When the Levy Breaks
He's been up close and personal with Cher's rear end, escorted Johnny Rotten around the Valley and entertained Fats Domino in his New Orleans living room. Yet Charles Levy--the man who single-handedly turned an anonymous roadside tavern into a hub of cutting-edge music, and manages Gloritone, the Valley's best chance for a Gin Blossoms since, well, the Gin Blossoms--is a humble man.
You might not discern this from the "I hate you" sticker that glares from one side of Levy's computer monitor. But the corner of an office where Gloritone and the other local band under Charles Levy Management, The Revenants, practice is a monument to modesty.
It's just big enough for a desk, some files, and a CD boom box softly humming Duke Ellington. Very few personal effects adorn the walls or one row of shelves, save an autographed poster from the first Lollapalooza, a souvenir from Levy's days as a junior promoter at Evening Star Productions, and an autographed Woody Jenkins for Senator poster in the window.
Then there's Levy himself, a fresh-faced Paddington bear of a man--picture Corey Haim-circa-Lucas all grown up--a man most know simply as "Charlie" and have heard speak only in rasps under the din of a band he'd booked at Nita's Hideaway, the aforementioned tavern, defunct after 23 years as of July 12.
He's visibly nervous as the interview begins, and seems eager to explain who Woody Jenkins is even if it only means he can put off talking about himself just a little bit longer.
He says the poster's a gift from his father, who still resides in the New Orleans area, where Levy grew up. "Woody Jenkins is some guy that ran for senator in Louisiana a couple of years ago," he says with a trace of "N'awlins" lilt that would be hard to detect in a noisy bar. "He was really an archconservative and everyone thought he was going to win. I was teasing my parents, [saying] 'Senator Woody Jenkins!' So for my birthday, my dad got me a signed poster."
That birthday is November, and his last one was number 28. Though Levy says, "I feel like an ancient man," his face is young and impish, hidden behind thick, black-framed glasses perched precariously, as if they're always about to fall off.
Behind them lurks a person of solid character, someone who'd help you change a flat on a freeway. This is a guy who says he could have been a fireman or, because he played football in high school, a high school football coach.
He's neither now, but he's less self-conscious and reveals something that might explain how he landed so far west of his original career direction. It helps to explain how such a likable sort got involved in the sordid business of music promotion.
"My grandfather was a rock promoter in the '50s," Levy says matter-of-factly. "He put on shows for the Big Bopper and Little Richard. He was Fats Domino's manager from day one for years. Fats Domino would come by the house."
This happened in Levy's preteen years (his grandfather died when he was 11), but between this and the fertile New Orleans musical landscape, he had a good breeding ground for a fledgling music promoter.
"Here, every high school has its McDonald's," he says to explain how growing up in New Orleans differs from the Valley. "We had our bars. My high school bar was the Bourbon Street Saloon. You could be in a bar when you were 17, so at that time, we were 14 and 15 going into bars. We'd say, 'Let's meet at the Bourbon Street and go check the Neville Brothers out at Tipitina's.'"
He managed to graduate high school with his sobriety intact, and landed in the Valley the way much of its twentysomething population has--he moved to Tempe in the late '80s to attend Arizona State University.
"I wanted to go somewhere completely different," he says of the move. "I didn't know anyone in Arizona. I just thought I'd go out west where nowhere is."
Once he was "nowhere," Levy found he wasn't exactly college material. "I hated school, but my dad said I had to graduate," he says. "All the football players took sociology, so I thought that's where all of the easy classes are. So I majored in sociology."
Noam Chomsky he was not, but it didn't matter. His sophomore year, Levy's career course was steered not by scholastics but by an extracurricular activity he scorned.
"My roommate my sophomore year was into ASU government--I used to tease him about it," Levy says. "But one day I was looking through the literature and it said 'concert director,' and I went in for an interview. I knew there was no way I was going to get it, but I hit it off with the girl that was hiring and she said, 'I know you have no experience, but I'm going to make you the concert director.'"
Because America West Arena did not yet exist, the university's Activity Center was a thriving venue. For the next year, Levy bounced from job to job for various ASU concert events. He would do rigging for a show one day, hospitality the next. It was during this time Levy found himself Cher's personal assistant for a day, where he was privy to something few Valleyites can (or would want to) claim.
"I saw the tattoo on her butt," he says, blushing slightly. "She showed it to me."
And what was it?
"It's like a rose or something," Levy says in his best effort to be nonchalant (he fails). "I don't remember. I think it's a rose."
Levy left his studies at ASU after two years to work for Evening Star Productions, a company that's still the Valley's leading concert promoter.
"A bunch of people had quit at Evening Star, and they knew me from working at ASU. Because I was the 'ASU guy,' they'd call me to be a gofer. Like when PIL was in town, I had to take Johnny Rotten all around town. So they said, 'Hey, do you want to start working here?'"
He accepted the offer, and for the next two years worked his way up the ranks.
