It All Dies Anyway…

Congratulations to Gary Dent and Michelle Carr for the Rizzoli Publication of It All Dies Anyway: L.A., Jabberjaw and the End of an Era.  Sadly a very rough working draft of my contribution to that book went to print. It has place holder words and sentences, bad grammar, poor flow and un-vetted statements. No idea how that version got to the editor. I am terribly embarrassed. The following is the vetted and final text that was posted by Michelle on Facebook in 2011.

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In the summer of 1989, a fellow named Doran suggested that he and I check out a “beatnik” style coffee house that his friends just opened. My first thoughts as we approached 3711 West Pico were that this area was sketchy, that across the street was a known crash pad for convicts just out of prison, and that there was a good chance one’s vehicle would be vandalized or stolen if parked anywhere near this place. Such factors combined with the intolerance that our city seemed to have for any self-determined gatherings of young people would certainly give this little coffee house daunting challenges to keep its doors open. Walking through a long, narrow and unlit alley to the left of the building we reached an empty backyard patio. It was closed in by a wall that was decorated with a mural of 1970’s Hanna Barbara cartoon characters, softly illuminated by strings of chili lights. Right away I had the exciting yet comforting adolescent feeling of approaching a secret clubhouse for anyone who could find out about it. It no longer mattered what was going on beyond the alley now that we had passed into this unknown hideout. We opened a heavy black door that led into a dark long space painted the worst aqua green one could imagine. Its odor was a combination of cat urine, Pine Sol, coffee and incense. On the walls hung choice Keane images, and various other “thrift store scores”1. To the right was a stage area with a scattering of tables, chairs and couches ranging from genuine “Googie”2 diner items, to abandoned hotel furniture. To the left was a long bar outfitted with a Cimbali espresso machine and cluttered with mismatched vintage cups, glasses and plates. The bar wall was adorned with various dolls, lunch pails, and posters all demonstrating John Waters-like studied attention to collectable kitsch, the TV of our upbringing and B movie history. Besides Doran and I, the only people in the place, were the joint’s owners behind the bar. Gary Dent, a tall fellow wearing big pork chop sideburns and a black T-shirt, had an almost intimidating presence that was nicely offset by his handsome smiling face and razor wit. Michelle Carr was dolled up like Plan 9 meets Faster Pussycat3 and seemed to balance the angry arrogance of a seasoned truck stop waitress with the sharpness of a museum director. They joked about how no one in their right mind will end up here, what were they thinking opening this place, and that since we were there, we must be losers with nothing else to do. I didn’t realize it at the time but I had just met two people in the process of creating an influential music scene in Los Angeles, one that arguably “changed everything”.

Los Angeles in the late eighties was not yet over run by out-of-town real estate investors nor was it attracting legions of out-of-town urban renewal developers, restaurateurs or boutique retail stores. Between its traditionally upscale and middle class areas, Los Angeles contained whole swaths of economically depressed flatlands with decaying buildings and thrashed infrastructure. The upside to this was unused vacant spaces and absent landlords. If you wanted a spontaneous or experimental music event, or just wanted to showcase unheard bands, it was an option to occupy one of those vacant spaces and organize the event yourself. Gary and Michelle found such a space and held on to it. Their little coffee house would soon become the main location for underground music between 1989 and 1997. Around 1989, those of us with a taste for “independent” or “alternative” music had options such as the “Industrial” club Lectisternium, gay clubs like Club Fuck, underground dance music parties thrown by promoters like Tef Foo, Davin and DJ Marques Wyatt, and an occasional backyard punk party4. “Punk” or “alternative” music venues such as Madam Wong’s, The Anti Club, Fender’s Ballroom, and Scream were either closed or about to be closed. With the exception of underground dance clubs and raves, music events were mostly happening under the “pay to play” rules of established venues or determined by major record labels allied with corporate promoters. Things were in transition and although there was plenty going on, there wasn’t a regular spot one could just end up at on any old night to hear music and interact. Los Angeles was ready for a new independent and inexpensive music venue, free to invent its own program from scratch. For many new bands and fans, Jabberjaw would become the regular spot, a kind of headquarters for the young, open-minded, experimentally inclined and short of cash. It quickly grew into THE place for showcasing new music, and the empty alley I described walking through would by 1991 be full of people waiting in line to get in.

