Cover StoryBallad of Mr. X
WDET interviews Bill Holdship about this story (MP3)
Can I get a witness?
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The saga of Bob Mulrooney — aka Bootsey X, aka the Pusherman of Love and Genius from the Waist Down — might bring to mind the words of two renowned writers: the first, an unlikely rabbi; the other, a rock critic. For the past decade, the title of Rabbi Harold S. Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People would certainly apply to Bootsey's world of misfortunes. But for the entirety of Bootsey's career — from the late '70s and straight through today — the words of Lester Bangs regarding a host of unsung garage bands, still resonate loudly: "Some people are recognized in their own time and some people aren't."
Two-plus decades ago, right before this writer left Detroit for L.A., there were two rock 'n' roll bands in the Motor City that surely could've gone the entire distance with better luck and more lucid decisions made in a less insular scene. (This became even more crystal clear in L.A., where one was able to observe firsthand some of the lame things that did manage to go that distance.) The Mutants were the first and earlier contenders with their updated Rat Pack (as in Frank, Dino, etc.) meets punk-rock aesthetics and ethics. The other was Bootsey X & the Lovemasters, a band that continued to thrive long after the Mutants had called it a day. And Bob Mulrooney was a part of both bands' legacies.
Bootsey X & the Lovemasters were the best live rock 'n' roll show in town then — sometimes approaching rock 'n' roll carnivaldom. Like so many endeavors and enterprises in subsequent years, and especially in this economy — be they business-related or artistic in nature — the Lovemasters have condensed their stage act over time, even though Mulrooney stresses that a recent lineup featuring Sights leader Eddie Baranek, drummer "Skip" Denomme and Trash Brat Ricky Rat stands as one of the Lovemasters' finest incarnations. But in the mid-to-late '80s, a Bootsey X & the Lovemasters performance was akin to seeing Iggy Stooge fronting a James Brown & His Famous Flames Revue — that is, if both the Godfathers of Soul and Punk had even greater senses of humor ... plus, everything else such a concept would involve (with flashes of George Clinton's Funkadelic and Sly & the Family Stone, both of which were psychedelicized versions of the Brown revue anyway). The act came complete with horns, keyboards, a jive-talking emcee (who doubled on sax), and the ever-present — and ever-hot — Sugarbabes of Soul.
It was both hilarious and spectacular on a rockin' level at the same time, with the Bootsey character embodying all the punk and white-boy soul affectations needed for such an act to work, the band churning out the classic and archetypal Detroit riffs that comprised such Lovemasters masterpieces as "Pusherman of Love," "Genius from the Waist Down," "Janie's Gym" and the earth-shattering yuletide perennial, "Santa's Got a Bomb for Whitey." And if that weren't enough, the crew mixed it all with such perfect punk-ified covers as Neil Diamond's "Brother Love's Travelin' Salvation Show," Elvis' "Kissin' Cousins" and "Suspicious Minds," Roy Head's "Treat Her Right" (the instrumental that always announced Bootsey's imminent arrival onstage) and perhaps the greatest cover of the O'Jays' "Love Train" of all time.
It's a somewhat different Bootsey who's talking to a writer (and longtime friend) in his Henry Ford Hospital room in early April. Instead of his always-groovy threads, he's dressed in one of those hospital gowns and attached to a chemotherapy IV, something that has been an ongoing weekly regiment since he underwent surgery in early November for a brain tumor. The chemo has gone on for days and nights, even weeks at a time, for nearly half a year now. But the doctors at Henry Ford — which he has heard is one of the best brain cancer units in the country — have told him he'll only have to do it one week a month for the next year. He looks good, though, and not just considering what he's gone through. He's happy he's kept all his hair; only a few of the side effects have really bothered him.
Images of the New York Dolls, Suicide, Patti Smith, Television and the Ramones — perfect! — from Don Letts' punk rock documentary are on the TV screen behind him, as he reminisces about a life spent in rock 'n' roll. He commiserates, as he has numerous times over the last three years, about how rock 'n' roll can be as much a curse as it is a blessing. "There's rarely any money in it," he says. And as a good friend of the late Ron Asheton, Bootsey would know. He watched the seminal guitarist struggle in financial obscurity for years. "But you fall in love with it. And you love it so much, you forget there may be no future in it. I used to think, 'Oh, I can live on $100 a week' — and back in the '70s, you could. But as a drummer, which I was for years before I even considered fronting a band, every time a band breaks up, you have to start all over again. At least as a songwriter and a frontman, you have the songs to bring along with you for the next time."
