It's 1987 and two young women are heading in the door of The Mason Jar on Indian School Road in Phoenix. Dressed in Spandex pants, long creatively cut t-shirts, and boots, the women give their name to the doorman: Suzi-plus-one. The doorman looks over the guest list: yes, there it is on the list for Gentlemen Afterdark. The women slip into the dark club and head to the bar. Drinks in hand, they stake their claim at a table toward the front, ready for an evening of music and dancing.
Gentlemen Afterdark was formed in the early 80s in Tucson, emerging from The Pills. After personnel changes, the band made a terrifying trip to New York. When they returned to Tucson, there were more changes, including the switch from The Pills to Gentlemen Afterdark.
The band moved to Phoenix, where they began playing regularly at the clubs, including The Mason Jar. They garnered a large following. They were a band, as vocalist Brian Smith writes in his memoir article Almost Famous, "littered with Roxy Music and David Bowie and The Dolls and Blondie and Alice Cooper and Bob Dylan and Simple Minds and early Ultravox and The Psychedelic Furs, and so on."
This combination of sound and the band's unremitting energy attracted the attention of Suzi-plus-one, two women in their twenties who had met and bonded over a love of rock music, the bassist of another band, and their recent escape from abusive spouses.
Over the years, Gentlemen Afterdark consisted of Brian Smith on vocals, Robin Johnson on guitar, Winston Watson/Jon Norwood on drums, Barry Smith on violin and keyboards, Stuart Smith on keyboards and guitar. On bass were Fred Cross/Kevin Pate. There have been losses: Cross, Pate, and Norwood have all died, much too early.
Fast forward to 2019 and a little Netflix show called Stranger Things. Thirty-six years after it was recorded, Gentlemen Afterdark's song Open the Door was featured in a third-season episode of the wildly popular series. This prompted a resurgence of interest in the band, with their Spotify increasing from 12 to 180,000 monthly listeners. In 2021, their song Dark Rooms was featured on the Hulu Marvel series Hit Monkey.
All this new interest brought the band back together in concert this past Friday night at Wild Horse Pass in Chandler, along with Modern English. The Smith brothers Brian, Barry, and Stuart, along with Robin Johnson, Winston Watson came together on stage in a much-anticipated reunion. Harry McCaleb joined them on bass for the show.
When I heard that the band was going to be performing, the first thing I did was contact my longtime friend Karen. She was my once-upon-a-time "plus one" at Gentlemen Afterdark shows. We planned to go together "for old time's sake," and began to make plans. Tickets were purchased. Karen was unable to make it, but I was not about to miss this! With an extra ticket on hand, I invited my daughter, and we made a night of it.
Since the show was reminiscent of an earlier time in my life, I decided to dress as closely as I could to the way I would have dressed when attending Gentlemen Afterdark shows in my youth. While getting ready, I found myself in the 80s without hairspray - an unconscionable situation! A side trip to the local grocery store yielded a surprise: the patron hairspray of the 1980s, Aqua Net, is still available. Back at the car, I flipped my hair over, sprayed like crazy, flipped back, sprayed again, and fluffed. Satisfied, I headed out to pick up my daughter.
We arrived at the casino a little over an hour before the show. We wanted dinner, so we put our names in one of the restaurants in the building. Sadly, the wait was far longer than we had anticipated, so we eventually took our names off the list and picked up a couple of bags of peanuts and a candy bar from the vending machine. No food is allowed in the showroom where the concert was held. You can, however, purchase drinks at one of the two bars inside the showroom.
After a minor glitch with my Ticketmaster app, we entered the showroom and headed to one of the bars where we purchased two rather weak Long Island Iced Teas for $24 plus tip. Our tickets were Standing Room Only, so we slipped onto the floor and claimed a table near the stage. We were located to the right of the band as you look at the stage. Not perfect, but not terrible either. We might have had a better view had we not wanted to eat.
Gentlemen Afterdark absolutely slayed!
They were every bit as good and as fun as I remembered them, with Brian strutting the stage with finesse. I couldn't help but whisper to my daughter, "I bet he's hurting tomorrow" because, well, we aren't getting any younger now, are we? That didn't stop me from dancing through the entire show as I was transported to my wild and crazy past and tried to get decent photos of the experience. My daughter also danced, clearly having a good time. I thought of the days when she was a teen and I took her to a music festival for her birthday.
I think we were both a bit disappointed when the band came to the end of their set. When the lights came on, I scanned the audience, seeking familiar faces. I had found one nearby, catching him and his wife in a photo of the band. I'd be surprised if there weren't more people I had once known, but 1987 was a long, long time ago.
We really enjoyed Modern English and danced throughout their set. The reality is, though, that we were there for the Gentlemen, and even the band from across the pond couldn't top them. At least, not for us.
I can't recall how I ended up on Gentlemen Afterdark's guest list. I was, as I say now, a "wanna-be promoter." I was trying to work with a few bands, writing promo copy, handing out flyers, writing PSAs, and taking them to radio stations. I wasn't making any money, and I didn't have any either. I was living at the alternative art gallery 11 East Ashland, reading poetry at art openings and going to shows. I worked day jobs, of course. It wasn't until much later that my friend and I realized we had no idea what we were doing trying to promote bands without having any capital.
Still, when I met Brian, I must have told him what I was trying to do, and he put me on the list. Once it happened, whenever we saw they were playing and could go, I would pick up the phone and ask Brian if he would put me on the list. He always did. Whether or not that was a case of mistaken identity became a question much later, when I discovered that there had been a more successful local promoter in the area who shared my first name.
This story first appeared on Newsbreak and later on Medium