Franco's Wild Years

Sale of Mason Jar: The death of Phoenix rock?

Franco Gagliano, if you don't know the name, is one of the most storied club owners in the Valley. And his bar, the Mason Jar, one of its most storied clubs. The man built the place -- and its history -- from years of solid work and what some might claim to be "dubious" dealings. Regardless of what anybody says, Franco and the Jar are a huge part of Phoenix rock 'n' roll genealogy.

After nearly two decades as a Phoenix rock mainstay, Gagliano recently opted to sell the Jar to a pair of aspiring club owners.

I first met Gagliano when I was a teenager playing in my first real band. We were playing at a Tempe club called Merlin's -- or maybe it was still called the Star System, I don't recall. Franco was there scouting bands for his just-purchased Phoenix club, the Mason Jar Lounge. He handed me a business card and invited our band over for after-hours; you could have after-hours at places like the Jar then. His English wasn't the best and he wore the kind of cap that just covered the top of his head. His nails were manicured and he was wearing clogs.

All I knew was that I was a kid in a group, meeting girls and getting drunk. Life was great.

That was the early '80s, when bands like the Jetzons and Blue Shoes were kings. The only way to get gigs in Valley bars was to do four sets a night of mostly cover songs, and play four to five nights a week. We were from Tucson, where bands didn't do covers. Cover bands were derided there. Tucson and Phoenix had opposite music scenes; still do, really. We had maybe two 45-minute sets of our own songs, and that was it.

Soon after meeting Franco in Tempe that night, we did our first four-night stand at the Mason Jar. We played each of our sets twice. I think he paid us $1,100 for four nights. We set up more shows and relocated to Phoenix. With that kind of money, we didn't need day jobs -- didn't have 'em anyway.

Since then, I must have played 500 gigs in Franco's club.

Over that time, Franco has been sorta fatherlike. He once gave me a plane ticket home when I was stranded in New York City. He didn't bat an eye when handing over 400 bucks to help me move into a new place. Once, when I got married, he lent my wife and me 300 bucks. But my bands have all done well for him. He understood.

The Mason Jar has been resilient, always outlasting lean times. It survived the horrible cover bands, art-damage punk, bad-hair strip metal, grunge, synth-pop, hip-hop.

Slag the Mason Jar all you want, and Lord knows you won't be the first, but the Mason Jar has survived all other rock 'n' roll clubs in the state and probably the region.

The gritty, briglike club, with its myriad gold records and framed, signed photos, inhabited by strippers and poseurs, rock fans and bands passing out fliers mercilessly for upcoming shows, has always had a place. The Jar has given Phoenix a great rock 'n' roll venue in the tradition of Max's Kansas City, the Troubadour or CBGB.

Somewhat surprisingly, Franco and the Mason Jar are internationally renowned. I have been as far away as Boston and somebody would say, "Hey, you're from Phoenix? Is the Jar still around?" I've heard others return from Europe with similar tales. A publicist, an agent or a band will ring up from all corners and ask, "Is the Jar still there?"

I have seen a shitload of legendary shows at the Jar. The underappreciated on tour always had a home at the Jar. I saw Johnny Thunders once, so ripped he could barely prop himself up in front of the mike stand. The White Animals from Tennessee were brilliant. No Doubt at that small venue seemed giant. The Gin Blossoms did their first-ever live show at the Mason Jar around Christmas '87. I saw other great shows: Lords of the New Church, Mary Lou Lord, Buzzcocks, Redd Kross, Candy, Algebra Ranch and on and on.

I've seen the club in peak years where you couldn't move within four people of the bar, and other nights that had me wondering how the place avoided bankruptcy.

I once returned to the Jar after living elsewhere for four years, and nothing had changed. Some people would say there's something wrong with that. But the Mason Jar has remained a true constant.

And all told, Franco has, for the most part, been a fair man. Not easily understood, and an irritant at times, but fair. For those bands labeling Franco a thief, consider this: His payout theory was always the most proven and correct one, the one used in cities like Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles. If bands draw a crowd, bands make money. Simple. You just had to trust him on this.

Yet Franco never inspired much trust. I think most people were immediately suspicious of the man. With his Sicilian demeanor and misleading gold chains, he belied a disarming directness.

I've worked for him at the Jar on and off. He often hired musicians who were broke. I did almost everything. I manned the door, watched the parking lot and neighboring streets, took touring bands their dinner, did production, all that. And it was misery. Bar work in general is misery. Long, stupid hours, low wages, etc.

I have seen road managers from touring bands come after Franco with baseball bats. I've seen others walk away with handfuls of cash and facefuls of smiles. I have seen Franco go home with some of the best-looking women in Phoenix.

I've been involved in massive brawls in the club's parking lot. Once, during a brief stint working there in the late '80s, I had booked Timothy Leary for a spoken-word performance.

Forgetting that I was supposed to pick him up from Sky Harbor and deliver him to his hotel, I left Leary waiting around at the airport for a few unhappy hours. He arrived at the club later via cab. And he was no gentle ex-hippie, either.

I booked Guns n' Roses just after their debut album started to swell on the charts. The band, of course, didn't show up. I had to tell hundreds of drunken, ready-to-fight hard-rock kids that their fave new metal heroes were a no-show. Many of the pissed-off kids took it out on the club. Some smashed doors, others pissed on sides of the building, many smashed bottles in the parking lot.

Inside the Jar, I've seen coke, guns, drunks, knives, junkies, strippers, whores, crack, morons, death-metal and desperation. I have also seen guts, occasional glory and some of the greatest rock 'n' roll imaginable. And a dire show of fading metal heroes at the bottom of a downside can be 10 times more entertaining than some sprightly radio-friendly hacks.

Franco has learned how to survive against tremendous odds. He's first-generation from Sicily, so his English still is unwieldy. Yet he managed to keep open what history has taught us won't stay open for long: a heady rock 'n' roll bar in the conservative climate of Phoenix. His conservative work ethic has yielded him a piece of the American dream. Perhaps now he's retiring.

Franco wouldn't talk to me for this column. He said that every time he reads about himself in New Times,he's back on the therapist couch. The new owners didn't call back, either. All I wanted to know was what is going to happen to the Jar. At this point, it still seems possible that Franco may have a hand in its operations as a consultant.

I dunno, who can imagine a Mason Jar without Franco? A Franco without the Mason Jar? Perhaps it is time to kiss the last rocker goodbye. Seventy-five-cent kamikazes, indeed.

Contact Brian Smith at his online address: brian.smith@newtimes.com

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