Over the past few weeks, I’ve read many tear-stained tributes about the loss of The Garage and the shut-down on New Year’s Eve of the Triad’s favorite music room.
When I read them, I always think of Richard and Kim.
Richard Emmett was the man who created The Garage 18 years ago on the edge of Winston-Salem’s downtown. Kim was his wife, the tireless supporter of the man she liked to call Captain Winston.
When I think about them, I remember the many late-night drives back home to Greensboro — CD playing loud, my fingers tap-dancing across the steering wheel, rewinding in my head the music I heard in a tiny club that felt like someone’s cozy den.
Except with yard-sale furniture.
When I ran Go Triad, I’d often camp out at the bottom of the bar, elbow on the rail, listening to the roar of guitars on a low stage 10 or so steps in front of me.
Back then, Molly Davis served beers with a ready smile, and Ed Bumgardner, the talented music writer of the Winston-Salem Journal, held court somewhere close, doling out encyclopedic knowledge about music and his hometown not found in any book.
That always amazed me. Do miss his music columns.
Meanwhile, Richard bounced around us, a towel over his shoulder, as busy as a bee.
In 2005, when Richard left the bar to become the executive director for the Nash Arts Council, I asked Richard in Go Triad’s 5 Questions feature why he stuck with it night after night for seven years.
Richard answered with this thing about dreams. He said:
Why does Jeffrey Foster still make his music? You can’t stop being who you are. When it doesn’t work financially, you do it, you know? The flip side is that you’re doing what you love … and you’re living a dream. And that’s being an entrepreneur and doing your own thing. But you know, when I take the trash out of The Garage in the morning, I always tell people, “That’s the glamour of rock ‘n’ roll.'”
That was several jobs ago. Richard is now program director for the Blue Ridge Music Center. His hair is shorter, and he looks Ivy League distinguished in his sharp suit and tie. I guess age does that, huh?
But to me, he’ll always be the shaggy-haired wizard behind the curtain, the man who created The Garage, always buzzing around those mismatched chairs near the stage.
A week or so ago, I read something that WSJ’s Lisa O’Donnell wrote. She interviewed various local musicians and asked them to go down memory lane.
What Winston-Salem musician Eric Swaim stuck with me. He said:
Take one step into the narrow corridor and you immediately know where you are. This place is an archive. A record of sounds and images stored as keepsakes within its walls. You can see it everywhere. You can hear it.
The walls have absorbed so much that you could probably put your ear to them and hear the waves. Waves of searing guitars, rumbling toms, laughter, bottles clanking and the steady hum of raw, electric power. The Garage has been many things to many people, but for me it was the quintessential rock ‘n’ roll club.
Simple as that. Great size, great sound, great people.
Yeah, that’s it.
Great size. Great sound. Great people. Great people like Kim and Richard.
Below is one of my favorite columns from my three-year stint as editor at Go Triad.
I had talked often to Richard about the mercurial financial swings of his club, and he always was honest, straightforward about what he faced. So, one day in 2003, I asked him to shine a light on the commitment he made and the sacrifices he endured in making The Garage happen.
See, I wanted readers to understand how hard it was financially and emotionally to turn an old welder’s shop on the edge of Winston-Salem’s downtown into a music magnet for all of us to enjoy.
Richard, of course, obliged. What I got surprised me. It was a love story, warts and all.
You’ll find it below.
When I read it now, I realize how those ups and downs Richard and Kim dealt with more than a decade ago is not just their life. It’s everyone’s life.
We all pursue our dreams, and in doing so, we endure headaches that smack us hard and often knock us silly. But we persevere and no matter what happens, we all march on and hope for the best.
Sound familiar, doesn’t it?
The Garage, one of North Carolina’s best music rooms, will celebrate its third anniversary next weekend. But the club didn’t make it this far without some kind of sacrifice.
Just ask owner Richard Emmett.
Oh, I have.
For the past three years, I’d ring Emmett for something, hear on the other end his raspy, broken-bottle voice functioning on a few hours’ sleep and instantly think of some grizzled, frayed character from a Tom Waits song. But Emmett has stuck with it.
He has battled the Triad’s fickle live-music crowd and turned his club of mismatched furniture into a live-music force respected across the Southeast. I’ve often asked him why he remains so passionate. And time and again, in his raspy, broken-bottle voice, he has said the same thing.
“I walked in and said, ‘Wow,” Emmett, 38, says of first seeing The Garage. “It was an open canvas, just an empty garage, and it looked like a perfect place to do a show. I wasn’t thinking, ‘This will be a great business.’ I was thinking, ‘Bring in a sound system, invite some friends and hear some good music.”
Emmett, a Pittsburgh native, is a tenacious dreamer. He earned a master’s degree in public policy from Penn State because he wanted to make a difference. But he left the white-collar world disillusioned because he believed that effecting change was an ivory-tower pipe dream.
So, seven years ago, he moved to Winston-Salem, a city he had visited just three times with his job, and began focusing on his adopted hometown.
Since then, he has overcome almost insurmountable obstacles to keep his club open and has worked so hard supporting Winston-Salem’s resurgent downtown that his wife, Kim Lawson, calls him Captain Winston. That moniker is bittersweet.
You see, The Garage was supposed to be a partnership between Emmett and Lawson because she, too, fell in love with The Garage.
That all changed, though, when she became a mother to two boys 23 months apart: Aubrey, 3; and Levi, 16 months.
Don’t misunderstand her. She’s proud of her husband. But she resents his dogged commitment to Winston-Salem because it takes him away from his family. And she sees that that commitment all started with the former welder’s shop near the Arts District.
She calls it “the other woman.’
“It’s a hard lifestyle,’ says Lawson, 32. “He’s up late, surrounded every night by alcohol and hot chicks, and I’m at home, breast-feeding babies and 40 pounds overweight. Now, I trust and respect my husband, but I hate waking up 2, 3 and 4 in the morning and not knowing where my husband is.’
The Garage, indeed, is a jealous, needy mistress. Emmett has taken out four loans and maxed out four credit cards to pay down a $100,000 debt The Garage accumulated during its first three years. Still, he owes $55,000. He also has had to juggle two other jobs to pay the bills and feed his family.
Meanwhile, he has seen his marriage deteriorate. A few months ago, he and Lawson started going to counseling because they wanted to rediscover what they first made official four years ago.
She in her new lavender dress. He in his second-hand burgundy velour suit. Both of them reciting the vows they had written themselves as they stood on the beach while the sun sagged into the Ocracoke Island sound.
The counseling has worked. Emmett has winnowed his workload so he can spend more time at home with Lawson and the boys. Meanwhile, Lawson has started working a trio of part-time jobs to help the family – and help herself.
And if you think about it for a minute, Emmett is doing exactly want he wanted to do in the first place: make a difference.
“This has nothing to do with ivory towers,’ he says. “This is a more pragmatic way of making the world a better place and helping this town take a step forward.’
The other night at The Garage, I thought about that as I faced the wall of sound from Chapel Hill’s Snatches of Pink and counted the bowling pins above the club’s entrance. And the more I thought, the more I wanted to ask Emmett a follow-up.
But I couldn’t find him. He was at home.
With his boys.