Bad Vibrations

A night of chips and dips at the Tempe Block Party, a dirge for old Mill Avenue

My original New Year's Eve plan was to be in Redondo Beach, California, to see a rare solo performance by Beach Boy legend Brian Wilson. In my naiveté, I thought that ringing in the new millennium with a concert by a man whose music has been a symbol of all that is hopeful, gentle and sweetly melancholy would be the perfect antidote to a torrent of apocalyptic hysteria.

But before I could make a break for the state line, my bosses here at New Timessuggested that if I wanted to, um, continue to receive a paycheck, it would be a good idea if I ventured into downtown Tempe to cover the city's much-hyped celebration. Being the dutiful employee that I am, I scrapped my plans and left late Friday afternoon for the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl Block Party armed with a media credential and a feeling of dread, the kind that I get whenever my senses are bombarded with images deifying a brand of corn chips.

I'm quite willing to allow for the possibility that human suffering can be eradicated if people would just ingest copious amounts of zesty Tostitos chips and salsa. It's just that I've always found it disturbing that Tempe's power brokers decided to sell their souls -- and the city's image -- to the folks at Frito-Lay.

Sweet and loathsome: Sugar Ray's Mark McGrath whips the crowd into a pallid indifference.
Sweet and loathsome: Sugar Ray's Mark McGrath whips the crowd into a pallid indifference.
"What's your favorite brand of chips, baby?" Ecstatic Block Party revelers enjoying the midnight celebration.
Troy Aossey
"What's your favorite brand of chips, baby?" Ecstatic Block Party revelers enjoying the midnight celebration.

The deal has paid off handsomely. No less a cultural authority than USA Today ranked Tempe as one of the top eight places in the nation to celebrate this epochal New Year's Eve. Despite the seal of approval from McPaper, it's more than a little insulting to watch the good name of this once quiet college town pimped out to the same geniuses who brought us chili-cheese Fritos. I can't be the only one who finds it puerile that the symbolic marking of the passage of time and history has been reduced to the act of dipping a chip. This ridiculous ceremony is apparently a conceit to the same demographic that's entertained by Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?.

Nevertheless, I crossed the inflatable threshold on Seventh Street with all that sequestered firmly in the back of my brain. I was here to have fun, to enjoy the festivities and report on all the glitz and glamour. After all, how bad could it be?

I started northbound up Mill Avenue, excuse me, Millennium Avenue, to catch all the musical entertainment that Block Party organizers had deigned to offer the hand-stamped masses.

Making the rounds of the country, alternative and Hispanic music stages, I found myself momentarily drawn to the classic rock stage -- although "classic rock" was a misnomer in this case. Imagine the sounds of REO Speedwagon and Foreigner filtered back through a postalternative prism, complete with all the stammering and squelching that made second- and third-generation grunge so unlistenable. Most of these bands would be spending the average Friday wanking in front of a few disinterested patrons at a Famous Sam's. But on this night they had the good fortune to wank unmercifully in front of a few thousand disinterested passers-by.

For music fans, the Tempe event's artistic depth was equivalent to that of a kiddy pool. But judging by the abysmal turnout for the competing downtown Phoenix bash, hiring a bunch of costly, big-name acts is hardly the secret. It seems that the Block Party organizers know the whims of the masses better: "Build it, no matter how crappy it is, and they will come."

As someone who's always been fascinated with the "cover band" phenomenon -- a movement that seems to be growing in strength and popularity in the Valley -- I was at turns revolted and intrigued by the likes of the Chadwicks and Shirley's Temple. But watching a group of Martini Ranch refugees shriek through Alanis Morissette covers without a trace of irony was simply more than I could bear.

Crowd-watching proved to be the most rewarding endeavor. The Block Party patrons were a solid cross section of out-of-towners, kids and typical New Year's revelers. I began to wonder how the event was playing in their eyes as a representation of Tempe. As a habitué, I was less bothered, or at least surprised, than some patrons by the ominous presence of mounted police and bike cops wielding mace and pepper spray, or the oppressive spotlights that have become a common sight on Mill. Both are weekly fixtures, part of police efforts to keep the throngs of (predominantly minority) youth form congealing. This night was no different. It was obvious that even with a reported quarter of a million people to watch, authorities were keeping the closest tabs on people with backward baseball caps, baggy jeans or dark complexions.

While shopping at Zia Record Exchange earlier in the day, I had managed to hear Billy Idol's two-song sound check and, frankly, that was more than enough to satisfy my Idol jones well into the next millennium. However, the aging bleached blond proved that he wasn't quite the self-serious has-been I'd imagined, poking fun at himself as he came onstage behind a walker, which he quickly proceeded to dump, launching into a solid, if predictable, runthrough of his greatest hits. Thankfully, Idol elected not to destroy what remaining goodwill I had left toward him by eviscerating any songs from his Generation X days.

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