Motor City Fashion Plates
I’ve never enjoyed reading somebody else’s childhood memories, and I have a lot of sympathy for the Freudian analysts who have to root around in that territory. I would never inflict mine upon anyone, except for one instance where I was almost kidnapped by a child molester. For whatever reason, that makes it more interesting and palatable.
When I was about seven, walking alone through a park, some sick fuck, lurking behind a clump of bushes, called out, “Come here, little boy.” I had no idea of what he wanted, but I’ve never been excessively friendly, so I ignored him, in the same way that I would come to ignore the dumb-ass remarks of the drunks when I was playing in piano bars.
He called again, more insistently. “Little boy, you come here,” he snapped, in the manner of an irritated schoolteacher. That was the wrong approach with me. I was experiencing—some might say creating–irritated schoolteachers every day. Since I have lived a long time after that–and he probably had had other ideas on that subject–I can now see what a truly pathetic loser this guy was. He was pursuing one of the most disgusting, low-life perversions in a world bursting with them, and he was failing at it.
I wonder, very occasionally, about this guy. Where did he go from there? He was a failure at low-lifing. It’s not easy to descend much further than that. I don’t think that they’ve come up with any effective treatment for whatever he suffered from. So, did he improve his act? Did he start dressing like a clown?
In my case, I merely left, and my first shot at some sort of notoriety went nowhere. There were to be many more, and I was to miss every one of them.
On one level, I regard this tendency to miss history as good luck, as I have been in some dangerous spots, and this could have kept me alive. It didn’t help me any as a writer, of course, and I eventually realized that if I wanted to witness history, I would have to at least look for it. Failing that, I could try adventure, and if that didn’t work I’d have to settle for experience. Philip Roth has said that nothing bad can happen to a writer, because the process of writing can synthesize pain and agony into something else. In Theodore White’s memoirs, he talked about how much struggle and bother he went through to find and get to the front during one of the wars in China. He wrote that one has to seek adventure, to look real hard for it, in fact to suffer for it. I agree completely. I spent a couple of overseas journeys—stupidly, I admit it—simply looking for adventure. I found some oddities, but I still missed all kinds of things, some of which were taking place a few dozen miles away.
I remember traveling through Senegal during a spate of anti-Mauritanian riots, thinking that I should make my way toward them, even to the point of booking passage in a bush taxi. The drivers tried not to show it, but they were looking at me as though I were a special-needs cousin. Does the Toubob not know of the riots? they must have thought. Should I, in good conscience, warn him? Or is the Toubob merely stupid? One of those who looks for trouble? And I finally noticed, through their eyes, the thought that had been just below the surface: what are you, Kevin, a fucking idiot?
I guess here is as good a place as any to mention I have met or interviewed and even worked with a certain number of reasonably famous or influential people–in fact I ghosted the memoirs of one of them–but there won’t be much of that here. I don’t want to drop names for the sake of it. And surprisingly, or actually not, I got far more from folks on the street, in bars, stages, brothels, dope houses, and on public transit through the developing world.
Detroit and the Rustbelt Nature Reclamation Syndrome
I lived in about 10 different Detroit neighborhoods during my time there, starting with my grandparent’s house on Chalmers and Kercheval, on Detroit’s East Side. It was still a largely German neighborhood, with well-swept streets and dozens of small shops on Jefferson Avenue, a half block away. It was in the same general part of town as the corner of Charlevoix and Garland, the neighborhood that the black physician Dr. Ossian Sweet tried to integrate in the 1920s, with such deadly results. (His house was surrounded and put under a sort of siege by his armed, white neighbors, and when he thought they were making their frontal assault, he shot and killed one of them. Clarence Darrow came up from Chicago to defend him, in a blaze of publicity, and succeeded.)
It was one of the biggest stories of the 1920s, right up there with Lindbergh’s solo flight and the Scopes Trial. I asked my mother about it. She had been born around that time, about twenty blocks away, so I asked if people in the neighborhood were still talking about it when she was a kid. She said she’d never even heard of it.
Fame, slammed endlessly at a thousand angles by a barrage of newer events, doesn’t have much of a shelf life…
When I got older, I would re-visit the neighborhood, and noticed that, one by one, the solid, well-kept houses were starting to sag. Then they started to fall apart. Then they reached the stage of urban life where the owners started reviewing their insurance policies. Then, as luck would have it, they caught fire. They burned down, one by one, and nothing was built up in their place. Every time I came back the street was emptier, and finally, sometime in the 1980s, there weren’t any houses at all. There was nothing but vacant lots, weeds and even wildflowers.
I call this the Rustbelt Nature Reclamation Syndrome, and Detroit is a kind of ground zero for it. This has, despite the efforts of the remaining humans, created an unintended greenbelt around a few struggling city streets. I once wrote a commercial real estate piece speculating that Rustbelt cities, with a still-functioning infrastructure and a work ethic in place, are going to be colonized by hungry immigrants, who will breathe life into it again. I was interviewing a brainy kind of developer, and it was his theory. I liked the idea, and it may even be happening as we speak; the city just announced a multi-million dollar budget surplus, as of 2016.*
On the other hand, in the 1990s, I was assigned to do a piece about Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, the location of John Brown’s raid. Researching it, I was surprised to learn that it too had once been a major industrial area, one of two U.S. armories, specializing in weaponry. They built thick, solid industrial sites with stone foundations and cast-iron “factory Gothic” structures. They pounded out muskets and small arms. Looking over the lush, bucolic and, actually, boring fields that surround that village, you would never in a million years imagine that these green fields had once held factories that built Winchesters. Nature makes quick work of human endeavor.
During my time in Detroit, however, it was a great place to grow up. The city was in the middle of a roaring prosperity. Its future auto-making rivals, Germany and Japan, were still half-buried under the rubble of WWII, and America’s planners were merrily re-tooling the entire country toward an exclusive dependence on the automobile. Every family I knew, including my own, made their living through cars, in one form or another. When the Big Three had a good year, you could see it in the easy spending on the streets, the help- wanted ads in each of the three major dailies, and what seemed to be a competition between neighbors, most of whom worked on the assembly line at Ford or GM, to see who could festoon their houses with the most flagrantly kitschy Christmas decorations.
