Cover StoryThe power and the gory
WDET interviews Chris Handyside about this story (MP3)
All mixed up
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This is how it ended the last time. The Bank, a club on Houston Street in Lower Manhattan, July 1, 1993. A 6-foot-3, slim, legally blind, black dude sporting shades, a blue iridescent suit and a beat-to-hell Fender Mustang six-string snarls the chorus of Suicide's "Ghostrider" and the words, "America, America is killing its youth!" It's like a mantra in the hands of this guy Mick Collins — half-punk sneer, half R&B belt, over chugging, choppy, crunchy rhythm chords.
To his left, a willowy, sharp-dressed but wide-eyed lost boy with a Standells mane, and swiveling hips that belie his innocence, is plucking out a snaky four-note lead from atop his Voxx amp. Dan Kroha is also effortlessly leering.
Behind them, Peggy O'Neil, the toughest, coolest-looking chick in the room — or any room — beats out a tribal metronomic beat, behind shades and a look that says, "Don't fuck with me and don't fuck with my band!"
Three minutes in, Collins and Kroha are on their backs, working a wall of feedback while O'Neil continues the charge. No one onstage seems physically aware of any bandmates; their body language suggests three separate people who happen to have arrived at precisely the same spot to wail dirty blues on high. The music fuses them together. And as feedback climaxes, just as you think it's about to disintegrate, Collins jumps back into the rhythm, Kroha glances over his shoulder, locks in on the lead line, and they face the audience to rage on, the primal beat like a shared heart pumping through three wild youths.
The Gories left behind a body of recorded work spanning three full-length albums and a half-dozen singles; they'd been offered a major-label demo deal; their fanbase had expanded well beyond cult status on two continents; theirs was a simple, primitive sound that proved the notion that everyone who saw the band started a band. But when they left the stage that July night, they walked away from it all. And each other.
For seven years, the Gories made a primal racket that was high-test, stripped-down distilled Detroit rock 'n' roll that sounded like R&B translated by manic aliens from another galaxy. The three-piece represented a musical crossroads of Detroit's rich musical history and pointed the way to its DIY future. They plucked their minimalist blues boogie from Hastings Street and John Lee Hooker, moved up the road to Fortune Records, around the bend to Motown — with a stopover at the Hideout — and then over to the west side where the MC5 and the Stooges unleashed raw power, deftly avoiding the back alley of hardcore and grunge bigmuff merchants and then finally back toward southwest Detroit, where they connected with the nascent genius of a young upholstery apprentice, John Gillis (aka Jack White). The bands the Gories inspired made up the nexus of Detroit's turn-of-the-century downtown rock 'n' roll scene — the Hentchmen, the Detroit Cobras, the White Stripes, along with the bands that Collins and Kroha formed post-Gories, including Blacktop, King Sound Quartet, the Dirtbombs, Rocket 455, the Demolition Doll Rods and the Readies.
In that seven years, the Gories forged a connection with kindred music scenes in Memphis and New Orleans (further galvanized later by O'Neil playing in bands from both cities), gained mythic status in Europe and, in doing so, brought a healthy dose of outside critical attention to their hometown. Uniquely Detroit though they were, theirs is the universal story of rock 'n' roll, of friends bonding over a mutual love of the beat, battling boredom with whatever noisemakers are close at hand — innocence translated into action that never stops to ask why. And then only finding "success" and seeing their idiosyncratic vision influential after their friendships had flared out.
The friends that formed the Gories were misfits at loose ends — kids with a shared love of music and a shared aversion to, well, pretty much everything else. Kroha and O'Neil had been dating, though they'd soon break up in favor of being in a band together, and the pair was introduced to Collins by a mutual friend. The three became tight, hanging out in the city's modest mod scene. There were a few hints that their fandom might turn into something more, but that lightning had not yet struck in that particular bottle.
Kroha had reluctantly started down the path of life his dad — a self-made manufacturing business owner — had laid out for him. After graduating high school, he headed to Connecticut's Fairfield College to study, of all things, business.
