Once upon a time, there was a city. It was not the largest city, or the smallest. It was not the richest or the poorest. But this city had a reputation, nonetheless. It was known throughout the land as dry and inhospitable -- heated to unimaginable temperatures for several months of the year, ruled by a witch of a governor and a cruel sheriff, a cultural wasteland. The people of this city knew the truth. Yes, upper management could be rough, and at first the landscape wasn't easy on the eyes, but past the strip malls and the cookie cutter subdivisions, a wonderful metropolis burgeoned: bartenders poured the craftiest of cocktails, world-class chefs cooked, there were sports teams to cheer for, boutiques to shop at, and clubs where you could dance the night away.
Once a year, the kind-hearted souls at the city's alternative newsweekly gathered the finest of what the place had to offer, presenting it in the hallowed pages of a book called the "Best of Phoenix." This year's edition features "Tales of the City" -- true stories told and legends explained.
Our chapter on Nightlife begins with an essay by Brian Smith.
See also: Best of Phoenix 2014
Once upon a time in Phoenix, I used to long for night to come down. It was like a mercy killing, really. I mean the way nightfall kills off the day there.
I figured that's why so many Phoenix sunsets look like bloodletting in slow motion.
When that sun would finally drop behind the city's skyline, things just lit up. It didn't matter to us that on summer nights, the heat still hummed like a migraine and the beer warmed too fast, just as long as that burning sun went down. Sometimes, the dry night breeze would be so hot I'd envision nighttime wildfires whipping up through desert arroyos out beyond Chandler toward the Superstitions. But it was beautiful, and desert things come alive in the dark.
I'd become a weird kind of tourist at night, curious and small and insignificant to the city and the desert surrounding it. I engaged all manner of people -- from repo men, porn stars, and church founders to Santería priests, meth cooks, and taxicab gunmen -- and profiled many in these very pages. We were mostly cooked and lean and hungry, damaged by the sun in some way, but grateful for the night. I'd romanticize the shit out of those evenings, and they'd often feel like a tripped-up mix of Denis Johnson's desperate Phoenix in Angels and Alice Cooper's quixotic one in "Alma Mater."
Sometimes, Phoenix from years past returns to me in glimpses. Uplifting, unflinching glimpses. I imagine city lights from a Camelback Mountain lookout. I see ghosts. I see a lovely Arizona Biltmore wedding reception, the gowns and drunken suits and lovely lighted gardens. I see Tempe and hear the Zubia brothers, these beautiful Mexican-American dudes whose entire lives inform each note they play. They're packing Long Wong's on Mill Avenue, and a soused bunch of hardcore music lovers, ASU students, and beautiful women spill out to the rickety tables on the bar's patio. I see inside Phoenix's Mason Jar Lounge, where some local rock 'n' roll legend is busy serving up libations to the 26 smart fans of lamented bands Sugar High and 39 Lashes. I think of Glendale and swilling beer poured from a keg. We're standing around in the yellowy light of some backyard house party and killer Undertow and Meat Puppets tunes blast from a CD boombox. It's a classic, chain-linked-in Arizona paradise populated by gun-toting hillbillies and beat strippers with facial tats, and a couple of awkward indie kids who'd transcended the scene by making it to art school.
I see myself back in Central Phoenix, downing beers in a bandmate's car before entering a club. We're celebrating a future that feels expansive and dreamy like the big starry sky above while waiting for our song to come on the radio. I think of the myriad rock 'n' roll shows I've done -- from the storied old Merlin's nightclub and Mason Jar to the Mesa Amphitheater and Compton Terrace. I never wanted any of those nights to recede.
I can't forget those never-ending starless ones when I'd attempted to forget myself. I'd be down at the grim Madison Bar, in the bowels of Phoenix, with the last of the doomsaying day drunks and unsettling harpies, or in that lovely, antiquated Emerald speeding the molars out of my mouth alongside too-cheery regulars and misguided DJs. I can't forget the real downer times that couldn't be fixed by a calming evening stroll up to Circle K for a 12-pack (and giving a few to Hannah the Homeless Lady on my return). I'd be propped up on regret and absolute disillusionment and find myself in some Sunnyslope living room scoring shit off a pregnant mom whose heart was pumping at methamphetamine speed, where dirty-diapered babies played among porn DVDs and filth. Those ugly reminiscences still sometimes rear in my head like gnarly desert dust devils.
Then there are those nights we suffered because band members and best friends died way, way too young. Musical brothers who, at one time or other, kept me inside their pockets and I kept them in mine. (Hey, Brian "Renfield" Nelson, John Suskin, Jon Norwood, Kevin Pate, Douglas Hopkins, and Nino Notaro.) Their lives touched many in Phoenix and beyond, and those hurts still require attention. But they taught me, eventually, to be grateful for those who didn't find their way to early graves.
And I can never without sadness recall the ones who had simply moved on because there was nothing in Phoenix for them. It was as if, as someone recently said, ambition was geographic. Nothing can ever just be. Nothing can ever last. Not for me, not for anyone else. But the personal attachments made in the Arizona bars and clubs, and in the writing and journalism circles, will stay on, and will last, no doubt, for life.
In fact, those nights and the folks in those nights created a whole world inside the city. So those who always chirp that greater Phoenix has no city center, that it long ago morphed into cultureless sprawl, are simply missing it. The center is there. It's beating inside. It's just overlooked, and maybe stomped on. You just have to hunt for it.
Between all those late-night record stores and sweat-soaked Latino dance clubs, between the Native American murals and America's best 24-hour drive-thru burritos down around 16th Street and Van Buren, I see my Phoenix in all its glory. And, yes, I now live in Detroit and I understand how my pathos, and my love, for Arizona's capital city increases directly in proportion to my distance and absence from it, but still, it's mark in my heart is ineradicable. I could come in from any direction at night -- south, east, west, and north -- and those South Mountain radio towers would show me what, and where, to be. And sometimes I'd swear on my life that I'd hear old Lee Hazlewood's dry desert croak on some ancient Phoenix radio station going on about how no angel, beaten down or otherwise, could ever be lost. Not at night. Not in Phoenix.
About the writer Brian Smith has written for many magazines and alt-weeklies, and his fiction has appeared in a variety of literary journals. He's an award-winning journalist, first as a staff writer and columnist at New Times and then as an editor at Detroit's Metro Times. Before writing full time, Smith fronted Arizona-based rock 'n' roll bands Beat Angels and, before that, Gentlemen Afterdark. He has penned tunes with lots of folks, including Alice Cooper. He lives in Detroit with his girlfriend and his debut collection of stories, The Black Dog, is due out in 2015.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
About the artist Ryan Quackenbush is a Phoenix-based illustrator who, after graduating from art school, worked as a digital matte painter for several local web series and other projects. His work has been published by Image and Dark Horse, and whose first comic series, Heroic, debuted last year. He recently self-published the first two issues of his own series, Strange Streets, as well as the comic Peony. He will also be illustrating the upcoming graphic novel Deprecated, written by Gren Radcliff.
See also: Legend City: Best of Phoenix 2014