Alex’s Bar is part punk-rock institution, part seedy dive bar, and part your tía’s sitting room, with velvet swags and sofas that children are not allowed to touch. But most surprisingly, Long Beach’s best place to take in everything from punk-rock karaoke to a Northern Soul night is also part art gallery. Pinkies out on the Pabst, please.
Surprised? Alex Hernandez wishes you weren’t. Long before he unlocked the doors to the bar that bears his name in January 2000, even longer before the place became a local landmark, Hernandez formulated a steadfast vision of what he felt a working-class watering hole should look like. His growing collection of vintage black velvets, kitschy oil paintings and bric-a-brac have been elements of that carefully cultivated aesthetic, gracing its crimson red-and-slate-gray walls from the get-go.
“I always thought that’s what a bar should look like: red walls, darkness, naked ladies and velvets on the walls,” Hernandez says as he surveys the room’s meticulously displayed artifacts. “It’s like what my parents’ and grandparents’ generations’ bars would have looked like.”
Well, yes and no. Hernandez’s blend of velvet portraits that extend from Pancho Villa to Elvis to Iggy Pop along with boudoir oils on canvas ratchets up the original ambiance to a level that got the bar cast in HBO’s vampire drama True Blood and Tenacious D’s movie The Pick of Destiny. But it’s his eye for talent, authenticity and all-around great-guyness that has attracted big names such as Green Day, Black Flag and the Offspring to host secret shows on the dramatically draped stage.
On the day artist Marco Almera delivers the eighth black velvet painting for Alex’s rock icon wall, which boasts a dead-on, fuzzy visage of Siouxsie Sioux, the namesake behind 1980s post-punk Siouxsie & the Banshees, the collaborators shake hands and stand back in awe to take in the Goth queen. Sioux is the second woman among a velvetized VIP list that includes Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Joey Ramone, Joan Jett and now the Cadillac Tramps’ Mike “Gabby” Gaborno.
Adding to the bar’s pedigree, as well as the low-brow gallery vibe, the 2,700-square-foot building that dates back to the 1940s for nightlife is also home to an original, larger-than-life, autographed portrait of Johnny Cash that graced the walls of the famed Foothill Club in Signal Hill after the singer performed at the country and western bar back in the day. The legendary club transformed into a punk-rock mainstay during the 1990s, playing host to bands such as Sublime, the Humpers and Throwrag. Hernandez cut his teeth at the Foothill, bouncing and booking bands for the Price family after working his way up from Bogart’s and the Clipper. If Hernandez has his way, the portrait of 1950s rockabilly duo the Collins Kids that also hung at the Foothill will be reunited with the Man In Black behind the bar. He knows a guy.
Alex’s Bar celebrates 18 years on East Anaheim Street the weekend of January 27 and 28 in all its seedy, scarlet glory, with an annual rowdy, punk-rock musical extravaganza anniversary party. This year’s two-night bill features headliners the Melvins, Fartbarf, Spindrift, Mike Watt & the Missingmen, Bad Cop/Bad Cop, and OC’s the Adolescents. Velvet Siouxsie will be framed and ready for her closeups by the big event. Blondie’s Debbie Harry will join Sioux next, adding a bit more balance to the gender divide in this rogues' gallery.
DIVE DESIGN DREAMS
The bar’s Mexican velvets portraying chimps playing poker and Satan on the shitter are barely a glimpse of Hernandez’s entire collection, which features everything and everyone from the sacred to Snoopy in numbers upward of 50. His taste for the tacky extends back to his 1970s upbringing in Long Beach and his fond remembrance of his childhood’s more ostentatious decorating choices. Suffice it to say that when members of the Hernandez family purge a set of gaudy light fixtures or a wrought-iron wonder, they know who to call, Hernandez admits with a laugh, pointing out his aunt’s re-homed chandeliers.
