We worked hard. After all, we were from Detroit and proud of it. Detroit, the Motor City, where we could build anything. Our parents had fought World War II with the great war machines they built right here in Detroit. B-24 bombers out at Willow Run. Tanks at Dodge Main, and trucks and jeeps, all the materiel the Allies needed. Home of the organized labor movement and good wages. Ford, Chrysler, GM and the MC5.
I still work in music - I have my own band and I play with others, like Pere Ubu, Was (Not Was) and Dodge Main - but back then my band was the MC5. We ruled in Detroit, and 1968 was probably the most dramatic year of the band's existence. It was the flashpoint of the anti-Vietnam War movement (regardless of what P.J. O'Rourke says) and every other social movement of the day. But what you never seem to get is a sense of how much fun it all was. We weren't all hiding out in downtown warehouses cleaning our weapons and planning the revolution. (At least not all the time.)
In October 1968, the MC5 - Rob Tyner, Fred Smith, Dennis Thompson, Michael Davis and myself - had just signed a recording contract with Elektra Records. This was a major cause for celebration in the Motor City. We had been championing Detroit music for years. "High Energy" is how we described it at the time - no holds barred, pedal to the metal. Combining the R&B we heard on WJLB and WCHB, the blues of Howlin' Wolf and John Lee, the new sounds coming in from the Rolling Stones and The Who and the Yardbirds, and the powerful force of the avant-garde "free-jazz movement," we toiled away in small clubs all over the Midwest. Night after night, we worked at perfecting our sound and our stage show. The music was in our blood, and it dripped everywhere. It was very messy.
We rehearsed in a storefront studio in the Cass corridor (we called it the Warren/Forest then). It's on the corner where East Warren Avenue meets the John C. Lodge Expressway in the "inner city" of Detroit. The district was close to Wayne State University and was a little rundown. There were cheap rents and a general feeling of "live and let live." Along the Lodge service drive there was a long block of apartments with a sandstone facade known as "the castle." This was home to characters like the beatnik poets John Sinclair and Jerry Younkins (the first guy I ever met who had beautiful golden shoulder-length hair), jazz musicians Charles Moore and Joseph Jarman, a coterie of exotic slum goddesses and a revolving cast of ne'er-do-wells. North of this, on the corner, was a series of two-story commercial structures with storefronts below and what used to be a dentist's office above. The reefer smoke billowed out of these buildings. The storefronts housed the Detroit office of the Committee To End the War in Vietnam, the Fifth Estate (the underground newspaper), the Artists Workshop and, later, the MC5's rehearsal space. The upstairs became the band's communal home. From there I watched the city of Detroit go to war in the riots of the long hot summer of 1967. I watched tanks and armored personnel carriers from my bedroom window. Tanks rolling across Warren Avenue. I was arrested by the Army just up the street for being a suspected sniper - I had a telescope in my window. A hot time in the old town tonight. Yikes!
That corner in Detroit was, for me at least, the center of the known universe. Late nights were spent tripping on acid, smoking the best Mexican herb to be found, listening to Sun Ra, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, and plotting the future. Our political idols were the Black Panther Party and crazed poets like Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson and Ed Sanders. These guys were talking in terms we could relate to: "It's time to move, brothers." Man, did we plot. Pot plotting? Plot potting? Anyhow, we sure did have the whole thing figured out. We were convinced, committed. We sure were. I was. "Pure and Accurate," we called ourselves - all with a wink and a laugh and great camaraderie.
The epicenter of the music scene was the Grande Ballroom. It's still there at Grand River and Beverly, a block south of Joy Road. The Grande ("Grand-ee") was built in the 1930s, the era of the big bands, and it was magnificent. The ballroom itself was on the second floor, up a huge, wide, red-carpeted staircase. The dance floor was large enough to accommodate 1,500 patrons and still not be shoulder-to-shoulder. The ceilings were so high you felt like you were outdoors. Surrounding the great wooden floor (perfect for gliding, dancing feet) was a breezeway with Moroccan arches, good for watching the action, strolling the perimeter and chatting. The Grande was so big it covered an entire city block. There were light shows in the style of San Francisco's Fillmore. The Magic Veil Light Company created an otherworldly psychedelic atmosphere in the cavernous dancehall.