When it comes to the history of alternative music and culture in Memphis, all roads lead to the fabled Antenna Club, a grimy black hole of a bar once situated on the northwest corner of Madison and Avalon, between a pawn shop and a dentist's office that was also — most conveniently — a leasing office for inexpensive Midtown rental properties. The Antenna, widely regarded as one of the first and longest-lived punk-oriented venues in America, closed 14 years ago. It was a hub for creativity in Memphis and is being remembered and celebrated with a 26-band concert August 14th and 15th at Murphy's and at Nocturnal, the site of the original venue.
When the Crime played the Antenna Club in the early 1980s, lines would snake down Madison and spill around the corner onto Avalon. The band, which featured guitars and vocals by Jeff Golightly and Rick Camp, was a risky experiment in a city where all the good-paying gigs went to top-40 cover bands. But Golightly and Camp, who still play together in a multigenerational band called the Everyday Parade, were on a quest to play new wave and punk music in Memphis and to eventually write their own songs. Before long, they were touring and playing bigger clubs and coliseums around the region. But no matter how big the gigs got, they always looked forward to coming home to the Antenna and to Memphis' burgeoning punk-rock scene.
"We were part of somthing new," says Golightly, who has a conflicting gig and can't participate in this weekend's reunion. "The folks we called 'criminals' were ready for us, and they were ready for the scene that developed around the Antenna. The room is magical. We packed the place on a regular basis, and the heat and sweat practically made the place rain inside. When you put bodies in that space, the sound was like nowhere else, and the Crime could make it pulsate."
Panther Burns' loquacious drummer Ross Johnson, who has attempted but never finished a book on the Antenna Club, confesses, only somewhat begrudgingly, that Golightly's description of the early scene is accurate. As a part of the snottier, noisier art-rock side of Memphis punk, there was a time when Johnson couldn't readily admit it was the Crime's smart power pop that kept the club's doors open. "We could be really cruel sometimes," he says, remembering that he used to get a kick out of sitting at the bar and heckling other bands. "Time softens things," he says, recalling the time he was thrown out of the club for throwing a beer at his sometime-bandmate Alex Chilton.
Memphis' punk scene got started in 1979, when the bar at 1588 Madison was still called the Well and local groups like Tav Falco's Panther Burns, the Randy Band, and the Klitz swapped out shows on the weekends. In 1981, the property was sold to James Barker and Phillip Stratton, who changed the name to the Antenna Club, painted the interior black, mounted TV monitors on the walls, and started showing RockAmerica music videos. They also started booking national acts. Johnson says the videos, which were a novelty in 1981, a year before MTV was available in Memphis, got old fast and that the outside booking initially was met with resentment by locals, who liked having a monopoly on the club's stage.
When Steve McGehee, a former head waiter for TGIFridays, took the club over from Barker and Stratton, outside booking became even more aggressive.
"The club really started jumping, and more and more bands formed," Golightly says, recalling a period in the early 1980s when the Randy Band's bright pop and the heady new wave of Calculated X and Barking Dog were showcased alongside the honky tonk swagger of Neon Wheels, the privative stylings of the Klitz, and the noisy roots fusion of Panther Burns and Milford & the Modifiers. "It was a scene where the famous and the unknowns could share a stage," Golightly says. "It was a venue that would give any band a shot, as long as they brought a crowd that drank some beer."
The Antenna Club became as famous for the shows nobody saw as for the ones everybody turned out to see. The first time R.E.M. played, the club was barely able to scrap together enough cash to pay the band's $50 guarantee. McGehee remembers feeling completely alone while he watched Mission of Burma play one of the greatest sets he's ever seen.
Alex Greene, a multi instrumentalist who's played with Big Ass Truck and Reigning Sound, was one of a handful of people who saw Detroit garage legends the Gories when they played their first show in Memphis. (A recent double reunion featuring the Gories and the Oblivians packed the Hi-Tone to the point of discomfort.) And not every great show went under-appreciated. "I believe we had the devil himself in here the first night Black Flag played," McGehee says.
In the '80s, the Antenna became a regular stop for hardcore and punk bands recording for Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn's SST label, bands such as Hüsker Dü, the Meat Puppets, the Minutemen, and Bad Brains.
Johnson says the club probably owes its longevity to the enduring nature of Memphis' hardcore scene. He attributes much of the lingering interest in the venue to its successful embrace of all-ages shows. Cult filmmaker Mike McCarthy, whose band Distemper played the Antenna's first all-ages show, has a simpler explanation. "The great irony is this," he says, "if you were an alternative person in Memphis in the 1980s, you only had one place to go."
In July, McCarthy, who once shot a horror movie at the Antenna Club, spent three weeks touring his latest film, Cigarette Girl, around Australia, where it premiered as part of the Revelation Perth International Film Festival. In 1983, however, McCarthy had another kind of road trip in mind. After visiting Memphis and taking in a show by an edgy New Mexico power pop band called the Philisteens, the Tupelo native decided to move to the Bluff City to attend art school and play rock-and-roll at the Antenna.
"I sat terrified in the parking lot of River City Donuts, scoping the place out, watching the toughest dude I'd ever seen in my life walking into the club wearing a black leather jacket and a mohawk," McCarthy says. "Amid the disorienting TV screens with the Sex Pistols doing 'God Save the Queen,' and lights that turned my teeth as green as Johnny Rotten's, I realized that the punk I'd seen outside was merely the waiter, Steve McGehee. That night defined punk for me."
