The band Fastball is best known for their 1998 mid-tempo hit “The Way,” but last month in Austin, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the University of Texas-area rock club Hole in the Wall, they slammed through several frenzied rockers from their 1996 debut, Make Your Mama Proud, which the group hadn’t played in 15 years. “No wonder we were so skinny back then,” frontman Miles Zuniga joked.
“I could almost smell the van, playing those songs,” Zuniga said afterwards. “I was like, ‘Oh no! We’ve got to drive 500 miles and we’re each gonna make about five dollars.”
Hole in the Wall—named for the gang from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, though it lives up to the moniker—is where Fastball played its first and most formative gigs, as did such artists as Spoon, Black Joe Lewis, Nanci Griffith, and Timbuk3. Other fixtures included Doug Sahm, Townes Van Zandt, the Velvet Underground’s Sterling Morrison (who’d gone on to get a PhD in medieval studies at UT) and future political consultant Mark McKinnon, both onstage and atop a barstool.
“Hole in the Wall was the first club I went to when I was visiting from Nashville in 1975,” said McKinnon. “And I immediately thought, ‘This town is where the music is really happening. And this town is where I want to live.’”
“This was the incubator,” said Fastball’s Zuniga. “We probably played here four or five times a month. And when we weren’t playing, we were checking out our peers and drinking here.”
That Hole in the Wall is older than the legal drinking age makes it a rarity for Austin. The city proclaimed itself the “live music capital of the world” in 1999 because it had more clubs per capita than any other, but it’s also a live music venue cemetery. From the Armadillo World Headquarters and Raul’s in the 1970s and 1980s to Liberty Lunch in the 1990s to, most recently, the venerable blues club Antone’s (which is supposed to re-open under new owners at what would be its sixth location) the Austin music scene’s beloved bars don’t usually last.
Hole in the Wall is the second-oldest, more or less continuously running venue in the city, after the honky-tonk The Broken Spoke, which opened in 1964 (and has recently been overrun by a surrounding condominium and retail/restaurant complex). Despite several ownership changes, one closure and a new back bar with a larger stage, it’s the same as ever, other than the food: instead of the $2.50 “Elfagator Melt” (a vegetarian sandwich with alfalfa sprouts), there’s $8 chicken karaage from a branch of Paul Qui’s East Side King, which took over the kitchen in December of 2012.
Originally opened by Buffalo transplant Doug Cugini, whose family owned a pair of truckstop cafes in Austin, Hole in the Wall was never meant to be a music venue. But local buskers on The Drag talked their way indoors in almost immediately, followed by the likes of George Ensle, Stephen Doster and Griffith.
“We just let the people from the university and the area dictate what it became,” said Cugini.
UT’s influence remains. On the night Fastball played, the back-patio doorman had a paperback copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein next to his cash box, and the Longhorns were about to lose their College World Series game against Vanderbilt on the front bar’s sole TV. Hole in the Wall’s current owner, Will Tanner, a San Antonio native who also operates four bars and restaurants in El Paso, bought the club in 2008; that year, he remembers moving to break up a loud argument that looked like it might turn into a fight. “They were literally arguing about string theory,” Tanner said.
The raising of the state’s drinking age in 1986 made music more important, with the Hole charging a cover for the first time. Longtime bartender Debbie Rombach, who began booking the club in 1990 (and eventually became its second owner), made the Hole a punk and indie music mecca, while still accommodating country, folk, and blues.
When Spoon first formed, all frontman Britt Daniel wanted was a weekend slot at Hole in the Wall. “It felt like a high mountain to climb,” he said. “I was convinced that if we played all loud fast songs we’d get there sooner, so that’s pretty much all I wrote to start off. And that’s why the first record (1996’s Telefono) is the record it is.”
The club’s original front stage has not changed since Cugini built it in the 1980s. He’d built a smaller platform for solo artists, at the behest of Nanci Griffith, early on, but initially bands had to play at the same level as the audience. Then Omar Dykes, of blues-rockers Omar and the Howlers, had a microphone accidentally smashed into his face by an inebriated fan, and refused to play at the club again until there was a stage.
“It’s never been moved,” Cugini marvelled. “Can you imagine what’s under there?” Cornered up against a showcase window on The Drag, with no sound mixer, and little separation from the audience, the stage remains Hole in the Wall’s heart, as well as its true proving ground.
“It is you, 110 volts of electricity and everybody else,” said Tanner.
“It was a small room that got packed so easily,” said Daniel. “You felt like a king playing that place.”
“It feels amazing if you cram 150 people in there,” said Tanner. “But if you have 20 people in there that are really into what you’re doing, those are some of the best things I’ve ever seen.
In 2000, Spoon shot a music video, “Jealousy,” in the dingy and grafittied Hole in the Wall men’s room. “Still my favorite Spoon video,” said Daniel. “I spent a lot of time in that bathroom back then.”
The Hole has survived by remaining as much neighborhood watering hole as rock club. Framed photos and two illustrated murals by Todd Green hang on the walls back by the bathrooms, a Hall of Fame (“or infamy,” said Rombach) for regulars and employees.
“He’s on the wall,” Paul Minor, the club’s former production manager, said as people streamed into the room last Friday, when the prodigiously mustachioed Brooks Brannon, a 64-year-old former Hole in the Wall bartender, played 100 songs in 60 minutes. “He’s on the wall,” Minor—who first played the club when he was 17, and led the no-cover Sunday “Rock and Roll Free For All” house band for seven years—repeated.
“Hope everybody is getting their regular seat,” Minor said as people filled the barstools. Kevin Bolling, an ex-employee everyone calls “Squid,” remembers the club’s bus trips up to Arlington and Houston to see baseball games. “We’d walk into a bar and all sit in the same exact order, 150 miles away,” he said.
Squid, who’s currently the manager of Torchy’s Tacos up the street, is also the person responsible for Omar Dykes’s face colliding with that mic. He skipped his 40th high school reunion to be at the Hole’s 40th Anniversary. “High school [people], I only spent three years with them,” Bolling said. “These people I spent 11 years with.”
Onstage, Brannon bought the room a round. “I get my social security check tomorrow,” he joked. In fact, per Tanner, the drinks were on the house.
“Most places in Austin, if you say, ‘I was here between ‘90 and ‘95, they’ll say, oh, that was a million years ago,” said Ryan Deaver, 44, yet another former Hole in the Wall bartender. “Here, they go, ‘oh, you’re the baby. I don’t know who you are.’”
Times do change. When Minor comes into the bar these days, he’s no longer “welcomed like Norm from Cheers. Which I used to be, and which I was” during the anniversary celebration, he said. After all, a bar does not survive for 40 years without changing its clientele or bands. “The most dangerous thing that can happen to any scene, is you let it grow up with you,” Will Tanner said.
The Austinite who loudly laments the extinction of his or her favorite club from the ‘70s or the ‘90s typically isn’t someone who goes out all that much in 2014. There are new bands and new fans and newer clubs, places like Beerland, Hotel Vegas or Strange Brew. There are clubs where former Hole in the Wall bookers play a prominent role, like the White Horse and ABGB. And then there’s still the current iteration of Hole in the Wall: the same but also different.
“Will says that everybody who comes in here feels like their time period was the ‘golden era of the Hole in the Wall,’” Cugini said—an observation that could also apply to every Austin resident’s feelings about Austin
“And, of course, it is. That’s their golden era of the Hole in the Wall.”