Guru Java Coffeehouse - History and Posters

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Guru Java Coffeehouse - 9/21/1990

Oh, the heady days of 1990. Sometime that year I was inveigled by my friend Lawrence Lee to join his improv group National Velveeta, a move that would CHANGE MY LIFE FOREVER, that fall I was a junior at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, the country was halfway through Bush-41, and the Gulf War had started that summer.

Lawrence was on staff at the Wesley Foundation—the United Methodist Church's Campus Ministry at Purdue. Wesley is located in the heart of Purdue's campus, right across the street from the Purdue Memorial Union and the building has a Great Hall—a large versatile space with a proscenium stage and an ancient but functioning theater lighting setup. There was a resurgent folk-rock scene, at times politically-charged, happening both on and off campus around Greater Lafayette, but there really weren't many places around town to see bands that weren't bars or fraternity houses*. Lawrence put all that together and started the Guru Java as a bi-weekly 'coffeehouse' to provide an all-ages venue and general safe hang-out zone for students.

One of Lawrence's core ideas for the venue was that it wasn't going to be a 'Christian' coffeehouse, the bands were going to be booked based on talent rather than ideology, and there wasn't going to be any preaching from the stage. Right from the start, that was a central tension of the Guru Java's existence. We heard from people who avoided the place because just being in a church-related space was too religious for them. And there were plenty of people, some with their hands on Wesley's purse strings, who were offended by the bands and goings-on at the shows. Lawrence addressed those concerns, on both sides, in his 1991 Guru Java Manifesto. That tension remained for the program it's whole existence.

And of course on top of that sort of drama, there were just the challenges of running a venue on no budget and with an all-volunteer staff. Comparing the posters with a performers list I had compiled in 1995 I see, for example, evenings when both scheduled bands from out-of-town canceled and we had to scrape up local fill-ins or we'd just run an open-mic that evening. And bless his heart, but why we ever let Bill Wossisname talk us into building our own speakers instead of just figuring out how to finance a small sound system—those things were massive. But maybe that was an ingredient to the success of the Guru Java, it wasn't very strongly led and so it was the sort of place that let people come in and figure out their own contribution.

I hesitate to even start naming names of people involved, because it really did become a community and so there were dozens of people over the years who put a lot of effort into running the Guru Java. Lawrence calls out, in the Manifesto, a sort of steering committee of himself, me, Dennis Leas, and Mike Spitzer. By 1992 or so, Liz Thelen and I were mostly running the show (certainly we were doing the booking, though still with important help from Dennis Leas, especially on finding those emergency fill-ins). In 1995, Liz and I thought we were going to move out of town and so we handed off our responsibilities. I know there were many people involved, but I see in my archives that I made business cards for Eric Boeker and Marc Lytle to act as the booking agents.

Egotistically, Liz and I wondered if we should just shut the venue down rather than handing it off, because of course, who could ever be as good at running the thing as we were? As well, the Guru Java was facing some new challenges in those days—the energy of the local music scene was shifting from the folk-rock of the early 90s to a re-resurgence of a punk sound. The Guru Java had tried to reach out to that community, but with mixed results. I found in my archives a letter I'd had to write to the Wesley staff explaining steps were going to take to try and reduce graffiti during Guru Java shows. If we weren't engaging with the all-ages crowds we had set out to serve, then were we just a club for some aging** and dwindling-in-numbers folk music fans? In the end, we pushed off that decision to our successors and the venue lasted until 1999.

Anyway, the reason I got into all this was the posters. I've been carting around for years a stack of Guru Java posters and I've just now finally scanned them all in. The poster for the very first Guru Java was drawn by Daron Henry. Lawrence took the logo/header off of that poster and reproduced it on the top of blank 11x17 pieces of paper which he would distribute at the shows and ask people to draw a poster for the next show. The best one would be reproduced to promote the show and the winner would get free admission to that show. Week after week the best poster was by Jessica Billey and so after a few months we just asked her if she'd be our official poster artist and we started paying her a frightfully nominal amount for her beautiful posters. She did almost every Guru Java poster through 1993.

After that it was a mix of designers including Penny Rodrick, Susie***, and Liz Thelen and myself. I look back in dismay at some of my forays into 'distressed type' but I'm posting them anyway out of historical honesty. I am proud of the one I did for a Squirtgun show—the band liked the design enough that they asked me to make them a version of the squirt-ray-gun that they could put on t-shirts. They had a song on the Mallrats soundtrack, y'all! That's the big time!

Click the thumbnails below to go to a Flickr set of 43 posters from 1990 to 1995:

Guru Java Poster Thumbnails

Related posts:
Guru Java Coffeehouse - the Manifesto
Guru Java Coffeehouse - Performers 1990 to 1995

* Mass Giorgini's Spud Zero all-ages punk club had just closed in '89 or '90.
** Yes, where "aging" = 25 in my case, but you know. It was fraught.
*** I don't know her last name. I have a note on the back of posters she designed that says "Susie (friend of Josette Torres)".