"I just wanted to get out to anywhere," he recalls, smiling amid the gear and records that stuff the living room of his southwest Detroit pad, in the shadow of the Hotel Yorba.
But while at school, he began DJing at the campus radio station, discovering a love of Them and the Velvet Underground that he figures seeded the Gories.
"I called it my quiet rebellion. I never said anything, but I just ended up doing what I wanted to do. I ended up flunking out of school because I had no interest in business.
Meanwhile, Collins set about studying computer science at Ferris State University in Big Rapids — about as far from northwest Detroit as one could get while still in the Lower Peninsula.
If he had an inkling that he was bound for a life of music and art, it certainly didn't occur to him until the end of his time at Ferris, when a communications major approached him to narrate his finals project.
"Other people liked my voice," Collins says. "I wound up doing narration for about a dozen projects. I was in the cafeteria one day and this guy comes up to me and says, 'You're the guy whose voice I've been hearing all week!' It was the dean of the communications school."
After returning home, Collins reconnected with his neighborhood pals and knocked around in ad hoc basement bands, playing punk rock jams in the vein of Pink Flag-era Wire, among other notions.
"I had a couple of bands that never really did anything," he says. "But it was nice to be able to do it. It was just something to do. The thing about Detroit — especially at the time — was we were isolated and bored. That's pretty much what makes every band. We didn't know anything else was going on."
For O'Neil, a Ferndale native, the Gories helped her decide which path to follow during a period of classic late-teenage indecision.
"Well, when I turned 18, I was feeling like I had to go to college," she says. "But all I actually did was smoke cigarettes on the roof of an Oakland Community College parking garage. After three semesters of that, they kicked me out. My best friend from high school and I had wanted to move out of the city when we graduated. She moved to San Francisco; I couldn't make up my mind between Pittsburgh and New Orleans. And then the Gories happened. I still wanted to leave, but I loved the band and didn't want to stop."
Danny Kroha says Mick Collins inspired.
"He and his buddies were kinda almost folk — punk in the sense that it was just dudes in his neighborhood who got together and beat on coffee cans and played a little chord organ or whatever was around the house, you know?
"He had already done basement bands with his neighborhood friends, so he had more experience than I did in that sense," Kroha says of his initial impressions.
"So when I met him, he had such a great imagination; he would talk about all these bands he wanted to form that were in his head. He had like five different bands in his mind and they all had different instrumentation and record covers and videos. I was like, 'Holy crap. This guy's got all these great ideas. I gotta get him in a band! We gotta do something."
Kroha had been singing in a mod-rock band called the Onset but had barely picked up a guitar when inspiration struck, as it often does, when teenagers huddle around a stereo with beer on cold January nights in Detroit.
"I still lived with my parents," he says, "and we were all hanging out in my room and we got a six pack of Budweiser. Mick didn't drink at that time, so it was me and Peg drinking beer. We were listening to a tape I had just gotten of this comp called Scum of the Earth. It was a crazy collection — weird rockabilly and garage stuff and just unclassifiable stuff. It was pretty mind-blowing, and Mick was going, 'Well, you know, I'm listening to these songs and they only have like three chords in them. We could play this stuff.' I said 'Let's do it! We'll play guitars and Peggy, you can play simple drums. We'll just have a total jungle-beat drum set. And she's like, "Nononono! I can't do that! I've never played drums before.' But we were like, 'Yes! You gotta do this.'"
Fueled by healthy doses of innocence and fortified wine (later immortalized in the classic Gories tune "Thunderbird ESQ"), they set about bringing ideas to life.
"When we formed in '86 it was at the end of what a lot of people called the garage revival — Three O'Clock, Mystic Eyes," Collins says. "As we were forming, they were weaning out of existence. We were at the end of it and thought maybe we'll be a footnote. We had no idea what was in store for this planet. If you had told us in 1986 what would happen six years later, we would have never believed you. We were just looking for something to do.
