"Fear is your greatest salesman" was once the rallying cry of insurance vendors the world over. But in the case of this anti-cataclysmic New Year's, fear seemed more like a broken promise. Fear wasn't the reason ticket sales for everything from Phoenix Celebration 2000 to the Judds reunion concert to even flights out of town were way below expectations. No, if people are generally convinced that something approximating widespread Armageddon was going to happen, they'd certainly leave the safe harbor of their homes to check it out. Whenever Americans feel threatened of losing precious personal freedoms to the Fates, the elements or some crazed lunatic fringe, that's when we take to the streets. How else do you explain our cousins in the heartland, who insist on running toward twisters with a camcorder to look them square in the eye?
Quite simply, people sat out this New Year's because they were convinced that nothing would happen, catastrophically, philosophically, metaphysically or artistically. Not even filling the bathtub with water before leaving the house seemed a worthwhile precaution. Those who did venture out this New Year's had to psych themselves up like Tony, Bernardo and Maria from West Side Story by singing "Something's Coming" in the shower, as if some divine reckoning between the Sharks and the Jets of this world was in order. But tonight, tonight would be just any night, and like the guy who goes to the doctor and undergoes a battery of expensive tests only to come away with a clean bill of health, relief inevitably gives way to resentment. That's a lot of responsibility to lay on one little ol' computer glitch, no?
New Year's Eve 1999 won't be making musical history, either -- this is confirmed by one glance at the itinerary of nostalgia merchants on hand, hawking their wares and worn faces. Sadly, if we remember this best-forgotten last week of rock at all, it will be because some Liverpool loony believed "the Beatles are witches" and tried to carve a piece of history into George Harrison's chest. Danger is awaiting us all behind that locked door, and no place was our human rage to live better demonstrated than in that sleepy village of Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, where the "quiet" Beatle and his wife, Olivia, both Krishna devotees, kicked a would-be assassin's ass across three bloodied rooms by hitting him over the head with a lamp. Vegetarian or not, when push comes to stab, it releases the carnivore in us all.
It's six days into the new millennium, and nothing good or bad has happened that can compete with a Hare-cidal maniac. And every newspaper is still stuck in rewind, if only to figure out where New Year's Eve didn't go wrong.
Date: Friday, December 31, 1999
Time: 9 something or other p.m.
Drive into Phoenix. Happen to catch National Public Radio playing that blasted Kenny G "millennium mix" of "Auld Lang Syne," which contains 20th-century sound bites of everything from Edison's first recording to FDR's "fear itself" speech all the way up to Clinton's greatest hit, "I Did Not Have Sexual Relations With That Woman." This monstrosity currently sits at No. 7 on the Billboard single charts. How odd to hear the ecstatic newsreel screams of Elvis and Beatle fans become unwitting participants in this listless, boring Kenny G whiz. You feel like warning those disembodied squealers to just rush the cliffs and die young because it's all going to end here, listening to some snake charmer playing Guy Lombardo. Why has no one ever mistaken Kenny G for a witch? Certainly his Muzak inspires evil in me, a peace-loving guy by all outward appearances. Alas, my silent wish to hear a new and improved "millennium mix" of "Auld Lang Syne," culminating with a new historical sound bite -- "Kenny G died today of a heroin overdose" -- goes unheeded.
Time: Half or a quarter past 10 p.m.
Arrive at Patriots Square Park. Those entering the gated VIP section are greeted by the only bad-vibe vendor of the night, a megaphoned man who assures even people with laminated passes that they will have all access to hell's flames unless they give their hearts over to Jesus. "Jesus loves you -- we don't know what will happen in the next couple of hours," he blurts out, a good restraining order's distance from where tickets for Phoenix Celebration 2000 are still being sold at greatly reduced prices. Given that only 10,000 tickets were unloaded ahead of time, it's possible that the Celebration 2000 organizers have actually hired Mr. Microphone to drum up some last-minute fear.
Not too far from the Gin Blossoms' stage, people are parked on a curb behind an elevated platform where Channel 3 newscasters are commentating away. Staring at their backsides intently, it's as if the curb couch potatoes are fulfilling a secret desire to simulate watching TV from inside of the set. Occasionally, they make an effort to watch the four giant screens spitting out the Gin Blossoms' every move as it happens, for anyone who wants to feel remotely in attendance. Thank goodness the party organizers ran out of money before they could procure a "Blimpcam." Though the crowd is plentiful, it's not enough to warrant this much intensive camerawork. Access to the front of the stage wouldn't be a problem if you didn't have to dodge the imposing mechanical camera crane that hovers overhead like a giant cyborg with robotic limbs, terrorizing a mosh pit where everyone is too polite to speak up.
