I'm old, which means I wonder about kids these days.
I actually don't wonder so much about kids as much as I do about musician kids.
remember myself as a teenager in Moline, Illinois in the 1980s, sitting
on a stool in our basement, playing the bass lick during the solo
section of Rush's “Tom Sawyer.” You know the lick.
quit trying to play it with the record because there was no way I'd
ever play it as fast as Rush's bass player, Geddy Lee, so I played it by
myself over and over again, stumbling through the fingering, driving
everyone in my house crazy.
I loved this song, and this music--Moving Pictures
is one of my all-time favorite albums--but I liked other things about
Rush too. I liked that they had this gangly bass player with a big
schnoz who walked around the stage like he owned it, playing these
impossibly complicated bass lines, some of which I could never imagine
replicating. (“Tom Sawyer” was maybe in my league. “YYZ”? Forget it.) I
liked that the band was from Canada. (Any foreign clime was exotic to
me, even Canada.) I liked that the trio's image was carefully cultivated
to make this Midwestern corn husk fantasize about one day being just
like them: smart, amazing at my instrument, strutting around the stage
like the Prince of Sudan. As a teenager, I was also a kind of gangly
bass player with a big schnoz. Who was to say it couldn't happen?
I moved to Arizona in 1990, these two worlds―the world of normal me and
the world of big time rock--collided. I'd moved to the area because I
had a friend who'd moved to Phoenix the year before who would let me
share his room if I split the rent. I didn't know much about Phoenix,
but I knew it had 2.5 million people, and a college with 40,000 students
in nearby Tempe. There must be some kind of music scene there, where I
could play original music in a band while finishing my degree.
hunch was right. There were rock clubs in Tempe like Long Wong's on
Mill, and the Sun Club, and Chuy's, where local bands played and acted
like rock stars as much as the scene would let them. Most of these bands
could draw enough to cover their beer tabs, and a few were genuinely
popular, like the Gin Blossoms, who could fill any of these clubs on any
night of the week. People actually danced when the Gins played--like,
guys with girls dancing; not some random chaos where people hold their
hands in the air and jump up and down. The tunes were great, the beer
flowing, the sexual energy palpable. I couldn't imagine being anywhere
The Gods of the Major Labels descended
upon our little town the same year I arrived, and the Gin Blossoms inked
a record deal with A&M Records, the first band out of our scene to
get signed. A&M Records was the real deal. The Police had been on
A&M. Styx. Squeeze. Tempe was being smiled upon, and suddenly,
almost overnight, there was a conceivable path from my everyday life as a twenty-year-old musician to the national music scene. I could
seriously entertain visions of becoming some facsimile of Geddy Lee. I'd
never really felt that way before the Gins got signed.
feelings were validated to an even greater extent in 1991 when bands
like Nirvana and Pearl Jam broke through to the mainstream from their
own sleepy musical enclave of Seattle. There was something happening in
the zeitgeist, something started by bands like REM and Hüsker Dü a
decade earlier and now carried forward into grunge, something that would
allow folks like us to occupy the top of the musical charts. There was
no reason why the band you saw on Friday night at your local club
couldn't be the band you saw the next year on MTV.
I used to call
this phenomena “The Golden Ticket”--you're just a normal schmo walking
around town and then, suddenly, you're ordained--but now I find that
metaphor inaccurate. A Golden Ticket, á la Willy Wonka, implies too much
dumb luck: you buy a chocolate bar, and you either get a ticket or you
don't. There's always been plenty of luck involved in landing a major
label record deal, but luck wasn't the word that came to mind when bands
started getting signed out of Tempe. It was more a reward for talent
and work, like the call-up of a hot hitter from AAA to the major
leagues. It was your soul and work ethic giving you a shot at your
dreams. In those early years of the Tempe scene, 1990-1993, the only two
bands to get signed were the Gin Blossoms and Dead Hot Workshop. They
were also my two favorite bands.
The Gins subsequent success
nationally over the next few years greased the Tempe skids even more,
and in 1995 my band the Refreshments signed with Mercury Records.
Mercury was the label of Kiss, John Mellencamp, and not so long ago, a
Canadian trio called Rush. My band would make two albums for the same
label that had released Moving Pictures fifteen years earlier.
the time in Tempe, there was a lot of talk of the Refreshments
becoming the next Gin Blossoms, and our achievements along those lines
are noteworthy. We had a hit single in 1996 called “Banditos.” We played
“Banditos” live on the all-new Late Night with Conan O'Brien. We wrote and recorded the theme song for the Fox television series King of the Hill.
There's plenty to brag about, but the success of my band isn't really
what I think of when I think of the Tempe music scene. That all happened
post-Blossoms, which was a different game. When I think of the scene, I
think of those early years of hanging out--inside and outside--Long
Wong's, watching the Gin Blossoms and Dead Hot, wondering how to get
into a band as good as those two. I loved this time so much so that,
when I set aside music in 1998 to write my first novel, I decided to
focus on these early years. That novel, published in 2003, is Stuck Outside of Phoenix.