"You'd read all those magazines like Ugly Things writing about those [garage] bands and how primitive and raw they were and it'd be some jangly folk pop," Collins continues. "We thought, 'Screw this. Let's be that band. We'll try our hand at it. We'll see how primitive you can really be.' So we stripped everything out as far as we could and deliberately didn't play anything we knew how to play. And that became the Gories."
The other major point of reference for the young band was a compilation called Back From the Grave, released by upstart punk label Crypt Records that compiled 45s from long-lost '60s garage punks. Primitive, self-financed recordings of kids bashing it out to boredom; most never got much farther than the garage or the local teen hop. The compilations contained information about these lost bands and anecdotes to make the music more than mere nostalgia trip.
"It spoke to us. Not just the music itself," Collins says. "That was really important because it was crude and raw. But also the graphics and the way that everything was so confrontational and raw. [Crypt owner Tim Warren] really made the effort to find these people, which I thought was really wild and cool. It's almost like going back to folk music, like a Folkways album. And the more I think about it, the more I think that garage rock is just another form of folk music — very simple, made by people with what's at hand. Anybody can do it in a way."
"Being a white man, all I wanted to do was play blues and R&B," Kroha says. "It's the attraction of doing something that's different from what you know. And luckily, Mick was into that. He had such a wide-ranging taste in music that he liked his parents' taste in music and he liked his older sister's music. And he liked rock 'n' roll stuff that he was discovering. For me, though, when I first heard Muddy Waters, I felt like I shouldn't be listening to it. It was another world — dangerous and scary, which, of course, made it all the more attractive."
The band began woodshedding in Collins' and Kroha's parents' basements and, later, in a flat they shared in the Cass Corridor with Kroha's sister, Muffy.
"We had a nine-note limit," Collins says. "If it had more, it was too complicated to play. That limiting factor became part of the aesthetic. 'How do we do this?' Take a song with a fuzz riff and strip everything out except what we knew how to play."
In fact, that's the exact method that helped them arrive at their version of "You Make it Move."
"We only played the first four notes over and over again." Collins says. "I'm flattered that there are bands now that try to do that but they're not really approaching it from the idea of 'I have no idea how to play this instrument that I've strapped on.' We were sitting there, having literally no idea how to play these instruments. We want to sound like other bands but we don't know how."
What emerged from those first few months of rehearsals was a primal fusion of Velvet Underground punk rock and 1950s and '60s backyard house-party blues, given voice by fuzzy guitars played loud under Collins' gravelly punk-blues sneer and Kroha's poker-faced affectless leer.
And then it was time to step out of the basement.
In a totally unintended and unacknowledged way, the first Gories show connected Detroit's riotous '60s rock heyday with the impending garage fever of the early '00s.
When the trio "debuted" at St. Andrew's Church at one of the regular Cass Corridor Community Concerts in July '86, they'd been rehearsing a few months and worked up a half-dozen songs. The host of those concerts was MC5 frontman, Rob Tyner.
"At that point in my life, Rob Tyner was just some old hippie dude," Kroha says. "I didn't know anything about the MC5, wasn't really into the MC5. I thought it was music of the older generation. I thought it was hippie music. I had no idea. I thought the Stooges were hippie music!"
Because the Gories were the brand-new band, they had to wait to go on until everyone else had played, and that included Tyner playing a set of socially conscious folk songs on autoharp.
"It just kept going on and on and we're just like falling asleep on the table," Kroha laughs. "We finally get to play. There were a few people there to see us, like four or five of our friends." He grins.
"After that, it was, 'Well, we're kind of a band,'" Collins says. "It probably sounds a lot easier than it really was. Not only do we not know what we're doing, but we're actually going to show people that we don't know what we're doing!"
