From underground obscurity to international phenomenon: “It Came From Detroit”

2 Mar

It Came From DetroitThank 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 …

Good artists copy, great artists steal: Tom Petty, Sam Smith and so many others

13 Feb

Especially in the wake of Sam Smith cleaning up at the Grammys, I’m sure you’ve been waiting with bated breath for me to chime in about the revelation that Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne will each get 12.5% of his royalties for the mega-hit “Stay With Me” because of the similarities between its melody and that of “I Won’t Back Down.”

Sorry to take so long to comment about this because … well, I’m torn.

No surprise I’d like to come down on Tom’s side, especially as he graciously said in his Facebook page statement there was no lawsuit and he has no hard feelings because “these things can happen.” Smith stated that when the similarities were pointed out, his team agreed to name Petty and Lynne as co-writers even though he hadn’t ever heard Petty’s song because “I am 22 years old.” (Snap!)

But here’s the thing: Petty’s people hunted down Smith’s for royalties, even though he just shrugged it off when other acts blatantly ripped off his work on purpose. To wit:

  • “Dani California” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers mimics the licks and the lyrics of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (although this YouTubian blames their common producer, Rick Rubin)
  • The Strokes admitted they lifted a lot of “American Girl” in their 2001 tune, “Last Nite” – which, according to Petty, “made me laugh out loud. I was like, ‘OK, good for you.’”

So why did he go after Sam Smith? There can be any number of cynical reasons, leading off with Lynne and Petty wanting a piece of his revenue stream to see them into their sunset years. Perhaps this is also part of some kind of campaign to remind the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame folks to induct ELO on the ballot next year.

As for me, I’d like to think it’s retribution on behalf of their great friend and fellow Wilbury, George Harrison.My Sweet Lord

He's So Fine“My Sweet Lord” was the first single off of Harrison’s 1970 solo album, All Things Must Pass. In January 1971, music publisher Bright Tunes sued him over similarities between Harrison’s hit and “He’s So Fine,” a Ronald Mack song made popular by The Chiffons in 1963. The suit lingered on for years and was settled in favor of Bright Tunes when the judge determined Harrison had committed “subconscious” plagiarism and owed $1.6 million in damages. But from the start, Harrison contended he was actually inspired by a different song: “Oh, Happy Day,” a hymn that was in public domain.

The additional kick in the head? By the time the suit went to trial in 1981 (having begun in 1976), Bright Tunes was owned by Allen Klein, Harrison’s manager who had advised him when the suit began. Harrison eventually bought Klein out for $587,000 to settle the case, and it took until 1998 to wrap up all the loose ends. It cast a lingering pall over Harrison’s songwriting, although he found a way to laugh about it at the time:

(Extra points if you can identify the comely blonde juror in the black hat.)

So, in my vain hope that Tom Petty was being somehow altruistic when he sloughed off thousands of dollars from a man who had no knowledge of his music, I choose to see the “Won’t Back Down”/”Stay With Me” settlement as karma … because in the music business, what goes around, comes around.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. Love is on the airwaves! Get your copy of Love and Other B-Sides for the Valentine in your life!

New to the Rock & Roll Bookshelf – Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of “Purple Rain”

30 Jan

Where were you when you first saw Purple Rain?

If you graduated high school within five years on either side of me, I’m almost certain you saw it in a packed theater. Given it opened in July 1984, you probably had to wait in a long, sweltering line to get in. You might have been amazed to be part of a racially mixed crowd (or, in our case at the Broad Street Cinema in the West End of Richmond, to be pretty much the only white people there).

Lets Go Crazy book coverAnd when the movie started and you heard Prince intone, “Dearly beloved,” your mind and your ears were blown simultaneously.

He played like Jimi Hendrix, squealed like Little Richard and danced like James Brown. His size and style took androgyny to uncharted territory. You readily forgave the movie’s porny women’s roles, the ridiculous dialogue and amateur acting – although Morris Day and the Time were almost worth the price of admission alone – because Prince was so off-the-charts RIGHTEOUS!

