John Doe walks into his own North Side Bar
By Jeff McCord
It’s a late summer Tuesday night at the Long Play Lounge, and I’m leaning over the bar trying to read the label of a record spinning on the turntable. A few feet away, manager Tate Mayeux is chatting up a couple of regulars. There’s about twenty of us in the cozy low-lit surroundings, paired off among the tables. The music – a garage band called the Detroit Cobras – rumbles warmly from the stereo.
Until late last year, the Long Play was a gastro pub called Royal Jelly. “I remember driving past and they always had different signs, which was confusing,” remembers Long Play partner John Doe, co-leader of X, who relocated from the West Coast to Austin’s St. Johns neighborhood two and a half years ago. “But a few neighbors would say it’s got some pretty good food. I never went in there. I was like, huh, Royal Jelly, I don’t really want either one of those things.”
Will Tanner, who has owned Austin mainstay the Hole in the Wall since 2008 and another East Side newcomer, Stay Gold, noticed Royal Jelly, too. For sale. On Craigslist. “I went on, typed in ‘bar’, and it was the first listing that appeared, like seven minutes old. It’s up north, south of 183, and immediately I knew what it was. I emailed the guy and he called me within two minutes. We got it bought in about a week. And we just started working.”
John and Will, friends since Doe started playing SXSW day parties at the Hole in the Wall, stay in touch. “Will said ‘It’s your neighborhood,” Doe recalled, “So why don’t you come in on this thing?’ I came in as the bring-it-over-the line investor. But Will put most of the money in, and had the whole concept complete – which is no Spotify, no fuckin’ Pandora. No sports TV. It’s LP’s, straight up cocktails, nothing super fancy, but good liquor, good beer. And that’s it.”
The Long Play vibe is like a friend’s living room. It’s a small space. Drinks flow and records play. The selection is varied and can be eclectic. But it’s not overly fussed over. Customers make requests. Entire sides of albums blend into one another. And despite a first-rate sound system, the music doesn’t dominate. Conversation comes easy.
But if you’re there for the tunes, the staff will oblige. Most all are musicians. “I intentionally didn’t bring on seasoned bartenders,” Will explains, “so if you want to talk about the music, you’re with people that have put in 10,000 hours. Tate especially has a really rangy knowledge, he just carries all over the board.”
Tanner started with 300-400 of his own LP’s, a nice mix of the new and not-so-new, and as regulars have gotten to know the staff, they’ve gifted the Long Play other records they think they might like.
And then, there are the audiophiles, the occasional customers, who, according to Mayeux, just appear, and plant themselves flat footed in the center of the bar facing the speakers.
The speakers. Don’t get Tanner started. “It’s a Danish company called Dynaudio and they’re handmade – this is gonna to be a little dorky technical, but it’s a mastering rig that goes from super high all the way down to 18 Hertz without losing anything. So, whatever they did you can hear. Like the best monitor you can get. Truthfully, I’d been looking for an excuse to buy these speakers, and I was able to shoehorn it into the budget.”
Tanner’s more than a longtime vinyl collecter. “So many people will concentrate on getting the records and they’re playingthem through garbage. What’s great about analog is it’s unlimited. There’s a lot there to be heard. So not only do we find a lot of people that are already interested in records coming in, but they’re also listening. In my opinion this is the closest way to doing it right – flat EQ’s, powerful high-end speakers. And if you don’t care about that, you can come in, hang out and have a cocktail on the patio. That’s just the way that we’re listening to music. It’s not a bunch of people needling over stuff.
I ask Doe if he’s a hi-fi guy. “Not that much. Will goes deep and I’m grateful for that.” His disdain for algorithm-driven apps like Pandora comes down to this: “Whatever band you put on eventually cycles down to Sublime or the Red Hot Chili Peppers.”
“I do like vinyl,” John says. “Sounds good. I don’t have a huge collection. I got rid of a bunch of stuff and I constantly cycle through. There are some old 60s records from when I was a kid that I still have and a couple of old country records from back when you would find things in thrift stores, and I’ve got a test pressing of Black Randy and the Metrosquad [a joke LA punk band that included members of X and the Go-Go’s, among others]. But I don’t have walls and walls of records.”