The Blossoms broke up three New Year's Eves ago, and you wonder if this is an attempt to turn back the clock, to make people think the subsequent three years of Pharoahs 2000, the Low-Watts, Gas Giants and being dropped from A&M were all a dream, like that penultimate season of Dallas. The Blossoms' set comes off smooth and professional, yet the polite civility with which the audience greets every familiar tune doesn't seem to indicate that this is a band that people have been waiting for three years to reunite. Diehards who wanted to relive that old miserable experience already packed into Long Wong's last Wednesday for the Blossoms' "secret" gig, which everyone in Tempe seemed to know about. This Patriots Square Park recital seems more like it's the secret gig, the lucrative Castles 'n' Coasters booking musicians usually don't tell their buddies about. By and large, this smiling throng doesn't know a Doug Hopkins song from a Mary Hopkins one; they're just happy to be out of the house and not getting blown to bits by terrorists. It might as well have been the Association up there. If only Robin Wilson would break into "Cherish" just to give everyone a much-needed reality check up the ass.
If the Gin Blossoms seem like just another oldies act tonight, at least everyone onstage actually played on the records and those records were hits in the last quarter of the century. Here's a helpful hint when watching non-modern rock oldie bands. If it's fat, gray and moves sporadically, it's called an "original member." Why would the Association hire a new gray fat guy if they could get a skinny young buck with modern lenswear wearing brand-spanking-new vintage clothing? If you ask me, there's a mountain of age discrimination lawsuits in Oldiesland just waiting to happen.
What doesn't seem inevitable in this PTA atmosphere are any acts of random violence. The only arrest of note was someone illegally touching a policeman's horse, and you could just imagine how many of the 8,000 deployed officers were on hand to blurt out, "Sir, step away from the equine." At this point, any unforeseen cancer agents in those glowsticks kids are happily shoving in their mouths pose more of a threat than terrorists or Y2K. For a split second, I have the feeling there is a giant rat rummaging at my feet, but it's a street cleaner picking up a discarded paper cup. Whoever heard of having street cleaners picking up garbage during the event? Now I feel like I'm at a relative's house and my fussy aunt is serving cookies with one hand and brandishing a Dustbuster in the other.
Meanwhile, Three Dog Night's holding court at City Hall. Here's a band that hasn't had a hit since 1975, and you can't even get near that stage. There's genuine rapturous devotion on display, with people mouthing the words to every single song. Even the embarrassing ones like "Black and White" -- that oldies stations choose to ignore. Taking a conservative guesstimate, I'd say there are about 12,000 people in attendance overall, and a good half of them are huddled here singing "Never Been to Spain." Later, organizers will claim that Celebration 2000 drew 75,000 people. Yeah, right. And they were all crouching in darkened Port-A-Sans.
Time: 11:30 something or 11:40 something
Arrive at Alice Cooper'stown just as "No More Mr. Nice Guy" ends and "Be My Lover" begins. I look this crowd over. If this is supposed to be a masquerade ball, then everyone's come disguised as wealthy middle-aged couples from Scottsdale. Indeed, at 500 clams a pop, it's hard to imagine anyone in this slacker-free zone owning Beck's new CD. There are, however, a handful a people under the age of 16 in attendance, probably because even this shindig's steep ticket price is cheaper than what baby sitters charge on New Year's Eve. About the youngest people were Alice's band, uncontaminated as it was by any "original members." Good thing, too. Since this backing band is the same age as the original Alice Cooper group in its heyday, they play with the necessary ferocity to keep things from slipping into parody.
Alice, dressed in his swashbuckler's outfit and looking like a cross between Captain Hook and Jamie Farr, is an amiable host, showing enough baby's brain and old man's heart to advise audience members not to drink and drive inside his establishment. He reels off all his customary rockers from "Eighteen" to "School's Out" to "Lost in America" with the consummate menace and urgency that managed to wrestle praise from the notoriously stingy Johnny Rotten in Cooper's recent boxed set. Cynics who wrote Alice off as tame for playing golf and appearing on Hollywood Squares would find the evening's most transcendent moment thoroughly enjoyable: Alice simulates spousal abuse onstage during "Only Women Bleed" while pillars of the community slow-dance in tuxes and evening gowns and people cheer. Whether it's for the music, for Alice's bitch slapping or just the horrific spectacle of it all, it hardly matters.
Just then, for some reason, Guy Lombardo, Mr. New Year's Eve until his death in 1977, pops back into my head. Here was a guy who sold more than 100 million records, had 218 chart singles and 26 number ones (more than Elvis or the Beatles) between 1927 and 1954, the year rock reared its infant head. He was 52 when the hits stopped coming, the same age Alice is tonight. Not only did we thoroughly forget Lombardo, but we blew off electing a New Year's Eve representative to succeed him.