Rock writer Alan Light was a Cincinnati high school grad spending his last summer at home before college when Prince’s semi-autobiographical extravaganza came out. In his latest book, Let’s Go Crazy, he  provides as much of the backstory as he can about the making of the movie without being able to interview Prince anew or reprint any photos. As the many online lists of “things you didn’t know about Prince” demonstrate, there’s still a lot here to delight long-time fans, especially the commentary by Wendy (Melvoin) and Lisa (Coleman) of the Revolution.

But Light has a larger mission. He wants to prove why Prince matters, since anyone younger than him (us) may never have the opportunity to see what the man can really do. That’s not just because he’s not touring as much or because his albums have been a really mixed bag since Sign O’ the Times. As Light points out, Prince’s drive to keep moving forward – propelled by his exceptional ego – is destroying much of his legacy.

Prince is prolifically innovative in terms of erasing himself from the historical record. After all, he changed his name to a symbol, introducing the meme “the ___ formerly known as ___” before we knew what memes even were. During his bitter feud with Warner Brothers, he’d perform with “SLAVE” Sharpied on his cheek so the label couldn’t use the photos for promotions. His professional reputation was just as disposable. Lest we forget, in the space of only four years

Purple Rain album

he went from this …

Parade

to this …

Around the World in a Day

then this …

and this ...

and, amazingly, this …

yet still ended up here

yet still ended up here

Prince is also famous for tracking down every scrap of online video and yanking it. I tried to find some early 1980s material to share in this post and came up empty: nothing from Purple Rain, none of the salacious MTV videos that primed us for the movie. (I did find a grainy version of his music video for “Kiss” on a German music site, featuring Melvoin in brocade for old times’ sake.)

Of course it’s Prince’s world and we just live in it, so he is perfectly within his rights to disavow his earlier stuff in order to follow his faith, control his image and promote the newest version of himself. While he’s still technically brilliant and can drop a really good album when he wants to (or two, as he did last fall), I doubt that will ever be enough to turn the younger generation into the hyperventilating, crazy-eyed fans we Xers will always be.

Biggest Prince Fans Ever

And that’s a damn shame.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. Valentine’s Day is coming up – the perfect time to woo the rock-and-roller in your life with a copy of Love and Other B-Sides!

Day tripping at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

8 Jan R&R Hall of Fame

Propeller Head Jesus

Propeller Head Jesus

I am a museum geek. Give me admission, and I’ll tool around the galleries until the lights dim. This is enormous fun for me but not so much for my companions. Years ago when my partner and I went to Florence – a city with 72 museums – she humored this behavior for about three days, at which point she put her foot down. “If I have to go to one more museum and see one more painting of Jesus with a propeller on his head, you’re walking back by yourself. To San Francisco.”

It’s a lot like me and rock music. Just mentioning a musician turns on a spigot of trivia, unbidden and unstoppable: “Oh, you like the Black Keys? They’re from Akron, Ohio, you know, the birthplace of Chrissie Hynde, the Waitresses and Devo. You know, Devo was actually a seriously subversive band. The name is short for “de-evolution” reflecting their disillusion with the direction of society. Mark Mothersbaugh, you know, has scored a bunch of Wes Anderson films, and just did The Lego Movie, and … wait, why are you leaving?”

Put rock and roll together with a museum, and it’s my idea of heaven on earth. However, asking others to come with me would usher them into a bowge of hell. So, on the second day of 2015, I drove myself from Detroit to Cleveland to revisit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on my own.

R&R Hall of Fame

Cue the angels singing and the doves flying: at the front door of the Temple of Rock & Roll

The last time I went there was 2011, with my son and younger daughter (then nine years old) in tow. They were great sports, but ultimately they got their fill just as I was getting started. This time, I wanted to be there from open to close, giving myself permission to wallow in whatever I fancied.

As much as I carp about their induction choices, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is well curated, beautifully laid out and engagingly interactive. They make the most of video and audio to augment the collection of instruments, costumes, posters and paraphernalia on display. For instance, the Early Influences listening station near the front of the main gallery features the forefathers and foremothers of the genre, coming from blues, gospel, country and jazz, providing brief biographies, photos and choice examples of their songs.

