The oral history of Dan Dougan's former music venue, which still casts a long shadow

Before moving to Columbus in 1980, Dan Dougan had lived in Arizona, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Newark, Ohio. A theater major at Kent State, Dougan dropped out of school with dreams of becoming an actor. Instead he came to town and drove a taxicab, worked at Waterbeds 'N' Stuff and hustled some money on his own. One year he held 13 jobs.

But in 1988, on a whim, Dougan decided to buy a rock club, and the decision changed Columbus' music scene for the next 20 years. It began at 2404 N. High St., across from North Campus stalwart Dick's Den, where the club “Stache and Little Brother's” (previously The Tree Lounge) had existed since around 1970, so named after the mustachioed owner and his younger brother. It was mostly a blues club, but in the mid '80s, SchoolKids Records owner Curt Schieber began booking folk, rock and punk acts.

Schieber continued booking the carpeted club for a short while after Dougan bought Stache's, and then Dougan took the reins, bringing in then-fledgling grunge acts like Nirvana and Soundgarden. In 1997, when the Stache's building was torn down, Dougan relocated the venue to 1100 N. High St. in the Short North and rebranded as Little Brother's, which hosted concerts from noteworthy locals (Scrawl, Moviola) and now-household national names, including the White Stripes, Arcade Fire, Sleater-Kinney and the Black Keys, until its final show on July 3, 2007.

Ten years after the last notes rang out at Little Brother's, Dougan's rock clubs are still revered as much as they are missed in the city's music scene. For years, local rockers and concertgoers have been on the search for “the new Little Brother's,” a mantle most recently bestowed on Ace of Cups, whose owner, Marcy Mays, is intimately familiar with Stache's and Little Brother's from her time in Scrawl.

Here's the oral history of Little Brother's, courtesy of the musicians, employees and patrons who helped shape its legacy.

Dan Dougan (former Stache's and Little Brother's owner):

In 1988 I had a little money, and I wanted to do something. Peter Hermann ran Stache's. Pete was this big, hulking guy. He looked like Pegleg Pete from [Mickey Mouse cartoons], except he had a colostomy bag instead of a wooden leg, and he had a thick, Russian-Jewish accent. He lived in Israel awhile, came to the states and somehow got enough money to buy out [previous Stache's owner] Shelley Young. He tried to change the bar into a go-go club. He hated live music and walked around with a bullhorn and a golf club threatening people.

Marshall Crenshaw was at Stache's one night. The place was packed. I'm at the bar and I say, ”Hey, Pete. Put some gin in my gin and tonic.” And he says, “What are you bitching about? You just like to complain.” And I say, “Why don't you smile tonight? At least you're making money.” And he goes, “You think I'm making money? You buy the goddamn bar!” So I say, “How much you want?” He says, “What do you give me?”

I pull a number out my head. “50 grand.”

“You give me 25 tomorrow, the place is yours.”

I step outside, smoking a cigarette, trying to breathe. I look across the street at Dick's Den and the sign says, “Why not?” I talked to Pete the very next day, but it took me about six months to put the deal together.

Ron House (Great Plains, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments): It was easy to get on stage at Stache's. There were times I made a fool of myself. I was a total drunk and hop-skipped across the stage while Sebadoh was playing. I felt really bad about that the next day. I think it took Lou [Barlow] a while to forgive me. … When Suzanne Vega played there I was doing acid, and I started to go up to her to tell her I was the reincarnation of Tim Buckley. All of a sudden her guards grabbed me and hustled me out.

Dougan: The first rock show I did was the Meat Puppets. It was sold out, and I loved those guys, having experienced the music under the state in which they wrote it, if you know anything about their history of psychedelia. We crammed 300 people in there, but that wasn't the legal capacity. The legal capacity was like 140 because it had been set up as a restaurant under Stache and Little Brother's.

Curt Schieber (former SchoolKids Records owner/Stache's concert booker): Dan and I argue about this all the time. My recollection is the legal capacity was 157. Stache's didn't hold that many people, so we were forced to oversell it all the time. I remember there was a Replacements show I sold 350 tickets to, and we had the R.C. Mob open, so we had a big guest list. It was pushing 400 people, which was pretty oppressive, but it was a great, great show.