"My first year I was doing grunt work, then I did production, then I did the box office," he remembers. "Then the last eight months I was a talent buyer. I was booking the clubs.
"I did that and I hated it," he confides. "It was really high pressure. I don't trust anybody in that business; they all lie to you, they cheat. I just wasn't cut out for it."
Levy describes booking clubs full-time for a market's biggest concert promoter like this: "Gotta book, it's your whole life. You wake up and you think of concerts, you gotta book this show, you gotta do this, you gotta do that. Oh, I got a show tonight, I gotta go to that. You wake up: Oh, it's cloudy. Did I get rain insurance? Gotta do that, gotta get the tickets. Go, go, go--somebody else got the show."
He comes up for air. "Then you lose money, and you don't lose your money, you lose someone else's money, so you feel doubly bad," he admits. "I was just miserable. I'd be sitting in a bank line like, 'Arrgh, I gotta go, I gotta get out of here.' Your whole life's like that.
"And then you have other promoters bidding on shows, and you deal with agents and managers and record companies--eeeiiyo," he trails off, visibly shuddering at the thought. "To me there's more in life than, 'Get Korn back!'"
This sentiment begs a question: Why, in 1995, years after his stint at Evening Star ended, did Levy again decide to navigate the dreaded "biz" with Nita's Hideaway?
One reason: The Piersons.
After Levy graduated from ASU in 1994, for lack of anything else to do, he agreed to join a magazine project that friend and former Evening Star boss Laura Mackin was starting with a few others.
That magazine was Planet, an alternative weekly that, for the roughly year and a half it existed, pushed the envelope of high-jinx journalism under the direction of ASU State Press alum Troy Fuss. (Fuss has since gone on to greater things as editor for the crass and irreverent music rag Popsmear.)
Levy was low man on the totem pole with an important job: generate revenue as advertising salesman. It was yet another job that, surprise, he says he hated.
"There's nothing worse than selling ads," Levy insists. He's the first to admit he was a poor ad salesman, in both skill and financial status. "I was so poor I lived in the [Planet] office," he says with a laugh.
This is February 1995, and about this same time Levy agreed to manage The Piersons, a notoriously raucous Tempe pop band (it disbanded a few months ago). After leaving Planet after five months, Levy set out to find The Piersons a club they hadn't been 86ed from.
"They'd been kicked out of Balboa and Gibson's for being drunk and disorderly, and Long Wong's would only let them play once a month," Levy explains. "I was talking to [late Zia Record Exchange founder] Brad Singer one night and he told me I have to check out this place, Nita's Hideaway."
At that time, Nita's entertained a primarily daytime clientele from the industrial park down the street, farther along Rio Salado Parkway. It was owned and operated by Nita Craddock, who says she bought what used to be a strip joint in 1975.
"I tried Western [music] in the beginning," Craddock says from her Tempe home. "I hired a band and spent a lot of money advertising on the radio. They were supposed to play the whole weekend, but Friday night they got into a fight among themselves onstage, and they didn't show up the next night."
Craddock tried a few more times to draw crowds with musical acts, with little success.
Until Levy came along. For a week he scouted out Nita's to size up his chances of making it Piersons-friendly.
"I went in there on a Wednesday night and there was no one there at 11 o'clock at night," he says of his first venture into Nita's dark interior. "The bartender was watching a porno flick on the satellite [feed]. I went there on a Thursday at the same time and there were like two people there. I went in at the same time on a Saturday, and there were maybe four, five people there."
Eventually, Levy approached Craddock directly with his idea: Let The Piersons play there every Wednesday for a few weeks. It would cost her nothing, he said. He'd bring a doorman, his own PA. The band would play in the corner.
"She said, 'You know, honey, I'm not making any money,'" Levy says. "'Give it a try.'"
Not exactly, Craddock says. According to her, she took some convincing. "I said, 'No, I've tried it, I've done it. It didn't work,'" she says of her initial reaction to Levy's proposal.
But, Craddock continues, "He talked, talked, talked--talked me into it," she says with a laugh. "He said one night a week, it won't cost you anything. I'd heard that one before!"
Levy was true to his word. He put out fliers, brought a PA, and The Piersons played, and Nita didn't shell out a dime.
"After a month, The Piersons were getting 60, 70 people to come out every Wednesday," Levy says. "I thought to myself, 'There's nowhere in Tempe that I like to see live music, that brings in different bands, that isn't so crowded and that sounds really good. There's no showcase venue for music.'
"I'd always complained about it, so I said, 'I'm going to do it,'" he continues. "I went to Nita and said, 'Instead of doing it every Wednesday, can I do it seven nights a week?'"
The rest, as they say, is history.
Craddock agreed, and Levy put "a really bad PA" on his credit card. He and a friend built a bigger stage in the front of Nita's one main room (The Piersons had just played in a corner of the bar) and called all of his connections from his ASU/Evening Star days to get the ball rolling.
