On just another mild evening in Royal Oak, Tino Gross called Johnny Evans to lay down some saxophone tracks for a Howling Diablos song in his basement-turned-studio. I then received a subsequent call from my brother Johnny and gladly accepted the opportunity to join them as they recorded tracks for their new album, Ultra Sonic Gas Can. Fitting that we return to a basement, since I'd been the youngest sister who'd stood at the top of the basement stairs listening to brother Johnny practice his saxophone for hours down below. Though I'd moved away from Detroit years ago, for a job teaching high school English in the Maryland suburbs, respect for my roots continues to deepen, as does my admiration for Johnny, who has remained. He's in It — Detroit, his music and the Diablos — for the duration.
Tino Gross' personal studio is a simple space, with a low ceiling common in 1930s-style bungalows. Gross mans the computer and the ProTools software. Evans stands behind a microphone on one side of a wall the color of lime sherbet. "Funky Parade," an upbeat, New Orleans-style blues track, plays through the speakers, while Gross leans back in his chair, flutters his fingers, and makes eye contact with Evans through the window between them.
"Fill in those spots right there. ..."
Detroit Music Awards from 2005, 2006 and 2007 line the base of the window. On Gross' table, a framed, signed photograph of Steve Farmer, a Detroit rock 'n' roller, is displayed alongside another framed picture of Gross' British Spaniel, Nigel. Farmer played with Amboy Dukes in the late '60s and early '70s, a band led by Ted Nugent. The more time spent in Gross' company, the more Detroit rockers he cites, and with some research, their history, influence, relationship and relevance take shape. He's not just name-dropping. He's reciting, in much the same manner as ancient traditions, his ancestry — his musical parentage. And, as it goes with good parents, he sees them as heroes.
Gross shakes his head back and forth, his thumbs meet his fingertips in rapid succession like the gesture of chattering birds; he punches in the air to emphasize a beat. He and Evans communicate seamlessly, layering sound on sound with only brief pauses as tracks gradually develop into music. Gross' black tennis shoes keep the time, ball-heel, ball-heel. He giggles as Evans finishes the song with a standard walking line, bap-bup-bup bup bup-pa-dup bup. Evans joins Gross on the other side of the wall to listen to the playback. Evans' toe taps on his flip-flop, Gross' shoes continue seesawing back and forth. He lifts his shoulders dramatically as Evans' solo plays back and hits a sustained note.
"Sinclair's gonna love this. He's gonna be proud," Gross says, adjusting his fedora. He's referring to John Sinclair, the activist who became manager for the rock band MC5 in the '60s and then manager of Gross and Evans' '80s band, the Urbations. Sinclair moved to New Orleans in the early '90s and finally to Amsterdam in order to live in a society that made sense to him, with public mass transportation, national health care and legalization of marijuana. Sinclair is a fan of the Howling Diablos and watched their rise in popularity, proudly, from afar.
Sinclair observed the band building a following among its own people, which, in his opinion, isn't done anymore in the music business, where careers are instead dependent on promotion, television and the media rather than actual talent. Money changes the artist, and in a sense, kills the artist, in Sinclair's estimation, whose credibility for matching beliefs with creative expression and action is best illustrated in his organization of the White Panthers before being jailed and later memorialized by the John Lennon and Yoko Ono song, "John Sinclair."
Evans and Gross pause to set up amps and fiddle with harmonica sounds, a particular "recipe" — they joke such a recipe is the stuff of "blues secrets." As Gross carries in another amp from a back room and Evans hovers close by, their postures are stooped, their heads brushing the ceiling as if they're physically too big for the space, or the space itself has shrunk in a world created by Lewis Carroll, a space they must shrink to fit.
The two friends survived the adventures of the record industry in the late 1990s after receiving a contract from Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records. Simultaneously, they found themselves grieving the unexpected death of their dear manager, David Leone, and navigating a world of lawyers and discovering a record industry that, despite expressing a strong interest, decided that their age mattered more. The Howling Diablos would reflect upon what felt like a surreal death, but not linger on failures. Evans suspects that he will encounter failures again with an acceptance that it is part of life, part of a musician's life. Gross sees the music business as "avenues of reality." People who focus on commercial success might see their band as "failures — or old guys who are living in a fog," but their band did not follow the typical narrative, breaking apart in bitter disappointment, starting a new band or giving up altogether.
