Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Kennedy's Warehouse: A chat with Nancy and Headbanger

Nancy Kennedy had a vision of providing an all-ages venue to support her son’s and his friend’s bands. Tom Headbanger would be her right hand man and was mainly responsible for booking shows at the "new club" later to aptly titled, Kennedy’s Warehouse. The venue would become Denver’s punk rock utopia for a little over six-months during the earlier part of the 80’s. The pair, with a legally functioning club, was significant in expanding and legitimizing Denver’s scene on the national punk circuit. The venue was crucial for hosting out of town bands traveling across the country, critical for budding local bands, and the pulse of Denver’s underground and counterculture music scene. Inside the building formerly known as the Denver Auto Parts Garage, the nights raged with music, slam dancing, socializing, and networking. In short, Kennedy’s was the heart of the punk community between late 83’ to early 84’. It was a space carved out for the old and young alike wanting to escape the boredom that plagued daily existence in what several of us referred to as Devoid. Ultimately, Nancy and Headbanger’s joint effort collapsed. They parted ways at the closing of the club.

It has been over 31 long years since the closing of the venue and little has been mentioned publicly regarding Nancy and Headbanger's escapadesI’m thankful to each of them for taking the time to reflect and chat with me about their shared experiences, trials, and tribulations with the warehouse. It is only appropriate the story of Kennedy’s be told in their own respective words.    

Outside of Kennedy's Warehouse 1984. Original photograph Sam Short. Brush and Ink drawing  Bob Rob (Medina). 

Part 1: Nancy Kennedy

How did you become involved in Punk Rock?

My kids were raised near East High School and influenced by the Sex Pistols and other punk bands. My daughter practically lived at Wax Trax. My son, Tommy had a band. His band and others practiced in the basement. I knew all the kids in the bands. They were good kids and I supported them.

You wanted to open the club to give kids their own space?

My reason for wanting to open Kennedy's was partially for selfish motives. I wanted to get out of waitressing. I could tell from all the kids that came to my house that they needed a place to hang out. My landlord's sister stopped by one time to complain that I had too many visitors at my house. This made me mad because they weren't even playing music; they were just sitting out on the porch talking. I told her, “Have your brother give me a lease telling me how many visitors I can have and how often” (Laughter). I'm sure my neighbors didn't like me. They were suspicious of teenage boys. The kids were so good. I would give them drinks like Coca Cola, but I couldn’t bring home a case everyday. I would offer them coffee or ice tea. That was easy and that's what they could have. Nobody ever raided the fridge!

In retrospect did you think of yourself as the punk soccer mom or den mother?

Like I said, with the warehouse I was trying to carve out a job for myself that I would enjoy. It was a rough. Tommy didn't have much of a home after we opened it. We lived in a couple of really grubby apartments. I actually tried living in the warehouse. Tommy would have to go to a friend's house and shower before school.

After school there were a lot of kids interested in playing music and being in bands. It was a good time before skinheads and other bad parts showed up. It kind of reminded me of hippies, who started off with good intentions before they got into drugs and stuff.

What initial problems did you encounter in opening the warehouse?

We had all kinds of snags to get a cabaret license. I had to comply with certain things that seem far-fetched now. The walls were all brick, which the city thought was a fire hazard. The walls had to be covered with 7/8-inch sheetrock, which seemed silly, but we did it. One of the fun things about putting up the sheetrock was it got covered with graffiti and some of it was great. I remember a twist on that old hippy expression, "If you love someone set them free; if they don't come back it was never meant to be." My wall said, "If you love someone set them free; if they don't come back, hunt them down and kill them" (Laughter).

There's a disease where someone needs to drink water, but part of that disease is they don’t have the ability to tell you they need water. So we had to install a water fountain. We needed a five-foot continual flush urinal in the men’s bathroom plus wheelchair accessible fire exits.

Another thing about the warehouse, we couldn't use the Reznor heating system. So for each show we had to drive to Commerce City to rent space heaters.

The propane space heaters?

Yeah, and those seemed more dangerous to me than the Reznors.

