Remembering Jabberjaw, the Coolest LA Music Venue You've Never Heard Of
How a cramped rock club with no backstage and no liquor license became the unlikely hub of the LA DIY scene.
Though it was only open from 1989 to 1997, the LA venue Jabberjaw has had one of the most enduring legacies in independent music. It was located just north of South Central in the Arlington Heights neighborhood, putting it miles away—both geographically and aesthetically—from the plasticine Sunset Strip-based hair metal that has traditionally ruled LA. Jabberjaw served as a gathering place for kids who might not have fit into a specific genre, but still wanted to build a place for themselves. It was a hidden post-punk oasis. And that's the way the owners wanted it.
That wasn't because the operators, Gary Dent and Michelle Carr, were necessarily snobbish. It was just that in the beginning they never tried very hard to promote, relying exclusively on word of mouth to get the club off the ground, trusting in the power of their idea: put up what we like and let the community decide the rest.
Dent, the former owner, told me in an all-caps email (which serves as a visual representation for what I imagine it was like trying to talk to people in the notoriously loud venue): "THE THING THAT MADE JABBERJAW SO SPECIAL WAS THE FACT THAT IT WAS STRIPPED DOWN NO FRILLS JUST ROCK N ROLL. WE WERE ALL AGES & NO PAY TO PLAY—WHICH WAS BIG AT THE TIME; ALWAYS FIVE BUCKS TO GET IN, NO BACK STAGE, NO BAND RIDERS—YOU HUNG WITH YOUR FAVORITE BAND ALL NIGHT 'TIL IT WAS TIME TO WATCH THEM PLAY. IT WAS VERY PERSONAL AND REALLY MADE YOU FEEL LIKE A PART OF THE SHOW."
While Dent and Carr owned the place, Jabberjaw was built more or less by the people who went and contributed. It was part performance art space, part venue, part general hang-out-and-make-zines spot, part clubhouse. It was an experiment in a community-run space that ended up, through the movement of some sort of anarchic invisible hand, becoming one of the most celebrated indie venues in the US.
Over its eight-year run Jabberjaw hosted hundreds of influential post-punk and indie bands, including a famous pre-Nevermind Nirvana surprise set attended by Iggy Pop. Jabberjaw was also particularly accommodating to women and riot grrrl bands—which, sadly, made it stand out back in those days. It was a go-to for acts like Heavens to Betsy, Bikini Kill, and an early incarnation of Sleater-Kinney. Courtney Love's band Hole practiced at Jabberjaw and performed there frequently.
A new book, It All Dies Anyway: LA, Jabberjaw, and the End of an Era, details the history of the club via hundreds of curated photos and anecdotes told by regulars, assembled in the cut-and-paste style of a typical early 90s flyer. The book was compiled by Bryan Ray Turcotte, a San Francisco punk musician who moved to LA right when Jabberjaw opened, spent years as a regular, and worked closely with Dent and Carr over the course nearly a decade to assemble the book. Dent said the book was a way for "the bands and people who went there to get to re-live the experiences again, and to document a special time in LA that I don't think people realized happened in LA."
I met up with Turcotte—who now both writes books about music (like punk rock flyer collection Fucked Up and Photocopied) and acts as a music supervisor for the film industry—in his memorabilia-rich office about the history of Jabberjaw, what made it such a unique venue, and how clubs that try to emulate the club's success fail by trying too hard to be cool.
VICE: You moved to LA in 1989, the year Jabberjaw opened. What was LA's music scene like then?
Bryan Ray Turcotte: The thing about LA in 1989, the popular thing, was the Sunset Strip. Nirvana hadn't exploded yet. So Sunset Strip dominated, and it was a lot of music we hated. Guns n' Roses was king—and it was a bummer. The only clubs where we could see Jane's Addiction, or Nick Cave, or Iggy Pop, or Mudhoney, or anything like that was the Scream Club downtown, or the English Acid in Hollywood. Or a place like Jabberjaw, which was just starting to bubble up with local bands. They never had booked bigger bands at that point. It was in a really funky part of town.
