Nothing bar a lonely black squirrel played on the sidewalk, as I strolled up to house number 2023. The skeletal remains of the roof did little to prevent the inside’s waterlog, and the second floor’s balcony leaned into the downstairs kitchen. A woebegone tree stood in the front lawn, next to abandoned lounge furniture waiting for a family who would never come home. Everything was apocalyptically quiet, and a foreboding feeling of despair clung in the air, like the shards of broken glass in the window frames.
“Why the hell do you want to go to Detroit?” my friend asked, in-between mouthfuls of beer.
“You know it’s known as the murder capital of the US? TOT-tal shithole!”
“Yeah, I know” I said, nonplussed. “That doesn’t bother me.”
I don’t know what the attraction was for me. After all, Detroit’s story is a sad one.
An historical rap sheet of racial tensions and industrialisation has savaged Detroit’s legacy. What makes its story so tragic, is that Detroit was once the “Motor City”, the world centre of the automobile industry, and USA’s industrial stronghold. The American dream incarnate. At the height of its strength, Detroit’s population was 1.8 million, which has now dwindled to just 700,000. The lingering wreckage a painful, visual reminder of what once was.
And yet amidst all the heartache, Detroit has always, and continues to be, the birthplace of musical genius. I guess I was intrigued how a city that was so plagued with depression, could produce such talent like Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, and more recently Eminem. Ironically, writing music that would inspire the world, from such an uninspiring place.
I suppose, while that may had drawn me there, it’s not what made me fall in love with the city.
The truth is, at this point in my life, I was a little damaged too. My marriage of eight years had finally ended, after a slow and hateful decline to acceptance. I was glad of the peace, but I couldn’t shake such a deep sense of regret. Divorce is such a public failure, everyone can see it, and everyone pokes around in it. It was because of this, I felt a strange empathy for these grand houses. Such a visually accurate illustration of how could something so strong, can disintegrate so badly. It was strangely comforting.
Yeah, I get how you feel Detroit.
Later that night whilst I was curled up on the top bunk, Brandon, with a faded-yellow rag tied around his right hand, had finally arrived in Detroit. He blundered into our hostel room with the grace of a baby dinosaur, and as he knocked into the bunk bed below mine, I was suddenly aware that I was the only girl in a room full of six strange men. Let’s just hope I don’t get raped – was my final thought before falling asleep.
The next morning, the steam from my morning coffee was misting my glasses, making it incredibly difficult to read anything on the map in front of me. I probably could have lifted my chin off the edge of the cup to avoid this, but that just seemed like far too much effort this early in the morning. I wasn’t really looking at the map anyways. I figured Motown studios was the game plan - that was it.
Brandon came down the stairs. His hazel, frizzy hair unmistakably the guy who I had clambered passed the morning. The first thing I noticed about him, after his hair of course, was his old leather case. The really retro type, which clasped together with belt buckles. Complete with a porno, red velvet interior. He plonks it on the table, and starts fussing one handed with something inside it. I could see nestled within, lay his brass, alto saxophone.
“Morning,” he says cheerfully.
“Hey,” I say uncomfortably, realising I had probably been staring. “Uh, nice case.”
“Thanks,” he says, drawing up a chair across from me, and helping himself to coffee.
“Was it you who came in late last night?” I knew it was, but it was a pretty good line of small talk.
“Yeah, that was me. I hope I didn’t wake you?”
“Nah, of course not, you’re fine. I’m Laine by the way,” and handed out my right hand.
“Brandon” he answers, awkwardly giving me his left.
“What did you do to your hand?” I ask, gesturing at the yellow rag.
“Oh, cutting a sandwich” he says, starting to take the bandage off like he wants to show me. He must have seen the disgust on my face.
“Don’t worry, the blood’s all dried up, but don’t you think the stain on here looks like a dragon??”
He lies the yellow rag on the table, and I can see where he has taken a blue felt tip pen and drawn around the outline of the blood stain. I guess it kinda resembled a dragon, but like – who does that?
I smiled politely.
“Right,” he announces suddenly, wrapping the rag back around his hand, “I’m off to the studio.”
“You’re a musician?” I already knew that too, but maybe that was a more stupid choice of small talk.
“Yeap, saxophone. That’s me on the wall up there,” nodding his hazel hair to an old photograph behind us.
“I’ve been away for a while in LA, but wasn’t feelin it, so I came back to re-jooo-vinate” he laughs.
“In Detroit?” I say. “It’s not exactly a perfect place for inspiration is it?”
“Perfect? Nah, none of the best things are,” he smiles. “Wanna get a beer later?”
