Smoke Rings

Long Wong's is still a smoky dive, but the smoke is on the patio

My people smoke cigarettes, but they're the brand of people I want to be around. More often than not, they're not at all self-serious. They're passionate about their lives, their environment, their friends, their recreation. In other words, smokers make great bar patrons.

Now, I don't smoke. I never have. That's not quite true. When I was 13 years old, I stole a pack of Viceroy cigarettes from a friend of my mother's. I was at an impressionable stage where I wanted to look good at the bus stop for the high school girls. Turns out I looked better when I wasn't choking on the tar and ammonia and reacting to the burn in the back of my throat and the annoying itch in my lungs.

These days, I live my life partially in bars, witnessing the performances of the Valley's rock 'n' roll Renaissance men and women and soaking in the atmosphere of a roadhouse culture. These are my people, and of course, a healthy portion of them smoke cigarettes.

Some of my favorite people, in this regard, congregate at Long Wong's, that unpretentious survivor down the street from Chili's and Ruby Tuesday on Mill Avenue in Tempe. Wong's is an archetype: dark, small, a little dingy, but intimate. Pacifico, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Budweiser labels plaster the walls. The faithful scribble sentiments in black marker. Trivial Pursuit cards lined along the bar and embedded in glass engage the stool jockeys. The music is always rugged, either rock, country, or a mixture of both. The place appears so cigarette-friendly, the Trophy Husbands, one of the place's semi-regular performers, leaves behind a band logo that mirrors a pack of Marlboro Reds.

"That sticker is a joke," says David Insley of the Husbands, a band that honors the outlaw country style of Waylon Jennings. "The kind of music we play has always been associated with smoky dive bars. Historically, that's the breeding ground for honky-tonk music."

It's all part of the celebration. Thanks, however, to a voter-mandated change of routine last year, the air inside the scumbag paradise of Long Wong's may be clearer, but the atmosphere is irrevocably altered. In May 2002, the majority of Tempe voters chose to ban smoking from all public places, including bars and restaurants. Business owners and managers cried foul, and if you bring up the subject still, they'll bitch. It'll kill business, they say. Me personally, I don't buy it; in a bad economy with less beer money to toss around, that's an impossible variable to monitor, really. Last week at Wong's, on successive humid, nasty nights, the crowd was vibrant. People made the trip, and the shows -- I Can Lick Any Son of a Bitch in the House, and Kevin Daly and the Squealers last Tuesday, and Gloritone on Wednesday -- were electric. The house assuredly made a good buck.

But what the ban has affected is the way a crowd swells and shrinks during a show.

"It happens on a very cyclical basis, where a third of the way through the show you'll see a vast difference in your crowd size," says Adam Jacobson, singer and bassist for faux-70s metal band Steppchild and also a member of the Squealers. "And usually, right around the end of the show, they'll basically be gone, either for their last cigarette break or to just go home."

"We make a lot of jokes about smoking during our set, that's for sure," remarks Insley -- Daly is his partner in the Husbands. "It easily makes for some amusing banter."

My heart last week went out to the Wong's smokers as I watched them abandon the performances after a few songs, wrap around toward the front patio, go outside into that icky soup of a lingering monsoon and sit under an ineffective mist machine -- shit's gone before it reaches them -- and light up, doing their best to make it all look effortlessly hip. Then I watched as they reentered the bar, worked their hardest to reacclimate to the music and repeat the trek during the intermission. Two young women especially made a Hollywood production of the journey, fixing their sexy outfits, gathering their purses, asking the bartender to save their stools, trotting elegantly to the patio, and puffing on their cigarettes as if this was a matinee tea party.

"If you're going to be a bar person, there's going to be smokers. I've always just assumed that's part of it," Jacobson says. "When you're dealing with a little place like Long Wong's, something like a smoking ban affects it deeply."

Jacobson has perhaps an ideal defensive strategy. With Steppchild, a Tempe-centric band, he plays the rousing crowd favorites at the beginning of the set. As the cravers begin to exit, he slows things down and plays the filler material that garners only tepid applause. Then, as folks start to trickle back in, Steppchild rocks out again, which'll entice the one or two members of a group playing lookout to fetch their cigarette-fiending friends.

It's an amusing game, but I can't help but feel that it's all just stupid. The major consequence of last year's keep-my-air-clean self-righteousness, it seems, is a kind of herky-jerky imbalance in the Tempe music scene that impedes freedom worse than a drunk blowing smoke rings in your face. Best I can figure, people hang out at a place like Wong's to get away from the 13,000-plus folks who signed the petition to get the ban on the ballot in the first place.

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