But what really differentiated Jabberjaw from those other clubs is the other clubs were very obviously run by older people who had been at it a long time and were making a business of it. Jabberjaw felt like the place where we were getting away with something, It felt like we were hanging out with our friends. The people who owned it were our age. There was never any entertainment licensing, no alcohol except beers out of bags. It was a place like, nobody is even going to notice we're here. It was the true essence of "run by the people who were playing there and hanging out there."
It definitely felt like the Land of Misfit Toys, where everyone was young and cool. The nerds and freaks were finding their own place to hang. You couldn't get away with being a hipster. Or later on, A&R people would come along, you'd poke fun at them. Like, "You're going to show up here in your BMW? Good luck with that, your car is going to get stolen."
That area, Arlington Heights, is a little more cleaned up now. But what was the neighborhood like back then?
Like, when you saw the riots happening and the city burning, it was dead center on the fringe where that part of town ended and Hollywood. I don't know anyone who lived there. I never drove through that area. For our scene, it might as well have been Compton.
"It definitely felt like the Land of Misfit Toys, where everyone was young and cool." –Bryan Ray Turcotte
Jabberjaw was a destination. You have this place—an all-ages club with no alcohol—and basically every show was five bucks.
I didn't own the place, but you felt like, if it was a good day, and Gary or Michele was working the door, you could just walk in. If you were showing up with a bunch of teenyboppers, it could be "it's five bucks" or it could be "we're sold out." There were no real rules there. Nobody was really trying to make a business out of it. It was more we wanted to do stuff to have a place to go to.
It could be "I want to see this band" or it could be "I just want to play board games." For a long time there were no fixed hours. You couldn't even be guaranteed if someone said they were playing that night that it was gonna happen. It was a day-to-day thing. Sometimes they'd be shut down, sometimes they wouldn't. Sometime it would be sold out. One time I went to see the band Low, there were like four people there. And it was wonderful. For the people there, it was magic.
The nights the Make-Up played, or the infamous Nirvana show [in 1991], for me, it was so small and so hot and so crazy it was hard to deal with. The walls would sweat.
That's a recurring theme in the book—how hot that place was.
It was uncomfortable. I'm a little claustrophobic. I stood underneath the tree [in Jabberjaw's backyard] the whole time Nirvana played. I didn't go in and watch them because it was too crazy. There was no moving.
When you describe that Nirvana show as infamous, is that because of how crowded and out of control it got?
No. To be honest, I'd seen shows there that were more packed. The thing that made it infamous was that everyone in Hollywood knew this band was about to do something big. Nevermind hadn't come out yet, but everyone had loved Bleach, and there was a buzz. The demos had made their way around, so people sort of knew what was going on. They weren't supposed to play—it was a Fitz of Depression show, and they jumped on the bill to help out. So the people who were there were lucky enough to have heard and it was packed because word got around. And it was so uncomfortable that I stood outside.
It became legendary afterwards because just a few months later they became fucking huge. And it was like, "They played the Jabberjaw? Are you kidding me?" The next time they played it was like, at the Palace. If everybody who really says they saw that show actually saw that show, there would have been 5,000 people there. It was crazy, but it wasn't the most full I'd seen it.
When they played "Smells Like Teen Spirit," I can remember saying, "Oh, wow. This band has changed and evolved into something big." You could tell something was going on. Like, Oh shit, it's coming. But nobody had any idea of exactly how big it was gonna become. It just decimated Hollywood and got rid of all that shit.
On Noisey: I Saw Nirvana Play to 200 People, in 2014
Would you say that's when Jabberjaw really started to take off then, around 1991?
No. It was pretty underground for awhile, and pretty haphazard. I would say its peak was around 1994. All of sudden you had bands like Helmet and the Jesus Lizard playing. People worldwide were like, "We want to play Jabberjaw."
The first year or so, Jabberjaw was an art place with no stage. It wasn't made to be a club. It was a coffeehouse; there were acoustic shows. Then after awhile, you had Imperial Butt Wizard and Celebrity Skin playing, real aggro bands.
Then Courtney Love started hanging out, and Hole would play. And it sort of grew to where the scene around the country became hip to what was happening there. You started seeing the big Kozik posters being made, and you're seeing Guided by Voices. So it was around 1994 where it started to become like, holy shit, everyone wants to play here. Everyone is bugging them to play. And the owners had to say no, we're not letting corporate rock in here.