Ultimately we needed an architect and general contractor to figure all this out. We had to comply with everything up and to the point where they said within a year. I had to bring in the sidewalks between Broadway and Lawrence and on 23rd or 24th Street and put in wheel chair accessible sidewalks. I had everything up to code except the sidewalk. It was actually Kent Roper's mom who sold me the policy for a $1000 where I guarantee that within the year yadda-yadda. I knew in my heart I would never have the $50,000 to do that.

When the year was up, I closed and declared bankruptcy so they wouldn’t come after me about the sidewalks. I walked away. The funny thing is 20 years later I would walk into restaurants that used Reznor heaters that I wasn't allowed to use and they had brick walls. When I would walk home from work, I’d pass three hospitals none of which had handicap ramps on the sidewalks. I would think they were much more needed there than a slam dance place.

Did you ever feel harassed or blackmailed by the city?

No, I think they were just tangled in regulations. Nobody wanted responsibility. When we first got the warehouse ready we built a half pipe up one wall that was huge. I thought no, some kid is going to get hurt and I'm not going to get sued so we took that down. We tried to keep everybody safe. My dream job would have liked to have music without the alcohol. It just really wasn't feasible.

You mentioned selfish motives earlier?

I did have selfish motives and I wanted the warehouse to be my job. It didn’t turn out that way since it really wasn't paid. I was still working 6 days a week at my regular waitressing job and trying to make a home for my son Tommy. Like I said, we lived in a couple of grubby places during that time. It was still a good experience and I'm glad I did it. I saved up until I could buy a bar and do music and sell alcohol instead of taking it away from kids. That was basically my job at the warehouse. Some kids would come up and say that guy in the leather jacket with the skull on it had a pint of whiskey. I would go up to him and ask, "Could I have your whiskey?" and I would dump it out. He would say, "Why would you do that? You can keep it." I would say, "No, I work in a bar and I have a bar at home and if I wanted a drink, it would be at one of those places."

One little glimmer of hope was when a woman from United Way came in and said that she thought she could get me funding and I could work at this as a job. I thought they might put all sorts of rules down that the kids wouldn't like. I didn't think that would be a good idea. I wanted to work on my own.

I met a lot of good kids during that time. Do you remember Phil the Fan?

Yeah, I totally remember Phil. That guy was amazing. Didn’t he have something like Down Syndrome? He would ride his bike to all the shows. He would show up to the most unexpected places, sometimes way far out. He'd buy everything bands had for sale, fanzines, collect fliers…he had an amazing collection.

He died a couple of years ago after brain surgery.

Razer told me she rescued a lot of his collection. His sister was going to put everything into the trash and Razer saved it. He had all sort of records, demo tapes, t-shirts, fliers, and artwork where he modified fliers. I went over to her house and saw a lot of it. It was insane how much stuff he had. Razer said that was only part of it.

It's startling how many of that generation died. Larry Denning and Kent Roper.

Phil "The Fan" Hammon III (R.I.P.). Photo courtesy of Phil the Fan Facebook page.

I interviewed Bob McDonald a couple of weeks ago. He had fond memories of Kennedy's and your house and everybody hanging out. I heard from him, Tommy and others that you have an incredible collection of photographs from that time.

I have almost none of the warehouse. Just before I opened the place, I was burglarized or maybe it was one of the kids coming and going, but I had my camera stolen. It took another couple of years to get another one. I have very few pictures really.

What about your collections of photographs before the warehouse?

Oh, yeah I have those.

Were you intentionally documenting or did you just like to take pictures?

I like to take pictures of people doing things and not posed pictures. I like the expression of when bands were playing their instruments, and weren't aware of the camera. They couldn't have cared less. They were into their music and I was capturing their movements and facial expressions.

Bob said if I ever talked with you I should ask you about the Necros and Misfit pictures at the hospital.

Oh, yeah I still had my camera. Several bands stayed with us. The Misfits didn't work out too well because when they were unloading to come in very late and my daughter stopped by. She sneered at them and one of them went back with his fist. I said, "Wait a minute, she lives here, you can't do that." The last night they were there, they played a show and I'm like a bear in hibernation when I'm sleeping, you don't wake me up. And something woke me up like at two in the morning and I came out with my hair like Don King in a bathrobe ready to scream at someone. They all came in with their make-up and devil look. I thought never mind and went back to bed. The first night they were there, the guys from the Misfits said to the kids, "So what do you guys do for fun, do you go to strip clubs?" The kids looked at them like "What?" Tommy said, "We skateboard." He took them to Congress Park swimming pool because it was closed. They climbed the fence and skateboarded that pool. One of the Necros broke his leg or something. I took them over to Mercy Hospital.