The city threw its own Thanksgiving Day Parade, sponsored by Hudson’s, the major department store, one of the biggest department stores in the world. Hudson’s had floats and bands marching down Woodward. Whole families stood gladly for hours in the freezing Michigan November, just, apparently, for the festive joy of it all. I played trumpet in one of my high school marching bands in a couple of them. For some reason, perhaps the cold, all the notes I played came out very clear, and very precise.
J.L. Hudsons occupied the most desirable spot on Woodward Avenue, at Gratiot, a couple of blocks from the Detroit River. It was 32 stories high and, at it’s peak, served 100,000 customers a day. For the holidays, it out-kitsched my neighbors, and on an industrial-strength scale. It overdid everything. There was a nine-story Christmas tree in lights on the building front. The entire 12th floor was turned into a Santa’s Workshop, and any kid that hadn’t gone there hadn’t really had a Christmas.
Here’s a helpful website for those who may care about that: http://www.detroitmemories.com/newsletters/HolidayDetroit.html
Slowly strangled by the riots, increasingly dangerous streets, freeways and suburban shopping malls, Hudson’s was demolished in 1998. Even today, the block on which it was built remains a “park,” although, on a recent visit, I couldn’t find any way to get into it.
My father was a musician, one who also worked on the line at Ford, but not for very long. We all have one day job that we hate above all others, and that was his. (Mine was working in the Louisiana oilfields, an unwilling member of the class of unfortunates known as Oilfield Trash.) My father played trumpet, and he emigrated from Canada after the Second World War. He had left school at 16, during the Depression, and worked his way around Ontario, playing wherever a trumpet was needed. And in those days a trumpet was actually needed; it was sort of the electric guitar of popular music. In those pre-amplified days it would send the same sort of shivers down spines as Jimi Hendrix could. Those days, of course, are well behind us. I know trumpeters who are working, but I could say the same about analog watch repairmen. I currently play in a band called JazzHop, which features a trumpeter, but that band is a real outlier–we also have a guy on euphonium.
My father was a WWII veteran, having served in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Not particularly bloodied, but he did what they told him to do. Fortunately, they told him to play trumpet in the RCAF dance band, called the Streamliners. This band gigged mostly in London, Paris and the Low Countries, entertaining the troops. They also had some postwar gigs in Germany, and went through the inevitable swapping of Lucky Strikes for Leicas and lugers.
“Cigarettes,” he told me, showing me a camera and a pistol, “were money.” I took this to mean that they were valuable, wondrous things, and the society around me seemed to agree. I never kept a gun. I’ve never, never needed one. I have lived for well over a half century in the middle of large cities, several of them quite dangerous. I have traveled, mostly alone, through something like 80 countries, and played music in bars where I’ve had 3:00 am arguments about getting paid. None of this would have had a better resolution if I’d have pulled out a piece.
Cigarettes, of course, were different, and barely a minute went by without a movie or TV or magazine image showing how swell they were. They were “cool,” and I started smoking at 14.
Now, of course, people pay large bucks—the equivalent of a couple of Leicas, probably– to free themselves from cigarettes. I don’t think it’s a fad, either. Smoking cigarettes will show up as a tiny hiccup in the history of social progress; their time was just over one hundred years. Clips of Chesterfield-puffing Lauren Bacall will become priceless shards of 20th century history.
Carburetors, Brunch Coats
Living in one West Side neighborhood, full of tough factory kids, most of them Polish, I suddenly realized that I was not of them. And they let me know it. I was a mediocre athlete, a so-so fighter, but, far worse in a place like Detroit, I didn’t know or understand anything about cars. Not only that, I couldn’t get it, even when sympathetic friends would try to explain it. No sooner had the information entered than it was instantly banished into some barren, uninhabitable crater of my brain, the spot that had already vaporized math lessons. And this was true no matter what neighborhood I lived in. The other guys would all be standing on a corner, talking knowingly about low gear ratios and high-speed rear ends, and I would still be wondering what a carburetor did. Or was.
This hasn’t changed at all, by the way, but I do have the consolation, or revenge, of knowing that autos don’t use carburetors any more.
Both of my parents came from nothing. My mother grew up on Detroit’s East Side in a family of nine Catholic kids and lived through the Depression on public relief. This isn’t in any way remarkable, since it was the 1930s, except for the following quick anecdote:
One of my mother’s sisters, whom I will call Mary, really, really, really didn’t like the whole poverty/relief lifestyle, and somehow married a man heading for the top. He was a surpassingly driven businessman with an astronomical IQ, and, mixing that with WWII and an industrial work base, he very quickly hit the big time, manufacturing metal things of some sort. He stayed on top, as well. Those who wanted to cut into his profit-mongering sized him up and quickly decided to try and cut into somebody else. Visiting their house in Grosse Pointe, along with the other “poor” relations, I noticed that one of the drawing rooms had two grand pianos, one at each end. I think they were Steinways, as well. And as far as I knew, no one in the family knew how to play them. They apparently looked good.
They had several children. One, a girl named Barbara, was about my age, and I attended one of her birthday parties when we were 12 or so. The present that my mother and a couple of aunts had chipped in for was something I didn’t know even existed. It was a cross between a bathrobe and a diaphanous gown out of the MGM wardrobe department. It was a brunch coat.
This was well before brunch grew into a billion-dollar Yuppie pastime, and I had only the vaguest idea of what it was. (I read later that it was invented by the Prince of Wales, the former Edward VIII, lounging around one of the Rothschild estates after his abdication.) I guessed that this gift was meal-related, kinda like a dinner jacket or even a lunchbox. But I wondered what kind of a gift it would make.
I needn’t have. The instant Barbara got the wrappings off, she exclaimed, “Oh! A brunch coat! How nice. My other brunch coats are getting a bit worn.” She was, as I said, about 12 years old at the time.
The rich are different from the rest of us.
Just Before the Riots
The general Motor City prosperity didn’t trickle down to the African-American community in quite the same doses. That was one of the triggers for the 1967 riots. I missed these by about a week. I was living a block north of the Algiers Motel–immortalized in, but not saved by, John Hershey’s book, The Algiers Motel Incident. This piece of history was given yet another chance by Kathryn Bigelow’s film Detroit.
The Algiers was a 1950s motel a couple of blocks north of the GM building. It had fallen from the auto executive business into the vice & party business, and I went to sleep each night looking out at the neon palm trees through my window. (Years and years later, stranded, broke and miserable in the real Algiers, I would look at the genuine palm trees around me and wish I were back looking at the neon ones in Detroit.)
