Garage rock and Detroit techno -- social and cultural energy drivers at home, international commodities everywhere else -- started the city's revival in the 1990s. Maybe even sooner.
This story originally appeared in Model D.
Before I get into the core of my thesis -- that, ultimately, we'll have the Gories to thank for making sure Detroit doesn't become America's first former city -- I just want to point out that there’s a pretty decent case of extreme politeness spreading out there. Folks are collaborating and actually fixing parks and buildings and stuff, and trying to make things work. I’ve been to no less than five different suit-and-tie parties over the last month alone, with some pretty good red wine I might add, confirming the existence of this very thing. Some of it is getting downright grown-up and proper.
It’s all really wonderful, in addition to being long over-due, but as I’ve been taking time to let my wine breathe, I couldn’t help but feel a little nostalgic for another time. A time when chaos ruled the day, and things were sweaty and messy and loud. Which brought me, in a roundabout way, to the Gories.
Stay with me here. So, I kept thinking about all this lately -- this wave of momentum and energy and youth that you can’t help but trip over in Corktown and Downtown and Midtown and Hamtramck, and now West Village -- and it reminded me of another smaller, but equally revolutionary wave of energy in the mid-to-late 90s and early 2000s. The Garage Rock scene. Please know you can just as well apply this to Derrick May and Carl Craig and Juan Atkins and Underground Resistance, who all contributed to a techno explosion from here to London to Berlin to Tokyo that was strong around the same time, but I’m all about some fingers-in-the-ears rock-and-roll. It's what I know.
"You know, I moved to Detroit because of Bantam Rooster."
Anyway, beyond the fact that today's entrepre-builder/sustainable-foodie scene and the garage scene each have/had their share of skinny white guys ironically wearing Jefferson Starship t-shirts, I never really connected the two until recently. Then a little encounter brought them together for me. I was sipping a double-espresso, with a caramel-custard doughnut lightly dipped in Beau Bien Jam when a friend of mine said (and I paraphrase here), "you know I moved to Detroit because of Bantam Rooster (the band). They were in some glossy magazine with a bunch of other Detroit garage bands. I looooved them, and thought, 'man Chicago looks boring compared to that.'"
Too lazy to do any real research, I decided -- at that very moment -- that the garage scene, and their techno brethren, are single-handedly responsible for all the positive energy we’re seeing today. No doubt. Just ask me. They -- the musicians themselves and those swirling around them -- got in pretty darn early. They were the ones who had to break every psychological bone in their parents' bodies just to move here (I can assure you, their parents were not bragging about their move to Detroit like yours are now). And, along the way, they made Detroit "cool" for the early adopters that followed.
They played shows at the Kress Lounge, and the Gold Dollar and the Fourth Street Fair (all of which are now gone), and danced and spilled beer and had slip-and-slide contests in the muck on the floor of the Majestic. They were brash and unapologetically naïve and serious about fun, and music, and more fun. Of course this stuff still goes on somewhere today, but for a while this was the face of the place, not the underbelly. For much of the world, this was Detroit. I remember seeing friends in Rolling Stone and Spin and Interview magazines much like I now see friends in Forbes and the New York Times and GQ. And it was just as exciting then.
Why we should care about chaotic Detroit history
Mick Collins, Peg O’Neill and Dan Kroha start a rock-and-roll band in 1986 called the Gories, that some kid named John Gillis in Southwest Detroit, a former altar boy and upholsterer, loves. Absolutely loves. They inspire him to play music too, and he ends up cutting his chops, in part, as a drummer with a tall skinny cowboy named Goober. John changes his name to Jack, marries his sister (or was it divorced her?) and they start their own band. Their schtick, beyond some pretty mind-bending music, somehow revolves around peppermint candy. True story.
There are other bands, too. Many others. And they’re good. Some play angry. Some absolutely own power pop. Others like to add a little theater. There’s a guy who calls himself Dick Valentine and plays with an "Indian" in a band called Wildbunch; Esquire, the white, male, gay rapper with kittenish female back-up dancers; an all-girl glam band called the Sirens; Jawbone plugging into a DC battery and taking it to the streets. And Mick Collins (post Gories) coming back with two drummers and two bassists in the Dirtbombs, as if that’s the most obvious thing to do. Too many to name here. Few, if any, can ever remember actually playing in a garage.
The world takes notice. The bands start leaving town to tour Europe. They open for each other. The peppermint husband and sister (or is it brother and wife?) become the face of the whole deal, but they’re all in NME Magazine and John Peel is calling them to record Peel Sessions on their stops in London. Gillis punches a rival at the Majestic Theater making international news. Detroit is everywhere.
People -- young people that everyone is jumping up-and-down trying to attract -- start looking at the city differently. A few of them, including the friend that I’m sipping coffee with, move here. Some of those people, I know for certain, start doing some pretty great things, and others slowly take notice of those great things and follow them. Somewhere in in the middle of hurting LeBron James’ feelings Dan Gilbert takes notice too, and moves his company here. And so on, and so on, and so on. So, I’d say that’s pretty air-tight. If anyone is Christmas shopping for Dan Gilbert this year, might I suggest The Gories seminal record (on vinyl please) I Know You Fine, But How You Doin'?
So what does it all mean? Well, the Gories kick ass, that's pretty undeniable. Other than that it’s pretty good to remember that we all stand on the shoulders of giants in one way or another. Whether it’s the block-club captain that saved the street you now live on in 1970, the Detroit churches who have held together one community after another for decades, or the lead singer of Rocket 455. We’re not the first people here, any more than the Gories were the first people here, any more than the Cass Corridor artists were the first people here before them.
Oh, and it’s great to be polite. I actually prefer it. Just don’t forget to have some fun along the way. Remember to embrace and welcome chaos. It is, after all, a big part of what got us where we are. And, whatever you do, don’t let it slip into "proper." That would be horrible. This is Detroit after all. Let down your hair, tussle someone else’s, and crank up a little Bantam Rooster. Tonight, we rock. We can all save the world tomorrow.
Jim Boyle lives in the West Village, works in Midtown and co-founded an art space in Hamtramck.