Dougan: The first time Nirvana played [Stache's] it did not sell out, even though all the hipsters thought it would. They were still on Sub Pop. Bleach was the album. [Bassist] Krist [Novoselic] wanted to go party afterward. We stayed up till dawn. Krist and I partied our asses off. He was a real sweetheart. So I go back to bed, and he calls me about an hour or two later and says, “Hey, I know you just went to bed, but we need to replace the windows in our van.” Kurt [Cobain] had been with somebody in the van and got laid, and the boyfriend busted out the windows.

[Years later], after Kurt died, the boyfriend, who was a friend of mine and a local guitar player, came to the bar and said, “I'll have a Heineken.” I said, “Did you hear the news?” He said, “Yeah, I'm not sad.” I said, “What really happened that night?” He said, “I just wanted to know that she was all right.”

He said he knew they were in there and could hear them whispering. So he got pissed off, grabbed his tire iron and busted open the window. Kurt started screaming that he was going to kick his ass. A local bass player, Matt Campbell, was picking Kurt up going, “No, man. You don't want a piece of this guy.” The guitarist probably would have killed Kurt.

Nirvana played Stache's about a year later, and it sold out within minutes.

Bela Koe-Krompecher (Anyway Records founder, former Used Kids Records co-owner): I wasn't the main booker at Stache's. There were bands Dan wasn't getting that I really liked. If it was a bigger thing we would co-promote it because I didn't have any money. Every show I booked I was scared shitless.

Dougan: Bela came in sideways from Used Kids. Bela in those days was often sideways. He had an urge to see certain bands happen when he felt they should happen. He knew they could do OK. So we began to co-promote shows, like Guided by Voices, New Bomb Turks and Gaunt. Bela was really good at lining shows up; he just wasn't always standing at the end of it. Maybe it's the Irish blood in me, but I could still stand up and do business at the end of those shows. Bela would rip his shirt off and, if we made money, he'd go out and start buying people drinks as fast as he could spend his money.

Kat Agdinaoay (former Stache's/Little Brother's bartender): There was a hole at the right end of the bar [at Stache's] that your leg could go in up to the knee. You had to be careful where you stepped because the floor was rotting. There were nights during shows where you could see the floor going up and down, and I was like, “It's only a matter of time until we all end up in the basement.”

Dougan: It's a gambler's existence. Sometimes folks show up, sometimes they don't. I had an inexact formula, not being a very good bean counter: If we can break even on the door at the end of a year, and make money at the bar, there's a chance you can keep the doors open and do great things.

MOVIN' ON UP

Dougan: Three years in I paid Stache's off and started making money. I was getting along well with my landlord, but he said the building had to be torn down because the city was giving him hell. So we had to move. The landlord gave me a year and $5,000, and I'd saved some money.

When the realtor brought me down to [the Little Brother's building at 1100 N. High St. in the Short North] and showed it to me, I went, “Wow, I can see it. This is a loading dock. There's a dressing room. There's a back room for storage.” It was an old Carnegie library, a really nice building. It had been Gene's Used Furniture. I had to resurrect the boiler, build the stage, do the dressing rooms, the bathrooms, get everything up to code. It wasn't zoned for public gathering. It was a retail space. It cost a lot of money to move and get the change of use for the space.

Rebecca “Gretchen” Zimmer (former Stache's/Little Brother's bartender): It had been a furniture store, and I remember sitting there pulling nails out of the floor because they had ripped up the carpet. We all had a little quadrant, and you had to sit there with pliers because there were tiny, baby nails all over the place.

Dougan: We had a lot of help from the community when we moved. It took us a while to make it more comfortable and to make it sound better. We had the curtains from the old Mershon Auditorium. We ended up putting those on the wall. It muffled the sound. We got the bar[top] from Jai Lai, which was an old prime rib place where Woody Hayes and OSU alumni used to go before games.

Dan Spurgeon (Greenhorn, Bush League All-Stars): There was a great mural from the men's bathroom in Stache's that Dan took with him to Little Brother's. It was a mural of Elvis, dead on the bathroom floor with pills all over the place. It was so hilarious. Well, sort of hilarious.

