Sixteen years ago, Alex Hernandez was just a wide-eyed, tattooed 27-year-old looking to buy an old, country gay bar. A regular in the Long Beach scene who’d been booking bands since he was 21, Hernandez saw this as an opportunity to create a new venue and finally break free from some of the annoyances he faced when booking shows for unappreciative owners.
“It was really hard to work for owners who didn’t necessarily get what I was doing,” Hernandez says. “Places weren’t looking to do rock’n’roll shows. The hardest thing was working with those venues when you think that the ownership and management was working against you.”
In 2000, the bar’s previous owner was dying of AIDS and wanted to take liquor license with him. Through a mutual friend, Hernandez swooped in and bought the building on E. Anaheim St., which he says “Wasn’t a desirable piece of property at the time.” The owner liked the idea of Hernandez continuing the space’s legacy as a haven for people who are into underground music.
Though he’d been booking shows for local and touring bands since he was 21 at places like the Clipper, Hernandez knew he was taking a big risk by opening up his own spot. His parents saw how much money the venues were making off their son that they pushed him to forge ahead. With the support of his parents, he quit working for other clubs and embarked on starting his own.
Initially called the Barfly, the name changed after two years following a cease-and-desist by a bar of the same name and the new, simple moniker stuck. This week, Alex’s Bar celebrates its anniversary by doubling down on a full card of rowdy punk shows headlined by punk supergroup OFF! on Jan. 29-30. Hernandez always wanted the venue to feature live music. As much as Long Beach has evolved to become very business friendly, the councilperson at the time and the business alliance made it difficult for Hernandez to book bands.
“They saw a 27-year-old punk rock kid opening up a bar and they were up in arms,” he recalls. The city council tried to throw roadblock they could at Hernandez to prevent the new bar from opening. Alex’s Bar was open for two years with just a jukebox, and was still fairly successful with no live music. “We got to book shows four times a year with special permits, but we got our entertainment license two years after we were opened,” Hernandez says. “We were the first place there to get an entertainment license in seven years at that point.”
Even with those hurdles, the first sign of light for Hernandez that his venue wasn’t going to go away was at the first of those four shows per year. He gradually grew aware of his own power and saw the potential that his bar held.
Once those problems were finally pushed aside, it wasn’t long before Alex’s Bar transformed from watering hole with a killer jukebox to one of Long Beach’s preeminent music venues. What was once a dive bar known for its sticky floors and thick red curtains has become the place for bands old and new to showcase their skills and dazzle audiences in the city.
Hernandez had a clear, singular focus in establishing his venue.
“I wanted it to be a West Coast CBGB’s,” he says. “I wanted it to be one of those iconic clubs for rock shows. I’d always seen pictures of them in zines and I wanted my place to be in there too.”
The punk haven has evolved in its lineup over the years. Relying on the word of mouth, a lot of bigger bands have set foot on the stage at the venue. Alex’s Bar has hosted the likes of the Offspring, Brody Dalle, Foxboro Hot Tubs (Green Day’s undercover alias) and Mike Watt. The legendary San Pedro-based bassist is quite fond of the venue.
“It seems like it’s tradition in the movement for a young guy like Alex was at the time when he opened the joint to get your hands out and do it yourself,” Watt says. “I don’t remember what band it was but they brought me up on-stage and put me in a dress and we played ‘Police Story.’”
In the past decade, the bar has moved from its local roots towards the mainstream. TV shows like True Blood have been set there as well as the filming of Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny. The Offspring performed their landmark Ignition album in 2012 at Alex’s Bar.
For Hernandez, personal highlights include seeing a reunited Black Flag perform in 2003, Rocket From The Crypt performing at last year’s 15th anniversary bash and Eagles of Death Metal. But his main source of joy is still the excitement of catching a band on the rise.
“We like getting them in front of a bunch of people and helping them push up to the next size venue,” Hernandez explains. “Then, on the eventual downside of their career, to come back around to us. We like to push them to the next level and be there when the record stops selling.”
Labelling the event as the bar’s Sweet 16, Hernandez decided to go all out, asking some of his favorite bands like OFF!, The Drips, Death Hymn Number 9 and Watt & The Missing Men to perform. Each anniversary, Hernandez says, is celebrated in grand fashion because “You never know when the bottom is going to fall out.” As other locales have opened and closed, Alex’s Bar has remained the constant in Long Beach.
“He’s all about making the pad happen and not into this image thing,” Watt says. “But he’s one of us, so it’s not like it’s an outsider from upstairs coming down and telling you where it’s at. It’s coming from the people making music and coming to the gigs. Alex is part of that and it’s why I have huge respect for him.”
Despite not playing the venue before, Keith Morris is excited to see why so many of his colleagues have sung the praises of Alex’s Bar.
“I know a lot of bands that have played there and all of the reports that I’ve heard and it’s a great place to play,” Morris says. “The fact they’ve been able to survive — since I’ve watched so many clubs come and go — and to keep a happening line of rock solid entertainment coming into the venue and we have applaud that he’s been there for so many years and to celebrate it. I can’t wait to see what’s going on.”
Keeping with the punk ethos, Hernandez and his wife run the bar, and he says he’s still booking about 90 percent of the shows. Not taking anything for granted and Hernandez is excited to celebrate his bar’s 16th anniversary.
“It’s gone by in a flash,” he says. “I remember getting to five years and thinking that that was a monumental success. Running a small business is such a rollercoaster. It’s something you do though for the love of the music and not to be a rich person. You’re just rich by your experience running a place like this.”
OFF! headline both nights of Alex’s Bar’s Sweet 16 Anniversary, 2913 Anaheim St., Long Beach. (562) 434-8292, www.alexsbar.com, $20 adv, $$22 dos, Friday Jan. 29, Saturday, Jan. 30. 8 p.m. 21+.
Daniel Kohn is a writer based in Southern California. With bylines in an assortment of outlets, Kohn primarily specializes in music with other interests ranging from sports to food. As a transplant, Kohn loves the beautiful weather and is glad he no longer has to deal with brutal winters. If you see him, say hi and of course, he’s always willing to down a beer or two…if you’re paying.