During the riots, somebody, hanging out at the Algiers, shot a starters pistol into the air. It was reported as a sniper situation, and the Detroit police came roaring in and shot three people to death. Widely–almost universally–considered a police execution and cover-up, the deaths themselves have never been “solved.”
It wasn’t much of a mystery to me. The Detroit police force, at that time, was overwhelmingly white. They were tough guys with pretty much the same racial attitude as the rednecks and Poles on the assembly lines, from whose ranks, in fact, a lot of them had sprung. The rest were usually from small towns in Michigan, and they looked upon blacks in the same way that 14th century knights looked upon mendicants, or even lepers. Their sneering contempt and disrespect for the black community was one of the main reasons the riots happened in the first place.
They were provoked, of course, and they had a rough job, and there was a lot of street crime. They, like American police everywhere, had to enforce a lot of ill-considered, faith-based prohibitions like gambling, drugs and vice. Each side was quick to note that the very things they liked to do most were the very things that the other side hated above all else. So it was like a very badly arranged marriage, doomed from the start.
As for the 2017 movie, I can only call it a triumph of the UnSteadyCam.
A Digression on Digressions.
I love digressions, and I can merrily jump from topic to ever so slightly related topic with the enthusiasm of a California swinging single. The slightest hint of synchronicity will trigger one, and it usually takes the form of a book, film or song recommendation. Beyond that, the mere fact that I spent a couple of weeks in one country or another, I feel, gives me the right to dredge up its history, deliver judgments on its culture, and make fun of its rulers.
But not everybody wants to read these little semi-relevant squibs, and for a lot of us it can clutter and stretch a story beyond tolerance. I remember in Brendan Gill’s New Yorker memoirs a story where he loaned a copy of Moby Dick to an older man. The older gentleman didn’t particularly like it, and in fact returned it with notes all over the margins. Every time Herman would get into the nuts and bolts of whaling, describing blubber flaying and all the rest, the old guy had scribbled “For God’s Sake, man! Get on with your story!!”
The electronic manner of publishing has given us a chance to get around this. What I’m going to do, throughout, is to create Digression Links, which will lead to whatever particular irrelevant tangent I have gone off upon. For now, these links will be merely identified, via warning signs like the one below. Once all of this is completed, they will be linked and disappear from the main body of text. That’s the plan, anyway. It’s up to Sam, the webmaster, to install these, and they will appear as time goes by.
Until then, I’ll just set up a warning, like this one:
Several countries have brought books to mind—indeed, some cultures seem almost defined by books that have been set there. The most obvious example would be how Graham Greene’s The Comedians gave us our image of Pap Doc’s Haiti. Then there was P.G. Wodehouse, creator of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster. I have always felt that he gave us the most effective definition of upper-class Britain in Edwardian and even Victorian times. And it wasn’t just me. I once read a story, one that I have not been able to verify, and, as they say in the tabloid industry, was simply too good to check. It was about Nazi espionage in Great Britain. One of the spies they snuck into wartime London was trained to impersonate an upper-class English gentleman. They wanted him to mingle with the toffs and learn their attitudes toward Germany. And the Nazis, with their Teutonic talent for taking even a pie in the face with the utmost gravity, had done their research through the novels of P.G. Wodehouse. They thought that these were actual memoirs. Bertie, Jeeves, Aunt Agatha, even Sir Roderick Spode were real people to them. So they groomed this SS character to dress impeccably, say “What ho!” and Ra-ther” whenever possible. He was caught on the street in London, asking for direction to the Drones Club.
But I digress.
Balkan Book Party
I wouldn’t be much without books. Besides all of the the facts I’ve learned, books are a high-end manner of escaping reality, which is almost always worth running from. A man uses books to escape what Raymond Chandler called “the tyranny of his own thoughts.” Alcohol would be classified at the lower end of this escape hatch—although probably not by Chandler–as would drugs like heroin or crack cocaine. Crackheads, on a high, can be as belligerent and obnoxious as drunks, while smack junkies are peaceful and mellow and the nicest guys around. Until of course they need some money for their next hit, and it happens to be in your pocket.
But everybody’s doing the same thing; getting out of town for a while. The fact that I use Trouble is my Business might mark me as a peasant to someone who uses the works of Isaiah Berlin, just as I might avoid the society of a guy shooting up in a doorway. None of us are insulted, however.
Books may not stir the blood of 21st century folk, but the mere fact that so many humans dislike them can trigger an adventure or perhaps an anecdote. Reading a book, in many more societies than our own, can mark you as effete, an elitist, one step away from sniffing a daisy.
Once, on a bus going through the Balkans, I got razzed in Serbo-Croat, Turkish and Gaastarbeiter German because I was reading, rather than displaying proper Balkan bus behavior; drinking Slivowitz, gambling in the aisles or bragging about something. They felt that I was putting on airs. I would come across this snarling, peasant Khmer Rouge attitude toward reading over and over, and I’ll probably bump into it again tomorrow. Flaubert once wrote that “stupid will always be with us,” and I’ve seen it everywhere.
In this case, I said, in German, something like “You guys remind me of the Gushinskys, my neighbors in Detroit.” It was nowhere near a compliment—the Gushinsky twins were a couple of morons that liked to set cats on fire and cackle about it. The last I heard, they had gotten caught doing a home invasion. In a trailer park. Really. Bada-boom. That may sound like a Henny Youngman line but it’s absolutely true.
But to these Balkan guys, being compared to a Slavic family in America seemed to be high praise indeed, and they all calmed down.
I once did a magazine piece on David Baldacci, the lawyer-turned thriller writer. He is a great guy, and he was very tolerant of my malfunctioning recording equipment—of which more later. But he represents the other end of this spectrum. He advocates reading in a nice way. Anyone coming to one of his readings is welcome to bring their spare books, and his organization, Read Virginia, will distribute them to prisons and hospitals and places like that. Places like that may join airplanes and become the final destination of a lot of otherwise completely ignored writing….
DIGRESSION. Riots and the city in July 1967
Sometime in the early days of 1967 I took a studio apartment at 80 West Euclid, just off Woodward, in what is still called the New Center Area. I could see, from my window, the John F. Ivory Moving & Storage Company and the Algiers Motel. The Algiers was known as a place to bring and even find hookers, although I never saw any of that. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, and it makes perfect sense that it would. I just never witnessed it.