Jerry Dannemiller (Moviola): There was a big sign from Stache's. [Dougan] was a big Pittsburgh Pirates fan, so there was a portrait of Roberto Clemente. There were also these weird, big circus art murals. And the John Wayne Gacy painting.

Dougan: Someone gave [the Gacy painting] to me back in the Stache's days. It was a clown painting on brown velvet.

Kyle Siegrist (owner of Lost Weekend Records): The mood when Little Brother's was opening was a mixture of sadness and hope. Stache's really was a loved club. For Dan, it was a chance to start over, but I think the big difference between the two was the size. The stage [at Little Brother's] was higher, and the bar was far away, whereas at Stache's the bar was next to the stage. It was more compact.

Dougan: We had the stage height set at 3 feet 4 inches with the speakers under it. The fire marshall said we needed an entire foot between the top of the speakers and the bottom of the stage. So we had to redo it at a height of 4 feet, which kept me up for a few nights thinking, damn, that's just gonna be so high!

Quinn Fallon (Little Rock owner, former Little Brother's bartender): It wasn't as funky [as Stache's]. It was too big, to where it almost felt unfinished. A couple people said it felt like an airport hangar with a stage.

Spurgeon: In Stache's everything was carpeted, and in Little Brother's everything was a hard surface. It was a different dynamic. There's a certain darkness to a club that's important. If you have too much light and it's too clean, it's not gonna have the right vibe.

Eric “Ike” Peters (former Little Brother's manager): Even before I worked there I remember there were rumblings, like, “Oh, it's going to turn into PromoWest.”

Eric Mahoney (documentary filmmaker, former Little Brother's door man): I liked the big stage, and the capacity certainly opened up. Plus the sound there was really great. It was a nice, natural progression for Stache's to evolve into that. But since it was serving local, regional and national shows, the local shows could seem a little like tumbleweed was blowing around.

Tina Shaw (former Stache's/Little Brother's bartender): It was a little disheartening when we first moved, because it took a while to build up the patronage we had before. I know that was disheartening for Dan because so many people were all over him about moving, [saying] he couldn't just close. The music scene in Columbus depended on him, and he really felt pressured to keep going.

Dougan: There were local bands at Stache's who could pack the place — Greenhorn, Pica Huss, Scrawl, Men of Leisure, Ronald Koal, Ray Fuller. After we moved to Little Brother's there weren't as many local bands who could draw.

RJD2 (musician): I think you could make the argument that when a human being is willing to open a venue, it's almost impossible for it to not take on parts of that person's personality. From Bernie's to Stache's to Little Brother's to Groove Shack — every single one of those venues did something different. They all, in their own unique ways, took on the personalities of the people running them.

Dannemiller: Dan was a total character. He'd walk in wearing sweats. Or a Pirates sweatshirt and pajama bottoms and Crocs.

Fallon: He was very eclectic, a little strange and endearing. I remember one year Tina [Shaw] dressed as him for Halloween and it was so dead on.

Shaw: I got a black curly wig and a cigar and glasses. I put on black sweats, because he always wore these black sweatpants with a flannel shirt. Then I had a suit jacket and some Chuck Taylors.

Mahoney: We always joked about [Dan's] appearance sort of mirroring that of John Lennon. I remember there was a hip-hop show that got contentious for some reason. I remember Dan and I forcibly kicking this hip-hop group out the side door, and this one guy said to Dan, “Fuck you, Paul McCartney.” And Dan just looked at me and said, “This guy's so stupid. I look like John Lennon.” The guy was kind of right in his insult, but wrong Beatle.

Dannemiller: Dan, for all of his faults, had really open, eclectic tastes. One night you could get someone like Gillian Welch there and the next night you could get High on Fire. He'd be the first one to take a chance on a band.

RJD2: At the end of a show, I get a settlement sheet: “This is how many people came to the show, and this is how many people paid at the door,” etc. For 10 years now, every one of these I've seen has come out of a computer and a printer. I remember Dan doing the settlement sheets with a Sharpie on a brown paper bag because that's how super lo-fi he was. In hindsight that was a charming part of the experience.