I got to know a few of these folks better during my visit, including Louis Jordan, who certainly gave Little Richard some ideas …

… and Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, whose Texas swing inspired Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” with this song:

After a couple of hours tooling around the exhibition hall in the lower level, I grabbed a sandwich then got comfortable in the Hall of Fame theater showing the video highlighting each year’s inductees through 2013. Given there are more than 304 inductees in the past 29 years, this takes a while, even as they gloss over some of the greats to keep things moving. In my opinion, 2011 was their best year for showcasing artists who run the gamut of what rock music can be. My particular favorites from that year:

Dr. John, who you can see here doing “Iko Iko” in concert with Ringo Starr and some of the best side men of the 1970s: Clarence Clemons, Nils Lofgren, Joe Walsh, 2/5 of The Band, Billy Preston … boo howdy!

Tom Waits, who knew he was an acquired taste from early on, as spoofed in his appearance in 1977 on Fernwood 2 Night:

Leon Russell, who played elegantly powerful piano for everyone from Frank Sinatra to George Harrison without losing his Okie weirdness, which is on full display in his Homewood Sessions:

Sorry … the trivia spigot just went full blast again.

More than six hours after I arrived, I was back on the road home, sated after gorging on music all day. And the thing is, if someone would offer to go with me, I’d be back on 75 South to 80 East in a second, to see what more I could explore.

Let me know when you’re up for a road trip. I’ll pay the tolls on the turnpike … although I’ll control the stereo.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. Need even more evidence of how great the Class of 2011 was? Tune in at 12:47 in this clip from the 2011 induction broadcast to see Alice Cooper – bloody tux and all – trade verses with Darlene Love on “Da Doo Ron Ron.” How I adore rock and roll!

Right Around the Corner: The Detroit Cobras at the UFO Factory

29 Dec

Tied and TrueThis year has been a personal best for concerts. I saw some of my favorite bands of all time and went to nearly every major Detroit venue, many featuring not just places to sit but actual seats. It’s been grand.

My final show of 2014 was a departure. I and my intrepid concert buddy Lois ventured to the UFO Factory in Corktown to see a local favorite I’ve wanted to catch live for a long time: the Detroit Cobras. This outfit’s specialty is doing lesser-known R&B songs with a pumped-up tempo. One of my favorites is “Right Around the Corner,” originally recorded by newly-minted Rock & Roll Hall of Famers the “5” Royales:

Having missed the Detroit Cobras the last time they were in town, I made sure to buy tickets in advance. (Lois’ comment: “At these low prices, I’m guessing there are no seats.” Correct.) Another sign this was not going to be the usual Ticketmastered affair: my online receipt confirmed the date of the show as follows:

Start Date: December 27, 2014 9:00 PM
End Date: December 28, 2014 2:00 AM

I made a note to myself to use those Starbucks gift cards I got for Christmas. It was going to be a long night.

Tim V. of The Hentchmen

Tim Purrier of The Hentchmen

There were three warm-up acts on the bill, all of them new to me: Twine Time (not too bad, featuring a drummer who looked like he had just gotten his learner’s permit); J. Walker & the Crossguards (meh); and The Hentchmen. These three guys have played together for more than 20 years; Jack White sat in with them back in the old days. The guitarist, Tim Purrier, is a force of nature, unleashing muscular garage rock with every song. Great, great stuff.

When the Hentchmen wrapped up, it was after midnight. By then the place was filled to capacity with an admirable mix of age groups, although it was pretty much an all-white crowd, as has been the case at all of the shows I’ve attended out here (even Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings’ audience wasn’t particularly diverse). Some local rock stalwarts were rumored to be in the room: one of The Romantics was standing in the back, along with a guy from The Howling Diablos. The DJ kept things lively, blasting punk singles louder than any of the bands; Lois gamely shielded her eardrums. Finally some of the Cobras got onstage to set up. We were more than ready.

Rachel Nagy

Rachel Nagy and a Cobra

The constants of the band over the last two decades have been singer Rachel Nagy and guitarist “Mary Cobra” Ramirez. They look like the gals you want with you in a bar fight: tough and battle-tested. Nagy was the last one on stage, puffing on an e-cigarette and adjusting her t-shirt to better feature her tattoos. They got on with the show, kicking out three or four boppy, garaged-up songs in 15 minutes.

