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We had a Grand time at 1501 while it lasted.
One shabby street corner can make a big difference in civic culture.
I’ve been dwelling on the outsized power of one scruffy venue to enhance the cultural life of a city.
Consider the humble four-story brick building at 1501 Grand Avenue in downtown Des Moines.
Its current occupant, live-music spot Gas Lamp, shuts down after a final blowout gig July 8. The bar commands prime real estate along a main traffic artery in a Western Gateway that has gotten fancier and pricier in recent years with the arrival of world-class art and architecture.
Gas Lamp eked out a dozen years as only the most recent phase of what has been a defiant, persistent, and raucous street corner of urban nightlife.
Coincidentally, this week also saw the death of Jeff Wager, former owner of Gas Lamp’s predecessor, Blues on Grand, a beloved hotspot that thumped and wailed from 1999 to 2010. Wagner was days away from his 67th birthday.
Blues on Grand itself was a sequel to the Grand, operated by Jerry Glenn from 1994 to 1999.
Glenn quit his job as an X-ray technician to seize the opportunity to take what had been watering hole Grand Avenue Lounge (and, before that, Vicky’s Pour House) to create “the most ass-kicking blues bar the state of Iowa has ever seen” (as he told the Des Moines Register’s Patrick Beach in 1996).
Glenn also became known for the witticisms he emblazoned on an illuminated sign above his door, much to the delight of daily commuters. This was Twitter or Threads commentary long before smartphones and social media.
Example: “STRUGGLE. SLEEP. STRUGGLE AGIN.”
Echoing Glenn’s career pivot, Wagner had been a chiropractor from Davenport before he dedicated himself full time to providing a stage for live blues.
In 1992 he was a founding member of the Central Iowa Blues Society—a support network that grew its local membership to more than 800. Club meetings were held at his bar. Wagner’s Blues on Grand became an essential blues stop along Interstate 80 between the iconic Zoo Bar in Lincoln, Nebraska, and clubs in Chicago. Wagner and his co-owners won a national Keeping the Blues Alive award in 2002 from the Blues Foundation in Memphis, Tennessee.
He earned the respect of musicians everywhere—for his support of their livelihoods but also for his wry, cantankerous wit.
A tribute by local musician Heath Pattschull (of the Heath Alan Band) posted on Facebook is typical of this week’s outpouring: “I put together my first band in Des Moines based in large part on (Wagner’s) recommendations,” Pattschull wrote. “I will be forever grateful for his friendship, advice and generally bad attitude.”
Blues on Grand soldiered on for a dozen years before Wagner—feeling financially squeezed by everything from the end of indoor smoking to mounting bills for music royalties—threw in his bar towel with a final 2010 street party.
“This is what a blues bar is supposed to look like,” Wagner told the Register’s Joe Lawler that year. “If you want something sterile, that’s your bag, but a blues bar needs to have soul. It’s supposed to be a little funky.”
Having personally prowled the juke joints of Mississippi, I’m inclined to agree with him.
Some of my most memorable moments at 1501:
Listening to Iowa Blues Hall of Famer Bob Pace wail on guitar—or just chatting with him.
A ribald concert by “King of the Chitlin’ Circuit” Bobby Rush.
Interviewing Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in 2004 when he was a presidential hopeful in the Iowa caucuses showing his more human side with a guitar rather than a stump speech—prior to his infamous “scream” on stage at the Val Air Ballroom.
I’m sad to see Gas Lamp and the broader legacy at 1501 end its long and varied run as a shabby temple to clamor. But such is the unrelenting churn of redevelopment.
“Anything you can do well and not make money at, that’s what I’m talented at,” Wagner once told me.
That’s OK. Sometimes passion and vision can make up for a lack of dollars and cents—or sense.
At least it worked for nearly 30 years at this funky—not sterile—street corner.
I’m honored be among the many talented writers and artists in our lineup. (And please subscribe to the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative weekly roundup column.)
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