Local Wire

Rock 'n' Roll Awakening

It's a cold Thursday evening in early February, right in the heart of what's been an unremittingly bleak -- at least by Valley standards -- winter season. As the bark of a dog guarding a nearby scrap yard echoes faintly in the night, I find myself sitting in a car in the parking lot of Nita's Hideaway -- and I am crying. These are not the dignified, reluctant tears of a grown man, but rather the racking, breathless sobs of a child. If not for a two-day growth of beard and a rapidly receding hairline, you'd swear the noises coming out of my mouth were those of a little girl with a skinned knee.

What, or more accurately, who is responsible for this utter collapse? Stephen Ashbrook, that's who. Yes, Stephen Ashbrook -- leader of Valley rock group Satellite, white-bread pop tunesmith extraordinaire, Über Crooner par excellence and frequent target of scorn on these very pages. Yes, friends, that Stephen Ashbrook.

The real question here, I suppose, is why, or at the very least, how? How is it that Stephen Ashbrook has come to be responsible for my emotional Waterloo? To answer that we have to go back, well, forward actually, some six weeks.

It's another Thursday, but this time it's late March and the temperature in Tempe has broken. The balmy dusk is already weighed down by a cumbersome heat that signals a rapidly approaching summer.

All that is of little consequence to the folks packed into Long Wong's. It's happy hour, and the venerable Mill Avenue watering hole is teeming with bodies. The main attraction this evening -- the only real attraction on any Thursday -- is Stephen Ashbrook.

It's especially true tonight, as it marks one of the final installments of the singer-songwriter's popular acoustic sets. At the end of the month, Ashbrook will leave Arizona and relocate to Portland, Oregon, with his wife. He's promised to return periodically and perform, but for the people gathered here, there is a terrible sense of finality. You see, for the past five years, Ashbrook has held court here every week, and every week his acolytes have come to bask in his golden blond glow.

If you've never been to an Ashbrook gig at Long Wong's, it is a strange experience -- at once exhilarating and frightening. To watch him there is like seeing Wayne Newton in Las Vegas, a king in his court.

Ashbrook's fans -- perhaps flock is a better description -- come to his altar not just to listen to his songs, but to sing along with him, to laugh at his jokes, to buy him drinks -- in short, to pay tribute to a man they regard as both pied piper and patriarch of an extended barroom family. To the uninitiated, the two-hour sets (which generally run closer to three with multiple encores) may seem more like a revival meeting than a concert, Ashbrook punctuating every line with his signature, bowel-deep "aah, yeah" and "ooh, ooh" exhortations, the crowd hollering its approval in return.

Instead of a Bible, Ashbrook holds a guitar; in lieu of holy water, there is the ever-pervasive cocktail (or in Ashbrook-speak, "a caack-taail, ahhh"). This is his cult, for lack of a better term. And like every cult leader, Ashbrook is blessed with an ineffable brand of charm, the kind that makes women and men act like giddy schoolchildren in his presence. Fanaticism, even on this modest level, is truly something to behold.

To see the looks on the faces here is to view genuine worship. To them, Ashbrook is David Koresh without the messiah complex, Jim Jones without the Kool-Aid. You get the feeling, though, if he really wanted, Ashbrook could have most of the people in the room laid out on beds, clad in black Nikes with purple shrouds across their faces -- such is the intensity of their devotion. (It's frightening to think what kind of excesses might be indulged in were I the focus of the same kind of unyielding adulation. The words "deviant groupie sex" immediately spring to mind.)

Demographically speaking, the crowd is somewhat atypical for Long Wong's. It's comprised mostly of gleeful nine-to-fivers: secretaries, bank tellers, aging frat boys turned drunken businessmen in suits and the ever-present abundance of nubiles -- each of them, just working for the weekend. For a hopelessly hip and dingy dive like Wong's, it is a strange dichotomy; it's always seemed analogous to a legion of Jimmy Buffett's merry parrotheads invading a notorious shithole like CBGB's.

Without resorting to unreasonably broad generalizations, it's fair to say that the bulk of die-hard Ashbrook devotees aren't what you'd call ardent music fans. They're not the sort of people who read Mojo, they probably don't own more than a handful of CDs and really don't care if they've never heard the outtakes from Blonde on Blonde or the original mono mix of Revolver.