The Drag forever changes. Students, workers, bums, and businesses recycle almost annually. One marquee maintains everlasting: a green and yellow double-decker sign between 26th Street and Dean Keeton flashing with a border of partially burnt-out bulbs. It reads in wavy letters: the Hole in the Wall.
Pull on the old haunt's Louisville Slugger door handle and you'll find a gritty, laid-back oasis in which musicians hang out and students run scarce. Same as it's been through 40 years of service.
The Hole's front room remains an institution among Austin musicians. For decades, it's served as a jump-off point for local bands cutting their baby teeth on a seven-and-a-half-channel mixer and bucket of microphones.
"It's a Spartan setting," rails Hickoids singer Jeff Smith, who co-owned the bar around the turn of the century. "It strips away all the bullshit. If you can't prove your point on that stage, you're less than the sum of your light show.
"That's what's been really important about the Hole in the Wall. It's been a proving ground and a place for multiple generations of musicians to learn their craft and get that time onstage."
Many of the bands that began at the Hole became popular and moved on to play other places, but almost everyone comes back – to drink, gravel, and bullshit with fellow players. "They all come in waves," says bar manager Alex Livingstone, also a member of venue favorites Grand Champeen. Considering the local business' duration, that's an ancient tide.
"I love hearing the stories from people who've been regulars over the years," offers current owner Will Tanner. "But it's funny that everyone thinks that when they hung out here was the essential era of the Hole in the Wall. It's like everyone has their Polaroid of the time, and they see that as its only picture."
It's interesting to think just how the Hole lasted this long. Paul Minor, the venue's longtime Sunday Rock & Roll Free for All host who's likely played more shows at the Hole than anyone else in Austin, considers its survival "the perfect series of unlikely people" realizing that the Hole in the Wall had to keep going at whatever the cost. "Each owner instinctively knew that their job was to preserve and protect the tradition of the Hole, and figure out how to help it survive intact," he says. "They each refused in their own way to be the one who let it fail."
Barflies know a hole in the wall mostly as a dingy, simple establishment wherein boozed-up skulls stare longingly into their pint glasses. Austin's Hole in the Wall fits the bill, but it wasn't the inspiration for the name.
Doug Cugini moved to Austin from Buffalo, N.Y., in 1972 to help his parents open and operate two truck-stop diners. In 1974, he scored the vacant dry cleaners at 2538 Guadalupe on a handshake deal with no lease agreement. He opened the space as a restaurant on June 15. Named after the Hole in the Wall gang from Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, Cugini hung "WANTED" posters on the walls and decked the waitresses out in shirts that featured the famed outlaw gang's image.
"There was no vision of music at all," Cugini attests. "We had a blue plate special. You got an entrée, choice of two vegetables, soup or salad, ice tea or coffee, and dessert for $1.29."
Austin bars were few back then; music venues even fewer. Street musicians hungry for an audience convinced Cugini to let them play the Hole that summer. He paid $15 and told them to drink up at no cost.
"Nanci Griffith came in and asked to play," remembers Cugini. "Then she performed every week for years."
Musicians played again-st the bar's south wall then, on the floor amongst diners and drinkers. If they had to they could plug their gear into a single power outlet.
The Hole quickly became a go-to spot for Austin's folkies, attracting characters like Townes Van Zandt and Blaze Foley.
"Blaze and Townes were drinkers!" Cugini exclaims, his eyes rolling. "We used to open at 7am to serve breakfast to the university students and cab drivers, and it became a regular thing for those two to show up from playing all-night card games ready to keep drinking.
"One morning Blaze was in his duct tape sport coat and Townes was in drag. They didn't have money to drink and it was busy, so I let them bus tables. There's Townes in a dress reaching over people clearing plates, and Blaze eating out of the bus tub. I'd try to kick them out and they'd protest: 'Come on man! We play here all the time!'"
Its reputation as a music room grew, and Cugini began booking more earnestly, beginning with two acts a night that centered around hippie folk and bar rock. When Omar Dykes agreed to play the bar's fifth anniversary party on the condition that they build a stage, Cugini constructed one himself.
The Hole's concert calendar in the Eighties regularly included Timbuk3, who in 1986 scored a Top 20 hit with "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades," and Texas legend Doug Sahm, who Cugini estimates played there upwards of 60 times. Both eventually had to perform under gag names when they began drawing too large a crowd.
In 1989, after the Hole weathered a nerdy spell of experimental jazz, Cugini instated longtime waitress/bartender Debbie Rombach as booker.
"Everybody acted like it was the end of civilization as they new it," remembers Rombach. "They were afraid that I was going to turn it into a punk or metal club. Those were the same people who later became Pocket FishRmen fans."
Rombach slowly brought in the bands she liked. In less than a year, the Hole in the Wall's reputation changed. Once the stepchild of clubs, the space had become part of the big scene. By the mid-Nineties, the Hole was featuring four acts a night, bringing in bands like the Bad Livers, Shoulders, Sincola, Hand of Glory, Magneto U.S.A. (the outfit that became Fastball), the Wannabes, and Spoon.
