A trip into KnoxvilleÕs early '80s alternative music scene with the entrepreneur who opened its first club, Hobo's.
by John Sewell
Now that Knoxville has a long-standing heritage of alternative and underground music, it's hard to imagine a time when the idea of bands performing their own material was virtually unthinkable. Strange but true, the local music scene in the late '70s was in a stranglehold of creative stagnation.
Bands hardly ever played their own tunes; and if they did, the best you could hope for was a mediocre imitation of the bland pabulum being passed off as rock 'n' roll at the time. By 1976, disco had become the happening thingand the classic rock stations were offering nothing but constant iteration of Bob Seger, Journey, Kansas, Styx, and the likepretty much exactly the same thing you'll hear if you tune into the time warp that is WIMZ today.
By 1979, however, the music business machinery had repackaged punk with the less threatening and more palatable new wave style. As bands like Blondie, The Cars, and Devo began to enter the margins of American pop culture, some of the more adventurous locals decided to don their own new wave gear, buy some cheap guitars, and get in on the action. Soon, a handful of young new wave and punk bands would be playing in unlikely spaces around Cumberland Avenue, but it took a couple of years for there to be a venue that focused exclusively on the new sound.
Knoxvillian Jeff Huggins was one of the first locals to pick upon the emerging underground scene and provide a place where the more eclectic bands could play comfortably. Huggins had worked for Uncle Sam's, a nightclub chain that had a Knoxville location off Alcoa Highway, which is now the site of Court South. After working in Knoxville for a while, he branched out to some other cities, like Boston and Houston, to establish a new series of clubs called Spit.
Huggins rejoined his old cronies a year and a half later at Uncle Sam's, but he wasn't content to rehash the status quo. Huggins soon launched Madam Wong's, an annex of Uncle Sam's that catered exclusively to the new wave crowd.
"This was the time period right before the 1982 World's Fair that we did Madam Wong's. Along about then everybody got all juiced up about the World's Fair, and everybody was gonna be a millionaire. Well, there was some kind of falling out at Uncle Sam's and somebody torched the place. That was late 1981. They never did figure out for sure who did that, but Uncle Sam's burned down and Madam Wong's died with that."
Huggins immediately struck out on his own, opening a club on the Strip called Hobo's. (Hobo's was located right next to Athletic House in a building that has since been destroyed and is now the parking lot of the First American National Bank.) So in early 1982, Knoxville had its own new wave venue smack dab in the epicenter of the rock scene. In retrospect, this might seem like a sure-fire business prospect, but Knoxville was slow to warm to the new sounds and fashions of the new wave.
Today's perception of what new wave was is a long way from the truth. At the time, new wave and punk were kind of in the same category and neither niche was as rigidly defined as all of the current subsets of alternative music are. Sure, it's cute to look back at MTV videos of Adam & the Ants, Modern English, et. al., with a jaded sense of ironic nostalgia, but the real new wave was more about stripping rock 'n' roll back to its basic elements. Punk, new wave, and the avant garde world were constantly intermingling, and this exchange of ideas allowed for a music scene that could be challenging, trite, funny, pretentious, absurd, and, sometimes, great.
"I don't think that back then new wave was really what people think it is today," says Huggins. "There was kind of two factions back then: the hardcore guys like the Sex Pistols and Ramones and the top 40 stuff like Blondie and The Romantics. I think what I was trying to do was to just have an alternative. I can't say that any of us were really true punks or whatever."
It surely wasn't a mainstream kind of thing, but many locals shared Huggins' search for something different. Soon there were enough bands to play at Hobo's almost every nightbut whether or not they could fill the place with customers was another matter.
Knoxville's first wave of underground music was centered around Balboa, Terry Hill's art rock band that adopted a punkish attitude and a garage band ethos. Balboa got things rolling locally and then departed for the bigger pond of New York City. But by then, there were plenty of bands hoping to fill the void.
By 1982, the biggest drawing local acts were Real Hostages (a band that would evolve into the beloved Smokin' Dave & The Premo Dopes), 5 Twins (featuring Knoxville heartthrobs Brian Waldschlagger and Shannon Stanfield), and a more commercially oriented band: Candy Creme & The Wet Dream. There was also a more hostile and aggressive hardcore contingent which included the S.T.D.'s, Koro, Turbine 44, and Angry Youth.
Hoping for some kind of commercial viability, Huggins opted to book the more popular bands on opening night. "The very first night we opened up, 5 Twins, Real Hostages, and Candy Creme & the Wet Dream played," says Huggins. "Trey (McReynolds, AKA Col. Bacchus) had a band that was called Turbine 44. And John Jelly Baby's (AKA Jon Wallace) band, the S.T.D.'s, played there. We'd let all of the locals play as long as they didn't get too rowdy.
