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Indie Rock and Hubris: An Oral History of the Valley's Dearly Departed Music Venues

CHRIS COPLAN | JULY 18, 2019 | 7:00AM

In its nearly three-year existence, The Lunchbox served as a singular venue for experimental music in metro Phoenix. While its shuttering will be felt dearly, the Valley isn't exactly a stranger to closed venues. Over the years, a slew of great clubs and dive bars have all gone under, either the victims of gentrification or the result of a mostly fickle population. We’re paying homage to three such Valley venues gone before their time with a series of oral histories. These interviews are a chance for the owners/promoters to share what made these spots unique, what went wrong, and what's still left to learn. Now, pour one out for these local institutions. 

Nita's Hideaway, 1975-2004

1816 East Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe ('75-'02)
and 3300 South Price Road, Tempe ('02-'04)

Current Occupier: Tempe Marketplace and QuikTrip
Biggest Shows: Flaming Lips, Modest Mouse, Mars Volta, Jimmy Eat World, Death Cab for Cutie, Guster, Coheed and Cambria, Sleater-Kinney
Person of Interest: Charlie Levy, promoter, 1995-2004
A Real No Man’s Land: "The original owner Nita (Craddock) was a former rodeo queen. When she first opened  in '75, there were all-dirt floors. It was back on the county island (an unincorporated area), and on one side there was a junkyard, complete with junkyard dog, and an adult bookstore on the other. It wasn’t easy to get to, and you got there because you wanted to."
A Big Break: "At the time (1995), I was managing a band called The Piersons, but they got banned from most venues for things like too much drinking. Brad Singer (former owner of Zia Records) suggested we go play at Nita’s. People would go drink there right after work around 2 to 3 p.m., and the place would be dead by 7 or 8 p.m. So I went and asked if the band could play, and they said, 'Okay, you keep the door.' It was a ghost town there – after the DUI laws, Nita’s wasn’t doing as well as it had in the past."
A Scary Facade: "A lot of bands pulled up and thought Nita’s was scary, and some bands couldn’t believe they were playing here. Probably because it was a county island and there was no police. But then it all went well, and we could lock the doors and go after hours."
New Horizons: "When Mark (Covert) bought Nita’s around 1998, that’s when it really flourished. A lot of Tempe bands wouldn’t play Nita’s, and so they did a lot of punk and rockabilly. It was Mark who really let the scene take off. If Mark hadn’t taken over, Nita’s would have been the same with punk and rockabilly."
The Fun Never Ends: "You had bands like Modest Mouse, who set off firecrackers they bought in Albuquerque at 3 a.m. in the parking lot. We’d let James Hall and Pleasure Club come and play, and you’d have the whole staff standing on the bar; everyone just stopped working. Or a guy like Ralph Stanley, who said, ‘We’re gonna make this honky-tonk a church.’ Ralph actually had a (New YorkTimes reporter with him, and he said it was the best show of the entire tour."
A Day in the Sun: "It was such a truly organic thing, and a really special time. You had these bands staying at my house — Jim Adkins (of Jimmy Eat World) met his wife, Amy, there. There wasn’t YouTube at the time, and you saw a band for the first time when you saw them live. It was a snapshot of Arizona music."
A Long Time Coming: "We didn’t have much say when Tempe Marketplace came in. But it had been talked about for years and we knew, so it didn’t just happen one night. There were still people lining out the door."
The Best of Times: "Back then, you had bigger bands and local bands to see, and people didn’t have the access they do, so people tended to see more local shows. Nowadays, there’s more places, like Valley Bar and Last Exit Live, for local bands. But I don’t see Nita’s in these places – Rhythm Room is its own thing just like Nita’s was its own thing. We just lucked out with time and place, and I had a great time working with my friends."
No Google: "I was looking up Flaming Lips playing Nita’s on the internet, and there’s not one thing [of performance video]. It’s amazing for the people that were there. You literally had to be there."