In the living room of 2648 West Grand Blvd, Detroit, in the summer of 1959, Barry Gordy created “Hitsville, USA,” a space that would soon become a vortex of musical history, the voice for street-corner, gospel choir, rhythm and blues sound conjured in living rooms and basements. A name that began as a variation of “Motor City” became a resonating word in American culture: the sound of Motown.
Driving down West Grand Boulevard today, some cold November weekday, with the nostalgia longing for the echo of Smokey Robinson, the groove of the Funk Brothers, the harmony of the Supremes, where are the ghosts of that legendary Motown sound?
While standing amid the chaotic organized clutter of vinyls, CDs and tapes of Ann Arbor’s Encore Records, Fred Thomas of Saturday Looks Good to Me says, “Motown is forever. That’s what good music is all about.”
But, Hitsville, USA, is a historical museum today, not a basement full of music-makers.
“Motown was a scene that lasted for its decade or so, like most other musical movements,” says Larry Lanzetta, vocalist and guitarist in “hard-core trip-hop” band Johnny No Stars. “It sort of floated away but it definitely left its traces. These can definitely be picked up on. But you have to create a scene. That’s what we’re trying to do. Create a scene.”
But what is the scene in Detroit today? Does Jack White with his White Stripes and the explosion of garage bands speak for the Detroit music scene? Do Eminem and the “8 Mile” hype, or Slum Village and their Detroit Deli, with hip-hop and head-to-head rhyme battles? Is it in the electronic explosion from the mid-’80s through now, with the Detroit Experiment, the Underground Resistance, Carl Craig and the Techno Boulevard? Is it with experimental fusion of funk-beats, percussion and indie-improv of Nomo and Cloud Nine?
Windy Weber, who owns Stormy Records in Dearborn, a source for independent music and host for several small shows, affirms that “people are doing every kind of music you could possibly find. Of course, the media pays attention to blues and garage rock, but Detroit’s base is really an eclectic one.” All these various types of music find their hearts in one similar vein, a Detroit home base.
As Greg Baise, director of marketing and promotions at the Majestic Theater, says, “People respect Detroit musically from the old Motown stuff and the ’60s rock bands. But it’s about the Detroit techno too and the new garage bands.” The music scene in Detroit today — whether it’s blues, rock, electronic, indie — remember its roots. Baise, who has lived in Michigan all his life, from Detroit to Ann Arbor to Plymouth, says of Detroit, “It’s a real-deal town.”
Thomas, who has been in playing music in the state since he was 12, says: “I’m now 28. I’ve been all around and there is no other place like Michigan. There’s different concepts and themes today, but no matter what the music, there’s always an undercurrent of struggle.” In the 1950s and ’60s, in a city economically dominated by the automotive industry, Motown used the traditions of “assembly line” production and hard-working ethos to create its entertainers and their sound. Christophe Zajac-Denek, drummer for the band Hard Lessons, champions the group’s “working-class drumbeat.”
“It’s necessity,” he says. “Detroit, in itself, has people who really want music with no fluff. There’s a lot of heart and history coming up from Detroit. Hard Lessons reflect that, a lot on the music side. It’s funky, but it’s got a simplicity, too.”
Zajac-Denek, who’s been drumming for 10 years, shakes up some “rock and soul” with vocalist/guitarist Augie Visocchi and organist/vocalist Ko Ko Louise of Hard Lessons. They have their core in rock’n’roll music, but as Visocchi notes, “We also draw a lot of influence from the stacks and 45’s — the blues and soul music that comes out of Detroit’s Motown. We try to put some soul in there because it sets us apart from the rest of the bands.”
As for the “Motor City,” Visocchi is quick to respond: “I’m definitely a product of the auto companies, and I hear that come up a lot. My family came to Detroit to work in the auto factories. I almost gave up going to college to work in an auto factory. That’s what your dad did, what your uncles do. Detroit isn’t necessarily a city where everyone’s just going away to college and being in their hippie band. It’s unique in that everyone’s just sluggin’ it out and playing their music.”
So Detroit, this Motor City, hears a reflection of its culture in bands like Hard Lessons and Saturday Looks Good to Me, playing in bars and basements, and sometimes in larger venues like the Magic Stick.
The Majestic complex has been around in the city since the 1910s when the buildings were built. Family owned and operated since the ’40s, three generations later, the Majestic still offers a unique and culturally creative option different from just another stop on the music circuit. Although sometimes the Majestic or the Magic Stick draw in local acts from the area, Baise notes, “a lot of the bands we have here don’t have the draw. It’s really competitive.” Music will always be a struggle. It’s frustrating, thorny and intricate and entangling, but behind it all is the music. As Visocchi says, “Rock’n’roll is what we do. We sleep on floors; we sleep in cars; we smell like smoke constantly.”
With radio waves dominated by the same 10 songs on replay, repetitively rerun, processed and packaged, with a musical climate of “celebrities” rather than artists. Clear Channel’s recent overgrowth of monopolized concert venues and airspaces, while frustrating, adds a depth and struggle to the music which highlights the enduring fragments of Motown’s traditions. As Thomas so aptly says of Clear Channel, “In the Dark Ages, they’d be this dragon you had to conquer.” Weber remembers that before the Clear Channel invasion, she and husband Carl Hultgren played the Magic Stick three or four times a year. “Since then,” she says, “We’ve only been asked to play once.” Instead, local bands turn to their local bars: Small’s, Belmont and the Painted Lady in Hamtramck; the Lagerhouse on Michigan Avenue, and even to the Detroit Art Space.
Detroit’s music is an eclectic and inventive innovation, flavored with the heartbeat-rhythms of Motown’s soul, marinated in the hard-work ethics of middle America and laced with the struggle of the “underdog” in a corporate-controlled radio space. At the nucleus of this contemporary movement, whether it’s an e-mail group called 313 that circulates only Detroit electronic music, or the unique presence of women rocking out in Detroit bands, “up front singing, playing bass, playing drums,” quoting Visocchi, to the Detroit Jazz Festival, the largest free jazz festival in North America, there’s Detroit. The form it takes varies; its expression branches; but always, the allegiance to Motor City lingers somewhere behind the vinyl scratching, guitar-rocking, hip-hop poetry slam, funky backbeats, bluesy passions and enduring charm of our music today.
Early in his career, Jack White recorded some of his favorite Detroit rockers all over his house and in his neighborhood; it has become, as Visocchi notes, the “cornerstone of what the media has come to know as the Detroit scene.” The Sympathetic Sound of Detroit, as the album is entitled, doesn’t represent all of the sounds of Detroit. What is does represent is a form of local initiation, in the tradition of Motown records.
As Thomas says, “Much of the Detroit music scene is just teenagers from around town, packaging records in living rooms and making recordings in basements. It’s the success story of pure art.”