Flash forward to 2008. I'm at home watching Mill Avenue Inc.,
a documentary about the gentrification of the Mill Avenue area of
Tempe, where much of the fun happened back in the day. Nico Holthaus,
the director of Mill Ave. Inc., had contacted me about a year
earlier to interview me for the film, and I was watching it for the
first time. In 2003, Long Wong's--because of economic pressures placed
on it by the systematic gentrification of the area--had been forced out
of business, and as the last of the great Tempe clubs to go under, it
represented the final nail in the coffin of what had been our music
scene. This gentrification happened so quickly and seamlessly it was a
little scary. All our shared history, gone. Many griped about this, but
it was Nico who got film rolling, organized everything, focused the
message. The result was a film that was entertaining, informative,
empowering. A brief phone interview with me appears toward the end, and
I'm proud to have had anything to do with it.
The message of that
documentary--that gentrification doesn't have to happen; we let it
happen--is an important one, but what I enjoyed most about Mill Ave. Inc.
were the glimpses into the scene back in the day. Nico compiled film
and photos of my cohorts and heroes, like the Gins lead singer Robin
Wilson working at a record store in 1989 and gushing about his band's
soon-to-be-released local album; and Sara Cina, manager of Long Wong's,
shedding a tear as she talks about the last days of the club. It felt
great to be connected with Tempe again. The clubs were gone, many of the
bands broken up, but Mill Ave. Inc.--in a visual, visceral
way--kept the scene alive. I learned from it that film had the power to
put us right back there in a way nothing else can.
I emailed Nico in 2010 with the idea of him making a movie version of Stuck Outside of Phoenix.
I didn't know him well--we'd met face-to-face exactly once--and I had
no idea how he'd react. I knew we were both Uncle Tupelo fans from
Illinois who'd moved to Arizona in the early nineties and fallen in love
with the Tempe scene. I got a reply from Nico in a matter of minutes,
nothing but “YEEHAW” written in bold caps.
wrote the screenplay for the movie in 2011, focusing on bringing back
that palpable sense of a music scene on the brink of discovery. Nico is
producing the film, and he has a director and film editor and many of
the other necessities lined up. He could start rolling as soon as next
So, back to kids these days, and me being old.
teenage musician of today sits in his room and plays along with his
equivalent of “Tom Sawyer,” what is he thinking about? More to the
point, what is he dreaming about? Is he dreaming that someday he might
play in a band and maybe that band will get signed? Is he dreaming that
someday he might get tapped on the shoulder by some person from a record
label, who will be smiling ear to ear? I don't think so. I don't think
kids see bands on major labels in 2012 and think, “Wouldn't that be
cool.” And if they do, they probably shouldn't, because the landscape of
the music business has changed so drastically since I played in the
Refreshments, winning the game for them is an entirely different
enterprise. They need to embrace DIY and make a name for themselves in
their communities and on the Internet. As an artistically viable force,
major labels don't have much to offer them anymore.
that's exactly as it should be. The Internet and digital technology have
taken the game out of big corporations' hands and given it to each and
every one of us. You can make and distribute a record, set up a rock
tour, film a video--everything the Refreshments thought we needed a
record deal for--in your bedroom. It's the fruition of everything Ian
MacKaye and Mike Watt ever dreamed of. You control your destiny, not
shareholders. In 2012, making sure shareholders have someone to mess
with is Justin Bieber's job. You're making art. So do it yourself, jam
econo, and show us old folks how we should've been doing it all along.
But even though things are better now, that doesn't mean we
didn't give something up. Yes, we lost something when we screwed The
Man. I think the main thing we lost was the dream of The Call-Up, the
sense that our talents, if we work hard, could lead to someone important
tapping us on the shoulder and saying, “Boy, have we got a deal for
you.” It's how it happened for Elvis and the Beatles and Kiss and Led
Zeppelin and Van Halen and U2 and Nirvana and Green Day. Look at that
list. Rage against the machine all you want, but it's kind of hard to
hate the system entirely that brought all of them to most of us.
More than anything Stuck Outside of Phoenix the Movie should emphasize the sense
back then that you could be a normal schmo in a band, in a scene, and that
scene could get hot, and bands could get signed, and you could wind up
on MTV with your face next to Jimi Hendrix's and Bono's and Kurt
Unfortunately, movie-making is a little different from
running a rock band out of your bedroom. Many of the same kinds of DIY
tools apply, and many don't. For one, movie-making involves a lot more
people, and those people need to get (very nominally) paid. In other
words, if Stuck Outside of Phoenix the Movie is going to happen, funds need to be raised.
Luckily, the 21st Century has its own mechanism for these kind of things called Kickstarter. Click on this link to learn more about Stuck Outside of Phoenix the Movie, and please consider donating to its Kickstarter campaign. And don't forget to take a look at the very unique incentives for donating. As I learned when watching Mill Ave. Inc., film can bring back memories like nothing else. It's called movie magic. Thank goodness there's still some magic out there.
I'm going to be writing more about this project over the next week or three at this blog,
and I have a few surprises in store, especially if you're a
Refreshments fan. Please keep tabs on me here every Monday as I unveil
more events in the name of this effort. For now, give to the Kickstarter campaign, and thanks for all you do.