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Cosmic cowboys, quarter beers and nightmarish bathrooms: The history of Gabe’s

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Illustration by Claire Theole

In the beginning there was the Pub, opening inside a nondescript two-story brick building on East Washington Street in Iowa City, which previously housed ACT, Inc.’s offices, in 1970. The restrooms have been on a steep decline since then, but there have also been many highs, both musical and chemical.

By 1974, the eponymously named Pub was rechristened Fox and Sam’s; a year later, the name Gabe & Walker’s won a popular vote among bar patrons (Gabe and Walker were fictional spokesmen for the Falstaff beer brand at the time). Blues-rock band Enoch Smoky was the first to perform in the big upstairs room, which would become a go-to place for local music fans.

Gabe & Walker’s cultivated Iowa City’s version of the “cosmic cowboy” scene, which also grew out of places like Austin and other freak-friendly towns in the 1970s. Country-rock mavericks Long Shot drew a large dancing crowd to Gabe & Walker’s, as well as other local bands and touring artists such as Gene Clark and Asleep at the Wheel.

Clouds of marijuana sometimes drifted from the beer garden out back. Fights were plenty, as were the good times, and few remember ever being there sober. As cosmic cowboys levitated the second floor, the more hardened locals remained rooted at the bar downstairs, scaring off all but the most hardcore.

Writers like T.C. Boyle and Denis Johnson haunted the club, taking mental notes that would inform their fiction. Literary and musical culture also converged with G&W’s longtime bartender Gerry Stevenson, a quintessential Iowa City character and former golf coach who in 1960 opened the Paper Place, an important bookstore that specialized in avant-garde literature.

The Paper Place, a bridge between the Beat and hippie crowds, served as a hangout for Iowa Writers’ Workshop students and counterculture types. It burned down in 1969 — some say Stevenson set the fire — and the odd college town duck spent years drinking in downtown bars like Kenny’s and Donnelly’s. By the late 1970s he was working as a bartender at Gabe & Walker’s, which was shortened to Gabe’s in 1979, and he stuck around into the 1990s.

People recalled how Stevenson wore a kind of English schoolboy outfit: shorts and long socks, with thin black glasses on the edge of his nose. He had a big bushy beard, loved early Greek philosophers, and could be seen about town shouting, “Parmenides! Parmenides!” Naturally, Gerry fit right in at a place that hosted noted eccentric Captain Beefheart in 1980, one of many memorable gigs.

Dancing the night away at Gabe’s during Middle of Nowhere Music Fest. Friday, Sept. 1, 2017. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Iowa City musician Doug Roberson (the Bent Scepters) moved to town that year to attend the University of Iowa and eventually got involved in booking shows by the mid-1980s. The main upstairs room was now advertised as Gabe’s Oasis, and newer punk and college rock groups began crowding out the bluesy hippie bands of yore.

Roberson published a fanzine that also served as the calendar for Gabe’s, which eventually morphed into a monthly music and arts paper titled NEO. This coincided with the formation of a national network of zines, record stores, clubs and college radio stations like the University of Iowa’s KRUI — all of which made it possible for underground bands to mount and promote cross-country tours in a pre-internet age.

Gabe’s served as a salon for the broke art and music kids who hung out on Tuesday nights drinking 25-cent draws of beer, referred to as “quarters.” It was an eclectic mix of punks, cigar-smoking professors playing chess and regulars like an older woman named Litha, who lived in the Ecumenical Towers next door and would come in every night for a highball.

And the bathrooms, oh god, the bathrooms. “The stuff of nightmares,” one patron said, while another recalled, “The bathrooms were disgusting. The hookups were relentless. The quarter draws were irresponsible. The music was the best in the world. I’m sure of it.”

As with many bars, Gabe’s had its share of creeps and sexual predators; many disturbing things went down there, but there was still a sense that the staff was looking out for those who were the most vulnerable. Many also remember the ’80s punk scene as being sexist and not inviting to women, though some did play in bands, including Marcia Brady’s Tits singer Beth Lucht and the women in Total Fools (which split off into Thinking Fellers Union 282).

