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Ace Venture

We're standing around in the airy Tiffany's Cabaret parking lot, doing very little. Just shooting the shit, really. Johnny Ace's resident lackey, Eugene Haugen, a bony kid with Social Distortion hair and thick eyeliner, is videotaping the scene with a hand-held. He says he's making a documentary of his favorite band, Johnny Ace. It's a warm night, stars are out. Plenty of humidity.

Squat, middle-aged men wearing golf shorts and sport sandals pile out of SUVs and enter the club. One group files in after the other. Looks like a dental floss convention is in town.

Two chunky goons with fitness-center physiques move toward us. They're dressed identically in what could be described as British Secret Service outfits. Attached to their vests are small two-way radios. And each of the goons wears a smirk on his face. They have nice, bright eyes and perfect white teeth. This could be a scene from a bad Steven Segal movie that will inevitably end with lots of karate kicks and fractured limbs. It's like that. The strip bar, the goons, the central casting cadre of punk rockers and goth kids.

Joining me and Haugen are the four members of Johnny Ace and our pal Darren Gailey, the goth kid/screenwriter given to feminine extremes. I'm surprised on a regular basis Gailey doesn't get killed, particularly considering he lives in north Phoenix. North Phoenix is no man's land for anybody who takes chances.

The goons, of course, aren't down with us. Goon No. 1 makes Haugen extract the tape from the camera.

"Hand over the tape," he says. "We saw you point that thing at the club. You were taping one of the girls getting out of her car."

"I can't give you the tape," says Haugen credulously, figuring there are seven of us and two of them. What are the odds?

I'm thinking these two guys could take us in nothing flat.

"I'm shooting a documentary on the band," Haugen explains.

Goon No. 1 talks into the button-size radio attached to his shirt: "He needs to come out to parking like now. You need to send him out to the parking lot."

Goon No. 2 leans against a car and smirks some more. Is that all these guys do -- smirk?

Haugen relents. "I'll give you the tape. It's not a problem," he says as he hands it over.

Goon No. 1 sees the tape recorder in my hand.

"What's that for?" he asks. "What's the red light for?"

"Nothin'," I tell him. "Just recording this for fun."

"Well, turn it off," he blurts.

I turn it off and put it in my bag.

Moments later, a diminutive guy in his late 40s appears. He's wearing alligator shoes, a Mr. T gold-chain starter kit and a porno mustache. A quintessential adult cabaret Boss Man. And he's not gonna take any crap from a bunch of punks. Not this guy. He makes this very clear in the rigid way he positions his feet; his unyielding don't-fuck-with-me look.

Boss Man thinks we are on some school project. He figures the video camera is some cute college gag or something. Since when do college kids wear spiked hair, leather trousers, net shirts and studded belts? I doubt many in this bunch have even set foot on a college campus.

Goon No. 1 hands Boss Man the tape.

"I'll watch the tape and delete anything having to do with Tiffany's," he barks at Haugen. "You can come back tomorrow and get your tape."

Goon No. 1 tells Haugen to put the camera in the car. He tells me to put the recorder in the car.

The New Times lensman arrives for a shoot, but we get out of there. Instead we move closer to Johnny Ace's home base, west Phoenix. There must be a strip bar there.

So Johnny Ace tells me their story in the interior of a west-side adult cabaret called Bailey's Platinum Club. All of the band's members are strip-bar enthusiasts. Bailey's is dark and mirrored, with gilded walls and faux plants. Strippers are dressed in French maid outfits, schoolgirl uniforms, spike-heeled boots and sheer G-strings. Men lurk in the shadows. The usual riffage blares from the house system: Adam Ant's "Goody Two Shoes," Buckcherry's "Lit Up."

The four members of Johnny Ace, it turns out, hate nearly every local band. They rip on everybody. They even loathe New Times.

Some say Johnny Ace sucks. A few say they're great.

Johnny Ace doesn't actually suck. They give it the old college effort. There's a latent songwriting base that can carry their show. Onstage, they pose with the best of them. They've The Attitude, albeit contrived as all hell. But what isn't contrived as all hell and not found making rounds in local clubs?

They don't hate Jeff Dahl, though. Drummer Andy Madison is wearing a Jeff Dahl tee shirt. Bassist Brian Stylz and guitarist Joey and singer/guitarist Fido all agree on that one.

"We love Dahl," Fido says. "We can't believe he just hangs out in Cave Creek."

Fido fronted the forgotten Dead City Love until 1998. When that band evaporated, he moved to L.A. for a year, then returned to Phoenix "jaded and bitter."

"I gave up music altogether," Fido says. "Joey talked me out of it."

