What It Was Like

The Marvelettes in 1966

In the early '80s Detroit, Motown was as unquestionable as air. Who didn't like air?

I was born in Detroit and lived there until I was 17 years old.

It was like this:

We weren't a city with much to be proud of. Then, as now, we had a corrupt mayor. Then, as now, the auto industry was failing and taking the city's denizens with it. Most of us -- my family included -- had a great deal to worry about. But Motown was something everybody could be proud of. In a city divided by race and religion, Motown was a source of near universal agreement. Nobody ever yelled "turn that shit down!" when the Supremes or Little Stevie Wonder (as late as the 1980s, DJs were still calling him "Little") or the Temptations were on the radio. And they often were.

Motown was as unquestionable as air. Who didn't like air?

It was like this.

One of the Four Tops lived in my neighborhood. I'm not sure which one, only that he drove a black Cadillac sedan with a vanity plate reading "FOUR TOPS". Whenever my mother saw him, she honked and waved. He would nod back gravely.

I attended school with one of the Spinners' daughters. In fifth grade she was a sullen, angry child whose demeanor rebuffed any questioning about her famous father.

I also attended school with Smokey Robinson's goddaughter. I was good friends with this girl, who was beautiful, smart, and a talented dancer. Her family moved among Detroit's black elite. Our friendship ended when she transferred to Cass, Detroit's version of the High School for Performing Arts.

My friends down the street attended Mercy High School with Gladys Knight's niece.

It was like this.

One day -- July 13th, 1984, to be exact -- I skipped out on my summer job to see Martha and the Vandellas play a free concert at the Universal Mall. My mother went with me. The Universal Mall was far out on the east side of the city, not a place where Jews or blacks were welcomed. Normally we shopped at Northland, literally ducking bullets. As the economy worsened, robberies and gang warfare escalated, and these dramas often played out in Northland's enormous parking lot. We used to park as close as we could and stride purposefully toward the mall, looking as tough as possible to avoid potential muggers. Though arguably the inside of the mall was no better than the parking lot. But Martha and the Vandellas were playing the Universal Mall (probably because it was much safer), and we went.

I was 16-years-old. I carried my Minolta SLR, which I took everywhere in those days, and shot dozens of photos. Martha and the Vandellas were got up in gold lamé, backed by a horn section, drummer, guitarist, and bassist. I was so close to Ms. Reeves that she smiled into my camera. Several times. In between songs she introduced the Vandellas. One was a social worker; I forget what the other did, something equally useful. They were wonderful: Martha Reeves has a terrific voice. Martha is now on Detroit's embattled City Council, and I hope she did no wrong.

It was like this.

I remember the night Marvin Gaye, Sr. shot his son, Marvin, Jr. It happened only miles from my family home, a stupid argument over insurance, and the media interviewed Martha Reeves, who was obviously in shock. Her lips were trembling. "I just can't believe it," she repeated. Neither could the rest of us.

It was like this.

One day we were driving down the John Lodge Expressway when my mother pointed out three tall towers. See those? That's the Brewster Projects. That's where Diana Ross is from. Berry Gordy had to teach her to eat with a fork.

I don't know whether Diana Ross could use a fork or not before Berry Gordy made her a star, but I do know about Motown's "Charm School" and house choreographer Cholly Atkins. Everyone did. It was like knowing about the air, or the big, beautiful, archaic cars we manufactured, driving through that air.

Stevie Wonder

It was like this.

My mother loved Motown. In 1971, stuck at home without a car and three kids under five, she played an endless loop of eight track tapes. The Supremes, Gladys Knight and the Pips (she loathed the Pips, and pitied poor Gladys, who was stuck with them), the Four Tops, the Temptations. When I began school, I had never heard of Mother Goose and knew no nursery rhymes. I could, however, sing all of "Baby Love", "Where Did Our Love Go", and "Stop! In the Name of Love".

Anybody questioning my rosy view need only consult the J. Geils Band's 1976 recording Blow Your Face Out. It was recorded live in Boston and Detroit. In Detroit, the band played a cover of "Where Did Our Love Go" to a drunken, stoned, sellout show full of blue-collar rock 'n' roll diehards. They went batshit. One might also consult the countless covers of Motown songs: Peter Frampton singing "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours", Mick Jagger and David Bowie doing "Dancing in the Streets", Vanilla Fudge's "You Keep Me Hanging On", Creedence Clearwater Revival's long, long interpretation of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine", Soft Cell's (remember them?) whiny version of "Where Did Our Love Go", Phil Collins' "You Can't Hurry Love". Ad infinitum.

It was like this.

In 1985 my family moved to California. Nobody was buying those big beautiful American cars any more, giving rise to region-wide unemployment and early fodder for a young idealist named Michael Moore.

I did not understand that living in a place possessing its own brand of music was unusual until we arrived in Los Angeles, where people made movies instead. Making movies, for Californians, involved much of same feeling Motown did for Detroiters: a sense of ownership, pride, glamour, perhaps even enjoyment. But California movie glamour was a whole other thing, because it involved more money. Lots more money. This is not to say that Berry Gordy didn't want to make money: he did. He left Detroit early on.

But Motown was more homespun: Martha and the Vandellas, free at the mall. It's difficult to imagine Chevy Chase doing stand-up in a San Fernando Valley Galleria just for kicks, and if a movie star lives in your neighborhood, chances are your neighborhood is much nicer than the one I grew up in. And movie star offspring do not attend public schools.

I say it was like this, past tense, because it's all gone now. The original Motown Records has morphed and folded and is no longer Gordy's baby. Diana Ross seems to spend more time getting into trouble than performing, and Michael Jackson has also folded and morphed into something warped and barely recognizable. Florence Ballard is dead. Only one of the original Temptations, Otis Williams, is still alive. Gladys Knight has battled compulsive gambling.

Their hometown, our hometown, has collapsed. The music still plays, perhaps, but not on the radio. Certainly not on eight-track tapes.

There is something wrenchingly anachronistic about downloading "My Girl" or "My Cherie Amor". It's music for riding in the Buick, taking Greenfield down to Eight Mile Road (yes, that Eight Mile), the radio tuned to WLBS. We're going to Northland, where we'll scope out deals in Hudson's basement. We'll try on the hats, shoes for you, a sweater for me. The store speakers will not pump Muzak, but "Ain't Too Proud to Beg". Only we won't really notice, because who notices air?

Only people who aren't getting enough of it.

That's what it was like.





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