With nowhere in particular to go in any sort of a hurry, I went for a drive along Detroit’s Riverside. The massacre of empty factories seemed never ending, discarded like rubbish.
I’d learned that for Detroit, it sorta all began and ended with the Ford Motor company. To begin with, its booming industry was a strong attraction for black and white migrants coming from the south. However, when racism tried its best to keep “blacks” out of work, riots began to plague the city, and the city burned in hatred as thick as the arson smoke. Then, when the fifties mergers did all but shut down the automobile industry, the whites fled to the suburbs, leaving the poorer black populations forsaken to the urban decay.
Suddenly, the city’s northern “8 mile” highway had become a segregation baseline, severing black from white like a blade.
However, the bleak city scape had had little effect on the people that lived there. I was greeted with smiles, and kindness everywhere I went, a sharp contrast to the murder and beatings I was half expecting at every corner.
I pulled up next to Motown studios on West Grand Blvd. just north of Midtown. It was nothing more than small, corner house, an unassuming façade that was belying of the talent and success it has produced over the years.
Founded by Berry Gordy Jr in 1959, it was named “Motown” as the portmanteau of “Motor Town”. However, racism had once again, tried its best to silence its voices. “White folk” just wouldn’t tolerate the success of “black musicians” and so all the songs had to be covered by white singers. However none could match the high calibre of the Motown sound, and eventually had to succumb.
Our guide was a short, black lady with one of those charismatic demeanours, you know the type. Similar to the “cool” teacher in school that everyone liked because she was awesome, but you knew she wasn’t going to take any nonsense either.
“Everyone bunch up real nice,” she says. “Where you from Ma’am?”
I realised she was talking to me.
“Uh, New Zealand,” I said a little shyly.
“New Zealand? Wow, that’s faaar!” she says. “Where you from sir?” Asking around the room.
I heard countries like Denmark, China, and England. Proof I was not the only one travelling from far and wide to visit this city.
It wouldn’t have taken long to see the whole place, but we were slowed by our guides intriguing anecdotes about the relics that inhabited each room. I had a burning desire to take photos of everything, but our guide told us specifically not to, and I daren’t be disobedient. After all – she was a bit scary. Alas, my iPhone stayed safely in my pocket as we all shuffled around after her.
“If you look above you, you will see a hole cut out in the ceiling. Do you see?” she asks.
“Mmmhm”, we all echo.
She cupped her hands around her mouth and sang: “Calling out around the world!” in a decisively impressive gospel texture. The hole in the ceiling, ingeniously reverberates her voice, in a sort of poetic echo.
“Back in the day, everyone was wondering … now how do Motown make that sound? Send people to Detroit and find out.” She points to the hole in the ceiling and says cheekily, “No one could match our sound!”
Next, we gathered around an old candy bar vending machine. In traditional fifties elegance it was inconveniently clunky, and took up most of the room. Inside were seven slots to hold a candy bar each.
“You see here,” she says, gesturing at the slots.
“This was a favourite spot for all of our musicians, we had to refill daily. We told our employer that he could put whatever candy bar he wanted in any of the six slots on the right or left side. However, he had to put Babe Ruth in the middle one, ‘cos that was Stevie Wonder’s favourite.”
The final stop was the recording studio in the basement and you didn’t even have to try to be impressed that you were standing in the room that had recorded some of the most iconic music of the last century - the likes of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and the Temptations. The makeshift sound proofing was still cladded to the wall.
“Gather round, gather round,” she says to us enthusiastically “Right, ya’ll know the words to My Girl by The Temptations right?”
“Mmhmm” we echo.
“I got sunshiiiiiine,” she starts to sing. “On a cloudy daaaay.”
“Come on join in,” she says encouragingly.
We all looked at each other, and shuffled uncomfortably. Either because her voice was so good, or we were all shy, we half started to sing somewhat reluctantly.
“Nah, come on guys, you can do better than that!” she yells encouragingly. “Here maybe this will help. You need to jive and move your feet from left to right, and clap on each beat” she instructs us.
“Left – clap – right – clap… When its coooold outside … I’ve got the month of Maaaay,” she sings.
What do you know, the jiving did help!
We jived, we clapped, we sang. By the time the chorus came round the room was filled with the sounds of our voices, as we laughed and danced with each other. For the length of a song, our big group of international strangers were all friends.
By the time I got back to the hostel, Brandon was at the table waiting for me. I felt so guilty for forgetting my promise to have a beer.
“Don’t worry ‘bout it. S’all guud. I know a great place” he says cheerfully.
His choice was a square, brick pub called Tommy’s Detroit, right on the riverside banks. Built in the 1840’s, its location made it a popular stop in the prohibition days for smuggling illegal Canadian liquor across the border. In fact, the basement still homed the entrance to the underground railway, a sticker for “Sanitube” condoms stuck on the wall next to the entrance.