Before one of the tunes ended, however, Nagy left the stage. The remaining band members took it in stride, cracking lame jokes to cover for a few minutes. Then she returned to explain her absence, looking a bit worse for wear:

“Clearly I’m not as punk rock as I used to be,” she admitted. “I don’t throw up onstage anymore.”

Dearie me …

Whatever the cause for her indisposition (heat stroke? jello shots? stomach flu?), Nagy and the band got back into the groove. By 1:15, the 25-ish lead singer of Twine Time, boozy and uninhibited, was attempting to chat Lois up, and I had had enough of contending with the giant photographer blocking my view. The ink of our hand stamps had faded; we’d proven our mettle; it was time to go home to the suburbs.

I have gone to more concerts in five years in Detroit than the rest of my years combined. No doubt this has to do with my advancing age, knowing I’d better do it now before my aching back won’t let me stand in General Admission anymore. Still, rock music isn’t some fountain of youth for me. It’s not my aspiration, either; as much as I wish I could have sung back-up for Joe Cocker, I would have wanted to do so in 1969. And Lord knows no matter how many shows I attend, “cool” will never be synonymous with my name.

I simply like to feel the music as well as hear it, surrounded by fellow members of the tribe, especially when friends and/or family agree to share, or at least humor, my obsession. It’s fun; it’s silly; it’s glorious; it’s rock and roll.

May the journey continue in the New Year and beyond.

See you on the flip side … and here’s to more music in 2015!

P.S. A special thank you to everyone who has bought, read, reviewed and talked up Love and Other B-Sides. You helped make 2014 truly spectacular!

Joe Cocker and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

22 Dec

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame logo

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class of 2015 was announced recently, and the carping began immediately thereafter.

Here are the inductees, according to category:

  • “Former Upstarts Who Became Mainstream Stars”: Green Day
  • “We’re Embarrassed that Brian Epstein was Inducted Before Him”: Ringo Starr
  • “It’s About Damn Time”: Lou Reed
  • “Wait, He’s Not Already In?”: Stevie Ray Vaughan
  • “Any Other White Blues Guys We Missed?”: Paul Butterfield
  • “Great Voice, but, uh, Why?”: Bill Withers
  • “We Have to Induct a Girl with a Guitar – Who’s Left?”: Joan Jett
  • “Uh, Who?”: The “5” Royales
Kiss Action Figures

Perhaps you’re more likely to get into the Hall of Fame if you have your own action figures

As usual, there were seminal acts on the ballot much worthier than the winners, and even more weren’t even considered who should have been ensconced in Cleveland years ago. You gotta wonder how the induction committee determines who gets in and who doesn’t. Beyond having recording at least 25 years prior to consideration, the criteria is purposely vague:

We shall consider factors such as an artist’s musical influence on other artists, length and depth of career and the body of work, innovation and superiority in style and technique, but musical excellence shall be the essential qualification of induction.

For my money, the key phrases here are,”musical influence” and “musical excellence.” Anyone who gets in should have moved the medium forward … which ought to excuse Ms. Jett from consideration in the first place. This would also justify 2014 inductee Kiss, which – despite critics’ deep distaste – inspired numerous (male) musicians at a formative age, ranging from ?uestlove to Rivers Cuomo (as a snippet of tape from his middle school days attests).

Joe CockerWhich brings me to Joe Cocker, who died Dec. 22.

Cocker is not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Perhaps he isn’t because he was influenced more than he influences. By his own admission in a documentary I saw a few years ago (was it Across From Midnight?), he idolized Ray Charles so much, he imitated him down to rocking back and forth as if he was playing Ray’s piano. He was also a singer who didn’t play an instrument and rarely sang his own compositions.

But man oh man, how he sang: that’s the definition of “musical excellence” right there.

As much as his appearance at Woodstock cemented his place in rock history, the magnificent Mad Dogs & Englishmen exemplifies his power as a vocalist and musician. Backed by a phenomenal band led by Leon Russell (featuring 20 Feet from Stardom star Claudia Lennear, and saxophonist Bobby Keys, who also died recently), Cocker rolled through tunes by the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan and a crushing “Blue Medley,” with the fervor of a revival preacher. Here’s a sample from the documentary of the tour:

 

Cocker had scattered hits later in his career, including the Oscar-winning “Up Where We Belong,” but it’s that sweaty, scorching, full-body singing in the late 1960s/early 1970s that was his gift to rock and roll, and to us.

