As we approach the twilight of each calendar year, it seems music critics are overly eager to proclaim the preceding 12 months as the "Year of" something. You know, "The Year of Grunge," "The Year of Women in Rock," "The Year of Electronic Music" and on and on.
But if 2000 is to be remembered for anything -- save for the sight of Miss Britney Spears' exquisite jugs at the MTV Video Music Awards -- it should be "The Year of the List."
It seemed everywhere you looked in 2000, someone was compiling a poll, countdown or rating of the greatest this or most important that, the top 50 of these, the best 100 of those, until it made the eyes of even the most ardent number cruncher glaze over in despair.
The same year that saw High Fidelity, a film about obsessive music-list makers, also witnessed the unveiling of Rolling Stone and MTV's Top 100 Pop Songs -- an appallingly insipid poll which listed the Carlos Santana/Rob Thomas duet of "Smooth" as number 31, right in front of "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay" and "My Generation."
However, when it comes to repeated list abuse, VH1 is the worst offender. The cable network offered elaborate and seemingly endless programming detailing things like the "Top Hard Rockers," "Best Madonna Videos of All Time" and "Greatest Musical Moments on Sesame Street," among many others. List-oriented programming has become such a staple at VH1 that the "Music First" channel even has a regular show called The List, ferchrissakes.
As the coming weeks are sure to yield a whole new crop of such merciless tripe, we've decided to get a bit of a head start here. However, we won't be rating songs, albums or even groups specifically; instead, we'll be looking at the top 10 moments in local music from the year 2000. You know, those fleeting instances when someone or something rose above (or fell below) the level of the mundane. Strictly speaking, this isn't a best-of or a worst-of, more like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the Valley scene for the past 12 months.
And just like Casey Kasem, we're going to start at the bottom and count 'em up to number one. Meanwhile, be sure to keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.
10. Go Big Casino's Debut
When Jimmy Eat World front man Jim Adkins announced plans for an elaborately staged two-night stand to debut his orchestral-pop side project, Go Big Casino, it raised more than a few eyebrows. Could the idol of the Stinkweeds set pull off an extravaganza that seemed more appropriate for Burt Bacharach or Jimmy Webb than a much-heralded college rocker?
Dressed to the nines and leading an 11-piece big band of local luminaries, Adkins weaved his way through a clutch of sterling new compositions that owed more to the Brill Building than the Jade Tree label. With the sold-out showcase and stellar performance, Adkins proved he's more than just the guitar godhead of the underage indie crowd. Word is that the next Jimmy Eat World full-length (currently in production with Drive Like Jehu's Mark Trombino behind the board) will move away from the band's signature sound and veer into Go Big Casino territory. A true coming-out party for a big-time local talent.
9. Stand Back, Stevie
It's not easy being Stevie "The Kelvinator" Nicks. But it's even harder being a semi-pro Stevie Nicks look-alike. Witness the decadelong trials and travails of Cheryl Cusella (a.k.a. "Britney Marx"), the local Nicks clone whose efforts to carve out a career in her idol's hefty shadow led to an appearance on TV's Puttin' on the Hits and, later, a somewhat lengthier stint in prison after she defrauded investors in a concert-promotion scheme. More recently, she has reinvented herself as a country singer, a gay-rights advocate, a self-described rape victim (police became suspicious of the alleged attack when Cusella relived her ordeal on The Montel Williams Show, but refused to elaborate on details for investigators) and an animal-rights activist. But the hits keep on keeping on, and in September, Cusella pleaded guilty to bilking $500,000 out of 13 people who believed they were donating to an animal shelter -- money Cusella admitted that she actually spent on herself.
8. Big Blue Couch Loves the Sound of Breaking Glass
The famed glass window behind the stage at Long Wong's on Mill really should have had a target painted on it the whole time. The venerable venue's oversize pane always seemed ready-made to fall victim to the egomaniacal whims of some drunken Jim Morrison wanna-be eager to crash through it and onto the street. Although most figured it was just a matter of time before the proverbial wall came a-tumbling down, observers were betting it would be a punk band (or Grave Danger) responsible, rather than the art-rock up-and-comers in Big Blue Couch (frankly, I had big bucks riding on my mike-twirling colleague Brian Smith).
