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July 5, 2012
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There was something about Mary’s

By Jared Curtis

Five years after its closing, the legend of Hairy Mary’s remains

The Smashing Pumpkins, Mudhoney and The Dave Matthews Band bellied up to the iconic bar at Hairy Mary’s. Photo courtesy of Jeff Wright

The year was 1991. President George H.W. Bush was in the White House, Paul “Pee Wee Herman” Rubens was arrested after being caught masturbating in an adult theater, Nirvana’s iconic “Nevermind” was released, and Cityview didn’t even exist.

Times were changing, and Des Moines was no different. The downtown area seemed barren in comparison to what it is today. Many buildings were used as storage, which is exactly why Jeff Wright and John Limke thought it would be the perfect area to open a new live music venue on Southwest 2nd Street (the current home of the High Life Lounge and el Bait Shop).

“We opened the original Hairy Mary’s in 1991 in an old empty warehouse,” said Wright, who owns Church of Choppers and along with Limke and Brad “Fatty” Smith also owns FTW Company, GT Lounge, Kung Fu Tap and Taco and Big Tomato Pizza.

The name was based on a local beauty that caught Wright’s eye.

“I was drinking and a waitress at Julio’s was hot and had great, long hair. Oh yeah, and her name was Mary, so it was born,” he said. “I wonder what ever happened to her?”

The neighborhood was so desolate, some local officials didn’t even know Mary’s existed.

“I remember being outside, and we had been open for probably a year, and a police officer rolled up and asked about the bar,” Wright said. “I told him we had been open for a year, and the cop said, ‘This is my beat, and I didn’t even know you guys were here.’ It was a totally underground club, and we were a lot better known nationally than we were locally.”

Today, the 80/35 Music Festival has become a big draw for local music fans, but Wright says Hairy Mary’s was the original 80/35 party.

“We used to tell the bookers we’re at 80 and 35. We would always get the best shows on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday after they played the bigger Midwest cities over the weekend,” he said.

The building was a perfect location for the venue, but the former tenants left something not so desirable behind.

The infamous Hairy Mary’s bathroom. Photo courtesy of Iowa Underground Archives

“They used to store hogs in there, and when we had big shows like the Smashing Pumpkins or Mudhoney, the wood would start to sweat, and you could smell the hogs,” Wright laughed. “I remember we probably had 800 people in there, and it was so hot and sweaty, steam was rising off the building. People actually called the fire department because they thought the building was on fire because there was so much steam rising from the body heat.”

The Smashing Pumpkins played the 300 capacity club in July of 1993, only a few days after their breakthrough album “Siamese Dream” was released. A long-time patron, Bobby Hanson, remembers the show.

“It is one of those shows you think about and wish you could go back to just one more time,” he said. “I remember a lot of people couldn’t get in. They were way over capacity, and people were squeezed in anywhere there was room. I remember people hanging from the posts trying to see.”

The club, considered the CBGB of Iowa — an iconic music venue in New York City where bands like The Ramones and Blondie got their starts — was so well known on the national level that the music magazine Alternative Press voted the bar Best Live Music Venue.

“Bands loved playing there because we liked to party. There were a lot of wild times down there,” Wright said. “We didn’t set out to open theme bars or throw bacon festivals; we did it for the love of music.”

Other bands that played the original location included Fugazi, Monster Magnet, Firehose, Clutch, X, Supersuckers, Ween, Dumpster Juice, House of Large Sizes and a relatively unknown Dave Matthews Band.

“I remember seeing Dave Matthews Band there with probably 15-20 people,” Hanson laughs. “Nobody knew who they were when they played. But that was the great thing about Mary’s; a lot of great bands played there before they broke it big.”

Wright said one of the more memorable nights was when Lollapalooza made a stop at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in 1993. Some of the bands on that tour included Primus, Alice in Chains, Dinosaur Jr, Fishbone, Babes in Toyland and Tool. The night before the show, Hairy Mary’s became a pre-party location for the tour.

“All these bands came down to party, and a bunch of people got on stage, and it turned into a super jam,” Wright said. “I remember J Mascis hanging out and shooting pool with some dudes from Alice in Chains, and I remember Babes in Toyland stopped playing and pulled the plug because a dude from Fishbone wouldn’t get off the stage. It was total chaos, and I don’t think we closed down until 3 or 4 in the morning.”

Although the parties were known to survive many challenges, the secret service shut one celebration down during the floods of ’93.

