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Books > The Beat Reader

Motor City gritterati

Documenting Detroitís not-so-ephemeral sonic grind

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Published 7/6/2005

Anyone living in metro Detroit who isn’t aware of the city’s amazing musical legacy is either not paying attention or a little dumb. The high points are well known to even the most casual listeners — the blues roots of John Lee Hooker, the entrepreneurial innovations of Berry Gordy Jr., the explosive white soul of Mitch Ryder, the proto-punk ooze of the MC5 and the Stooges, the rise to superstardom of Bob Seger.

But from this remove, it can be hard to recognize that the above are merely the high points of the late ’60s and early ’70s local scene. Bands like the Rationals, the SRC, the Frost and too many more to mention were also making their own versions of hard-driving rock ’n’ soul. Now, a new book (aptly) titled Grit, Noise and Revolution (University of Michigan Press) tries to put it all together in one cohesive history.

Author David A. Carson has written the equivalent of a college survey course on the history of Detroit rock ’n’ roll. It’s a footnoted and scholarly affair that chronicles the outgrowth of Detroit rock from the area’s late-’50s R&B scene. Carson covers a lot of ground, so in spots the read is dense as hell. But he does manage to capture the energy of the times through more than 50 contemporary interviews conducted with folks involved in the scene.

What the book does magnificently is provide the context and show the connections within a music scene filled with powerful DJs, club owners, label heads and — oh, yeah — an abundance of badass visionary musicians. He traces the lineage through R&B artists like Nathaniel Mayer and Andre Williams to Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels to the explosion of bands through the Grande Ballroom epoch. And even though it’s far less celebrated than the same period’s scenes in San Francisco or London, Detroit had, pound-for-pound, as many great artists as anyplace in the world.

There’s also a certain Motor City rock pedigree that shines through in the book. For example, the cocksure swagger of Kid Rock wasn’t his invention. Turns out Detroit artists have been doing that for a long time. One artist “sounded tough, like somebody you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley unless he had a guitar in his hand.” Are we talking Ted Nugent? Wayne Kramer? Iggy Pop?

Nope, we’re talking about ’50s rockabilly singer Jack Scott. Some 15 years before Iggy and the Stooges’ Metallic K.O. was recorded, people were talking about going to see Scott because they heard he was going to get into a fight with an audience member.

An interesting element of that period as described by Carson is the notion that the music scene was an entire culture. WABX Air Aces Jerry Lubin and Dan Carlisle were changing the face of radio while Barry Kramer and Dave Marsh were changing the face of rock criticism over at Creem. Behind the musicians, managers John Sinclair, Punch Andrews and Jeep Holland had radically different styles.

Given the scope of Grit, Noise and Revolution, some topics suffer from a lack of depth, and occasionally the litany of bands and labels gets a bit eye-glazing (think Old Testament lists of who begat whom). That’s to be expected though, because to remedy that would take a book at least twice as long than this one’s 368 pages.

Carson is also the author of Rockin’ Down the Dial: The Detroit Sound of Radio. He’s a Royal Oak native who lives in Nashville.

David A. Carson will be in town to sign books and host a seminar on Detroit rock ’n’ roll on Friday, July 8, 7-8:30 p.m., at Book Beat (26010 Greenfield Rd., Oak Park; 248-968-1190). Johnny Bee from the Detroit Wheels and the Rockets, Jem Targal from Third Power, photographer Leni Sinclair and the SRC’s Gary Quackenbush will take part in the event. Carson is also signing at the Grosse Pointe Barnes & Noble, 19221 Mack Ave., on Saturday, July 9, 2-4 p.m.

 

MORE SUMMER READING: If the tale chronicled in Grit, Noise and Revolution appeals to you, then so would Lost from the Ottawa (Trafford) by Pun Plamondon. Once upon a time, Plamondon’s name struck terror in the hearts of law enforcement everywhere. He was one of the militant minds behind the White Panther Party and the first of the ’60s youth radicals to be placed on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List. This memoir tells Plamondon’s dramatic, sometimes sordid life story culminating in his eventual redemption and current life as a sober Native American storyteller. It’s not a rock ’n’ roll book per se, but Plamondon’s work with the MC5, Kiss and Bob Seger provides a rocking backdrop to this gripping page-turner.

Brian J. Bowe is a freelance writer and editor of Creem Magazine. His new column, The Beat Reader, will appear occasionally. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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