Detroit: Still Rockin’ in 2014

Mick Collins and Danny Kroha of the Gories

As any native New Yorker should be able to tell you, if there’s one sure thing in this world, it’s that Times Square is the last place on earth where you should spend New Year’s Eve. You can’t drink, you have an approximately 98% chance of dying of frostbite before the ball drops, and you’re in dangerously close proximity to Ryan Seacrest. Which is why I spent New Year’s Eve in a very different setting: the Magic Stick in Detroit.

Situated on the second floor of the Majestic, a multi-venue midtown establishment that also houses a café, a bowling alley, and a pretty solid pizza counter, the Magic Stick is not in fact 50 Cent’s penis, but rather the kind of endearingly seedy joint than any rock ‘n roll kid will automatically fall in love with. I’d also say that if you want to get a real sense of what Detroit is all about these days (not that you would if all your only source of information about the city are Chrysler commercials and appearances by Governor Rick “The Dick” Snyder on cable news to discuss the whole bankruptcy mess, but bear with me), seeing a show at the Stick by a local band is about as good a bet as any.

Part of that is they way the club is set up. It’s all dark corners, cool posters, weirdly placed curtains, and awkward pillars, and they keep all their drinks in grocery store-style coolers behind the bar so that you can gaze upon their 14,000 bottles of PBR and attempt to resist the temptation to drown yourself in cheap beer. More than that, though, the stage is really low and at an unorthodox angle so it kinda feels like the band is just playing at a house party. For a venue that pulls so many major touring acts where there’s surprisingly little separation, physical or otherwise, between band and audience.

It’s a fitting feel for Detroit, which begins to feel almost like a small town once you’ve spent much time there. Honestly, that may have more to do with the city’s physical size than anything else – despite ostensibly being a major American city and having quite large city limits, the amount of land where there’s much of anything going on, contained mainly within only midtown and downtown, is shockingly contracted, especially for someone like me who grew up in New York. According to Google Maps, it only takes half an hour to take a bus from Ferndale, the town that immediately borders Detroit to the north, all the way down to the Detroit river, at which point you can’t go any further without winding up in Canada (oh yeah, for all you Journey fans, there’s no such thing as “South Detroit,” as is posited in “Don’t Stop Believin’.” South Detroit is a river. And Journey sucks). I can barely make it across Manhattan’s East Side in that amount of time, fer crissakes.

And though you won’t often hear about it in the media in the face of having all that government corruption and automotive company mismanagement to report on, Detroit’s relatively small size represents a fairly significant aspect of why the city is in such deep shit right now. See, when crime started to become a major problem in Detroit starting in the 60s, all the affluent white people that lived there in Motown’s glory days grabbed their kids and their pearls and fled to the suburbs, in the process completely drying up the city’s tax base. Detroit has never been able to incorporate the neighboring areas all them scaredy cat white people wound up in, and as such, even if Ford and GM hadn’t spent years making shitty cars that no one wanted to drive, and even if a cartoon character like Kwame Kilpatrick hadn’t been elected mayor, Detroit still would have spent the last few decades racking up massive deficits because it has no means of collecting enough revenue to, you know, run a city. Go figure.

So maybe it’s just out of necessity that Detroit feels so small and insular, which is at once one of its strongest and most problematic elements. On the one hand, most people who live outside the direct Detroit area spends any time a small, well-defined downtown radius where Comerica Park, Ford Field, Joe Louis Arena, and a couple of towering casinos are all conveniently located. You know, “keep the windows rolled down till we get to the Red Wings game, or else the crackheads’ll get ya” (not that I completely blame anyone for assuming Detroit is hell on earth and that you’ll get shot the minute you set foot outside the shadow of Ford Field… that’s really the media fault for portraying it that way).

As a result, although there has most definitely been a resurgence in cool new shops and bakeries and stuff popping up just in the three or four years since I’ve been going to Detroit, and hopefully that’s a sign of things to come—shit, even a Whole Foods opened up in midtown recently—you can still almost count off the city’s cool bars, restaurants, and hangout spots on two hands. And that’s kind of what’s cool about it – the incestuousness of the community that does exist in Detroit—and after you spend much time there, you do start to notice the same people popping up everywhere, even some famous people like Meg White—makes you feel like you’re really a part of something when you’re there. You really feel like something special is happening there, and everyone else is just to blind and dumb to notice it. Whether or not something is actually happening in Detroit in so far as getting it out of the hole it’s in remains to be seen, but if you ask me there are plenty of positive signs.