Zimmer: Dan had a [day planner] that [he used to keep track of upcoming shows]. It was amazing. It was all in pencil until it was in pen, and when it was in pen it was a done deal and there were contracts. There would be stuff scratched out and question marks. It sort of showed how his mind worked. He had phone numbers for everybody because he had been doing it so long. It was institutional knowledge.

Fallon: I remember I'd be putting away booze and he'd be sitting at the bar working. He'd be on the phone to Chuck [Kubat] at Magnolia [Thunderpussy] and Bela at Used Kids. And then I'd answer the phone and it would be so-and-so from the Grog Shop [in Cleveland] or so-and-so from the Empty Bottle [in Chicago]. He knew everybody.

Dannemiller: The list of people that played [Little Brother's] is kind of insane. Dan was the one who, because he had been booking Stache's, had relationships with all these agents. After you've been in it so many years it's like, “OK, you helped break this artist. I'll throw you a bone and give you this big artist.” And we got to benefit from that.

Peters: Do you remember the ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead show when Gus [Schowengerdt] dragged the lead singer off the stage?

Fallon: They spent all this time setting up, and there were — I'm not exaggerating — four fucking people in the bar. Everybody was pissed. “How did this band get booked?” So they finally get going and in the middle of the first song they kick over every amp and mic stand. [Sound engineer] Tera Stockdale is fuming. The whole show comes to a halt. … Tera agrees to set it all back up if they agree to not trash it again. “We're sorry. We won't do that again.” So Tera storms around for a half hour getting everything reset. They start the show over and immediately start kicking everything over again. Gus runs up behind the stage and just grabs the singer and carries him off like a rag doll. And I never forgot their name for years because we always called them ...And You Will Know Us By Our Lack of Fans.

Laura DeLeon (former Little Brother's bartender): [When Papa Roach played] the line went the other direction down the street. Any time there was a weird show the line would go north instead of south. That's how you always knew it was going to be a weird night.

Natalie Thomson (concertgoer): I was at an Electric Six show [in May 2007] and someone ran out the side door with one of the guitars.

Zach Shipps (former Electric Six guitarist): I was [backstage] cracking a beer and someone from one of the opening bands came running back and said, “Hey man, some guy just grabbed your guitar.” … I thought it was going to be a lost cause. I ran out into the parking lot and somebody pointed and said, “That's the guy over there.” I chased him around … and when I finally caught up to him there was a shoving match. He was like, “What? What? What?” I couldn't understand anything he was saying. He was drunk and an idiot. He turned around and started to walk away … and I came running at him and put my foot directly into his ass as hard as I could. He fell face first on the pavement, and I was like, “OK. That's all that needs to be done.”

Zimmer: A beloved employee, Dana Marshall, who had worked at Stache's and was the drummer in Scrawl, he was moving away to Sweden, so we had this big going-away party for him, and there were motorcycles literally driving around the bar.

Krista Kitty (Dick's Den bartender): The exhaust was insane. … At one point, Dana somehow swung his motorcycle up and left tracks on the ceiling. So whenever I'd walk in after that it was like, “Oh yeah, Dana was here.”

THE FINAL YEARS

Ben Hamilton (Little Brother's talent buyer, 2004-07): I was working part time at the Columbus Museum of Art where I bumped into Dan one day. We'd been friends since Stache's. He mentioned wanting to spend less time at the bar. I told him I could come in and help out with contracts, advancing tours, load-ins, etc. He thought this was a good idea, and one week later we'd negotiated a salary.

Dougan: I'd had enough. I also felt like the whole game was passing me by. I didn't care so much. I wanted somebody else to do it and Ben was willing.

Fallon: It was really the Dan show when I got there, and then he brought Ike on [as manager]. Then, by the end, it was Ben and Ike, and Dan was just kind of showing up to write checks.

Hamilton: The most difficult part was finding locals with enough draw to fill the 400-capacity room on a Friday or Saturday night. It was a big room and nothing less than cavernous when your band is playing to only 50 friends.

Dougan: I had a deal [in 2005] to sell the place to a couple of guys who were really serious about it. They liked the history of Little Brother's. They liked me. They liked the space. I was ready to sell because … I was about to push myself into an early grave. I liked hanging around the bar, but the fun was gone. I was looking forward to being more in my son's life, who'd just been born, and being with my wife. I would have had a couple hundred grand to move on with.