Cugini rarely took a vacation during his 24-year reign, but in 1998, having had children, he traded the bar life for the family life. He sold the Hole in the Wall to Rombach and partners Jeff Smith and Mike White for $25,000 – the balance on his business expense American Express card.
The three inherited the regulars and their ever-growing bar tabs, and continued hosting some of the city's most interesting underground bands: Mrs. Universe, Stretford, Damnations TX, Li'l Cap'n Travis, and the Gourds.
Rombach still has her booking calendars from all her years at the Hole. She's been finding herself referencing them quite often these days. "I look at those books today and say, 'Wow, what a lineup!'" she enthuses. "I'm proud of all the bands we gave a chance and all the musicians we helped."
Accounts of the era, one highlighted by the installation of the professionally equipped rear stage, range from "crazy time" to "nonstop party" to "coke dive," the latter of which Jeff Smith holds himself partially responsible. He checked out in early 2002, realizing that the Hole in the Wall was going to kill him, and went to get sober.
By that time, the Hole's days were already numbered. The real estate company had a "For Sale" sign on the front of the building with an asking price of $972,000. Rombach's temporary lease expired on June 30, 2002, and the venue closed with a final show by Sexy Finger Champs, Paul Minor's Superego All-Stars, and the Pocket FishRmen, who allegedly smoked a fatty onstage.
"It broke my heart that it closed," sighs Rombach. "And it still breaks my heart."
Reopening the Hole in the Wall wasn't the plan when Clay McLaughlin and James Cashiola bought the space on Guadalupe. The empty building, along with the old Aztec Printing building behind it, were purchased with the intent of turning it into a campus installment of their Austin's Pizza chain. Word got out about the sale, and the two received calls, letters, and emails begging them to reopen the Hole in the Wall. "When we saw how much community spirit was behind the place," remembers McLaughlin, "we realized that we had to do it."
They restored the interior, acquiring classic decor that had been stripped from the space when it closed, fixed the marquee, screwed a new baseball bat onto the door, and hired back key personnel like Brooks Brannon and "Waldo." Hole in the Wall reopened in May 2003. Soon after, McLaughlin and Cashiola took up a second location in Round Rock.
McLaughlin remembers that era's biggest music draws as Scott H. Biram, the Diamond Smugglers, Elizabeth McQueen, Grand Champeen, and an Austin's Pizza employee named Black Joe Lewis.
In 2005, J.D. Torian, who helped McLaughlin and Cashiola secure the building in 2003, bought Austin's Pizza, thus taking over the Hole in the Wall in the process. He was the first to utilize the property's dormant back building, opening a bar and restaurant called Junior's Icehouse.
Though Torian was a musician who hung out at the Hole during his college years, he says he drew constant ire from the regulars who largely dismissed him as a corporate asshole for trying to improve the business.
"It was a bad fit for me all around, and I lost an incredible amount of money," sighs Torian. "But I think I was a good placeholder."
In this case, being a placeholder proved heroic. By helping with the 2003 acquisition and then keeping it off the chopping block in 2005, Torian essentially saved the venue twice. His professional-grade business management may not have fit the gritty spirit of the bar, but it wouldn't exist today without him.
The Hole in the Wall changed hands for the fourth time in 2008, landing with Stags bassist and El Paso bar owner Will Tanner. "This place fell on me like a piano," he says one day as we eat lunch at the Hole's popular East Side King annex, Sir Douglas Quintet's "Mendocino" playing through the speakers. "First I liked to see bands here. Then I bought it because I thought it was a viable business. Then I learned the deeper history, and a heaviness set in as I realized that I'm so lucky to have gotten it."
He hears the stories all the time: "I had my first beer here." "This was the first place I came when I got off the bus." "I met my wife here." "I met all the guys in my band here."
"The Hole in the Wall has been this canvas that everyone's painted their own masterpiece on, and I don't want to be the guy to fuck it up," he chuckles. "That's what's kept this going more than anything: I don't want to be the guy who fucks this up."
Tanner hasn't. The Hole continues today in its key roles: a fun place to get drunk, a bar where musicians feel they're family, and an incubator for new projects.
"It's still a great place for new bands," acknowledges Livingstone. "That's kind of what we do. I remember seeing the Carper Family play their first gig at happy hour on a Monday. A year later, they were too big to play here."
Entire scenes have been birthed out of the Hole. A few years ago, when Denis O'Donnell and Nathan Hill managed the bar, Mike & the Moonpies, Leo Rondeau, and Roger Wallace played Mondays, while Clyde & Clem's Whiskey Business and the Bread held Tuesdays. Those exact bands became the cornerstone of popular honky-tonk the White Horse when O'Donnell and Hill left the Hole to open it in 2011.
The Hole continues to be a labor of love, one Tanner's not getting rich off – no owner ever has – but now, for the first time since the Nineties, Tanner says it's stable. Tanner has proved a good captain for the ship. This month, the iconic venue celebrates 40 years in business. Ten years from now, Tanner hopes to celebrate its half-century.
"If it doesn't, it won't be because I didn't try," says Tanner. "My entire life's plan is for that to happen."
Copyright © 2016 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.