As they became a working part of Detroit's music scene, the Gories were in the company of some pretty solid rock 'n' roll contemporaries, if not kindred spirits. Bands such as the Hysteric Narcotics (featuring future members of Blanche and the Fondas, among others) were playing a Nuggets-influenced R&B power-pop that suffered in the power department on recordings but made for a knockout live show. The 3-D Invisibles and Zombie Surfers were working the fringes with manic B-movie-inspired takes on classic surf-punk sounds. And the Vertical Pillows (with future Detroit Cobra Mary Restrepo on guitar) connected on the scene with the young Gories.
To say that the band's early shows were sparsely attended is an understatement.
"It was a devout 15 to 25 people," recalls Len Puch, who'd later record and release the Gories first LP, Houserockin'. "But you wouldn't miss 'em. Where else are you gonna hear this? Sort of like how the White Stripes got started. You had this devout crew that would show up."
"The noise they made was so unholy that they could clear out a bar faster than anyone you've ever seen," says Kroha's sister Muffy. "People did not love it at the time. They had a handful of people that loved it and got it."
The band often hit the stage crocked and volatile, the shows a messy amalgam of inspired rock 'n' roll and reckless pre-show imbibing. Combined with the strain of confused audiences, who often edged toward the abusive side of nonreceptive, and three strong personalities, the band soon started showing signs of wear that led to their embittered demise.
Yet, somewhere along the way, the threesome knew it could keep on playing in the same booze-saturated way, knocking out gloriously sloppy versions of its visionary blend of R&B, punk and other outsider influences. Or the group could hunker down and have a serious go at it.
"I don't know what moment it happened," Collins says, "but suddenly we were an ongoing concern. We said, 'We can't keep getting up on stage like this. This is getting old — even to us. So why don't we just get up and play the songs.'"
Though the fans were few, it was their evangelism that helped the Gories immensely in those early years.
The aforementioned Puch was one of them. A metal fabricator and artist by trade, he attended Gories shows from the beginning and soon asked them to record for his fledgling Wanghead With Lips label, inviting them out to his place in New Baltimore to record in a crudely set up studio.
Puch figures he probably "got rid of" about 4,000 copies of the first record. The estimates are tough because soon after the record was released, the independent distributors with whom he worked either stopped paying or were snatched up by major labels. It put him in a pickle between the bands he was putting out (and trying to pay out of his own pocket) and the distributors.
"I owed a ton of bands money. Everybody was pissed at me thinking I'm fucking them out of their money. I remember them coming out of the house. I said, 'Take 100 percent of it. Here's your masters'. I didn't have anything to do with music for 10 years after that."
Indeed, this was the beginning of a long and generally fruitless relationship with record labels for the Gories.
But that record did find its way into the hands of a young Memphis filmmaker Dan Rose (now O'Neil's husband). He played it blind for a dude named Alex Chilton, who promptly flipped for the record and offered the band an opening slot on a five-night stint at Manhattan's Knitting Factory in spring 1990.
"We knew who he was. But I can't honestly say I was a big fan," Collins says of the legendarily inscrutable Box Tops singer and Big Star co-leader.
The band may not have sensed an overwhelming response to its brand of R&B, but the audiences noticed. And Chilton did too, as he offered to produce their second full-length, I Know You Fine, But How You Doin', for French imprint New Rose.
The Memphis recordings took place at a recently converted home studio. Though the trio was gaining critical acclaim in the fanzines of the day and word-of-mouth spread, the band began spiraling, fighting at the recording sessions.
"There was nothing fun about that," Collins says. "Well, there was probably one moment when Dan and I were recording 'Stranded,' and this all-girl Memphis band, the Hellcats, came in and we were like, 'Dude! Girls!' and we were getting all theatrical and pulling moves to impress 'em. They couldn't have cared less," he laughs. "They were impressed that Peggy didn't have a click track. All the macho posturing didn't mean anything to them!" But the encounter led to one of the album's strongest, wildest performances.
"I took a chance on something that I never would have," Collins says. "That was an advanced course of guitar playing for me. It sounded like I knew what I was doing — for once."