"I remember a bunch of the hardcore kids got all pissed off at me for some reason... One time Jon Wallace got mad and threw a major fit. We had words. And I remember there was a flyer somebody put out that said 'F*** Jeff Huggins, let's thrash.' I kept that one for years. All those hardcore guys would get pissed off at me, but then I'd let them come in and play again and they'd act like I was okay."
At Hobo's the local bands would generally get the weeknight slots and touring bands would play on weekends. In the year the club was in operation, several influential bands made appearances such as The Brains, R.E.M., Mission of Burma, The Stray Cats, and the godfather of punk himself: Iggy Pop.
Sometimes, having bigger stars in such a small club proved to be a real hassle. "The Stray Cats really packed the place, but they were a pain in the ass to deal with," says Huggins. "The day before they played at Hobo's, they were on American Bandstand. Actually, it had been taped earlier, but it aired on the day before they played here in Knoxville.
"This is a true story: they came on and just played about 20 minutes. It was real hot in there because it was September, the place was overcrowded and the air conditioner wasn't working too good.
"So Setzer (Brian Setzer, Stray Cats frontman) walks off the stage and I goes into the alley out back. And I remember going out there and literally begging him, 'Please, will you go back in there and play a little more?' I mean, I was afraid the crowd was gonna get really pissed off. So they played about another 10 minutes. Those guys were real assholes. I mean, we booked the show well in advance; and between when we booked the show and when they played, they had outgrown a place like ours. They were over it.
"Then R.E.M came in a little bit laterright as they were just starting to make it big. I remember they got their first coverage in Rolling Stone a few weeks before they played here, and I used the article on the flyers. But when they came in, they were total gentlemen. They were nice guys, and I remember the show being awesome."
In December of 1982, Iggy Pop made his first and only Knoxville appearance at Hobo's. The show, which proved to be the epochal event of the club, was also the last.
"I found out later that Iggy has several different personalities," says Huggins. "A couple of the guys in his band said that he was in a good mood that day.
"The reality is, I had a pocket full of cocaine and he wanted some of that. So he was on good behavior.
"He's crazy and you never know what he'll do. I do know that he left that night after the show with three girls. We had to get him to the airport the next day and it took us forever to track him down.
"Iggy played there on December 5, 1982, and that was when we decided the club wasn't gonna make it. We had 600 tickets printed up, and I think on the day before the show we had only sold like 250 tickets. So I thought if we can't sell Iggy Pop here, then I might as well go ahead and shut the doors.
"I had been losing money the whole time we were open. We had some good nights and we had a lot of fun, but then we'd have a bunch of bad nights too. Hobo's was just me with no moneywell, just a shoestring budget anyway. I just couldn't afford to keep it going."
When Hobo's closed, Huggins found himself with nowhere to focus his energies and some bad habits that would lead his life into a tailspin. "That's when my drinking and drugging got really bad," says Huggins. "And my then-wife, she just got sick of it.
"Do you remember that movie Stripes with Bill Murray? I saw that movie and thought, 'Yea, that looks like fun.' In a moment of insanity I joined the army; and I was in there for four years.
"Finally, in 1987 I got out of the army and I came back here and got on the drugs again. I wasted from '87 to the end of 1990. I lived in an apartment in Fort Sanders and sold drugs. That's all I did."
The downward spiral ended with Huggins checking into rehab, finishing the program, and, eventually, becoming a counselor for other addicts. After a couple of years, his enthusiasm for motorcycling and entrepreneurial spirit came back.
"I'd always had a motorcycle, and I kind of gravitated back to that," says Huggins "I'd lost everything, and I had to have something to do or I knew I'd end up back down on Cumberland and doing the drugs again. I didn't want to do that, so I got a motorcycle instead.
"As I started getting back into biking, I got this idea. I was at a point in my life where I knew if I didn't do something fast, I'd never do it. So I opened up that little store (the first Biker Rags location) on Chapman Highway. I had saved up $4,000, and I bought a handful of jackets and a handful of helmets. That was my first merchandise."
Huggins' entree in the business world floundered before he managed to find steady customers. "I opened up the store and pretty soon I was on the verge of going out of business," says Huggins. "I started running some radio spots on credit, and that's what turned everything around.
Biker Rags' Chapman Highway location has since closed, but there are two new stores: one near Farragut and the annex in the Old City. The business celebrated its fifth birthday just last week.
He hasn't lost his interest in music, but Huggins says he rarely attends shows anymore. "My taste in music has really changed. I mean, we're listening to Frank Sinatra as we speak. I've even been listening to a lot of disco again lately. When I watch MTV, I don't even know who the bands are. I still listen to a lot of Iggy and AC/DC and I probably always will."
At 46, Huggins is in control and perhaps a bit philosophical, but a quick look at the heavily tattooed biker shows he's probably still not completely grown up. "You know, I was thinking about all this stuff this morning and it struck me: This was all like 20 years ago, well, 17 anyway." Huggins says, laughing. "I didn't think I'd get to be this old! It's kind of scary, or weird at least. I really didn't think I'd live this long."