Loud Guitars, Psychotic Singers, Demonic Drums: ‘Detroit Rock City’

Detroit isn’t just America’s fastest shrinking city, home to urban farmers, food deserts, and low rents, it’s also one of the country’s greatest cities for rock ‘n’ roll. Sure, you can make the argument that the best bands are long gone from the Motor City––let’s talk MC5 and forget those White Stripes––but this latest volume from Motown native Steve Miller makes the case that it all matters, even the stuff you may not like. Detroit Rock City is a 300-page oral history, the result of more than 200 interviews and a whole lotta passion for the 313.

True to the title, Miller eschews anything that isn’t about loud guitars, psychotic singers, and demonic drums. You won’t find a discussion of Rodriquez or Stevie Wonder here––though Insane Clown Posse gets its fair shake––but you will find plenty of memories about the Grande (pronounced Gran-dee) Ballroom, a place called Bookie’s, and plenty of sex and drugs to go along with the rock ‘n’ roll. Though it wasn’t necessarily the happiest point in the city’s history the era that birthed the MC5, the White Panthers, and kept an umbrella open wide enough that The Stooges and Mitch Ryder could both fit under it, remains arguably the most interesting era discussed in these pages.

There were plenty of drugs to go around, along with a sense that the world was going to change and that rock ‘n’ roll might have something do with all that and a sense that maybe they were all gonna be stars. Everyone seems to agree that Seger had something going on that was better than his biggest records ever let on and that Ted Nugent was nothing less than an ass. Flirtations with mainstream success and eventual stays in federal penitentiaries for members of the MC5, a waning of interest in the Grande scene and the rise of America’s best music magazine, Creem, are all chronicled here, as are the early days of punk in Hockeytown.

Don Was, the Traitors, the Ramrods, and Bookie’s came to replace the Grande, Wayne Kramer, The Amboy Dukes, and Ann Arbor’s Brownsville Station. But the music was still dirty, caked in carcinogens and fuelled by violence and danger, and a healthy dose of Michigan attitude. By the late ’70s heroin had claimed some in body and others in spirit; as cocaine sent in a crew to finish the damage––there were murders, prison stints, and a new wave of bands including the oh-so-stylish Romantics.

Touch and Go Records, The Laughing Hyenas, and the Dirtbombs all take the stage as time wears on, making way for Jack and Meg White, Von Bondies, and Andrew W.K. Miller keeps the pacing fast and the anecdotes rolling, though the characters don’t have the same mystique as their forefathers nor do the clubs seem to carry with them the same communal spirit as they did in the ’60s or ’70s. Some of the biggest casualties aren’t from drugs or murder but from nerve, zeal, and creative drive.

Miller captures that all in these pages––often you can smell the city grit, feel a leather jacket wrapped around your skin, and the eyes of a sexy stranger leering at you from across a sweaty and beer-soaked room. Not every local music scene has a history like Detroit’s but most of them deserve a book like Miller’s––thorough, frightening, and funny.

RATING 7 / 10