Wong Place, Right Time
As you walk down Tempe's Mill Avenue, somewhere past the Gap and Hooters but before you get to Abercrombie & Fitch, you'll pass Long Wong's, a funky bar plopped on the corner of Seventh Street. Within the shiny surroundings, it seems an architectural and cultural anachronism. It remains one of the only standing reminders of Mill Avenue's not-so-distant past, the memories of which have already begun to wilt under the harsh glare of corporate neon.
It might be false romanticism or even hyperbole to try to lionize a crumbling orange building that smells of chicken wings, but it's still tempting to try. Certainly, Mill Avenue was never the Bowery, and even the kindest assessment wouldn't cast Long Wong's as Arizona's answer to CBGB's. But if its walls never sweated like those of the Cavern Club, or saw the same kind of legendary performances as the Marquee, Wong's will forever hold a place in modern local music history, in much the same way that Mad Gardens served as a landmark for early Phoenix punk or as J.D.'s did for country music in the '60s.
Across Wong's patio, Seventh Street looks remarkably like a demilitarized zone. Chain-link fence and barbed wire obscure a massive pit emanating with the grating sounds of progress. Part of this four-block construction site was once the home of the notorious but beloved Six East Lounge.
The Six East was always Long Wong's dirty, sexier sister, a place where musicians would go between sets to avoid stifling onstage drinking ordinances. It was the kind of bar where you could walk in with $10 and stumble out hours later with an amazing story, a cracked skull, or both. "The Beast," as it was called, boasted the kind of image that the city's power brokers didn't want to be a part of their new "Millennium Avenue," and so it was sacrificed to the wrecking ball.
Its demise this past August left Long Wong's as the metaphorical last soldier, fighting against the inexorable onslaught.
If Wong's has remained an unyielding pillar in a community under siege, then its undiminished reputation as a venue for live, original music has to be credited in large part to club booker/bartender Sara Cina.
Cast in the light of Wong's big window pane, Cina looks much younger than her 30-plus years should allow. Her face is framed by long, straight hair and balanced by big doe eyes that have witnessed a lifetime's worth of drunken fools and bad pickup lines.
Cina is a reluctant interview, especially when the subject is herself, and the upcoming anniversary concert celebrating her decade of service at Long Wong's. It's such a dubious honor that she's insisted on nicknaming the event the "Sara's 'She's Worked Here 10 Years? What a Loser!' Party."
To mark the occasion, some of the biggest names in local music have agreed to turn out for a free acoustic show. The concert will feature performances by members of Dead Hot Workshop, the Peacemakers, Gas Giants, Pistoleros, Ghetto Cowgirl, Muddy Violets, and the Piersons. The event is also to be recorded and released as a live album with profits from its sale going to charity.
A decade is an eternity in bar time. The business itself is so transient in nature that it doesn't lend itself to longevity. Hairstyles, fashion, music and drink prices have all changed, but Sara Cina has remained.
Cina is finally cajoled into discussing what, it turns out, has been a lifelong love affair with rock 'n' roll.
A Scottsdale native, Cina began promoting bands when she was in high school.
"I first started going to the Mason Jar when I was 15; it was before I even had a driver's license," she recalls. "That was in the days when the drinking age was 19 and before anyone gave a shit about fake IDs."
Cina's entree into the strange music-biz world came courtesy of Mason Jar owner Franco Gagliano. In the late '80s, the fashion-challenged scion of Valley rock gave Cina the opportunity to run a series of "Marquee Nights" at his club. Although the promotion was short-lived, Cina was able to bring a handful of alternative bands into the primarily metal-oriented Jar.
She became immersed in the business when she went on to work as a booker for the long-lamented Sun Club in 1989. After a year, Cina began managing local stalwarts Dead Hot Workshop, then just starting out. She would work with the band for several more years, but, in the interim, she began an association with the bar she would call home for the next decade.
"I had been hanging out at Wong's forever, and I knew the owners because I booked Dead Hot Workshop. One night, I was sitting out on the patio and they were short-staffed, and they asked me if I would waitress," says Cina, offering a sheepish grin. "And I guess I've never left."
Graduating from waitress to bartender to club booker, Cina's timing was fortuitous. Although the bar had long featured live music, it had been limited to quiet acoustic shows by blues and country artists like Hans Olson and Frank Mackey. In an effort to capitalize on the growing ASU student population, the club's new ownership decided to expand the live music repertoire to include rock 'n' roll -- seven nights a week.
"At first it was hard to get people every night; most people didn't want to play on a Monday," recalls Cina. "After a while, it got to a phase where every good band wanted to play here, and they didn't care what night it was. Then it was difficult because you had so many good bands it was hard to fit everyone in."