The inclusive attitude that Gary and Michelle had towards anyone who wanted to play music, perform whatever, show artworks, or just hang out was key to the energy at Jabberjaw. Such openness led to memorable events, the discovery of great bands and the commingling of noteworthy or notorious people. Legendary “indie” band performances hosted by Jabberjaw included (and this is a fraction) The Melvins, Hammerhead, Nation of Ulysses, Codine, Air Miami, Rocket From the Crypt, Pavement, Further, Polvo, The Jesus Lizard, Cupid Car Club, Redd Kross, Chokebore, The Cows, Merzbow, Lowercase, Helios Creed, Unsane, Unwound, Jawbreaker, Low, The Hi-Fives, Braniac, GodheadSilo, Steel Pole Bathtub, Guided by Voices, Free Kitten, Skylab and Celebrity Skin, as well as rare gigs by cult favorites such as Glen Meadmore, The Imperial Butt Wizards, Crash Worship, The Goddess Bunny, The Polar Goldie Cats, Ethel Meatplow, Palmetto, Father Larry, Oiler, Possum Dixon, Babyland, Slug, Zoviet France, Solid Eye and That Dog. Jabberjaw was, without a doubt, the launching pad for eventually famous acts such as Beck, Hole, L7, Weezer and Tool, and was a place where already famous acts such as Nirvana and Urge Overkill would make sure they played out of appreciation for the venue. Gary recalled Kurt Cobain stopping in the middle of a very early performance of the yet to be released “Smell’s Like Teen Spirit” at Jabberjaw, because he had to ask the audience “how the fuck” they knew the words already. At their height of popularity, Gary and Michelle never charged over seven dollars admission nor did they ever categorically restrict entry. By never actually bothering to serve alcohol, Jabberjaw distinguished itself from other music venues by being open to all ages; this sacrifice of potential drink profits enabled a literally “ahead of their time” clientele5. They continued to let unheard of bands play whenever there was a schedule opening, and such bands could often expect a turnout to rival that of popular bands. Jabberjaw’s open forum created a scene where on any given night of the week one could be witnessing the “next big thing” in music.

Jabberjaw thrived from the participation of those who showed up. Many regulars such as the McDonald brothers of Redd Kross, Courtney Love of Hole and Don Bolles of the Germs could be found at Jabberjaw frequently contributing efforts beyond performing in support of the scene. To name a few, Chokebore’s Kroll brothers, Dave Stone of The Melvin’s and Get Hustle, Michael Quercio of the Three O’clock, artist Andrew Brandou and Randy K. of Slash records all had their turn serving coffee or running the door on busy nights. Indeed this was an un-funded, do it yourself endeavor that thrived from the love of a community. Jabberjaw would also prove to be a vital meeting ground for many of L.A.’s cultural contributors. Among often seen notable Angelinos were Mike D. of the Beastie Boys, Eli Boners of Xlarge Clothing, Stuart Swezey, Brian King and Mike Glass of AMOK books, authors Dennis Cooper and Jan Tumlir, artists Mike Kelly, Jim Shaw, Marnie Weber, Stephen Prina, Coop, Taz, Jeffrey Vallance, Frances Stark, Liz Young, Cindy Bernard and Richard Hawkins, pro skater and artist Mark Gonzales, art gallerists Robert Gunderman of ACME and Steve Hanson of China Art Objects, and retail pioneer Carla Denker of Plastica. Jabberjaw was for eight years L.A.’s most “happening” hang out.

