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Motor City Madness 

A garage full of Detroit rock

Wednesday, Dec 4 2002
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Jack White was mistaken when he penned the liner notes for his Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit compilation CD in 2000. ”No suit from L.A. or New York is going to fly out to Detroit to check out a band and hand out business cards,“ he wrote.

Two years after making that proclamation, White was on Spin magazine‘s October cover. The other bands on the comp are faring pretty well, too. The Detroit Cobras have a song on the Jackass soundtrack. The Dirtbombs are touring Australia with one of that country’s top bands, You Am I. The Von Bondies signed to Sire for a rumored $1 million, and Whirlwind Heat signed to White‘s own Third Man label, which is distributed by V2 stateside and XL abroad. In fact, just about all of the bands on this Rosetta stone of a compilation have been approached by major labels eager for a listen to the albums they have in the works.

”Every time a Detroit band comes to L.A., add another zero,“ says Jennifer Tefft, the Spaceland booker who gave the first L.A. shows to many from the 313 area code. Band guarantees have increased, and so, of course, have ticket prices.

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In the wake of this hype, Detroit rock bands are mulling how to leverage the heat without being burnt like so many Seattle bands were in the grunge boom and bust of the ’90s. While the liner notes on the Sympathetic Sounds CD proved to be prematurely pessimistic, the artwork is perhaps more accurate: On the cover is a picture of a major crossroads in downtown Motor City.

”All the bands owe something in part to Jack and to the Sympathetic Sounds record, because they‘ve been so supportive of the Detroit scene,“ says Ko Shih of Ko and the Knockouts. Shih was resting up in the apartment she shares with White Stripes drummer Meg White after a West Coast tour. By ”the scene,“ she means the two dozen or so bands on the incestuous hipster core of Detroit’s indie subculture. Though these bands have been labeled ”new garage“ for their ‘60s-inspired stomping sound, the scene also encompasses the slowcore Slumber Party, the orchestral Outrageous Cherry and the clever, Satanic disco-punk band Electric Six. The bands don’t all sound alike, though many liberally employ Hammonds and Farfisas. But there is a common feel to the soulful struggle they all embody.

Like any metropolitan band scene, this one‘s members band-hop and bed-hop, hold day jobs, worship vinyl, and go to one another’s shows. ”Welcome to the Detroit musicians‘ Christmas party!“ someone joked last year at a Detroit Cobras--Electric Six show at the Magic Stick, the Motor City’s equivalent of Spaceland. Almost everyone in the audience was in a band -- including Jack White, whose fierce loyalty to hometown talent has helped that small scene gain big fame.

After Ko and the Knockouts recorded a song for the Sympathetic Sounds compilation, Long Gone John, owner of the Sympathy for the Record Industry label, asked the band to record a full-length, which he released earlier this year. When the group played a series of sold-out West Coast shows with the Dirtbombs and the Detroit Cobras last October, Shih was surprised to see fans mouthing the words to their ‘60s-inspired power pop and ballads. They were third on the bill.

”When we were in L.A., I saw fliers for other bands, and I realized that 99 percent of those bands, no one goes to see them -- not because they’re bad, but because they don‘t have the press. I don’t completely understand why all of us get it instead of, for instance, the Santa Monica bands.“

Britain‘s NME magazine put Jack White at the top of its 2002 Cool List. Detroiters hold three of the top 10 positions on that chart. John Peel, the BBC’s new-music bellwether, gives generous airtime to bands from the 313. To the Brits, Detroit is America‘s Liverpool -- or at least its Manchester. a

They don’t call it Detroit Rock City for nothing. Before the port city was synonymous with car manufacturing and the torching of empty buildings, it was known for music. ”Detroit is a musical graveyard,“ says Eugene Strobe, guitarist for the pop-psychedelic band the Witches, who‘ve just released their fourth album, On Parade, on L.A.’s Fall of Rome label. We‘re walking around the torn-down remains of Fortune Records, where John Lee Hooker once recorded. All over Detroit are ruins -- not just graffiti-scarred ghetto buildings, but industrial palaces erected by car companies, left to rot when that industry imploded. You can’t escape the sadness of thinking how glorious it must have been. But you also feel the mischievous abandon in having so many derelict playgrounds.

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