Thank goodness I moved to Detroit when I did. If I’d arrived in the 1990s, I probably wouldn’t have been able to hold down a steady job or get any sleep because I would have spent every spare dollar and minute in a scuzzy bar somewhere downtown listening to garage bands.
I know this thanks to a very thoughtful gift from my cousins-in-law: a copy of the 2013 documentary, It Came from Detroit, chronicling the garage scene before, during and after the White Stripes made it big and gave the world a glimpse of the home-grown music scene.
The way the musicians tell it in the film, many of these bands were formed out of boredom by music geeks who clogged the aisles of record stores looking for albums by early 1960s American bands like Bay City’s own ? and the Mysterians. Having no experience playing an instrument wasn’t necessarily a barrier; friends would pick up a guitar or a pair of drum sticks and jump right in. As more bands formed, they took over whatever space was cheap and available (dive bars, bowling alleys, stripper transvestite clubs) to play for whoever would show up. The sound – fuzzed up, fun and really loud – was dubbed “Detroit garage rock.”
The crowds grew, the bands (which often shared or swapped players) got better known around town, and while they weren’t exactly able to quit their day jobs, bands like The Demolition Doll Rods, Electric Six and The Detroit Cobras were able to play rock music their way – as this video from The Gories shows:
Then came Jack and Meg White.
Jack had played with a number of Detroit bands like Rocket 455 and the Hentchmen, but once the White Stripes started, they were on a different trajectory. The documentary uses their rise to the top as a line of demarcation between a time when music was just a way for friends to get together by making music, and one in which Detroit bands like the Von Bondies were getting national praise and international exposure … which didn’t last long.
It Came From Detroit took ten years to film and features dozens of interviews and music clips. I’m glad that many of these bands are still playing (I’ve seen a couple recently) and grateful their commitment to having fun onstage hasn’t waned. And as for those that are hiatus or broke up long ago, at least we can experience some of that Motor City magic on screen. As my cousin writes,
Looking back it was by far the most enjoyable job I have ever had. For 9 years 3-4 nights a week my job was to go witness great rock and roll shows, well for the most part at least.
There are lots of stories to go along with all those shows. It did kind of dampen my enthusiasm of seeing national acts in larger venues, knowing that I saw so many great bands that were just as good and many times far better than those big touring bands.
Buy the documentary, spread the word, and share your experiences here. In the meantime, enjoy this clip from Ann Arbor-based The Paybacks:
See you on the flip side …