Tempe History Museum Exhibit Shows That Music Scene's History Goes Beyond Gin Blossoms
"The Tempe Sound" exhibition shows the musical side of the college town of the nation's largest university.
Walking through the back rooms of the Tempe History Museum, it's easy to get distracted by the various artifacts of the city's lore. Boxes are stacked like in the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark; one clumsy turn could result in someone accidentally getting his face melted. Navigating confidently through the relics is Josh Roffler, curator of collections at Tempe History Museum. He steps inside a fluorescent-lit room to unveil a seemingly ordinary brick. His eyes widen in excitement.
The block doesn't look valuable or important, but intrinsic sentimental value lurks within the shale and clay. It is one of the remnants from the influential Tempe nightclub Long Wong's, where so many musicians, including The Refreshments, Dead Hot Workshop, and Gin Blossoms, staked their claim and rose to prominence. In another corner sits the soundboard that the groups plugged into before taking the stage at the legendary venue.
These items are among the numerous displays making up "The Tempe Sound" exhibition, now at Tempe History Museum through October 4, 2015. The 2,500-square-foot space is filled with nostalgia-inducing artifacts, including costumes, vintage band T-shirts, guitars belonging to artists such as Hans Olson and Roger Clyne, and even a replica of the Long Wong's stage. The exhibit will host concerts and a series of rotating exhibits throughout the year, including a photo display from New Times archives (coming June 2).
Earlier this year, Roffler put out a call for local music artifacts, and the response was overwhelming. He explains, "[Tempe History Museum] has an extensive collection of local history, including photographs and artifacts, but very little in our collection dealt with Tempe music history. This had to become a community effort."
It didn't take long for residents to respond.
"We had so many people contact us right away," Roffler says. "They were so excited at the prospect of a local music exhibit. It became apparent very quickly we weren't going to have a problem getting in the memorabilia, instruments, photographs, and all the material needed to make the exhibit happen."
There are signs from Tony's New Yorker Club, The Library (which later became The Sun Club), and Nita's Hideaway. There are numerous gold and platinum albums from Tempe bands that went big, and one from a band called Nirvana, whose collaboration with Meat Puppets on their swan song album, MTV Unplugged in New York, earned the Seattle group a spot among the locals.
"The members of Meat Puppets are artists as well, so we have things like paintings, drawings, and screen prints. Showing that side of their art has been really interesting to me," Roffler says.
As contributions came in, Roffler was surprised to discover that Tempe had quite the punk rock and New Wave scenes in the 1980s. While carefully holding someone's prized J.F.A. skateboard, he recalls how many musical influences seeped into the college town. Among the artifacts of the era is a notebook listing all of J.F.A.'s concert dates, a copy of the band's Blatant Localism EP, and albums from The Jetzons, Tone Set, and The Psalms, one of the early bands of Doug Hopkins and Bill Leen, who would go on to form Gin Blossoms. These bands not only influenced the Tempe sound well into its '90s peak, but also had a hand in shaping local and national music for years to come.
"It's been really interesting to see how many notable bands came out of Tempe," Roffler says. "Tempe is a relatively small city, but to have so many innovative and influential bands coming out of this small city has been interesting. Seeing them all together has been pretty impressive. The biggest surprise has been the diversity of music."
It's easy to focus on the '90s heyday of Tempe rock, but musicians of all genres have been making their name in the town for years. After giving up his seat to the Big Bopper on the fateful plane ride that took the lives of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, country balladeer Waylon Jennings moved to Tempe with his rockabilly band The Waylors. They took up residence at JD's, a local club where they built enough of a following that the album Waylon Jennings at JD's was released in 1964. The studio recording features Jennings' rockabilly versions of Roy Orbison's "Crying" and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" by Bob Dylan.
"[Jennings] went from Tempe to Nashville and became a superstar, but this was the beginning of him as a solo artist," Roffler says.
As a member of the staff hangs an electric bass guitar near one of several listening stations being set up for the exhibition, it gives Roffler pause. The instrument belongs to Rafael "Chapito" Chavarria, who has been been a vital part of the Valley's music scene since the 1920s, when he was a bandleader at the Calderon Ballroom. The bassist and violinist, who turned 100 in April, had been working audiences for decades before finally deciding to retire from show business nearly 10 years ago. His arrangements are still being played today, and he's finally getting recognition for his contributions to local music, with a documentary in the works and an exhibit celebrating his life at the Musical Instrument Museum.
Meeting Chavarria proved to be Roffler's most memorable experience while putting together the exhibition.
"I went and visited his house one Sunday afternoon. His memory is sharp. He remembers everything," Roffler says. "I sat on his couch and we watched a Diamondbacks game and talked. He told me stories of what it was like playing music in Tempe in the 1920s. It was amazing. There were so many good stories -- some you wouldn't want to repeat. He really means so much to people."
The purpose of the exhibition isn't to recall a bygone era in the melodic history of Tempe, but to celebrate what has come and to see how it influences the city's still vibrant musical scene. Despite the rash of club closings that have plagued the city in the past year, the music still plays on, whether it be someone with a guitar busking on Mill Street on a Friday night or Jared and The Mill taking the sound nationwide.
"Tempe still has really good bands," Roffler says, "The quality of the music is just as good as it's always been. We acknowledge a lot of these '90s bands because they deserve it, but it doesn't mean music here is over by a longshot."
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