Distortion clattered off the Diego Rivera murals on a recent Friday evening at the DIA, as the Dirtbombs brought their revved-up truth and soul to the museum's courtyard space. The performance was in conjunction with the Annie Leibovitz: American Music photo exhibit showing just down the hall, including a shot of Jack and Meg White. But the Dirtbombs were also the opening act for the premiere of It Came From Detroit, local filmmakers James P. Petix and Sarah Babila's documentary chronicling the garage rock scene that developed around a dimly lit, dingily charming bar on Cass Ave. called the Gold Dollar, a scene Jack White helped shepherd but one that also helped launch the White Stripes into international fame. White's gone now; he moved to Nashville, and took Brendan Benson with him. And the tone of It Came From Detroit is one of history too though many of the musicians featured are still active in local music, and we're really only two or three years out from the scene it celebrates, the arc of the story is one of rising and falling.
Those still around stand on this side the Dirtbombs, the Paybacks, the Sights and the Electric Six, among others while other groups have dissolved or moved on. The talking heads describe how it rose organically, shone brightly (thanks in part to White), then settled back into obscurity, an obscurity that's sometimes treasured. That garage rock ever got so huge was a fluke; the groups were only ever making it for themselves, as the incestuous nature of band personnel suggests. But the film leaves questions. If the music was made simply to have it, or as background music to booze to, then what are listeners left with today? Do we want a new Jack White (or Eminem, or Kid Rock) to lead Detroit back into the pages of the NME? Do bands dream of more than selling out the Lager House on a Saturday night? Does local music matter anymore when our entertainment options are limitless, instantaneous and often digital?
It matters to the hundreds of bands, emcees, and DJs making music locally, of course, and in this year's music issue we've tried to deliver a state of the scene. It's difficult, because the D and its metro area are fragmented. There are hot spots here and there a thriving hip-hop club near downtown, an intimate rock venue in Hamtramck, a basement in Warren that holds heavy metal shows. But with the economy in a flat spin and our entertainment dollar stretched, as well as having too many options available on how to stretch it, local musical output is affected by inertia. If the future's uncertain, focus on what you already know you have and if what you have is a following rabid enough to cram into the Lager once a month, then maybe that's enough. Great Lakes Myth Society are our cover stars; the quintet's flair for regionalism ensures that they'll never be homogenized by the Internet. Fags vocalist-guitarist John Speck isn't concerned about the scene so much as he is his own psyche, after his group was signed to a major label in the post-White Stripes frenzy, only to see its album shelved and its future put in jeopardy. We also asked a few locals in the know to give us the state of the scene as they see it, and reviewed nearly 30 local albums in a new feature we're calling Grapeshot.
All of these voices represent a local music scene that's thriving in spots while coasting in others, and dying elsewhere. A scene that's constantly rising and falling, whether it's garage rock, hip hop, Detroit techno, meathead hard rock or carpetbagging indie kids recording folk-pop in outlying suburbs. It's our patchwork, and, hopefully, this music issue will shed some light.
THE MUSIC ISSUE:
Myth, mirth & fresh water
Is rock ready for these literate northlanders?
Under the neon
OK, kids, it’s Detroit music essay time.
The Fags get screwed
John Speck and the story of a rock band scorned.
Johnny Loftus, Brian Smith & W. Kim Heron
Ready, aim... fire
Heartbreaker or beercoaster? We’ll let you know in as few words as possible.
The class of 1998
Doc details the meteoric rise of local garage. Or does it?
Johnny Loftus is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.