Back in the Motor City for a month or so before heading back to Amsterdam in mid-August to try to settle in for the winter and work shows around western Europe with Mark Ritsema and our great band of Blues Scholars from Rotterdam. So my next dispatch hopefully will be sent to you across the sea from the Netherlands, but until then I'll be completely caught up in the daily struggle to eke out a meager living and keep myself together in what the great painter and webmaster Lowell Boileau calls "the fabulous ruins of Detroit."
Once a dynamic metropolis of two million people, the nation's fifth-largest city and the world center of the automobile industry, Detroit's precipitous decline began in the years after World War II when local real estate developers started laying their plans to create a comprehensive system of new suburban communities to which they intended to attract droves of white working people eager to escape the pressures and complexities of urban life.
Weakened by almost 20 years of white flight to the burgeoning suburban utopia constructed by the development specialists, Detroit was brought to its knees by the massive black rebellion of 1967 and finished off a few years later when crafty foreign automakers succeeded in undermining the consumer base for the big Detroit gas-eaters and sent the city's economy into an irreversible tailspin. Factories shut down and full employment for the city's working class soon became a thing of the past, leaving hundreds of thousands of citizens to face a terrifying future with no hope of resuming their previous lives as productive members of society.
Now there have been no jobs for 30 years, the city's population has shrunken to 850,000 or so mostly black and destitute residents, its once-thriving neighborhoods have deteriorated beyond description, commercial districts have crumbled into miles and miles of abandoned stores and boarded-up buildings, and Detroit's all but deserted downtown sector presents an image of unrelenting ugliness unmatched anywhere in America. There are pockets of resistance here and there where isolated neighborhoods have managed to retain their integrity and cling desperately to their human qualities, but the city is in truth a mere shell of its former self as a manufacturing center and world-class cultural vortex.
This is a rough place, and it gets rougher and meaner every year that its residents are forced to struggle for sustenance in an economic environment which has made no place for them and resents their very existence. African Americans control the city government, the police force, the courts, the schools, the entire range of municipal institutions, but the absence of jobs and the oppressive presence of thousands of deserted dwellings have deprived the city of a tax base sufficient to sustain a viable level of public service. Everything continues to deteriorate, and there's no end in sight.
So it's no surprise that Detroiters tend to look to the past for inspiration and relief from the horrors of modern urban life-back to the days before the jobs disappeared, when the city produced what it seemed would be an endless stream of industrial wealth and creative genius that changed the world and made it a better place to live in. Detroit was the second city of modern jazz, a thriving center of blues activity, a hotbed of rhythm & blues, the home of the Motown sound and the fountainhead of high-energy rock & roll. Its musical heroes are legion and the memories of their mighty exploits are indelibly etched in the hearts and minds of the people.
I came to Detroit 40 years ago to explore the city's myriad musical treasures and spent the best part of the next 25 years enjoying its cornucopia of cultural delights. My own memories of exceptional music and art heard and seen in Detroit and nearby Ann Arbor are unusually numerous, but two unique Motor City cultural experiences have continued to shine over the ensuing four decades, and vivid impressions of both have been invoked during my current residency here.
The path I have followed through an improbably lengthy lifetime started to open up for me just about 50 years ago when I was exposed to rhythm & blues on the radio, and for the rest of the 1950s my progress was propelled by the music of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, the Moonglows, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jimmy Reed, the Flamingos, Big Joe Turner, Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters, Bo Diddley, the Chantels and hundreds more. When I went away to college in the fall of 1959 I got turned on to jazz and went from Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean to John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp and the Sun Ra Arkestra.
My literary passageway was lit up while I was in high school with the appearance of On The Road, Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans and Doctor Sax
by the great Jack Kerouac. At college I soon met the works of Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and William Burroughs, and I studied the major poets of the 20th century from Yeats, Pound and Eliot to Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, LeRoi Jones and Michael McClure. I wanted to write about jazz and blues like LeRoi, A.B. Spellman, Sam Charters and Paul Oliver. I read everything I could find and started my career in journalism by editing and writing for the little campus paper at school.
All this happened in towns and little cities in Michigan-Davison, Albion, Flint-and now I wanted to go to the big city. I chose Wayne State University for graduate school because it was situated in the heart of Detroit, where I knew there would be people who were living the kind of lives I had been reading about and trying to emulate from afar. I went there looking for anti-establishment oppositionists of every possible inclination-beatniks and painters and poets and jazz musicians, left-wing political activists and black nationalists and psychedelic explorers, dropped-out bohemians and dope fiends and hustlers of all stripes-and it didn't take me long to find them in splendid profusion.
By the fall of 1964 I'd spent six frenetic months properly establishing myself in several of Detroit's most vital cultural precincts while doing well in my graduate studies in American literature and beginning to send my little manuscripts out to jazz magazines and poetry journals. I was living with Charles Moore, a trumpet player from Alabama, in a house on the far western fringe of WSU that we shared with the painter Howard Weingarden and assorted other musicians, and we were constantly bemoaning the absence of even one place in the city where the music and poetry and art we were making could be displayed.
By October this conversation had spread to quite a few of the other isolated bohemian outposts around the city, and eventually a group of 16 of us threw in a few dollars each and formed the Artists' Workshop Society as a Michigan on-profit corporation. We took our tiny treasury and went out and rented a house in the neighborhood we could use as our headquarters. Robin Eichele and Martine Algier moved into the second floor apartment and paid half the $65 rent, and we set up the ground floor as a primitive performance, exhibition and workshop space fully under own our control.