Gary and Michelle opened Jabberjaw right after finishing high school, and were by 1997 over eight years into constructing and conducting a huge phenomenon. In 1997, Jabberjaw’s end came about when a long struggle with the City of Los Angeles over a permit was lost, dealing the fatal blow to Gary and Michelle’s efforts to stay open. I am not in a position to detail the legal matters, but one spin on Jabberjaw being closed goes something like this. Framing Jabberjaw as a source of crime and blight was an unfortunate fiction that created momentum for its closure. At the time of Jabberjaw’s closing, the L.A. real estate market started on its climb and symbolic acts of crime clean up became valuable political assets in the project of luring development capital6. In the case of Jabberjaw, its closure would seem like a great crime bust to voters in the suburbs, allowing the city to leave be at a great savings the actual crime situation in the area, which had everything to do with the city’s economic landscape and nothing to do with Jabberjaw. If such a theory seems too reductive or conspiratorial, and we assume the city just enforced a simple permit issue, then a fair question is why couldn’t the City of Los Angeles see the cultural (and economic) value of a place like Jabberjaw, and somehow assist in its survival? On August 3rd 1997, in what seemed to be a state mandated go-home-­and-watch-television youth program, Jabberjaw was shut down forever by law enforcement officials, and a huge void would be felt by everyone who was part of its community. Gary and Michelle took Jabberjaw’s closing with amazing grace and only a little grumbling.

After Jabberjaw was closed, many of us expected some kind of big financial reward was due to Gary and Michelle for their contribution to contemporary music, but were amazed to see them stay in day jobs and struggle with rent. No one from this scene would contest the fact that very well paid representatives of major record labels did quite well for themselves by picking Gary and Michelle’s brains, and some still thriving venue owners inherited great programs by using their hard earned contacts. Among the younger borrowers, there were literally Gary and Michelle look-alikes, as well as several Jabberjaw-like coffee houses popping up in far off places like Orange County. In retrospect, it is boring to wish for the preservation of something with vitality, and anyway, good things never last. Talent was exposed, amazing individuals interacted and styles and sensibilities proliferated. Gary and Michelle have to their credit an historic scene built out of genuine passion without profit motivation, and this book you are holding is a long awaited testament to that scene’s legacy.

— Kevin Hanley (L.A. artist and former Jabberjaw participant). January 2006.

Footnotes:

  1. Gary and Michelle, Jabberjaw’s proprietors, had brought prized “kitsch” collectibles from home to share with Jabberjaw patrons. Their envied collection included hard to find Walter (Margaret) Keane “big eye” paintings, first generation “Tiki” décor, lunch pails and toys from a late 1970’s childhood, 1960’s cinema posters and mid century dish and glassware, much of which was unfortunately destroyed or stolen.
  2. “Googie” is a term borrowed from the book Googie by Alan Hess. Published in 1986, the book documents 1950’s coffee Shop Architecture and design sensibility. “Googie” became a term to easily refer to all the ‘cartoonish” mid-century American design that was so common in L.A.’s thrift stores and still visible in what few old diners were still standing in L.A. county, many of which were demolished in favor of parking lots or strip malls.
  3. Here I am referring to the films “Plan 9 from Outer Space” Edward D. Wood Jr. 1959, and “Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill!” Russ Meyers. 1965. Michelle preferred to the description “semi-retarded love child of Divine and Tura Satana.”
  4. I recall for example one of El Duce’s backyard parties featuring a Mentors gig (executioner hoods and all), a keg or two and a sweet elderly lady serving pies who I’m told was El Duce’s mother.
  5. Aside from the fact that Gary, Michelle and most of their friends were themselves underage, it seemed only logical to establish a venue as forward-thinking and innovative as the music it showcased. Jabberjaw’s admittance policy was all the more progressive when compared to the Hollywood clubs that were financially reliant on beverage sales and whose promoters were compelled to host bands sponsored by liquor companies.
  6. According to the California Association of Realtors, the median home price in Los Angeles dropped from $214,831 in 1989 to the post “riot” and earthquake low of $195,430 in 1993, and further still to the rock bottom $172,886 in 1996. The market then surged from $176,517 in 1997 to $241,370 in 2001. By August 2004, the median would be at an astonishing $564,340. According to Wikipedia among other sources, Richard Riordan, private equity tycoon and mayor of L.A. by 1993, campaigned as a businessman “tough enough to turn L.A. around.” He promised to crack down on crime, stating that “from a safe city, all else follows.” In 1997 he was re-elected in a landslide.