Monday, March 5, 2007
The Detroit Sound?
I can remember my family was driving north through Michigan on our way to the Upper Penninsula. It was in the middle of winter at night. I woke up from sleeping in the back seat as my dad pulled into a gas station. I wasn't sure where we were. There were bars on all the building windows outside.
Across the street, four guys were throwing bottles at a wall, very much on purpose. My younger sister announced she had to go to the bathroom and opened the door. My dad yelled at her to stay inside the car.
He got out, looked around a bit, filled up the car with gas and quickly got back in. We drove away with a slight squeal of the tires. It was the first time I had ever seen my dad scared of anything. We had stopped for gas in probably the worst area possible, in the middle of the night.
Welcome to Detroit.
Since then, my memories of The Motor City have either consisted of getting lost on the way to the airport, getting lost on the way to a concert, getting lost on the way to a friend's house, getting lost on the way to a gig, or just plain getting lost trying to find some gas. Detroit is like the Burmuda Triangle of the Midwest.
One time I got so lost the road wasn't even paved anymore. It was the land time forgot. I was in a section of town where the city gave up on a paving project. It was half gravel, half grounded asphalt. A bum walked down the middle of the road. I asked him directions. Thanks to a one dollar bill I found my way back onto I-75.
That's how I feel about Detroit. It seems scary as hell, but once you get over that, it's actually a pretty interesting city.
Historically and culturally it also has one of the most well-defined "sounds" in the entire nation. It's the home of garage rock with a purpose. Books have been written about it. Legends have been created.
From 1965 to 1972, the Detroit Sound was developed. Before that Michigan's Thumb Muscle was creating figures like John Lee Hooker.
Down south, the blues were played gentle and lolling. As it went north, it turned nasty. By the time it hit Detroit, the blues had become a fight, a reason for being.
But what I found after talking with several Detroit bands is that they don't see it that way. The High Strung see that tough exterior as just an extension of that original fascination with the blues. But even The High Strung live their music. They are out there touring and doing it.
But I prefer to listen to the editors of Creem Magazine, who said that what defined the Detroit Sound were musicians who believed in the power of rock. Lester Bangs wrote about it like he was documenting a war. Music changed who they were. It made John Sinclair a freedom fighter. MC5 became cultural revolutionaries. It made some dork into Alice Effing Cooper. It turned ted nugent into TED NUGENT. These are personalities. Iggy Pop? These are people who weren't writing music, they were living music.
Then, of course, it stopped. Since the 1950's Detroit's population has apparently been cut in half. The auto industry folded. Race riots in the late 60s sent the white suburban families running for the hills. They probably went to Ohio.
The music still kept coming, but the sound changed to the sound of rust, like Bob Seger. He may write truck jungles now, but he was the real deal back then.
Today, the Detroit music scene is still producing bare bones rock n' roll in its purest form. But more importantly, it has retained its hold over musicians lives. The White Stripes are just as much an image of rock n' roll as they are musicians. Even when swing came back (which I love to make fun of) it was the Detroit bands that wore the whole zoot suit get ups. Even the industrial metal death rock scene is filled with bands who dress up and play these parts. Isn't Insane Clown Posse from Detroit? I forget, but just another example.
So if this city can teach the Midwest anything, it is that you are nothing if you don't have a cause. Everyone needs something to live for and you have to create if for yourself. That is innately Midwestern. We know that no one is going to do anything for you around here. If you want that, go to LA or Nashville. Go buy a rock n' roll costume and step into it.
You won't find some Albert Grossman figure asking his folk duos to stay out of the sun because it makes them look bookish in Detroit. But you will find Ted Nugent spearing a deer to death with a knife the shape of a double necked guitar.
As long as this is happening, there will always be a Santa Claus in Detroit.