Rest in peace, Joe, and may you be the first name on the 2016 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ballot.

See you on the flip side … and Happy Holidays!

Soon to be featured on the Rock & Roll Bookshelf: Laura Lee

15 Dec

And now, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to Laura Lee, author and blogger at The Power of Narrative.  Her second novel, Identity Theft, is available for pre-order, and given the log line, I’m going to like this one immensely: A bored employee in a rock star’s office begins an online relationship with a fan in the guise of his boss and sets off a chain of events he cannot control.

Laura was kind to feature me in an earlier post on her blog, and I am so pleased to return the favor. Here’s her guest post:

***

Laura Lee

Laura Lee

I often begin speaking engagements by explaining to the audience that I am not a British man.

Of course they can see that by looking at me. It is less obvious, it seems, when they only have a page of writing to consider. Apparently I am linguistically androgynous. The editor who worked on one of my books referred to me throughout her notes as “he.” There was also a brief period after my novel Angel was published that the internet decided I was a gay man and started showing me ads for gay luxury travel and dating sites on every web page. So I find that it is helpful just to put it out there that I am not male, gay or otherwise.

Throughout the years a number of professional reviewers have referred to me as “British author Laura Lee.” I never claimed to be from England. The reviewers came to this conclusion on their own. I am not sure if the different reviewers read my writing and independently imagined I sounded British or if one person did and the others picked up on this mistake via internet research.

I was born and raised in metro Detroit.

I did spend a year in the UK as an exchange student my junior year in college and I returned for six months with a work visa following my graduation with a highly lucrative diploma as an independent major in theater studies. But my supposed Englishness manifested itself long before that. When I was still in high school a friend of mine said, “You have a very British sense of humor.”

I said, “What do you mean a British sense of humor?”

She said, “You know, dry and not very funny.”

This remains one of the best things that has ever been said about my writing. I love its unintentional humor so much that I have tried to use this in biographical blurbs a number of times. The marketing folks at my various publishers, as if to prove the point, always ask me to cut it out.

“You can’t say that you’re not very funny.”

Of course not. I am frightfully droll.

I cannot be sure, of course, that my high school friends should be cited as as authorities on things British. Another friend of mine around this time noticed that I had two copies of the Adam and the Ants album Prince Charming. One was the regular U.S. release, the other was the U.K. import with a gatefold sleeve. She asked me what the difference was between the two albums and I told her that one of them was British.

“It’s British?” she asked with what seemed like too much excitement.

“Yeah.”

“You man they’re singing in British?”

“Um. Yeah.”

“Can I hear it?”

I put the record on and she looked crestfallen. “They’re just singing in English,” she said. She thought I had been playing a joke on her.

To be clear, it is not only Americans who have trouble with this kind of thing. When I was in London once, I was visiting a friend’s family. The mother was watching Starsky and Hutch on TV. She asked where I was from. I said, “Michigan.” She squinted and asked if we had Starsky and Hutch in my country.

Americans pronounce Michigan as though it were spelled with an “sh” in the middle. In England, they insist upon pronouncing it as it is spelled– even though they pronounce Worchestershire as if there were basically no distinct letters in the middle of the word at all. She had no idea what this “Mishigan” place was.

Laura Lee book imageI have finally had the opportunity to put my mock-Englishness to use in my forthcoming novel Identity Theft. The novel tells the story of a British pop star who goes by the stage name Blast and a young man who works in his office. The office worker, Ethan, poses as his boss online and starts flirting with a fan in e-mail and chats. I had to create two voices, one a young American who pretends to be English and is comically inept and the other a real Englishman who has been living in Los Angeles for a decade and whose dialect, with any luck, does not elicit laughs. For this I enlisted the help of a couple of real live British-speaking English type people to help me edit my Americanisms out of Blast’s speech. A few slip in– you see– I’m American.

But this time around I will be especially pleased– chuffed– if a review of the novel begins,”British author Laura Lee has chosen “identity” as the theme for his second novel…”

See you on the flip side, Laura!

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