As Joni Mitchell sang in her 1970 song “Big Yellow Taxi”: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. / They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” With its run-down-looking buildings, downtown Mill Avenue might not have looked like paradise in the 1990s.
But for the mom-and-pop merchants, artists and musicians, it brimmed with creativity and character.
Over the next decade, the stretch between University Drive and Rio Salado Parkway morphed from a haven for local music into an outdoor mall emblazoned with corporate logos: Starbucks. Borders. Abercrombie & Fitch.
“This was one of the three or four most important exporter cities of music in the country — and, for that matter, in the world,” says filmmaker Nicholas Holthaus, whose documentary “Mill Ave. Inc.” will be screened Wednesday at Harkins Valley Art.
In its ’90s heyday, bands such as the Gin Blossoms, Dead Hot Workshop, The Pistoleros, The Refreshments, Gloritone and Tucson’s Sand Rubies all launched their major label musical careers on the strip.
“There needs to be a call to arms,” says Holthaus. “This is happening in every city, and people are losing their quality of life. It’s corporate greed and myopia that are destroying everything. ‘Mill Ave. Inc.’ is really a microcosm of that.”
Holthaus interviewed musicians, business owners and city officials about the change. Some are wistful, others are downright outraged.
“It’s just shocking to me that we can live in a city that, at one point, had the potential to be Austin,” Stinkweeds Record Exchange owner Kimber Lanning says in the film. “To have that, and to blow it to this extreme, just blows my mind.”
MUSIC SCENE MATCHED OTHERS
Musicians such as Hans Olson, Walt Richardson and the Gin Blossoms’ Robin Wilson helped create a music scene on Mill Avenue that drew comparisons to venerable live music meccas like Sixth Street in Austin, Texas; the Athens, Ga., scene that launched The B-52s and R.E.M. in the ’80s; and the Seattle scene that spawned Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden in the early ’90s.
The epicenter of the Tempe scene was Long Wong’s at Seventh Street and Mill Avenue, and the film opens with a montage of Valley band Gloritone playing on the final day of the club’s existence — an outdoor show attended by more than 2,000 local music fans.
The club’s closing in April 2004 was the final death knell on a stretch of road that once boasted so many live music clubs that, as Dead Hot Workshop singer/guitarist Brent Babb says in the film, “You could walk 20 yards and see 10 bands.”
CHANGE BOUND TO HAPPEN
The musicians interviewed in “Mill Ave. Inc.” bemoan the loss of the clubs that supported live music on the strip, but many accept that change was imminent.
In the film, Jason Sukut of the band domo says, “It’s not Borders’ fault that they sell books.”
“Mill Ave. Inc.” posits that every city in the country has its own Mill Avenue, where gentrification and an encroaching corporate presence is driving out businesses that gave each city its own identity.
“Anytime that you replace a handmade nightclub that was built by locals and frequented by locals and you replace that with a neon corporate structure,” says Gin Blossoms’ singer Robin Wilson, “you’re losing something special and that rare something that makes it a part of our hometown.”