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.”