Razing the Bar

The Valley loses another rock stronghold with the shutdown of Tempe's Cannery Row

How do you write a eulogy for a building?

It's a question that's been asked fairly often in recent months, as we've been forced to mourn the loss of myriad local landmarks and nightspots here in the Valley.

One of my long-held suspicions is that most journalists relish the opportunity to pen obituaries. They allow for the use of florid language and grand, sweeping conclusions that writing about the living usually doesn't. But having done this more than once, I'm left with the unsettling feeling that each time is merely a warm-up, a disheartening rehearsal for the next teary tribute.

Trash rockers the Sonic Thrills hanging out on the precarious Cannery Row stage.
Paolo Vescia
Trash rockers the Sonic Thrills hanging out on the precarious Cannery Row stage.
The Holmes Brothers headline the Rhythm Room's 10th anniversary show.
The Holmes Brothers headline the Rhythm Room's 10th anniversary show.

Still, if ever there was a club that deserves a bit of recognition -- if only posthumously -- it's Tempe's Cannery Row, which closes its doors for good this Friday.

Truth is, most folks never actually found the place. Tucked away among the labyrinth of stores and houses near Seventh Street and Forest, it's only a few hundred yards from the heart of Mill Avenue, but in spirit, it couldn't be further removed. The Cannery -- a sort of proletarian social club -- has always occupied its own private space, and for those lucky enough to discover its unique charms, it has served as a welcome oasis from the encroaching forces of development and "progress" -- the kind that have rendered Mill almost unrecognizable from a decade ago.

Many would suggest that it's easy to get carried away when offering a memoriam for a favorite old tavern. So much of the romance and aura of rock 'n' roll is wrapped up in the warm, smoky embrace of a barroom, you forget that at its essence it's just four walls with a roof overhead.

But that's the cynic's viewpoint. As anyone even partly steeped in the culture of drinking can attest, a tiny, dingy bar can be loaded with as much memory and meaning as the most opulent and hallowed cathedral. For me, the Cannery was the last place I fell in love with a woman, and the first place I went when it all fell apart. For the regulars who congregated there it was a home away from home; for the musicians who played, its stage was an unadorned haven. And for its owner Greg Smutnak, the whole affair was a dream come true.

A big blond bear of a man, Smutnak is an anomaly -- a genuine, altruistic soul in a business where most possess all the honesty and charm of a snake oil salesman. When Smutnak purchased this ailing frat bar seven years ago, he wanted to turn it into the kind of place he'd long envisioned -- a neighborhood hangout where he addressed customers by name and served beer cold and in a can.

"Yeah, I'm the one that brought back the canned Schlitz and Pabst," he jokes, making light of the bar's reputation as a welcome center for connoisseurs of cheap domestic brews.

Shooting the breeze in front of his club, the usually boisterous Smutnak is obviously downcast by the approaching demise of the Cannery. He admits that he wasn't forced out -- as so many others have been -- but simply saw the writing on the wall. With the wave of escalating rents and corporate culture gaining a permanent foothold in the ASU corridor, Smutnak knows the days of independently owned, marginally profitable beer dens are coming to an end. So he's packing up his neon sign and moving down to Tucson where he plans on launching a new Cannery Row.

"Right now, Tucson's like Tempe was when I first moved here 22 years ago. I'd like to try making a go of it down there," he says. "The rent's ridiculously cheaper. I think the timing is right 'cause UofA is growing and the city is in general, but it's not out of hand yet. And even if it grows, it seems like the people in power -- the city, or whoever -- I don't think they'll let it get the way Tempe has.

"It was hard for a long time," he continues, reflecting on the close of the bar, "making it happen here. I mean, we're really close to Mill, but we might as well be 50 miles away. It ended up working in the end, though. And we had a pretty good run. I'm disappointed we couldn't keep it going. But that's the way things are going around here for people like me."

As the Cannery Row marks its final week with a series of shows, culminating in a closing night blowout this Friday, it's hard not to think back on the times when the place served as the perfect antidote to virulently rigid drinking establishments that have popped up in Tempe since the mid-'90s. For the past few years, in particular, the Cannery has been vital to the local music scene, welcoming a small army of punk bands -- too-wild-for-the-mainstream outfits like the Bulemics, Weaklings and others -- to the Valley, letting them drink up and then hang down over the club's notorious second-story stage.

But my most vivid memory of the Cannery occurred during the maelstrom of manufactured excitement that accompanied the millennial New Year's celebration. In the midst of all the breathless hype and shimmery artifice of Mill Avenue's official Fiesta Bowl party -- sponsored and ruled by the iron fist of a corn chip maker -- a few dozen disenfranchised locals gathered at the only place they could go, as an obliging Smutnak played host, filling our hands with streamers and booze, and spinning Beach Boys records into the wee hours of the morning.

For the folks who've been around town long enough, the passing of another local treasure is cause for little more than a shrug of the shoulders. At this point, the majority are desensitized, resigned to the fact that this is the way it's going to be. And like Smutnak, most are anticipating an eventual escape.

Just down the street from the Cannery, the corpse of the late, lamented Six East lies silent, buried beneath a few hundred thousand tons of bricks and mortar, while the shadow of the wrecking ball creeps toward the area's last and most hallowed watering hole, Long Wong's. And reluctantly, we await the day until there's nothing but a sea of shining chain bars, maybe even a bright new Bennigan's, to take their place.

And, ultimately, maybe that's okay. Perhaps it's the natural order of things, an unavoidable by-product of progress and the passage of time. Someday, in the not too distant future, there won't be a Fenway Park or a Wrigley Field, either. But drinking, like America's other pastime, will continue whether or not the old shrines exist.

But for the time being, Tempe's going to feel a little more empty without Greg Smutnak's cold cans and the warmth of Cannery Row.

Cannery Row's closing celebration featuring the Del'Vamps, Thee Oh-Nos and the Bada-Bings is scheduled for Friday, August 31. Showtime is 9 p.m.

Say It's Yer Birthday: In happier club news, a pair of local venues are celebrating birthdays this week. The Valley's venerable roots and blues joint, the Rhythm Room, marks its 10-year anniversary with a bash this Sunday, September 2. The all-day celebration features headliners and Alligator recording artists the Holmes Brothers, as well as a cast of local talents ranging from Big Pete Pearson and Sistah Blue to Hans Olson and Chico Chism. Doors open at 2 p.m. and music goes from 3 p.m. until close.

On Friday, August 31, Tempe's Lucky Dragon Restaurant passes a one-year anniversary at its new location at the intersection of McClintock and Southern. The art/performance space/Asian eatery will mark the occasion with sets from the Hammertoes and the Sweet Bleeders. The Dragon will also host an after-hours party featuring Morse Code, Dehga, and the Drunken Immortals. Showtime is 9 p.m.

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