Moonlight Graham's owner Bart Silberman makes no bones about why he opened up his retro-Americana store Moonlight Graham in Old Towne Orange. "I basically wanted to create a treehouse, or a clubhouse, for guys," said the bespectacled, 40-something. "The theory behind it is guys like music, guys like cars, guys like girls and guys like sports," he says. "The guy consumer is so neglected, we wanted to give them a space where they could just hang out."
Like other specialty stores for men, Moonlight Graham carries designer baseball gear, vintage-inspired shirts and up to $300 jeans. Unlike other men's specialty stores, Moonlight Graham is housed in what used to be a 1923 Ford dealership, in the middle of Old Towne Orange. There's a vintage Ascot stock racecar on the sales floor, and there are batting cages in the backroom.
But once a month, in this shrine to the likes of guys, bros and dudes, a lady takes charge. Not just any lady, she's punk goddess Exene Cervenka, lead singer/songwriter of X, the Knitters and the Original Sinners. Here Exene hosts the Moonlight Graham Hootenanny, where she invites artists of similar rockabilly/punk rock persuasions to play at the store.
How that happened is a lark. "Music has always been a big part of my life," Silberman explained. "That's basically my family: Baseball is my thing, and music is always what's driven me." The opportunity to open a store that combined all of these loves is a testament to not just Silberman's business savvy, but serendipity as well.
The genial Silberman is a stocky 5'10," and he is a walking advert for his wares. He's wearing a pair of vintage Levis ("made exactly the same way it was done in 1955") and a plaid shirt that looks like something you would steal from your boyfriend to sleep in, but probably costs more than your lunch allowance for the month. The look is very touseled chic, which is nothing less than what you'd expect from a man who's been in the men's clothing business forever. In various phases of Silberman's career, he has designed tour merchandise for the Rolling Stones and Pearl Jam, created clothing for Disney, managed the Hawaii surfwear brand Reyn Spooner and, between 2001 and 2006, owned retail locations of Moonlight Graham in New York, Chicago and L.A.
But before all that, Silberman grew up in Irvine in the '80s, a time when Orange County was birthing punk rock into the world via bands like Middle Class and TSOL. As a 14 year old, Silberman heard X's Under The Big Black Sun. "It turned music from something that I liked into something that I loved," he said.
So soon after Silberman opened the present incarnation of Moonlight Graham in January 2011, he and staffer Dave Nielsen got to talking about favorite music. "If you could see any band in the world, who would it be?" Nielsen, a former Virgin megastore manager, asked. "That would be X," Silberman declared. To which Nielsen said, "I heard Exene lives in Orange now, we should look her up!"
The pair looked up X's website and whimsically sent an email through the contact field, never expecting anything to come of it. The message said, "We're fans, and we have a store in Orange. If you want to do a book signing or a show, maybe we should talk." An hour later, there was a reply from Exene Cervenka. "What do you have in mind?" She asked.
The timing of that fateful email was crucial. At that point, Cervenka had moved from Los Angeles to Missouri, then returned to settle in Orange County. She'd been a resident of the City of Orange for two years (yes, she had to leave Los Angeles) and wanted to meet like-minded people. "I just got involved because I felt like we needed to get some [music, art and culture] to Orange," she says. "I thought it would be great if I didn't have to drive to McCabe's to watch a band." Cervenka also had something to promote: her solo album, The Excitement of Maybe, was scheduled for release April 2011. After she visited the store, she told Silberman, "Let's just do a show and see what happens."
Of course, Moonlight Graham had no trouble selling out Cervenka's record release show. The Moonlight Graham folks gave Cervenka carte blanche to do anything she wanted, one night a month. That led to another show a month later ("Exene told us John Doe was coming to play and I almost passed out," Silberman said. "No one knew he was going to play, so when he came out, there was an audible gasp from the crowd," he added.), and 10 more shows hosted and curated by Exene within Moonlight Graham's 16-month existence.
Unlike Anaheim, or Costa Mesa, or Fullerton, the city of Orange isn't known for it's vibrant music scene. So the out-of-the-way, homey appeal of Moonlight Graham's Hootenanny lies in the fact that fans can interact with their idols. "You're just 15 feet away from Exene or John Doe, and when they're not performing onstage, they're watching the other performers, same as you are [in the same space]," Silberman says. "It's very different from the House of Blues, which we love--we watch X there everytime they play, but it's very special for that fan base."
Before we forget, there's also the newly minted Moonlight Graham Records. Again, serendipity, happenstance, good timing--whatever you'd want to call it--led to its creation. Inspired, of course, by Exene Cervenka. A few months after the first Hootenanny, Cervenka told Silberman she was tired of dealing with record labels, and since he had a store and distribution, maybe he would be interested in "doing something" with the Auntie Christ record that she made in the late 1990s.
"That didn't work out, but it did get the wheels turning for putting up a record label," Silberman said. He and his investors started talking dollars and cents. "At the same time, we took over X's website and merchandise, so that got us [into the mindset and culture] in a bigger way. We were carrying all their releases so we could see what ther sales were like and that gave us a good level of confidence." Moonlight Graham decided to do it "because if nothing else, we thought, we'd have released a John Doe and Exene Cervenka album!" Silberman said.
John Doe and Exene Cervenka Singing and Playing Live has eight songs--not quite an album, but longer than an EP. Made up of songs written by Doe and Cervenka, it was originally made for fans but never got formally released. Moonlight Graham Records released it in April. Their next release--the debut of TSOL singer Jack Grisham's new pop-rock project the Manic Low--will be out next month. "It's very the Jam and the Kinks--Grisham's musical influences from the 1960s," Silberman says. Like the Cervenka deal, Grisham's new record fell onto Moonlight Graham's lap after Silberman and company hosted Grisham's book signing of American Demon.
Moonlight Graham records is hoping to eventually re-release out of print albums by Doe and Cervenka, and maybe even X. They're also discovering other artists via Cervenka--in July, a sister duo--ages 12 and 16--from Oklahoma called Skating Polly will be their third release. (Cervenka says the Skating Pollies are "very original and very smart. I get sick of the boy's club in music.")
"All of this is 100 percent inspired by Exene," Silberman says. "None of this happens without her." For Cervenka? It's par for the course. "It's just what I like to do in life. I steer people away from the manufactured culture of celerity and back to the art and culture that matters. The thing about punk that Moonlight Graham people are so enamored of is that there is a sense of freedom in that world that has been lost. If we don't individually start thinking as individuals, we're just going to be washed away."
And the man who built the field of dreams? Every once in a while, Silberman says, his phone rings and the caller id will say John Doe, or Exene Cervenka, or Jack Grisham. "I'll turn to my wife and ask her, 'how stupid is this?' because I honestly can't believe it's happening," he says.
"Growing up in this scene and working with people I grew up listening to--and never stopped listening to--I have to pinch myself."
Moonlight Graham | 401 West Chapman Avenue, Orange, CA 92866 | (714) 639-0084