All this most certainly extends to the rock scene as well. There are just a few central figures that everyone else seems to revolve around – and most of those guys are in one or more bands together. The headliner on NYE was the Gories, a three-piece who originally formed in the mid-80s and whose frontmen, Mick Collins and Danny Kroha, have been banging around in various local bands ever since (Collins has actually achieved some measure of international success with the Dirtbombs, his main outfit since 1992). There are two main things I took away from their set: 1) they kicked merciless ass, and 2) you can pretty much imagine exactly what they sounded like if you’ve ever heard any Detroit garage rock before. Noisy guitars, basic drumming; no frills blues rock and punk stripped down to their most gnarly, streamlined core (the effortlessly cool Collins, who with his goatee and indoor sunglasses resembles a lost 50s jazz great, has some chops, but certainly nothing that would make any decent picker jealous in terms of technical proficiency only… his deliciously crunchy tone, however, certainly made me jealous). They played covers of songs like “Leaving Here” and “Mona” that scores upon scores of garage bands have been doing since the very dawn of rock ‘n roll music. The two other bands on the bill took this proud regressiveness to an even greater extreme; Apache Dropout (who are actually from Bloomington, Indiana) played songs that all sounded like two-minute variations on “My Generation,” while Detroit’s own Pretty Ghouls rely on some of the most rudimentary rock guitar playing and songwriting imaginable, but it’s more fun to pay attention to the rib-shaking guitar tone, the primal beats, the band’s Halloween-style outfits, and the writhing, room-commanding gyrations of frontwoman Asia Mock.

There was something incredibly comforting about experiencing, in full force, a rock scene that hasn’t evolved much since the MC5 broke up over forty years ago, but I still wondered if it was ultimately all that good of a thing. Isn’t reliance on one single entity whose glory days have long since passed—namely, the Big Three and its transformation into a bankrupt leviathan hanging around the neck of its city—part of what got Detroit into this mess in the first place? Isn’t it time to, you know, move on? Diversify? Experience rebirth? Of course, Detroit has a rich musical history that extends far beyond garage rock – there’s Motown, obviously, and Detroit Techno, while not really my thing, might actually be just as influential. Detroit industry, unfortunately, can’t boast similar diversity. In 2008, then-Governor Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, signed aggressive tax incentives into law in an attempt to attract filmmakers to Michigan and start to build a second legitimate major industry in the state. Three years layer, upon his inauguration, Rick Snyder dramatically cut the incentive. Why? Because fuck Rick Snyder.

All I’m saying is that Detroit’s current status quo is not sustainable. This is blindingly obvious to all observers. Not everyone is quite as sure that it will ever come back. But it must, and I am positive it will. And that comeback will be great for the city and for America in general. But once that transformation occurs, for all the positives that it will surely bring, today’s Detroit—the cool, small town version—may be lost. And I’ll miss it.



3 Comments

  1. victoid wrote:

    Compared to NYC, everywhere is a small town. The Motor City has a long long growth spurt to go before it loses any of its intimacy and charm. Boston and Philly are measurably larger and more vital than Deetroit, but still manage to remain places where local luminaries of every stripe rub elbows with the hoi polloi, and small and mid-size clubs still feature major league muzos. Hell, Brooklyn does okay in that regard too.
    So fear not, Grasshopper; the resurgence of your adopted metropolis will hopefully be inclusive of the entire breadth of the community. Onward and upward!
    Also the collapse of soul a la Motown was equally as devastating and mystifying as the failure of the auto industry. Both are coming back. Also, you neglected to mention some other titans of Detroit rock: Mitch Ryder, Bob Seger and IGGY!

  2. victoid wrote:

    Oh, and also..choke, gag…T-T-Ted Nugent

  3. Robin wrote:

    Don’t forget the MC5! Saw them at the same concert where Iggy Pop jumped and humped me!


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