The hookers that I knew about were on the 12th Street and the Brush Street areas. The New Center area was best known for the General Motors building and Johnnie Walker Men’s Wear during the day, and gay cruising at night. I’m straight, with no mechanical aptitude, so that left me with Johnnie Walker Men’s Wear, which leaned toward lime green sharkskin suits and mauve shirts and accessories. I’m white and easily embarrassed, so there wasn’t much for me there either.
But I liked living there. There were still quite a few somewhat respectable businesses, and not too many vacant buildings. It was, however, an urban food desert. Most people bought their nourishment—Cheez Whiz was a favorite–at corner shops, generally run by Syrians and called party stores. The party, of course, would soon be over.
As befitting “the antennae of the race,” it was the artists and bohemians—usually white–that first had the idiot fearlessness to move from their working-class, unofficially segregated white neighborhoods into a working-class, unofficially segregated black neighborhood. Everybody, your family, the cops, the thugs on the corner, even the storekeepers considered you to be out of your fucking mind, and treated you accordingly. We saw it differently. We were just trying to live on our own, pay cheap rents and finish growing up.
There was, at street level, a certain amount of tension between young black kids and the young white kids. The white kids were the tip of the spear in the very early stages of what would become gentrification. We had no idea, of course, that we were doing such a thing.
Every so often a group of “jitterbugs”—an old Detroit term for black teens who thought they were badass–would go out wilding, well before that term entered the language. They would sometimes mug someone or beat someone up, and this sort of thing raises the paranoia levels. The older, long-time residents were especially nervous. I remember seeing an elderly white man, on Seward Street, waving a gun around, walking warily down to the store. He didn’t shoot it, or point it at anyone; he just seemed to feel that it was a necessary accoutrement for a stroll outside, like a walking stick.
The only other incident I witnessed was another elderly white man, crumpled up outside of the Library Café, bloody and surrounded by cops. He had apparently just been mugged, with prejudice. “There’s gonna be a war in this city,” he kept saying. “Whites versus blacks. Gonna be a god-damned war between the coloreds and the whites.” This was in May or June, 1967. He was right, but it wouldn’t be the kind of war he was thinking about.
Personally, I was never bothered on the street. The street hustlers—the con men, the murphy men, the “diamond” ring salesmen, the hustlers of all descriptions, usually plied their trades closer to the hooker parts of town or downtown itself. I had nothing against them—they were actually pretty good company—and most of the people in my neighborhood were excellent folk.
Around June, for reasons that I can no longer recall, I moved back home. The riots hit almost immediately afterwards. I wasn’t surprised, but I couldn’t quite understand the timing, and what I considered my bad luck at missing such a circus. I remember Lyndon Johnson on TV, announcing that Governor George Romney—then a serious presidential contender—had reported his “inability” to contain the destruction. He used that word twice in a one-minute talk. I laughed out loud. I mean, as if. As if urban race riots were something George Romney could stop. As if George Romney, a practicing Mormon, former CEO of American Motors, father of Mitt, and one of the most thoroughly square guys that ever held a five-iron, had some kind of street cred. Boy, that Lyndon…
Sadly, Vietnam would present Lyndon with some inabilities of his own.
After a couple of days I couldn’t stand it any longer, and hopped on a southbound bus to see what was happening. At one point in the bus ride we came upon the body of a young woman, lying on a residential street. The bus driver stopped, but after that nobody knew what to do. It looked like the driver radioed the information to his emergency crew, and somebody—not me–got off the bus to check for a pulse. He came back in, shaking his head. We took this to mean that the woman was dead, although it could just as easily have meant that he was so sick of bodies on the street that he wasn’t going to bother about it anymore.
I went to see some friends, to see how they had been faring. One guy, already on his way to becoming a full-blown junkie, had been breaking into pharmacies, rooting around for morphine. Another, Cindy, had been out every night, bringing coffee and hot chocolate to the National Guardsmen. And the only other thing I think I remember was that the Lafayette Coney Island stayed open.
Detroiters, black and white, went a’rioting together. I do remember that, especially on the East Side. I also remember Governor Romney saying, in what was probably the only joke he ever made in his life, “At least we had integrated looting.”
End Riots Digression
I left town, returning in a few months, by which time most of the rubble and bodies had been swept away. It was just in time for the Motown Review, which I never missed. It was wonderful. Berry Gordy would rent the Fox Theater, an grand old picture palace on Woodward, and present a free concert on Christmas Day. It featured something like 10 of the biggest Motown acts, backed up by a full orchestra. The whole thing was free. It was his Christmas present to the city that had made him, although it must be said that he recorded the shows and released a bunch of them commercially. But the show itself was truly appreciated. Every seat would be filled two hours before the show began. It wasn’t exactly welcoming for white people, and I was usually one of about seven, but I never had anything but fun there.
I remember, before Martha Reeves and Junior Walker and the Four Tops had had their say, seeing an opening act, a band called Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. Diana Ross had caught them in a Canadian nightclub, and brought them to Gordy. I thought they were okay, nothing more, but I wondered about the very long-haired, Asian organist. As Holden Caulfield would say, he was Chinese, for Chrissake! Detroit was still overwhelmingly black or white, well into the 1970s. There were very few Latinos and fewer Asians, so this guy was way exotic. I thought, this guy’s gotta be cool. Especially since most of the audience was sneering at him; being non-black with long straight hair, as he played. “Looka dat girl playin’ da organ!!” some young lady, right in front of me, shrieked, about 40 times, not changing her inflection a single degree throughout. I think she kept on repeating it because no one had reacted to it. Or she was providing us all with a live definition of insanity.
But I was right about the organist, he was cool, and has remained cool all these years. He was Tommy Chong, pre-Cheech.
At the end of every show, topping the bill, would be the Temptations. It’s hard to explain or even comprehend the appeal that this group had, and still has. They were really, inarguably cool. The baddest street playah wouldn’t say a word against the Temps. The meanest, roughest scar-faced hooker would soften her voice when they were mentioned. They had cool like no group ever had cool. One of my current neighbors hails from rural Minnesota. She’s of Swedish ancestry, blonde, serious, and works as a lawyer. In 2014, I invited her to a musical event of some sort, and she told me that she doesn’t really care for music. “I only like The Temptations,” she explained.