“I did get to visit [Canned Heat vocalist and famed record collector] Bob Hite a couple times. I mean he had test pressings of Leadbelly records. It was insane. You never knew what you were gonna get with Bob. One time we went over there and he was naked the entire time, but his belly was so big that you couldn’t see anything down there. Okay, whatever. He played nothing but Bing Crosby instead of all this great blues stuff, and that was a little much. Unfortunately his collection got savaged when he passed away.”
There’s been no Bing Crosby night at the Long Play – at least so far – but they have had a few guest DJs. “I even deejayed once – my one and only deejay set,” says Doe. “I played the Cramps, the Big Boys, Lee Dorsey, some reggae stuff. We’re trying to find people who want to have listening parties. If you’ve made a record, rather than having to play at your party, come over, just hang out, drink and play your record.”
Tanner says they’ve already done a few of these. “We have Fastball on the books for October 12th.”
In a way, having no space for live bands expands the musical discussion exponentially. Without a performer to focus on, the music can roam anywhere, from Can to Jerry Jeff Walker. “We have people that come from pretty far away just because they they’re super into records,” says Tanner.
But records or no, at its heart, the Long Play is a neighborhood bar. “I live five blocks from the place, which is both good and bad,” Doe relates with a smile.
I ask him what made him want to get in the bar business. “I had some extra money and I wanted to invest in the community.”
Friends initially brought Doe to Austin. “I’ve been coming here since 79 or 80, playing with the Big Boys, the Dicks …it’s always been great. We were living in the Bay Area had been for about 10 years and my daughters lived up there. I liked it, but I could never buy a house there and I ended up in [the St. John’s] neighborhood because I kind of saved a 50s house. You get more house there, and I don’t have to deal with too many young people at the grocery store.”
He recalls other neighborhood haunts. “When I was in my early twenties I played in a bunch of bars down in Fells Point which was kind of where John Waters crew hung out. I met John down there and we’d just play Thursday nights for tips. It was a bunch of artists and weirdo’s, because Fells Point is right down by the water in Baltimore. It was like Hoboken, even more bars per capita. There were some bars that didn’t have a sign, just a house. You just knew that. Oh that’s the place. And Hollywood, too, when I was there, had great dive bars.”
You’d be hard pressed to call the Long Play a dive – everything still feels new. On this Tuesday, women outnumber men, and as the evening wears on, the crowd thins. It’s still warm out, but we move to the deck, where the music plays through outdoor speakers. The radiator shop across the street has some weird rocket attached to it reflecting what little slivers of daylight are left. The music has changed again – T Rex now. A few people walk up, they all seem to know each other. We sip our beers, watch the neighborhood wind down, and listen to Bolan’s nonsense lyrics. “I could never understand the wind at all…” It’s easy to see the charm of the place.
“It’s a business,” says Tanner, “but for both the staff and the people, I’ve seen some real relationships grow. You really can become a sort of community center. We have some weird stuff happen, but mostly people kind of connect and it’s great. The other day, we’re looking at a pretty full patio – it was a Friday. Not a single phone was out. People were talking. You think, oh yeah, this is cool.”
By Jeff McCord
He seemed to show up at exactly the right time. Born in Sacramento, Daniel Johnston, who died on September 10th at age 58, grew up in the coal country of West Virginia. He attended Kent State, even worked in a traveling carnival before making his way to Austin in 1984. The posturing of the city’s punk and new wave scene was waning, and in its place was a new breed of guitar bands – young, earnest, coed and bristling with pop instincts.
Johnston walked into this sea change impossibly skinny, ambitious, awkward, his arms clutching loads of his homemade cassettes, featuring his crude illustrations and amateurish recordings. He’d walk right up to you. “Hi, I’m Daniel. Would you like to hear my music?”
