High on Fire
Part I: Ah, Windsor! Bordertown (The Journey)
19 Feb 2005: Alvin's Detroit, MI
Ah, Windsor! Bordertown. Birthplace of my father. Referred to by acquaintances as “an armpit” and “profoundly uninteresting”. Home of a casino and dense with strip clubs. Flooded every weekend by thousands of thirsty, horny Americans, spilling over the bridge and through the tunnel. My associates and I were playing a different game. We were going to Alvin’s, in Detroit, to find our pleasure.
* * *
Saturday, February 19th:
We made the drive from Toronto to Windsor in two and a half hours. It’s supposed to take four.
To make the trip, we (Sean, Jeremy, myself) had rented a car—a Champagne Ford Taurus with dark red stains on the driver’s side headrest.
There were three of us in the car, though only two of our names would appear on the guest list. The third’s entry was unaccounted for, but then, he was the driver, so his place in the car was generally uncontested.
The ostensible reason for my joining the trip was to cover a concert by the metal band High on Fire. They have a new record out and it’s called Blessed Black Wings. As the band’s website describes it:
“HIGH ON FIRE are [sic] a supersonic exercise in conquest by volume. Equal parts molten metal and earthquake panic, HIGH ON FIRE’s MOTORHEAD-meets-SLAYER roar is outrageously loud and absolutely punishing.”
I listened to Blessed Black Wings from start to finish on the car ride, my attention split between the music and trying to entice truckers to blow their horns by sticking my arm out the window and pumping my fist like Tiger Woods at the Masters. Only four trucks obliged. The album, like the horns, sounded good—damn good.
* * *
Upon stating my plan to go to Detroit, I was told that to spend time in Detroit proper was to “take my life into my own hands”. My mother asked me to “just be careful and don’t do anything stupid”. My father expressed his hope, “that you have the sense to leave if it gets dangerous”. These are the words movie mothers say to their beautiful young sons before sending them off to war. And afterwards, if they come back, they’re not the same. Sister asks, “Mama, why doesn’t Billy laugh anymore?”
* * *
The driver, Sean, didn’t want to navigate the lonely streets of Detroit (where the band was playing), so he arranged lodging for us at a bed and breakfast in Windsor, just across the river.
When we hit Windsor, our last Canadian haven, we jumped ship, left the car behind, and boarded a bus to take us through the tunnel, across the border, and into Detroit.
Before you’re allowed into Detroit, you have to get off the bus and go through customs. I waited my turn in line and then went up to the customs booth.
I was asked if I had ever been arrested. I hesitated (they wouldn’t actually check would they?), lied, and said no. The customs agent asked if I was sure about that. My stomach tightened. It took a moment, but I realized he was kidding. I laughed. It’s that easy. We got back on the bus.
When we hit the end of the line, we hopped off the bus. Standing at an empty intersection, a man, short, maybe forty years old, approached us. “You guys know where you’re going?”
What was his scam? He walked us to the cabstand. Told us that a bunch of young men walking around don’t have nothing to worry about. The media’s a bunch of bullshit—just selling bad news. They’re no bullets whizzing. He assured us we had nothing to worry about because we were unknowns. He said people do bad things to people they know.
I was glad to hear that.
* * *
We walked into the club, and my name was on the guest list with a plus one. I laughed when the no-neck bouncer asked if I would be drinking. He gingerly applied the appropriate paper bracelet and the three of us entered the fray.
We needed alcohol. In a patriotic moment, we started with Labatt’s.
In a matter of seconds it was time to order more beer. I asked the black mascara’d waitress, heavy in a way that only made her more desirable, for three of whatever was popular. She didn’t understand. It’s the curse of the service industry: people told over and over what to do often struggle when asked to choose. If the customer’s always right, what do you do when they don’t know? I told her to give me whatever the kids are drinking. She handed us three bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Shots of whiskey and more beer.
* * *
No one had any drugs. This seemed unusual to someone hailing from Canada, where the drugs flow like water from the faucet—or so I said at the time. In a place like Alvin’s, there are two ways people deny a request for drugs. The first method is the embarrassed apology. This is what you’re getting when you’re told, “oh, just not here, man” or “sorry, you should have caught me earlier.” Those interested in saving face use this approach. These people are unlikely to share. They probably won’t even point you in the right direction.
The second, more honest approach is characterized by an economy of verbiage and palpable discomfort. It is the method of choice for underagers and prudes. They don’t look you in the eye. They hope you’ll just go away. I prefer the integrity of this rejection.
// Notes from the Road
"Rhiannon Giddens, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, brought her Freedom Highway tour to New York for a powerful show. The tour resumes next week and hits Newport Folk later this summer.READ the article