Time Transients

A new millennium in Phoenix, where the motorist in the next lane is your auld acquaintance

"It doesn't matter," he says. "It doesn't fucking matter."


The ghost of Jack Swilling would bless the downtown area tonight. For about a square mile, every parking meter is covered with a hood, declaring it out of service. If you want to attend the party, you're going to have to park in a garage, and it's going to cost you. Prices range from $5 to $15. Somebody is going to make a tidy profit tonight -- though not as much as they'd have made if anybody actually showed up for the party.

It isn't really a party. It's more like a poorly attended state fair. Some streets, centering on Central and Third avenues, and running from Van Buren to Jefferson, have been sealed off, and are serving as the venue for live music. Trouble is, these streets aren't much busier right now than they would be at lunchtime on a weekday. Groups of people, mainly families and couples, are walking around, not talking to anyone outside their own group, and not paying much attention to the entertainment.

I try just talking to people in a sociable sort of way, and they think I'm weird for approaching them. Some party. I tell them I'm a reporter, and ask them about the party and their feelings about Phoenix. I get nothing that is worth typing.

A local TV station will describe the event as "amazing," and claim that 75,000 people showed up. Anyone who makes this claim is lying. More conservative estimates have put the figure at 15,000. I would not dispute that -- but it would cover all the people who attended, from five o'clock until midnight, arriving and leaving, because there absolutely could not have been more than a few thousand people there at any specific time.

I notice a line so long and intense that I wonder if someone is giving away free drugs. It turns out to be the line for the hot dog stand. The food is having a better night than the bands.

On the Phoenix City Hall Stage, Steppenwolf starts playing "Born to Be Wild." A couple of aging rockers dance and throw beer over each other. Few others seem to notice the band or the song. I would have expected even the kids who are present to do a double take and say, "Oh. So they do that song . . ." But there is no reaction. It's as if the song is coming from a jukebox in a bar rather than a live band.

Along the street, on the Festival Stage, the Peacemakers are doing better, which is still not great. That they are making any impact at all is entirely because of Roger Clyne. While Steppenwolf's members are performers who know their way around a stage, they have the air of a Vegas cabaret act, just playing by rote. Clyne, in contrast, is not only a performer of such brilliance that after only one song you understand why so many people make such a big deal out of him -- he also sings each song as though he means it. There are a few hundred people gathered around the stage. Down at the front, about a hundred are paying attention . . . but they're really paying attention, waving their hands in the air and screaming at every song. Everyone else just stands around and chats with their friends. There is a giant TV screen that shows Clyne in close-up, but occasionally focuses on the audience. A young woman sees herself on the screen and dances self-consciously. A fat guy with a baseball hat and goatee is jumping up and down with his eyes screwed shut, singing along ecstatically with Clyne. He doesn't realize he's on the screen, and the friends who're dancing alongside him laugh.

Clyne seems oblivious to the fact that this isn't a party and it isn't a show and most people don't care. He focuses on those who do care, and his performance can modestly be described as magnificent. Before playing his last song, he says, "Without being pretentious, I'd like to wish us all a less arrogant next hundred years." He closes with the Refreshments' hit "Here's to Life."

When the Gin Blossoms take the stage, they sound like a Gin Blossoms cover band. I decide I've had enough of Tempe for one night in downtown Phoenix, so I walk up to the Central Avenue Stage, where Waylon Jennings is playing.

Maybe it's because it's so far away from the other stages, and so requires a little bit of walking, but the people who've come up here really seem to want to hear the music. As Jennings sings, there is little conversation. The audience is rapt. I'm standing near the back of the throng, which means I'm on Monroe Street, looking north. I'm leaning against the barricade to my right, and I realize that (and I don't know whether this was a deliberate move on the part of the city) Newman's bar is right on the other side.

This is more than I can resist. When I enter Newman's, it's different than I've ever seen it. Well, the bar itself is the same. The last time I was here, my girlfriend was with me, and, as we sat at the bar, a guy unzipped himself and, in full view of everyone else, jacked himself off as he stared at her. No one seemed to be perturbed. The atmosphere tonight is as it always is, and if she were with me right now, the same thing might happen again.

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