Chilton, Collins and Kroha set about recording and producing the record in a remarkably collaborative way ("Alex was only as hands-on as we let him be," Collins recalls), given that the two principals were fighting and Chilton was their first experience with a "name" producer. The record is a sprawling collection of jams ranging from tough-and-tight R&B to post-apocalyptic boogie to wild and wooly party-ready tunes. It finds the band writing with a desperate sense of imagination and play.
Chilton's ringing endorsement and the band's singular vision and growing technical prowess paid off in that the trio began to gain real notice nationwide.
"That was sort of the beginning of it for us, but by that time we were on our way out as a band," Collins says.
Kroha also recalls that time, when things were clicking on all fronts, except between band members.
"It wasn't till the fifth year, going into the sixth, that people started talking about us. It's funny, I'm doing this interview for Metro Times, because at that time, they wouldn't touch us," Kroha says, laughing. "But fanzines started contacting us, wanting to interview us and we were like, 'What? We don't even know you!'"
To give some sense of perspective, the band's buzz meant that instead of 25 people showing up at a Cass Corridor Gories gig, 75 would — a number that baffled the band since they didn't recognize every face in the crowd.
At one of their infrequent out-of-town shows, they supported Memphis ruffians the Gibson Brothers, a like-minded crew mining similar source material with similarly primitive — if more country-tinged — results. The Gibsons had just added a young Jon Spencer, recently departed from cult legends Pussy Galore, to their ranks. Spencer — who was blown away by the Gories — had some swing with indie labels. He hooked them up with Seattle's Sub Pop. The result was the Gories' sole Sub Pop single, a cheeky cover of Spinal Tap's "Gimme Some Money."
A mini-storm of attention ensued and positive notices in weeklies and zines continued to build the band's buzz. In the pre-Internet, alt-rock-crazed early-'90s, anything could happen. This is where the Gories' story gets tangled up in that history.
"This guy from Warner Bros. contacted us," Kroha remembers. "He was like, 'Yeah, I really like you guys and I wanna sign you for a demo deal.'"
The guy was Dave Katz-Nelson, who'd been hired at Warner after an intern stint at another label where he brought a band called Nirvana to their attention. That label slept on 'em; Geffen Records didn't. The rest is history. Now, he'd "discovered" the Gories.
"I almost laughed in his face because it was the most ridiculous thing I'd ever heard," Kroha says. "He said, 'Yeah, we'll give you $7,000 to record a demo.' I'm like 'You're kidding me! We'd never spent $200 — if that!' Well, the second album was big budget, actually, like $5,000 'cause we had to pay Alex Chilton." Kroha laughs, and says, "but we got it done so fast, we actually had some money left over."
But with buzz building and the rest of the world catching up to the band's glorious noise, the Gories had just about had enough of each other. By the time Warner Bros. called, it was too little, too late.
O'Neil, for her part, says she was done by 1990. That the trio soldiered on is testament to their dedication. They'd all invested too heavily to let this thing just slip away.
Demand was pouring in from Europe, long a hot spot of dedicated fans of true-blue American rock 'n' roll. And Crypt Records — the label that'd inspired the band's formation with one of its comps years before, and was by then located in Germany — contacted the Gories. They'd come full circle. There was one problem: The band had broken up … for the first time.
So Collins, Kroha and O'Neil did the only thing they could think of: They struck an agreement with Crypt to record a third full-length, the prophetically titled Outta Here, in exchange for a European tour.
"It wasn't meant to be prophetic," Collins says, "but it ended that way."
The Gories had been a band that operated with a sense of immediacy, urgency. It was part of their essence. But the Outta Here sessions drained them completely.
"Working on that record was probably the first time that Dan and I had to get together and brainstorm songs into existence," Collins says. "We'd never had to do that before. But we had broken up and hadn't spoken in three months."