Johnny Ace's current plans include a debut release by September. Then, of course, the tour and rock 'n' roll stardom.

As the beer flows, conversation slowly morphs into a mass of competing voices. There's yak about Mafia families in Tucson; getting kicked out of schools and spelling bees, out of apartments and families. One band member got punched by a stripper who had a Superman tattoo. Another was bailed from jail hours before a gig.

"My lawyer told me I'm not supposed to talk about it," shouts Stylz over a throbbing Crüe number. Gang tats fade into Stylz's biceps. He claims these are tats from his days growing up on the south side of Chicago. Stylz sports bristly, youngish Billy Idol hair.

"I was in jail and I got out four hours before the show. It was a very good show. I was in for shit I did when I was younger."

"I pretty much manage the band," remembers the thick-set Madison, "so I had to get him out. He calls me up at fuckin' like two o'clock in the fucking morning and he was like, 'Fuckin' dude, I'm in jail. You gotta get some bail money to get me out.' I'm like, 'Brian, don't fuck with me right now, it's too early in the morning.' So I get to the Madison jail and the guy goes, 'The process might take four or five hours.' I'm like, 'Dude, he's gotta be out by 7:30. We got this big show tonight, we're gonna get signed tonight' -- just lyin' my ass off. I finally got him out around six in the afternoon and we had a show around 11. When he got out he was tellin' me that he didn't know how much more his butt could've taken."

That barstool resentment thickens. Due in part, perhaps, to the fact that two of the group's members have been tossed from other local bands. Sonic Thrills gave drummer Madison the boot early this year. Last year, Crashbar (now called Sugar High) tossed Joey from its ranks. And you know what happens when you mix bitterness with booze. You get drunk and furious. There are entire clusters of sour grapes.

"They're (Sugar High) are a bunch of fucking pricks and they fired me for no good reason," Joey declares with a faint laugh. "But really, I still love those guys."

Joey's tall, skinny, and his teeth are like a neglected graveyard. His hair is bleached blond. He's good-looking in a frayed sort of way, and he plays guitar like punk heroes of yore. Endorsement deals with Seymour Duncan pick-ups and Groove Tubes help keep his costs low in a world where guitar costs are anything but low.

Joey describes a certain Tempe chick band as sounding somewhere between "a dentist's drill and two cats fucking." The other members raise their beers in a toast.

"We're having a hard time booking with bands," adds Madison. "I don't know if they are afraid of us when we play live or what."

Stylz adds, "There's this competition, man, and it's kinda fucked up. We are there trying to fuckin' do our shit. We all want a record deal, we all want to be big. There are some bands that won't play with us because we'll flat out upstage them. I keep telling these guys, but they think I'm full of shit, but I used to be a black man in a past life."

It's three in the morning, and Haugen and I are the only ones left. The others got drunk and went home; jobs as window washers and couriers await them in the morning. We are in the west-side home of a tart I'll call "Betty," one of the strippers from Bailey's. Betty is a lovely blonde. She's sitting on a mattress in the middle of her living room floor, telling me her story.

A guy with a crew cut is passed out on the couch. Another dude with a crew cut comes in and out of the room. He'll stare at the TV for a moment, then leave. Another guy paces around the house, shouting into a portable phone. He's tweaked out of his young mind on meth. When he sits, his knees bounce up and down at a rate of 10 times a second. After 20 minutes of standing, sitting, slamming doors and rattling chairs, I wonder who he could be talking to, if anybody could possibly be on the other end of the line.

Betty says she is just out of jail. Her uncle recently died of AIDS. She found her last roommate with a bullet through his skull, dead on her couch. His brains were everywhere.

"I paid $2,000 for that couch," she says.

It goes on. Her story goes on and on. She sits there calmly. Betty has a vulnerability. There's a sadness. She is a collection of backfires and rebounds. Her words spill disillusionment, regret. Something has her by the throat.

She pours me a glass of vodka, and it's tall. I take a sip and nearly choke. It's pure vodka, with just a few ice cubes. Nothing else.

"Jesus, do you always drink this way?" I ask her.

She smiles and lifts her shoulders and lets them drop slowly. "I guess so."

Yet somehow Betty retains an optimistic bounce in her walk and her dancing. She is not yet ruined by circumstance, the perversions of adulthood. But she's the patron saint of self-destruction.

Madison calls me on Haugen's phone and says not to use names of the bands they were bagging on earlier. His words slur.

Haugen moves in and scores with Betty.

The glimmering night is over.

Johnny Ace is scheduled to perform on Friday, July 21, at Hollywood Alley in Mesa. Showtime is 9 p.m.

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Brian Smith
Contact: Brian Smith