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Notes from the Underground

It's now officially the most infamous nightclub in town. But what's a night at The Underground really like?

by Joe Tarr

Over a bass so deep it seems to rattle your bones, a woman's wounded voice moans from The Underground's speakers: Wandering stars, for whom it is preserved the darkness/ the blackness/ forever... There are no overhead lights, just lots of flashy little ones shaded red and blue and yellow that flicker on and off and swirl around the dance floor. Their pace seemingly controlled by the tempo of the music, each light catches a single face, illuminating a nose or a cheekbone for a fraction of a second, then prances away to some other face.

And there are a lot of faces here this Saturday night, most of them dancing.

Much of Knoxville sees The Underground as a shady place where children can get beer or buy drugs, where fights are frequent; it's the place where that bouncer was shot and killed. The image scares parents, and probably attracts naive kids hoping to experience a little of life on the wild side. Last week, the city's Beer Board revoked the club's beer permit (it can still sell hard liquor, since that license is handled by the state) and the club decided it will no longer admit 18- to 20-year-olds, starting last Monday.

What was really going on here in the wee hours of the morning before the heat came down is not easy to ascertain. City officials contend the owner let the club get out of hand, and was breaking the law. Neighbors say The Underground is a nuisance. Those who come here, however, say the club is being unfairly picked on by conservative leaders, vindictive policemen, and a clueless media.

In The Underground's well lit front room (called the Egypt Room) Saturday night, Kelsey Riffey slumps in a couch, staring indifferently toward the front door where security guards check IDs, frisk patrons, and collect cover charges. He is disgusted with the way The Underground has been treated and portrayed—a common complaint among the people who come here.

"It's the way the media is. Anything that doesn't adhere to its ideals, it attacks," the 21-year-old Riffey says. "The media twists everything around. They say they're serving alcohol to minors. Probably, somebody [of age] bought a drink and snuck around a corner and handed it to [under-age people]. This is the Bible Belt. A lot of people in this town when it comes to being open minded and learning about new things, don't want to."

But charges the city made against the club are enough to at least cause concern. Over three nights in February and March, police allegedly found four 17-year-olds in the club (it's against the law to admit people younger than 18), and caught nine under-age people drinking there (albeit, with no proof the club actually served them). The club was also cited for selling a minor alcohol. (Many of these charges have not gone to court yet, and are only allegations.)

In 1998, The Underground sold alcohol to two under-age police cadets, and in 1997, the club sold to one under-age cadet.

The club's owner, Harold McKinney, says he is being held to impossible standards. People will invariably slip through the cracks, he says, when you consider the prevalence of fake IDs, the size of his club, and the number of people who come here (more than 1,000 on big nights). It was one reason McKinney decided to no longer admit those under 21—a policy that went into effect Monday. He says about 30 percent of his clientele is 18 to 20. Bouncers attach different colored wrist bands at the door so the bartenders can distinguish between under- and of-age patrons. The club charges under-age people more money at the door.

"We weren't trying to run [18- to 20-year-olds] off. But they're not the main part of our clientele. There were times when we were getting too many that age, and we had to turn some of them away because we were afraid we were going to lose too many of the older crowd.

"I'm just in a no-win situation. There's no way for us to prevent them from sneaking drinks. I don't want to risk losing my liquor license. We're being held to standards that no club or even a parent could live up to," McKinney says.

City law director Michael Kelley disputes that. "He keeps talking about fake IDs but the proof at the Beer Board hearing is there were two individuals who were 17 years old who they say they came into the club...and weren't carded at all," Kelley says. "Mr. McKinney brought forth no one who said they used a fake ID."

The Underground has also irked some of its neighbors, not because of what happens inside the club but because of what happens after it closes.

"Basically the problem we had is these drunken kids would come out at 3 in the morning," says Patti Smith, who lives just around the corner on the 100 block of Gay Street. "They would turn left at Gay Street and travel by our block to get to their cars. They broke out numerous times these plate glass windows, broke out car windows, keyed cars, broke off antennas, swung on the awnings until they broke them off the building. This just went on and on for a year, and we couldn't get anybody to do anything.

"So we went to Harold and said, 'We know you're not doing this, but your clients are. Would you hire us a gun?'" Smith says. She and other neighbors wanted a policeman stationed on their block for an hour or two after the club closes. McKinney offered to pitch in $5,000—about a third of the cost for a year. So far, an extra policeman hasn't been hired.

McKinney says he plans on appealing the city's revocation in court. "I don't plan on being unsuccessful [with the appeal]. Right now it's not an option to be unsuccessful."

But should the city's decision stand, McKinney will not be allowed to reapply for another beer permit at that location for 10 years. No one will be able to have a permit at the site for one year. McKinney notified the state's Alcoholic Beverage Commission about the city's decision—a proactive attempt to save the license. A spokeswoman from the ABC says that when concerns arise about clubs, the commission holds a hearing to review their license. She did not know whether such action was being considered for The Underground.

Located at 214 W. Jackson Ave., The Underground confuses many outsiders simply by the number of names it goes by. On the ground floor is the Boiler Room, an after-hours club that doesn't serve alcohol (brownbagging was once allowed, until the city rewrote its ordinance, which McKinney is disputing in court). Temporarily on hold, McKinney says he eventually plans to reopen the Boiler Room. On upper floors are two halls rented out for parties—the Medieval Hall and the Hollywood Ballroom.

Although still officially called The Underground, the dance club is also known as Egypt for its decor, with Pharaohs and hieroglyphics painted on the walls and two Egyptian statues towering over the dance floor. Larger than most other dance clubs, The Underground aims for a sophisticated, big-city ambiance—with lots of dark spaces where people can sit off by themselves. Security guards in black T-shirts always seem nearby, however. Another draw for the club is that it regularly features two of the city's most popular disc jockeys, DJ Storm and DJ Slink.

