After Populux scandal, the rock ‘n’ roll resumes 

The return of the Magic Stick

Traversing up the stairs to the Magic Stick now, inside the Majestic complex on Woodward, seemingly little has changed from when the venue was in full operation. At the top of the stairs, the familiar bar is still there, but the ambiance of the place feels different. Less grungy and more refined, the new incarnation of the Magic Stick offers patrons the chance to experience one of Detroit's legendary music venues while also being involved in something new and exciting for the Detroit music scene.

The venue has been in the hands of the Zainea family since 1946, but in 1994, Dave Zainea convinced his dad to let him introduce a nightclub in the complex that already contained a large bowling alley, theater, and bar. While the theater offers space for larger touring acts, the Stick offersa decent-sized room for local and smaller touring bands.

Both Zainea and business partner Dan McGowan, of Crofoot Presents, seem ecstatic about the reopening.

Walking with McGowan through the new Magic Stick, Zainea is quick to divert attention to a flyer on top of the bar advertising the White Stripes as third billing, which seems to only solidify the venue's standing in Detroit's storied garage-rock past.

While other venues like the Gold Dollar and Zoot's Coffee House offered positive reinforcement for local musicians, the Magic Stick was able to offer a larger room and a more inclusive setting. Playing the Magic Stick was like making it big for many musicians in the local scene. This is a tradition Zainea hopes will continue, saying he knows that the Magic Stick became a "cornerstone to the music community."

Both local and worldwide artists took the stage for more than 20 years before the venue closed its doors in 2015, when the Magic Stick changed from a garage-rock haven to a dance nightclub in the middle of that year. The new venue, Populux, replaced the Magic Stick's classic pool tables with DJ equipment and high-tech lights.

The conversion to Populux left many in the local scene disillusioned, including Lee Rosenbloom, a frequent concertgoer and local promoter.

"I understand why they tried Populux. The crowds for the shows at the Magic Stick weren't as big as they used to be. You'd sometimes have touring bands play there to a half-empty room when the same band would pack people in when they played Chicago or Cleveland the next night," Rosenbloom says.

Knowing that the Majestic complex was so closely associated with the Magic Stick, Rosenbloom never believed Populux had a chance. "In all the time it was open, a Populux sign was never even made for the outside or inside. In all that time, the Magic Stick signs were still up all over the place."

One challenge the reopening of the Magic Stick poses for management is competing with clubs that opened in Detroit while the Magic Stick name laid dormant. Speaking as a promoter, Rosenbloom says now that the Magic Stick is back, they'll have to be more aggressive in booking good shows, as clubs like El Club and the Marble Bar have opened since the Stick closed, giving bands more options than they did a year or so ago when the Stick was still in operation.

Rosenbloom fondly remembers downing shots with Jack White before White Stripes shows in the Majestic Cafe — just one example of what the venue means to those who were there in the early days of Detroit garage rock.

Populux closed its doors in July after an anti-Black Lives Matter rant was posted on the club's Twitter account following a mass shooting in Dallas. The tweets were attributed by the club's owners to hacking.

Rather than trying to salvage the Populux venue, Zainea figured it best to return to the reliable Magic Stick name and brand, something that he says offers an "opportunity to pivot" for both the Stick and Detroit's music scene.

"I don't regret the partnership with Amir Daiza [the local promoter who leased Populux from Zainea and ran the venue], but the only thing I regret is the changing of the name," Zainea says. "The Magic Stick name has credibility in Detroit, so we wanted to return to that."

It only seems fitting the Magic Stick makes its return in the same time frame as White's opening of a Third Man Records location in Detroit. With its intense roots from the forefront of Detroit's garage rock scene in the late '90s and early aughts, the Stick could make a full return to form.

It was Zainea's idea to change the upstairs area from a multilane bowling alley to a nightclub, realizing that the Majestic complex could be an all-inclusive entertainment center, while also noticing the steadily rising local music scene in the surrounding Cass Corridor and Midtown areas.

Now that the Magic Stick is returning to its beloved and recognizable name, a pool table has been reinstalled to its rightful place by the rear bar, surrounded by posters on the walls offering shows for bands like the Melvins and Queens of the Stone Age.

The Stick is nicer than before too. The small stage has been updated with a large centered stage, surrounded by state-of-the-art sound equipment that was once used as part of Metallica's touring rig. A brand-new floor has been installed along with brilliantly clean new bathrooms, something anyone familiar with the old venue should be ecstatic about. While Populux is gone, the only things left behind are the light posts, and even then in limited capacity, as Zainea says the lights won't be on at rock shows.

Zainea says he's proud of the direction the venue is heading. "We're having local employees who live in Detroit in Corktown [work] here, a diverse staff."

Patrons are free to roam during shows: If someone wants a slice of pizza, they can walk downstairs, buy it, and return to the show.

The shows at the Magic Stick will reflect "diverse and eclectic booking," according to Zainea and McGowan — something Populux was unable to offer, although the dance club was often packed on show nights.

The energy in Detroit's music scene, and the Zainea's family longtime involvement in it, are reasons to reboot the Magic Stick name, Zainea says. He's not worried about new venues that have opened, either.

"In places like Austin, the live scene thrives," Zainea says. "It shouldn't be a problem for all these venues in the city to be running at the same time; we all work with each other."

While live music events were infrequently held in the Populux space under the Magic Stick name, the venue is completely returning with a Sept. 23 show by the Buzzcocks, who last performed in Detroit at Saint Andrew's Hall.

The Stick now offers increased lines of sight and multiple viewing platforms for those wanting to be away from the crowd action, but still wanting to see the band perform. For musicians, a brand-new green room has been built.

The old Magic Stick is still there in spirit through the posters of the legendary shows held there, but the new incarnation of the Stick offers something new for those interested in both the venue's history and future.

"We're proud to be involved with the Stick again, and we're looking forward to its bright future," Zainea says.

The Buzzcocks headline the official Magic Stick kickoff party with special guests Residuels and Devious Ones at 8 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 23. All ages; tickets are $25 in advance and $28 on the day of the show. 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Visit majesticdetroit.com for more information.

Jarrett Koral is the founder of the record label Jett Plastic Recordings.

More by Jarrett Koral

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