He chokes up occasionally during the nearly seven-hour conversation, especially when he talks of a lover who's also recently been ill, as well as friends who've been very supportive throughout his time of need — including Eminem producer Steve King, who'd often throw him some extra cash without asking; Eddie Baranek, who'd always refuse money when the Lovemasters would actually get paid; and the musicians and well-wishers who'd gather at Hamtown's Painted Lady for a Bootsey benefit show that coming Saturday night. But mostly, he's the same old Bob: hilariously funny (even just in the way he perfectly describes a foe as "Joey Buttafuoco"), smart and as sharp as a knife — a walking rock 'n' roll encyclopedia, not just of Detroit rock from the '70s through today, but equally at home discussing Tegan & Sara (his latest pop fave) as he is Sly Stone.
When he's not lately in the hospital, he's been forced to live in a nursing home that's in the ghetto — just another addition to his long list of "living in the worst places with some of the worst people you can imagine for the last 10 years," following a downward spiral that began when his Hamtramck apartment burned down at the precise moment he was trying to kick a drug addiction. And then when things seemed like they couldn't get any worse. ...
The tumor was only diagnosed after a long period of disorientation; good Samaritans would sometimes stop to help him when he was lost and wandering aimlessly in his own neighborhood last autumn, unable to find his way home. He missed the Lovemasters' last Cityfest gig due to confusion from the growing — and long misdiagnosed — malignancy. He even got lost and found himself in a crack neighborhood one night during a memory lapse, escaping with his life after several threats were made on it. The cancer was diagnosed shortly thereafter, but only after a friend took him to three different emergency rooms on the same day. Until then, Mulrooney had simply blamed it all on complications from a lifelong ADD affliction as well as a recent case of Bell's palsy — until he discovered neither condition would cause those kinds of lapses. The good news is he has been "a lot sharper" since the surgery, and while not totally out of the woods yet, doctors tell him the prognosis is very good.
"I'm the born loser of all time" was his initial reaction, though — and there was justifiably a lot of initial rage. "I was in a daze at first," he continues, "but then I got really angry. I've been so poor for so long. And then such bad luck for so long. I mean, everything would go wrong. Cub Koda [of Brownsville Station fame] recorded one of my songs ... and he died right then and it never came out. I went on tour with Nathaniel Mayer — and we come back to Detroit, and he dies.
"I had to hire a lawyer to receive my Social Security benefits — she took 50 percent of what I won — but I thought at least now I can find a decent place and maybe even record some new songs I'd written, which are funkier than what the Lovemasters do. It was my last chance to get out of poverty — I'd literally been living on $2 a day ... and then I got the tumor, which, ironically, would've entitled me to Social Security benefits without having to give a lawyer half of it. One day, I woke up [in the nursing home] and I just thought to myself, 'What the fuck am I doing here? How did this happen?'"
Of course, it wasn't always this way.
Especially for those who don't know him well, a certain dark myth grew around Bootsey X — and, thus, Bob Mulrooney — to some in the local scene over this last decade or so. It was almost as though he was viewed as some sort of wasted, Johnny Thunders-type figure ... when the truth is Bob has always been more like the cool older brother who lived next door when you were a kid and who was always playing in his own garage rock band. Everyone — at least in the '60s, '70s and early '80s — knew a character like that.
Born in Highland Park to an accountant and his wife but raised in Livonia with a younger sister, Bob's rock 'n' roll big bang came seeing the Ronettes, undoubtedly forebears to the Sugarbabes of Soul, on some teen music TV show as a kid. He never became a big Beatles fan until after they broke up ... but as an aspiring drummer, he immediately gravitated toward the Dave Clark Five, and then later, thanks to Keith Moon, he "really, really got into the Who." Too young to see Townshend and company at Southfield High School with some of his neighborhood friends, and too young for the Grande Ballroom — except for the final-ever show there, headlined by the MC5 — his first concert, the Bob Seger System in Ypsilanti, was "pretty lame." Wait a minute, Bob. Most people in Michigan wouldn't consider Bob Seger — especially at that time — a "lame" first show! "Well, I remember I was disappointed because he did so many covers," he says. "But I do remember the opening band was the Charging Rhinoceroses of Soul — which was [future Stooges saxophonist] Steve Mackay's band!"
His second show was the first and only Detroit Pop Festival at Olympia Stadium, which was headlined by the Amboy Dukes and the Five — "When the MC5 went on, hundreds of state troopers showed up, and I think that freaked my dad out about rock 'n' roll when he picked us up later." That concert featured "all the hot bands in Detroit except, unfortunately, the Stooges." He didn't see the latter until the Raw Power days, witnessing the now-legendary St. Clair Shores Ice Arena show with Seger and the [Motor City] Mutants opening. But he'd become a believer earlier on. "The first time I heard 'Down on the Street' [from the Stooges' Fun House], I know people always say this, but I had to pull over to the side of the street. 'Wow! This is the best thing the Stones ever did!' I had the same reaction with [the Flamin' Groovies'] Slow Death.'"
