the Glass Onion. "Here's a club for teens, who were all into death-metal at the time," Carter says, "and [the adults who ran it] came up with this name from some Beatles tune."

The only group having much success with all-ages shows was a homegrown outfit called House O' Pain, a booking agency buttressed by a fanzine and a mail-order record service. Its cofounder, Donnie Kendall, knew the hassles of being a teenage music fan in Nashville. He started dating his girlfriend, April, the same month in 1987 that he joined his first band, Rednecks in Pain. The group needed shows, but apart from house parties, venues were all but nonexistent. Donnie and April and their partner Troy Pigue thus started organizing afternoon shows with other punk bands from Nashville and surrounding cities.

"When I was a kid, 11 or 12, I started getting into music," recalls Donnie Kendall, who at 32 is an elder statesman of Nashville's punk scene. "But there was nowhere to see music, and it really pissed me off. There was a void for passionate music lovers. I've never forgotten that."

By 1992, Donnie and April had been married three years, and House O' Pain had settled into a series of "Migraine Matinees" at the Pantheon, a bizarre Fourth Avenue venue that had opened as a sci-fi/fantasy strip club. But when the Pantheon fell into the hands of erstwhile club fixture Gus Palas, House O' Pain abruptly started looking for another space. "Back then, kids played 'follow the venue'- they went where the shows were booked," Kendall explains.

House O' Pain decided to check out the little record shop on Church Street, which sold records they liked and had a spacious back room to boot. By this time, Mancini had decided the store needed a stronger identity, and she renamed it in honor of its most famous feature: her friendly, ever-curious dog, who sniffed and slurped every customer.

Mancini had hosted informal, infrequent shows that were little more than in-store appearances, including a memorable show by They Might Be Giants, who performed there free in the afternoon, played 328 Performance Hall that night, then returned to Church S treet for an after-show party. The store desperately needed a new attraction to survive. So when House O' Pain approached her about using Lucy's for weekend shows, Mancini agreed.

The first official Lucy's show was held on Dec. 3, 1992. In many ways, it was a perfect time capsule of early '90s punk. Band names such as Impetuous Doom, Vomit Spots, Hemophilia, and Utter Contempt for Society could've appeared on Xeroxed flyers staple d to the phone poles of any medium-sized city in America where the sidewalks rolled up at dusk. The turnout was accordingly modest: about 30 kids on a Sunday afternoon.

Yet as word spread about the Sunday-afternoon matinees, something exciting and strange began to happen at Lucy's. With nowhere else to go, teens started hanging out there on weekends. At the same time, Mancini allowed almost any local band to sell tapes, thus giving the disenfranchised community a center. Nashville indie labels like Bloodsucker and House O' Pain could be found right alongside cutting-edge national imprints like Dischord and Matador.

Throughout 1993, as teen audiences and curious scenesters flocked to the club, Lucy's became the place every band had to play. Hell, some bands formed just to play therecrappy bands, one-off bands, bands whose sets consisted of five tuneless, three-chord rants followed by the same five songs all over again. Some groups barely lasted a set. Some got better and lasted.

As a result of its street credibility, Lucy's started to attract touring acts of a caliber unusual to Nashville - performers like Washington, D.C.'s Unrest; Dayton, Ohio's Guided by Voices; New York's Versus; and Athens, Ga.'s Vic Chesnutt. The tiny stage and lack of distance between performer and audience made the shows compellingly intimate. After the shows, bands would have to wheel their equipment out through the front door, which meant anyone could go up and talk to them.

"The bands were always so accessible," recalls Cole Carter. "I never thought I could have that kind of intimacy with someone I considered a true rock 'n' roll genius, like [Unrest frontman] Mark Robinson."

At the same time, the influx of bands had a positive impact on Nashville's own music scene, Carter believes. "All these bands made kids a lot smarter about music," he says. "You started to hear the influence of all these bands - Unrest, Guided by Voices - that you couldn't hear anywhere before." The supremacy of death metal and thrash waned, balanced by the rise of tuneful bands like Toybean and Carter's own group, Crop Circle Hoax.

For years, groups such as the Nashville Entertainment Association had tried to manufacture a buzz about Nashville's uneven rock bands: The hope was that the illusion of momentum would create a self-perpetuating scene. But the opposite was happening on Church Street, much as it would a few months la ter on Lower Broadway during the honky-tonk renaissance. (Some of those performers, like Paul Burch and BR5-49's Smilin' Jay McDowell, had even played in bands at Lucy's.) It wasn't a calculated effort. Like a brushfire, it was just a convergence of the right conditionsmainly the presence of a void and the desperation to fill it. The void was bigger than Mancini knew.

At the time the Lucy's scene was emerging, the rock underground was a nationwide conduit for information. It transmitted bands, trends, political causes, and fashions across the country with the speed of impulses zapping along synapses. As the club's reputation traveled, Lucy's became a part of that pipeline, connecting local bands with contacts in other cities and vice versa.