Everyone said yes, and soon his tapes were everywhere. It was, of course, his fellow musicians who were the first to listen beyond his tinny home recordings to hear the sweetness and frailty of his songs. They were bare, guileless in their joy and hurt, sometimes wrenchingly sad. (The first tape he made was titled “Songs of Pain”) The cool veneer that so many artists worked so hard to maintain was stripped away.
Virtually every Austin band of the period would work up a Johnston cover, and immersion in his work began to influence their own writing. He seemed to be always around, opening shows. Or at times still in his McDonald’s uniform from his job at Dobie Mall, telling his engaging, hard to follow stories from the outside tables at The Beach Cabaret, one of the scene’s epicenters. His childlike artwork began turning up everywhere. His famed mural of Jeremiah the Bullfrog, which he painted on the side of the Drag’s Sound Exchange in 1993, has long outlasted the record store.
Daniel’s love of Captain America, Batman, Casper the Friendly Ghost, religion and the Beatles all found its way in his music. His songs brimmed with hope and empathy – “Hey Joe”, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievance”. “Running Water”, “True Love Will Find You In The End”. Yet others, like “Sorry Entertainer” and “Monkey in a Zoo”, chronicled what a tough sled it could be for him. His shaky voice and lack of professional accompaniment made it impossible for others to hear Daniel’s music the way it sounded to him. His eccentricities were inseparable from who he was.
Yet Johnston was convinced he was going to be famous. He seemed to be on his way. He talked his way on to MTV when they visited Austin. And word of Daniel’s work had begun to spread throughout the country. Early adapters included Yo La Tengo, Jad Fair, Sonic Youth. Kurt Cobain turned up on MTV’s 1992 Video Awards wearing a Johnston ‘Hi, How Are You’ t-shirt. Eventually, the major labels came knocking. Johnston signed with Atlantic and released Fun in 1994.
Austin musican and producer Brian Beattie, who worked with Daniel on many of his recordings, including most recently Beattie’s Ivy And The Wicker Suitcase project (Johnston played Satan) and a yet to be released Johnston album of new material, remembers him this way. “Daniel had such a strong imagination, it was like a rocket ship, you could ride it to a new destination. He loved Austin and he remembered his time here with wonder. Years later, he would bore me by reeling off band and club names, and endlessly repeating “Those were the days, huh?” But, in fact, his time here in the mid to late 80’s was a time of wonder, and seeing his self made myth and vision slowly manifest itself into the mind of America has been a wondrous thing to witness.”
Aiding in that manifestation was an extraordinary tribute album produced by Beattie, released in 1994, his former band mate Kathy McCarty’s Dead Dog’s Eyeball. McCarty and Beattie’s band Glass Eye had a national cult following, and their reimagining’s of Johnston’s best songs caught hold, bringing him even more admirers. Director Rick Linklater would feature McCarty’s version of “Living Life” in the closing credits of his film “Before Sunrise”.
McCarty, a longtime friend and fan, reminisces. “Daniel’s songs spoke so directly and honestly about the experience of being human. There are literally millions of people who have been helped through difficult times in their lives by listening to his songs about depression, unrequited love, and faith in God and the future.”
By time of the album’s release, though, Daniel had left Austin to live with his parents. Johnston suffered from manic depression and schizophrenia, and had a nervous breakdown before even reaching Austin. The city’s party atmosphere and Johnston’s newfound notoriety proved a bad combination. After trying LSD, his erratic behavior landed him in trouble and led to a stay in a mental institution. Eventually his family came to get him. Returning to Austin to play the 1990 Austin Music Awards, his dad was flying him back to West Virigina on a private plane when Daniel suddenly grabbed the keys from the ignition and threw them out the window, causing the plane to crash. Somehow they both survived. Other violent episodes, including a break-in, and an assault of Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley would follow.
As Beck, Tom Waits, Wilco and the Flaming Lips were recording his songs, as his artwork was on exhibit in NYC’s Whitney and other European galleries, and as a documentary based on his life was showing around the country, Daniel was at home with his parents, now living in Waller Texas. On antidepressants, his weight had ballooned. Michael Hall, who profiled Johnston for Texas Monthly remembers his 2005 visit. “He was very calm, seemed to be in good mental shape, physically, he was big and fat and ate a bunch of crappy food and drank a bunch of sodas.”