Their dancing—better than their singing—was precise and just flashy enough, without overdoing it. I think that describes them well enough: they went right up to the edge and always knew precisely when to stop.
David Ruffin, of course, didn’t know when to stop, but that was a personal, rather than professional problem. He was a ridiculous coke-head, and he probably spent enough on that shit to fuel the annual Canadian defense budget. He was also widely, in Detroit, anyway, considered to have beaten Tami Terrell badly enough to bring on her fatal brain tumor. The street take on that was that he used a ball peen hammer on her head. An acquaintance of mine remembers a certain evening, during his own playah days—he used to pack heroin in little red capsules for the dope houses. Their street price was one dollar apiece. All night long, red capsule after red capsule. He did this to avoid working on the assembly line. If he noticed any irony there he never mentioned it.
The incident took place at Bakers Keyboard Lounge, a great Detroit jazz/soul venue. Ruffin was in the audience, and the MC gave him an intro and a shout-out. Total, contemptuous silence followed. You could have heard a line being sniffed. Then, “Dat muvfuggah bashed Tami’s head in,” somebody muttered.
Ruffin’s solo career got a similar response.
Fame or not, Digression
I’m actually quite comfortable with obscurity. I wouldn’t be able to handle anything else very well, and I think not breaking into the big time was the best thing that ever happened to me. Of course, since I didn’t, I would say that anyway…
I have a tiny, microscopic experience of what it’s like to be recognized and praised (read: pestered) by total strangers on the street, and that was hellish enough to make me run screaming from the thought.
After I had been playing music in Vienna for a few years I started getting recognized on the street now and then. People would, in a very nice way, take the trouble to come to where I was, shake my hand, and politely tell me how much they appreciated the music I made. Then they would say that meeting me had really made their day, smile, and walk on.
I couldn’t fucking stand it. It made me cringe. It made me shudder. It drove me nuts. I hated every second of it. I hated having to smile politely and spout platitudes and make stupid remarks. It got so I would wear sunglasses all the time—and Vienna may be many nice things, but it’s not tropical—so I could avoid eye contact, so I could pretend that I wasn’t looking in anybody’s particular direction.
It was starting to remind me of my time in Cairo, where I couldn’t walk more than 20 feet without being accosted by curious Cairenes. They all wanted to know the same couple of things, and since I had long hair and a beard when I was there, they insisted upon addressing me as “Charlie Manson.” I remember saying, over and over, now I know how Frank Sinatra would feel, trapped in a K-Mart.
DIGRESSION part 2. CAIRO
Cairo was the first encounter I had had with the Developing World, and it’s a bad spot for veteran travelers, never mind relative virgins. From the first minute I was subjected to smiling greetings on the street and endless variations–forty times a day, in the hot sun–of what I have learned to call Developing World Questions:
-How do you do?
-Welcome to (insert name of Developing World city or country here).
-Where are your children?
-Do you know my cousin? He is a dental technician in Biloxi, Mississippi.
-Why have you not visited Biloxi, Mississippi?
-Do you think I could get a student visa?
-Are you acquainted with John Wayne? Charlie Manson?
-Why are you not acquainted with Charlie Manson?
-And finally, Would you like to visit my cousin’s rug shop?
Looking back on it, it certainly beat the hisses and snarls I would encounter in other lands, or I guess it did. But I don’t like to be nice any more than I have to, and I will not enter into any sort of pre-friendship rituals with total strangers. This is hard for Developing World people, who consider forms of closeness and intimacy that I consider several steps over the line to be everyday human interactions. At the same time, I make it a point of honor to be polite. To everyone. So when someone is hitting on me in a friendly manner—even phony friendliness–I can’t possibly tell them to fuck off, no matter how I yearn to. And by now I categorize countries on the basis of how long one can walk down the street without being greeted and questioned.
In Asia it’s definitely a case-by-case situation. No one bothers you in Hong Kong; it was actually reminiscent of Manhattan. Thailand, on the other hand, was like one big swinging singles party. The population of India never lets up on you. People in Pakistan leave you alone, except of course for the occasional kidnapper or suicide bomber.
Africa was much better. The only West African country where people pestered me on the street was The Gambia, which was also the poorest and most blatantly mismanaged. There, guys would wait outside outdoor restaurants and beg for your leftovers. There, a government official offered to sell me a Gambian passport for $100:
“Uh, yeah, well,” I said, “I don’t think I’d make a very convincing Gambian.”
“Oh, stuff and nonsense. Humbug. You yourself told me that you play the drums.”
As to Cairo, I got arrested there and tossed into their city jail. I had been taking pictures of an apartment complex that looked like something out of Arabian Nights, which happened to be located a mile or so from a military installation. That was apparently enough. The policeman who “caught” me walked me back to the station, holding my hand. This is merely the accepted mode of strolling in Egypt, but it didn’t help my mood.
I was put in some kind of a holding cell. This was 1970 or so, before Egypt and Israel made any kind of peace overtures, and it was in many ways a war zone. All of the museums and official buildings were sandbagged against Israeli bombing raids. The police station was festooned with anti-Israeli posters; scenes straight out of Der Steurmer, depicting fiendish, hook-nosed Israeli Golems stealing military secrets from righteous, god-fearing Arabs. One cop sneered that I was looking at a couple of years on a chain gang, doing pyramid maintenance.
Okay, they could have been far worse. Outside of the pyramid cop they were actually okay guys. Nobody beat me up. And in fact, compared to the stares and giggles and Charlie Manson’s and Welcome to Cairos that I’d been getting every other minute, it was probably the most fun I had during my entire stay. And if I ever happen to be in Cairo again, I’m probably going to go immediately to a police station and turn myself in.
Much later in life, this stint would give my life a very interesting chapter.
END CAIRO DIGRESSION
RICHARD WALLS, CREEM MAGAZINE
Before the riots, I was living in a studio apartment on Seward Street, just north of Grand Boulevard and the beautifully designed, 1920s art-deco Fisher Building. It was one of the few blocks in Detroit that didn’t look like a large Midwestern city, but resembled any block in Manhattan, with one apartment building after another, no spaces in between, and thugs on the corner. As soon as I saw it, I breathed a sigh of relief. This was, I knew, the proper kind of urban life. Other people would take one look and nervously inch away from it, but I settled into it like a raisin in oatmeal.
