Rock 'n' Roll Awakening
It's a cold Thursday evening in early February, right in the heart of what's been an unremittingly bleak -- at least by Valley standards -- winter season. As the bark of a dog guarding a nearby scrap yard echoes faintly in the night, I find myself sitting in a car in the parking lot of Nita's Hideaway -- and I am crying. These are not the dignified, reluctant tears of a grown man, but rather the racking, breathless sobs of a child. If not for a two-day growth of beard and a rapidly receding hairline, you'd swear the noises coming out of my mouth were those of a little girl with a skinned knee.
What, or more accurately, who is responsible for this utter collapse? Stephen Ashbrook, that's who. Yes, Stephen Ashbrook -- leader of Valley rock group Satellite, white-bread pop tunesmith extraordinaire, Über Crooner par excellence and frequent target of scorn on these very pages. Yes, friends, that Stephen Ashbrook.
The real question here, I suppose, is why, or at the very least, how? How is it that Stephen Ashbrook has come to be responsible for my emotional Waterloo? To answer that we have to go back, well, forward actually, some six weeks.
It's another Thursday, but this time it's late March and the temperature in Tempe has broken. The balmy dusk is already weighed down by a cumbersome heat that signals a rapidly approaching summer.
All that is of little consequence to the folks packed into Long Wong's. It's happy hour, and the venerable Mill Avenue watering hole is teeming with bodies. The main attraction this evening -- the only real attraction on any Thursday -- is Stephen Ashbrook.
It's especially true tonight, as it marks one of the final installments of the singer-songwriter's popular acoustic sets. At the end of the month, Ashbrook will leave Arizona and relocate to Portland, Oregon, with his wife. He's promised to return periodically and perform, but for the people gathered here, there is a terrible sense of finality. You see, for the past five years, Ashbrook has held court here every week, and every week his acolytes have come to bask in his golden blond glow.
If you've never been to an Ashbrook gig at Long Wong's, it is a strange experience -- at once exhilarating and frightening. To watch him there is like seeing Wayne Newton in Las Vegas, a king in his court.
Ashbrook's fans -- perhaps flock is a better description -- come to his altar not just to listen to his songs, but to sing along with him, to laugh at his jokes, to buy him drinks -- in short, to pay tribute to a man they regard as both pied piper and patriarch of an extended barroom family. To the uninitiated, the two-hour sets (which generally run closer to three with multiple encores) may seem more like a revival meeting than a concert, Ashbrook punctuating every line with his signature, bowel-deep "aah, yeah" and "ooh, ooh" exhortations, the crowd hollering its approval in return.
Instead of a Bible, Ashbrook holds a guitar; in lieu of holy water, there is the ever-pervasive cocktail (or in Ashbrook-speak, "a caack-taail, ahhh"). This is his cult, for lack of a better term. And like every cult leader, Ashbrook is blessed with an ineffable brand of charm, the kind that makes women and men act like giddy schoolchildren in his presence. Fanaticism, even on this modest level, is truly something to behold.
To see the looks on the faces here is to view genuine worship. To them, Ashbrook is David Koresh without the messiah complex, Jim Jones without the Kool-Aid. You get the feeling, though, if he really wanted, Ashbrook could have most of the people in the room laid out on beds, clad in black Nikes with purple shrouds across their faces -- such is the intensity of their devotion. (It's frightening to think what kind of excesses might be indulged in were I the focus of the same kind of unyielding adulation. The words "deviant groupie sex" immediately spring to mind.)
Demographically speaking, the crowd is somewhat atypical for Long Wong's. It's comprised mostly of gleeful nine-to-fivers: secretaries, bank tellers, aging frat boys turned drunken businessmen in suits and the ever-present abundance of nubiles -- each of them, just working for the weekend. For a hopelessly hip and dingy dive like Wong's, it is a strange dichotomy; it's always seemed analogous to a legion of Jimmy Buffett's merry parrotheads invading a notorious shithole like CBGB's.
Without resorting to unreasonably broad generalizations, it's fair to say that the bulk of die-hard Ashbrook devotees aren't what you'd call ardent music fans. They're not the sort of people who read Mojo, they probably don't own more than a handful of CDs and really don't care if they've never heard the outtakes from Blonde on Blonde or the original mono mix of Revolver.
And yet, when it comes to Stephen Ashbrook, they are as fervent, dogmatic and haughty as the most virulent indie-rock snobs hanging out at Stinkweeds. Ashbrook is -- to quote Barry White -- their first, last and everything.
