Detroit

Victory

fb4c543b6489242586e2f24991cd0671e35f6ebd_wmeg_00001Today, on Huffington Post San Francisco, I’ve got a piece on the Bay Area’s underground metal scene. Besides being a good excuse to name-check a few of my favorite local bands (Acephalix, for instance), the piece is a paean to underground concerts of all sorts, from punk to metal to bluegrass to hip hop.

I have no idea how the guy managed to sleep through Acephalix, because it was really loud. The San Francisco death metal band emitted a growling, galloping roar, the stuff of bad dreams, and it enveloped the room. The pit, meanwhile, was going off, a hostile ballet of bodies pinging off one another in front of the stage.

But this dude? He was dead to the world, mouth hanging open, slumped against the back wall. Next to him sat an equally incongruous giant stuffed donkey.

It was a Sunday night in early summer, and we were at the Victory warehouse in the Oakland ghostlands, a few blocks from Uptown but worlds away from its hipster sheen.

There’s something special about an underground show. I grew up outside Detroit in the late 1980s, as the city went into freefall. Paradoxically, Detroit’s collapse was great for the scene: there was no shortage of empty places to play, and the police were too busy to care about permitting or zoning. At college in North Carolina a few years later, I went to the occasional backyard bluegrass show. At a house in the woods about 20 miles from town, Teva-ed types sipped moonshine as guys with banjos and mandolins played Ralph Stanley tunes. While working in South Africa a few years ago, I found myself at a hip hop show in a weedy lot in Soweto, the country’s largest black township. While a succession of aspiring MCs jumped around on a makeshift stage, people drank beer and smoked weed, flirting with one another. Guys showed off their tricked-out cars, a parade of spinning rims and superfluous DVD screens mounted to the seats.

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Detroit
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Salad Days

md001Last week, Thought Catalog published an essay of mine on growing up punk in suburban Detroit. It’s a personal piece about high school, the 1980s, skating, and, mostly, the shitty hardcore band I was in. We did, however, have a great name: Moral Decay. Anyway, here it is.

Like thousands of other basement bands across the country at the time, we spent our days skateboarding, building launch ramps in our driveways, and working up new ways to express our dissatisfaction with the world. Plenty of stuff pissed us off. This was 1986, after all, the high Reagan era. The U.S. was always invading some country I had never heard of, and the threat of nuclear war seemed very real. I wasn’t happy at home, either: I didn’t get along with my parents, and they didn’t get along with each other. Plus, I lived in the suburbs of Detroit, which even then had a feral, end-of-days feel. That year, there were nearly 400 arsons in a three-day period. I remember sitting in front of the TV on Halloween night, watching the city burn. [ ... ]

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Politics
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Detroit proto-punk

I was surprised to pick up the Times this morning and see this piece on Death, a Detroit punk band from the early 1970s, a band that was, as the headline so aptly put it, “punk before punk was punk.” Also, these guys were black, in a music scene dominated by Motown on one hand and white rockers like Alice Cooper and Bob Seger on the other. They didn’t fit in, and their record company–which apparently had no idea what to do with them–dropped them after they refused to change their name. They recorded an album but never released it; soon enough, they upped and left Detroit for Vermont, where they became a reggae band. Yeah, truth is stranger than fiction.

I first came across these guys last year on an mp3 blog, a couple songs posted as a stopgap before the full release came out. One of those songs, “Politicians in my eyes,” just blew the doors off: though recorded in 1974, it’s got the buzzsaw guitar work, abrupt tempo changes, and hyper-fast vocals that everybody first heard in Bad Brains five years later. You can hear the anger of those times in the music–the race riots, the war in Vietnam, the general, unshakable feeling that it’s all going to hell and there’s nothing you can do about it. All of that’s in this song. Now that the whole album’s out, you can hear it for yourself. Everybody knows that the MC5 and the Stooges are the godfathers of punk, but these guys deserve a place in the pantheon, too, as the bridge to what followed. So now, more than three decades on, Death gets its due.

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