This would be Daniel’s existence, more or less, for the rest of his life, occasionally emerging in public but mostly holed up smoking cigarettes and gulping orange drinks, while the world outside clamored for any sign of him. Balancing the constant demands of fans, management, his own ambitions and his deeply religious and protective parents, his appearances grew more and more infrequent.
One of the last times he was onstage in Austin was his 57th birthday, when his manager Tom Gimbel arranged for the city to celebrate “Hi How Are You Day”. The holiday continues in Austin, celebrating the kid who arrived with his tapes in hand so long ago (this year’s show featured the Flaming Lips). But they’ll be without Daniel.
“Listen up and I’ll tell a story,” he sang in his song “Story of an Artist”. “About an artist growing old / some would try for fame and glory / others aren’t so bold”
Johnston was bold, persevering in his goal against all odds. This nervous, odd kid did capture the world’s attention. One of Johnston’s early and loyal champions, former manger Jeff Tartakov says, “ He touched people in a way that will never be forgotten.”
Comments are now pouring in on social media from both friends and encounters, famous and not. All seem compelled to say how Daniel and the music he made affected them, and how his honesty cut through this noisy world like a beacon.
“The end of all wanting / is all I’ve been wanting.”
These lines, typical of David Berman’s wit and humor, found him picking up right where he left off a decade earlier.
The publicity ramp up to the album, Purple Mountains, was startling for fans accustomed to nothing from him but silence. There were features, interviews, and an actual tour, set to begin on August 10th.
But on August 7th, David Berman, the indie rock icon, poet, and songwriter, was found dead in a Brooklyn apartment, an apparent suicide. He was 52 years old.
From 1992-2008, through six albums and various EP’s with his band the Silver Jews, Berman remained a conundrum. He seemed a reluctant traveler on his own career path. He shunned publicity, his band didn’t tour until 2005, and then only sporadically. Yet he would spill intimate details about his life. He was open about his problems with alcohol, his plunge into drug addiction, and a 2003 suicide attempt. And when he abruptly stepped away from music in 2009, he left his fans shell-shocked and hungry for answers.
Born in Virginia, Berman went to high school in Addison, Texas. He formed the Silver Jews with University of Virginia college friends Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich (whose other venture, Pavement, proved to be much more in sync with 90’s slackerdom. Berman came up with the title for their debut, Slanted and Enchanted). After two messy DIY Silver Jews EP’s, Berman went to Amherst for his masters. It was there he assembled the material for the band’s first album, 1994’s Starlite Walker. He would also log some below-the-radar time as an Austin resident in the mid-90’s.
Though the lineup for the Silver Jews constantly shifted, their recordings remained consistent. The music could best be described as a kind of fractured electric country – loose, shambolic, with Berman’s deep vocals always sounding like he almost forgot to record them. There were no real melodies to speak of.
Instead, there was this:
“In 27 years / I drunk 50,000 beers / and they just wash against me / like the sea into a pier.”
“Is the problem that we can’t see or is it that the problem is beautiful to me?”
“Moments can be monuments to you.”
Sharing similar world views, Berman was mentioned alongside Townes Van Zandt, but he wasn’t that inward-looking. Though both he and his fans might have balked at the comparison, Berman resembled, lyrically at least, a Gen X version of Randy Newman or Leonard Cohen: the same affinity for flawed characters, and the same knack of finding humor in the darkest of corners.
In his songs, eccentrics tried to weather life’s many setbacks. Often, they failed, other times they found reasons for hope. And there were the rare moments of unbridled joy. “Punks In The Beerlights”’ discarded couple screaming “I love you to the max!” “People” unearthing mundane pleasures of everyday city life – a rainbow from a garden hose, sparks from a low-hanging muffler, the way everyone gravitates towards one another. “It’s sunny and 75 / It feels so good be alive.”