I met a couple of my building neighbors, and got into the swing of beer & reefer parties at night. It was a typical struggling artist gathering, except that very few people were involved in or aspiring to the arts. Most everyone was holding down an uninteresting day job with no foreseeable rainbow at the end beyond not getting laid off from it.
I was in that category. I had zero idea of what I wanted to do with my life and cared even less. Staying out of jail seemed a worthy career move; beyond that, everything else was vaguely viewed through the dark glasses of youth.
A young lady named Nancy Walls lived in one of the basement apartments, and her younger brother showed up at one of her parties. They had grown up in Highland Park, a rough, city-within-a-city about 40 blocks uptown. (Detroit’s other self-contained island municipality is called Hamtramck, at that time inhabited almost exclusively by Poles. It was ground zero for Polish bakeries, Polish jokes and factory fashion, with enough checked trousers for an American quilt movie. It was so Polish and so utterly Catholic that it had a papal visit, in 1987, from Pope John Paul. It is now majority Muslim. Kinda like the Crusades in reverse.)
Back then, the denizens, tough and hostile, kept that neighborhood Polish for the longest time. It was a rigid segregation enforced by tough young men. There is, in fact, probably no socio-ethnic group more hostile to African-Americans, integration, civil rights–all of it–than young urban working-class guys from formerly despised ethnic groups. Ask young Poles in Detroit or Chicago, Italians from South Philly, or Irish from anywhere how they feel about, oh, Al Sharpton. Or the Temptations, for that matter. To those guys, being a liberal in race matters is no better than finishing your homework or practicing homosexuality. This mindset has cast a depressingly long shadow in American elections.
Back to Nancy. Her younger brother was named Richard Walls. He was 17 when I met him. I noticed him because he would sit in a corner, alone in a crowd, speaking only when spoken to or when jazz was mentioned. Then he would pipe up, in a decidedly cool, smooth voice, his views on the subject. Rarely, he would augment whatever someone said with things like “Oh, that guy also played with Chet Baker for three weeks during a European tour in the mid-50s. He went to high school in Delaware. Pumped gas for bread, in between gigs. So he and Chet had that in common.”
Then he would return to his silent observations. The other guests would take a few minutes to digest this, and then tentatively resume, taking care to keep their jazz facts straight.
Richard was a legitimate genius and had the expected attendant mental disorders. A couple of them required hospitalization, and another of them must have had something to do with agoraphobia, because he never left town. He never learned to drive, and was known for walking around town with a backpack full of records. He otherwise stayed home and listened to them, or read something, and then he wrote something. But as the years wore on and he stayed in the same place and learned how to show up on time–at least telephonically–he became one of the most important music and film critics in the city.
He was a fixture and one of the originals at CREEM Magazine, the magazine that coined the term “punk rock.” He was the only writer with a piece in both the first and the last issues. A man named Tony Reale was the founder, and of course Lester Bangs was the star. Lester wrote for Rolling Stone, and he was portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous. Hoffman’s Lester Bangs rarely left his house. “I’m not cool,” he said, although he really was. That was Richard, as well.
He worked for “underground” papers his entire working life; in fact the closest he ever came to establishment journalism was a two-year relationship with Rolling Stone. He reviewed films for Detroit’s Metro Times, from over a decade. Karen G.R., a social worker who was with him at the end, told me that he was proudest of what he did at that publication, more so than any other.
In 2015, the bandleader of a Finnish post-punk band told me that he remembered reading Richard’s stuff while growing up. I told Richard this and he laughed. “Some kid digging through his grandparents’ unimportant papers.”
I left town, started my traveling life, but every time I returned to Detroit, he had barely budged. He invariably lived in small, crummy apartments, all within a 12-block radius of where I first met him. His attitude on travel remained constant and paralleled George S. Kaufman’s. (Groucho, on the phone, was trying to persuade Kaufman to re-locate in Hollywood, but Kaufman shuddered at the mere thought. “George,” Groucho said, “I’m telling you. The streets here are paved with gold!” Kaufman thought about that for almost two seconds, and replied, “You mean, I have to bend over and pick it up?”)
Anyway, Richard would no sooner go on a trip than I would attend a Crusade for Christ revival. I understand that he visited a colleague, Lesley G—-, in North Carolina once. Otherwise, I don’t think he even popped his head north of 8 Mile Road until the Obama administration.
Roald Dahl once wrote that writers generally spring from “stony soil—the sons of coal-miners or pork butchers or impoverished teachers.” Richard’s father, Roscoe, was a policeman, one of the many Southerners that migrated to find work in the industrial north.
Tiina K—–, one of Richard’s last good friends, told me that Roscoe also wrote short stories. I met this gentleman only once, and, from the way he talked, I couldn’t have imagined such a thing. He sounded like the kind of guy that stood in front of an Alabama high school, protecting it from integration. He pronounced my name “Cave-in,” which I, in my teenage ignorance, considered the mark of a dummy. But even stony soil has to spring from something.
During the first 25 years of my life I had a dreadful prejudice–white Southerners, aka hillbillies. I was a shameless, cocky Yankee and I associated the sound of their dialect with Baptist ministers forbidding things and Alabama sheriffs going out nigra-hunting. Detroit, at that time, was filled with southerners of both colors, who had come north to work in the auto plants. The rednecks seemed to bring all of the nasty aspects of their culture and dumped them, aggressively, on the street.
And, of course, these were not the best representatives of their culture. Emigrants rarely are. These were the go-getters, ambitious enough to drag their broken tailpipes up north, and they weren’t appreciative of what they found. To hear them tell it, they had been yanked out of their happy villages and force-marched into a big, dangerous Yankee city, where blacks were regarded as citizens and could even give them orders. Where any woman they met froze them out the minute they opened their mouths.
Their response was predictable. They doubled down. They became almost a caricature of rowdy rednecks. They’d cruise the streets in jalopies with smoking tailpipes, guzzling beer, yelling at every woman they saw, ready to jump out and pick fights with every man they saw, and getting into fierce, mortal combat over five dollar whores. It was a sliver of a migration captured perfectly by a song by Bobby Bare: “By day I make the cars, by night I make the bars…”
Well, preconceived notions are hard to shake. I’d heard the song a hundred times, and it still didn’t penetrate. I didn’t think that there were real feelings and real people behind songs like that. I just didn’t like the South, Southerners, and, for good measure, tailpipes.