He saw the infamous Metallic K.O. show at the Michigan Palace. "I totally hated it! The sound sucked! The violence — all those bikers being assholes. It was depressing." Those Keith Moon lessons would eventually pay off, though. As a drummer, Bootsey would later open for Iggy three times as a member of Coldcock.
His own musical career got off the ground, with now-longtime pal Dave Hanna, when they formed Streets "before there even was a new wave/punk scene. Dave was this kid into Johnny Thunders — and I didn't know anybody like that. By then, everyone else was into Mahavishnu," he laughs. "And we were doing Velvet Underground covers." Streets evolved into the Deviates — "We were a bar band playing covers, four nights a week, but we'd throw in stuff like Television's 'Venus DeMilo,' and as long as [the audience] didn't know it was 'punk,' they'd dig it."
Soon thereafter, the pair met guitarist Peter James, who pulled a Ron Asheton by moving Hanna to bass, recruited a few more members, including lead vocalist Mark Norton, and gave birth to the Ramrods — Detroit's first "official punk" band ... so ahead of their time that they moved to New York City for three weeks when they found that no place would book them in pre-Bookie's Detroit. Ramones manager Danny Fields (who'd "discovered" both the Stooges and MC5) wanted to manage them — "but he must've seen we were doomed to breakup." After that came stints with the Sillies, Coldcock, a brief time with the Mutants and, in subsequent years, Dark Carnival (featuring Ron Asheton, Niagara and Cheetah Chrome of the Dead Boys) and Rocket 455, among others.
During all this musical activity, he also went to beauty school and spent five years as a salon hairdresser — "You have to be really dedicated to continue and I just wasn't into it the way I needed to be" — and then, before eBay turned it into a dying art, as a record buyer at Sam's Jams and Desirable Discs, both gigs for seven years each, among other local vinyl and CD emporiums. But it was only through a fluke that he discovered he was a natural as a rock 'n' roll front person and performer. It all started because Lili's in Hamtramck — one of the greatest rock 'n' roll clubs of all time — had an opening slot right before Christmas that booker (and Mutants lead singer) Art Lyzak had to fill. So Bob decided he'd form a band.
"My first thought was 'What happened to all the fun rock 'n' roll bands, like the Flamin' Groovies or even Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers?'" he recalls. "I used to make up silly nicknames for myself all the time. One was 'Surfer Bootsey' as a joke because you'd never see any funky brothers surfin' ... and the name just caught on. We were Bootsey & the Banshies at first — we misspelled it that way just to piss off all the serious Goth fans around Detroit at that time," he laughs. "And then one night, I drove by a strip club and saw on the marquee: 'Featuring Reggie the Love Master!'" He chuckles again. "I just thought that sounded cool."
The band's original name wasn't the only thing meant to draw wrath from audiences in those more antagonistic times. There was also the Bootsey X character, which possessed all the hubris (albeit on a comical level) that the Iggy-meets-James Brown hybrid would suggest: "I loved the Bootsey image because it pissed off so many people. They thought I was serious — 'I'm the greatest lover in the world' — not realizing it was tongue-in-cheek."
Bob's always seemed to view his role as a rock 'n' roll educator of sorts, be it bringing punk and funk shtick together in one band or testifying as a hairstylist and record store clerk to willing patrons. And then there was that time in the early '70s when he was spinning tracks like "Sister Ray" as a radio DJ at his community college station ... which led to one of his more legendary Detroit encounters.
"I wanted to do a Lou Reed radio special and I wanted to buy that issue of CREEM with the classic Lou interview in it. So I called the office and the guy who answered said, 'Yeah, I wrote that story. I'll send it to you.' I was like, 'Wow! Lester Bangs! You're my hero!" Bangs then pointed Mulrooney toward a Velvet Underground collector in Manhattan who'd send Bob demo tapes of Lou's first two solo albums for his special as long as he promised to give them to Lester when he was finished. It's the alternative version of Almost Famous.
"So I went to the CREEM house on Brown Street in Birmingham to give him the tapes. Lester answered the door, shaking like a leaf. I'd never seen anyone with the DTs before," Bootsey admits. "And he was like, 'Fuck it! Let's go get some beer!' We played some of the Lou demos but he was like, 'Fuck it! Let's play Raw Power instead!' So all night, he played nothing but Raw Power and Blue Oyster Cult's Tyranny and Mutation over and over and over again. It was so much fucking fun! He was raving on and on — stuff like 'All we have to do is get Lou Reed and Bob Dylan back on speed and we'll get rock 'n' roll back again!' He was really happy because we were young people who actually liked good music. He asked if he could jam with us some time."
They tried playing music together once in Livonia and it turned into a disaster. But Lester did call Bob several times over the years, looking for quaaludes. "He'd say, 'They're cool. I did seven of them last night!'" The irony is that Mulrooney — unlike his suburban peers — wasn't even doing drugs at the time; he didn't start drinking and self-medicating until he was in his 20s.
