Power Failure

State liquor board's relentless crusade takes juice out of Electric Ballroom

Fairness and legality. They are two separate concepts. Though they stop to chat from time to time, they don't always hang out together.

Consider an example: If a cop picks you out of a bunch of speeding cars and nails you for driving 37 in a 35 mph zone, his actions may be legally defensible, but they're hardly fair. Now, if that same cop proceeds to follow you around for hours, repeatedly nailing you every time you creep one mile an hour over the limit, you'd have to think the cop is letting his compulsions get the better of him.

The same might be said of Howard Adams. The director of the state liquor board has devoted the better part of the last year and a half to shutting down the Electric Ballroom. On October 2, his board revoked the Tempe club's liquor license for 24 days and fined it $9,250. Adams, who did not return Soundcheck's phone calls, sought a much stiffer penalty. Considering that the club needs an estimated $40,000 to pay its monthly bills, and that the lost liquor license not only means huge loss of revenue but also the relocation of some potentially lucrative shows, it's hard to imagine how much more the club could be crippled and still have a pulse.

The Ballroom's Jim Torgeson spent last week waiting for Adams to set up a meeting with him, in the hope that they could negotiate a settlement to their differences. "I just want to survive," Torgeson says. "I just want the Electric Ballroom to live."

The roots of this story have been well-documented: Former manager David Seven was accused of sexually assaulting an off-duty female employee in May 1996. Though Seven was never charged with a crime, Adams pushed forward a liquor-license revocation, which Torgeson appealed, and which remained unresolved until October 2.

Torgeson probably made a mistake when he stood by Seven. Torgeson should have recognized sooner than he did that, even though no charge was filed, the evidence cast his club in a bad light. But this was an act of misguided loyalty, not wanton disregard for safety. Didn't NBC continue to let Marv Albert broadcast until he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault? The bigger problem is that due process doesn't really apply to the liquor board. It can use a mere accusation as a license to dismantle a venue that's a key component of the Valley music scene, with little explanation required.

Now that Seven has been gone for six months, Adams continues to insist that the Electric Ballroom is an unsafe venue. To support his flimsy case, he's trotted out some pretty dubious material. One example is the infamous Onyx case from January 1996, when two girls were brought onstage and required to endure some hip pumping by the rappers. If this was grounds to shut down a club, The Artist Formerly Known to Squirt Purple Cum Out of His Guitar would have caused a thousand venues to close down by now.

Adams' other contention is that the Ballroom is unsafe because minors are allowed in and not enough is done to prevent them from drinking. This point he seems to have pulled out of his posterior. The Ballroom's wristband policy is generally effective, and Torgeson even concedes, "We don't have an ASU crowd, 'cause we take bad IDs." At every club, there will inevitably be some underage people who get away with drinking, but the Ballroom hardly is a rampant offender.

The worst part of the whole story is that the Valley is on the verge of losing a live mainstay for midsize national shows, and it's hard to figure out whose interests are being served. When the Nile Theater closed in August, the Ballroom absorbed many of its shows. Now, with the Ballroom hanging by a thread, it's hard to think of another place that can consistently handle all-ages shows of that size.

Sure, Adams is within his legal right to go after the Ballroom. Even with Seven out of the picture, Adams can take--and has taken--the position that Torgeson failed to comply with Arizona law by not protecting his customers. But laws can be twisted to suit relentless crusades. Adams may know the law, but he apparently doesn't understand fairness.

Gloomy Tuesday: The yearlong recovery of legendary Tucson singer-songwriter-guitarist Rainer Ptacek from brain cancer took an unexpected and terrible turn September 30, when he suffered what is being described as a "serious seizure." Tests revealed that his cancer, which was thought to have disappeared, had recurred. Ptacek has been released from University Medical Center in Tucson and is currently in a hospice home-care program.

Ptacek, who only two months ago celebrated the release of a brilliant tribute album on Atlantic Records (organized by Howe Gelb and Robert Plant), had been playing more frequently lately, as his condition seemed to continually improve. Jonathan Holden, a family friend and sometime Ptacek booking agent, says Ptacek played a particularly powerful show in Tucson September 12, and had more shows booked when the seizure occurred. When I spoke to Ptacek in July, he enthusiastically looked forward to playing again in Phoenix, where a benefit show was held for him last year at the Rhythm Room.

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