Eight Mile Road, running along Detroit's northern boundary, serves both as a borderline and the personification of a character with creepy inclinations, which can be, sadly, all too real. A.J. Abdallah, once a percussionist for the Howling Diablos, owned a music studio on Eight Mile. He'd put it up for sale, a place he touted as being a location where Eminem had once recorded, and where on Jan. 2, 2005, Abdallah would be discovered shot dead. The murderer, Terrence Terrell Moore, had a tattoo on his forehead, the number 13, (which was his nickname). So the murderer, "13," was easy to identify when he went into a pawnshop with one of the stolen studio mixing boards. He'd had a history of firearm possession, fraud and car theft. He'd been angry with Abdallah because he felt he'd been overcharged at the studio. So, he shot him. Twice.
Gross remembers meeting Abdallah at an open mic in the mid-'90s, as a "little man on the floor, legs crossed with bongos between his knees, just flailing away and lookin' cool." Gross invited him to join the Diablos at their regular Sunday night gig at the Bear's Den, a now-defunct bar known for its giant, authentic, stuffed polar bear, standing fully erect in the entranceway. Gross encouraged Abdallah to keep practicing and, over time, as the band's popularity began to rise and a long line of fans regularly circled the Bear's Den on Sunday nights, Abdallah became a conga player and band member. He added something special, according to Gross, with backup singing an octave higher than the others and creative English, flavored by his Jordanian accent. In the Howling Diablos' 2005 CD, Car Wash, the liner dedicates the recording to "our fallen brothers" including Abdallah, along with their manager, David Leone.
Soon after Gross and Evans finish laying down "Funky Parade" tracks in the basement, the Howling Diablos meet in a large rehearsal space along Woodward Avenue in Royal Oak. Their regular drummer, Johnny "Bee" Badanjek, can't make their upcoming gig. Bee has his own gig having recently revived his original band, the Rockets, well known for their 1979 hits "Turn up the Radio" and "Oh Well." The Diablos call upon Jerome Day, their previous drummer, to fill in. Gross assumes his old DJ persona, speaking into the microphone about Day — "The history, the man, the myth, the pageantry, the poetry — he's the drummer from Green Bottle, right there." Green Bottle was produced in a time of promotion and high commercial hopes, of a CD release party filling the State Theatre in downtown Detroit to capacity. Later, Day would leave Detroit for L.A., hoping to succeed as a studio musician and instead returning to Detroit, finding work with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels (his current gig), switching places, really, with Badanjek, who had played with the original Detroit Wheels in the 1960s.
"Tell me what you need to look at here and we won't fuck around forever," Evans says to Day. As they run through the set list, Day says he's good with all of the tunes from Green Bottle and their later blues work on Car Wash, but he wants to practice "California Sun." Gross had sung lead vocal for the tune when he was the Urbations' drummer. Day would've been but an adolescent when Evans and Gross performed "California Sun" with the Urbations. The '80s is evoked on the back of that band's first album cover, photos of Evans wearing a sleeveless purple shirt with black polka dots, and a curly mullet, and Gross wearing a headband around a full head of hair. By contrast, Gross isn't seen without his fedora when recording or rehearsing today, and Evans' shoulder-length straight hair is a dyed auburn. He no longer wears sleeveless muscle shirts.
"It starts out on the toms, and should sound something like 'the Ramones meets the Cowsills,'" Gross tells Day. The song, "California Sun" had been made popular by the Rivieras in 1964, a kind of surfer tune by rockers in the Midwest. As they near the end, Evans knocks his fist in the air four times, indicating to Day the song's conclusion, a gesture unseen by Gross.
"Bup-bup-bup-bup. You got it!" Gross congratulates Day, somewhat amazed.
"Thanks, T — I knew that..."
"Brilliant! Jerome must be going, 'What happened to the Diablos? Did they turn into —'"
"Is this the Surfaris?" Day interrupts and carries the joke. "What's next? 'Wipe Out?'" He hits the toms in the classic solo segment.
"We throw it in as a cover. People love it," Gross assures him.
They are practicing for an outdoor gig in Ann Arbor. And Gross is correct. The next day children will jump around in front of the stage, a heavy-set, gray-haired man will jerk about somewhat violently, and a couple from a dance studio will gracefully foxtrot. A man seated in the rows of plastic chairs will turn to his wife after the Diablos rap out the last four notes of the song and say with pleasure, "Now, that's an oldie!"
