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Journalist and author Steve Miller has made an ambitious gesture amassing a 50-year oral history of the Detroit rock scene, and in typical Detroit fashion, it’s both grand and overreaching, flawed yet beautiful, and strangely defiant by virtue of its mere existence.
Much akin in form and function to 1996’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History Of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, Detroit Rock City tells an important American story using the words, confessions and remembrances of players, scenesters and survivors who filled the ranks of a perpetually juvenile guitar army.
One necessary disclaimer would be that this book focuses on the paler side of Detroit music and ignores the legends of Motown and its ilk — no anecdotes from Berry Gordy or the Funk Brothers here. Setting the stage for the dawning of rock circa 1965, we’re introduced to cool local heroes like Mitch Ryder, a nervous Bob Seger and a host of other dead-end kids trying like hell to avoid a life of labor in auto factories like their folks.
Things heat up quickly as the flashpoint between harder rock and punk explodes with the ascendance of badass live bands like The MC5 (guided by manager John Sinclair) and The Stooges, as well as the ongoing presence of outsize personalities like Ted Nugent. (Note: The Nuge is consistently disparaged by everybody in this book, but is also given opportunities to define and defend himself — which he does in typical gonzo fashion.)
A punk rock overlap with Please Kill Me provides some of the book’s most arresting passages with Motor City figureheads like Sinclair, The MC5’s Wayne Kramer and head Stooge Iggy Pop, who poses front and center on the book’s cover, providing insights, contexts and entertaining asides.
We hear about the bands, but also the importance of crucial music venues like the Grande Ballroom, the Michigan Palace and dubious bars like Bookies Club 870 and the Gold Dollar. There’s even space devoted to Detroit’s quintessential rock magazine, Creem, with reminiscences from journos like Dave Marsh and Jaan Uhelszki.
This Detroit tale also acknowledges the pervasive substance abuse and addictions that helped to undermine the area’s already-underachieving rock scene. Landlocked in the Midwest and perennially lacking the buzz and respect enjoyed by lesser groups from L.A. and NYC, hardworking Detroit bands were often ignored by the larger entertainment industry. Still, there were a number of amazing, committed musicians and some were able to thrive despite (or perhaps because of) the flawed regional milieu, self-destructive tendencies and bullheaded failures notwithstanding.
As this rock chronology progresses the story bogs down, but also becomes more desperate and a lot less fun. By the time sad details of a lurid murder by a fringe rocker in the 1980s are finally retold, we’re a far cry from the innocently inebriated communal depravity of the original dum-dum boys and their raunchy rock heyday. Meanwhile, the hard rock mantle is passed from Alice Cooper and Grand Funk Railroad to New Wave bands like The Romantics, and eventually to even more obscure urban rockers including the Gories, the Hyenas, the Von Bondies and the Dirtbombs. Much like the city itself, the Detroit rock landscape had diminished — only to be re-energized once again by the appearance of raucous commercial acts like Kid Rock and The White Stripes.
Detroit Rock City documents an extreme music scene that simply refuses to die, regardless of its self-fulfilling prophecy of entropy and inbred malfunction. It’s that hard to beat.
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