The Magnetic Fields told downtowners to “be true to your bar,” and that’s exactly what The Midnight Moan does with “Johnny’s,” a song off their new album, Build Up Big Temples. The track, now streaming along with the rest of the album, is a rollicking, anthemic homage to Johnny’s Bar in the West Village, “the last dive around.”
“It became a little refuge for me when I lived on the west side,” explains singer-guitarist Andrew Paine Bradbury. Bradbury moved to New York in 1995 and dived right into the nightlife, writing about bars and restaurants for BlackBook and other outlets (I edited his reviews for NYMag).
“I’ve always been inspired by bars and writing in bars, writing lyrics on cocktail napkins and things like that,” Bradbury says. After he formed The Midnight Moan around 2012, they rehearsed in a studio beneath Welcome to the Johnsons; a song off the new album, “Up for Grabs,” was inspired by watching a patron at the Lower East Side dive mistreat his girlfriend there. (The band has also rehearsed in the apartment of singer-guitarist-pianist Brian Baker and his wife, soulful singer-percussionist Mel Baker.) Another song, “Saint Sally,” was written in a New Orleans bar, Sylvain.
The album– recorded at Atomic Sound in Red Hook and mixed at Excello Recording in Greenpoint– is “inspired by barrooms and bedrooms,” Bradbury says. But it’s “Johnny’s” that really celebrates having one last boozy bastion when “the neighborhood’s changing” and “they’re slowly taking over.”
“When I first moved here it really still was a place of culture, not of commerce,” Bradbury says, remembering a time when the West Village was “a place for a more bohemian lifestyle that’s mostly been erased. But Johnny’s is still a quality dive bar, it’s one of the last dive bars in the neighborhood.” Among its charms, per Bradbury: cheap Buds, regular noon-4am hours, and a bartender who “can really hold it down / for a girl so slender.” Or so the lyrics describe a barkeep whose masterful multitasking impressed Bradbury on one particular night. “That’s what makes a bar like that so great sometimes,” he says. “The person behind the bar is wanting to make sure everyone is having a great time.”
Bradbury, who now lives in the East Village, says even that neighborhood’s nightlife has changed now that “you have a whole lot of people who move to New York to sit in their apartment and watch Netflix.” But the band still manages to find venues—like Village long-timer The Bitter End, Lower East Side standbys Pianos and Arlene’s Grocery, and the not-long-for-this-world Hank’s Saloon—to belt out its brand of blues-soaked, Rolling Stones-esque rock.
Bradbury sums it up by quoting a line from the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street”: “Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart, you just gotta poke around.”