Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Conversation With Steve Miller, Author of "Detroit Rock City"

Miller's book, Detroit Rock City is an unparalleled oral history of rock and roll in Detroit, starting with the genesis of things in the early 1960's with bands like the MC5 and Mitch Ryder, all the way through the Detroit Cobras and White Stripes at the Gold Dollar through the mid-Nineties. Despite his interviews with myself, the book still holds up.

In an effort to turn the tables, I interviewed Miller about the book. All the gory details are below. Enjoy.

B: You chose to do this book in the oral history format. In short, you wrote the intro and nothing else! It's all quotes! What are the advantages of this style?

S: I looked at it from a reader’s perspective.  In my own selfish way, I decided this is how I would want to have this book delivered. So I took myself along for that ride and became more of a chronicler and assembly guy rather than some kind of lofty authority. I was learning right along, which is the way a lot of good journalism gets done. 

B: Did you think of your book at all next in line after Please Kill Me, We Got the Neutron Bomb, and Everybody Loves Our Town? Did you read all of those books? Any praises/criticisms of them?

S: I read and liked all three, as well as The Other Hollywood, Lexicon Devil, Live From New York Gig, and the very dark and depressing classic The Chris Farley Show. It’s a format that cuts the bullshit and while its subject to selective whim, at least you know you’re getting the straight story in some form. I never had an idea of comparing my book to those others.

B: If you could have written one thing, putting your voice into the play, whether to set something straight or get a point across that was otherwise lost...what would it be?

S: If there had been something crying out for context or explanation, I probably would have gone ahead and put myself in there. Again, it’s about the reader.  I didn’t really want to shape a specific opinion, although the subjects sure did.  For example, there was a point where I wanted to talk about why these bands out of the Bookie’s era never made a dent in the U.S. music scene, while bands out of the other cities – LA, NY, SF and even Chicago – did.  Vince Bannon, who was a promoter in Detroit, at Bookie’s.  From the book, he said: The Romantics were the only ones to pull out of Detroit in that era with any kind of substantial deal. You know it’s interesting: Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads told me that all these bands rolled into New York City because there were so many clubs besides CBGBs that they would play. They could actually afford to live in the East Village and build a buzz. So you’re an A&R guy in New York, and this band is playing various buildings, and there’s a big buzz. Same thing in LA. The thing you have to remember is what big bands came out of LA? The first punk rock bands were all signed to independents. It was out of New York where at that time the record capital was, and if you were to make it, you had to go and live in New York and do it. Also, anybody who really made it—from the biggest pop star to the rock-and-roll guy you think is totally underground—their ambition is through the roof. A lot of these guys that were from Detroit, they lived at their parents’ house, they go and play a gig, they come home, and Mom would make them breakfast in the morning.

B: You yourself were active with your band the Fix in the early hardcore scene. Did you consider putting in your own stories, from your perspective? Ultimately why didn't you quote yourself?

S: No. I read American Hardcore and that dispelled from me any notions of self reference. I was part of that early hardcore scene and watched up close as Touch & Go, the label, was handed off.  I saw Negative Approach in its infancy.  I could have told about playing these joints, pre-hardcore, for 5 people on a Wednesday at Nunzios. Red Carpet on a Sunday. No one understood what we were doing in Detroit but for me to say it  would have sounded self-serving.  Big deal, we just loved to play. Or maybe I know the stuff I would say and wanted to keep it fresh for my own reading purposes.

B: To me, it seems like there's very few relevant players with their voices missing from the story. Who was your biggest get? Biggest omission? If you could get a 100% truthful answer from ONE character in the book who's no longer with us, what would that question be?

S: I wanted Bob Seger, and he just wouldn’t do it.  When you’re charging $260 a ticket, maybe a book isn’t very appealing. Maybe he doesn’t have anything to say. But it would have been nice to at least chat for a few minutes. I would have asked him about the gig where he was opening for BTO and got McDonald’s as catering. About hanging at the SRC house in Ann Arbor. About getting famous and how his relationship with Detroit changed as a result. 

Biggest get? Well, we’re talking about human beings here, so I’m not sure I can frame it like that. I had some good conversations and some interviews as well. Conversations are the best and deliver the most.  Jack White was a conversation. He wanted to talk, he was the best of them all, just an interested, engaged guy.  Andrew WK also. Iggy Pop was an interview. Alice Cooper was an ‘I can’t wait till this is over’ episode on both our parts, I think. He wanted to get the fuck over it all, denied some stuff he had ‘written’ in Me, Alice, one of the better rock bios ever done, and sorta shined the whole thing. 