After 10 years, Cina can regale with stories that trace the arc of Tempe's brief though rich musical history.
Not surprising, her most vivid recollections concern Long Wong's most famous alumni, the Gin Blossoms. "The nights the Gin Blossoms would play were definitely the most memorable. It would be packed and loud, but the difference was that all these buildings weren't here," says Cina, looking off toward a phalanx of high-rises, stores and restaurants. "So when the doors would be open in the summer, the noise would go out into these neighborhoods, literally like a mile away. People who were trying to sleep would call to complain, and the fire marshal would come and shut the place down."
The crowds that comprised the early Blossoms audiences were arguably as volatile and entertaining as the band they came to see. They came to Wong's to drink, and drink lustily.
Cina's memories are colored by similarly vibrant images: singers hanging from the ceiling; bands ingesting trays of Jell-O shots.
Wong's has been more than the nexus for local groups. It's seen its fair share of out-of-town and touring acts, and is, by virtue of word of mouth, the place that most passing musicians stop in to have a beer or even get onstage for an impromptu jam, as L.A. punk legend John Doe and REO Speedwagon's Kevin Croninhave both done. Southern indie rockers like Dash Rip Rock, Texas alt-country kingpins Slobberbone, as well as legendary Replacements' guitarist Slim Dunlap have all graced the bar's cramped stage. However, Cina's favorite invader was Minneapolis singer/songwriter Peter Himmelman, who played a pair of memorable gigs in the early '90s.
"He was playing and singing and the audience was hushed and just hanging on his every word," she recalls. "In the middle of the set, he asks the crowd, 'Do you guys want to take a walk with me?' The place was full, absolutely packed, and every single person leaves the bar and goes across the street -- this was when there was still grass out there [the current occupant is a furniture boutique] -- to watch him play. I just stood there and watched as the place emptied completely. He did that two nights in a row. That's the kind of shit you don't see much.
"The one thing that always has stayed with me is the music and the bands. Whether they 'made it' or didn't make it, they definitely made an impact on the people that were here to experience it."
The visceral impact of the music has kept Cina in a business full of daily, even hourly, frustrations and mishaps. She's managed to maintain her sanity, using a sharpened sense of sarcasm to wade thorough the unending bullshit that comes with dealing with often dysfunctional "artistes."
"There's really no way of knowing whether a new band is going to be successful. I've booked a lot of bands that play to very few people and I've done it repeatedly because I know that they're good bands. Often it's just a matter of time until they find an audience," says Cina. "For people that care about music, that's the most rewarding thing. Watching a band like [local pop trio] Gloritone play for months on a weeknight to virtually no one and then all of a sudden -- boom! The shows are packed, everyone loves them, and they're on the radio all the time."
Ultimately, the limited size, low overhead and dedicated clientele have combined to allow Long Wong's to continue to showcase original music on a nightly basis. Wong's steadfast refusal to change is refreshing in an era when clubs are increasingly forgoing the format in favor of safer, more economically viable forms of entertainment.
"If we started to have disco cover bands or DJs, just so I knew we'd have 200 people in here, it wouldn't be Long Wong's anymore."
Still, one need only gaze toward Six East's ghost to know that the forces of progress have little use for boozy nostalgia. The grind of dump trucks and bulldozers echoes in the background, serving as a reminder that even the most ferocious of beasts may one day become extinct.
Long Wong's owners have a multiyear lease, yet it seems inevitable that the bar will one day be sacrificed -- demolished, or more likely rebuilt as part of the Tempe/Mill Avenue new world order.
"I really can't envision that," says Cina, shaking her head. "It'll be a brand new building and it will look like everything else on Mill, which will be kind of sad. It will have all those things that people bitch about now, 'I wish it had a better P.A.; I wish there was a bigger stage; I wish there was more places to sit; blah, blah, blah.' The day will come when it will have all that, and then people will bitch about it not being like it used to be," adds Cina with a hearty laugh.
She's grown close to hundreds of musicians and scenesters and has seen many come and go. Sitting in the bar, it's hard not to be taken by its sense of history -- as much a part of the ambience and romance of the place as the graffiti-encrusted walls and dank interior. Those who have passed away prematurely include some of Wong's most fondly remembered denizens -- Doug Hopkins, Stacey Keller, Brad Singer. Framed flyers announcing memorial concerts dot the walls; a small mural depicting local eccentric Frank "Elvis Del Monte" Martinez covers the side entrance.
"There's been lots of bad things that have happened over the years," sighs Cina. "I don't know what the deal is with that. I mean, Long Wong's is sort of like this mini -- I don't want to say universe -- but in a way it is."
