Snatching Tempe

Martini Ranch buys Bandersnatch, and overreactions bust out all over the place.

The owners of Bandersnatch Brew Pub in Tempe have sold the downtown institution to the owners of Martini Ranch, Scottsdale's upscale version of a white trash bar. It's a done deal, which, naturally, for the musicians and patrons who make up the Tempe scene, is an outrage. The local enthusiasts are having a hard time rolling with the changes. Last week, they flooded city hall with nasty and purposeful letters. They also cast the sale as yet another sign the Man is out to steamroll the old country-rock vibe.

Slow down, yo! This one's not quite as bad as it looks.

According to all sides involved in the Bandersnatch transaction, the City of Tempe actually had nothing to do with the sale. More important, they insist almost nothing will change -- at least, not in the short-term.

First off, there was no "condemnation" of Bandersnatch's aging property involved, as some of the complainers believed, says Mary Fowler, communication and media relations director for Tempe. And there haven't been any firm decisions as to what to do ultimately with the Bandersnatch building; one redevelopment plan even shows Bandersnatch remaining far into the future.

"This is basically an owner selling to another owner," Fowler says. "That's all it is."

It isn't quite that simple. Joe and Addie Mocca, an affable couple who until this past Sunday had owned Bandersnatch since 1987, seem convinced their days of running Bandersnatch in the good graces of city government were numbered. Persistent rumors that the city hoped to raze Bandersnatch and install a municipal parking lot had grown louder, says Joe Mocca.

So rather than play martyr, the Moccas are bowing out of the bar business their own way: selling to Arizona State alums and onetime patrons of Bandersnatch who promised in writing to maintain the place's environment -- dark wood, cozy patio, unpretentious bar setup. The Bandersnatch name also will remain intact.

The only real change the Martini Ranch folks will be making, they say, is the removal of the brew pub's on-site brewery, which produced eight different home-brewed beers, including an amazing German rye.

"They fully realize what the deal is," says Mocca, who was a blue jeans importer in Chicago before moving to Tempe and buying the bar. "Don't change anything or they're probably going to kill you."

Still, the Moccas' friends, patrons and local musicians reacted the way they've been conditioned to in recent years. Martini Ranch?! Screw Tempe! Six East, Boston's, the old Nita's Hideaway, and now this?

"If you care, please do what you can," wrote Adam Jacobson, the typically unrestrained singer for the band Steppchild, in a missive to friends and other musicians. Steppchild was a regular Bandersnatch act; it bashed through a set this past Saturday as a tribute to the Moccas. "I urge you to write letters, send faxes, e-mails, fuckin' pipe bombs, whatever it takes to show Tempe that we love the people who have made this city what it is."

The note did the trick. Last Thursday, Tempe City Hall was pelted with complaints and angry sentiments. One letter, addressed to Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano and sent as well to New Times, accused the city of morphing into the bland suburbs east of Los Angeles.

There was one problem with that theory, however. The Moccas own the trademark to the Bandersnatch name, which gives them at least some pull as to how any place called Bandersnatch takes shape. Mocca used his power to ensure the bar didn't become, to use his words, a "fucking Chili's" between now and whenever Tempe makes its redevelopment move.

The Moccas' decision to sell is not entirely altruistic, mind you. Mocca acknowledged the price tag on the sale, verbally agreed to last Monday, may be as much as three times higher than any buyout check that developers working on behalf of Tempe might have brought. Mocca wouldn't reveal the specific value of the deal.

The mood at Bandersnatch last Thursday, the day the news became widely known, was subdued. The Fifth Street neighborhood dive, obscured as it is by trees, was in flux. Bar talk turned to conversations about how this wouldn't be "the same ol' Bandersnatch." Resentment toward Scottsdale was also at code red. Martini Ranch regularly employs cover bands like the self-explanatory Metalhead and '80s kitsch band Rock Lobster for the requisite array of black-pants girls and guys in untucked button-down shirts. It also displays autographed guitars from Train, Barenaked Ladies and other nice-guy rockers. That just doesn't jive with Tempe-style saloon rock.

Matt Engstrom, an ASU grad and one of the three Martini Ranch partners set to run Bandersnatch, says that if he's perceived as the bad guy, then it's up to him to change the perception.

"In the business I'm in, if it ain't broke, then you don't fix it," Engstrom says.

Well, you fix it a little. The new owners closed Bandersnatch last week to upgrade the rest rooms, give the bar a swift cleaning and make other adjustments to appease city code inspectors. Once Bandersnatch (sans the Brew Pub) reopens, Engstrom says he and his partners will focus on marketing it to ASU students. Tentative plans include a Friday happy hour run jointly by local promoters Charlie Levy and Jas Tynan that would feature both bands and DJs.

Yes, the ownership change at Bandersnatch, which never indulged too fervently in live music, was enough to dredge up those old feelings. But, for me, this all portends a much more serious Tempe musical change, namely the impending closing and possible death of Long Wong's. Now that's a musical battle worth fighting.

The crumbling roadhouse, which sits at Seventh Street and Mill Avenue, just a few blocks from Bandersnatch, gave rise to the jangle-pop revolution of a decade ago. It is now the last of the traditional dives left in downtown Tempe. It is the little crusty building in the midst of the neon mall signs and chain restaurants, an anachronism in a climate unfriendly to throwbacks.

But change happens, and the Las Vegas-based owner of the Wong's property will be redeveloping the space sometime next spring. Sara Cina, Long Wong's general manager and booking agent, isn't sure when that'll happen -- could be March, could be May, could be even later. That's got Cina and staff on eggshells, and Cina isn't sure if Wong's would ever reopen. Rent could skyrocket. Or, just as bad, the renovation might just rob Wong's of its perceived serendipity. The place doesn't have a real stage, and its PA system is notoriously unpredictable.

Yet, dammit, isn't it a cool bar to rock out at?

"Long Wong's was successful to me as an accident," Cina says. "The music came as a little bit of an afterthought. It's just happened to work really well after all these years by accident."

Yup, change happens. Cina knows it. Joe Mocca knows it, too.

Baby boomer Mocca, though, puts the entire affair in proper perspective.

"The fact that Long Wong's is closing is pissing people off," says Mocca, seeing his plight as a rallying cry for local musicians more than anything. "But politically, [for me] it was more important to fight against the Vietnam war than to fight for Bandersnatch."

E-mail, or call 602-407-1715.

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