Parts of the album were cut at the band's rehearsal space — a recently busted pirate radio station — with producer Mike E. Clark (who'd later go on to acclaim as the sonic architect behind ICP). But the wiring in the walls gave off such static that most recorded material was unusable. So they headed to Ferndale and hunkered down with producer Dave Feeny at Tempermill. Clark assembled the final product, a mixed bag of inspired, desperate jams and covers that didn't so much hold together as simply fit the bill.
Their part of the deal done, the Gories set about taking Europe by storm. It kicked off auspiciously at Club Vera in Groningen, Netherlands, May 7, 1992. The Gories were greeted with rapturous praise, hailed as conquering heroes of rock 'n' roll, complete with screaming fans in the city's quaint streets.
But the tour was an exercise in tenacity and (now typical) Gories tension. The European crowds, mostly, didn't know what to make of the trio. Kroha's girlfriend (and future bandmate) at the time, Margaret "Dollrod," was a constant cheerleader, right up front, shaking it up and letting the French, Dutch and German fans know that the Gories' brand of rock 'n' roll was, first and foremost, ass-wiggling music. By tour's end, the audiences got it. But by the time the band hit their last gig in Orleans, France, O'Neil had had enough and bolted pre-show, effectively ending the tour and the band.
But Kroha says the band's end wasn't the result of one person leaving the other two drummerless thousands of miles from home. And as great as the band's music could be when they were on, the reality was, as it always is, much trickier.
"Of course, Peggy, having the most volatile temper of the three of us, got blamed for everything," Kroha says. "It was just easy to say, 'She always storms off' and 'She threw her drums out.' So it was easy to make her the scapegoat for everything, but it's a little more complicated."
"All of a sudden, we had an audience, but there never seemed to be one until the very end. But by that time, it didn't matter to us. By the time people were looking, we couldn't care less. We couldn't give away our merch when we were an actual band. Everyone wants to talk now about how great it was. Well, it wasn't to us. When it was great to us, everyone was telling us we sucked."
The Gories got it together one last time, for that 1993 Manhattan show. Then they walked away from one another, formed or joined other bands, each informed by the spirit of the Gories. For a decade and a half, the Gories legend grew — along with garage punk's profile. The band's influence was — and is — felt in dozens of acts unfit to wear the trio's suits and shades.
So it is that it took an act of nature, literally — Hurricane Katrina, to be specific — to get the three former pals together for a reunion. After Katrina, O'Neil and husband Rose, came to Detroit for shelter and to wait out the reconstruction.
"One day I saw her walking around the neighborhood," Kroha marvels, "and I was like, 'Wow, that's weird.' Suddenly, I lived a block away from Peggy after almost 20 years of barely speaking to her. I thought, 'Gee, this must be a sign that it's about time to renew our friendship.'
"It's really nice being friends with her again and it's getting easier," he continues. "We have a lot of shared history that you don't really have with that many people in your life."
The reunion idea became reality when Collins agreed. Now the three misfit kids who found common cause more than two decades ago in messy relationships and the crazed amateur cacophony of '50s and '60s American R&B and rock 'n' roll will give it one more shot. Older, probably not too much wiser, but certainly more anticipated.
Looking back, Collins is both proud and not entirely surprised that they were a seminal influence for many bands. "Whether I like it or not, the knowledge of everything that came in the wake of the Gories has a lot to be said for it. In our own small way, we helped change the course of Western civilization."
Kroha concurs. "I once thought, 'I wanna be like the Velvet Underground, make music that we love and I don't care if people buy it or not.' At the time, I said, 'I feel like this kinda music is gonna last.' I felt like if we did that, we could end up like the Velvet Underground. Maybe people don't understand it now, but in the future, it's gonna be valid."
On the other hand, Kroha's simply enthused about rekindling the innocence and energy that made the Gories a blast in the first place. And that kind of dedication is a rare thing, indeed.
"I still wanna do R&B covers that have been done a million times," he says. "I don't care."
The Gories play the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7665, on Saturday, June 27. With the Oblivians.
Chris Handyside writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.