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For 15 years, seven days a week, Long Wong's on Mill has been a rock 'n' roll institution. But these are confusing times. Two weeks ago, the club's owners told me Wong's was dead, that it would close sometime after the new year, before their landlord tore down the crumbling, smelly building that houses it in April to construct a two-story replacement. Then last week, they abruptly changed their minds, deciding they'd attempt to reopen in the new building.
Can a new Wong's recapture the scuzziness that made it the most serendipitous of rock 'n' roll meccas in the '90s? Or will it wind up like other buildings on Mill Avenue -- say, for instance, the shiny new Bamboo Club across the street -- and possess all the cookie-cutter ambiance of a Starbucks?
Either way, the folks who helped build the vibrant scene at Wong's are proceeding as if something other than a building will die. And they're right. The current Wong's is the last of Mill Avenue's viable music clubs, and those who adore it will always recall the marathon shows by Dead Hot Workshop and the Gin Blossoms, the alcohol-fueled high jinks onstage and the simple opportunity to relax, eat chicken wings, drink cheap beer and enjoy some great music. The old building also is a symbolic totem; it's the one eyesore in a field of redeveloped mini-malls and one of the only clubs that has maintained some semblance of equilibrium under Tempe's smoking ban.
Soon, though, Mill Avenue's bohemian vibe will be a mere memory, and regardless of whether it reopens, Wong's will be history, leaving only the Sail Inn and the Yucca Tap Room as Tempe's truly grungy music establishments.
"I'll miss it when it goes," says Curtis Grippe, drummer for Wong's mainstays Dead Hot Workshop. "I don't care what they put there. It won't be Wong's. I think they should put a House of Blues there."
This was a place that meant something to a lot of people. It also has historical importance -- besides Dead Hot Workshop and the Gin Blossoms, bands like the Refreshments, One, and the Piersons played their first gigs here on their way to prominence. Knowing that, longtime general manager Sara Cina says she's had to dissuade several patrons already from attacking portions of the ceiling with a drywall saw.
"No, not yet!" Cina says. "I don't want to get that started."
Suppose Wong's does reopen -- and there is some doubt, since rent would rise astronomically. Cina and owners Scott and Cheri Magill face the impossible task of re-creating the vibe that made Wong's, in all its rickety, cramped glory, so special. They could install the old bar, lined with Trivial Pursuit cards, or preserve some of the wood. That would only be futile. Besides, like what happened to Nita's Hideaway when it moved across town last year, new quarters might help the Magills maintain business but might also eventually cost them a chunk of the Wong's identity.
For now, though, there's a swell of stories and memories to sustain the faithful in the final days of the old Wong's.
"The bands were a huge part of the personality," says Cheri Magill. Her husband, Scott, then single, bought Wong's in 1988. She remembered a photo shoot at the bar with the Gin Blossoms in the mid-'90s when the photographer couldn't get the band members to smile -- until Scott dropped his pants and mooned them.
In the late '80s and through most of the '90s, musicians weren't allowed to drink onstage in Arizona -- pin it on a silly law change that defined performers as employees of the club. Roger Clyne, formerly of the Refreshments and now leader of Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, says the rule led to an infinite series of obnoxious drunken exploits. Usually, Clyne says, band members would run across the street to the since-closed Six East Lounge in the hours before they were scheduled to perform, and get as plastered as they could. Often, they'd sneak booze onto the stage in Styrofoam cups.
"Some of those times were in explicit defiance of that law," Clyne says. "We felt like rebel kin. It was really a lot of fun."
Keith Jackson, who performs most Sundays at Wong's with his bluegrass band Busted Hearts, says he practically lived at Wong's for five years in the early half of the '90s. He remembers one Sunday when the Magills decided to call a "first annual shareholder's meeting," which entailed nothing more than having a motley crew of patrons sit out on the patio, drink a boatload of alcohol and watch TV from open to close. Another time, he says he and a few friends watched as Martin Chambers, iconoclastic mutton-chopped drummer for the Pretenders, pulled up to the club in a taxicab for a few rounds after a show. Whoa!
Several musicians, in their recollections, mention Frank "Elvis Del Monte" Martinez. Elvis Del Monte, from the sounds of it, was a deliciously eccentric creation. The fiftysomething Martinez would ride around downtown Tempe on a bicycle, selling kitschy paintings, many of which featured some of the dozens of cats he owned (a blowup of a Del Monte painting rests on a wall at Nita's Hideaway). Martinez also fancied himself a singer, and the regular Wong's bands indulged his fantasies by inviting him onstage, usually to sing old-time rock 'n' roll covers.
"He was our local colorful crazy person," says Robin Wilson, lead singer of the Gin Blossoms. "He could be really sweet and really ornery. Elvis was under the mistaken impression he was in the band. He'd usually sing Little Sister' with us. He didn't know the words, and he couldn't sing. He'd be singing in a different time signature than the rest of the band was playing. It just added to the drunken comedy."
Martinez died after suffering a collapsed lung in 1998. His acoustic guitar, marked by the word "Elvis" in red lettering surrounded by yellow stars, and several reprints of his paintings make up a memorial to him on the back wall behind the bar. Assistant manager Sandra Quijas says she's taking the guitar home with her for a memento.
Other memories take on a more poignant shape. Grippe remembers the first time he set foot in the club, which never was equipped for live music, using a notoriously unreliable PA system and a horribly confining stage. The Gin Blossoms played that night. They blew him away.
"At the Sun Club, you played 45 minutes. At Chuy's, you played for 45 minutes. Anywhere else on Mill, you played for 45 minutes. But at Wong's, you could play for three hours," Grippe says. "You did stuff there you didn't do anywhere else."
He also remembers being outside on the block at one point and gazing in the window at a guitar jammed into the ceiling to roaring approval.
That was Doug Hopkins' guitar, and it was one of at least three occasions the troubled but gifted Gin Blossoms songwriter ended a set at Wong's that way. One of those holes remains uncovered, a small, jagged break to the front of stage right and obscured from view in the dimness of the room.
"When he would screw something up, or got embarrassed, or angry, or pissed, that's how he would express his frustration, by ruining his main instrument," Wilson says. "It was also a rock 'n' roll cliché, and Doug was full of them."
Hopkins, in another sad rock cliché, committed suicide late in 1993. Quijas was Hopkins' girlfriend. She's worked off and on at the club since August 20, 1990.
"I'd never even heard anything about the Gin Blossoms," Quijas says of Hopkins. "He was this incredible person who caught my attention. He introduced me to different bands. I feel like I met all of Tempe, all these different kinds of people, more different people than I had ever met."
A lot of people met Tempe at Long Wong's. The loss of the bar will likely leave them feeling as empty as that hole in the ceiling.
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