Along with The Underground, McKinney also owns The Lord Lindsey, a Hill Avenue dance club, and manages Lucille's, an Old City restaurant and jazz club. Until recently, he managed Patrick Sullivan's, an Old City restaurant under renovation. Beer can still be sold at these places. McKinney also owns a catering business called Lord Lindsey, which is run out of The Underground building.

McKinney says that nightclubs make easy targets for elected officials, and elicit little sympathy. "It's very difficult for a political person to stand behind a club." He has also been dismayed at the media portrayals of The Underground. He was particularly irate about a story in the News-Sentinel that compared it to the infamous New York City disco club Studio 54 and wondered in the headline whether The Underground was really a "death trap."

"I know I've got some self-interest in this situation, but what does that [headline] tell them? We're going to kill them if they come down here?" McKinney says, throwing his hands up.

Every Friday night, The Underground attracts two people who have no intention of setting foot inside the club. Howard Smith and Linda Comer, founders of Soul Seekers Youth Ministry, set up a canopy tent down the street, and give Underground patrons free chili, chips, sandwiches, Twinkies, and juice. It costs them about $80 to $90 each night they're out here. Another group hands out food on Wednesday and Saturday nights.

"We're mainly here to feed 'em. We're just really here as a safe place for them—if they're hungry or need to sober up," says Howard Smith, who wears a bandanna over his long hair. "Probably three-fourths of them don't even drink. They just go up there to dance."

Asked if they think the club should have lost its beer permit, Howard Smith replies: "We're Christians, so, you know. I used to go to places like these and play in bands. If they don't get it here, they'll get it some place else."

As the two chat, 21-year-old Pete Hoffecker wanders up and asks for a bowl of nacho chips covered with warm cheese spread. He's sweaty from dancing, and a strand of black hair flops over his forehead.

"When I was under-age, the only thing I wanted to do was get drunk, it's sad to say," Hoffecker tells them.

Hoffecker strolls back toward the club, but stops along the old loading docks across the street where he hands his chips to an older man siting there (Soul Seekers serve only kids from The Underground, not patrons from other bars or street people).

"I was part of the problem two years ago," Hoffecker says. Using fake IDs, he could get beer, he says. "You can get a fake ID anywhere. I would get extra arm bands and sell them. I realized I was part of the problem so I stopped doing it."

Some people interviewed say they have been coming to The Underground since before they were 18, some since they were 15. Most say they used faked IDs to get in.

"I don't want to admit it, but yeah. Any club has problems," Hoffecker says of the under-age drinking. But he insists it isn't the club's fault, and believes it is being singled out by authorities. "It's better to have the kids here dancing than running the streets. The people that come here and the things that happen here are not fitting into the status quo. It's not the club's fault. What the city needs is a club. The Old City was the after-effect of this club."

Mary Helen Smith, a long-time regular who is also paid to dance here, says the club has done all it could. "[Under-age drinking] happens. There's a thousand little corners for people to hide and wait for someone to bring them beer."

Mary Helen Smith is troubled by the perceptions people have. She was with Michael Gardner the night he was shot dead on Jackson Avenue by four men he was in a confrontation with earlier at The Underground. It was widely reported that Gardner was a bouncer at the club who had just gotten off duty. But Mary Helen Smith and McKinney say Gardner was actually head of security at The Lord Lindsey and was not on duty that night, but stepped in to help with the disturbance. Mary Helen Smith also bristled at the Sentinel comparing The Underground to Studio 54, which was notorious for drug abuse and shady accounting.

"Knoxville is a city but in a lot of ways it's a small town with an ego problem. The Underground is the only thing like it here," she says. "The closest thing they have to compare it to is some movie they saw last summer. Anything that comes across as alternative or different is unacceptable."

"Most of the people making degrading comments about the club haven't even been in here," says Laura, a dancer who won't give her last name.

However, Kelley says that musical and clothing fashions had nothing to do with the city's action. "We have a diverse population, and diversity is a good thing. It's great that we live in a college town and there are people leading different lifestyles here. There was one reason for bringing this prosecution against Underground, and that was that they broke the law...It was in no way a personal thing."

Patti Smith, the club's neighbor, says she's glad the club lost its beer permit and the age is being raised, and hopes it will mean less vandalism. "I think most 21-year-olds know that jerking an awning off a building is just pure vandalism, and taking your fist and breaking out a big old plate glass window seems like something a 15- or 16-year-old would do."

The crowds and music played at The Underground vary from night to night. Monday nights are the slowest, but it's also the favorite night for regulars because the DJs let loose with cutting edge techno, jungle, and dub—music with reckless, frenetic beats and minimal vocals. Saturdays are the most popular night, when you hear more poppy songs from the likes of Portishead and The Roots. "There's a weird crowd [on Saturdays]. You've got your frat daddy types and then you've got your rednecks from whatever county, and just a clash of personalities," says Mary Helen Smith.

It is Saturday when most of the fights happen, patrons say. "Every now and then some stupid kid will think someone grabbed his girlfriend's butt and it's usually pretty retarded, and people will be pushing each other," Mary Helen Smith says. "It's usually broken up pretty fast."

Inside the club, Michelle Stewart, 21, and Dave Helms, 23, are hanging out with friends talking about what will happen after this weekend, when the club will no longer admit those under 21. Helms hopes to open his own dance club, a venture he expects will cost $45,000. But he expects a lot of people will simply go to parties.

"They've been trying to shut this place down. They don't like us, they find us odd," says Helms, who aside from a large nose ring and two earrings, nevertheless looks fairly normal.

"After tonight, I'm not coming back here," says Stewart, who wears a white tennis visor. "All my friends are under 21."