Rock ’n’ roll tour of America
Detroit is still rocking on despite tough times, writes Mary Bolling
DO not go to Detroit,’’ the warning came, like some sort of Daft Punk lyric on a relentless loop. ‘‘But what about Motown?’’ I’d wail.
‘‘You will be stabbed,’’ was the reply.
‘‘But I love the White Stripes so much!’’
‘‘You will have your shirt robbed from your back.’’
‘‘What if the Detroit Cobras are playing?!’’
The answer was always the same: ‘‘I have never been there, but I know beyond doubt that Detroit is hell on Earth.’’
Detroit’s particularly bad reputation has come with America’s particularly bad management of the car industry.
Known as Motor City, the Michigan metropolis is home to the ‘‘big three’’ – General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.
Long-time locals have seen a magic show of jobs disappearing to robotic production lines or to Asia, and the global recession has also seen Detroit’s jobless rate skyrocket to 22 per cent, triple the national average.
In a matching graphic, FBI crime statistics have traced Detroit’s climb to the most dangerous city in the United States.
And yet, here I am. While the meek shall inherit the earth, on close inspection of this rock ‘n’ roll town, I would much rather inherit Detroit.
Alice Cooper was born in Detroit. Iggy and the Stooges formed just outside in Ann Arbor and Madonna is also from close by – Bay City, Michigan.
The ‘‘ MC’’ in rock band MC5 stands for their home of ‘‘ Motor City’’.
Eminem grew up in Detroit’s tough neighbourhoods and did nothing to improve the city’s reputation with his semi-autobiographical film 8 Mile.
Jack and Meg White, of the White Stripes, are from this rocking town, which, thanks to the Kiss tune of the same name, is also dubbed Detroit Rock City.
So what caused such impressive rock pedigree in Motor City?
Ask the folk at Detroit’s Henry Ford Museum, they’ll tell you: cars and rock stars go together like the pedal and the metal. And their Rock Stars’ Cars and Guitars exhibit can prove it.
More than 20 custom vehicles from private musicians’ collections and 50 of their most beloved guitars are on display, including a Barbieesque pink Buick Skylark, with a customised-to-match ESP Xtone guitar and amp.
Sounds like its straight off the Britney tour bus, right? Actually, hard-rocking Metallica’s James Hetfield is the proud pink-loving owner.
Rock ‘n’ roll, however, was not the first love of this town. Alice Cooper was still little Vinnie Furnier, playing with his mum’s make-up when acts such as Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, the Four Tops and the Temptations were topping the charts, with the help of Detroit’s famous Motown label.
Short for Motor Town, the label combined soul and pop and, from its 1959 inception, saw some of the first chart success of black acts in the US.
In fact, the downtown Detroit building that housed the label and studio saw so much recording success with songs Dancing in the Street, Reach Out, I’ll Be There, It Takes Two and the entire Jackson 5 back catalogue, it was later dubbed ‘‘Hitsville USA’’ and its museum is guaranteed to get you dancing.
For the Detroit sound of today, head to popular venue the Magic Stick, part of the Majestic Hotel.
Hosting a wide range of local and national acts, it’s a packed crowd for homecoming heroes the Detroit Cobras. They’re known for their loud garage approach to soul and blues classics, but frontwoman Rachel Nagy is also known for starting bar fights. (This bar is also where Jack White was charged with assaulting Jason Stollsteimer of the Von Bondies.)
And yet, with all that violent history, there isn’t a single punch up.
Riding a borrowed bike about 3km to meet friends after the show, I don’t get mugged.
While deserted, burnt-out houses, offices and even the impressive but abandoned Michigan Central Station loom menacingly through otherwise pretty streets, the threat is only in my head.
What is real, though, is the good folk of this city.
Determined to prove all the stereotypes just that, Detroiters welcome visitors like long-lost family.
The city hosts a never-ending calendar of free music, culture and family events, with entertainment on the pretty Lake Saint Clair waterfront.
Times are tough in Detroit, but it takes a visit to realise locals are tough enough to keep on rocking.
A band entertains visitors at a Detroit market, in keeping with the city’s famous live music scene.