Carabar is a music joint with a neighborhood feel. There are always people congregated in front smoking, fresh popcorn freely available, and local art adorning the walls. If you look closely around Columbus for any advertisement, it will be hard if not impossible to find. Yet simple word of mouth and lack of stigma — where everything from heavy metal to folk rock can be heard, sometimes on the same nights — has turned the Carabar into the place to play inside the Columbus city limits.
The bar is nestled in the near east side area known now as Olde Towne East. The neighborhood was heavily populated in the earlier part of the 20th century, only to fall victim to the creation of highway 71 in the 1970’s when all areas just east of the highway were suddenly cut off from downtown and spent years ignored as people moved to suburbia.
Now that urban living is once again the trend, the Carabar is in the hotbed of that transformation. Owner Ron Barker told me that they used to call the area Olympic Village, as he stood back and watched as people constantly ran to or from something and, as if on cue, a moment later a police car flies by, sirens screaming. Prior to buying Carabar in August 2005 Ron and his girlfriend/co-owner, Cara, lived in an apartment upstairs so they knew what they were in for and they still seem to happily relish in their surroundings.
When you grow up a punk rock skate board kid from Springfield who starts booking bands at 13, your destiny amongst the stars has pretty much been mapped out for you. For some people music shapes their lives and makes them who they are. This is so true of Ron that when I asked what he else he might be doing with his life he had no answer.
Ron and I stood outside Carabar on a Wednesday night, talking and smoking. He was still in all black — a popular look these days, but one he has been pulling off for years. There was never a plan or vision for Carabar; it just happened. In a sort of free spirited fashion, the bar just came together. It is a way of life for Carabar, just like owning a music bar is a lifestyle for Ron, “My brain, liver and kidneys have all accepted and embraced this.” Fact is that being in the rock and roll business is an alternative lifestyle and if one can’t adjust, life will be a rough ride. Surrounded by a slightly younger generation, it seems as though Ron has created his own version of the fountain of youth. This is evident when Ron shows off his Grateful Dead tattoo and some kid follows suit, breaking into our conversation and shows off his own piece. When life is viewed through more laid back eyes, one begins to appreciate the simple things like the characters that make up one’s daily routine.
One of the regulars includes Don, an older, slightly slower man who sings Batman with all the bands willing to instrumentally back him. Or, there’s Barkalrka a regular who got his nickname
because of the way he talks. Weird? Perhaps to some, but to Ron that is the best part, and its people like this that make a place like Carabar feel welcoming. Still don’t take them for nothing. “Were pacifist people. [But] Piss us off and we’ll pass a fist across your cheek” Ron explains. When push comes to shove Carabar doesn’t play, but later it will probably all be laughed about.
The formula the Carabar follows is a simple triangle of goodness that should replace the nutrition chart we all get in school as a blueprint for living the good life. Party + friends + listen to good music = success. Sounds like the recipe for a profitable business, yes? Depends on how one identifies success. In Ron’s opinion, the reason people like to play at Carabar is that they like to party and have a good time. And contrary to popular belief, they don’t sell coke out of the back door and they are gay friendly, need proof? Attend the next Gaygement (a gay engagement party) they throw or just stopping listening to senseless rumors.
One of the more unique features of Carabar is that they don’t charge anything at the door. They see it as freeing, where people aren’t forced into that perpetual state of feeling obliged to stay because they paid their dues, even if they aren’t totally down with the music. Unlike at other venues, leaving early because of the music is a rarity here. The brain trust behind the Carabar music selection is highly regarded as knowledgeable in all areas of local music, so the shows hold a certain high quality and fan loyalty that makes crowds come and stay.
Carabar typically sees door fees as a scam, yet Ron admits they don’t have to pay the high price for real estate that others are saddled paying. Still, not charging at the door potentially takes money out of hard working local musicians who are trying to make it in the ultra-expensive and competitive industry. So insteadof taking money from the door, bands get a cut from the bar at the end of the night and free Pabst after 10, fair enough.
Speaking from experience, Carabar hardly seeks to drain money out of anyone’s wallet even if you are say, one of the few who has left their mark by knocking over the candy machine on your way out the door after a good night of whiskey. Not to say they are not successful, they are; if for no other reason than because heavy emphasis on the golden dollar is just not their vibe. It has even been rumored that Ron will drive the too drunk home only to skateboard back to Parsons but I can’t really remember that night so that could be an urban legend.
In Ron’s opinion, Columbus is a jump off point for young musicians. It’s a place to hone ones’ skills while our Midwest location provides accessible travel between major cities like Philly, Chicago and New York to try and sell a band to the world. It sucks losing the talent even while realizing there is no real way to keep people here if they truly want to succeed and getting out of Columbus is the only way. What fucks up a band the most? Ron, “Kids. Their catch 22, theymake a band and break a band.”
Some of the best shows to come through Ron and Cara’s bar for them recently include the L’Jesus , Acropolis, and Defiance Ohio, whom he had been trying to get for a while. Ron’s dream show: The Melvins. Favorite bands of all time: Grateful Dead and The Band. Local favorites: Nick Tolford & Co., New City Gypsies, Mt.Carmel, Buffalo Killers and Struck by Lighting, “some awesome metal.” Best national act to come through as of late would be Brian Jonestown Massacre. What is it that the Columbus music scene is lacking? Ron thinks not much but we should have more venues, bands and the same bands can’t keep headlining every festival and benefit show.
So how did this 13-year-old kid begin booking bands? Apparently for Ron, in Youngstown, a broken down old steel town it’s wasn’t that hard. At the same time Molly Ringwald movies were influencing every child in America to find their niche in the world alá nerd, rich princess or jock, Ron found his place among the punk rock skateboarders. Being the youngest of eight he had the advantage of always hanging around older kids and being allowed to put on shows at bars like the Penguin Pub, Cedars or traditional house parties where Ron sought bands from Zines or The Alt Press out of Cleveland. PR for bands, Zines are still around, but almost unheard of as now everyone can just, as Ron put it, “sit their ass down in a chair all day and talk shit on the Internet.”
It was great to get a chance to hear how Ron has grownup while remaining that kid that just wants to hang out with friends and have fun. So if you have been trapped under a rock and somehow not made a stop in or you’re still really that afraid of the hood, hit up Carabar one night. Be open to possibly listening to three different types of bands play back to back, order something delicious off the almost nonexistent but plentiful menu, or sing along with Batman. If you’re lucky, you may get to grab a slice of the homemade pizza they have been trying to perfect weekly based off two dead ladies famous Springfield pizza. Either way you can always count on these things from the Carabar duo; free popcorn, good beer on tap, someone there to entertain you and no cover, ever. And thank you Carabar.