At the same time, Jabberjaw didn't seem to have as much of a hardline stance about major label rock as, say, Gilman Street had in the Bay Area. It didn't seem like as much of a conscious ethical choice.
It was really based on what Gary and Michele wanted. In the book, there's a list of every band that played Jabberjaw. I know there were a few "suspicious" bands that played there. Those were shows where they were probably like, "Yeah, OK." I don't know if money exchanged hands, or if they just said, "Fine."
It wasn't rigid. It was DIY. There wasn't a hardcore punk rock, boxed-in ethic. It was more like, [Gary and Michele] built their scene around what they liked. And that would change. There would be complete weirdos doing performance art, to painting makeup, to Helmet, the Cows. The Make-Up—them and Brainiac, they were the two I would say are exclusively Jabberjaw-type of bands. Some bands would say, "We don't play anywhere but there."
I'm not familiar with the Make-Up and Brainiac, but they were super high-energy bands, right?
Real DIY, indie-label, that post-punk, nutty keyboard-guitar, crazy, and energetic. Really super cool.
It was really interesting. Spacemen 3 played there, Royal Trux, Wesley Willis. The list was nuts. It's kind of hard to imagine that many bands that became something, whether they were huge when they played there or not, actually got away with playing there. Because like I said, there was no real business to be had. It was run by two people, with some help of friends. There was never an entertainment license, there was never a liquor license, and it was in a funky part of town. Sometimes it would get shut down. It's shocking it lasted as long as it did.
Do you think a space like Jabberjaw could exist today?
I do. You just kind of have to not care. I don't think Gary and Michele ever thought, "We're going to own a club, and some day it'll be steeped in the legend of music like Max's Kansas City or CBGBs." I think they were just like, "Let's have a place to play where we can just go and hang out, and maybe serve coffee to our friends. And maybe charge admission. And if it pays the bills, cool."
[Gary and Michele] went in and bought the cheapest paint they could. They built the stage themselves—and the stage was so small you could barely fit on it. There was no thought given to "How will this work in a packed house?" They built it for their friends. And that's what made it so rad. You walked in the front door, and the stage was right there. It's like, as soon as you walked in the door you were in the backstage. So every time you open the door, everyone looking at the band is looking at you, and the band is looking at you as you try to squeak by the bar and the stage down the narrow hallway where everyone is standing. That, again though, is what made it so unique and so rad. They just did what they wanted.
Why did Jabberjaw eventually shut down?
I think it was a combination of the changing city and the community pressuring them. I had heard stories about certain new police officers coming in and not being as accepting of it anymore. I'm sure there was pressure from all angles, and maybe that pressure got to them. Pay or play; get more legit, get a license, let a fire marshal in there. Or you're done. There was just too much attention being brought to it.
They were lucky enough to have ended perfectly, on a big high note. It was packed and you were like, Shit, this is it. It didn't end with a whimper. It ended with their favorite band playing and it was nuts. I didn't see that show though.
That's always a shame, where you don't feel like you got your own closure.
It was definitely... It was my favorite place to go. It felt special. I can only imagine what it felt like to be a part of the early crews at Max's, or CBGBs, or Gilman. I felt very, very gracious to have ever played there. We played twice, and it felt like a bucket list for me. Like, I might have not fit in their perfect mold. But it made sense. We were friends. It just sort of worked. And you go, Fuck, this was amazing.
From a music perspective, what's Jabberjaw's legacy?
Some of the biggest bands in LA that used to play there a lot didn't go national. And some of the bands that played for a small audience exploded. And you were like, Shit, I was at that show! I mean, there were probably as many people at that Tool/Rage show as there were at that Nirvana show. But when Imperial Butt Wizard would play it would be just as packed. Outside of LA, nobody knew who they were. Even in LA people didn't know who they were. But they were the epitome of that club at that time. That's what made it so special. It was like a secret, for a lot of people. I would always pray that I would get their attention enough to be let in. It was like going to a party.
And then you're like, "I drove all the way to Pico for this?"
It was always like that. You never knew if it was going to be packed or not, or if you were going to get mugged [outside] or not, or if they would even be cool. It was a cool spot.
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