BBC's September 23 show was halted abruptly just a few bars into their first song due to equipment troubles. But patrons got their money's worth when a verbal argument between bassist Jon Demrick and drummer Jayson Gilbert erupted in a shoving match, then into a full-blown fistfight. Before either rhythm player could do any damage to the other, their onstage melee took on epic proportions as the two shattered the massive glass backdrop, sending shards into the street. The shock of that sight stopped the tussle dead in its tracks (the band kissed and made up later and is readying the release of its long-awaited debut next year). Meanwhile, flummoxed bouncers and frantic bar managers searched for answers -- and a late-night window repairman. But as the artist who tops this year's list might say, "Hey, that's rock 'n' roll!"
7. Bruce and Tessa Connole: A Father and Child Reunion
Not since Ken Griffeys Sr. and Jr. took the field together has there been so much ado about a parent and child appearing in the same lineup. Well, not really. But in local music terms, the Revenants/Weaker Sex double bill was a rather historic, if not disconcerting (at least for those who remember Connole's halcyon days as a rock 'n' roll hell-raiser) event, as proud papa Bruce shared the stage with daughter Tessa's all-girl honky tonk combo in August. Though the Weaker Sex fizzled out just a week or so later (leaving us with egg -- check that, omelet -- on our faces after writing a lengthy profile), it was still an absolute Hallmark moment. Frank and Nancy, eat your hearts out.
6. Don't Cry for Me 75-Cent Kamikaze
Take the fashion sense of a 12-year-old skateboarder, the tasteful gold accessorization of Mr. T and a grasp of the English language to rival Roberto Benigni, and you've pretty much captured former Mason Jar owner Franco Gagliano. The longtime avatar of Valley heavy metal hung it up this year, handing over the reins of the club after 20-plus years. But aging headbangers needn't worry; little has changed at the central Phoenix nightspot. Big hair, spandex and "shredding, dude" are still present and accounted for. Gagliano even reportedly makes the odd onstage cameo shilling watered-down well drinks at bargain-basement prices. And as Ol' Franc himself might say, "If you don't like eet, fuck you, maan!"
5. Fine China Rocks Harder Than You Ever Knew
This North Phoenix Christian rock quartet emerged from seemingly nowhere to snag a deal with Seattle-based indie Tooth and Nail (onetime label home to fellow Christ lovers MXPX). Regardless of its spiritual allegiances, the band was responsible for this year's finest local pop moment. Released in the fall, Fine China's debut single, "We Rock Harder Than You Ever Knew" -- an oh-so-fey, electro-pop anthem of love and understanding -- was the catchiest, sing-songiest slice of ear candy to be committed to disc. What are the chances that a band in the heart of the desert could manage to capture the best moments of the Smiths, OMD, Wild Swans and other 1980s synth-preeners? Whatever the odds, we say praise the Lord and the three-minute pop song.
4. Grave Danger . . . Baby!
Are grown men supposed to be acting like this? Probably not, hence the lure of psychobilly trio Grave Danger, which returned to regular performing early in 2000 and spent the rest of the year drowning venues in an ocean of blood, booze and hedonistic mayhem. Led by longtime local vet singer/guitarist Kevin Daly, drummer Vince Ramirez and bassist Rich Merriman, the combo quickly became a phenomenon of sorts, inspiring normally tame Valley audiences to heretofore unseen levels of excess and bottle-breaking euphoria. Meanwhile, the band released a self-titled debut (which included blood 'n' guts epics like "Mad"), began recording a follow-up (loaded with even more violent anthems like the signature "Piss on Your Grave") and capped the unforgettable year with a spectacular Halloween concert that saw the band dressed up as the Misfits and, appropriately enough, trying to beat up audience members onstage. If 2001 finds Grave Danger in the same form as this year, local clubs would be advised to stock up on the plastic cups.
3. Tempe Rock Bids Adieu
The third spot finds our only tie, as we call it, a draw, between Dead Hot Workshop's reunion and the Piersons/Pistoleros CD release party.
Both of these events were a highly symbolic -- if not a somewhat literal -- drawing of the curtain on the Mill Avenue scene of yore. Dead Hot's return (with its classic lineup intact for the first time in more than three years) was arguably the year's most anticipated local event, and the band's secret Tempe show proved one of the few had-to-be-there concerts in recent memory.
