“No matter how odd or unique you are, you can put this bar together just like you want it. And since you’re an individual, and you have a unique personality, your bar will reflect the things you like.”
Those two sentences provide the central conceit of How to Find Happiness Owning a Bar, a mail order guide Marty Eagle self-published in the mid-1990s. The video is a little rough around the edges—the abundance of mullets and mom jeans leaves little room for doubt as to when it was made—but it communicates quite a bit about how Eagle looked at life, and how to live it, before dying from bronchogenic lung cancer on February 1.
In addition to how-to’s ranging from handling paperwork, sanitation, and finding the right bartenders, Eagle formulates a more important message in the video. If you want to succeed in this business, he says, you have to pay attention to detail, deal with people directly and fairly, be reliable, and most importantly, be honest. “You need to do what you say you’re gonna do,” he says succinctly.
Scott Ward, a bartender at Marty’s for 14 and a half years, saw Eagle’s approach firsthand. “He was always a straight-up guy, and you respected him for it,” Ward told Weld in an interview. “He wasn’t always overly nice, but he was the fairest guy I’ve ever known. If you did something wrong, he’d tell you. He wouldn’t kiss your ass and just act like nothing happened. But he’d never stay angry at people.”
On some occasions, that meant taking matters into his own hands. When two very large men broke the house prohibition on more than one person entering the men’s bathroom at a time, Eagle made a stand. “It was so Marty,” Ward said, having served as Eagle’s reluctant backup that night.
“‘You’re either [having sex] or doing drugs, and you can’t do either of those things here,’” Ward remembers Eagle saying. “These huge guys, with a look of shame on their faces, apologized, and said that they were so sorry. He scared those big guys with his voice and with his authority. He wouldn’t back down from anybody. And we did not get killed,” Ward said, laughing.
Eagle’s tendency to micromanage and fearlessness when it came to his bar reveal a man who was deeply serious about having fun. “Opening a bar has been the best business experience of my life,” Eagle said at the conclusion of How to Find Happiness Owning a Bar. He parlayed his cachet as an honest club owner and patron of Birmingham music to usher others into a life he loved—a life he guarded fiercely.
In addition to being a barman and manager at Marty’s, for instance—as his video could tell you, Eagle entrusted his bartenders with a great deal of responsibility—Scott Ward is also the bandleader for Scott Ward and Big Mule. “He heard me on a Friday night and I was scared to death,” Ward said. “He was like, ‘No, man, you can do this,’ and I believed him. If he could sneak away, he’d see me anywhere in town. And there’s nowhere he’d go see someone where he wouldn’t slide a five or ten in the tip jar.”
Chad Fisher, a trombonist who had the privilege of leading the second-line parade from Eagle’s funeral to his beloved club last Saturday, couldn’t agree more. “It didn’t matter where we played, he was a supporter of the scene and a supporter of me personally, along with many, many others.” When Fisher first came to Birmingham in the early 2000s, Eagle was responsible for some of his earliest gigs.
“He never treated anybody unfairly,” Fisher said. “Never.” Clearly in awe of Eagle’s prowess in wrangling drunks and maintaining order in his bar, Fisher was most impressed with Eagle’s honesty and “merit-based” approach to running a club: “Marty never got a cut. You got the whole thing. … Offering me a place to play really helped hone my skills as a composer, a leader, and an arranger.”
Happily, there are hundreds of musicians with stories like Fisher and Ward. Ona Watson, a beloved club owner in his own right, owes much of his success to Eagle’s friendship and patronage.
“I met Marty years ago at a place called the Eagle’s Nest,” Watson told Weld, referring to Eagle’s old bar in Lakeview prior to his 1993 move to Southside. “We played there, and we were horrible. He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He supported me, and he gave me a chance. … He was like my big brother. He was my big brother.
“A lot of us would probably not be playing music without him, without his encouragement,” Watson continued. “Even as a bar owner…I didn’t know how to go about it, and he said, ‘Just go for it, you’ll be all right. Just like playing music, you’ll have good nights and bad nights.’ So I did it, and I’ve got sixteen, seventeen years as a bar owner. … He always encouraged me to be the best that I could be.”
To his great credit, Eagle was happy to induct his many friends into those mysteries, sharing with them the keys to success in a difficult business. Creating a safe, fun haven for nighthawks of all kinds—many of them industry workers themselves—requires little flash and much commitment to old-fashioned virtues of consistency, fairness, and honesty. And though he was never one to brag about it, Eagle was also, as Fisher, Ward, and Watson averred to a man, fundamentally generous and big-hearted as well.
There are currently well over 1000 signatures on an online petition to rename the little side-street where Marty’s is located “Marty’s Way”. It’s a testament to Eagle’s reputation for decency and patronage of Birmingham music that it took only a little over 48 hours to reach that mark. By the time this piece is in print, there could easily be hundreds more.
“He definitely had a hold of Birmingham,” Scott Ward said in his interview. “There’s lots of other places, but he loved Birmingham.”
Based on the groundswell of support behind Marty’s Way and the countless messages of appreciation for him, it’s clear that Birmingham loves Marty Eagle too.
The photo used in the featured image of this post is by Mark Gooch.