You'd think after 20 years, a nightspot would acquire ambience. Not Poor David's Pub: The day it opened at 1924 Greenville, it looked like storage space for broken restaurant furniture, and it still looks that way. There is no jukebox, no pool table, no "decor." When the Pub is open, there is little convivial schmoozing among patrons, who perch on chairs too rickety to trust and stare with impatience at a stage the height of a SWBYPs. But then a man who resembles a cross between D.H. Lawrence and the Unabomber takes the stage, and the atmosphere charges more than just a little.
The man is David Card, proprietor. He greets the audience with a patented "How-dy folks!" that's more countrified than he ever otherwise sounds. He touts upcoming shows, offers to sell you CDs, cassettes, T-shirts, and nachos, and then brings on the entertainer everyone's come to hear.
"Everyone" is an accurate word, because Pub audiences are more specific about what they want than almost any other kind of patron (with the possible exception of Uncle Calvin's Coffee House and topless bars). The vast majority of nightcrawlers view bands as mere sidebars in places that peddle trendy surroundings, or dinner, dating, or drink specials. Poor David's offers none of the above, least of all the drink specials. What it does offer is a distraction-free forum for musical performers whose audiences take them quite seriously. Those who rank Card's shows as some of the best they've seen in this city include folkies, blues fans, hirsute rednecks, Deadheads, roots rockers, and some of those people you see answering phones on pledge drive night. Not another bar in Dallas has a supportive faction this disparate.
Card--unlike most who go into the club business--went in with a modicum of knowledge. He'd taught a small business course at El Centro, and tested the waters of the bar biz with a dinky dive on Oak Lawn called Bo's Place. From there he moved in 1977 to the original Pub at 2900 McKinney. Formerly a darts bar, the 100-seat space had all the comfort of a duck blind and sightlines out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but it was Card's professional entry into an area scene fraught with amateurs, and he burned the communal memory with shows by Tish Hinojosa, Gatemouth Brown, Dave Van Ronk, Townes Van Zandt, B.W. Stephenson, and Jerry Jeff Walker.
The McKinney club was too small, though, so in March of '83, Card relocated it to the Pub's present location. As tony as a bachelor's couch, it was the centerpiece in the Lower Greenville versus Upper Greenville stories that used to surface in local publications. "I'm the antithesis of Dallas glitz!" Card boasted in one such article. Folkies loved his attitude; he also gained points from blues fans by staging Blue Mondays with Anson & the Rockets, foretelling by years a blues resurgence that lasts today.
Still--even though history records this period as the start of Dallas' "boom years"--Card says Lower Greenville was "dead city" back then; the Cowboys on Monday Night Football could leave the club humbled and empty. The crowds were all up the street, packing Nick's Uptown to see Albert King, Al "TNT" Braggs, Stevie Vaughan, the Neville Brothers, UB40, or Ray Charles.
Nevertheless, Card held his own. After a profitable grand opening with John Hartford, Tinker's Dam, and Jerry Jeff Walker, he maintained almost as much visibility with open mike nights and songwriters' competitions as with the artists he booked.
Before he'd selected the Greenville spot, he'd known that a nightspot even closer than Nick's--virtually across the street--would open. Card figured that the club, called Tango, would be no competition; it was to be a dance club, sans live bands.
So they said.
One month after Poor David's opened, Tango added live music, bringing in the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Dr. John, and other big draws. Its popularity--aided by Bob "Daddy-O" Wade's giant dancing frogs gamboling on its roof--grew way out of proportion to its merits, and as the sleek and chic queued up to go there, the Pub looked forgotten. On weekends, in fact, crowds of conspicuous consumers so clogged Lower Greenville near Tango that it looked like an episode of Dallas. The boom didn't last long, however. Tango had so much overhead that it had to be packed to turn a dime's profit, and when the trends left it, it changed its name to Redux and flopped on its ass, sending Wade's frogs off to caper on the roof of Carl's Corner truckstop. Nick's Uptown, a Playboy Club, the Agora, Bar Tejas, Texas Teahouse II, Zebo's, Rick's Casablanca, the 6051 Club, and scores more made like mammoths in the tar pits, while the Pub stayed put.
The cause of extinction in many cases was the club proprietor's intoxication with public image: Book some guitarist with a hair weave, take some dope, hire a waitress with cleavage, and poof!--you're in showbiz. "I got over that years ago," Card says with a laugh. "When you stage a great show and lose your shirt, you realize being 'in showbiz' ain't that big a deal. You have to ask, 'What role am I playing? Am I an image of a nightlife entrepreneur, like Studio 54--decadence and cocaine and all that?' If you're an image of that, maybe you can party all night, but to really run a business takes different behavior."
But not completely different. Card has no qualms about tipping a few in his own club and has been known--when an act so compels him--to groove till closing time. Perennial faves of his include Shake Russell, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Robert Earl Keen, and he counts as "magic" certain shows by Gary P. Nunn, Janis Ian, and the Bluesbusters, a Little Feat spin-off.
Another side of Card's work involves dealing with--or choosing not to deal with--the dreaded "artistic temperament." Staging singer Jane Olivor is like "walking on eggshells," but worth it because of the quality of her shows, Card says. Hard-drinking songwriter Townes Van Zandt was a bigger pain.
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"Several times I said I'd never rehire him because of his alcoholism," Card says. "Several times, I recanted. I had him here in late '96, and he was virtually incoherent. I left; couldn't stand to watch it. I called his agent, who said what he always said--that it was always a gamble with Townes, but if he didn't go on the road, he'd just sit home and drink. He was right, of course, so I booked him for January 25."
Unfortunately, Townes didn't make it, dying on New Year's Day.
Van Zandt's artistic merit made him worth some trouble. No such merit was present to influence his dealing with Miss Molly and the Whips. "Miss Molly acted like an ass," Card says. "Her behavior was arrogant and outrageous. I don't think she regarded Poor David's as a big thing in her career, whereas I see Poor David's as very different. It's my place, my artistic expression. She was condescending and disrespectful to the audience, and she won't be back."
Card's describing the bar as his "artistic expression" is revealing: He knows that image is illusory, but art is real. Dallas music clubs have made a science of peddling image and then going belly-up when the image goes stale or shrill; Card paints on tighter canvas. He and his Pub don't rush out to dazzle you as you enter their orbit; rather, they allow you entrance and a place to sit unencumbered, waiting for the music. On a good night, it'll arrive with such immediacy that you'll remember it forever.
Poor David's Pub will be celebrating its 20th anniversary throughout the month of March, but the two principal celebrations will be on Friday, March 15, with Tab Benoit, and Monday, March 17, with Rusty Wier.