Houston’s Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in the Bayou City, by John Nova Lomax

Houston’s Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in the Bayou City, by John Nova Lomax

John Nova Lomax‘s hero, the late, great Sig Byrd, wrote about Houston in a way that made the city feel downright intimate. Tiny, in fact. The city was smaller then, in the 1950s, but as he spent mornings downtown, afternoons in the then-nearer suburbs, and evenings in the bars, his man-on-the-street journaling shrunk the town to villagelike proportions. Just a bunch of salesmen, mechanics, delivery drivers, and mentally ill, unemployed addicts keeping cool with Jax beer — that’s what it seems we were back then. Sometimes I think Galveston might be now what Houston was like then.

Well, Houston has grown to a sickening, mind-boggling degree since the ’50s, but in his book Houston’s Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in the Bayou City, Lomax applies the Sig Byrd treatment to our hellishly hot, humid, and inhumanly large Houston of 2010, and the result is a view which renews your faith in our city’s livability.

Taking it in small chunks, viewing it as a city of neighborhoods even though no one else really does, he claims a new and deserved cultural look at the town. In its smallest bars, these dives, people who rebuke corporate chains and find comfort in the charm of a smaller, perhaps family-owned neighborhood bar are more likely to be individuals. After all, most of the characters with speaking roles in the book wouldn’t last more than a few beers in a Bakers Street Pub. They’d be suspect. Asked for cash or a credit card authorization first. Then the tightjeaned bitches and bros would make faces at these smelly bastards until they carried their asses back to the dive in which they belong.

And in these dives, Lomax finds them all — the port workers and machinists with rotten guts and life stories that make us the gloriously callous-handed anti-Dallas that we are.

In fact, speaking of Dallas, one of the finer points of Lomax’s book, other than pointing out a couple hundred local bars where beer is cold and cheap, is that he often rates the bars on their patrons’ collective degree of douchebaggery. He refers often to the content, quality, and placement of tattoos, and even notes if too many drinkers wear t-shirts with dragons on them.

Which is helpful, because I’d much rather spend an evening in the company of pimps, hustlers, whores, and deviants of any sort than to mix with the cologned, hairgelled douchebags from the suburbs of my youth (specifically, the FM1960 West/Champions area).

He inventories each jukebox, warning of doucherock, lest a reader trek out and plop down $1.75 for a Lone Star and then be forced to listen to Creed or Nickelback. Instead, in these dives you’ll find biker bars with Mötörhead playing, bars full of Mexican laborers drinking Bud Lite listening to ranchera music, and lower Westheimer’s amiable hipsters listening to carefully-curated jukeboxes of punk, hardcore, and Americana. Of these there’s an especially thoughtful analysis of why they/we/I drink “blue collar” beers such as Pabst and Lone Star while actual blue-collar rednecks and immigrant types view it as pisswater, opting for the more expensive but smoother Miller/Coors/Bud Lites which hipsters would find, perhaps, pretentious.

Don’t view this as a guide to slumming it, or as disaster tourism. This is a first-rate insider tour guide to a city that tourists do not visit. He rates each dive on a scale of 1 to 5, with little beer bottle icons. 1 beer bottle means the bar is safe, friendly, clean, and unintimidating. 5 beer bottles denotes a much rougher atmosphere, but perhaps a more fascinating experience, as well. It’s not a strict value-judgment sliding scale of bad-to-good.

Here’s an example from my part of town. The Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe is given a rating of 1 beer bottle, but it’s also given a deservedly glowing review. It’s a special place — a dive bar, for sure, but a place of a certain (slightly convoluted) historical significance where I’d feel comfortable taking my visiting cousins from Kentucky. There are some wonderful people at The Old Quarter.

A mile away is the Hard Times and Misery Saloon. Dogs live on the roof of this place. Other dogs wander in and out, seemingly using the bar’s two opposite doors as a short cut from 43rd Street to Avenue S. On one of my visits, a man sat next to me at the bar and said, “You’re a tourist ain’t you? You’re buying all my beers tonight.”

And while I entertained an inner dialogue about choosing my battles, and Robert Durst, and something about discretion and valor, the bartender approached. “Hey, you don’t have to buy him nothing if you don’t want to,” and I didn’t. So the bartender reached across me and hit the man in the head with a stick several times, telling him to leave as if he were a mule or a goat or a horsefly. He hit, poked, and prodded the man several times for each of the five or six steps it took him to reach the door. The Hard Times and Misery Saloon earned a rating of 5 beer bottles on Lomax’s scale. That bar is a living hell. And I mean that in the nicest way possible. There are no poets at the Hard Times, and those people do not have Jesus in their hearts.

But what finally, truly sets the book apart from any other guidebook is the conversations the author has with these broken spirits he finds in dive bars across Houston. Byrd didn’t invent it, and neither did Lomax, but his book certainly embodies my long-held theory that a conversation in a bar can be the great leveler. After all, it’s one thing to give a homeless guy a dollar. It’s another thing to buy him beer. And still another thing to drink that beer with the bum and listen to his life story. I’ll bet you a beer it’s a better story than we’ve got.

[John Nova Lomax is signing copies of his book 11/27/10 at 12PM at Cactus Music.]
(Ig Publishing/Gamble Guides -- 392 Clinton Ave, #1S, Brooklyn, NY. 11238; http://www.igpub.com/gamble.html; )
BUY ME: Amazon

Review by . Review posted Saturday, November 13th, 2010. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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One Response to “Houston’s Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in the Bayou City, by John Nova Lomax”

  1. SPACE CITY ROCK » Awesome News: Adam Newton Publishes If This Parking Lot Could Speak (in Book Form) on June 3rd, 2011 at 10:27 am

    […] First former SCR contributor Jef With One F self-published his pseudo-band memoir, The Bible Spelled Backwards Does Not Change the Fact That You Cannot Kill David Argquette, And Other Things I Learned in The Black Math Experiment — which is really freaking funny, not to mention astonishingly insightful when it comes to the way bands work in real life — and then former Houston Press Music Editor John Nova Lomax wrote the excellent-sounding Houston’s Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in the Bayou City. […]

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