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Visual arts

Because he had to

A loving look back at Blake's laugh-to-keep-from-crying aesthetic

A drawing of a "Mega Set" by a young Blake in 1978. He actually ended up building it.
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Published 5/21/2008

I wouldn't say Matt and I were, like, friends friends, and it took us knowing each other for 10 years before we'd wind up in a band together, but, like a lot of us, I knew Matt as this ubiquitous presence on the scene — even when it didn't seem like there was much of a scene. This is back when everybody doing anything in Detroit could fit into Union Street on a Friday night (and often did), high on whatever we were working on, to let off some steam on Woodward. Matt was living on East Forest in the warehouse with the rest of the Propeller design group, and I'd crash there sometimes. They were a kind of avant-garde high school metal shop where Detroit's post-industrial lexicon of rusted metal and corroded gears was resurrected surreally and beautifully into bizarre but ingenious furniture. On any given night, the warehouse was like Isamu Noguchi guest-starring on Sanford and Son.

Matt once made a pool chair out of metal and stretched rubber that looked like a crossbow threatening to catapult its sitter right into the water. It had this loving mix of earnestness and sarcasm that was so perfectly Detroit. Matt's laugh-to-keep-from-crying aesthetic was nothing if not well-earned: After being hit by a car on Woodward downtown, he had to wear one of those halo things for years, with the screws drilled right into his skull. The faint pock scars still dotted his close-cropped hairline. That and his penchant for firing up the arcwelder at 3 a.m. made him a quintessentially Detroit artist.

He made the best of a bad situation, turned decay into art, but always, always with a smile. His music was the same way. He loved his big blue drums and that massive ride cymbal. Like his art, his drumming could be this beautifully imperfect machine that worked in its perfect way. I played in the Grotto Visitors with Matt and his roommate John Bardy. Matt's drumming was like his smile: infectious, occasionally shit-eating and soft-spoken. Almost, I'd wonder, oblivious? But in his loose high-hats and big cymbal washes was an impossible marriage of the thought-out and intuitive. He played like he made art, because he had to and because he wanted to. I remember working on a song John and I had written in another band. I heard my clever little "Under The Bridge" bass line; Matt heard a somber blues swing. He was playing more the song than my bass line — and he was right. He could be stubborn — we all were, making our respective creative voices heard — but I always respected him, even when didn't like him.

Matt didn't just embrace the imperfections of the city and communities he called home, he fell in love with them, and with them fathered a sensibility that made him thrive in a city of survivors and burn softly in a city more prone to smoldering. "The fire that burns twice as bright burns half as long," Dr. Tyrell tells Roy in Blade Runner. Detroit and all of us are a little warmer for having known and loved you Matthew. Burn softly, brother, but like your smile, burn on. —Hobey Echlin

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