Some have joked that if he were a contemporary Christian singer, Ashbrook would be on the cutting edge of the genre. If he were to turn Vegas crooner, he'd surely have blue-haired pensioners throwing their panties on stage. But here, in the fickle world of local rock 'n' roll, Stephen Ashbrook is considered a popular curio: a man whose greatest talent is appealing to people who don't really like music all that much. If you think about it, it's kind of an amazing gift, really. A result either of the stunning universality of his work or the strange power of his charisma. The big mystery isn't that he's so popular among local audiences, but rather why he never exploded nationally.
Whatever acclaim Ashbrook has enjoyed in the Valley, he has suffered an equal number of slings and arrows from the critical establishment. Ashbrook's voice -- a rolling bass profundo punctuated by a trademark falsetto, suggesting a cross between Charlton Heston, Foghorn Leghorn and Barry Gibb -- has been frequently derided for its highly stylized nature. "Bland," "generic" and "pedestrian" were common (and in hindsight, somewhat unfair) adjectives used to describe Satellite's three CDs and Ashbrook's 1998 solo effort Navigator. Worse, some in the media (admittedly, New Times among them) turned things kinda personal. His feud with Planet magazine over a negative review earned him "Biggest Crybaby" of the year designation in our 1996 year-end "worst of" issue, while yours truly has repeatedly chided Ashbrook for his onstage get-up -- his now patented leather pants and blue-tinted glasses.
So besieged did Ashbrook feel that in private, he has described himself as "New Times' whipping boy." While that may be true, we always preferred to look at it as a bit of good-natured kibitzing, delivered with a certain amount of grudging admiration, if nothing else.
But now he's leaving, and it's left to us to reappraise his contributions to Phoenix music.
Surely, Ashbrook is deserving of some degree of respect from the local rock intelligentsia. After all, this is a man who has remained an exceedingly popular performer for the better part of a decade, weathered every stylistic change in music -- from hair metal to grunge to rap-rock -- and stayed absolutely true to himself and his muse.
And when the most powerful man in the world came to the Valley for a Democratic fund raiser last summer, who was selected to provide the entertainment for President Bill Clinton? You guessed it: Stephen Ashbrook. (One can almost imagine the conversation between the two: Clinton, biting his lip and offering forth praise in his earnest Arkansas drawl, "Stephen, I thought your songs were truly wonderful," to which Ashbrook would reply, "Ahhh. Why, thank you Mr. President, I dig your stuff, too. How about a caack-taail?")
When Ashbrook announced his imminent departure in December, it set me thinking seriously, and for the first time, about some favorite moments from his career.
There was, of course, the period when he began distributing special "All Access" Ashbrook laminates -- an act of such sheer, unmitigated cojónes that it made me jealous of the man's brilliant audacity. In fact, the big brasslike quality of Ashbrook's balls is perhaps his strongest point as both an artist and a human being.
Who else would dare to bum rush a soundman as Ashbrook -- who nearly clobbered an uppity tech last year -- did? Who else would have the gonads to sell sexy, form-fitting baby tees with his name emblazoned in big pink letters across the chest? What other front man would have the gall to break up his group -- as Ashbrook did with Satellite -- only to get them back together for a "reunion" gig just a few months later? And who else would have the temerity to say goodbye with a glitzy, over-the-top, two-night extravaganza -- first, a star-studded Last Waltz-style farewell at Wong's, then a final Satellite performance (outdoors, no less) at Nita's Hideaway. The answer, of course, is Ashbrook and only Ashbrook.
Now, all that's not to say that Ashbrook's tenure in town has been completely bereft of any musical value. He is -- despite the frequent critical reaming -- a very capable singer, a talent not to be taken lightly, especially in an era when so many "singers" couldn't carry a tune if it were strapped to their back.
As to his songwriting: In general, and with only a few exceptions, the bulk of Ashbrook's catalogue is brimming with very enjoyable mid-tempo/middle-of-the-road pop-rock. Among his songs, there are a dozen very catchy numbers, four of five truly inspired tunes, and one -- bringing us all the way back to my tearful parking-lot breakdown -- bona fide classic.
The first time I heard Satellite play "That's Rock 'n' Roll" years ago, it didn't leave much of an impression. Frankly, it was an easy thing to dismiss. Without really paying attention to the lyrics, one could be forgiven for assuming it to be just another string of clichés, a tired retread of the hardships of the rock lifestyle -- kind of like a Valley version of "Running on Empty" or "Turn the Page." Watching Satellite's crowds punch their fists through the air during the "I don't need to be discovered, man/'Cause I was never lost" chorus further predisposed me to ignoring the song completely.