At the rehearsal, Evans continues to create a song list. Day suggests they rehearse "Gone So Long," a blues tune written by Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside, a legend whose music rose to national recognition and appreciation in the '90s. The Diablos' rendition of "Gone So Long" is a reflection of Gross' talents. He produced two R.L. Burnside albums down in Mississippi before Burnside died in the fall of 2005 at the age of 78. The framed artwork of Burnside's A Bothered Mind CD, a simple image of the old, disheveled bluesman on a country road, hangs in Gross' basement recording studio. The Diablos don't typically play cover tunes, but the Burnside song seems an homage to the past, and authentic in terms of the band's sensibility. They have a keen sense of their place on the musical arc.
Gross has a reverence and an awareness of the legacy of this city and some of the great acts with his own blues history dating back to the early '60s when he played drums for John Lee Hooker, as well as Big Walter Horton, Otis Rush, Eddie Taylor and many other greats.
The band pauses before playing through "Gone So Long."
"'Green Bottle' ..." Someone suggests for the song list. The bass noodles patiently in the background of the conversation.
"I mean, 'Car Wash,' I'm cool with, ..." Day considers. The bass player bounces a repetitive fifth interval between two tones, plucking the strings to himself.
"'Green Bottle,' you're cool with that, right?" Evans asks. The bass sounds almost sitar-like and haunting as if the bass player were accompanying music in his imagination.
"Yeah. There's something in 'Gone So Long' that's like, weird. It's always weird to me. ..." Day attempts to articulate his recollection, but Evans interrupts.
"Let's play it. Just listen and let's play it." Evans says as the guitar immediately strikes a rhythmic introductory vamp and his harmonica joins the mix.
The bass falls right into place. Mo Hollis has played bass with the Diablos almost from their inception in 1990 when they'd served as the entertainment for an opening night of Gary Grimshaw's poster art at the Michigan Gallery. Hollis is understated, a slight, attractive black man with small rows of braids. He sees Detroit as an industrial town that, somewhere between corruption and stupidity, destroyed its blues legacy. He lived in Hamtramck back in the 1960s when the state of Michigan ran the interstate highway, I-75, directly through the black center of commerce.
Hollis remembers when he used to play on that freeway when they were building it and believes it was the state's ignorance that destroyed the culture that propped up Detroit. He'll say that Gross knows better than himself, having played with Hooker, but he imagines the '50s to the '60s, when walking down the city street could mean bumping into B.B. King — or John Lee Hooker or Miles Davis, who lived there for a while. Hollis resurrects an actual, amazing, creative center and a place where black people would send their children to college, and flatly reports the actual outcome, a community pushed back into poverty out of stupidity.
The Diablos' recording for 2005's Car Wash, in contrast to this year's Ultra Sonic Gas Can, had been pared down considerably. Their range of rock, blues, jazz and funk spanning 20 years of music-making had become more and more about feel, physicality, a beat. The paring down is well-represented on the Howling Diablos cover for Car Wash, picturing an abandoned car wash — a corner shop for a Detroit neighborhood surrounded by leafless trees, unplowed snow, faded and hand-written plywood signs, and the five members of the Diablos standing informally on the corner; Gross holds a phone receiver at what is probably one of the last public phones anywhere in a city today. They're smiling as they offer Gross their cell phones. The car wash's dreary desolation matches the Diablos' sound.
Hollis believes that because of the city's failure, people just start doing things straight from the heart. He believes out of chaos always comes really good music.
The Diablos recorded the blues as if auguring the dark storm clouds of financial strife that would continue to gather over the city — a sound Gross refers to as "dirty, filthy, trash dumpster blues, the kind blaring out of a corner bar." Hollis is proudest of Car Wash, seeing it as an amalgamation of blues and soul — and admiring that, as a band, they reinvented it and reinvented it and reinvented it. For him, at the root of it all, it's still blues music, and that, he believes, carries across the world.
In 2005, the Diablos' blues were just the right prescription, for themselves and for a city in need of a groove, and an idea, a message: Keep on moving.
Evans suggests the band rehearse their song "6th Street Opera," and immediately his sax cuts through the air with a wailing, (as in haunting), opener and stops mid-line.
"Hey, let's work on — Evil, let's work on our thing, man," Evans suggests.
"Yeah, what should our thing be?" Eric "Evil" Gustafson, the guitarist inquires.
"I don't know, but I always hear you trying to get a thing going ... "
"Well, I used to wanna do a counter thing — but then I realized it's better when you do the opener."
" ... But the other part ... where we go, uh ... "Evans blows a melody. "The thing when we come to the verses. I always hear you fiddling around in there — "
"Oh, like, ..." Gustafson plucks tones from a minor scale. Evans adds his opener over the guitar line.
