Fizzled Out

Plagued by past-due rent and safety violations, Neckbeard's Soda Bar goes flat

Loyal patrons of Neckbeard's Soda Bar, the pirate-themed non-alcoholic music venue in Tempe that catered to teenage screamo and hardcore fans, have expressed a collective "Blimey!" since their beloved hole-in-the-wall was deep-sixed on January 10.

While dozens of his former customers play the blame game on the message board of local punk Web site AZPunk.com, it seems the main culprit in Neckbeard's closure is actually its co-owner, Jake Slider, who's -- thus far -- escaped a public flogging.

The Neckbeard's faithful largely blame the club's demise on an overcrowding complaint to Tempe police during a January 8 concert at Neckbeard's headlined by local hardcore band Bless the Fall. But that's certainly not the whole story.

"Kids/parents of kids that couldn't get into Bless the Fall thought that it would be cool to call the fire marshal," writes one AZPunk.com member known as "Spyderdog," among seven pages of posts under the "Neckbeard's closes" thread. "The fire marshal came, and cleared the club."

That incident, however, was actually "the last straw," according to Slider's landlord, who tells New Times that Slider owed more than $16,000 in past-due rent at the time the locks were changed. And according to a Tempe fire official, Slider had been operating Neckbeard's without proper City of Tempe permits since April. The fire department ordered Slider to "cease to occupy" the venue last week.

At the Bless the Fall show, between 300 and 400 fans packed into the 2,400-square-foot venue at the northwest corner of Price and Baseline roads, says Tempe Senior Fire Inspector Phil Rohe.

The maximum occupancy for the venue wasn't posted, Rohe says. Even worse, it hadn't even been determined because Slider had failed to obtain city permits.

Once they arrived at Neckbeard's the night of January 8, Rohe tells New Times, several Tempe firefighters "cleared the place, with the exception of about 100 people."

"That was how many people we thought could be in there safely at that time," Rohe says.

The remainder of Bless the Fall's show went off without a hitch, aside from some unruly behavior by concertgoers in Neckbeard's parking lot, according to accounts on AZPunk.com. But Rohe returned two days later to assess the "numerous" safety code violations he says he noticed the night of the show.

The morning of January 10, Rohe called Slider to meet and discuss the condition of the venue. Once they met at Neckbeard's, along with property manager Sandra Gore of Show Low-based Property Brokers, Rohe says he informed Slider of nine safety violations; the most glaring were "a lack of proper exiting hardware," such as push-bars on doors, and the lack of "fully-illuminated exit signs," Rohe says.

"[According to City of Tempe requirements] the doors must have something that doesn't require any special knowledge to operate them," Rohe says. "People could be jammed against the door if it's a big crowd. And in a situation like that, people are often trampled or crushed when someone can't get out.

"The doors at Neckbeard's had just those turn-style knobs, and some doors in the back were deadbolted shut," Rohe says.

Slider tells New Times, though, that fixing all of the safety code violations was the responsibility of his landlord, White Knight Investments.

"It's written into the lease agreement," Slider says, although neither he nor Property Brokers provided New Times with a copy of it. "They were supposed to take care of the fire safety regulations, but they didn't.

"They knew exactly what was wrong with the building when we moved in," Slider adds. "It's their fault that this happened."

Slider also says that when he moved into the space in April, for which he agreed to pay more than $3,000 in monthly rent and maintenance fees, the management company told him that the city "would not require any special use permits," and, therefore, he never sought them.

Of course, Gore, who owns Property Brokers and represents White Knight Investments, disagrees.

"That's a lie," she says. "We never would have told Jake he didn't need the permits.

"We bent over backwards for Jake," Gore adds. "We could've kicked out [Slider and Neckbeard's co-owner Jason McLellan] back in September for not paying rent. But we really thought that they might make it, and it was good for the kids, something I thought, at least, would be good."

Rohe says that Slider knew exactly what his venue required as far as safety codes and permits were concerned back in April, just before Neckbeard's moved from its former location at Mill and Baseline to the one on Price.

"At the time the owners were operating Neckbeard's on Mill, we did a number of inspections," Rohe says. "They were fully aware of the requirements here in Tempe. We even offered to meet with [Slider] prior to opening the new venue, as a customer service to this young guy starting a business.

"But we never heard from him again."

Slider says he's rescheduled shows originally slated for Neckbeard's and that some have been moved to Neckbeard's former competitor in the hardcore scene, the Clubhouse Music Venue in Tempe, and others will be moved to Big Fish Pub and even to the Real Bar, which, ironically, is also owned by White Knight Investments.

As for the back rent Slider admits that he never paid, he says that -- short of a court order forcing him to fork it over -- he won't.

"The place was closed because they failed to fix the stuff they needed to as per the lease agreement," he says, adding that he showed up the morning of January 10 with a check in his hand for past-due rent. Once the locks were changed, though, he decided not to give it to Gore.

As for a future venue for Neckbeard's, Slider says he's in no rush to find one. He'll continue to promote shows at local venues, and "maybe in a year," consider opening his own.

"It's actually a huge relief that it's shut down. I had been losing money there for months," he says.

"In fact, I'm as happy as can be."

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