Inside Tommy’s, the duke box’s Martha & The Vandellas "Dancing in the Streets" was fighting for competition with the whistles and cheers coming from the college basketball semis on TV. I don’t think it was bothering the only other two patrons in the place, as the pair were in an animated discussion regarding the defence strategies of the Wisconsin Badgers, and its star player “Frank the Tank”. They were sitting a few stools apart so whether they knew each other or not I’m not sure. But that’s why people invented pubs, so strangers could become friends.
“Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat? sings Brandon to the song, swishing his frizzy hair in time to the music. “… All we need to music, sweet music, There’ll be music everywhere …”
We ordered two corned beef sandwiches and a pint each, and took a seat at the back of the pub. Well, I say a pint, more like a large glass. Americans have no idea how to do beer, in my very well-researched opinion.
“So, how did your studio thing go today?” I ask.
“Good yeah, I like what I’ve recorded so far. Sooo nice to be back. I think I’ll be finished my tape in a few days.”
I just couldn’t help myself, "Tape? Didn’t know anyone did tapes anymore? How am I ever going to listen to that?” I said playfully.
“That’s all part of it myyystery”
I smile, and ask him. “So what got you into music then?”
“I want to change the world.” So very matter-of-factly.
“…and your saxophone is going to do that?” I say mockingly.
The bar tender arrives with our sandwiches, and instead of being concerned at the colour of corned beef, I’m worrying I’ve offended Brandon. But he’s not the offendable type. He grins, and says:
“You hear this song playing?”
“It’s from the days of Motown, one of the classics actually. Anyways, when Motown first started musicians initially had to hide the fact that they were black, because of racism at the time...
… and when it eventually came out who they were, people still went to their concerts, but the audience would be segregated between whites and blacks.”
“I’m not quite sure I follow you?” I say.
“By the end of the concert, the whole audience had thrown aside their chairs and were dancing hand in hand together, black with white. The music brought them together.”
He pauses for a sip of beer and continues.
“Music is hope. Music is sharing. Music is colour blind. Music is love. For that one moment, the world forgot the racial problems and danced to the beat as one…
Music changes the world. Maybe not in legislature or in really big, big ways. But, you don’t have to win all the fights to make a difference.
I don’t know, you know? Just, I don’t know. Never give up on things,” he grins, before attempting to eat his sandwich with one hand.
I just sat there watching him, wondering how anything so wise could have come out of someone who drew a “blood-dragon”.
A few mornings later, steam was misting my glasses over another mug of coffee. I was feeling better, even “re-joov-inated” after my few days alone in Detroit, but mornings were still hard. Some things don’t change I guess. I hadn’t seen Brandon again since Tommy’s, but seeing as I was leaving this morning, I just wanted to say goodbye.
I hadn’t seen him, so I started packing – well stuffing - my bag. Amidst the chaos I noticed something that shouldn’t have been there, on the shelf next to my bunk.
It was a hand-painted, fluorescent-orange tape, which had been deliberately scuffed with sandpaper to make it look even shoddier than it was. I don’t know if I had really expected anything else from Brandon.
The note said: “For you. If it’s worth it, and you really want to listen, you’ll find a way. Keep in touch”.
Six months later:
Coffee stains mixed with dust had made the buttons on the tape player stiff to push, and a lonely spider crawled out of the deck. I placed the scuffed tape inside and hit play.
Soon, the unique fusion of Brandon’s cheerful outlook, laced with his hazel, fizzy haired personality, began seeping into the air. It was that type of music that makes you smile unexpectedly, even on the worst of days.
It made me think back to Detroit, and how he had gone there for inspiration, and in that moment I knew why I’d fallen in love with the city.
It was its people.
There was no pretentiousness of Hollywood, no glamour of New York. Detroit was visibly a wreck, inhabited by those that were living in squalor. And yet, there was such a resilient charm to the whole place. A happiness about it, a strength to it, a big fat middle finger up to such long spent discrimination and hatred. An artistic charm that rose above the wreckage and riot smoke. It was inspiring to say the least. There was hope for Detroit.
“What do you think?” I asked my husband.
“I like it,” he says, his thumb tapping my hand in time to the music, as I cradle my head into his chest.
You were right Brandon, it was worth the effort. Never give up on things.
Stand proud in your ruin,
your despair, your distrust.
Fight battles. Wallow. Stagger.
Cry frail, if you must.
Your tears will stain the floorboards,
weary from the dust.
But be bright in your shadows,
have pride in your pain.
What was once great, will always be,
and will be,