Although the Antenna had a reputation for being a punk club, all kinds of bands played there. Before he moved to Athens, Georgia, and wrote "The Night G.G. Allin Came to Town," Patterson Hood lived in Memphis and played the Antenna with his band, Adam's House Cat. Nancy Apple, a driving force behind Memphis' singer/songwriter scene, describes the Antenna as a "country-friendly" establishment, where she gigged with Linda Gale Lewis and Cordell Jackson, the rockabilly granny. "I always felt like I had hit the big time when I played there," Apple says, allowing that her brand of twang was often referred to as "cowpunk." "It was one of those places where there was almost always a great crowd, no matter who was playing."
Even rappers played the Antenna. "Big Ass Truck would serve as a backup band to various rappers [playing the Antenna]," says Alex Greene, citing a gig the band performed with the young Al Kapone.
The 1990s saw new scenes spring up around the Grifters, a brooding quartet that mixed angular, atmospheric indie rock with blues and metal flourishes, and around garage-rock innovators the Oblivians and Impala, surf-rockers with a flare for squalling crime jazz and dirty rhythm and blues.
Shangri-La records founder Sherman Willmott, who produced many of the Grifters' first recordings, describes the Antenna as a place where great shows received little or no promotion: "You always knew you were going to be one of a handful of lucky people to see the best bands in the world — like the Screaming Trees, the Chills, and Government Issue — but you were never really sure if the band mentioned on the club's answering machine would play, when they arrived and saw a broken sign, no posters for the show, a couple of underage girls, a crazy looking doorman straight out of film-noir, punk-rock, motorcycle-gang hell, and a couple Midtown hipsters hanging at the bar watching RockAmerica videos and drinking stale keg beer." Willmott complains without actually complaining. "Only in Memphis could a club run so poorly — no phone-answering, ever — survive for that many years despite itself. God bless the Antenna Club, with all of its open sores and decrepit beauty. It was like an alternative-universe island in a nightmare town of classic rock."
Like the King of Rock and Roll, who passed away after slipping from his private Whitehaven throne in the wee hours of the morning, the Antenna Club's death was less than proud. A venue that hosted great performances by the likes of Robyn Hitchcock, the Replacements, and Suicidal Tendencies quietly closed following a poorly attended concert by a disposable buzz band called Tripping Daisy.
According to the club's last manager, Mark McGehee, who'd taken over operations from his brother, Steve, things "went kind of sour" when he told the band that he couldn't possibly meet the pre-arranged $680 guarantee. Commercial Appeal reporter Larry Nager noted in an article about the club's closing that after combining monies from the door, beer sales, and the cigarette machine, McGehee only had $400 and that wasn't enough to satisfy the band. That's when McGehee decided he was finished. When the media inquired, he told them the club had closed because live entertainment was dying in Midtown. He added that alternative music had become mainstream, and the Antenna Club had outlived its usefulness.
But like a stubborn ghost, the Antenna Club never left the building. The property's next two incarnations, the Void and Barristers, were short-lived alt-rock clubs in the mold of their famous predecessor. In 1997, the space was significantly renovated, decorated with red-and-white candy-striped furniture, and rebranded as a tony lesbian bar called the Madison Flame. The club's owners would occasionally book rock shows for Midtown bands and music fans, who regarded 1588 Madison Avenue as holy ground. Nocturnal, the club currently located on the site, features a regular slate of live music.
But this weekend, the ghost returns from punk purgatory, and the Antenna Club will live once more — at least for a couple of days.
The A List
Hundreds of bands played the Antenna Club. These are a few of them:
The Replacements, The Fall, Neon Wheels, Dead Milkmen, Suicidal Tendencies, Mudboy & the Neutrons, R.E.M., Angerhead, Odd Jobs, Pezz, The Bongos, The Randy Band, Adam's House Cat, Widespread Panic, Teen Idols, The Compulsive Gamblers, NRBQ, Greg Hisky, Guided by Voices, Calculated X, The Gun Club, Trusty, Impala, Linda Heck & the Trainwreck,The Hellcats, The Gories, The Verbs, The Country Rockers, The Marilyns, Jason & the Scorchers, Mojo Nixon, Vibration Society, The Oblivians, Gene Loves Jezebel, Black Flag, The Scam, Think as Incas, Los Pimpin, Love Tractor, Flaming Lips, Metro Waste, Big Ass Truck, G.G. Allin, The Modifiers, Paul Burleson, Man With Gun Lives Here, Panther Burns, The Cadillac Cowgirl, Neighborhood Texture Jam, Beanland, Crowded House, Circle Jerks, Alice Donut, The Bum Notes, The Klitz, DDT, Hüsker Dü, The Generics, Sobering Consequences, The Grifters, Econochrist, Meat Puppets, The Simpletones, Alex Chilton, Hole, Bad Brains, Taintskins, Mission of Burma, White Animals, Royal Crescent Mob, Barking Dog, Xavion, Bob's Lead Hyena, The Crime, Robyn Hitchcock, Busta Jones, The Minutemen, Webb Wilder, The Plimsouls, Uncle Tupelo, Cordell Jackson, Green Day.