“Every gaudy thing that got updated in the ’80s, my relatives gave to me because they knew I had really bad taste,” he says with a proud grin. But before jumping to conclusions that Hernandez subscribes to some sort of hipster fetishization, know that this guy’s love for questionable artwork is 100 percent.
That adoration became ambition when he tagged along with friends in punk band the Swingin’ Utters on tour in San Francisco. He and the band’s original drummer, Greg McEntee, headed to Casanova Lounge in the Mission District for some pints. The dive they ended up at had a cache of velvets so awe-inspiring that Hernandez’s obsession took grip, and he began plotting the vibe he’d create if he ever got to call the shots.
Not much later, Hernandez’s dream became reality, complete with a growing number of fresh-from-the-flea-market velvet art installations, second only to the number displayed at Chinatown’s Velveteria, the velvet-painting museum that relocated to Los Angeles from Portland in 2013. Two years ago, Hernandez told his friend Dave Warshaw, a San Diego-based tattoo artist, his dream of having his own rock & roll hall of fame in velvet watching over the place. Warshaw, who sings and plays guitar for bands the Creepy Creeps and the Locust, is also an enthusiast of cool shit and pop surrealism. So, of course, he had a guy.
Warshaw and Almera first crossed paths through La Luz de Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles and later in San Diego’s thriving tiki art scene after Almera relocated in 2012 to pursue a bachelor’s in graphic design at San Diego State University. As small as the tiki world is, North America’s roster of black-velvet painters is much tinier, so a referral helps. A Facebook DM later, and the project was in motion.
PORTRAIT OF A VELVET ARTIST AS A YOUNG PUNK
Alex’s Bar is the perfect platform for Almera’s black-velvet style, which he respectfully refers to as “Tijuana plush.” The bar’s old-school Don Jose’s lounge feel with its quilted-leather bar stools harkens back to the same period when velvet paintings hit their peak popularity, around the time ex-pat Doyle Harden set up a Mexican factory in the ’70s and started mass producing the paintings via local artists. That watered-down art form originated with Russian Orthodox priests, or possibly even 13th-century painters in India. What we do know is that during the 1500s, Spanish conquistadors took velvet to Mexico and the Philippines. So, while religious figures and sultry fabrics may seem mismatched, there’s precedence. Some early black-velvet paintings still hang in Vatican museums.
Almera was born in Bellflower, not far from where his mother, JoAnn, attended St. Bernard’s Catholic School. He spent his formative years in La Habra, an OC suburb by Fullerton and Brea. Just as a young Hernandez was drawn to the slinky awesomeness of textured home décor, Almera as a boy was fascinated by the stained-glass windows ever-present in his similarly Hispanic-Catholic upbringing. The religious imagery focused on iconography, saints and swords, but to the kid sitting in the cathedral, the drama and details were mesmerizing on another level.
By eighth grade, Almera’s artistic eye and skill started to take shape. Pee-Chee folder doodles offered early glimpses of his artistic flair, wowing classmates with his exceptional tennis rackets turned samurai swords. Bands such as the Clash, Madness, Oingo Boingo, the Go-Go’s and the Specials provided the soundtrack for his school years, as well as the inspiration to turn the whitewalls of Vans shoes into moving marquees. It was the beginning of art and music’s relationship to Almera’s creative pursuits.
Around that time, he and his buddies delved into Dungeons & Dragons, Stranger Things-style, but instead of discovering the Upside Down, Almera’s cohorts became his first fans, requesting drawings of their players. The fire breathers and slayers lent themselves to the new music genre sweeping their school: heavy metal and hard rock from Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Black Sabbath and others. The genre’s aesthetic integrated with Almera’s emerging style, one influenced heavily by Iron Maiden’s resident artist, Derek Riggs, creator of the band’s ghoulish mascot, the ubiquitous Eddie.
“It was dark, but there was an element of exactness to it,” Almera says. “I appreciated the attention to detail at an early stage in my development as an artist.”