Meanwhile, the Piersons and Pistoleros celebrated the completion of their first self-released offerings in more than three years, essentially bringing the two groups back full circle to their early-'90s roots. The Piersons' celebratory set (augmented by local talents Paul Cardone and Michael "Rock-'n'-Roll-on-a-Stick" Brooks) was especially poignant as bassist Scott Moore -- still recovering from an early-October car accident -- received an emotional toast to begin the night.
What the future holds for those who emerged from Tempe's first brilliant burst remains to be seen. Dead Hot Workshop has left the door open for more dates and possible recording, while the Pistoleros continue with an eye toward another record deal. The Piersons are, understandably, on hold, though front man Patrick Sedillo is set to debut a new group (tentatively dubbed Vodka Jesus) in the coming weeks. But even if the future yields nothing more for these three outfits, the events of 2000 offered a fitting valediction to their careers.
2. Birdwatching With Claudia DiFolco
Oh, Claudia. How do we love thee? Let us count the ways. Ghetto Cowgirl's Mark Norman showed us one really good way when the singer flipped off DiFolco and her NewShow audience during an August edition of the nightly info-tainment program. After offering his single-finger salute, Norman disappeared from the set, leaving his bandmates and a glib DiFolco to apologize to any oldsters in Sun City who might've taken offense. Ironic, then, that NewShow anchor Liz "Get Your Fucking Hands Off Me" Habib would employ similarly obscene language and gestures during her recent drunken brush wit da Man at Scottsdale's Dos Gringos. (Recommended reading note: The police report detailing Liz "You Guys Are So Going Down" Habib's arrest is by far the most fascinating thing you will lay eyes on all year. Actually, Habib -- who has an oddly attractive porcine quality about her -- is one of our new heroes for offering up a local version of John Lennon's "Lost Weekend.")
DiFolco survived the Norman imbroglio unscathed, and since then, the comely Canadian corespondent has, for better or worse, become a ubiquitous (and in some ways integral) part of the Valley music establishment -- as well as a local press darling. What more can you say about the TV tart? We say "Blame Canada."
1. Ain't Nuthin' but a G Thang, Baby: Stephen Ashbrook Goes Gangsta
Our chart topper is a frightening case of life imitating art. In February, we wrote up a fictional scenario in which local übercrooner Stephen Ashbroook was portrayed as a tough-talking gangsta who didn't take no shit offa nobody, lest they wanted him to pop a cap in their ass. But of course, that was pure fantasy, a twist on Ashbrook's real reputation as a charismatic if somewhat white-bread tunesmith of the pop variety.
Well, dammit if he didn't turn out to be a "Real G" after all.
The incident in question occurred during an October Nita's Hideaway reunion of Ashbrook's band, Satellite, in which the singer literally went upside some poor bastard's head.
The problem began when Satellite's set ran past the usual 1 a.m. closing time. By 1:15, the band was still playing, much to the chagrin of the engineer working the soundboard. After repeated attempts to get them to stop went unheeded, the soundman did the logical thing and shut off the PA.
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Realizing he'd been cut off in mid-falsetto, a furious Ashbrook leaped from the stage wide-eyed and bloodthirsty, ran through the crowd, bum rushed the sound booth and looked to all as though he were going to start pummeling the person responsible for this effrontery.
As to exactly what happened next, there's been much conjecture and speculation. However, there is no truth to the story that Ashbrook began pistol-whipping the helpless man while demanding, "What's my name, bitch? What's my name?" Similarly false was the report that he had taken his trademark blue-tinted specs and rammed them into the man's throat, walking away from his bleeding body with the ominous aside: "Nobody messes with my set, motherfucker."
Despite the varying accounts, the facts are somewhat more tame. Although his immediate explosion of temper was quite genuine, the singer regained his better senses after a few seconds and only gave the technician a light shove and an earful of guff. Wisely, Ashbrook realized that if he'd struck the guy, he'd have spent the rest of his career working with legions of soundmen eager to press the "suck" button and gain revenge for one of their brethren.
Still, this is the first we've ever heard of a performer trying to jump ugly with a sound tech, making it a notable moment by anyone's standards. And as a public service, we offer a word of warning to those who may dare to cross old Stevie in the upcoming year. Remember: You can take the Ashbrook out of the 'hood, but you can't take the 'hood out of the Ashbrook.