The first weekend featured Tucson legends Giant Sand on Friday, Phoenix glam kings The Beat Angels on Saturday and local bluegrass act Ned Beatty and the Inbreds on Sunday. Friday night netted Giant Sand $800 for its performance, more than the bar made at the door all weekend (total gross was $700) but, Levy says, way more than the bar would have grossed in a regular weekend before he booked shows.
"Before that, for the weekend, Nita would take in like $150," Levy says. Local faves like Dead Hot Workshop and Gloritone (called Vitamin when they first played Nita's) now had a new venue beyond Mill Avenue at which to cement their popularity. And after a few months, Levy started booking national acts along with the locals.
In the three years he booked shows at Nita's, the club's cramped quarters hosted acts like Yo La Tengo, Mike Watt and Frank Black of Pixies fame, artists who may not fill a Mesa Amphitheatre or even a Gibson's, but who were just right for a sellout show in Nita's intimate atmosphere.
Levy was a generous promoter. He cared more if a band had potential than if it'd rake in bucks. He gave new acts like Lush Budget Presents The Les Payne Project and Hammertoes a place to reach a wider audience.
Both have since established dedicated local followings, and were sure to draw packed weekend crowds in the last year of Nita's.
It was also through his club work that Levy took the management helm for Gloritone and The Revenants. He was actually a direct catalyst for the birth of the latter: In February of '96, Levy booked an acoustic show of local musicians who, 10 years earlier, were the equivalent of a Dead Hot or a Les Payne. He convinced former roommate Bruce Connole to perform some country songs he'd been writing.
The performance went over so well, Connole formed The Suicide Kings (the name was later changed). By the time Nita's folded, the band was signed to Epiphany Records and enjoying a regular Wednesday-night gig at the club.
When Craddock put Nita's up for sale early this year because she wanted out of the bar business after 23 years, Tempe scenesters emitted a collective groan. Craddock, who was pleased with how Levy had turned her little roadside tavern into Tempe's answer to L.A.'s Spaceland, tried to get Levy to buy. Levy cited lack of funds and burnout, and politely declined.
In early July, two sisters and a family friend, Tammy and Lori Biddlecome and Robert Ross, bought the business, and they've since reopened the club as The Heat. Nita's held an official farewell party July 12, featuring performances from bands that were Nita's mainstays, including Dead Hot and the Les Payne Product. Levy printed commemorative posters with the names of every act he could remember booking at Nita's typed across the back ("I forgot so many," he lamented the night of the show) and hired TEAM Security for crowd control.
The night was a raucous celebration of the watering hole's legacy. Levy got tipsy for the first time at the club he transformed, and, in typical Nita's fashion, things got a little out of hand. In a performance by popular quick-change performer Vic Masters, he razed the roof--literally. During the show, a couple of ceiling tiles were "accidentally" dislodged, broken in half and subsequently thrown at Masters.
That turned out to be just a foreshadowing of the raucous destruction that some enthusiasts caused later. "They trashed the bar," Craddock says indignantly. "They caused $5,000 worth of damage."
Craddock says she's still playing phone tag with TEAM Security to find out how people managed to escape the building with such obviously stolen items. Since they were listed as inventory for the sale, Craddock says she's had to pay to replace them.
Levy says he doesn't think the damage was quite that extensive, and sees the frantic seizing of Nita's memorabilia in typically modest fashion. "It's somewhat flattering," he says with a rueful grin. "Someone thought so much of Nita's that they're going to take a glass or stool, that they'd want anything just because it's from Nita's."
Now that his time's not occupied seven nights a week, Levy says he's going to focus his energies on Charles Levy Management even though, at this point in the game, it earns no revenue. "What am I going to do, ask the guys for like seven bucks?" he says with a laugh, when asked if managing a couple of bands is a lucrative gig. "You don't do it so you'll make $100 this week. You do it for the long haul, so in maybe two years, you make $100,000 and then you invest."
His best chance for that at the moment is Gloritone. Its debut album, Cup Runneth Over, was released last month on Kneeling Elephant, a subsidiary label of RCA. The band is getting radio play and has just returned from a successful tour of the East and Midwest, and will hit the road again later this month in the South.
But until Gloritone strikes it rich, Levy's not starving. He sold his PA to Balboa Cafe, where the Revenants are currently playing tunes from their Epiphany debut album Artists and Whores every Wednesday night. "I'm just going to live off that money for as long as I can," he says of the sale.
He insists he was "burned out of the whole thing" by the end of his stint at Nita's and, since he didn't own the club, he felt stifled by not having control over certain changes. He would have loved to do all-ages shows, he says, and raise the ceiling above the stage. The closing came "at a good time."
But the resignation in his voice is clear, and it's apparent from what he says next he's going to miss his old haunt. "Obviously, if someone came to me and said, 'Hey, I've got this great club, do you want to help do it?' I'd be the first to do it. But it would have to be the right situation.
"The only thing I really miss now is there's nowhere for me to hang out," he says mistily. "That's why I did Nita's. Now that Nita's is gone, where am I going to go?
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