Have you ever thought exhibiting your photographs?

I don't have many, just of bands playing in my basement or later I would go to shows. No. I never thought about it. I didn't think anyone even wanted them. My photographs were more for personal reasons because I really liked the kids, but I didn't know anyone was interested. I don't really look at them now they're just in albums. I don't know if Tommy wants them when I croak.

They were all good kids and next Saturday I'm going to see a band play. It’s a remaking of the Fluid, White Trash, and Choosey Mothers. Most of those kids are really into the music and had no thoughts of making it big. Like my son, a lot the kids really stayed with it.

I have noticed a lot of people from that early scene are still at it and playing in bands and hanging out together. It's not so much about getting big. You play just because you like making music.

I remember some heavy metal bands that would play at my bar, 7 South and they would get up on stage and say "Hello Denver" like they were playing some big show in an arena. It was a riot, it's not an arena, it's a bar in Denver with a 100 people maybe.

Headbanger booked the shows at the warehouse?

Yes. And the other thing, I was really never into music, probably why I liked punk. (Laughter). At my age I should have been into classical or jazz. But punk kind of reminded me of my music, what you would call rhythm and blues; silly lyrics, but with a good beat. It harkened back to what I liked when I was young. I remember my son's first songs were things like, "My Vans are comfortable."

You knew you wanted to open a club and get a cabaret license like what you did later with 7 South. Did you ever envision that with the warehouse?

I really didn't want to get into selling alcohol. We got the license before we opened. So we were legal for that year. I remember cops coming by to check-in and they would ask, "Is this where they have slam dancing?" I would say “yes” and they asked to hang out for a while. I would make them a cup of coffee. They would stand there drinking coffee and watched the kids slam dance. They were fine with it. One time it was funny, I was working the door when these two older men came in looking like hippies with long hair. They looked so out of place. A half-hour later a couple of girls came up to me to ask about them, "Nancy, you see those guys with long hair, they're going around asking people if they have any drugs." I went ohhh, undercover cops. That's cute." I said, “Well I hope they find some because my job is to take away alcohol. If some little brat has drugs, I hope they get caught.”

The pit at Kennedy's. Photograph by Bob Rob (Medina). 
Any last things about the warehouse or the bands that stood out?

For the money, it was the TSOL show. They had a high guarantee and that kind of scared me. I don't remember what the deal was, but they wanted $1700 or half the door- whichever was higher. I was so scared that I skipped a half-day of work and went around fliering the high schools. But the truth is at the end of the night I walked away with $1900. That's the rent! 

In a funny turn around after the warehouse closed, a local TV newscast broadcasted a story and was picked up by Westword. The newscast said I was using the warehouse as a format to preach revolution to young people (Laughter). Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t like the sound of my voice and I would never get on the microphone. Westword liked us, but they threw around the phrase “underground club” and at the time I thought underground meant illegal. I’m like. “No, no, my warehouse is so legal.” 

TSOL handed out 2-color stickers at this very packed show. Collection of the author.
Part 2: Tom Headbanger

Headbanger on finding your tribe.

After reading your article about me, I was thinking about the work and struggle on how you had to do things back in the early 80’s. There weren't all these various communities; you'd have to go to places. You'd be stoked if you'd see somebody with a haircut or t-shirt that matched yours. They were instant allies because everyone was in this alien world. When you met someone that came from your planet you would have this instant affinity. I met Jeff that way; it was at Wax Trax or on the street. I had this Denver thing and he had this Oxnard thing. We were good friends at first; I spent the night at his house a couple of times and his mom and stepdad would end up yelling at me for being a bad influence on him, or punk or something like that. It's funny; as there were more people in the scene they started pairing off finding others closer to their affinity. And so Jeff and I went in really different directions. But I have to say he’s one of the people from that scene I respect the most.  He backed his shit up, and even when we were on different sides of the fence, I don’t think he ever did me wrong.