I think the players, from small to large, made the book a whole, so I can’t say the stars make the book. They wouldn’t be anything without the context of the others. The one person who I found myself wanting to know was Fred Smith. I’d look at pics of him and kinda think about what the hell his deal was, how he might respond to questions, if he’d want to have a conversation or just an interview.  That was a deal to me in this, who wanted to talk and who just wanted to do an interview. 

Back to Fred Smith, what an interesting cat. Love to know how he felt about his post-Five years, what the depth of his disappointment in the overall rejection of the Five was. He landed on his feet, actually, by meeting Patti Smith. He had some financial security even when the MC5 records were cutouts. But he could never keep himself together, which is likely the product of his own demons. 

B: As a student of all things Detroit rock and roll, I found myself wide-eyed with the things I learned from this book. What was a significant "learn" for you amongst all the interviews? Was there anything, a story (or maybe even persona) that you learned of being untrue in all this?

S: I liked hearing about these musicians who were not going along with the program of Detroit, like Dan Kroha, who was digging things like obscure British stuff, or John Hentch, who was all about these Crypt sounds. Or Mick Collins, who’s all over the place. They were identifying with something that took imagination, it was like getting into science fiction, another interest that fascinates me. Not science fiction itself, but that someone is really into it. I kept thinking, ‘what spoke to you in that sound?’ ‘what made you identify with that?’ I didn’t ask that because I wanted to keep the story going, the narrative moving. But I liked hearing it.  It was also refreshing to find that there were some really good musicians from Detroit who were not Stooges/MC5 obsessed.  It looks like the younger people were the ones I learned the most with. 

But I loved the story about the Grand Funk roadies with asbestos gloves changing blown amp tubes during a concert.  Or hearing again John Brannon’s tales of urban leisure.

B: I felt like parts one and two of the book were absolutely flawless. But once you started covering a time period where I was vaguely present, my immediate thought was "I'd tell this story differently" I question whether Kid Rock or ICP are really pertinent to the story. How would you respond to both claims? 

S: Having a hard time reading about your own era is exactly what I went through when reports on hardcore started coming out. It was easy to dispel some of the stories, while others, even from players that were part of the era, seemed to have a completely different take on events and context. And we were all there. So I can see that all the way. The longer an era floats into the rear view, the easier it is to digest the various versions of it. As far as Kid Rock, I wanted to get him in and he just wouldn’t have it. Then I started seeing how distant he really was from Detroit anyway, and his music, aside from dropping his Detroit roots in every other tune, really had no Detroit to it. So in hindsight, I’m glad he never agreed to talk.
Insane Clown Posse, on the other hand, are exactly Detroit. They’re irreverent, they don’t take directions well, and they take a standard music form and fuck it up. And it is rock, despite its rap roots.

B: Conversely, how did you feel about Tony Rettman's book Why Be Something Your Not? covering the Detroit hardcore scene that you personally participated in? Would YOU tell that story differently? DID you tell that story differently in your book?

S: I didn’t feel funny at all reading Tony’s book, and that’s when I could tell that the separation was finally in place. I no longer felt I had to guard my own version of those days in any way. He did a really good job. History has a lot of elements to it. The only thing I would have liked in Tony’s book was a bit more length. And lose the damn flyers. 

When I got to the part in my book where I decided that hardcore was significant enough to discuss, I think I took the same route as Tony. Talked to some of the same people only because there were so few of us. So you end up getting these smart players with good memories.  John Brannon, you know, when we were doing some appearances for the Touch & Go book, he went on WFMU and started talking, telling stories that I had never heard. I realized that I wanted him to share some of that for this little book that, at the time, had not sold. I was happy that Corey Rusk, a true gentleman, talked with me and finally got some props for taking a small label to the top of the heap. He is a nice guy who finished first, and he came from our little space in the world.

B: I wanted more depth to the later years...I wanted to know more about Sub Pop shelving the Go's Free Electricity album or Anthony, Steve and Joe quitting the Electric Six. Did folks talk about this at all? What colored your decision to exclude these points?

