by Joseph Hess and Mabel Suen
"Like anything, there are ups and downs. When there are more downs, it's time to get out. I'm just exhausted," says Michael Gross, former owner of Lemmons, beloved south-city spot for punk rock and pizza. The dive bar closed last week to the surprise, and dismay, of many.
Throughout the course of twelve years, Lemmons was carried on the back of its bartenders, bookers and local bands. Though the spot served well enough as an off-kilter sports bar, its real identity came from live music.
"If we've got alternative music, it's not a terrific blend with a sports-bar crowd," Gross explains. "Separate the two and it does pretty well."
With this in mind, Lemmons opened in early 2002 as a three-story space. The top floor hosted private parties while the main floor functioned as a bar. But the real fun happened in the building's smoky basement. Early shows were booked by CaveofswordS' Sunyatta McDermott, who brought in an eclectic mix -- a practice that would stand the test of time.
"I would have put all Journey and Kansas cover bands in there, and it would have been just me and three of my drunk buddies in the crowd," Gross explains with a laugh. "What I decided to do, in my moment of sanity, was let people with good music taste go ahead and do the booking."
Roughly six months in, the St. Louis fire marshal axed the basement gigs and, for a brief time, Lemmons tried to operate without a musical component. This experiment didn't last -- for Gross and his staff, the lack of a soundtrack took the soul out of the bar. Employees built a stage for the main floor and merged the concert crowd with the barflies -- for better and for worse.
Local bookers like Brian Fleschute, Daren Gratton and the late Jamie Foehner were just a few key names at the heart of Lemmons' music side. Through their work, many young acts had a spot to play their first show. Touring bands from out of state (and some from abroad) were brought in every week and livened up the dive with rock, metal, indie, folk and, most commonly, punk music.
Read on for an oral history on music at Lemmons.
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