Capturing magic: remembering Jabberwocky

Syracuse University’s original DIY venue is long gone, but not quite forgotten.

The drinks, cheap. The music, loud. The times, interesting.

From 1969 to 1985, the current location of the Maker Space in Syracuse University’s Kimmel Hall was known as the Jabberwocky Cafe or "Jab" for short. Known for several murals on the walls themed after Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland," the on-campus bar and music venue borrowed its name from "The Jabberwocky," a poem written by Carroll about the slaying of the mythical Jabberwock.

The Jabberwocky Cafe’s legacy, although obscured somewhat by a haze of pot smoke and liquor, lives on in the hearts and minds of the thousands of SU alum who were lucky enough to have experienced it.

You might know the Jabberwocky Cafe by its current incarnation; a few tables, chairs, couches and a coffee vending machine that everyone seems afraid to use in the basement of Schine Student Center. These days the space is primarily used as a meeting spot for student organizations. It also houses WERW, Syracuse's independent student-run radio station.

The premiere concert venue on campus, the Jabberwocky was host to numerous big acts in its heyday. The Talking Heads, Aztec Two-Step and Jackson Browne are just a few of the heavy-hitters that came through the venue in the one and a half decades that it was open. It didn’t take a magical sword to slay this Jabberwocky, however. When the drinking age was raised from 18 to 21 in 1984, the cafe, which relied on drink sales to stay afloat, was forced to close. As an on-campus bar, it didn’t really have much going for it when the bulk of the student population was no longer welcome to partake. In 1985 the venue closed its doors for good, much to the dismay of the student population.

James Brown paid a visit to the Jabberwocky on its penultimate evening and brought with him a cacophony of light and sound. The next evening was a performance by The Velvet Underground’s John Cale, who closed out the storied venue for good. In 2017, the only evidence of the Jab’s former glory is a handful of archival photographs, countless drunken memories and this James Brown bootleg.

For both students who experienced it and the artists who played in it, the Jabberwocky Cafe was something special. Those who were there remember it as a wild place where anything could happen.

"It was a lot of fun for the artists," said Rex Fowler, one half of folk act Aztec Two-Step. "It's funny, we played some really nice concert halls in Syracuse. I don't remember the names of those places. Whenever we bump into people from Syracuse, Jabberwocky is the only thing they talk about. We probably played the Jabberwocky six or eight times. It was always packed. Everybody who played the Jabberwocky would remember it." 

The Jabberwocky Cafe’s legacy, although obscured somewhat by a haze of pot smoke and liquor, lives on in the hearts and minds of the thousands of SU alum who were lucky enough to have experienced it, and the artists who played there. Time has ensured that only a handful of anecdotes about the venue survive to the present day, but the Jab’s vibe and atmosphere are made almost palpable by those we still have.

“I remember one time we played the Jabberwocky there were some pretty good looking girls who were asking why we always wrote such male chauvinist pig songs," said Fowler. "David Bromberg was there with his wife, she was sitting in the dressing room when these girls came in. When they left she said, ‘you know what I would have told them? I would have told them to suck my male chauvinistic pig cock.’” 

It was the kind of place where artists and students mingled freely. So freely, in fact, that the bands would sometimes end up staying at students’ houses after a night of partying in the Jab, occasionally forming friendships that would last a lifetime.

“I don’t remember exactly what was happening, but I met Rex Fowler for the first time at the Jab,” said SU alum and photographer William Coupon. “I think he somehow ended up staying at my house on Westcott, someone must have been hooking up with someone” said Coupon. Coupon, who graduated in 1974 with an advertising degree, would go on to shoot covers for Rolling Stone, Time and many others. Most recently, he shot the cover for Aztec Two-Step’s latest album “Naked.”

Nowadays, University Union, the student organization that was responsible for the operation and booking of the Jabberwocky Cafe attempts to capture some of the original magic of those intimate, wild shows. The Bandersnatch Concert series, named for another mythical beast from Carroll’s poem, takes place in the Schine Underground, adjacent to the room in Schine that bears the name of the late, great Jabberwocky Cafe. The concert series aims to highlight up-and-comers, and brought big-name acts like Chance the Rapper, Walk the Moon and Big Sean to Syracuse before they achieved mainstream success.

The hazy, gritty feel of the Jab, however, is perhaps better preserved through the various DIY music venues that have popped up off campus in the past few years. Space Camp, which operates out of a house off of Euclid Avenue has touring musicians play the basement about once a week, and tends to draw a pretty significant crowd. Most nights, the basement is packed, the air thick with the stench of cheap beer and cigarette smoke. Former SU student Kyle Beam remembers living at Space Camp fondly.

“I’m a musician myself, and it was huge for me to be able to have all of these artists that I love and respect so much to come hang out in my house,” said Beam, who played in campus band Kvlt Ddy.

Although the Jabberwocky Cafe might be gone forever, it lives on in spirit through the likes of Bandersnatch and Space Camp. At least a small part of that strange magic that made the cafe so special lives on at Syracuse University.

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