Movements that originated in other areas of the country thus reached Nashville with extraordinary speed, propagated by traveling bands and dropped-off zines from distant cities. When the youthful militant-feminist riot grrrl movement spread out of Olympia, Wash., in the early '90s, it manifested itself seemingly overnight at Lucy's in the form of angry, supportive, sexually politicized meetings of teenage girls, led by Helo Kitty vocalist/provocateuse "Leslie Q" Quinlan. Boys may have stood around and scoffed, but with Mancini as a tolerant, accessible adult role model, Lucy's nonetheless provided an atmosphere that encouraged open expression, no matter how extreme or raw.

That freedom was evident in the many remarkable self-produced fanzines that began popping up at Lucy's almost immediately after it opened. The underground publications Lucy's stocked - seminal zines like Rollerderby and Factsheet Five - inspired local musicians and high-school students to publish their own personal, contentious, and highly individualistic broadsheets.

The range of voices and the originality of the views could be startling. In his caustic zine My God Shaves, a Williamson County teen named Corey Kittrell wrote of the frustrations he felt as a black high-school student among status-conscious classmates and unthinking bigots. The hot-headed, hilarious Olive Loaf was issued every so often by anonymous wiseguys who resented everything pompous and trendy in Nashville, especially the Scene.

Perhaps best of all was Upslut, written by Hillsboro High student Christine Doza. Doza's loyal readers received scorchingly honest, eye-opening updates on her grim home life, her bodily functions, and her resentment of boys and sexual role-playing. All were rendered in the hallmarks of zine style: cut 'n' paste Xeroxed artwork, a blizzard of typefaces, handwritten words, and typewritten lines slashed into jagged strips of thought. "Feminist goddamit and you better not forget it," reads one. "My anger is the only real thing I know."

Uncensored self-expression is a rarity even among adults. From a Christine Doza or a Corey Kittrell, it was galvanizing - a perfect reflection of punk's anyone-can-do-it aesthetic. But kids were able to speak and create so freely at Lucy's because the atmosphere was restricted in other subtle ways. Alcohol and smoking were not tolerated on the premises. Mancini and the Kendalls had seen too many underage clubs shut down for real or imagined infractions. The ideas expressed at Lucy's could be dangerous, but the club itself wasn't.

"One thing I'm most proud about is that most parents felt safe dropping their kids off here," Donnie Kendall says. He enforced the rules strictly, which sometimes started arguments. He butted heads with a band called Mule that flouted the no-drinking rule. And he might occasionally find a "calling card" left by some too-cool teen who had snuck in alcohol. Maybe once a year Mancini would discover an empty bottle in her toilet tank.

But parents could be seen at Lucy's on any given night, either standing in the very back of the room or discreetly dropping off purple-haired punks down the block. For the Pipsqueaks' gigs, the father of 15-year-old frontman Jason Jones, Doug Jones, a po stal carrier, would lug the band's equipment all the way from Goodlettsville and stick around for the shows. He was never concerned by what he saw.

"It looked a little scary at first," says Doug Jones, a self-proclaimed mainstream rock fan who grew up going to concerts in the '70s. "People don't dress like your normal folks." After a few shows, he thought it was OK. "As far as safety and being influ enced in a bad way, I don't see any risk," he says. "Not any more than you'd see at any other show."

For her part, Mancini was willing to listen when kids had problems, and she served as a sort of nonjudgmental moral sounding board. "NO RACIST, SEXIST, OR HOMOPHOBIC SHIT TOLERATED," ran the credo at the bottom of Lucy's monthly calendars, and Mancini wa s the one who usually mediated if some kid made a thoughtless wisecrack to the World's End's largely gay clientele, or conversely, if some neighbors tried to blame troubles in the area on her scruffy customers. "There was some intolerance on both sides," Donnie Kendall says diplomatically.

Instead of pitching a fit, Mancini usually talked to her customers and challenged their prejudices. Most of the time, kids just thought they were acting out. "When you call them on it, they step back," she says. But there were just as many kids who weren't shy about confronting and weeding out bigotry. When a wannabe White Power sympathizer showed up at one show wearing a swastika, a band member chased him out front and beat him like a rug.

Maybe that's because many of the teens who gathered at Lucy's had experienced other forms of prejudice firsthand. "When they came here," April Kendall observes, "nobody judged them because they were hanging out at the mall with a mohawk."

Most Lucy's regulars say the club's brightest years were between 1993 and 1996. It had achieved some national notoriety: Versus picked Lucy's as one of its favorite clubs in the country in Details magazine, and Rolling Stone shot part of an indie fashion spread there.

More important, though, was that throughout those years, Lucy's exemplified the openness of indie-rock culture. Bands traveling through town could either crash at a fan's house or sleep in the store, which prevented a robbery on at least one occasion. Spontaneous shows were common, especially since Lucy's relied on word of mouth. A band passing through town could stop by Lucy's and maybe even play that night.