“The water was close, but for some freak reason, we had power, and the bar was dry, so we just moved the speakers outside and started partying,” Wright said. “Then the secret service came by in the row boats and told us to stop and turn the music off because Bill Clinton was going to be coming by as he toured the flood areas. The cops made us close everything down, but we just moved everything to [Mike] Clabaugh’s house.”

“The party always went to my place after the bar closed,” said Clabaugh, a long time bartender at GT who played at both locations with numerous bands and is currently the singer/guitarist for The Jitz. “At the time, no other venue could compete, and what was so cool about Mary’s was the fact they appreciated bands that played original material.”

Along with playing the venue, many bands used the location as a practice space or a place to hang out and party before or after a gig.

“Fugazi called us up the night before their show and asked if they could use the bar as a practice space in the morning,” Wright said. “They showed up, and we told some friends, so we all just partied and listened to them practice. We put some plywood on the pool tables and turned it into an indoor skate ramp. It was like a 20-hour marathon with Fugazi.”

The bar also had a strong following of regulars who came down regardless of who was playing. Kim Huch Hanson, who is married to Bobby but didn’t know him at the time, was one of those people.

“I hung out a lot and remember eating a lot of Pop Tarts there. I think you could get a package of Pop Tarts for like 50 cents. And you could get them hot or cold,” she laughed. “I remember the night before Lollapalooza. There weren’t a lot of people there, but it was so cool to see all of these bands that I was going to see the next day get up on stage and jam together.”

Kim and Bobby still frequent Wright’s and Limke’s establishments to this day.

“Those guys brought the party environment to Des Moines, and people are still talking about it,” Kim said. “Mary’s was the perfect storm, and I have lots of good memories. Bands heard it was a wild place and actually wanted to stop and play Des Moines. There have been other venues in Des Moines, but there will never be another place like Mary’s.”

All good things must come to an end, though, and after advancing the metro music scene in only a handful of years, Hairy Mary’s closed its doors in 1994.

“We were totally burned out,” Wright said. “Working 10 bands a week for years takes its toll. We sold it and moved on to our other ventures.”

But that wasn’t the end of Hairy Mary’s.

The second location

In early 1997, Shawn Crahan of Slipknot had taken over the Safari Club, located at 2307 University Ave. But as Slipknot began to attract more attention from record labels, the bar became a burden and Cranhan closed the Safari Club in late 1997, selling it to another owner.

“Shawn sold the bar to a kid who was running it into the ground, so Jeff approached me about joining up with him and John to reopen Mary’s,” Fatty said. “I was in the media/bar business at the time, but I loved live music so we decided to do it.”

The bar was remodeled from its previous incarnations and reopened in 1998.

“We gutted the place but still wanted to keep it punk rock,” Wright said. “I travel a lot, so when Fatty and I go out of town, we try and search out the Hairy Mary’s of the towns we’re in.”

To many, one of the most memorable aspects of the University Avenue location was the bathroom. When patrons talk about the bar, the bathrooms usually come up. But Wright says you can’t always judge a book by its cover.

“People always said the bathrooms were bad, but we kept them clean. Those bathrooms got bleached and scrubbed as much as any other bathroom,” Wright said. “It just had a graffiti look and feel to it.”

Even as the memories of the bathrooms remain, it was all about the music. Fatty started booking bands for the new location and brought an unknown duo to town for a show that wasn’t very well attended.

“We had booked The White Stripes, and only nine people paid to get in,” Fatty said. “I called all the media outlets, telling them about this great band coming through, but everyone blew me off. A few weeks later, they were on ‘Late Night with Conan O’Brien’ and the MTV Awards followed.”

One of the local promoters helping book shows was David “DaVo” Wilkins, who was originally booking through his company, Axiom Promotions, at the Safari Club.

“The scene revolved around the bar, which you don’t really see anymore. People were there every night, no matter who was playing,” said Wilkins, owner of Axiom Body Piercing Studio at the Skin Kitchen and webmaster for Iowa Underground Archives. “The new Safari Club was being promoted by other people from out of town, but when Jeff, Fatty and John came back, they brought it back to the local, independent promoters.”

Wilkins believes a lot of the shows taking place wouldn’t have happened if the Mary’s crew wasn’t involved.

“All those guys were very supportive of me and the shows I was putting together,” he said.

Wilkins also felt the sting of helping break local bands only to see them become popular and not return.

“Nobody knew of these bands, but then they would go on and become big,” he said. “It’s frustrating as a promoter when you book a band and nobody shows up. Then six months later you try to get them back, and they say no.”

But what may have been a burden to the promoters was a blessing for the fans.