Long Wong's has become the center of a strange, insular world populated by artists, musicians, barflies and outrageous characters. That sort of populace breeds a "live-fast, die-young" mentality. Whether their fates were the result of unfortunate accidents or a careening lifestyle, in the end, the details are often forgotten, and all that's left behind is the tragedy.
"I've gone to a lot more funerals than I would have liked to," confesses Cina. "It's weird. I don't know what it says about the people here. Because I have friends who are accountants and businessmen, and [tragedy] doesn't seem to happen in their world as much." She shrugs her shoulders. A few weeks ago, a trio of musicians and Long Wong's regulars lost close family members within days of each other. One of them was Cina, whose mother died after a long battle with cancer. Proceeds from the live anniversary CD will go to benefit the American Cancer Society.
Beyond the tumult and daily headaches associated with bar life, it's a love for the music that continues to bring Cina back. The fabric of any local music scene is woven with more than musicians -- it's just as much about people working the bar, the soundboard or sitting in the audience. Their dedication and contributions often get lost in the spotlight that shines onstage. Yet it's heartening to know that they're with us, and that for as long as Long Wong's endures, Sara Cina will be standing guard at its inner sanctum.
"I don't want to be the next Bill Graham. Being involved in music has never been something I've wanted to do because of money or to make career out of it. I don't know exactly what it is, but somehow I just can't seem to get out of it." Smiling, she finally seems to confess to the truth. "I guess, in the end, I really love doing it."
Sara Cina's "She's Worked Here 10 Years? What a Loser!" Party featuring acoustic performances by members of Dead Hot Workshop, Ghetto Cowgirl, the Peacemakers, Muddy Violets, Gas Giants, Pistoleros, and Piersons is scheduled for Monday, December 13, at Long Wong's in Tempe. Showtime is 7 p.m. Admission is free.
Lovable Losers and No Account Boozers: When the Piersons called it quits in May 1998, few people familiar with the Tempe trio's combustible chemistry were surprised. After the death of their benefactor and Epiphany label owner Brad Singer, a turbulent recording process for their sophomore album and growing personal friction within the group, the band members decided to stay ahead of the game and quit before becoming the proverbial hangers-on.
Fortunately, for fans of scruffy, alcohol-fueled postpunk, the band decided it still had something left to say. The Piersons reemerged after a six-month hiatus with a new member and a batch of fresh songs.
The group's stability and sound was immediately bolstered with the arrival of Jimmy Campisano (a veteran of various Valley combos including Since I Was Six, Slugger, and Juno), who fills the second guitar spot left absent since the 1996 departure of local rawk gee-tar ace Michael "Johnny" Walker.
Since re-forming, the band has completed the bulk of recording on a third, as-yet-untitled record, a follow-up to 1997's Appleberry Wine.
After a fruitful though stormy two-album turn with Jim Swafford behind the board, the group is self-producing the new record with the assistance of Mayberry Studios engineer Chris Widmer.
The new material finds frontman Patrick Sedillo continuing to showcase his talent for spinning drunken tales of heartbroken has-beens, not-yets and never-weres. Notably, the group's studio sound seems to have finally coalesced to mirror its raucous live noise, living up to its "Too Pussy for Punks, Too Punk for Pussies" motto. The new effort mixes rockers ("Bad Penny," "Vitamin C") that crunch and bite with weepers ("Wreckage," "Alicia") that seem to shed even more tears. If the current work-in-progress is any barometer, the forthcoming record should be the Piersons' definitive statement.
While no details have been set, it's likely the album will surface in the spring on a small indie label, or, more likely, will be released by the band.
Chances to glimpse the new material have been few, as the group has played only a handful of shows in 1999. Aside from a planned acoustic cameo at the aforementioned Long Wong's bash, the Piersons will be making their final appearance of the year this Saturday, headlining a show at the Balboa Café.
The Piersons are scheduled to perform on Saturday, December 11, at the Balboa Café in Tempe, with Ghetto Cowgirl. Showtime is 9 p.m.
Vox 'n' Roll: Atlanta's The Forty Fives make a much anticipated return to the Valley this week after a rousing July performance at the Green Room. The group is driven by the pumping sound of a Vox Continental and inspired by the strains of '60s organ-wielding garage/R&B avatars like the Rascals, Standells, and Syndicate of Sound. The band's debut, Let's Work Together will see nationwide release in February from Ng Records. The group has a return engagement this Sunday at the Green Room in Tempe. Local soul testifiers Glory Revival are scheduled to open. Showtime is 9 p.m.
Contact Bob Mehr at his online address: email@example.com
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.