It took me decades, and a couple of journeys through the South to shake that attitude. There, I met nothing but fine people. As Saint Augustine—of all people—reportedly said, “Life is a book, and those who don’t travel only read the first chapter.”
END SOUTHERN DIGRESSION
Here is a piece of a piece Richard wrote in the 1970s. He sent it to me—typed separately—and then he sent it to, I think, CREEM, where it ran:
THE BLACK MYSTICAL ABSTRACT BADASS ART ENSEMBLE
Spirit Feel Power Unity Conk (Sheet)
This first recording by the BMABAE is a must for anyone interested in the current state of black mystical badass art. The ensemble consists of two men–Mason Jarmen playing bells, windpipe, holyhorn, space flute, spoons and temple tuba and Tyrone M’Willie playing bass piccolo, 12-string gourd, musical fruit, nose sousaphone, and his tummy.
Side one consists of one long composition (26:14) titled ” Hands Back Jack, I’m Having A Religious Experience.” It begins with a simple four note melody thumped on M’Willie’s tummy. This goes on for ten minutes and the effect is so primally transcendental in nature that it’s a wonder no one’s thought of it before. This wonderful mood is interrupted suddenly by a brief but stark recitation by M’Willie–“Why didn’t you tell me/the tape was running/motherfucker/What the shit/Leave it in/Those jive cracker critics will eat it up.” This is followed by five minutes of guffaws…
…I have seen the light. I believe I shall get low. It was truly a black day when this record entered my life.
In one of his letters–we corresponded for something like 45 years–responding to a tape of music I had sent him, he wrote a parody of record reviewing:
This song features a lot of great musical talent, including drummer “Elbows” Lambert, who has been featured with some of the greatest English rock bands ever, namely Yes, No, Maybe, and I’ll Think About it and Call You in the Morning. But golly, with all this heavy metal talent, the record still sucks. Why? How should I know? Get the fuck off my back, anyway.”
Richard reminded me of the Liverpudlian Adrian Henry, main poet for an extremely original and accomplished poetry/rock/satire group called The Liverpool Scene. They would play various folk-like songs with full electric instrumentation, and sing or read their poems on top. Very early rap, one might say. They made fun of everything. English blues bands, the dole, Che Guevara—it was all fair game. They lasted a few years and went the way of most of the lesser lights of the English Invasion. One of their members, Andy Roberts, was a real musician. He scored the 1994 movie Priest. He also did Mad Love (1995).
But Adrian Henry looked like Richard. He was the same physical type; tall, overweight, shaggy, rumpled, a bit frightening to women, and lightning quick with a wisecrack. I heard the Liverpool Scene in Detroit, just before I left. My younger brother, Timothy, an extravagantly gifted musician, shared the bill with them at the Grande Ballroom, which was Detroit’s answer to the Fillmore. This was before I’d heard their records, and I wasn’t as impressed as I should have been. I should also admit that I was taking a lot of LSD at the time, a drug that needs wild, loud, crashing musical virtuosity to penetrate the colors and hallucinations, and there’s no place in that atmosphere for British understatement and sly wit. I just remember thinking, damn, that big guy looks like Richard. That big guy is a Richard Walls type.
Richard never took drugs, or at least the illegal kind. (“Reefer makes me hyper,” he once told me.) Heaven only knows what kind of prescription drug regimen he was on, however, and he would unfortunately augment that with alcohol. Quite a bit of it, in fact.
He was overweight and unhealthy, having spent 98 percent of his life in a stationary reading/writing/viewing/listening position. All of this eventually put him on a disability, which took him down the inexorable path into the hospital, hospice care, morphine drips, and incoherence. We spoke on the phone a couple of times when he went in for his final illness, but half of what he said was indistinct, Urdu-sounding blather that could have meant anything. Everything was shutting down.
Finally, on May 20, 2017, Richard died, two months short of his 68th birthday. Adrian Henry died in 2000. A few months after his 68th birthday.
One of my favorite book discussions has to do with what was once “unprintable.”
A Victorian novelist, Mary Elizabeth Badden, author of a title that could have come from P.G. Wodehouse discussing Madeilene Glossop, Lady Audley’s Secret, once wrote about a murder, reflecting her times perfectly: “It’s worse than a crime. It’s an impropriety.”
No More Digressions in This Chapter
The Ku Klux Plan
To be honest, one the most interesting Detroit stories started with a farmer.
In the late 60s, I was at the doctor’s, waiting for some sort of health examination, and found myself sitting next to another guy, one I would describe as a hayseed. He was from a rural part of the state, which to me might as well have been Pluto. He was a redneck from Michigan—and once you get out of Detroit, it’s pretty much pickup trucks and UFO abductions. (You have to wonder, since these aliens seem to prefer kidnapping and probing the kind of Trump voters that are out there frog gigging or snake hunting, what kind of overall impression Earthlings have been making.)
This fellow didn’t tell me why he was waiting for a doctor in Detroit, but he let me know that he wasn’t happy with the wait.
“Why the hail”–rural folk have their own dialect. It sounds Southern, even when they hail from Marquette –“why the hail we gotta wait so long? Back home, I don’t gotta wait no time atall for mah doctir.”
I didn’t know why we had to wait so long, but I assumed it had something to do with the fact that there were six or seven people ahead of us.
“Mah doctir, he’s quick and he’s good. Nevair found nothing wrong with me.”
Yeah, well, he was complaining about stuff that neither of us had any control over, and I wasn’t interested. So I nodded noncommittally. I do this a lot.
“Yew know what else? Mah doctir signed me up fir the bayest health plan there is.” He lowered his voice, looked around, and spoke. “I got mah hayelth care through the Michigan chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.”
“Yew heard me. Fuckin’ Klan’s got the best damn health care plan in Michigan.”
“I didn’t know that,” I said, neutrally. And indeed, I didn’t. I didn’t even know that the Klan had a Michigan chapter, although, considering the views of most of the white people I knew, it wasn’t at all surprising. And in the small towns, in those faraway times, the Klan was quite in the mainstream. Southern guys have told me that the Klan wives even held bake sales, and advertised them as such.
