20 years of underground 

The lush ballroom of the Ramada Inn at Cass and Bagley was a glittering paradise for Detroit’s upper crust in the 1950s, hosting lavish social functions and Detroit’s venerable auto show.

Today, the gleaming wooden dance floor is long gone, replaced by blackened concrete where a throng of black-clad revelers sway and stomp to pulsating dark beats. The inky walls are splattered with twisted renderings of faces and other bizarre imagery; the hallways are jammed with an eye-popping cast of characters that resemble extras from a Tim Burton flick.

Welcome to the Leland City Club.

More than just a fad-du-jour for the misanthropic mall-cultured youth of today, City Club is a living, breathing piece of history and a veritable institution. Last weekend, the undisputed champion of Detroit’s underground clubs celebrated its (disputed) 20-year anniversary — a virtual eternity in the world of nightspots.

It all started back in 1978, when real estate entrepreneur Mike Higgins bought the Women’s City Club, a social club dating from the 1920s, located behind the State Theatre. Higgins turned it into a live venue, bringing in cutting-edge performers like the Stray Cats, Nina Hagen and the Dead Kennedys — a far cry from primly proper ladies’ teas.

In 1980, Higgins bought the Leland House hotel (now the Ramada). Legendary Detroit scenester/punk-rock businessman Stirling approached Higgins and pitched the idea of a goth/New Wave/punk club. Hence, the Liedernacht, which means “night song” in German, was born.

Higgins says the Liedernacht opened in November 1983, but Stirling claims opening day was Pearl Harbor Day — Dec. 7, 1984, a date corroborated by a 1985 Detroit Free Press article. The confusion over the opening date is emblematic of the club’s quirky charm — we’re talking about the same place where a missing door in the women’s bathroom wasn’t replaced for five years.

One of Stirling’s first tasks was to hire DJs; among them was an unknown from Belleville who garnered a Saturday night residency.

That was Derrick May, now internationally renowned superstar and director of the festival formerly known as the DEMF.

Local artist and collector of all things bizarre Tim Caldwell was hired to project vintage film reels on the dance floor. He fondly recalls his early days at the club.

“We would get bored, and I would mess around with Derrick, and he would mess around with me,” says Caldwell. “He taught me how to scratch a record.”

“The Smiths’ ‘How Soon is Now’ was on heavy rotation,” recalls Caldwell. “You could hear it five times a night there. I’m sure you can still hear it there today.”

Other staples included Dead or Alive, Kraftwerk, Bauhaus, Jesus and Mary Chain, and early Skinny Puppy.

Stirling’s original format was goth on Fridays, May on Saturdays, and a hardcore punk night on Sundays.

“The crowd was different every night,” he says. “Punk wasn’t that old of a genre at the time, and they didn’t use words like electronica or techno. It was all very danceable.”

Liedernacht was an instant phenomenon. John Waters’ darling drag queen Divine performed live there. Even Neal Rubin (!) wrote about the club, in his pre-column days at the News. Flipping through a scrapbook, Stirling points to photos of Liedernacht patrons, bedecked in the finest of ’80s New Wave punk: tight pants, big hair, safety pins shoved through flesh and leather, and swirling eyeliner designs nicked from Cleopatra.

“It was so much fun,” recalls Roxanne Morrison, former Liedernacht bartender. “Back then you had goths, punks, transvestites, and everyone got along. It was very united.”

Stirling left the club in 1985 to pursue other projects, and the Liedernacht was rechristened the Leland City Club. Gradually, the format shifted to primarily industrial music, and has continually morphed over the years, dipping into metal, techno and Euro-dance. These days, a bubbly electronic dance genre known as “synthpop” is all the rage.

Higgins says the DJs and customers dictate the music.

“There have been a number of changes over the years, but it’s always been underground, always been on the cutting edge” he says. “There’s a real freedom of expression as far as the entertainment.”

The club is a must visit for savvy national acts breezing through town. A partial list of celebrity visitors includes Skinny Puppy, Depeche Mode, the Beastie Boys, Smashing Pumpkins, Public Enemy, Rob Zombie, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Terence Trent D’Arby, and, of course, Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson. U2 was supposed to show up in ’85, but the line was so long the members turned around and left.

City Club is the best people watching in Detroit. While the goths of yesteryear favored strictly black ensembles, today’s crowd sports screaming orange latex mini-dresses, reflective cyber gear, and billowing heads of brightly colored faux dreadlocks.

Security is strict: no cell phones, spikes, chains, aerosol containers, mini flashlights, weapons of mass destruction, and so forth; expect an airport security-style pat down upon entering. It’s only open on Fridays and Saturdays, and they don’t kick you out until 4 a.m. In true children of the night fashion, no one really shows up before midnight.

Despite its hardened exterior and sometimes frightful-looking patrons, the club has a streak of goodwill. Sybil Carter, manager for 18 years, says patrons regularly donate money and food to local charities.

“We sent care packages during Desert Storm, we do Toys for Tots every year,” she says. “A few years ago, some of our customers committed suicide, and we raised money to help pay for the funerals.”

The underground goth club with the heart of gold.

Twenty years is an incredibly long run for a club — most nightspots barely pass the five-year mark — and even more staggering for a place that does zero advertising; there isn’t even a sign to mark the entrance.

What’s the secret to success?

For one, cover has never crept above $4 — refreshing in comparison to astronomically stupid cover charges of $10-$20 that are in vogue right now. It also has a distinctly downscale vibe: It’s either a charming dive or a disgusting shit hole, depending on your tolerance for grime. In other words, if you can’t handle the occasional pile of puke in the bathroom sink, you’re better off at Bleu.

Marc Breckenridge has frequented the club since 1990, drawn by the industrial sound track and the “unique, open and outgoing regulars.”

“City Club is an intriguing cross-section of music-loving socializers,” says Breckenridge. “I’ve met a lot of good friends there. I’ve met other musicians there. … I have even fallen in love there. The place can have quite an effect.”

Perhaps the key to City Club’s success, however, is that it caters to a subculture with very few clubbing alternatives. Where else can you turn up in a head-to-toe black rubber ensemble and blend right in? Other venues have tried to capture the industrial audience, with varying degrees of success. Yet City Club, love it or hate it, remains a constant.

Speaking of which, it seems many loyal patrons have a thriving love/hate relationship with the bar — illustrated by such affectionate nicknames as “Shitty Club” — yet continue to come back, year after year.

I remember the first time I set foot in City Club, nine years ago. I went from complete immersion and adoration to total revulsion in five years flat. I stopped going regularly a few years ago, but still return once in a blue moon, just for old times’ sake. It’s sort of like the ex-boyfriend you keep going back to.

It’s also a virtual requirement for Detroiters of any musical affiliation, simply for the experience alone. Ask among your friends, and you’ll likely hear some stories about that one time they went to City Club.

Or, as one-time regular Linda Stolarski, who attended on and off for 11 years, puts it:

“I explain it as the Disneyland of industrial bars. Everyone’s gotta go at least once.”

 

City Club is open Fridays and Saturdays, from 10 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. It’s located at 400 Bagley in the Ramada; ask the kids in black where the door is.

Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail sklein@metrotimes.com.

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