One thing’s for sure….Detroit rock ‘n’ roll has a ton of attitude. Always has. It’s a hard city — hard jobs, hard times, hard drugs and hard rock, so the blue-collar “take no prisoners” approach that has defined Detroit music should come as no surprise.
Detroit Rock City is the definitive oral history of “America’s loudest city” and it is a barnburner. Oral histories — essentially interviews combined to form a narrative — seem to be all the rage. Sometimes the narrative isn’t quite as clearly constructed, and sometimes it’s hard to remember who’s who (this one has a cast of characters, but with a fatal flaw: they’re not alphabetized but listed in order of appearance). However, if they’re done well, and this one is, it can be a plus, providing a highly personal, fast-paced read with multiple viewpoints.
The book gets underway with the MC5, the Stooges, Alice Cooper, Mitch Ryder (who knew he was so naughty?) and Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes. Man, these guys played and partied HARD! Well…except for the Nuge. An innovator, a hard worker and a straight arrow, but according to MC5 manager John Sinclair, “Ted Nugent is an asshole. Always was.” I can believe that, but honestly he comes across well in the book.
This part of the book (and era of music) — was, by far, my favorite. The histories of these legendary bands are interwoven with lesser players, producers, wives, club owners and promoters to paint a fascinating and detailed scene of a unique 70s rock scene, one that had an air of real revolution. Add the CREEM magazine house — and Lester Bangs — to the mix and you’ve got a recipe for crazy…and crazy it was. The Stooges stuff alone is worth the read; Iggy, the Asheton brothers and James Williamson all chime in on the insanity. In the end, CREEM editor Dave Marsh blamed drugs and the attendant violence for the early demise of this era of Detroit rock’ n’ roll: “that was really the pathetic, terrible, regrettable end of the Detroit rock scene that had inspired and moved us all — and no one was exempt. The Five, the Stooges — they went down.” They wouldn’t be the last.
It’s a neck-snapping jump to Destroy All Monsters, Gang War, The Mutants and The Romantics, who comprised the next wave. It’s still inconceivable to me that, out of all of these bands, it would be the Romantics that would make it big. My read is that they were the least “Detroit,” but maybe there’s a lesson learned there. The next jump is to the hardcore scene, with a touch of electronica sprinkled in. I was not familiar with any of the bands from this era, but it made no difference; the Detroit narrative rolled on uninterrupted and it was interesting to learn about. And, of course, we end with Jack White and the White Stripes. A student of the Detroit scene, White comes across well and as a worthy heir to his musical roots.
The invisible player in this whole story is the city of Detroit, or what’s left of it and its carousel of clubs. Throughout the book, the stories tell of a virtual war zone; it’s every man — and band — for himself. Tales of driving 100 mph, drunk through adandoned streets are recounted with shocking nonchalance. Drug runs, complete with shotguns and armed robberies, are daily rituals. But what’s really fascinating is how consistently “Detroit” all of these different scenes remained. It’s hard to explain what “Detroit” is, but really obvious and readily apparent by the time the book ends.
Detroit Rock City. Made in America. Goddamn.
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