Matt Gerding (co-owner of the Majestic Theatre in Madison, Wisconsin): [My business partner Scott Leslie and I] set out to find a concert venue in the Midwest, and ideally in a Big Ten college town. We approached Dan about buying Little Brother's, and he was in a place in life where he was interested in selling. We got really far down the line, negotiation-wise.

Dougan: It took us months of negotiation, but it was contingent upon them being able to buy the building.

Gerding: We were interested in owning the actual building, and [the owner] wasn't terribly interested in selling. The line he kept giving us was, “I'm not interested in selling, but for the right price…” So I think the money he would have taken to walk away from that real estate put us at a point where the monthly numbers didn't work. … At that same time, we discovered another building on High Street, the Garden Theater, and we shifted our focus there and kept talking to Dan. We were close on the Garden, and then we got a call from a promoter in Madison, Wisconsin, saying, “Hey, the Majestic Theatre here in Madison is on the market.”

Dougan: The deal fell through because they couldn't come to a decent purchase price. When that failed, six months later I'm without a lease. [The building owner] and I had sat down once in spring of 2007, the last time I saw him, and we agreed to a 15 percent rent increase. He said yes. We shook hands. Did I grab a bar napkin or piece of paper and write it down and get him to sign it? No. [Later] his attorney tells me, “To hell with your 15 percent. You got a 40 percent increase [from $4,250 to $6,000 per month], and you got 10 days to take it or leave it.” I'm an old high school wrestler, and I was pretty close to biting the man's nose. I thought better of it and said, “Well, we're leaving.”

If I had to live my life all over again, I'd have bought a building somewhere else.

THE LEGACY OF LITTLE BROTHER'S

Dougan: Things got rough after we closed the bar. I've done a lot of different things. Mostly in service work — bartending and waiting. For a little while after Little Brother's I did some shows and called it Listening Music. I'm not a music promoter at this point. … Sometimes I miss being around the music. I miss being around the musicians. Other times I don't.

Schieber: The thing about Stache's and Little Brother's was, the kind of music presented was a little bit broader. Now you have Bourbon Street and Skully's and the PromoWest clubs, and it seems like they all do kind of their own thing. When I was booking shows at Stache's, and continuing with Dan at Little Brother's, you'd book blues shows, folk shows, jazz shows. I did celtic music shows. … I don't think you're going to hear jazz bands at A&R.

Koe-Krompecher: I stuck up for Dan a lot. In the indie-rock scene people would get annoyed if there was a zydeco band. [Gaunt singer] Jerry Wick would get pissed all the time. “Fucking Dougan. He could have got Urge Overkill that night but instead we got Terrance Simien.”

Paul “Bearer” Hyman (former Little Brother's door man): I didn't appreciate [the venue] as much at the time. Who ever does? Stache's was a punk club, and Little Brother's was more of what Dan was about. When he came into Stache's, he was continuing the previous formula. But Little Brother's, it wasn't always my type of music, but it really serviced a lot of different niches in the local music community. After it closed, it wasn't until Ace of Cups came around that something in the community served a legitimate underground slice — without that pervasive debauchery and self-destructiveness.

Koe-Krompecher: Little Brother's wasn't Stache's. It's kind of like, people might talk about Paul McCartney in Wings and say, “They were really good!” But then you're like, well, they weren't the Beatles.

House: We had some good times at Little Brother's, like playing with Mudhoney, Rocket from the Tombs. People give Dougan a lot of shit now, but he did a great job. He was good at maintaining enough drama to keep it exciting but not too much to close it down.

Koe-Krompecher: It was a drag when he closed. I understand why he got out, but he could have taken the liquor license and gone somewhere else. He had such a good reputation. I think he could have partnered with somebody and gone to a new space and called it Stache's. But there's something about doing it yourself. You trust your own instincts.

I think the legacy of Little Brother's is the legacy of Dougan. It was successful for what his purpose was, which was serving the community. At the end of the day, that's what he did. He was a community servant by bringing these bands in, because there's no money in it, and he never had the business acumen or shrewdness of [PromoWest CEO] Scott Stienecker.

Dougan: It was a great 20 years. I had a damn good time.