Death of Freedom

Tempe's long-reigning dance oasis shuts its doors

My job just got infinitely more difficult.

See, I just got word that Freedom, the dance-music mecca in Tempe, is closing its doors at the end of May. This is a pain in my ass because I write a little feature called "Needle Exchange" spotlighting a different DJ/turntablist performance every week, and with Freedom gone, the volume of touring DJs and turntablists that hits the Valley is going to be drastically reduced, leaving me to stress over finding an act worth anything to write about every week.

"Dance music is over," Jas Tynan, co-founder of Freedom and its weekly Kind events, told me the other day. "It's on to other things. We had our fun with it -- the rave is over."

I'm left scratching my head, wondering what the hell is wrong with this little college town that it can't support live music venues or dance clubs. Yet a fucking dueling piano bar manages to open up on the most expensive swath of real estate in town -- I'm flabbergasted.

Tynan severed his ties to dance music last year. (He's been busying himself with more eclectic projects, like DJ-ing with funk trio Calumet. He also created the short-lived Lava Lounge night at The Firehouse in Tempe, which is where he hooked up with Calumet in the first place.) But Freedom owner Steve Kushnir soldiered on, keeping the six-year-old club open despite the necessity of continuous investment coupled with diminishing returns.

"I've been doing it for the whole electronic music scene and it's lost a lot of its local support in the last year, attendance-wise," Kushnir says. "I've done it for so long for the scene, but there comes a point in time where I've done every major DJ, large-scale thing through that club that I could possibly do -- for me, I've done what I had to do."

Kushnir will walk away from Freedom with his liquor license and the club's massive sound system, and he plans to open a new venue at an indefinite point in the future, but he thinks that beat enthusiasts will have to starve for a while.

"I think the music scene is definitely gonna feel Freedom not being there," he says.

And so he tells me, with Ashcroft-ian certainty, Freedom will be no more after the end of May. The holes it leaves in the Valley's dance music scene are immense -- it was the only venue to consistently bring the best turntablists and DJs to town week after week, and it hosted the Valley's most-attended all-ages after-hours.

For the final blowout on Memorial Day weekend, Kushnir is angling to get house/trance godhead Paul Oakenfold to Freedom one last time. In the meantime, Freedom's looking to close on a celebratory note -- horror-core rapper and vinyl shredder DJ Swamp will perform next Friday, May 7, at Freedom, followed the next week by Austin trance king D:Fuse.

"It's like a sitcom; you gotta know when to take the shit off the air," Kushnir says. "I want everyone to have good fond memories of it. Then I'm gonna shut the doors and let people get hungry, start itchin' for something."


First it was the rock clubs in Tempe disappearing, now the one stalwart of dance music is on its way out. But despite the pall cast over Tempe, there are still a few believers out there, like Jake Shelton and Josh Bartosh from Ziggy's Rock & Roll Lounge.

Can an underground rock club possibly survive on Mill Avenue, Tempe's own Silicon Alley? Jake Shelton, the new co-owner of Ziggy's Rock & Roll Lounge (ne Sports Bar), believes so. As we stand on the second-story balcony in front of Ziggy's entrance at Fourth Street and Mill on a recent Friday night, looking down on the heavy cleavage of blonde ASU girls walking down the sidewalk, the Richmond, Virginia, transplant exclaims, "This place is paradise!"

And Shelton's not just talking about blondes.

Thus far, the returns look promising for Ziggy's future as a rock club. Later that same Friday night, the place is packed to capacity for the AZPunk.com benefit show, which will raise more than $1,400 for the local Web site. While 80-D rips through a set of its self-described "geek-core," a bevy of tattooed and pierced twentysomething punk rockers floods the bar and overflows into the game room and onto Ziggy's smoking patio, where there's hardly elbow room to light a cigarette.

The girls of Arizona Roller Derby, who host a fund-raising show at Ziggy's every Wednesday night, are in full regalia (naughty nurse and French maid outfits) after mobbing down Mill on their roller skates, posing for photos and eventually manning a spanking booth where, for a donation, you can get straddled and paddled by the girls.

Later that night, during Bullet Train to Moscow's set, a strangely familiar face appears in the crowd, sporting a Janitors of Anarchy tee shirt and a black leather vest. It's the 45-year-old former San Francisco mayoral candidate and front man of the Dead Kennedys, Jello Biafra, stopping in after his appearance at the Punk Voter Tour at the Marquee Theatre, just in time to auction off dates with the Arizona Roller Derby's Smash Squad team.

Jello's unexpected appearance definitely bodes well for Ziggy's future. As Shelton says, "If you're trying to do a new punk rock club, to have Jello Biafra show up is about the ultimate. If we wanted to plan a publicity stunt, we couldn't have in a million years come up with something better."

Shelton's influence is evident already, just seven weeks after he joined Josh Bartosh as a partner in the venture. Where ASU's maroon and gold once prevailed, now red and orange flames -- a signature Shelton motif -- are dominant, covering the wall behind the stage. A painting of a piranha with an engine as a dorsal fin hangs facing the bar, eight-ball stick shift gleaming in the water. Shelton, who owns a hot-rod-influenced custom furniture joint called Jake's Chop Shop, also has his own creations lurking around Ziggy's, like the couch made of a classic car's rear end with cushions where the trunk would be, and an amoeba-like coffee table decorated with flames.

Ziggy's Rock & Roll Lounge incarnation isn't like any bar Tempe's seen -- though it's starting to bear a resemblance to Shelton's former endeavor, a hot-rod-themed bar and restaurant called Fireballz in Richmond, Virginia (you can peep Fireballz decor in a virtual tour at http://www.jakeschopshop.com/fireballz/index.html). Ziggy's heart's in the right place, with a free North Carolina pit-cooked pulled barbecue buffet on Sundays when Busted Hearts plays its weekly gig, and live rock bands most nights of the week.

It's yet to be seen if the fickle rawk scene will adopt Ziggy's as its own or abandon it after the novelty of a rock club on the Valley's most homogenized street wears off.

E-mail brendan.kelley@newtimes.com

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