Voices collect one on top of another. "Perfect, that sounds cool," says Gustafson. "That sounds fantastic," says Evans.
"That sounds great," says Day.
Evans plays his opener and stops once again mid-line —
"Now, here's an idea: Why don't you try to do the, uh, thing that you do on the other thing on the get-go. ..."
"Oooh!" Gustafson enthuses with immediate understanding, and they fold into the opener together with ease and a kind of magic. The band, that has been patiently observing Evans and Gustafson, responds and they play "6th Street Opera" with togetherness, a unity in timing and feel that comes with experience.
The guitar pumps steady rhythmic dissonance like a car horn, the drums patter like adrenaline, and the groove is dramatic. Gross' lyric describes Iggy Pop pushing the boundaries, and summer nights on a city street when everyone senses the energy and drama. The music can easily elicit a sense of or a scene in Detroit, a scene the Diablos know well, having performed years ago at their friend Jim McGovern's old bar, the Park Club, on Woodward and Six Mile, an area notorious for crackheads, a 24-hour gay porn video shop, and sleazy motels. The club was a manifestation of knickknacks, hockey sticks, long tables and mismatched chairs, imitation wood paneling and clunky old pool tables — all beneath plastic ceiling tiles colored red, blue, green and yellow. The long bar frequently featured a variety of people perched on stools: fat, gray-haired white men in business suits, bland, middle-aged black women, a scrawny black man, a beatnik and a man with a thick red moustache who wore a straw hat and loomed at the doorway. He might have been McGovern himself, the proprietor. The Diablos' "6th Street Opera" evokes activities closer to midnight, when, as Gross says, "everyone's got their buzz on" — it's a time where anything goes and anything can happen.
Guitarist Gustafson leads them into "Funky Parade" without much conversation. It's more playful and upbeat in contrast to the dirty blues of Car Wash. Day stops mid-song and suggests a snare rhythm like a standard New Orleans march — and Evans picks up at the sax solo to integrate Day's suggested snare rhythm.
The band plays two more tunes, seemingly less for practice and more for pleasure.
"All right — let's try 'Blues King,'" Gross announces.
"One ... two ..." Day clicks his sticks and they launch into a comfortable tale of an older blues man living in California with diabetes, taking naps, listening to Muddy Water recordings, and listening to his grandson enjoying rap. Gustafson plays a long, well-developed guitar solo that captivates like the storyline lyric. He builds emotion through a combination of recurring musical themes.
"Evil, that was Evil!" Evans says admiringly at the conclusion of "Blues King." "When you started going way up with that little finger, I was like, 'Damn, bro!'"
"I discovered that with whatshisname? Uh — Marky Pasman."
"Yeah, yeah — that's killer."
"Yeah, a discovery thing happening," Gustafson giggles. "Thanks."
They pack up their equipment and Evans hands out directions for the upcoming outdoor gig.
"Feels really good," Day says to Gross suddenly.
"Fun playin' with you, man," Gross replies.
It seems like so much work: to rehearse, to meet up with the band members on time, pack the vans, drive an hour, unpack the equipment, assemble the equipment on stage, perform for an hour and a half, focus on making music, make a connection with the band members, and entertain the audience. But Evans measures his success in terms of working, creating and cooperating within the world he lives in, a way of perceiving his journey that is well-represented in the title of the Diablos' 2009 album, Divine Trash Highway. This performance is not a glamorous gig like the filled-to-capacity State Theater, or opening for Tom Petty in front of a crowd of 15,000 fans.
It is hot outside at 5 p.m. when they arrive and unpack their equipment. They don't play until 7. Dave Swain, an old comrade from Evans and Gross' band the Urbations wears a Howling Diablos T-shirt and greets them as they set up their equipment. He taught Gross how to play the guitar. He ran a big band, the II V I, that included Evans' early alto saxophone playing years, the Wayne State University years.
He recognizes the Diablos have an advantage, having lived fully as musicians. "A mid-life crisis is never an issue: 'Oh! I should've been in a rock band. ... Wait a minute, I am in a rock band — and successful at it," Swain muses with dry humor and admiration. His hands tremble as he eats his festival ice cream with a plastic spoon.
Fortunately, the sun shifts off the stage. Cooler temperatures incline people to move in closer towards the Diablos; they clap their hands and move freely. The sun yellows on the Bell Tower at the center of the college campus. People picnic on blankets in the shade and grassy patches on either side of the concrete walkways.
