Remembering Jabberjaw, the kitschy coffee house and defiant music venue
I first walked into Jabberjaw not long after it opened in 1989. Situated on an unloved stretch of Pico Boulevard in Mid-City, it seemed to be a locked storefront, but a tiny alley between it and the next building led to a door at the rear. Inside, midcentury kitsch — dinette sets, a turquoise wall, Keane paintings — met a punk-rock ethos. Immediately, it became my favorite coffee shop.
Jabberjaw swiftly started hosting bands, growing into a full-on, thoroughly unlicensed rock club. Fans crammed into the notoriously small, notoriously loud venue to see the Jesus Lizard, Unsane, Beck, Hole, Girls Against Boys, the Melvins and more. If everyone who claims to have seen Nirvana there in 1991, four months before “Nevermind” was released, actually had been at the show, the building would have exploded.
But Iggy Pop was there, and he actually remembers it. His voice is one of the dozens that appear in the kaleidoscopic oral history hiding inside the new art book “It All Dies Anyway: L.A., Jabberjaw and the End of an Era.” Its pages, designed by Bryan Ray Turcotte and Clint Woodside, are crammed with layers of fliers and photos and stories at odd angles. Turcotte was an early Jabberjaw habitue too. His collecting of fliers and eye for ephemera were essential to this book. It has a powerful, chaotic aesthetic — a single spread includes the deeply dissimilar bands White Zombie, Low and Chumbawamba — that perfectly reflects Jabberjaw at its best.
“It All Dies Anyway” feels like a cool yearbook filled with personal stories from musicians and clubgoers, unknown and known. Early on, Hole’s Eric Erlandson brought his girlfriend Drew Barrymore, creating a bridge between the scruffy underground and glamorous Hollywood. Sofia Coppola showed up. Redd Kross’ Steven McDonald worked up the courage to ask future wife Anna Waronker (That Dog) for a date after they saw a teenage Ben Lee perform there.
Co-founders Michelle Carr and Gary P. Dent, who serve as the book’s editors, were the visionaries who ran the circus. Both were a regular presence at the venue — Carr (later a founder of Velvet Hammer Burlesque) a vermilion-haired cross between Bettie Page and Vampira, Dent with bushy mutton chops and heavy-framed glasses that seemed out of fashion then but were simply 20 years ahead of their time. They enlisted artists such as Coop and T.A.Z., who designed posters that riffed on Hernandez brothers comics, pop-culture iconography and Big Daddy Roth. As bookers, their musical tastes tended toward the hard and fast and strange: the heavy sexual techno of Ethyl Meatplow, the two-man percussion outfit Babyland and the glam assault of the Imperial Butt Wizards.
During one Imperial Butt Wizards show, as I remember it, the band stuck a stuffed animal on a pole, waved it over the audience and lighted it on fire. Fumes filled the space, and I realized that was sort of the end for me. Jabberjaw had long stopped being a place where I could buy coffee, Pop-Tarts and study. I was one of what Rob Zabrecky, a seminal Jabberjaw character who is now an actor and magician, remembers as the “disaffected USC kids.”
In the club’s later stages, it was an all-ages venue that operated in anything-goes mode. Beer flowed from behind the counter. Wandering upstairs or into the bathroom at the wrong time might interrupt a drug session. People didn’t think they would get busted for anything.
Eventually, they did. The doors closed in August 1997. The book tells the story in snippets, without a single through line, and it’s the way people remember the club (often blurrily) that comes across as more important than the prosaic details of what happened.
The end of Jabberjaw roughly coincided with the rise of the Internet as a way to share information, and two short years later we would see the rise of Napster, the first major music-sharing service. In the book, Christopher Appelgren, who played Jabberjaw in three bands, explains that the timing was part of what made the venue special.
“It attracted an intimate community of bands, fans and cool weirdos from all over in the last great pre-Internet era,” he says, adding later, “It was the place where everything was allowed, even if it was against the rules.”
I can’t imagine L.A. ever having a venue quite like it again — but I hope I’m wrong.
‘It All Dies Anyway’ release party
Where: 5 p.m. Sunday
Where: Stories Books & Café, 1716 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles
Info: (213) 413-3733, storiesla.com/blogs/events
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