Read the news and you'd think Detroit was a no-go area. But the music community is still thriving, thanks to the city's rich heritage.
I was at a record store a few days ago when a young guy asked if I was in "the documentary about Detroit?" that had just gone online (see above). I told him I was, to which he replied: "I loved it, but I want more."
I've been getting this from everyone – people want to hear more about the beauty and possibilities of the city. But growing up in Holly, which is 45 minutes north of Detroit, all I ever heard were the horror stories. As a teenager I would drive to a show at Zoot's Coffee or the Trumbellplex, two local all-ages venues, and I was always nervous that a wrong turn would lead me to this "ghetto" that everyone from my parents to the news talked about, a place where a group of carjackers would rip me from my 89 Chevy Astro and leave me for dead surrounded by burning houses and crack dealers.
When I worked at a liquor store in the suburbs I would listen to MC5 all the time. I would hear stories about the Vanity Ballroom, of someone who knew Rob Tyner or smoked grass with Wayne Kramer. I would hear about how great or awful the Stooges sounded.
Being a kid who didn't know anything about the history of the city, I would ask people about the Grande, or Eastown. But some people were so detached from whatever Detroit had become that you could've been talking about Beirut. The history of our city was fed to us from the mouths of those who fled. That's probably why, when it was time for me to move, I fled just like everyone else. I moved to Chicago, but after a few years I had to leave. I just didn't feel satisfied. Something about that city didn't feel right; it wasn't my city. Back home with my parents, and unsure where to move, I slowly realised that everything that was happening from a musical standpoint was happening in Detroit. If you were a musician you just gravitated towards the city. You can't escape Detroit's musical history. The vastness of abandoned buildings has left places that would have been torn down in other cities. You can visit the Grande, Eastown or the Vanity, all staples of Detroit rock history. It's this history that is still present and, rather than hindering us, it fuels us. For me, Detroit's history isn't just an etching upon its tombstone, but a future of unlimited possibilities.
There are bands such as Human Eye, Terrible Twos and Tyvek, who are fixtures of the Detroit scene. Everybody here is in two bands and you wouldn't really call them side-projects because here you have enough time to do both. Living in Detroit you have much more freedom to create simply because you're not overburdened by living expenses. I am surrounded by people who can live comfortably and still pursue their craft. They can focus solely on the music. Most of the people I know who live in Detroit have low-key jobs, so they can spend most of their days practising, playing shows, making flyers, recording, listening to records, making T-shirts. Playing in the Dirtbombs, I can come home from a long tour and not be completely broke from paying rent, or have my house smell like cat piss from someone's pet sub-leasing my place. This is the freedom you have living here. That's why there are so many amazing things happening in this city.
A few weeks ago I was able to see Detroit hip-hop artist Guilty Simpson backed by the funk group the Will Sessions' Big Band at an outside festival against the backdrop of the now infamous Michigan Central Station. Next week my other band, Lee Marvin Computer Arm, will be appearing alongside sword-swallowers and flame-blowers at Theatre Bizarre – an incredible carnival behind the state fairgrounds.
Soon that guy at the record store won't have to ask for more, it will already be there. It already is here.