Detroit Rock City: The Uncensored History of Rock 'n' Roll in America's Loudest City
An oral history of Detroit and its music told by the people who were on the stage, in the clubs, the practice rooms, studios, and in the audience, blasting the music out and soaking it up, in every scene from 1967 to today.
Excerpted from Detroit Rock City by Steve Miller. Reprinted by arrangement with Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
Bobby Hackney (Death, bassist, vocalist): When we went to rock shows, we were black hippies. Michigan Palace was our hangout. We saw a lot of Wayne Kramer shows; Kiss were always there, Blue Oyster Cult. David Bowie played there, and we walked out—he was terrible, this soul revue.
S. Kay Young (photographer): We used to go to the bar at the St. Regis Hotel, where all the bands stayed. After Bowie played at Michigan Palace in 1974, we were there and he was drunk; he was actually collapsing. I don’t know why, but I remember that this was before he had his teeth fixed, because they really looked bad. Mark Norton and I had to take him up to his room.
Mark Norton (Ramrods, 27, vocalist, journalist, Creem magazine): We were riding up to his room in the elevator and he passed out again. The guy’s this big. I could pick him up and put him over my shoulder. I was 150 pounds at the time, and he weighed about 98 pounds. I took his room key out, I opened the door, I took off his shirt, I took off his pants—he had orange underwear on—I tucked him into bed, made sure he was fi ne, sleeping on his side so he didn’t barf and choke, and left his key there and walked out of the place.
S. Kay Young: First, though, Norton started going through his stuff, and he goes, “Oh my God, David Bowie’s wallet!” I made him put it back. We were not about to steal David Bowie’s wallet.
Mike Murphy (The Denizens, the Rushlow-King Combo, the Boners, drummer,
vocalist): Our parents were dropping us off at these shows, and we were seeing these subversive bands. But they didn’t know it. The New York Dolls, New Year’s Eve 1973. There was a guy climbing on the light stand, and David Johansen kept trying to get this guy off the light stand. The crowds were Detroit crowds, and they were untamed.
Vince Bannon (Bookie’s, City Club promoter, Coldcock, Sillies, guitarist): There were a lot of people going to the same shows, this seventies-glam stuff that was going over real big in Detroit. The New York Dolls, Bowie—you’d see the same people at the shows. Things were going on organically, because a lot of bands that were Detroit bands had broken up. You’d see Jimmy Marinos, Mike Skill, and those guys, in one corner. So you would start noticing familiar faces.
Mark Norton: We were trying to figure out what was next. I called CBGBs in ’75 or early ’76; there was a girl who tended bar there named Susan Palermo, she worked there for ages. And she would tell Hilly Kristal: “hey, there’s this crazy guy from Detroit—he’s calling again.” I’d say, “could you just put the phone down so I could listen to the groups?” I heard part of a set by the Talking Heads like that. It sounded like it was through a phone, but I was getting all excited, you know—this sounds like what I like. My phone bill was incredible, $200 bucks. In the summer of 1976 I went to New York City. I saw the second Dead Boys show at CBGBs. I saw the Dictators. Handsome Dick and his girlfriend at the time, Jodi at the time, said, “who are you?” I said, “I’m from Detroit.” They said, “have you ever seen the Stooges?” “Yea man, I saw them millions of times, the best shows, the ones in Detroit.” I was thinking, “none of these people have seen shit.’
Don Davis (producer, Stax, Motown musician): Detroit was so full of talent at that point, the mid-seventies, that I didn’t need a band telling me what the deal was. I was working with a lot of the people who were coming from Motown Records and a lot of the people who were at the front of the disco movement. And rock was still just as much a part of Detroit as anything else, but a lot of these guys were getting attitudes that were hurting them. I would work with Jim McCarty, and he was great. But then there were the stories about what Iggy Pop was up to in Los Angeles and how the MC5 had disintegrated.
Doug Banker (manager, Ted Nugent): In the mid-seventies I was promoting things like Bob Seger for $500, Kiss for $750. The first Kiss date I did was in ’74 at the Thunder Chicken in Grand Rapids. They put on the full show with all the fireworks and the outfits and the makeup, and they acted like they were already superstars. Here are the rules: no pictures of the band without their makeup. They would do sound check without makeup, but nobody was allowed to see them. Nobody could have a camera. At the time I thought that was really silly because hardly anybody knew who they were. I was like, “Why would you do that? No-body knows who you are—they’re just going to try to take pictures. You want to promote yourself?” They said, “Strictly not!” It didn’t take me too long to realize they were way ahead of the game. They knew they were going to make it big, and even back in ’74 at that club, that was part of their plan. I figured all that out later and realized how genius the whole plan was.
Stirling Silver: There was huge promotion for Kiss’s debut show in Detroit at the Michigan Palace. Aerosmith was also on that bill—spring ’74. Harmony House organized a party with two hundred–plus people invited at the Hilton Hotel in Grand Circus Park after the show for the record industry, retailers and people on the front lines that had to interact with the customers. I got good access as a guy working at Harmony House, so I had met the Kiss guys backstage briefly. We get over to the Hilton, and it’s a huge bash with food and tons of alcohol and everything else you could want. It was a private party, and all of Kiss were there. Aerosmith were not because it was specifically a Kiss launch, industry party. Kiss kept their outfits on, and as the night wore on, they slowly shed items. The make-up got smeared, a lot people wanted to kiss them. I ended up staying until the very last person. There was a portable record player at one end of this room all night long, which I didn’t really notice until later on in the evening. I sat down with Peter Criss. People are drifting off ; there might have been twenty people left. We started talking, and he said that his hero was Gene Krupa, and he whipped out six records that he carried with him on the road. Of course he put a Gene Krupa record on the turntable that was sitting there. He stopped talking and sat there just listening, because he’s a total freak nerd.
Mark Parenteau: I didn’t like Kiss. I thought the music was lame. So Larry Harris at Casablanca made me a deal that if he paid for a whole concert and the crowd went crazy, I would play Kiss on the air. They really, really wanted Detroit; it was predetermined in their mind that they had to have Detroit and that if this band didn’t go over in Detroit, it wasn’t going to go over anywhere. It was true, actually, and they knew it. It was fi re breathing, black leather, loud and over the top and just what Detroit was all about. Except the songs were really lame. Larry did this concert at Michigan Palace. Bob Seger opened, and then there was a long wait because Aerosmith was also on the bill, and here were big arguments between Aerosmith and Kiss. Kiss didn’t want Aerosmith to use any pyrotechnics, and there was a fistfight backstage amongst the road crews. Then Kiss played, and I’m with Larry Harris, and he’s trying to make sure his bet goes well. So far we had been playing the album, but it really hadn’t caught on fi re. But people hadn’t seen Kiss. It wasn’t like now, where there is unlimited access to visual representation anywhere. It took a while for magazines to get pictures of a band, so the album hadn’t done much. When Kiss went on stage, for the first song the audience just sat there and watched them. But the second song or third song was “Firehouse,” and Gene Simmons breathed fi re, and the place went out of their minds in full Detroit fashion. Suddenly they were deep into it and on their feet and it was all about Kiss for a long time. Kiss went on to do their live album there, and then did “Detroit Rock City,” and it became the city they had needed.
Steve Miller is a journalist and the author of several books including the Edgar-nominated true crime Girl, Wanted: The Chase for Sarah Pender. He is co-editor of Commando: The Johnny Ramone Autobiography and editor of Touch and Go: The Complete Hardcore Punk Zine '79-'83.