Cut to February 2001, when I had what alcoholics refer to as a "moment of clarity." My awakening came, not surprisingly, during a period of deep personal need. (Without getting into cloying intimate details, let's just say my problems were the result of several harrowing experiences relating to near death, heartbreak and general strain from having to listen to records by bands with names like Saliva and the Smut Peddlers.)
Pulling into Nita's Hideaway that night, the stereo was churning out a copy of Leah's Local Zone: Take One, an acoustic compilation of local bands. Among the tracks, and the one cueing up that very moment, was Satellite's "That's Rock 'n' Roll."
Maybe it was the alignment of the planets, the work of divine intervention or some sort of undiagnosed chemical imbalance, but whatever the cause, I heard Stephen Ashbrook with new ears that night. Listening to lines like "Forgive me if I'm tired/It's been rock 'n' roll at any cost," I began to draw parallels to my own life. It felt as if Ashbrook had somehow tapped into my very soul.
Overcome with emotion, the waterworks began. Tears streaming, I found myself in the midst of a catharsis, an awakening and a denouement all at once. "How could I have been blind to such genius for so long?" I wondered aloud. "How could I not have seen the glory before my very eyes?"
By the end of the song, I was pumping my fists into the air, shouting, "THAT'S ROCK 'N' ROLL!!!"
I had been touched by Ashbrook: The Phenomenon.
The next few days were spent becoming more and more obsessed with the song, wanting to find its inspiration, understand its genesis, decode some hidden meaning in an effort to understand why it had touched me so dramatically. The deeper I delved the more I became convinced the song was, as I told a musician acquaintance of mine, "a meisterwork of absolute unparalleled genius. It's like a miniature rock operetta about the Arizona musical experience. Peppered with cryptic references and symbolism, it's Tommy, Quadrophenia, Sgt. Pepper and Footloose all rolled into one brilliant, ephemeral burst of three-minute euphoria!"
"Are you out of your fucking mind, bro?" asked my friend incredulously, who, judging by the look on his face, was convinced I had plummeted into some horrifying netherworld of musical taste.
The naysayers be damned, I thought. Nothing could dissuade me.
Things began to escalate. I actually went out and bought some Satellite records. I began asking my co-workers to address me as "The Little Navigator." The next thing I knew, I was quoting Ashbrook lines in conversation. If some band called the office to complain about a bad review, my response was a terse "Hey, man, that's rock 'n' roll." I even found myself hitting on women with Ashbrookian come-ons like, "Hey, would you like to ride in the fastest car in town?" (this pattern of behavior wasn't especially alarming as it has afflicted me since childhood; I spent the entire winter of 1985 speaking in platitudes gleaned from El DeBarge songs).
Gradually, though, my mania cooled and eventually subsided. I returned -- much to the relief of family and friends -- to my normal self. Yet, that song and Ashbrook's voice lingered, always playing in the recesses of my mind.
Now comes the harrowing admission.
About a month ago I found myself at Long Wong's on a Thursday evening listening to Stephen Ashbrook. There was no need to hide behind journalistic pretenses, no "I'm only here 'cause I'm writing a story" excuses. I was there of my own free will. I wanted to be there, wanted to listen, to be swept away, perhaps to enjoy a caack-taail with the man himself. Then it hit me: I had become one of them.
I suppose there are far greater shames in life than admitting you're an Ashbrook fan, though at the moment I can't think of any. No, no, that's unfair. Truth be told, it took a long time and a lot of soul searching before admitting I was just that. But you don't have to be an Ashbrook fan to be into Ashbrook. Some people rationalize their attendance at his shows by claiming they enjoy it as kitsch, some call it a guilty pleasure. Call it what you want, but whatever you do, take this final opportunity to go see him before he bids goodbye, and actually listen to his songs -- like me, you might be surprised at what you find.
Royal Celebration: Greg Simmons, leader of the Royal Normans and widely considered the Valley's première rock guitarist, celebrates the release of his group's new self-titled CD this week with a performance at Long Wong's on Saturday, March 31. Originally conceived as a studio recording project, the Normans -- which include Simmons, guitarist Tom Post and rhythm players Steve Flores and Andy Mendoza -- evolved into a working unit over the course of the past year. In addition to this week's release party, the group will be performing as part of the April 22 New Times Music Showcase. Look for a full-length feature on the band in the coming weeks.
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