It's a beautiful fall evening, twilight at my house in downtown Tempe, mild temperatures at last, the scent of blooming night jasmine floating through my open windows. Across the street, a gaggle of my skateboarder friends are on their front porch drinking Budweiser and smoking cigarettes. Later on, another friend on our block will have a party that stretches well into morning's single-digit hours.
I've lived in this neighborhood, a football's throw from Arizona State University, for nearly nine years now, and I wouldn't live anywhere else in the Valley, and that's not just because of the fresh crop of beautiful young girls that show up each semester.
Down the street, my liquor store proprietor George is my personal sommelier; he knows my tastes in wine better than I do. The sisters who work at the (independently owned) Dunkin' Donuts down the street, Precious and Victoria, have my iced coffee with cream ready before I step in the door. The bulk of my close friends live within easy bicycling distance, and we roll from bar to bar like the neighborhood's drunken Guardian Angels.
This neighborhood, the Valley's locus of youth, with its attendant energy and creativity, has damn near everything I could ask for in a community.
Except a decent grocery store.
And now, with the closing of Ziggy's Rock 'n' Roll Lounge at Fourth Street and Mill Avenue, no venue for live local music. Again. Which completely confuses the shit out of me.
There are venues around Tempe, like The Sets, the Clubhouse, the Yucca Tap Room, and the Big Fish Pub, but those joints aren't within the periphery of my 'hood.
Why the hell can't a live music venue survive within close distance to the nation's sixth largest public university? It's a stupid question, one that shouldn't even have to be asked. Yet the question looms over every effort to provide a venue for live local music in this area. Legendary establishments like Beeloe's jazz lounge and Long Wong's couldn't make it, and likewise, the heroic efforts of Josh Bartosh and Jake Shelton to provide a local venue at Ziggy's have failed. Yet ridiculous, lowest-common-denominator efforts like the Big Bang dueling piano bar thrive.
Over the last year, Ziggy's was transformed from a mediocre sports bar into a club that was host to punk rock bands like Casket Life and the Dames as well as the bluegrass outfit Busted Hearts, even employing local musicians on its staff. National acts like Hemicuda and Texas Terri came through and played Ziggy's, and Jello Biafra stopped in at a memorable Bullet Train to Moscow show.
Shelton blames Ziggy's closure on the astronomical rent (close to 10 grand a month, he says) coupled with difficult parking, a heavy police presence, and the corporate atmosphere of Mill Avenue. "We didn't want to deal with it anymore. Obviously, our clientele doesn't want to go to Mill Avenue, but they did, and they gave us really good support. They were really great, but that's not where they wanna be. Mill Avenue's just not a place to do business of any sort. I don't see it as a viable option anymore."
I understand the aversion to Mill Avenue as well as anyone -- except for Long Wong's, in recent times I had no reason to venture into the Abercrombie-infested microcosm of Kevin Federline clones and cheerleader types.
It wasn't that way when I moved here nine years back. My friends and I would play Ping-Pong and drink espresso at Java Road, where the student population mingled with the neighborhood locals. At night, we'd hit up 6 East and throw chairs in our first real bar brawls. We could duck into Long Wong's and see Dead Hot Workshop rocking out, or stumble down the stairs into Beeloe's dim, smoky confines and mellow out with some jazz.
Those days are long gone, and now it seems that the ASU student population rarely merges with the local community and its art and music scenes. If it had, perhaps a venue like Ziggy's could have thrived. But Shelton says there was no visible upswing in business when school started, which begs the question: Why? Are ASU students simply more predisposed to dance music -- which thrives in the area -- rather than live rock, jazz or blues?
I called up Russ Perry, the concert series director for ASU's Programs and Activities Board. Perry says he encounters similar frustrations trying to book shows at or near ASU. "We have no real available venue where we can rock out. For any event on campus, we have amplification rules, only 85 decibels from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. We could maybe do a show off campus, but where are we gonna go?
"Universally, if you ask a 17- to 25-year-old, 'Hey, do you want a great venue, with cheap live shows,' who's gonna say no? The real issue isn't are students for it or against it, or do they sympathize -- it's not our problem. If it's there, great, but if it's not, let's go to parties."
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Therein lies the nut of the problem -- the students don't feel they have a stake in the local community, and don't feel obligated to support the local entrepreneurs who are attempting to provide venues for artistic ventures like live local music.
For their part, Bartosh and Shelton plan on opening another venue in a cheaper location in Tempe with better parking six months or so down the road. So again I'll be cruising my bicycle down to their joint to see live music in my neighborhood, and I'll cross my fingers hoping that the goddamned student population will eventually see how important such a venture is.