The documentary Lucy Barks!, filmed in 1994 and '95 by Vanderbilt student Stacy Goldate, captures some of the hubbub of the scene. Kids in fishnets and ripped jackets sprawl across the dilapidated couch in Lucy's lobby. The most popular local band to play at Lucy's, Fun Girls from Mt. Pilot, a group clad in skirts and hideous makeup, led by none other than Donnie Kendallthrashes a seething mosh pit into a blur of bobbing heads and elbows.

But in some ways, a fictional film shot at Lucy's during roughly the same time period gives an even better sense of what the club meant to its fans. In 1994, a team of filmmakers from New York came to Nashville to film a section of a low-budget indie feature called Half-Cocked. It told the story of a girl who steals a van full of musical instruments and sets out on a cross-country journey, stopping along the way with a makeshift band at outposts along the underground rock railroad. In Nashville, the van stops at Lucy's, where the girl and her fellow travelers are welcomed and sheltered.

The local premiere for Half-Cocked was held at Lucy's on a Wednesday night, and dozens of regulars staked out a spot on the stained carpet. As the movie unreeled, people laughed, applauded, and hooted as they recognized extras in the concert scenes. The screening of Stacy Goldate's film was so crowded that some viewers watched the movie standing on chairs and peering around the wall that separated the store from the showroom. Half-Cocked and Lucy Barks! were so popular that in many ways they hastened an end to the era of fanzines. Just as the initial novelty of underground publications sent kids to Kinko's, the screenings at Lucy's heralded a switch to camcorders.

But the movies were a bittersweet triumph. Now that the Lucy's scene had been documented, it had, in a sense, been sealed and filed away. The moment existed; the moment had been acknowledged. That meant the moment was already ending.

In 1995, Mary Mancini married Kurt Wagner, the lead singer and songwriter of Lambchop, a band that had performed at Lucy's in various incarnations since the store's very beginning. As the years passed and the strain of working nights wore on her, she cont emplated various career moves. She considered social work, and even taught briefly at the Dede Wallace Center. Her friends argued she was helping troubled kids a lot more where she was.

Apart from Lucy's, House O' Pain, and the Fun Girls, Donnie Kendall was maintaining a separate career as an engineer. In 1996, he and April had their first child, a baby girl named Samantha. "Everybody kept saying, 'You all are too cool to be parents,' " April Kendall remembers. "It really freaked everybody out." Nevertheless, a regular welcomed Samantha to Lucy's with an appropriate gift: a tiny pair of black Levis.

"My goal was not to do this after 30," Donnie says with a rueful laugh. His feelings about Lucy's at this point are mixed. He dropped out of Fun Girls last year, but playing was the part of his music career that he really enjoyed. At the Serotonin show, he stood in the back watching From Ashes Rise with a curious look of envy. "My goal by walking away from Lucy's is to get back some of my passion for music," he says.

There is a chance the space may be bought, renovated, and kept as an operating club by Patrick Hoey, who runs Progressive Productions next door to Lucy's. No one knows what kind of bands he would book. It would not be called Lucy's, though, and Donnie thinks that may be a good thing. "There's a ton of apathy right now," he explains. "Somebody new might change that."

To an extent, the crowd at Lucy's changed with each passing year of high school. The Sister Nagsters, a radical feminist performance troupe that constructed art from tampons, moved to Chicago. Leslie Q ended up in the Pacific Northwest. Stacy Goldate was said to be shooting guerrilla footage at the Democratic Convention in 1996. Corey Kittrell moved to Johnson City. Christine Doza went to college at Sarah Lawrence. Kids grew up. Kids died in car wrecks. Kids got pregnant and never returned. Kids kept coming. And never stopped.

"A kid came up to me at The Boro and asked me if Lucy's was really closing," Mary Mancini recalls one drizzly afternoon, with Donnie and April Kendall seated beside her. "He told me, 'I'll remember this for the rest of my life. I grew up with this place.'"

This weekend, a remarkable pair of farewell shows will bring the entire Lucy's era full circle. On Friday night, Mary's husband Kurt plays with Lambchop; also on the bill are Vic Chesnutt, Paul Burch & the WPA Ballclub, and CYOD, a band fronted by Marky Nevers of Bloodsucker Records. Then, on Saturday, Lucy's partially recreates the lineup of its very first show. Impetuous Doom will play, along with a new hardcore band called Booby Hatch, fronted by one Donnie Kendall. "Hardcore is back!" he exults. After that, the doors of Lucy's Record Shop will close and lock for the last time. Lucy the dog will go home. And a new generation of teenage punks will be back where it all started six years ago: with nowhere to go, and no place to play.

What'll they do? They'll probably bitch for a while. Like MBA student Jon Sewell, who fronts a band called Murdered Minority and wears the word "AUTONOMY" on the tail of his jacket, they might even play illegally on the street until somebody tells them to move along. Then again, some club owners and bookers might remember what it was like when they were young, and had not much more than time, and wanted nothing so much as music and a place to belong. If they rise to the challenge, they will touch lives, and shape minds, and leave the city infinitely richer for their courage.

The only difference is, they won't have done it first.