"I always thought I didn't have an addictive personality but it turned out I did," he says. "I didn't see any difference between opiates and drinking. I didn't get it."
Despite some rumors that have circulated over the last decade, Bootsey was never a heroin addict; his drug of choice was Vicodin at the same time that Eminem, Matthew Perry ... hell, it seemed like half of Hollywood became addicted to the same substance — albeit with a lot more disposable income. "People have called me a wimp at Narcotics Anonymous meetings because I went to a clinic to get put on methadone to kick a Vicodin habit," he says. "I guess nobody does that. But my dealer lived right down the street from me — he turned out to be more of a pusher than a dealer — and I had to get that guy out of my life. I thought if I could get on methadone, that would help me get off Vicodin. ..."
But then came that devastating fire in his apartment. His electricity hadn't been shut off due to nonpayment, as some have believed over the years. Several days before the fire, Michigan had experienced the huge statewide power outage (it, coincidentally, was the same night the Stooges were scheduled to perform their first homecoming reunion concert at Pine Knob). The outage screwed up the fuses in Mulrooney's apartment and the electricity went out. "I called the landlord and he was like, 'Ah, just get a fuse in the morning. Light a candle.'" So that's what Mulrooney did. He was detoxing, weaning himself off the methadone, which he'd never liked (and which he'd learned was even a worse addiction than the one he originally wanted to kick), at the same time. And he fell asleep in an apartment that — if anyone is pointing fingers — had no smoke detectors in it.
After the fire, some misconstrued the accident on the streets as, "Oh, a methadone addict nods out, probably smoking a cigarette, and burns down his own apartment." He hit his lowest ebb when he heard that some people were laughing and ridiculing him in public. (There was also a nasty mass e-mail.) "Bootsey couldn't even get detox right!" someone quipped. "He burns down his house and now he expects people to help him [via a planned benefit]."
He flinches. "I thought when a benefit was suggested that maybe it would help me at least replace my glasses," says Mulrooney, who was working for the local Tower Records chain at the time of the fire. "But assumptions were made." His angry — but insured — upstairs neighbor even wrote a letter to this paper, asking when her benefit was going to take place. "I don't think she lost a lot but I kinda saved her life by running upstairs before I even looked for my glasses," he remembers of the night he woke up surrounded by flames. Later, when he'd cleaned up his act, a few people on the scene were spreading the rumor that he was "back on junk," due to side effects from a prescribed medication (Suboxone) and, quite possibly, the yet-undetected brain tumor. It's easy to see why he might have believed the whole Detroit music community had turned against him. He entered a rehab treatment facility shortly after the fire.
But that was then; this is now — and Detroit, both current and past, has rallied behind Bootsey in a big way following this latest setback. The Painted Lady sold out several times over during the benefit, people already waiting in a long line for patrons inside to exit so they could enter at 10:30 p.m. Folks were still showing up to pay the $10 admission at 1 a.m., and a few people were wondering if the club had been this packed, hot and smoky since the days when the Mutants headlined what was then still called Lili's. The music — from the Space Heaters, Dale Beavers and the Meltdowns, among others — was solid, and there was just a good all-around vibe in the club, with a strong presence from various Detroit "rock stars" who've made a local splash at different times over the past three decades.
And outside, behind the stage, right before he was set to make his entrance, Bootsey, in his sparkly silver lamé shirt and girl-pants, was cracking up a few people standing around with his typically self-deprecating comments that kicked off with wisecracks about his $5 sunglasses: "This is typical of a Lovemasters show," he said. "Lots of dead air, no set list, nobody knows what they're doing, and every fucking song sounds the same." He was joking, of course. There were different Lovemasters from different periods appearing throughout the night, including guitarists Phil "Greasy" Carlisi, Ricky Rat, and Gerald Shohan, who's been a Bootsey associate (and Lovemaster) since they started in Coldcock together all those year ago. Bootsey performed "Genius" and a kick-ass version of "No Fun" with them. He was full of life. His great yelping scream — a perfect hybrid of Iggy and James — is still intact. For the first time in years, there was a makeshift, nonvocal version of the Sugarbabes onstage in the form of artist Gwen Joy, Noir Leather's Kristi Burgett and a couple of other girls who joined the band up there to dance.
As Bootsey used to say many times about life and the act of taking chances back in those early days: "This isn't a dress rehearsal." And indeed, it isn't.
There will be a second benefit for Bootsey X on Friday, May 7, at Paycheck’s Lounge, 2932 Caniff St. Hamtramck; 313-874-0909. With the 3-D Invisibles, Margaret Dollrod, Circus Boy, Cinecyde and more to be announced. A mailing address for donations is also being established; watch metrotimes.com for developing news on this.
Bill Holdship is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.