“So, you joined for the health care, and not because you’re like a white supremist?” “Supremacist” hadn’t arrived yet, or at least not in my world.
He looked at me, like a factory foreman wondering what this damn interior decorator is doing on his assembly line.
“Ain’t you? Ain’t every white man?”
“Nah,” I said. “I live and let live.”
“Well, you can shove yir live anna let live shit. An when you decide you wanna act like a white man, and you wanna get the best health care, join the Klan.”
“I’ll remember that,” I said, and I have, a half-century later. From that moment on, I have not once complained about long lines at the doctor’s, longer waits for appointments, incompetent appointment policies, indecipherable prescriptions, or even the fucking muzak in the waiting rooms. At least, I would tell myself, I didn’t have to join the Klan to get it.
Some time after that I read a book called The Fiery Cross, by Wyn Craig Wade. It was a straight-up history of the Klan, from its beginnings up until its publication date, 1998. It mentioned a couple of interesting things. One was that in the 1920s–one of their real banner decades–a young Asian reporter from some European publications investigated the group, and wrote a couple of stories for some international magazines about them. It was to shape his view of the American character for the rest of his days. His name was Nguyen Sinh Cung, which he later changed to Ho Chi Minh.
Another interesting Klan Kharacteristic was their targeting of Catholics. The immigrants that they hated most were either Catholics or Jews. I had grown up in the Catholic Church and I found this really interesting. Their brief against us was that Catholics answered to a higher authority than the U.S. Government–the pope. We were apparently programmed at birth to respond to some insidious papal signal and drown all of the True Christians in boiling vats of Holy Water. The Klan wanted all the Catholics to go back to Catholicastan. And this led to an anecdote that I found really funny.
Ku Klux Follies
Indiana, in the 1920s, had one of the nastier Ku Klux franchises. They weren’t content with lynching and burning, they even helped enforce the Prohibition laws. They would pull drivers over and search their cars for alcohol and make a citizen’s arrest if they found any beer. (And they called themselves men.)
Not content with even that level of pestering total strangers, they decided to march against the Catholics at Catholic Ground Zero: Notre Dame University.
Now, what do you think about when you hear the words Notre Dame? I think about Paris, hunchbacks, Claude Frollo, and after that, eventually, football. Knute Rockne was some sort of legendary coach in that sport, and Notre Dame was his turf. So, in the segregated 1920s, a lot of the best college footballers were big, hulking Irish guys. Catholic Irish guys. Tough young micks who would wade cheerfully into a bunch of other tough young guys–micks, wops, mockies, whatever–and kick the shit out of each other.
So, most of us have seen at least one slasher flick, those terror-filled movies where some biological mutation has turned the school nerd into a walking barracuda. Usually, some beautiful, semi-dressed hot teen hears all the scraping and growling and teeth-gnashing and fiendish howling in the next room and, says, in her best cheerleader’s voice, “Gee Whiz! Oh Gosh!! I wonder what’s going on in there? Let’s go see!” and blithely walks in. “Gee whillikers, Mister! Is that a wood-chipper??”
I would always wonder if anybody could be that stupid in real life. Or I used to wonder, until I read about the Klan marching against Catholics at Notre Dame. No sooner did they start parading down the main street of South Bend than the word got out to the football guys:
PADDY: Seamus, d’ya know what these boyos wearin’ white sheets be sayin’? They’ll be sayin’ that the heavenly Catholic Church is a tool of the divil. That our mothers are hoors, and our fathers are pimps for the Pope. An’ that us Catholics should move to Rome, an’ if we don’t, they’ll burn our houses down.”
SEAMUS: (Casually breaking a table) “Oh, did they now?”
So, a mob of tough micks descended on the Klan, right in mid-procession, tearing off their robes, knocking them on the head, beating them wherever they were. The Klansmen, never noted for individual acts of bravery, scattered like buckshot. One Klansman tried to hide underneath a car and a bunch of the lads lifted the car up to get to him. The Klansmen got their Ku Klux Keisters kicked, and got the hell out of town and never came back. And they dropped anti-Catholicism from their platform.
So, I told all this to my good friend Katie, who is brilliant. She, like George Kaufman, looked at it for two seconds, and said, “Well, they’re lucky they had a good health plan.”
End Klan digression
I drove back into the city one morning, after taking a friend to the airport. It hit me driving up Woodward, it was a perfect example of generica, way before the word was coined. Detroit, despite a few stunning art-deco structures, and the imitation Tudor of the better neighborhoods, suddenly looked ugly. Motels in neon, square brutalist architecture, plastic storefronts, used-car lots, an endless string of auto supply stores—basically, places tossed up on the cheap, designed to catch the attention of people traveling 45 miles an hour. I was living in William Hazlitt’s remark about the picturesque unable to keep up with the mechanical. Or Lewis Mumford’s explanation that, in the tasteless industrial development of the world, “the picturesque was an enemy of simple honesty and necessity.”
I suddenly got physically queasy, the same gut-wrenching I would later feel trying to sneak through customs.
So, I didn’t know that prosperity in Detroit was going to be ending, and soon. I didn’t know that the flow of money was going to dry up. I just knew that I no longer wanted to live in this sort of commercial ugliness.
That wasn’t the only reason, but I moved to Toronto.
During a visit in 2017, Detroit was a real surprise. There has been a lot of gentrification going on, at least in certain areas. Woodward avenue and downtown in general were pleasant, vibrant and full of cheerful, well-dressed people who looked like they were going to and from jobs. There were no panhandlers, winos or homeless to be seen anywhere. Until of course I went about eight blocks west. There, all of a sudden, was what looked like an entire village of panhandlers, winos and homeless. There was only one building standing, some sort of soup kitchen. It was like passing through an updated Hieronymous Bosch triptych, from the panel representing heaven to the one showing hell. I think–I didn’t follow it up–that the cops had passed the word to the Indigent Tribe; Come into Gentrifyistan and we’ll crack your heads open. But stay here by the overpass and we’ll feed you.
Also, in an amazing example of selective gentrification, and a strange manner of utilizing urban space, a developer is creating an entirely new building of micro-apartments, something one usually gets in high-demand spots like New York and San Francisco. This as at least half of the city is a vacant lot. In other words, Detroit, with uncountable acres of ex-streets and ex-neighborhoods, is primping first class while steerage gets flooded…