Inside the East End's Newest Arty Dive Bar, Marquee Moon Lounge

Erica Villanueva behind the bar at Marquee Moon LoungeEXPAND
Erica Villanueva behind the bar at Marquee Moon Lounge
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.
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Shane Howard says that even after months of renovating the place, he and wife Shannon still hadn’t picked a name for their new East End bar. He says he was applying for its liquor license and was told by the registrar it couldn’t be issued without an establishment name.

“We wanted a name that wouldn’t scare off people who weren’t into old punk rock or post-punk or New Wave," he recalls. "But we wanted a name that immediately, if you knew what that was, you could have a mental image of what this bar might look like, what our jukebox and events might look like, just by hearing the name."

Marquee Moon Lounge opened the first week of March at 7419 Navigation. If you’re not familiar with the Television song and need a visual, imagine a dive bar with interesting art pieces adorning the walls, fashioned to feel like a comfy den with deep, earthy colors and low-wattage custom light fixtures. The jukebox is filled with Lou Reed, Magazine and the like. Add a full-service bar, some friendly, tattooed staffers and a handful of colorful clientele, and you’ve got the picture.

One line in “Marquee Moon,” “A kiss of death, the embrace of life,” speaks directly to how the bar came into existence. The Howards have been together almost 25 years. and have run tattoo studios, art galleries, even an arcade. But for the past five years, they owned Badlands Austin, a live-music venue on the corner of 12th and Chicon in East Austin.

Shane is originally from Houston and Shannon is a Texan by way of Iowa. When they arrived in the state capital from the Hawkeye State 11 years ago, they found a space and opened Mystery City Tattoo, which begat the fine-arts space Romani Gallery. Bands would occasionally play events there, and that begat Badlands. The venue hosted shows five nights a week. Things were going well, until they weren't.

“Circumstances dictated where we were priced out of our own building,” Shane offers.

“It’s a very common occurrence in Austin,” Shannon adds.

Shannon and Shane Howard
Shannon and Shane Howard
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.

Shane says developers from New York and Philadelphia bought out low-rent retail properties in the neighborhood and converted them into high-end craft cocktail lounges. The owners of those renovated spaces “decided that we had too many undesirable people in the neighborhood, so they went to our landlord and offered a substantially larger amount of money than we could afford,” he notes.

“We were nervous, we didn’t know what to do. We spent a couple of months trying to decide,” continues Shannon. “Back in the day, I had worked in a number of different venues around town – the Vatican, Emo’s. One of my childhood heroes, and someone who had really taken care of me a lot when I was younger, was J.R. Delgado, the former owner of the Axiom. J.R. was talking with us one day and knew we were upset and he said to me, ‘What you guys do is great and you have family and friends in Houston that love you. Maybe it’s time to come home.’”

So, from the kiss of death came the embrace of life. The doors at Badlands had barely shut when the Howards began renovating a one-time neon-orange and lime-green cantina that would become Marquee Moon Lounge.

Shane says the resurgence in Houston’s east side is heartening and wholly dissimilar to what’s happening in Austin.

“Having lived away from Houston, I can say, you can take for granted what Houston offers," he notes. 'Having lived in Austin, I can say I truly understand what gentrification is. It’s truly people with money, with no connection to a neighborhood, coming in and they destroy that neighborhood and make it unlivable and unsustainable for the community that lived there before.”

He adds, “I see here on the East side, there is what people are calling ‘gentrification,’ but I don’t see it like in Austin. I don’t see it like people are destroying a neighborhood and pushing out a community."

What he does see is a community of middle-agers who once left the neighborhood seeking a certain lifestyle who are now returning to inhabit homes passed down to them by retired or deceased parents. They’re finding the things they left home for now present in the old neighborhood, or they’re bringing those things to the community.

“I think a lot of the people that are moving here are doing revitalization as opposed to gentrification,” he said.

Marquee Moon's previous incarnation, via Google Maps
Marquee Moon's previous incarnation, via Google Maps

The Howards began their own bit of revitalization in November of last year. They wanted a smaller space than Badlands, something more laid-back. They had definite ideas about how it should look.

“If you were a punk rocker back in 1980, you’re in the post-punk scene, you’ve come out of the ‘70s. At that point, you’re listening to The Stooges and New York Dolls and Talking Heads, Stiff Little Fingers, The Damned and the Buzzcocks,” Shane says. “And now, you’re coming into the ‘80s and there weren’t punk-rock clubs. Towns didn’t have Walter’s, there wasn’t Numbers and stuff. People that wanted places like that were finding little neighborhood bars that would allow them to come in. We built a place that was like, okay, if you were into that scene at that time, what would the place have been like?”

They program events to fit the space. Wednesdays, Marquee Moon offers “Anarkaoke,” a karaoke night with an underground spin. A recent visit brought lots of Smiths and Morrissey sung by the bar patrons, who are genial and gracious about posing for pictures. The bar does a bring-your-own-vinyl night and a dark ‘80s dance night dubbed “Dead Man’s Party.” This week, it hosts a glam-metal night called “Helter Skelter” (Friday) and a double celebration of World Goth Day and Morrissey’s birthday (Saturday). Regularly planned events like the bar’s Dark Moon Meetups (for Pagans, Wiccans, etc) share calendar space with special events like an approaching June 4 live show featuring Murder Junkies. The Howards know the band, the last to back the late punk rocker GG Allin, and call them family friends. The Junkies played Badlands and, though Marquee Moon might be too small for them, they insisted on playing the new space once it was up and running.

Some of Marquee Moon's regulars prepare for "Anarkaoke"
Some of Marquee Moon's regulars prepare for "Anarkaoke"
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.

There’s lot happening at the bar and more planned, thanks to the Howards’ shared enthusiasm for their new endeavor. Shannon said they have plans to expand, taking an exact reverse course from their business model in Austin. This means locals should be looking for an art gallery and tattoo studio from the couple in due time.

For the moment, Shane says it’s nice to join a scene with established haunts he once frequented, timeless places like Lola’s and Rudyard’s, and newer spots he’s appreciating, like Satellite Bar and Poison Girl.

“Being an outsider and not growing up here and coming into it, I think everyone under-appreciates what Houston really has,” he says. “Houston has a really great scene and it’s a cohesive scene. I think it’s fantastic. People really support each other and it crosses a lot of barriers, which is really cool because you don’t get that a lot in other places necessarily, especially in Austin. Everything [there] is really segmented and segregated, bars and scenes and everything. Here it’s like, ‘It’s a show – hey, I’ve never seen you before, I’m glad you’re here, come get a beer with me.’”

Shane says that whatever the endeavor, be it in Austin, Houston or elsewhere, he hopes he can do for patrons what some in Houston once did for him.

“I guess the people that inspired me the way I saw venues being run, like J.R. Delgado at The Axiom – everybody was family there,” he explains. “And I can only hope that I have what Eric Hartman from Emo’s or Bruce Godwin from Numbers had, I can only hope that 20 or 30 years from now I’m running into people on the street that go, ‘Hey, I went to a venue you owned and it meant a lot to me, I met my wife or my husband there, or I saw the best band I’ve ever seen there, at this tiny little show. I hope I’m like J.R. Delgado, that 20 years from now I’ve got people asking to take pictures with me as I’m sitting at the bar just because I was friendly to them when I served them a drink.”

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