Now days with the internet, you don’t even have to leave your house to go searching for your tribe. One click and it’s there. Like you were saying you'd see someone wearing a t-shirt or whatever and was a code, and you were instant friends no questions asked. 

Recognizing allies. Over time I would watch people evolve. For example, I have always been interested in the Nordic stuff because it's sort of my culture. Nazis wore cool uniforms and said amazing things at times. I lived in Germany for a long time and I speak the language. I have an affinity for that sort of thing. I started to notice that everyone who got into that sort of thing became like Boyd Rice, but I think he repudiated all his Nazi beliefs. I would just watch people get into Thor and the next day they were wearing funny uniforms and going to Klan rallies or something. So I stayed away from all of that and decided to become an Aztec or Mayan instead because then at least then you don't're an outsider, so when you get interested in the culture and the spiritualism, you don’t get sucked into that Master Race rathole. 

Shawn doing a stage dive to the sounds of Red Zone from NM. Photograph by Bob Rob (Medina). 
I was talking with Big Chad the other day...

I love him. I turned him on to Rose Tattoo years ago. That was my big gift to him.

We were chatting and that whole thing about my post on the skins came up. He busted my balls a little bit. I expected him to. I welcomed the dialogue. I told him that I’m writing about the scene, writing what I observed and what people have said. There are always two sides to a story. I am interested in that duality. I gathered from him, that a lot of them felt like I betrayed them. That was never my intention. I consider everyone that was in the Denver scene a friend; we all equally suffered from being outcasts. My point is that the goths, skins, or whatever chose to separate themselves within the scene. Yet they somehow chose to be associated with that giant punk umbrella by going to shows.

They put it out there. They expressed their beliefs publicly. I don't get it. I never understood it. We all try to contextualize decisions and ideas. You have to look at it. I looked that mine.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and it makes me kind of angry that all these guys are justifying their behavior as a reaction to the conformity of the punk scene. It’s not a gray area, a lot of these guys were out and out racists and targeted people of color, just for being at shows. But this wasn’t just a reaction to the elitism of the Denver scene, these were kids that thought racism and hurting people was okay. And I don’t think you should try to whitewash that in your book, no pun intended.  If they want to be anonymous, I guess you should give them that, but some of these people hurt a bunch of people that never did anything and intimidated a whole scene.  The blame should be on the aggressors, not the people they bullied. 

Was Kennedy’s a tribal meeting ground?

What really made me notorious was Kennedys. I had a place to book shows instead of looking for clubs two weeks before the band showed up. I was booking the venue as much as I could. I was dealing with all sorts of different groups and music and scenes (within a really narrow context) to keep the place going. You haven’t mentioned it yet, but there were bands that were playing for nothing. 

My notoriety was all on Nancy and Tom's back, in way it totally ruined their lives at the time…so they lived in that awesome house where all these people would hang out and then they moved to this horrible warehouse. They ended up renting an apartment. I ended up living the venue and sort of running this place his mom bought for him and his friends to play.

When people met me or when I talked with journalist, they thought my last name was Kennedy. He was Tom Kennedy, and I was Tom from Kennedy’s so I must be Tom Kennedy. I felt really bad because, at the same time she needed somebody to be that person because she needed to do the warehouse and I needed somebody to do what she did and in the end it didn't work out. It was rigged from the start. The guy who owned the building already sold it to Denver Rescue Mission and needed to rent it for the year. He was like “fuck it, do whatever you want to this place.”  

There were several benefits to help the warehouse. This is one of the shows. Sometimes it's obvious when the band makes the flier. Collection of the author.  
The last place I lived in the states was San Diego. My wife is from the area and we'd go down to Tijuana a lot. It was crazy because I started going to punk shows in 2004. That old English band Blitz played one night. I couldn’t believe it. I went to the show. It was stepping into a time machine. There were loads of Mexican skins and punks, local bands. It looked like a strong scene. It reminded me of the Denver scene in the mid-80's. I started passively documenting it. Years later my wife studied border issues at San Diego State and decided to write her thesis on the resurgence of the Tijuana punk scene.

