Debbie Does Tempe

Arizona Roadhouse gig attempts to rescue Debbie Gibson from the pit of pop ridicule

The theme of the night at Arizona Roadhouse was "In Love with Debbie Gibson." In set-list currency, that translated into each of the night's four acts scraping together one cover song by the '80s teen sensation. Near the end of the set by power-pop up-and-comers Crashbar, lead singer Adrian Smith tried to get the crowd into the proper mood.

"Who actually owned a copy of the Out of the Blue album?" Smith asked. After a short pause, two girls in the back grudgingly lifted their hands. The embarrassment level was akin to when your eighth-grade health teacher asked the class if any of you had dabbled in masturbation.

But that's to be expected. After all, Debbie "Call Me Deborah" Gibson is the epitome of that most mortifying pop species: the guilty pleasure. You know, the stuff that you play when no one's around, the artist that you don't defend when your friends start slamming her, the pop orgasm that makes you hate yourself the next morning.

Out of the Blue had four top-five hits and sold tons of copies in its day, so somebody must have it in their collection, but people have a funny way of letting hindsight alter their recollections. It's been said that millions claimed to be at the 55,000-capacity Polo Grounds when Bobby Thomson hit his pennant-winning shot in 1951; and, that a vast majority of Americans later claimed to have voted for George McGovern in Richard Nixon's landslide election win of 1972.

But for Andrew Lockwood, diminutive leader of the band Danny, it was time to come clean about his electric youth as a Debbie devotee. His epiphany came at a recent Mustang Sally's show where Danny shared the bill with Crashbar, and Crashbar drummer Sean Gens showed up in a Gibson tee-shirt. It gave Lockwood the idea of turning the already-booked Arizona Roadhouse gig into a night of Debbiemania.

"I really liked her cotton-candy pop songs, 'Out of the Blue,' 'Only in My Dreams,' and I'm kind of a ballad guy to a certain extent, so I really liked 'Lost in Your Eyes,'" he says. "When these songs were hits I was in high school and it wasn't necessarily cool to talk to your friends about digging Debbie Gibson. Looking back on it now, I think on her first two records there's a real solid handful of seven or eight songs that are really catchy."

On a night loaded with live music options--the Edge's marathon band contest in Hayden Square, The Negro Problem invading Hollywood Alley, Sleepwalker playing one of its ultra-rare gigs at Long Wong's, and Joshua Redman blowing into Scottsdale Center for the Arts--the Debbie tribute show was a certified dark horse, the oddball that you wind up rooting for. The show's concept also made it something of a trojan horse.

For instance, you wouldn't ordinarily find girl punk trio Breakfast of Champions at this amiable brew pub on a Saturday night, yet there they were, with bassist Sioux Milgrove promising, "We're trying to accommodate and not be too abrasive."

With unison chants like "Who the fuck do you think you are?" "Fuck off," and "I wanna get fucked by you," and a raw, four-to-the-bar sex beat, they were most certainly abrasive, but in a welcome, rock 'n' roll sort of way. When they tackled Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" with atonal glee, it revealed itself as the S&M threat it was always meant to be. Even their Gibson cover, a ramshackle dismembering of the sweet confection "Shake Your Love," took on previously unimagined bondage implications.

If Breakfast of Champions came on like party crashers, the same could be said for karaoke guerrilla Vic Masters, who hit the stage dressed in a blinding crimson suit and wickedly aped Otis Redding's Monterey Pop stage routine, by asking the Tempe contingent, "This is the love crowd, right?" Masters--a defiant agnostic where Deborah's concerned--acknowledged the night's theme in his own contrary way by putting together an inspired musical rant which took from Public Enemy ("Debbie Gibson was a heroine to some, but she never meant shit to me"), and a score of R&B classics.

Crashbar probably delivered the night's most solidly musical set, with harmony-rich hookfests like "She's Cool, Yeah" and "Personality Pills" showing that Smith continues to deliver on the promise of his work in Autumn Teen Sound. Crashbar also got to cover Gibson's best song, "Out of the Blue," and their sincere recasting of the song made it sound a bit like a lost Replacements gem, if that sounds possible.

Smith confesses to having a Gibson crush in his schoolboy days. "I thought that it was really cool that she was writing her own stuff," he says. "'Out of the Blue' is a great pop song. It actually came really naturally to us. I always thought, if I ever saw Debbie Gibson, I'd probably throw rose petals at her feet. I'll probably never get the opportunity to do so, so this is probably the closest I'll ever come."

Danny brought the night to a close with a melody friendly set that indulged Lockwood's "weakness for saccharine" by tackling the sweeping Debbie ballad, "Lost In Your Eyes" (used to best effect in Todd Solondz' film Welcome to the Dollhouse). Lockwood's rendering (piano and all) was appropriately dreamy and romantic, skirting the temptation to go for knowing irony, and simply accepting the song for the naive tearjerker that it is.

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