Everyone From L7 to Nirvana (Yes, That Nirvana) Played '90s DIY Venue Jabberjaw
A Jabberjaw flyer, one of many collected in the new book It All Dies Anyway: L.A., Jabberjaw and the End of an Era
Illustration by Lindsey Kuhn
Grunge and "riot grrrls" get associated with the '90s to this day, but neither fully represented what was going on in underground music at the time. Especially not in Los Angeles, where arty, alternative types gravitated to the same stuff organically: retro decor, rebellious music and subversive icons such as John Waters, Russ Meyers and Andy Warhol.
At infamous '90s hangout Jabberjaw, this scrambled, kitchen-sink sensibility took hold. Artists, rockers, misfits, night owls and young adults gathered within the coffeehouse's bright turquoise walls, not just to see or be seen but to be transformed by the kaleidoscopic mojo within. Jabberjaw was like a punk-rock Pee-wee's Playhouse when it opened, and soon it showcased actual punk-rock music, too, evolving into a proper (as proper as a place can be without any of the required permits) live-music venue that showcased some legendary bands.
With a new book about the venue, It All Dies Anyway: L.A., Jabberjaw and the End of an Era, released in August, it's safe to say that those who never made it to the seminal music space will be longing for a time machine — or lying and saying they were there for the cred.
Released by Rizzoli via Kill Your Idols, the publishing company known for the punk-flyer bibles Fucked Up and Photocopied and Punk Is Dead Punk Is Everything, the book was compiled by Kill Your Idols' Bryan Ray Turcotte and Jabberjaw creators Michelle Carr and Gary Dent. With a vibrant book jacket that folds out into a poster designed by famed lowbrow/rock artist Coop (who did many of Jabberjaw's original posters and flyers), it captures the caffeine-fueled debauchery and magically messy music, plus nearly every visual element of a very special piece of L.A. history.
"There's an authenticity to the art that comes from the do-it-yourself aesthetic the club operated under from day one," Turcotte says. "From the Day-Glo silkscreened posters to the candid snapshots of sweaty people dancing to the more professional photos of bands onstage, the visuals begin to create a narrative all their own when they're observed all these years later. You can't help but feel like you're there with them."
Carr has been trying to immortalize the club in book form for more than a decade, and worked hard to extract stories from its regulars. She put everything into the book just as she did the club; the first time she saw the finished product, she burst into tears. "It's a super emotional thing," she says. "Jabberjaw, the relationships and the ideas it sparked ... they mean a lot to me."
Located on Pico Boulevard in Arlington Heights, Jabberjaw was in a rough part of town, and the bright hair and fashionable freaks it attracted did not go unnoticed. For regulars, getting robbed or hassled walking in was par for the course.
"It was the perfect hangout, once you were inside. Outside was another story," recalls Don Bolles of The Germs, who has an essay in the book. "The neighborhood was pretty sketch at the time, and pretty much everybody that drove there got their car broken into. ... It was scary, but it was so great that you just had to bite the bullet and deal."
Michelle Carr, aka Michelle Hell or Ms. Hell (a name bestowed upon her when she started go-go dancing), grew up in Van Nuys. She was a Valley girl with a serious Hollywood itch, and she and her best friend, Dent, would cruise around the city in his 1964 Galaxie, going to shows and shopping at thrift stores. They'd inevitably end up in one of the city's then-novel coffee bars.
Like the '60s beatnik bars, the '80s coffeehouse scene brimmed with poetry, acoustic music and art. The Onyx in Los Feliz and the Pikme-Up, just off La Brea on Sixth Street, were the go-tos, and bona fide communities emerged around them, fueled by caffeine, creativity and a controlled chaos that was different from being in an actual nightclub. They also provided a haven for under-age scenesters to congregate.
"Jabberjaw was directly influenced by the Pikme-Up," says Carr, who purposefully sought to create the secret-club vibe in an uncharted, ungentrified part of town. "I loved the area during the day because it was all these cool old houses and not one mini-mall to be seen. It wasn't in competition with Pikme-Up because we were far away."
She designed the space "like a big art installation," with areas that encouraged hanging out. "We had a TV room and we'd play movies so people could hang out and watch VHS tapes on our big 1970s console. The upstairs was a psychedelic blacklight room with beanbags and stuff; then we changed it into this little tiki cove."
"You could tell that they put a lot of time into it. They created an environment that wasn't like anywhere else," says Donita Sparks of L7, one of the first plugged-in bands to play there. "All the bands you saw in [the punk zine] Flipside ended up there."
Though it opened in 1989, Jabberjaw (a nickname Dent gave Carr) didn't start showcasing music until later. In the early days, it was often empty during the day, save for its wonderfully oddball regulars: Bolles, who was in local favorites Celebrity Skin at the time; Redd Kross' McDonald brothers; Rob Zabrecky of Possum Dixon (now a successful magician); Paul Koudounaris of the Imperial Butt Wizards (now a noted author). Somewhere along the way, the clash of ephemera and eclectic patrons mutated into performance-art presentations, and ultimately live music.
"We were all-ages and no pay-to-play, which was big at the time," Dent says. "It was always five bucks to get in, no backstage, 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."
One of the first things you see in It All Dies Anyway is a two-page black-and-white spread listing "every band that ever played at Jabberjaw." Among the several hundred names: Beck, Bikini Kill, The Donnas, Elliott Smith, Hole, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, The Melvins, The Offspring, Rocket From the Crypt, Royal Trux, Sleater-Kinney, Weezer and White Zombie.
For many, Jabberjaw's defining moment remains the night Nirvana performed in 1991. Though they weren't originally on the bill, word quickly spread, which beckoned the likes of Iggy Pop and Kurt Cobain's future wife, Courtney Love. Though Nevermind had yet to come out, the set list included "Lithium," "Come as You Are" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
Dent and Carr realize that rabid Nirvana fans probably will be the first to covet It All Dies Anyway, but they hope that interest will lead to something more. "There were a lot of amazing bands back then that didn't get the chance to be heard but really deserved to be," Dent says. "Hopefully this will open a whole new audience to experience them. Buy the book for Nirvana, Hole and others you have heard of, but discover bands like Jawbreaker, Unwound, The Nation of Ulysses, Karp and Fitz of Depression."
"It was a community the likes of which I've yet to see ever since," says Carr, who has plans for a new venture she's not ready to talk about publicly yet, but which she assures will conjure the magic of her former business. "Jabberjaw was a collaborative effort that took on a life of its own. Now it lives on to inspire new things."
A release party for It All Dies Anyway will happen Sunday, Sept. 13 at Stories Books & Cafe in Echo Park, with readings by Michelle Carr, Rob Zabrecky, Don Bolles and many more. Lina Lecaro will be DJing the event along with Grant Capes (Echo Curio, Human Resources). More info at storiesla.com.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.