Sunday, February 19, 2012

Detroit calling

It's some kind of weird coincidence that the package from Natalie Schlossman arrived on the same day that I found out that Michael Davis died. Natalie, who lives in Philadelphia, was the president of the Stooges Fan Club back in the day, and she kindly sent me a couple of CDs, about which more in a bit. Michael was the bassist in the MC5, whom I was fortunate to interview back in 1998, when he was living in Tucson.

Of all the surviving members of the Five, Michael seemed to have made the best peace with the past, and after my first encounter with him, his life got better -- he met Angela, they married, moved to California, then Oregon, then back to California. He found validation via his participation in the MC5: A True Testimonial documentary (which, in a just world, would have already seen legit release) and the DKT-MC5 reunion tours. He was in demand as a producer and player. (He had plans to fly to Belgium to make a record with Sonny Vincent this week.) A couple of years ago, I lent him some editorial assistance on a memoir he was writing, which I'm sorry to say I don't believe he got to finish before he passed on Friday in Chico, California, after a month in hospital for liver disease.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that when I was 13, Michael Davis changed my life. I spent six months going to the record department at W.T. Grant's in my town every weekend and staring at the photo collage on the cover of the Five's Kick Out the Jams album. It looked exciting and dangerous -- an explosion of light and color, sweat and spangles. And one of the most striking images on it was the dude in the psychedelic Uncle Sam suit, with an American flag draped over his amp. Needless to say, it was Michael.

When I finally mustered the nerve to buy the record, it fulfilled every promise that cover made. It wasn't so much the songs as the ambience, starting with Brother J.C. Crawford's fire 'n' brimstone introduction -- the feedback, the yelling (some of which, I'd learn years later, was overdubbed), the communal vibe of the berserk Grande Ballroom crowd. I got super-obsessed with anything "Detroit." The Stooges' Funhouse hit me even harder, the Rationals' self-titled LP was a connoisseur's kick that became a life-long favorite, Creem magazine was my Bible, and the Five's High Time my most-listened-to album of 1971 (along with the Flamin' Groovies' Teenage Head).

The early '70s on Long Island, however, was not a good moment to be a fan of the MC5 and Stooges. I took _mountains_ of shit from the slightly older guys I worked with in the hipi record store for liking those bands (and the Flamin' Groovies, and Nuggets) to the point where I lost the Detroit thread for awhile, specifically until I got out of the Air Force in '92 and my first marriage fell apart a short time afterward.

Moonlighting in the record store I'd come to Fort Worth to open in '78 (which had undergone a few changes in corporate ownership but was still managed by the same sterling dude), I stumbled on the Five's quasi-legit Thunder Express (with some Brit guy on bass instead of Michael; feh) and Wayne Kramer's first solo album The Hard Stuff. Between those two CDs and reading Clinton Heylin's From the Velvets to the Voidoids, I was a stone Detroit freak all over again.

I bought all the quasi-legit MC5 CDs that John Sinclair released on the Alive! and Total Energy labels, and when I started writing about music for fanzines and webzines near the ass-end of the '90s, I interviewed all three of the surviving MC5 members. Dennis Thompson was angry, while Wayne Kramer was glib, but Michael Davis regarded the Five's history and his part in it with a combination of puzzled amusement and quiet pride. I liked him immensely.

Among the MC5's many misfortunes -- butting heads with both the U.S. government and the powers that be in the record industry, dealing with drug addiction and the psychic fallout of their epic ascent and flameout -- perhaps the saddest was the demise of key band members (lead singer Rob Tyner in 1991, guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith in 1994) before the time when the stigma of their '60s revolutionary rabble-rousing had worn off and historical validation was forthcoming. For by Y2K, sure enough, the war was over and the Rawk aesthetic of "raw wails from the bottom of the guts" that St. Lester championed and the Five and the Stooges epitomized had definitively triumphed over whatever Rolling Stone was shilling back when those bands were viable and creating.