Cooper gets my vote as the next Mr. New Year's Eve, should they ever resurrect that post. First off, with only three minutes to go on the countdown clock, he squeaks in his shortest song, "Cold Ethyl," and still manages to beat Dick Clark and his parka up to the roof to count down from 37. Then once the balloons fall from the ceiling, Cooper reclaims "Auld Lang Syne" for those punks in the Royal Canadians, playing it three times the speed Kenny G clocked in at.
Time: After midnight
For this second set, Alice relives his Spiders days as a Phoenix cover band with a triple play of Stones covers, wondering aloud "if the Stones are somewhere doing Alice Cooper songs." Then he polls people on their favorite band, and since no crazed Liverpool assassins are in attendance, Alice proceeds with four Beatle tunes, dedicated to the hospitalized George. It was during "Revolution" that people who've left Celebration 2000 start to congregate outside Cooper'stown, pulling back its black tarps to get a peak inside. All evening, security has not had to tell one patron to step down off the handicap ramp railing. Now there's a gathering mob outside that looks as if it means to turn this into a free festival. Security prevails, but not until some people without passes are ushered in. Maybe the door persons have resurrected Studio 54's "you, you and you" method of natural selection.
Time: Sometime in the morning
Pumped as I am about seeing the Coop set, I'm anticipating that the climactic rockin' New Year's Eve all-star jam will turn out like one of Dick Clark's disastrous old TV specials. The ones where he'd invite everyone up onstage -- from Pete Best to Johnny Winter to Slash to Christine McVie to Frankie Avalon on trumpet -- and they'd make a 20-minute blooper, bleep and blunder outta "Johnny B. Goode." My friend overhears this and assures me that "these good people have paid way too much money to hear 'Johnny B. Goode.' They'll probably get 'All Along the Watchtower' or something."
The strangest part about the jam is that Cooper never returns to kick-start it. Guess since he'd earlier performed "Jailhouse Rock" and "All Shook Up" in an Elvis wig, that was as much personal shame as he wanted to endure for the rest of the night. Those who had macabre visions of Cooper bringing his guillotine onstage to decapitate the Judds or chase Waylon Jennings around with a giant toothbrush will leave unsatisfied, especially since none of the invited country acts ever make it down. Instead, the Pistoleros start things up with a tough reworking of the Stones' "Heartbreaker" before inviting the Peacemakers' Roger Clyne up for a number. That goes fine, but it seems obvious that most of the people in the audience don't know who these hometown musicians are. Promised an all-star jam where maybe Waylon Jennings is gonna show and they get the Peacemakers making up words for "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys."
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The Peacemakers can get away with doing that ragged anthem in a fairly inebriated manner, but when they decide to play Bruce Springsteen's more challenging "Rosalita" in the same state of drunken deficiency, somebody else really ought to take the wheel. Mark Zubia of the Pistoleros valiantly jumps in on the choruses, but, realizing it's hopeless, he can't help but laugh his ass off. Clyne knocks his guitar neck into the mike stand more than once, there's phantom feedback, and bass notes are dropping out like Alka Seltzer in a glass. In short, "Rosalita" winds up raped and freezing in the Phoenix desert of Cooper'stown, bereft of saxophones, pianos and any real commitment.
If Clyne is indeed tipsy, he's earned points just for being the first overimbiber to weave into this den of decorum. Everyone's been on real good behavior tonight -- there are no instances of domestic squabbles or really inappropriate contact with police horses to speak of. The Righteous Brothers are among the all-star musicians who happily checked their egos at the door to perform, only to leave 40 minutes later without having sung a note. Perhaps it's because the organizers think Billy Idol's gonna show, as if he's higher up on the rock-star food chain at this late date. Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, who once praised dead rock stars in a song called "Rock and Roll Heaven," are themselves in some kind of rock 'n' roll limbo, knocking back drinks at the bar with their families in tow, waiting for the Peacemakers to get done proving only women bleed by butchering "Rosalita."
Despite an announcement from the stage that Billy Idol's car has arrived, his sneer will be seen by no one here, many of whom are now frantically scrambling to take the attractive table centerpieces home. At one point, all of Three Dog Night were here, but come showtime, the band is reduced to one top Dog, Cory Wells, one "original sideman," one new sideman with modern lenswear wearing brand-spanking-new vintage clothing, two borrowed Peacemakers and one non-original guitarist from Steppenwolf. But the show must go on. After watching Cory Wells run down chord changes with the Peacemakers' bassist for the better part of 10 minutes, methinks we're in for a reprise of "Shambala." So after all this preamble, what do they play? "Memphis." And "Too Much Monkey Business."
If there's a rock 'n' roll heaven, this is considerably lower. And if you believe in forever, it's a lot like people jamming and taking solos on Chuck Berry tunes. Grabbing their expensive wraps, those who still truly believe in forever beat a retreat before an entirely plausible "Johnny B. Goode" can get under way.