S: There were edits made – I have a lot more material that some people would dig. I used the stuff that would have the most appeal across the board, and each subsequent version would have less and less popular appeal but probably more music geek jam. The inside battle of Electric Six just didn’t hold up for me, although the story of one guy leaving in a huff and telling them that “I guess it’s going to be the Electric Five now!” is pretty funny. The second Go lp story is great and was included in an early version, but I was more interested in having Jack talk about his tenure in the band and how he almost unknowingly signed away the White Stripes to Sub Pop.  That was, for me, a really good story.

B: Are there any plans for the material that was excised from the book? Like the go Free Electricity story? Rr full transcribed interviews from folks like White or Brannon?

S: I made some in my head when I saw some of the stuff fall in my own edits.  The Brannon transcript is artfully disjointed. Rachel Nagy’s is like that as well. Jack’s is an eloquent essay without the stuffy forethought. Same with Wayne Kramer. Andrew WK’s is exuberant. Same with Mark Farner. Dennis Thompson’s is familiar but good. Jimmy Recca is insanely ADD.

B: During your interview with me you mentioned you were the first person to ever give Tom Potter cocaine while you two were in Just Say No together. Can you retell that story?

S: Potter was a green kid when he was in Just Say No, and he was a good guy to have around. We always had a lot of drugs, and he was always talking about doing blow and how he was all into it and we knew he was bulshitting. And he talked so much already, we repeatedly refused to give him any. One night we did a show in Chillicothe, Ohio, everyone had a load of fun and we headed back to our hotel room, the basic six guys in a room, two in each queen bed and two on the floor.  The whole night we’d been getting high, except Potter, as usual. We’re at the room, door open, tunes blaring, drinking, 4 a.m., locals hanging. And we figure it’s time. So we give Tom a line, then another, then another. A couple hours later, we’re pretty knocked out, ready to fall out. Except Potter. The lights are out, everyone’s trying to sleep, and Potter, who of course had to sleep on the floor, is chattering away about some, anything. I think he tried to tell us about his high school talent contest in which he and some other guys dressed up as Kiss. Which wouldn’t be a bad story any other time. A couple of us were telling him he had to shut up, at which point he confessed he’d never done coke before. Then after a few minutes of silence, he scrambles across the floor, grabs the plastic waste basket, and pukes, loudly and repeatedly. I think you could actually hear a couple of us sigh, I’m not sure if that was in sympathy or annoyance. But Tom never said a word. He launched his personal little drug culture that night, which endured for quite a while.

B: You mentioned you learned a lot in the compiling of this book. can you let me know bands you've a newfound appreciation for? Were there any bands or artists that you ended up soured on?

S: I was so impressed with Mick Collins – which was a weird interview done via phone from my hotel in New York when he was within walking distance – that I launched a newfound appreciation of the Dirtbombs. That band had never received a lot of play with me. The Go, I still had that Sub Pop promo cd of the first album, you know, with the black and white cardboard sleeve? So after talking with John and Bobby, I started listening to that again and really got back into it. SRC, the first two albums, I now find vastly underappreciated, despite their comedic drama. They remind me of the Sweet, somehow, perhaps in spirit more than structure. I got a copy of the Ramrods cd, which was surprisingly good despite the complete Dead Boys/Iggy lifts. I had no idea of the Ann Arbor noise scene and Jim Magas gave me a copy of his terrific cd, May I Meet My Accuser?  Doc Dart, er, 26, gave me his cd, The Messiah, which was also good.  

I continue to wonder what anyone sees in Seger, and that misguidedly reeks of dismay over not getting his direct voice in there.  But my wonder goes back a ways. I liked those first few albums, up to Brand New Morning, but after that, man, it was terrible. He was kind of a joke in my little group. I saw Blue Oyster Cult in spring 1975 in Lansing. Openers were Status Quo and Seger, and when Bob hit stage with his cowboy hat on, it was raining boos.  Reminded me of a few months before that when I went to see T Rex open for ZZ Top at the Michigan Palace. When ZZ came out in the hats, we hit the door. 

B: Has any musician from Detroit ever worn a cowboy hat and not pissed you off?

S: None. Zero. From Detroit or not, bad idea. Cowboy hats remind me of someone who would want to beat the shit out of me for liking the Stooges. I give Tracy Pew a pass of course. But the hat may have been a factor in his early demise. 

Back to Seger, though; I found that his organization is astoundingly fair, even by the band member accounts.  And any operation that is smart enough to keep a gem like Tom Weschler around for all these years is a good one.

B: I did my best to get you Kid Rock and Seger. Really. But I was also trying to get him to reissue the System stuff on TMR. Still waiting on that one. You don't even have a soft spot for 'Get Out of Denver'? Come on!

