You see Nirvana ripping into "Smells Like Teen Spirit," for what the subtitles proclaim to be the first time ever. The hand-held camera work is amateurish, the picture is grainier than the Zapruder film, and the sound feels like it's been dubbed from someone else's bootleg tape. But as the camera frames the beatific smile on Kurt Cobain's face, you're struck with the feeling that this is something rare and valuable, a moment that could have easily receded into the faulty memory banks of the relative few who were at the club that night, if someone hadn't taken the time to capture it.
Some of that same vibe comes across when watching Rock Club Rising, a weekly music show on Access Phoenix (Channel 22) that painstakingly parades viewers through the Valley's club scene, with fresh live footage of every imaginable local band. The picture tends to be dark, and the sound is fairly raw, but Rock Club Rising is the one place where you can see local music being documented, by people who really care about it.
When shock-industrial band BlessedBeThyName sacrificed four chickens before their Valley Art showcase at the New Times Music Awards in April, Rock Club Rising was there to capture them carefully applying greasepaint to their bodies and rubbing chicken feed into their hair before the show. When Nita's Hideaway shut down last month in a blaze of creative destruction, Rock Club Rising saved it for posterity. And when Zia Enterprises threw a tribute show for its deceased founder, Brad Singer, only Rock Club Rising was there to preserve it.
The show was started by Sharon Nichols, a community radio veteran who developed an interest in the potential of video while working for the forest service in Utah.
"When I was in Utah, I started getting involved doing film photography, movie footage with my Super-8 camera," says Nichols. "I would sometimes just go downtown and shoot footage of the people or the events. There was a lot of construction going on, so I filmed that. I did sort of a semi-amateur/semi-professional film on a historical hotel that somebody decided to demolish and make into that. So I did some filming of the demolition. One of the hotels let me have a rooftop vantage point that no one else had."
Nichols moved to Tucson and began to work for the community station as a crew member on a variety of shows, from music, to religion, to talk, and call-in shows.
In 1991, she bought a video camera, and shortly thereafter moved to Phoenix. She was struck by how active the local music scene was, and became interested in documenting it. While she regularly credits the 1962 Cavern Club footage of The Beatles and a live bootleg of The Germs as her biggest inspirations, her most important local influence was Psycho Gypsy front man Eddie, who told her about the band's own cable-access show and encouraged her to start Rock Club Rising.
The show's debut episode taped in February 1995 at Mason Jar (though it didn't air until the next season started in September of that year), with Arsenal and Raven Wolf. "It was fabulous," Nichols gushes. "The guys liked it, and Franco [Gagliano of Mason Jar] was pleased."
Since then, Nichols--with the help of metal/punk zealot Jim Dawson--has documented between 200 and 300 bands, displaying a catholic taste that makes the show highly erratic, if ultimately a fair representation of what goes on in clubs. One gets the impression that Nichols isn't a particularly big music fan in the typical sense (she admits to not knowing who Frank Black was when she chatted him up before a show at Gibson's), but simply enjoys the process of videotaping live performances. As a result, her shows will incorporate the most mind-numbing, derivative grindcore juxtaposed with the wit and ingenuity of a Trunk Federation or Les Payne Product.
Dawson, who dutifully takes his 11-year-old son Daniel with him on video assignments (Daniel even took over the camera at a Windigo show at the Nile Theatre so dad could jump into the mosh pit), offers more of a concrete musical sensibility. He likes it loud and he likes it angry, and that's the type of footage he usually contributes to Rock Club Rising. He's currently planning his own spin-off show, Metalize: Local Hardcore, which will focus more consistently on rock of the ear-shredding, teeth-gnashing variety.
Though Nichols and Dawson videotape some national acts, they say that they're frequently stymied by promoters and agents who refuse to give them permission. Nichols was particularly frustrated about Frank Black's show, because the former Pixies leader himself seemed eager to have the show taped, but was overruled by a rep from Evening Star Productions.
"I wasn't even planning to do any taping, but I had the camera in my car," she says. "Frank said, 'Sure, c'mon, bring in the camera.' He was like a child on Christmas morning, pleased as peach that someone was going to tape his show." When Evening Star nixed the idea, she says, "You could see the dejection in [Black]."
Though the show poses no threat to ER's Nielsen numbers, Nichols finds that more and more people she meets at club gigs seem to be aware of Rock Club Rising, and bands regularly approach her now, eager to appear on the show. In fact, Dawson first became involved with the show after accidentally catching it one night and meeting Nichols at Boston's a month later. Beyond the obvious benefit for the bands involved, Rock Club Rising has also changed the way Nichols processes music.
"I guess because of my radio background, my concept of music was recorded music," she says. "It was more of a concept of a band goes into a studio, puts together a recording, gets it out to radio stations, and maybe goes out live trying to re-create on stage what they've done in the studio. Over the course of doing live work, I've gone in just about the opposite way. Performance is the real deal, what can the band do live onstage? What you see is what you get onstage."
Rock Club Rising airs on Access Phoenix (Cox Channel 22) and Insight Cable (Channel 1) every Wednesday at 12:30 a.m.
Contact Gilbert Garcia at his online address: [email protected]