Local Wire

Rock 'n' Roll Awakening

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And yet, when it comes to Stephen Ashbrook, they are as fervent, dogmatic and haughty as the most virulent indie-rock snobs hanging out at Stinkweeds. Ashbrook is -- to quote Barry White -- their first, last and everything.

Some have joked that if he were a contemporary Christian singer, Ashbrook would be on the cutting edge of the genre. If he were to turn Vegas crooner, he'd surely have blue-haired pensioners throwing their panties on stage. But here, in the fickle world of local rock 'n' roll, Stephen Ashbrook is considered a popular curio: a man whose greatest talent is appealing to people who don't really like music all that much. If you think about it, it's kind of an amazing gift, really. A result either of the stunning universality of his work or the strange power of his charisma. The big mystery isn't that he's so popular among local audiences, but rather why he never exploded nationally.

Whatever acclaim Ashbrook has enjoyed in the Valley, he has suffered an equal number of slings and arrows from the critical establishment. Ashbrook's voice -- a rolling bass profundo punctuated by a trademark falsetto, suggesting a cross between Charlton Heston, Foghorn Leghorn and Barry Gibb -- has been frequently derided for its highly stylized nature. "Bland," "generic" and "pedestrian" were common (and in hindsight, somewhat unfair) adjectives used to describe Satellite's three CDs and Ashbrook's 1998 solo effort Navigator. Worse, some in the media (admittedly, New Times among them) turned things kinda personal. His feud with Planet magazine over a negative review earned him "Biggest Crybaby" of the year designation in our 1996 year-end "worst of" issue, while yours truly has repeatedly chided Ashbrook for his onstage get-up -- his now patented leather pants and blue-tinted glasses.

So besieged did Ashbrook feel that in private, he has described himself as "New Times' whipping boy." While that may be true, we always preferred to look at it as a bit of good-natured kibitzing, delivered with a certain amount of grudging admiration, if nothing else.

But now he's leaving, and it's left to us to reappraise his contributions to Phoenix music.

Surely, Ashbrook is deserving of some degree of respect from the local rock intelligentsia. After all, this is a man who has remained an exceedingly popular performer for the better part of a decade, weathered every stylistic change in music -- from hair metal to grunge to rap-rock -- and stayed absolutely true to himself and his muse.

And when the most powerful man in the world came to the Valley for a Democratic fund raiser last summer, who was selected to provide the entertainment for President Bill Clinton? You guessed it: Stephen Ashbrook. (One can almost imagine the conversation between the two: Clinton, biting his lip and offering forth praise in his earnest Arkansas drawl, "Stephen, I thought your songs were truly wonderful," to which Ashbrook would reply, "Ahhh. Why, thank you Mr. President, I dig your stuff, too. How about a caack-taail?")

When Ashbrook announced his imminent departure in December, it set me thinking seriously, and for the first time, about some favorite moments from his career.

There was, of course, the period when he began distributing special "All Access" Ashbrook laminates -- an act of such sheer, unmitigated cojónes that it made me jealous of the man's brilliant audacity. In fact, the big brasslike quality of Ashbrook's balls is perhaps his strongest point as both an artist and a human being.

Who else would dare to bum rush a soundman as Ashbrook -- who nearly clobbered an uppity tech last year -- did? Who else would have the gonads to sell sexy, form-fitting baby tees with his name emblazoned in big pink letters across the chest? What other front man would have the gall to break up his group -- as Ashbrook did with Satellite -- only to get them back together for a "reunion" gig just a few months later? And who else would have the temerity to say goodbye with a glitzy, over-the-top, two-night extravaganza -- first, a star-studded Last Waltz-style farewell at Wong's, then a final Satellite performance (outdoors, no less) at Nita's Hideaway. The answer, of course, is Ashbrook and only Ashbrook.

Now, all that's not to say that Ashbrook's tenure in town has been completely bereft of any musical value. He is -- despite the frequent critical reaming -- a very capable singer, a talent not to be taken lightly, especially in an era when so many "singers" couldn't carry a tune if it were strapped to their back.

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Bob Mehr
Contact: Bob Mehr