I went to the club Iguanas in Tijuana with Psychic TV. There was a show the night before and some idiot stage dove off one of those top balconies and broke his back. They had to put him into a Volkswagen and drive him back across the border to get him to a good doctor. That epitomized the extreme that Kennedy's kind of was. People go across the border, right? and go just completely fucking stupid because they think that they are in a lawless place. They'd do stuff that they would never do at home. Behave in way that they would never at home, that ugly American mentality. That’s the way people would act at Kennedy’s. People would come to a show and do stuff like piss on a wall, because, you know, that's like punk rock. People would come up to me a go, “You're Headbanger, I like to beat people up.” I'd think, “That’s really cool, I hope you go someplace else besides here.”

This was supposed to be one of Kennedy's first show. June 4, 1983. Collection of the author.   
What was it like when you first opened Kennedys?

It was horrible, because we thought we could just start having shows. There were bands rehearsing and the cops came and closed it down before we even opened. The building inspector told us that we had to get a certificate of occupancy and that we couldn’t even be in there let alone put on concerts. We were told we had to do all this shit to get the building to code. Nancy had to hire all these general contactors. It was like a blackmail game where they kept wanting more money. The inspector kept coming and wanted things like plumbing. We also had to cover the beams with drywall because if there was a huge fire it would warp the beam and the roof would collapse. We couldn't do anything with the place for 6 months because we had to do all this construction. It wasn't cold yet and the inspector condemned the space heater. He made us disconnect it because it was a fire hazard. If you’re doing a public occupancy you couldn’t use it because it was a hazard and would suck all the oxygen out of the room or put toxic fumes or something. For the amount of people we wanted to have there the heating unit wasn't acceptable for the space. We had to rent those stupid propane blowers. I was living in there and there was literally ice on the floor. There was horrendous cold spell were all the pipes broke because there was no heat in there.  This guy came in and fixed it, it was like 10 below or something.

With Kennedy’s I was there all the time. I don't know why I didn't get a job. It felt like I had to be there. I'd steal money out of the pop machine to eat. So the pop guy comes and there's no money in it so Nancy has to fork out money for the pop machine guy, which eventually came out of the door money or something.

Kennedy's first show October 1983. Collection of the author. 
The night Discharge played?

That night went totally down in flames. It was a famous Kennedy's night and we didn't get enough money at the door to pay the guarantee. And Nancy didn't really do guarantees. I don’t think I told her there was one. The truth is we barely made the guarantee, but some jackass kicked in one of Jimi's monitors and ruined one of the speakers. The band was dissing him all night because they didn't like his sound. So he ending up pulling his knife on him, a big buck knife and told them they had to pay. We were trying to negotiate with Discharge to take some money out of their guarantee to pay it. They were like "your dude just pulled a knife on us" meanwhile that’s happening and some one steals the band's banner.

I was getting to that. Who stole the banner?

I can't tell you. I know who has it. I didn't steal it, but I have it. The banner was supposedly made by the guy who did the Rainbow banner, which for a big badass hardcore punk band to even admit that is indicative of their attitude. That just completely undermined our position. I don't remember what ended up happening money wise. It was really ugly. In the end Mike Savage and the 2 big guys he knew that were bouncing were supposed to get paid. I told Mike he’d get $50 and the other guys $25 each. I gave Mike $30 and I didn't pay the other 2 guys because they stood there and like 20 fights happened and they didn't do anything to stop that or the banner theft. I told them, “You don't deserve it.” One of the guys said, “If you don't pay me I'm going to take you out.” I replied, “Define take me out?”  And he goes, "I'll sock you" and I went, "OK, give it your best shot." He hauls off and I'm standing there just waiting for it. He's this huge guy, like six-foot five and 250 pounds and slams into my fucking nose and breaks it. Blood is gushing everywhere. I'm so pissed off. If I had a gun I would have shot him. That's one of the few times I would have really killed somebody in anger. It was already a fucked up night and I ended up taking a punch to the face for a stupid show for lame-ass limey rockstars in Nancy's club.

Booking shows?

I did all my business off that payphone in Kennedys. I would call the promoters nearby to see what was coming thru. We traded phone card codes to make calls. That was the big thing. It was so expensive to make calls back then. When I had to pay for calls my phone bills were $200-300 a month. It was insane.