Equally as influential were his surroundings. Almera grew up merging the southern section of the county’s beach-centric, surfer lifestyle and the lowrider, rockabilly-by-way-of-punk aesthetic of North OC bands such as Social Distortion and Cadillac Tramps. The latter mixed Chicano estilo with punk-rock chords, all of it informing Almera’s homegrown style, refined during his time studying fine art at UC Santa Cruz. But that training proved too relaxed for the OC-bred artist, offering only pass or fail grades.
Before long, Almera started creating designs for OC companies including Volcom, Hurley and Lucky 13; later, Harley-Davidson tapped him for his underground style of visual art. His early years working for Epitaph Records creating album artwork for bands such as Voodoo Glow Skulls and Dropkick Murphys led to his frame-quality rock posters for bands such as Sublime, Turbonegro, Reverend Horton Heat and the Supersuckers. His posters have been featured in coffee-table books, including 2004’s Art of Modern Rock and Paul Grushkin’s 2006 book Rockin’ Down the Highway: The Cars and People That Made Rock Roll.
Almera also amassed a following among surf-industry types drawn to his meditative, golden-hued, wave-inspired paintings, sometimes from connections made in the lineup. It was there he reconnected with Joe McElroy, Hurley’s former director of global branding, who became a client. He also combines his love of vintage and surf with his interest in the tiki art scene, born out of the cultish, populist low-brow art magazine Juxtapoz, started by some of the genre’s most famous stars, including Robert Williams, C.R. Stecyk III and the late Greg Escalante.
Almera shared the tike scene’s affinity for artist Edgar Leeteg’s tropical paradises and buxom island beauties that sprung from cheap velveteen canvases during the 1930s and ’40s. Leeteg breathed new life into the art form before it fizzled again by the 1980s. But just a decade later, lowrider and rockabilly culture merged, adopting the art form as its own and offering new life in OC’s punk-inspired, tattooed subculture.
But as much as Almera yearned to learn how to emulate Leeteg’s work, the craft didn’t divulge its dry-brush secrets solely through study. “I would look at the original black-velvet paintings, but the paintings wouldn’t reveal to me how they were created,” Almera says. “I couldn’t see the formula, so I came up with my own way. It’s very technical, but it looks authentic.”
The first black-velvet painting Almera created, titled Tiki Dream, was Polynesian-themed and shown at La Luz de Jesus Gallery in 1999, where Juxtapoz darling Stephen Pizzurro, a.k.a. The Pizz, a.k.a. the Lord of Low-Brow, wanted it for his own collection and offered to trade Almera an original of his own. The buzz began to build, adding Metallica’s James Hetfield and comedian David Cross to the list of Almera's black-velvet clients.
By far, however, the most popular velvet Almera created is the saintly depiction of local icon Gaborno, based on a picture by Weekly photographer John Gilhooley. The lead singer of the Cadillac Tramps, Flock of Goo Goo, X-Members and Manic Hispanic died last year after a lengthy battle with diabetes and cancer. His bands, as well as his extended family of musicians—including Jonny Two Bags, Santos y Sinners, Wax Apples, and Black Diamond Riders—have been regulars on Alex’s stage, making it a fitting tribute.
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Gaborno played his last show at Alex’s Bar on Oct. 6, 2016, a fundraiser for the young son he knew he’d soon leave behind. He died Jan. 4, 2017.
"Everyone loved the painting,” says Brian Coakley, Gaborno’s longtime friend, collaborator and guitarist for Cadillac Tramps. “It’s not simply that the painting is awesome and captures him so well—it does that. But it’s also that it’s now hanging in a sort of place of reverence in the local music community and beside some other legendary music icons.”
Almera had met Gaborno a couple of times at Manic Hispanic shows and was a huge fan of the singer and his famous self-deprecating wit and off-color humor. The artist took the liberty of adding a golden aura around the singer’s head, anointing him to watch over Alex’s Bar from behind his bandana. “It was definitely my religious roots showing through,” says Almera, who is no longer Catholic but remains a Christian. “He does look like a patron saint of punk rock now. It is what I was hoping for.”