He topped Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s yin/yang ode with a “Dallas” of his own: “O Dallas you shine with an evil light / don’t you know that God stays up all night? / And how’d you turn a billion steers / into buildings made of mirrors / And why am I drawn to you tonight?”
Words fussed over, the kind that makes disaffected English majors giddy. And they adored Berman. Even his 1999 book of poetry, Actual Air, became a minor hit.
Berman didn’t believe any of it. “I’m not convinced I have fans,” he told a recent interviewer. As a cult artist emerging from ten years of self-imposed exile, he seemed to struggle to find his new place in the world.
2009 marked one of Berman’s upbeat periods. He was sober, happily married, finding a renewed interest in his faith. He had just released an almost sunny set of songs, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea. So his retirement announcement came without warning. At first, it seemed like a characteristic put-on. “If I continue to record,” he wrote, “I might accidentally write the answer song to ‘Shiny Happy People’.”
It got stranger. Berman revealed his father to be Rick Berman, the zealous lobbyist for tobacco, soft drinks and union busting, once profiled by 60 Minutes and given the nickname “Dr. Evil.” “My father is a despicable man,” he wrote. “I decided that the SJs were too small a force to come close to undoing a millionth of all the harm he has caused. I’ve always hid this terrible shame from you.”
No one was sure what to make of this, but true to his word, the music came to a stop. Berman simply went away, and the ensuing silence made his cultivated myth grow even larger.
Only many years later, following a serendipitous email exchange with the Brooklyn band Woods, did the new Purple Mountains sessions begin. When word began to leak out that David Berman was back with a new album, there was palpable excitement.
On first listen, Purple Mountains seemed more musically focused, Berman’s vocals more urgent. But the anticipation obscured troubling signs. In the layoff, Berman’s long marriage had ended. His mother had passed away. There were rumors of mounting credit card debt.
And there were the songs – “Maybe I’m The Only One for Me,” “Darkness and Cold,” “All My Happiness Is Gone,” “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son.” While unmistakably his work, they were visceral, the hurt raw and on the surface. His strained faith in such a “subtle god” was impossible to miss. Berman’s ability to step outside his head and view life with a bemused detachment was always key to his appeal. Suddenly, he seemed surrounded.
And now he’s gone. The loss is tragic, and we are, once again, left with no answers. Only his words.
“I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion / Day to day, I’m neck and neck with giving in.”
Cover photo: Bobbi Fabian
One of the nation’s largest music festivals, the Austin City Limits Fest, returns to Zilker Park in a few months. This year they’ve got Mumford and Sons, Tame Impala, Guns N’ Roses, and Cardi B among the headliners. Big names, sure, but there’s not much synergy among them. For some seasoned festivalgoers, the thought of enduring the huge crowds, obstacle courses of folding chairs and overworked porta-potties is not appealing. You want to see Thom Yorke, but in bright daylight from hundreds of yards back, all while Billie Eilish reverberates nearby?
There’s no doubt the all-things-to-all-people model provides much excitement and fills a huge space for multiple weekends. Founded in 2002, and expanding to two weekends in 2012, ACL Fest has shown no signs of slowing down. But moments of unity like Paul McCartney’s adored sets last year are rare. You need to focus and move around a lot to find your moments.
ACL Fest is staged by Austin’s C3, as is Lollapalooza in Chicago’s Grant Park (estimated annual attendance at 450,000 and 400,000 respectively). California’s Coachella is even larger (est. 600,000). But not every festival aspires to these numbers. As the mega-fests have proliferated, so have smaller niche events. Events of this kind have always been around. With a lack of headliner budgets, they’re targeted and developing artist-centric. And hand-to-mouth; some make it, some don’t.
Austinites have always had a lot of these choices – every few weeks there’s one popping up on the calendar. There’s the long-running Americana-themed Old Settlers, nearby camping-heavy alternatives like the Kerrville Folk Festival and Utopia Fest. And those that have come and gone – Aqua Fest, which in its early days featured speedboat races, and brought a lot of star acts to the shores of Lady Bird Lake. The alt-rock heavy Fun Fun Fun Fest took over the same site for its last few years, 2011-2015.