S: In fact, I think he did ‘Get Out of Denver ‘ first time I saw him. Torture. I appreciate your efforts to reissue that stuff, the good material. Ramblin' Gamblin' Man, the lp and the single,  still sound great.

B: I dug up some awesome photos of Prez Genovese/Don Was while he was with the Traitors that I'm pretty sure you didn't use for the book. what gives? did you ever track down the video footage of the Traitors on The Scene when they "attacked" host Nat Morris?

S: Yea, that’s some good stuff you have, your collection of Detroit rock ephemera is museum-worthy. I got a good photo of Don Was in the Traitors playing at Bookies from Bob Matheu and am happy with that.  Chasing photos is one of my least favorite chores related to a book, especially when folks are convinced I’m making millions and try to extract exotic prices for pics. 

Gary Reichel says he has that footage from The Scene. I asked a few times, as I thought maybe I could get a grab for the photo section, but time moves and he didn’t. I don’t know if he actually has it. I’ve since emailed Nat Morris and – big surprise – no response. I found getting people to do things in the name of history and art in Detroit can be very difficult compared to other regions. There’s a lot of talk about city pride but very little action on that front. I was surprised.

B: Do you think if Nat Morris and/or the Electrifying Mojo had taken to punk rock there would've been more of a celebration (locally at least) of the style? 

S: No way. That was going to be a hard sell in classic rock loving Detroit. In the book it talks about how bands had to do covers to get a gig, and the punks were getting beat down, same as everywhere else. That was a reactionary genre, and for anything remotely connected to the Establishment to embrace or even just play it wouldn’t have moved the needle. The people who liked it were going to be there – people like Mark Norton, who was calling CBGB’s and just asking them to put the phone down so he could listen to the band. That’s one of the coolest things ever, even if it probably isn’t true. Since Norton was the source of the story.

B: Have you ever heard any recording's of John Brannon's band Static?

S: Never. Tapes in a house buried under boxes. I’m sure damn curious. Those are the early days of the guy who shoulda been Kid Rock. He’s the real Kid Rock, actually.

B: Who knew Kevin Munro was actually spelled Monroe?

S: And who knew he wasn’t Larissa’s brother?

B: If you had to distill your entire book down to one sentence...what would that sentence be?

S: Earplugs are for cheaters

B: Which decade/era/chapter was most-effected by illicit drug use? Do you consider it a re-occurring theme in Detroit or just rock music in general? Please expound appropriately on drugs and their importance/detraction from Detroit rock and roll.

S: Each era had its own favorite it seemed. Acid in the 60s, coke came along starting in the 70s. Booze also became more popular in the 70s as well, probably no accident. Heroin rifled through all of the scenes. Drugs can certainly be good for the creative spirit for many people and Detroit, like anywhere else, has a healthy appetite for intoxicants. Detroit musicians were not disproportionately into drugs, although the effect of say, good acid on the Stooges music was to push it harder, to make it more aggressive. Same with the Five. In LA or San Francisco, it doesn’t seem as if the acid was part of thud like that, save for Blue Cheer and the bunches of garage bands, groups that weren’t as integral to the scene there as the Stooges and the Five were here. 

Later on, more people were talking about their interest in blow, which is of course more prevalent and available now. In the pre-cartel 60s, it was a bit more difficult to get. Even as the Dirtys and other bands indulged, you didn’t see any terrible consequence, except for it to be a terrific pain in the ass to others who had no use for it. Users and non-users have little in common once the drugs come out.

B: I've read some online criticism of the book which says, in short, it sounds more like a drug history of Detroit and there's very little talk about the music. How would you respond to that claim?

S: Drugs came up in conversations and they’re part of the events. You read in there how MC5 defined its sound in accordance with the drugs they took and it moves from there.  I’m satisfied with the diversity of the material. I remember reading a criticism of Please Kill Me that there was too much social and scene chatter and not enough music. Ok, but it was social shit I hadn’t read before and I was entertained. Read the stories, listen to the bands. Pretty simple. When I read this book back, one night early in the process, a rough draft, I did it all in one night and thought, ‘cool, I finally got to read it.’ The book I had always wanted to read and had waited for someone else to write. I thought at the time I could just stop, no reason to hand it in. That would either be selfish or a blessing, depending on the individual. Then I thought, ‘well, if I liked it, maybe a few dozen others will.’ So that’s who it’s for, like minded people who dig a good story and fucked up music.