To comprehend the Five's achievement, surf over to Youtube and view the clips of their performances of "Ramblin' Rose," "Looking At You," and "Kick Out the Jams" at Wayne State University's Tarter Field in 1969, and "Tonight" and "Kick Out the Jams" (incorrectly listed as "True Faith" in the video) at Friars Club in Aylesbury, UK, in 1970. (There are other live MC5 performances on Youtube, but they're mostly from the European tours after Michael was out of the band.) Or listen to the first side of Kick Out the Jams -- perhaps the most exciting 20 minutes of Rawk ever etched in vinyl -- or the second side of High Time. Or seek out the original 1968 single versions of "Looking At You" and "Borderline" (available on Freud/Jungle's Thunder Express, Total Energy's Human Being Lawnmower, and Easy Action's Purity Accuracy box).

While I entered the rockwrite wars as a true believer around 1997, I left them as a mercenary around 2004, after I'd spent a couple of years trying to make a living freelancing for the local giveaway alt-weekly rag. I'd grown tired of getting CDs in the mail (or pressed on me by guys I'd meet on the street at SXSW) that were pitched as sounding "like the MC5." I was suffering from Detroit fatigue. My fandom was rekindled by things like Easy Action Records' releases of material I'd never heard before by the Stooges and Fred Smith's legendary post-MC5 outfit Sonic's Rendezvous Band, and since 2006, playing in a Stooges cover band that, over the years, has expanded its repertoire to include the Five's "Future Now" and "Looking At You," among other proto-/early punk jams.

So imagine my surprise and delight to open the envelope Natalie sent and find Hypersensitive, a brand new CD by the Dogs, a Detroit band who had their genesis in the same year as the Stooges (1967) and logged time in NYC early in the '70s before finally settling in Los Angeles, where they now reside (apparently they're also big in Japan). We spun it tonight while my sweetie was cooking dinner.

My first impression: a better than average punk-rock record. I mentioned this to my sweetie, and thus ensued a discussion of some duration on the topic of "What _is_ punk-rock?" In the end, we agreed that the essence of punk-rock isn't a haircut, a black T-shirt, a leather jacket, or a chain wallet; rather, it's some kind of spiritual transcendence that has nothing to do with musical ability, which occurs when a band just _goes the fuck off_. The Fungi Girls (whom I had the extreme pleasure of having my own band blown off the stage by last weekend) have it; so did a lot of bands I saw while I briefly lived in Austin at the ass-end of the '70s, none of whom I thought at the time "could play." The Dogs have it, too.

To attempt to be somewhat precise in my description, the music on Hypersensitive is hard rock with some smart, sharp songcraft (which sounds like a description of the Ramones, except that the Dogs are less in thrall of '60s pop song forms). It has "too many chords," like the Williamson-era Stooges or, say, the Dictators, and guitarist-singer Loren Molinaire, bassist Mary Kay, and drummer Tony Matteucci churn up one hell of a ruckus for just three pieces. Molinaire plays SGs -- the CD slick features a pic of two of 'em, white ones, one with P-90s, the other with humbuckers, so I'm envious _and_ impressed -- and employs a wah in a manner that'd make Ronald Frank Asheton proud. And lest we forget, the Dogs recite the litany of their Detroit roots and influences in a song called "Motor City Fever," the most shameless example of Murder City-sploitation since Scott Morgan's "Detroit."

Go easy, Michael. While I don't think that you were ready to go, I do believe that you had one hell of a run these last 68 years. And bless the Dogs for keeping the spirit of the '60s Motor City alive.


Blogger Fast Film said...

~mwah!~ I indeed plant a virtual kiss from afar on you for "getting it" regarding The Dogs. When a band is loudfastprecisesoulful and all that good stuff throughout their entire lives for fun and from the heart instead of just commerce as are The Dogs, it is indeed a rarity. Yes, full frontal disclosure dictates I add that I do many of their photos. But I "got it" after but one live viewing of them in 1977.

Wait until you see them kick ass even more impressively live...
-Heather Harris

2:39 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home