Making fliers, you couldn't just print something. You would have to take it to someone that had a photocopier. You couldn't typeset anything. You would have to get someone that had eletro/set or find someone that had a fancy computer to do it. I don't think they even invented computer graphics yet. It was all still dot matrix stuff. A laser printer was like five grand. You couldn't pay all that money for that and phone calls.

Many bands skipped Denver. Denver is geographically probably the worst market in the country. If you think about it, the closest decent market is Kansas City, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, all 8 hours or so from Denver. California is the same way; the only difference is those are really big markets that you can't miss: Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego.

One of the more funny flier from Kennedy's. 
Did you feel like many big punk bands such as Minor Threat missed Denver because it was out of the way?

Minor Threat missed Denver for the most wonderful reason. I was living with my mom and she was a nurse at night so she was a day sleeper. At the time I might have had a job or something, but I wasn't at the house. Somebody tells me Minor Threat is playing in Kansas City, so I call up the promoter there and go, "You got Minor Threat playing" and he goes "Yeah." I go, “Why aren't they playing Denver?” He said ask Ian. Ian MacKaye gets on the phone and I ask him why they weren’t playing Denver. He goes, “We wanted to dude. We got a dead night tomorrow night between KC and Salt Lake and we couldn't get a gig there.” I said, “You should have called me!” He’s like, “I tried calling you 5 times and some bitch answers the phone and told me to never fucking call here again you goddam punk!” So apparently he called while she was sleeping. I asked my mom about it later and she said those goddam punks would call while she was trying to sleep all hours of the day. That’s why Minor Threat never played Denver. Stuff like that never happens anymore.

The Orange Donut night?

The band was supposed to be called Open Defiance and they were from Kansas City. They weren’t a band a lot people went out of their way to see. It was a typical Saturday night crowd at Kennedy's, the usual 75 people. They came thru one time before and were super punk. This next time they were coming in on the paisley punk thing. So they showed up with a bunch of long hair and they had Gatorade bottles that were full of gelatin acid in them. Almost everyone was kind of hip to it and passing the bottles around. It just got really kind of weird. Nancy knew something was going on. She thought it was alcohol so she took a big swig. It just tasted like Gatorade, so she went on her merry way. When she finally found out what was going on, she goes, “I can't believed I survived the 60's without getting doped and some fucking 19 year-old punk tries to dose me with acid.”

Those fucking hippies put something in the Gatorade. Brush and Ink drawing  Bob Rob (Medina). 
Other nights?

Kor Phu were this twisted hybrid hippy punk band and were completely stoned out of their minds. They showed up with their driver’s side van door covered with a plastic tarp. Apparently they stopped to take a leak on I-25 and left the door open and some truck came by and clipped it off. It was wintertime and they drove all the way up from Albuquerque.

Reflections on Kennedy’s?

Kennedy’s didn't have a business model. That was the problem.  Actually I think that’s why Nancy succeeded later, and I ultimately failed as a promoter. I didn't have money, I was living hand to mouth. I sometimes had money to put on shows for awhile and if I lost money, which I did, I had to find a way to get more money…if we’d had 30-40K behind us we could have taken a loss and built a crowd. That never happened.

The last show at Kennedy’s took place on Saturday, April 14, 1984. The bill that evening was comprised entirely of local bands. The catalyst for steering the night into an abrupt and destructive ending was prompted by one of the bands on stage smashing full cans of beer into the middle of the slam pit. A few moments later, several people spontaneously went into full demolition mode knocking holes into the drywalls and smashing plumbing fixtures. The several months prior was spent fixing and building the club to legal status. It imploded in a matter of moments. Those not engulfed in the chaos passively watched the destruction unfold while others left in disbelief. Everyone was eventually forced into the streets. The doors were locked and that was the end of Kennedy’s.

Last show at Kennedy's. Collection of the author. 
In retrospect, I think of the last night of Kennedy’s as a defining moment in the scene. It solidified that factions within the punk community had not only become a reality, but were magnified. It was appropriate that Kennedy’s metaphorically went down in flames the way it did; it was a symbolic coming of age moment.
Special thanks to Monica Zarazua and Ana Medina for editing help. 


  1. The ultimate insiders retrospective on the Legend

  2. I interviewed Headbanger at the last Kennedy's show for my fanzine Last Resort. It's interesting to go back and read his perspective on things at the time they were occurring.