The Detroit Artists Workshop was thrown open to the public on Sunday, November 1, 1964 with the first of a series of weekly free jazz concerts and poetry readings that took place every Sunday afternoon until the end of the next spring, when a fire rendered the house uninhabitable. We hung paintings and photographs on the walls, organized workshops in writing and independent film-making, rehearsed and performed our music there, and made the place into a de facto community cultural center where any kind of creative activity was welcomed and encouraged.
Our members, participants and audiences were primarily outsider and avant-garde artists between 18 and 25 years old who lived in the immediate community and were just becoming serious about pursuing a life in the arts with very little hope of being remunerated for our efforts. What we wanted most was a chance to develop and grow and show our work to one another in a collegial setting, and the Artists Workshop gave us what we needed.
Among the 100 people or so who made up our audience, one regular attendee was a high school beatnik from suburban Lincoln Park named Rob Derminer, a poet and cartoonist who also sang lead (under the name of Robin Tyner) with a fledgling rock & roll band called the MC-5. With guitarists Wayne Kramer and Fred Smith, drummer Dennis Thompson and bassist Michael Davis, Tyner and the MC-5 developed a concept they called "avant-rock" that drew on the entire spectrum of "high energy" music-from James Brown and the Rolling Stones to John Coltrane and Albert Ayler-and incorporated elements of blues, primal rock, free improvisation and amplified feedback into their songs and stage performances.
I met the MC-5 in August 1966 when they played at the Artists Workshop and became a fanatical follower of their incendiary performances at ballrooms, teen clubs, high school gymnasiums and occasional stage shows. A year later I was pressed into full-time service as the band's manager and helped build the MC-5 into the biggest local band in Detroit history, drawing thousands of ecstatic fans to shows around Michigan and the Midwest. A year later we signed a major record contract with Elektra Records and recorded our first album "live" in front of packed houses at the Grande Ballroom on October 30-31, 1968.
The MC5 album shot up the charts, peaking at No. 30 with a bullet before Elektra pulled the LP off the market, removed my blasphemous liner notes from the inner sleeve, and censored the band's defiant anthem, "Kick Out the Jams, Motherfucker!" before re-issuing the now bowlderized record. We parted ways six months after our contract had been signed, and I took the band to Atlantic Records to make a much better deal for their next two albums, Back in the USA
(1970) and High Times
The MC5 specialized in dramatic, hard-driving tunes, a spectacular stage presentation, high-energy free-form improvisation, and an intense anti-authoritarian attitude that just wouldn't quit. In November 1968 the band played a key role in organizing the White Panther Party and played under its banner until the next spring, when several people from the record industry convinced the band that they could never achieve success as long as they were associated with the revolutionary movement. Then the band fired me as their manager, and only weeks later I was sent to prison to start serving my 9-1/2 to 10-year sentence on a marijuana conviction for possession of two joints.
By the time I was released 29 months later, in December 1971, the MC5 had begun their own steep decline, terminating in the band's dissolution at the end of 1972. Its members went their separate ways and remained embittered and apart for 20 years, meeting up again in the '90s to mourn the untimely death of Rob Tyner and, four years later, of Fred Smith. A remarkable sequence of events too elaborate to describe here then ensued that kept bringing the three surviving members together, culminating in their decision to play a one-time "Celebration of the MC5" concert in London last year. The show was fully documented and has just been released on DVD as Sonic Revolution
The amazing thing was that the power and impact of the MC5's music had remained intact for 30 years, and the men who had created it were able to bring it completely back to life even despite the absence of their two fallen comrades, Tyner and Smith. Word of the London concert spread among MC5 fanatics the world over, and soon promoters and agents were calling to see how they could get a date. All of a sudden these three guys who couldn't get arrested in the music business for 30 years had the utterly unexpected opportunity to make a living playing their music for modern audiences, and they decided to jump on it.
Now reconstituted as DKT/MC5 (that would be Michael Davis, Wayne Kramer and Dennis Thompson) and augmented by guitarist Marshall Crenshaw and vocalists Mark Arm (Mudhoneys) and Evan Dando (Lemonhead), the band is presently touring the world-Australia, Japan and Europe-after playing 30 dates in North America. Their first U.S. dates were in Detroit and Chicago in early June, and I was thrilled to have the chance to open for these shows with my band, the Blues Scholars.
The Detroit show at the Majestic Theatre was an incredible event. Rabid MC5 fans of all ages packed the house to the walls, rocking to high-powered "live" versions of legendary MC5 tunes that had been heard only on record since 1972. On stage and off, there was no trace of the tensions that had driven the band members apart for so long-everything glowed in the light of forgiveness and redemption and rediscovered brotherhood, and everybody went home happy.
Since the MC5 celebration I've also had the extreme pleasure of reuniting with some of my old partners from the Detroit Artists Workshop-people who started out together four decades ago to make their lives in the creative arts and who are coming together now to plan a gala 40th Anniversary Reunion and Celebration to be held in Detroit November 4-7, 2004. Each meeting of the Reunion Steering Committee brings more of us out of the woodwork to sign up for the celebration, which will present concerts, poetry readings, art exhibits, workshops and panel discussions centered on the activities and achievements of the Detroit Artists Workshop so many long years ago.
Now there's a website at www.detroitartistsworkshop.org
, and I'll try to file reports in this column as the celebration nears. But for those of us who were inspired when we were struggling young iconoclasts at the Detroit Artists Workshop to begin the productive lives which have sustained us for 40 years, this unanticipated reunion is a blessing beyond description. It's great to be alive, and active, and together again at last, and we're going to celebrate our asses off! (c) 2004 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.