Thursday, March 31, 2011

An Interview With Gabe's Bar in Iowa City

Nestled deep in the heart of Iowa City is a little Oasis of rock and roll history. Just off of the beaten path on Washington Street away from the predominate bar scene stands an old building that has housed some of the greatest rock and roll shows this state has ever been privy to hosting... Not to mention the luminaries and the dignitaries who made their way through the doors of this less than fine establishment.

Well, that's not really fair. I should explain.

We are talking about Gabes, and less than fine is not a bad thing. That description fits the mold of what the scene that Gabes created was all about. Sure the walls were dilapidated and the bathrooms smelled like piss and  vomit. And, it was dark and dreary at times, and the crowd seemed to be made up more of drop out types than the plastic college kids that frequented the other bars. But that wasn't a bad thing in my eyes... I didn't want to mingle with the fraternity crowd or the other nimrods that frequented the mainstream taverns. I liked the counter culture that sleazed into Gabes and I admired the fact that I was a part of the prongs that went against society's norms. Gabes was the underbelly of civilization in Iowa City and being there made me feel like I was a part of something strange and vast... It wasn't rushed, crowded and obnoxious like the bars up in the pedestrian mall, and I didn't feel like I was breathing testosterone while I was in there.

Many of the University students unknowingly deemed Gabes as an unsafe haven, and once in awhile you would see a couple of cheerleader types come in and while scanning the place for the inevitable danger, order a cocktail from the bartender. Or actually, it was usually beer. Beer was quick and easy and didn't draw a lot of attention... You could literally watch as the apprehensive cheerleaders ordered their drinks and eventually soaked up what Gabe's was all about, which might have been non-conformity, but it certainly wasn't danger. Eventually they eased into a comfortable state of mind and realized that this was a fun place to hang out at and not a place of peril. Watching that transition take place was priceless.

The patio might have been the exception, at least for me.

Out back, it was a hallowed ground and provided for a daily party for the regulars who frequented it during the summer. More than a couple of times I tried to incorporate that crowd and pretty much, without fail I would only be shunned and eventually nudged back inside by the uncomfortable feeling I got when I attempted these infiltrations. But looking back, I am sure it was more me than it was them... I was the outsider and this was their spot... A seat at that table was earned, and not automatically given. I can respect that. Besides, I was young and naive. There wasn't a whole lot I could offer to their intellectuality.

But inside, the beer was inexpensive and the drinks were strong. So despite my mental shortcomings, I always found my way back down to the Oasis for another attempt at the patio seating or more often than not, just a seat inside the main bar for the cheap strong drinks I had come to expect.

Then, later at night when the day crowd began to fizzle out, the staff would open the doors to the large room atop a windy flight of stairs. This is where the live music was played, and in addition to another stocked bar being up there, it housed the stage that had supported so many great bands and musicians on it that it should be considered as a gift for for the Smithsonian. That stage is a national treasure. Personally, I have seen High and Lonesome play there, as well as The Meat Puppets, Giant Metal Insects, House of Large Sizes, Captain Barney, Dagobah and the All American Rejects. Not to mention the other 20-30 bands I saw on that stage that I cannot automatically remember the names of.

Upstairs at Gabes (Photo courtesy of Gabes website)

Upstairs it was dark and it was loud. The floor was usually wet with beer spill, and the crowd seemed to be nothing more than shadows with faces, moving in slow motion, hypnotized by the magic that was occurring on stage. Lights and colors would bounce around the room like a flashlight in the woods... Sending even more strange shadows into the assemblage. It was rock and roll in a very primitive setting, and it was beautiful.

I was actually able to reach Gabes Bar through the wonderful world of social networking, and convinced the bar to do an interview with me. As far as I know, The Bigfoot Diaries might be the first publication to interview a "bar", and we are very pleased that Gabes took the time to answer a few questions.

Meanwhile, the next time you visit Iowa City, be sure to stop in and visit this national treasure...

Bury Your Dead play Gabes

Please tell me about your early years... What year were you "born" and what are the details surrounding that? How much for a can of Schlitz then, and do you remember the very first band who graced your legendary stage?

I was never technically born, you must understand. I guess I've always kind-of existed. In fact, I used to be the mast of Blackbeard's ship back in the pirate days. I was also once the front doors to the Mann's Chinese theater in California when they first opened. I remember being JFK's can opener for a brief stint... And then sometime in the 70's I was Gabe's. Some asshole kicked me out for a couple years, but I came back and put him in his place. I'm a little foggy on prices. I'm the business, not the bookkeeper. I imagine thought Schlitz was pretty cheap, as it still is (delicious, too!)

The first band that played on our stage was The Beatles. And anyone who wants to argue this fact can go to hell.

Iowa City is a very historical place, and so is Gabe's. What are a couple of your most memorable moments?

There was that time we found a dude sleeping in the pee-trough in the men's bathroom. That was pretty memorable. There was also that time Kurt Cobain puked in our sink before he finished another bottle of whiskey.

Four-piece Nirvana in 1989 at Gabes

I think I heard once that Kurt Vonnegut would stop in once in awhile for a beer... Is that true, and whether it is or not, who are some famous people who have come in (not to play music, but) to have a drink?

If you heard it, it's probably true. That goes for any famous person who has been rumored to be here. Mick Jagger, Bill Clinton, Gilbert Godfried. I'm sure they were all here at some point and at some level of intoxication. And if you don't think they were, then try to prove us wrong!

Primus graced the stage at Gabes

What have you done over the years to keep up with the changes in music? (I see you have a DJ on Thursdays and a web site. Geez. How DID we survive without the internet?)

Kegels are an important first step. Gotta keep those groin muscles in tip-top shape. Beyond that, we maintain a healthy diet of cynicism glazed with a shimmer of hope and a dash of enthusiasm for all the little (and big) bands that stroll through our stage.

What do you see changing in the future of live music?

I really hope there are more lasers involved. That's all anyone can really ask for.

What does it take to play Gabe's... Is there a special quality a band must have before they will even be considered?

Female bass players are encouraged. Beyond that, we just look for a passion and drive to perform and entertain. You could be a terrible one-man kazoo band, or you could be the next Rolling Stones. It doesn't matter. If you play with feeling, you play at Gabe's.

Are there any bands touring right now that you haven't been able to land that you "dream about?"

Tom Jones. Hands down.

Poison Control Center play Gabes

What's the chances of getting Alice Donut (New York City) to come play?

About as likely as getting Kim Donut from New Jersey to play. Though she has nicer nails and blonde hair, so.... Tough call!

Let's talk about the ground floor level... Is the atmosphere today different than it was at the beginning?

Times change. People change... Laws change. I'd have to say it's different, but it isn't any better or worse. It's just right.
What promotions do you run when there are no bands scheduled?

Mondays are metal nights. Tuesdays we do Hip-Hop. Wednesdays are Open Mic. Thursdays are dance/DJ nights. All of these events are free and take place on our new downstairs stage. It's fancy.

One more question. What is the secret to making a great Bloody Mary?

I don't know, but the best ones, I've found, are made by old people.

(Thanks to the lovely Julie Osborn for help with this article!)



Anonymous said...

Used to be THEE place 20 yrs ago when they booked metal bands for the most part. Now? Not so much.