Motor City's Burning: Excerpts from 'Detroit Rock City'

By Rich Tupica

Local author talks to Iggy, Alice, Jack and more

Local author, journalist and City Pulse columnist Steve Miller has a long history with Detroit rock ’n’ roll. Miller started going to the Motor City in the ‘70s to watch now legendary rock bands he’d read about in CREEM Magazine.

In 1980 he formed Lansing’s first hardcore punk band, The Fix. Soon after his band began gigging in Detroit’s early ‘80s punk scene.

Miller has multiple connections to Detroit’s storied rock history, which is likely why he decided to chronicle the city’s raucous past.

His new paperback, “Detroit Rock City: The Uncensored History of Rock'n'Roll in America's Loudest City,” spans decades, from Iggy Pop at the Grande Ballroom to Jack White at the Gold Dollar, offering verbatim accounts from a mixture of rock icons, promoters and scenesters.

On Wednesday, July 31 Schuler Books (Eastwood) hosts a "Detroit Rock City" book singing event at 7 p.m.

The following are excerpts from “Detroit Rock City,” courtesy of Da Capo Press. MC5 photo courtesy of Leni Sinclair. Visit the "Detroit Rock City" Facebook page, here.

— Rich Tupica

Introduction, by Steve Miller

This book, like so many others, starts in a bar. In winter 2002 a musician I knew in Lansing approached me as I sat at a table alone.

“Hey, you’re a journalist or something, right?” he asked.

Yes, I nodded; few of my friends knew what I did for a living. I lived at the time in Washington, DC, a world away. I was a national reporter, covering things and events that would affect their lives in ways they couldn’t perceive. But they didn’t care. I was still the guy who liked good music and drank with them and went to the after-parties and had some good stories about early hardcore and touring the states before there was a network of clubs and crash palaces.

“So why hasn’t anyone ever written a book about Detroit’s rock scene and the influence it’s had on rock and roll?” my pal asked.

I had no answer. Detroit was just part of growing up. Did I take it for granted?

My dad was a copy editor at the Detroit News in 1967, commuting from our apartment in East Lansing, eighty miles west of Detroit, where he was getting his doctorate at Michigan State University. One steamy night that year we drove to Tiger Stadium to catch the White Sox play the Tigers, watching the gun-toting National Guard troops on the rooftops. The riots were two weeks prior.

In the fall of 1968 I was wandering across a park in East Lansing and heard what sounded like a sonic explosion, a cacophony thud and high-end screech coming from a small, brick community center. I ran to the doors to check into what was causing this heavenly noise. Locked. I went around to the rear of the building, where an open window was giving everyone a free listen to the soundcheck of the MC5. Looking inside — the amps draped with the American flags, the buckskin jackets, and the wild hair — for an eleven-year-old, it was a life-giving experience I have never forgotten.

We started going to big shows in Detroit, national acts that hit Detroit at every chance — Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, Lou Reed, and Roxy Music — at great venues like the Michigan Palace, Cobo Center, and Masonic Auditorium. Detroit was The Show.

We all read Creem magazine in high school, learning about the real deal in a way that effete bullshit like the Rolling Stone could never conceive of. Creem was Detroit; the rest were from, well, somewhere else. Creem wrote about the Stooges more than anyone else. When it came down to Mick Jagger vs. Iggy Pop in the rock-star idolatry sweepstakes, Iggy came out on top every time. He was Detroit. I would puff furiously on my Newport at the notion that anyone outside Iggy could be any more badass. Starting at age fifteen, we listened to the Stooges as we drove in cars on back roads and cradled bottles of Mad Dog 20-20.

“So why hasn’t anyone ever written a book about Detroit’s rock scene and the influence it’s had on rock and roll?”

The question was a killer. I had no answer, but this is the response, eleven years later …

Grande Days

Scott Richardson (SRC, Chosen Few vocalist): In Detroit it was fall of ’67, and acid set it off like a bomb. Changed everything, all the music.

Ted Nugent (Amboy Dukes, solo, guitarist, vocalist): Creem magazine printed a story about how I shot two guys at the Grande Ballroom after they tried to steal my briefcase. I never shot anybody. But they printed it.

John Sinclair (MC5 manager, poet, the Blues Scholars): Ted Nugent is an asshole. He always was.

Dennis Thompson (MC5, New Order, drummer): We practiced at the Grande as well as being the house band for a while. Everybody used to come to the Grande to rehearse, from Janis Joplin to Procol Harum to whomever. And we used to take LSD, turn all the lights out, middle of the night, and go downstairs and just listen to music.

Rick Stevers (Frijid Pink, drummer): We played some Catholic high school with the MC5, and the school told them not to play “Kick out the Jams.” Of course they did, and the place tried to shut them down, and in the process shit started getting tossed around, and Dennis Thompson threw his cymbal into the crowd and hit this kid in the head. There was blood everywhere — can you imagine if that happened now?

Scott Richardson: My first acid trip was fall of 1967, and it was also Bob Seger’s and Glenn Frey’s. We all went to the arboretum at the University of Michigan — this was before SRC got going.

Wayne Kramer (MC5, Gang War, solo, guitarist, vocalist): It’s hard to be honest without sounding egotistical, but the MC5 really was central to anything in Detroit that had to do with music at the time. All the other bands were satellites swirling around this thing with MC5 at the center. Even Seger and Ted Nugent were minor players in this era.

Leni Sinclair (photographer, wife of John Sinclair): Everybody thought MC5 should have been big, and they didn’t do it. Then here comes Grand Funk getting all the big accolades, you know.

Alice Cooper (Alice Cooper, solo, vocalist): At that time — 1970, 1971 — you’d play the Eastown. It would be Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, the Stooges, and the Who, for $4. The next weekend at the Grande it was MC5, Brownsville Station, and Fleetwood Mac, or Savoy Brown or the Small Faces. You couldn’t be a soft rock band or you’d get your ass kicked.