Gross is the connection to the audience, calling out to them, 'How y'all doin'? Make some noise!"
It's a different scene compared to a gig at a club, bar or theater. Here there are families and couples, food booths and passers-by. The Diablos conclude with "Go Gene Go" — and the crowd gathers and cheers loudly at the big finish.
Gross is unstoppable, with boyish looks and a sense of humor. He considers "Go Gene Go" one of his best songs. The autobiographical lyrics tell the tale of childhood disillusionment and the moment Gross discovered drummer Gene Krupa. While Day's drums thump on the outdoor stage like Krupa's "Sing Sing Sing," and Evans' tenor saxophone chromatically vamps in rhythm, Gross tells the tale of his parents divorcing when he was 7 years old. While growing up in northwest Detroit in a time when divorce was unusual, Gross learned about breaking the mold. His mother, a painter and artist who dated many beatniks, once gave him a Gene Krupa album. Gross sings, "I knew I'd be all right if I could keep a beat." All the musicians contribute to the beat for this particular Krupa show-stopper. Jimi Hendrix's 1967 Monterey Pop Festival stunt of setting his guitar on fire had inspired Gross years ago to wonder, "Why can't I do that on drums?" and henceforth, the Diablos entertained crowds with a "Go Gene Go" flaming finale (until the tragic 2003 death of 96 fans during a Rhode Island, Station Club pyrotechnic rock show of the band, Great White). Older video footage preserves the anticipated ritual in which Gross lights two sticks on fire and strikes a lone drum head accompanied by the band's hypnotic drum set, congas, tambourine and cowbell. Gross wears a genie hat, and he lights the drum head on fire, conjuring the flames with hovering hands, willing the flames to grow. The crowd's screams and cheers rise as Gross kicks the drum over and subdues the fire.
Hendrix's flaming guitar could have easily reflected the social unrest of the late '60s, the chaos that sent a teenage Gross hurrying home to watch the smoke rise over Detroit streets. It was the same time that John Sinclair had managed the MC5, a time he recognized as a mass movement, an opportunity to change the way American society was organized.
"We failed completely," Sinclair lamented when recently asked whether or not his efforts in the 1960s made a difference. "Now," he said, "there's no movement. There's two wars going on, war profits tied to the media, and no movement."
On the evening of this outdoor gig, there is no fire. A drummer friend named Muruga, as well as their previous guitar player Jeff Grand, join the Diablos on stage. The finale is drawn out, extending every instrumental flourish. They linger on an excessive, classic "big finish."
It's 8:30 p.m. Time to pack up the equipment all over again.
A couple, who purchased the band's Green Bottle CD, lingers outside of the performers' tent.
"Excuse me," the woman asks strangers around the tent's entrance. "They announced that the band would be available for autographs at the merch tent, but no one is there. Can you get this signed for us?" She is holding the disc tightly with both hands. "We saw them at a bar in the Comerica Park too. They were great."
Evans emerges from the tent and signs the CD. He's tired. A man with a swollen, bandaged calf and a gray-haired Mohawk wants a CD but can't walk the distance to the merchandise tent, and asks around until someone takes his money and returns with it. The bassist, Mo Hollis, signs the man's CD with a pen, procured from a woman's purse.
Richard "Red," a large bellied ex-motorcycle club member and the Diablos roadie stands just outside the performance tent too. He'd remained stone-faced for much of the event, but breaks into a smile when Evans says, "Hey, thanks for your help, man." Red's face softens for a brief moment.
"I had fun," he says simply.
Evans returns to his home just outside of Detroit. He lives on a tree-lined street with attractive brick homes, not far from a large cemetery. His basement, like Gross' basement, is a creative space where Evans' wife, Bette, works in her design studio. Her artwork is on every Diablos T-shirt, album cover, bumper sticker and concert poster. They've rearranged the basement space to make room for Evans' instrument repair shop, previously located for 30 years at Royal Music down the street, but this past year, between the economy and some management blunders, the store closed for good.
Evans, despite the depressed economy, has work. The Howling Diablos are a working band, having seen the best and worst of gigs, even recently performing on the floor of a suburban pizza joint, a circumstance some artists might consider intolerable. The recollection of such humble surroundings has Evans quiet with a distant look in his eye.
But asked whether or not it was fun, his reply was immediate with an emphatic period at the end.
The Howling Diablos latest album, Ultra Sonic Gas Can, is available now on vinyl, download and CD.
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