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Nirvana at Gabe's
Nirvana at Gabe’s, 1989 — photo courtesy of Mark Weills

Iowa City’s relative proximity to several major Midwestern cities ensured that a head-spinning range of talent could be seen at Gabe’s on any given week: Babes in Toyland, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Jeff Buckley, Nirvana, L7, fIREHOSE, Weird Al Yankovic, Los Lobos, Let’s Active, Soul Asylum, Mudhoney, Alex Chilton, Primus, the Jayhawks, Uncle Tupelo, Pussy Galore, Meat Puppets, Jesus Lizard, Yo La Tengo, Melvins, Sonic Youth, Stereolab and so many others.

There was also an explosion of Iowa bands such as Drednex, Bent Scepters, Dayglo Bomber Boys, Horny Genius, Burlap Elevated, Dangtrippers, Full Fathom Five, Stickdog and Iowa Beef Experience. A symbiotic relationship developed between Gabe’s, KRUI and local record stores, and Record Collector owner Kirk Walther played a key role in making things happen, often quietly fronting booking fees for bands he wanted to come to town.

Many of those artists fell in love with Walther and spread the word about Iowa City to their peers in the American music underground. It became a destination for bands traveling between big cities and bigger gigs, a place to take it easy. It wasn’t uncommon to walk into Gabe’s and see famous or infamous musicians relaxing with the locals.

Gabe’s siren song drew in young’uns like Iowa City musician Katie Roche (Awful Purdies, Dandelion Stompers), who was in high school in the early 1990s.

“All the bands we loved who played at Gabe’s got huge,” she said. “At least that’s how we saw it out in the cornfields of Iowa.”

Halloween decorations during Kane Edward’s birthday party at Gabe’s. Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Likewise, Ali Colleen Neff, who worked the door in the late 1990s, recalled, “Gabe’s was legendary — and highly permeable by schoolchildren.” (While a music critic for her high school newspaper, the Cedar Rapids native slipped in with a fake ID to see the Dead Milkmen.)

Well into the 1990s, you could still see three great shows a week, which was one of the things that lured Luke Tweedy, who now operates Iowa City recording studio Flat Black, to town. “It is the perfect sized room,” he said. “It will hold hundreds of people, but feels pretty good in there if your draw is 40 or 50. It is just dirty enough, just loud enough, and sometimes just dangerous enough to feel like the real deal.”

While Gabe’s continued to put on some phenomenal shows, the momentum soon slowed for live music. Fewer people were buying from band merch tables, a factor that made touring less economically viable in an age of streaming and downloading. But the emergence of the internet also made possible a new chapter for Gabe’s.

By posting to electronic bulletin boards and her GeoCities-hosted website, Michelle Higley began promoting electronic dance music events under the name Rotation in the late ’90s. Major DJs from Detroit, Chicago and New York had residencies at Gabe’s — Terrence Parker was a regular — and it attracted visitors from throughout the Midwest who heard about it online.

“In some ways Gabe’s mirrored a lot of venues in Detroit,” said Rotation regular Rebekah Farrugia, a communication professor who earned her Ph.D. at the University of Iowa. “It was small, gritty, no frills, and the bathrooms were in terrible shape, but the sound system was on point.” These nights expanded Gabe’s clientele, from the many LGBTQ partygoers who attended to the core group of women who worked in production roles and as DJs.

Closet Witch performs at Gabe’s. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

In 2006 — with the building’s glory days in the rearview mirror — new owners named it the Picador, then in 2010 it was rebranded Gabe’s after another change in hands. Iowa City booker Chris Wiersema was a manager during the brief and tumultuous reign of the Picador, something that he said permanently cured him of any romanticized Cheers-y poetics about bars.

He also isn’t nostalgic about all the legendary artists who played the room. He doesn’t believe they imbued the club with their essence, as if talent were communicable. Wiersema prefers to reflect on those never-happened performances, like when a previous booker passed on the White Stripes due to perceived lack of interest, or when he was emailed the Myspace link to a Wisconsin singer-songwriter who requested $750 to play the club.

“At this price,” Wiersema recalled thinking at the time, “no one is ever going to hear from some weepy asshole named Bon Iver ever again.”

Kembrew McLeod thanks everyone he talked to and the Iowa City Public Library reference librarians for their research assistance. A version of this article was originally published in Little Village issue 268.


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