Last Call at the Alley

I'll have a Coors and a shot of Jack, please.
I’ll have a Coors and a shot of Jack, please.

Words and Photos By Ian Tingen

WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS COARSE LANGUAGE.

By birth, I am an Arizonan. The first 26 years of my life were spent in the metropolitan Phoenix area. For those of you unfamiliar with the Valley of the Sun, that means I lived through approximately 13 years of summer. My family still lives there, including my too-damn-cute-for-her-own good two year old niece. I’m an Arizona State alumni. I fell in love for the first time under the unrelenting heat of an early-2ooo’s summer. Many memories, both good and ill, are burned into my mind – Arizona will always be an indelible part of me, and I will never fully leave.

Even so, I do not like to visit often. For every sky-filling, jaw-dropping sunset I miss, I avoid a day spent in sweltering heat with a people who aren’t so much a community as much as a composite. Arizona is a place where people to go forget and to be forgotten – a place where the concept of close groups feels as foreign as the freeloading dark-skinned devils that many Arizona politicians conjure to score cheap political points. In Arizona, you don’t ask questions of people you meet on the street. I’ve never experienced such well-populated desolation anywhere else in the country. I’m not the only one to have noticed this – the FBI used Arizona as a dumping ground for federal witness protection subjects for years. Sometimes, they’d surface (see Sammy “the Bull” Gravano and the Devil Dogs), but for the most part, snitches stay in deep cover: Arizonans keep to themselves. You leave your neighbors alone, and they’ll do you the same courtesy. That is, unless you have the audacity to be an interracial couple in public – my very white sister and her Cambodian husband still get disapproving looks in some places, remarkably.

Despite all this, the desert introduced me to my first platonic love: music. Jimmy Eat World came out of the neighborhoods of my cross-town rival Westwood High School; before that there was the “Second Seattle / desert rock / jangle pop” scene (see: Dead Hot Workshop, the Refreshments, the Gin Blossoms) on Mill Avenue in the early-to-mid 90’s. As a teenager, I hung out on the periphery of that culture. The peripheral interest was sharpened to a central focus when I took a job as an emcee at now-long-defunct Mesa coffee shop Undici Undici’s open mic night. One of the Undici regulars I had the pleasure of getting to know was a floppy-maned, multi-talented minstrel named Mike Montoya (most recently of Two Visions, check them out). Mike’s one of those guys who lives and breathes Arizona music – and when I mentioned I was looking for other places to get involved in the scene, he mentioned a bar down the street he wanted to show me. One night, after open mic, we went.

The northwest corner of Price and Baseline looks like any of a multitude of strip malls in Phoenix. There’s a Chinese take-out place, a barber, a musical equipment store; over the westernmost set of doors is a white-script, black-background sign that proclaims the not-opulence of “Hollywood Alley”. In Arizonan terms, the Alley was somewhat distant from the venues of downtown Phoenix, lying on the border between college-town Tempe and a city of wide streets and narrow minds called Mesa. The Alley’s nature wasn’t representative of either suburb it straddled: it didn’t cater to the college-kid party scene that is much of Tempe, nor did it evoke the shitkicker-chic of the redneck-and-proud-of-it bars found in Mesa. The Alley was a dive, a term I mean as endearlingly as possible. The front door blocked out all outside light, opening into a small alcove that, when I was a regular, was usually inhabited by a burly bald dude named Sean. Sean was the friendliest guy on the planet until you did something stupid – at which point all of his 200-odd pounds became a vibrantly effective motivating force. I only saw Sean bounce a handful of people from the bar, though – most people who came to the Alley weren’t there to cause trouble. They were there to see some rock n’ roll or hiphop, have a drink, play some pool or some arcade games, and get away from the heat in the super-comfortable booth seats. The seats were upholstered in a dark-colored vinyl – I never figured out the exact hue because most of the time the lighting was too low to see such details. What you could see in the bar were the walls, plastered with old movie posters and stickers from all the bands that played there. Bands with names like Fatigo, the Sweetbleeders, Lymbyc Systym, Truckers on Speed, Pinky Tuscadero’s Whiteknuckle Assfuck, the Necronauts, Attack of the Giant Squid, Colorstore, the Minibosses, Chief Beef… a million adhesive-backed sonic stories covered every square inch of the joint, from the bathrooms to the back rooms.

And then, there was Ross.

As far as I am concerned, Ross Wincek embodied the spirit of the Alley. Technically, the Alley’s ownership spanned three generations of Ross’ family – he being the youngest of those. Ross’ soft-spoken, tall frame is topped off with a pile of curly brown hair and a smile. He’s the kind of guy that remembers your name, forever. Ross was more than an owner of the Alley, he was a caretaker of all of us who were in music in Phoenix. Did you have a shitty band that needed a friendly place to play your first gig? Ross could find you a night. Were you a national act who wanted to play a secret show? Ross could help you out. Were you an inexperienced kid who wanted to try his hand at emceeing a show for more than 10 people at a time? Ross helped me out. Ross helped all of us out, and many tried to return the favor when he suffered a stroke last year. Ross worked just about every night at the Alley since it opened in 1988. I only ever heard of Ross taking a few weeks’ vacation in the last decade, usually for family. The man literally gave up his health for his venue – and for us.

His sacrifice, though tragic, yielded amazing years. I can remember many nights walking into a packed room, sound so loud you couldn’t consider what you wanted to drink (but it always sounded good, thanks to Steve). You were never far away from the music in the Alley; the patrons’ proximity to performances channeled a powerful feeling of closeness. There was no green room for talent, just a door leading out to Don Carlos Avenue, where you could park your van and load your gear in and out. The stage stood about 20 inches high, and you could sidle right up next to it if you liked. I saw countless masses lose countless decibels’ worth of hearing sensitivity in that room; I have never seen people happier to cripple their senses.

I like to think of the stage as a tangible manifestation of what the Alley was about. Hollywood Alley embodied the idea that people could form meaningful communities. The artists and patrons I met there taught me about the beauty and viability of creative pursuits, despite the dearth of city and state support of the arts. It always felt like home, no matter how long I was away: from 21 to 31, I spent 8 of my 11 birthdays at the Alley. It was a reprieve from the self-serving culture of Phoenix: a place of togetherness and history, despite the thin layer of grime. Perhaps that is why it had to close – it was too different, too far removed from the masses in both geography and philosophy to survive.

At the corner of Price and Baseline, there is now a vacancy which cannot be filled, a hole that spans a quarter of a century of experience and love. When I drank my last beer there on July 31, Hollywood Alley was still the brightest shining dive to ever grace the desert.

I will miss it dearly.

Hollywood Alley 1988 - 2013
Hollywood Alley 1988 – 2013
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