Music fans have options like this wherever they live, festivals that offer a sense of unity and purpose. Everyone is there because they like the same things – you can roam and enjoy without fear of culture shock, in a much more chill environment.
A communal experience I will never forget was attending Austin Psych Fest. Psych Fest was started by Austin’s Black Angels, and has since morphed into Levitation. Levitation holds not only an annual 4-day event in Austin clubs In November (this year will feature the Flaming Lips and John Cale among its headliners), but also stages a festival in France.
For their first couple of years, though, Psych Fest was shoestring. In 2011, they took a big leap, moving from the Mohawk into the then empty downtown Seaholm Power Plant, and greatly expanding the lineup of bands. The cavernous structure created an otherworldly environment. Wild lights and weird projections strobed everywhere, as each band tried to outdo the strangeness of the one that came before them. Everyone there had a “can you believe this?’ look on their face. It was as if we’d all been dropped on another planet.
Most music festivals work alike. One price to get in, watch what you want, stay as long as you want, leave. But when artist curation and unique settings work closely together, it can create a kind of magic. Take in point two festivals I attended this year.
The Big Ears Festival, which celebrated its ten-year anniversary in 2019, is held in sleepy Knoxville Tennessee’s clubs and theaters. I’d been meaning to go for years, but the event is held immediately after SXSW – not ideal in my book. This year’s event featured the likes of Nils Frahm, Nik Bartsch, Makaya McCraven, Meredith Monk, Thumbscrew, Harold Budd, David Torn and Sons Of Kemet. Haven’t heard of them? That’s kind of the point. But for curious fans of brave, experimental music, Big Ears is nirvana. If you’re lucky, live in the right place (or happen have a brave promoter like Austin’s Epistrophy Arts), you might catch a handful of these kinds of shows a year. Big Ears features four days of them, plus art exhibits, panels, and a smattering of better-known acts (Richard Thompson, Spiritualized, Bill Frisell and Carla Bley were also on the 2019 bill). There was also an overnight 13-hour drone concert. I expected a small throng of effete snobs wandering from one dive bar to another. Instead, the large, diverse crowds (est, 15,000 to 20,000 a year) spread over the revitalized city were electric with excitement. Where else can you find a line stretched around the block for the Art Ensemble Of Chicago?
If artist-curated playlists are your thing, there’s a festival for that, too. Put together by Wilco, Solid Sound takes place in early summer. From the start, the founders played it smart. Set in the picturesque small town of North Adams MA, the museum whose grounds host the festival, Mass MoCA, is worth going to see on its own. Housed in a sprawling, refurbished 19th century mill, it’s a premier modern art facility (Stunning exhibits from James Turrell and Laurie Anderson were up during the fest). Wilco keeps Solid Sound small and manageable, only a few outdoor stages and museum shows. (Attendance figures for 2019 haven’t been released, but estimates ranged as high as 10,000. North Adams’ population is only 17,000). The closest thing this year to another headliner was Courtney Barnett. The fervent church of Wilco fans is there en masse, enjoying Jeff Tweedy’s band and their eclectic side-project offspring. But they’re also checking out fringe acts like Lithics, Wand, Mdou Moctar and Lonnie Holley. Musicians intermingle: Barnett sat in with Wilco, the Minus 5 were joined by Pete Buck, Mike Mills and Steve Wynn, Jeff Tweedy sang with the Feelies. And because everyone there made some effort to get to an out-of-the-way festival that only happens every other year, it feels exclusive and joyous.
Themed gatherings like this exist virtually everywhere, for every kind of music. (In Europe, many are publically funded). While many are drawing large crowds, they’re still only a fraction of what the mega-fests need to survive. If you’re thinking you’re done with the outdoor music experience, take some time to shop around. The alternate universes these events create, if only for few days, can be intoxicating, and just the thing for festival burnout.