Self Destruction

Wayne Kramer: The decline of the MC5 and the parallel decline of Detroit is not a mystery to me — the things we were going through; we were not alone. A lot of other people were in desperate situations as well. And some of them had guns.

Bob Seger (Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, Bob Seger System): I think those bands came and went because they just didn’t have the stamina to go all of the way. Either that or, in some cases, it was drugs. There are only three acts that I can think of that really kept at it, kept pounding away. That was Glenn Frey, Ted Nugent and myself. The others just burned themselves out. They had bad attitudes too. You can’t just go out and piss people off and expect to be superstars. It just grinds people and sooner or later it’s going to catch up with you. Like when I’d talk to the MC5, they were fine, real level headed and everything. But then when they went to a concert, they would just give the promoter a whole bunch of shit, and at times they’d even give the audience a whole bunch of shit. So you could just sorta see it wouldn’t last.

Iggy Pop (The Stooges, solo, vocalist): All I’d ever had before “Fun House” was recorded on marijuana and LSD. I would call it occasional LSD, but that is a relative term. To me occasional meant about twice a week. Marijuana for me was like when I became conscious in the morning right though the day, right into the evening. Anytime I woke up in the middle of the night either I was … smoking it or trying to get it. Acid about twice a week was probably my average. We recorded the album in that way, but towards the end — towards the end of the vocal overdubs and the mixes — two people turned me on to cocaine for the first time.

Dennis Thompson: Don’t forget, Iggy was a valedictorian in high school. Smart. Fucking. Guy. The reason he’s rich today is because he’s a very smart man and got himself some very smart business people all the way down the line. He had his rough times. Michael Davis (MC5 bassist) and I saved his life after he shot some heroin up in Michael’s house and we threw him in the bathtub with the ice cubes and shot him up with salt water. He met his maker a few more times than that.

David Keeps, aka DB (Destroy All Monsters, manager): In the mid-seventies there was jackshit going on around Detroit. The MC5 guys were in prison or trying some new projects with little success. Bands had scattered.

Hardcore Punk: ’79-‘80s

Hiawatha Bailey (Cult Heroes, vocalist, scenester): Bookie’s (Detroit punk venue) had been this gay bar I went to where we could dress like the New York Dolls and there were all these six-foot drag queens. It was one of the rare places you could go in Detroit and not get your ass kicked.

Tesco Vee (Meatmen, Blight, vocalist, editor of Touch & Go magazine): We’d go see everyone at Bookie’s, like the Revillos, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, Gang of Four, the Effigies, and the Misfits many times. You know it’s funny — all the Detroit bands would warm up those national acts — the Mutants, the Algebra Mothers, Flirt, the Cubes, the Sillies. We talked about them a lot in Touch and Go.

John Brannon (Negative Approach, Laughing Hyenas, vocalist): You want to talk about punk rock, I’m gonna go Stooges, MC5, real Detroit rock. Alice Cooper. The only thing that really carried that on after that was Sonic’s Rendezvous Band and Destroy All Monsters, which were all my heroes from other bands. Anything else that claimed it was punk rock in Detroit was just a joke. So I lived that whole ’79 to ’81 thing where new wave took over. So you got all these old Bookie’s bands, you’re all coked out, you’re wearing suits and skinny ties, doing Animals covers or some obscure Brit-sixties shit, and you think you’re fuckin’ punk rock. No you’re not.

Garage boom: ‘90s-2000s

Jack White (White Stripes, Dead Weather, Raconteurs, solo, guitar, vocalist): Mick Collins (of the Gories and Dirtbombs) should be bigger; he’s just brilliant, it boggles your mind. Detroit had all that stuff, and people said that about Brendan Benson, too, especially because of the pop nature of his stuff. Brendan should be massive, and same thing as Mick. Funny thing is, even with the Gories, that was royalty to everybody in Detroit, but this is a sub-genre of rock ’n’ roll. You would drive across the country and nobody knew who you were talking about, all these Detroit bands.

Bobby Harlow (The Go, Conspiracy of Owls, vocalist): I’ll tell you something about Jack: Jack would leave; Jack would disappear. He’d come in, and he’d do his show. He might stand around for a little while. Everyone else would get completely plowed, and Jack would be gone. In retrospect I think that’s a pretty interesting thing. That’s actually the way to do a show. When you’re drunk, you think you’re really good, but you’re not. So Jack was always sober.

Jim Diamond (Ghetto Recorders, producer, Dirtbombs, bassist): I mixed the first White Stripes 45. He recorded it at home and then brought the tapes over here to mix. They had a really good look. They were more conscious of that kind of stuff than everyone else. Everyone else is walking on stage looking like they just got done weeding a garden.

Timmy Vulgar (Clone Defects, Human Eye, guitarist, vocalist): When the Stripes made it, Jack invited Clone Defects to come on a few shows and open for them. We played six shows with ‘em. We played for two thousand people. He took a few bands from Detroit on the road with him. Totally cool.

Rachel Nagy (Detroit Cobras, vocalist): Jack White is the only person in this whole scene that I’m glad he made it. He’s ambitious, he’s clever, and he lifted up everybody in Detroit. Every interview he did, he lifted everybody up, including us.

Mick Collins (The Gories, Dirtbombs, guitarist, vocalist): Suddenly all these bald, pony-haired dudes are around looking for the next White Stripes. It was laughable. People were moving there to make it. It was gonna be like the next Seattle, the next big rock scene.

"Detroit Rock City" book singing event
 w/ author Steve Miller

Wednesday, July 31
@ Schuler Books (Eastwood),
2820 Towne Centre Blvd., Lansing
7 p.m.