“That was the beauty of the job, catching bands right as they were on the way up,” Fatty said. “I remember seeing At The Drive-In the first time they came through, and there were like five people there. The next time they stopped, we were well over capacity.”

Other bands that played at the new location included Queens of the Stone Age, Mastodon, L7, Biohazard, The Melvins, High on Fire, Linkin Park, Murder City Devils, Fu Manchu, Cursive, Fear, Earthride, William Elliott Whitmore, Exodus, Captured! By Robots, Hatebreed, King’s X, Misfits, Agent Orange, Slipknot and North of Grand.

“The Queens of the Stone Age show was so packed, and we kept losing the power, so we had to have a guy hold the breaker with a pool cue,” Fatty said. “I also remember their bassist Nick Oliveri playing buck naked and breaking shit.”

A motocross event also brought back some fond memories for Fatty.

“There was a motocross event in town, and they all showed up and were driving dirt bikes in the bar,” he said. “One dude put his bike on top of the bar and caught the bar on fire, and people went nuts. It was a blast.”

Fatty eventually passed the booking reins to Gus Ramirez, who brought in a number of acts from 2000 to 2005.

“The type of bands that played there were underground. Their motive wasn’t about being signed; it was more about touring and making it across the country,” said Ramirez, who is a co-owner of Bombay Bicycle Club. “It’s nothing like it is now, though. When I was booking the club, I was on the phone all day, aggressively calling people. There was no email or Facebook. It was calling people and promoting shows with flyers.”

Des Moines’ location in the middle of the country offered a unique experience for bands and fans a like.

“I remember seeing a lot of Bay Area bands play their first Midwest date at Mary’s, and the same goes for the east coast bands. Their furthest show west would be at Mary’s. They would be on a bill together, and a year later you’d see them touring together in another part of the country,” Ramirez said. “As much as people think of it as a live venue, it was the locals that kept that place alive. Just like any other bar, you need a great group of regulars, and Mary’s had that.”

As years passed, Wright, Fatty and Limke knew it was getting time to pass the torch.

“We were our own worst demons and partied hard. There was free beer for the bands and plenty of wild parties,” Wright said. “We’d start drinking as soon as the bands showed, and they loved it. And after the bands would play here, they would tell their friends.”

Bands including Queens of the Stone Age, Jucifer and 3 Inches of Blood have given Mary’s shout-outs while gracing other stages in Des Moines. Local act The Vandon Arms even started a band so they could drink for free at Mary’s.

“We all lived together and would have drunken sing-a-longs. We thought we could put a group together and get free beer if we played Hairy Mary’s,” said guitarist Clint Meek.

Although the party was still going, other projects started taking more of the owners’ time, and Hairy Mary’s eventually closed five years ago this week.

“You can’t be a 40-year-old guy booking punk shows. I never wanted to be that guy,” Wright said. “It’s a young man’s game, and there were plenty of newcomers — like Sam Summers, who was a little kid passing out flyers at Mary’s — who were ready to take on the task.”

Between the two locations, more than 3,000 bands played the stage.

“I have played in a lot of rock and roll bars, and Mary’s was by far the best venue,” Clabaugh said. “A lot of bars only had cover bands, but Mary’s was the first to say no cover bands, and they opened the door for a lot of local bands to get on stage. There was only one Hairy Mary’s, and there will never be another one like it.”

Memories remain

The spirit of Hairy Mary’s lives on in other places around Des Moines, though. Remnants of the bar can be found at GT as well as Kung Fu Tap and Taco, and a painting from the bar can be seen at Vaudeville Mews.

“Mary’s touched a lot of people, and without them even knowing, it still is,” Fatty said.

Although Wright, Fatty and Limke no longer operate a live music venue, they know people are still working hard to create a strong music scene locally.

“Sam Summers is doing a great job at Wooly’s, they’re booking some good shows at Vaudeville Mews, and Frankie is doing great work over at Gas Lamp,” Fatty said.

Even with new venues popping up, getting people out to see live music is still a tough task.

“Technology has made it easier to promote, but it’s still a challenge to get people out to the shows,” Wright said. “People used to go out for shows; now they’re too busy updating blogs and using Instagram.”

Would Wright and Fatty do it again?

“No,” Wright quickly answers. “I’m an artist by trade, and I spent 20 years of my life promoting other musicians and artists. Plus, I probably lost 10 years off my life from all the partying I did.”

Fatty agrees.

“I think about all the good times I had at Mary’s, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world,” he said. “But I would never do it again.” CV

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