Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Dispatches from Detroit

My wife and I took a road trip to Detroit to see a concert. Yes, we are crazy. No, we did not get mugged, or stabbed, or carjacked. In fact, the majority of people we ran into were quite friendly. We stayed for a few days, and these are some thoughts I had about the trip.


The six-hour trek from Milwaukee to Detroit was a perfect metaphor for what’s wrong with the deindustrialized Midwest in general and the greater Detroit area in particular. It was blustery and cool the entire way, with the sky a relentless, depressing gray. Milwaukee roads may be perpetually under construction, but at least we’re trying. Illinois has its own problems, but their roads are not one of them. But as soon as we crossed the border into Indiana, the freeway immediately turned to shit and only got worse as we made our way across Michigan.

Michigan drivers must not know what a signal light is, because they rarely ever used one. One driver even cut across three lanes to get onto an exit ramp, which was both dangerous and illustrated a Louis CK bit rather nicely.

Despite all that, we made it to the hotel in one piece.

Truthfully, we didn’t plan on being in Detroit proper for much of anything aside from the Motown Museum (see below). Certainly there were hip parts of the city that we could’ve visited. Or we could’ve seen the abandoned Michigan Central Station or the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, but I don’t think either of us really wanted to see that ruin porn in the flesh.

(I get into politics here, so skip the next few paragraphs if you don’t want to read that.)

The parking around the museum was scarce and the streets unfamiliar, so we looped around a couple of times. During that process, we were funneled down some side streets that seemed more like alleys -- mostly unplowed and mostly barren. The buildings and homes on these streets were covered in graffiti, and were either boarded up or had all the windows busted out. The only word I can use to describe this is heartbreaking. It wasn’t just one or two structures, it was blocks and blocks of being surrounded by blight and disrepair.

Republicans will tell you this happened because of corrupt Democrat government and lazy black people, Democrats will tell you it’s because of greedy rich white men and the deindustrialization of the area. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, as it always is.

It’s become pretty apparent to me that 1) Americans are addicted to cheap goods and 2) CEOs and stockholders are addicted to cheap labor -- and when that happens the jobs move away the middle class gets fucked. Both sides are like two balled fists that keep smashing into each other. They keep hitting each other, but nothing changes.

The only way capitalism can really work (for everyone, not just the rich) is for the (mostly) unskilled middle-class workers to make or build things for their fellow middle-class workers to buy and use. This is because the rich mostly save their money, and the poor have no money to save.
So if Detroit wants to be “America’s Great Comeback City,” as it says on all their tourism material, those jobs need to come back. Companies might have to pay their workers more or pay more taxes, and consumers might have to pay more for their goods. But that’s the only way it can work. Perhaps they could start by getting their unemployed population to fix their freeways, but I doubt it.


In more uplifting news, the Motown Museum was pretty cool.

I am normally not a fan of guided tours – I would much rather read/view/listen to things at my own pace – but our tour guide, Cecilia, really made the story of founder Berry Gordy and Motown Records come alive.

After a 20-minute video, the first part of the tour was in the building adjacent to the iconic “Hitsville U.S.A” building pictured above. Cecilia told us how Berry Gordy started the label with an $800 loan from his family after only getting a $3 royalty check for writing a hit song.
From there he signed the Marvelettes, Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Temptations, and even a kid by the name of Little Stevie Wonder. Everything was accentuated by myriad photographs, memos, gold and platinum records, album covers, and even a hat and jeweled glove donated by Michael Jackson.

From there, Cecilia took us into the famed Hitsville building, which featured Gordy's living quarters upstairs, complete with furniture, dishes, multiple turn tables, and other furnishings. The basement was where the real action was, though, as that is where a ton of the hit singles from the Sixties were made.

Everything was set up as if they had never stopped making records. A punch clock was set up with time cards dated 1966. The candy and cigarette machines from that period are still there. You could take a peek inside the control room before descending a stair case to the studio where so much magic was made.

It was kind of cramped, but the 15-20 people on the tour all fit inside. There was a piano, various sets of headphones, microphones hanging from the ceiling, and songbooks opened to The Temptations' “My Girl.” Cecilia told us a little bit more about the studio itself, before ending the tour by leading us in a singalong of “My Girl.” Sure, it was mostly off-key (except for the theatrically trained twentysomethings who couldn't help but show off), but much like the music made there all those years ago, it was joyous. Thanks to the good music and the tour guide intent on her guests having a good time, I walked out feeling better about things than when I had walked in.


I'm going to go out on a limb and say Michigan isn't really known for its cuisine. There may very well be all kinds of good places to eat, and admittedly we didn't go out of our way to find them.

Apparently Detroit-style pizza is a thing, but if the ads that I picked up at our hotel are any indication, Detroit-style pizza is merely cheap and shitty-looking.

Big Boy restaurants are alive and well in the area. Their burgers were actually quite delicious.

After the concert, we stopped at a hot dog stand (known as “Coney Islands” in the area) and... didn't have a hot dog. I had loose ground beef in a hot dog bun, covered with mustard, onions, and chili. You won't believe it, but it hit the spot at 2AM. (Steph had a grilled cheese; it was a grilled cheese.)


Dan Andriano (Alkaline Trio) and Anthony Raneri (Bayside)

This was the Main Event, our whole reason for coming to Detroit. The “Where's The Band” 2016 tour actually was stopping in Chicago the next night, so it was sort of like trading a 20-dollar bill for two fives as far as travel was concerned. But there we were, in lovely Ferndale, Michigan to see pop-punk/emo heroes of our youth perform solo acoustic.

The venue itself was fairly intimate, maybe 150-200 people could fit in there tops. We arrived 45 minutes before the start time, and after buying 2 24oz cans of Pabst ($6 apiece), settled about two rows from the stage.

On other dates of the tour, apparently all the performers were out on stage together for the entire show, helping each other out occasionally. For this show, it was mostly solo performances. This didn't hurt anything, but I do kind of wonder how much better it might have been with everyone out there.

If there's one thing that became clear over the course of the night, it was of the healing power of music. It doesn't really matter what genre or scene you come from, whether it's punk or emo or metal – in that moment of the song, all pain is shared pain; all happiness is shared happiness. It didn't matter who was on stage, almost all of the songs were singalong songs. And judging by the amount of couples there, it was proof that despite the common lyrical themes of longing and rejection that things would eventually get better and we'd all make it through.

Individually, my favorite performer of the night was Anthony Raneri of Bayside, though that just might be because he did the most songs that I recognized. He and Dan Andriano of Alkaline Trio covering The Smoking Popes' “Megan” was probably the set highlight.

Andriano didn't actually do that many Alkaline Trio songs. Either that, or the songs he chose were post-Crimson, which is where I stopped paying much attention to the band. Some dude dumped an entire beer on top of a girl during his set, which was a sour note on a night that was otherwise filled with good vibes.

Matt Pryor of The Get Up Kids closed out the show, and he did not disappoint. He opened with “Anne Arbour,” which was appropriate; he dug somewhat deep for a Reggie and the Full Effect song, which was unexpected. He messed with the crowd throughout – taking requests and not playing them; telling a girl all the guys would come out to sing “Happy Birthday” and then not doing that at all – before closing the set with “I'll Catch You,” a fan favorite and song he swore earlier he wasn't going to play because it was such a bummer.

For $16 and three hours of entertainment from some heroes of my younger, single days, it was not a bad time at all. I hope they go out on tour again next year – but maybe this time they could hit Milwaukee.

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