My brothers' bands — proto-college rockers Anne Be Davis (featuring Ray) and cabaret mash-down revue Harry Chronic Jr. (with Lew) — are reuniting this week to benefit the American Cancer Society, a cause near and dear to our hearts. Our mother, Maggie — who had always been so, so supportive of all our musical efforts — passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2006, the day before J Dilla died. I used to say that between Proof, Dilla and my mom, Detroit hip-hop lost three of its greatest emcees that year … and we have a video of Mom at Lew's engagement party rapping over Prince's "Controversy" to prove it.
Music in our household came from Mom, who played piano. On any breezy summer night during high school, we'd come home from whatever backyard party had just been broken up by the cops and walk into a stormy rendering of Rachmaninoff — billowy curtains and all. Or if we had people over late-night, Mom would come throw open the door to the TV room (that we nonetheless referred to as "the library") in her robe, wielding her acoustic guitar — the same kind she'd presented us with one Christmas; she later gave me hers when mine was stolen out of a Majesty Crush tour van in New York. She'd often sit down strumming "Kumbaya" to the confused bemusement of what (we were to quickly surmise) were guests overstaying their welcome: "Someone's singing, Lord," my ass —"Get the hell out of my house so I can go back to sleep."
Our dad was working for Ford in Lansing back then, so our basement became the place where Grosse Pointe kids whose parents didn't want the drum sets and amp stacks in their houses could jam and (good for us!) leave their gear. Gradually, the hour-long drum-and-guitar versions of "I Will Follow" that Lew and I created turned into the ability to actually hold a tune. And then Lew's after-party attempts at Iron Maiden's "Flight of Icarus" yielded to tongue-in-cheek songwriting. These breakthroughs tended to happen at three in the morning, which meant it was often likely we'd look up to see my mom and sister in their robes, sitting at the foot of the basement stairs, patiently but sleepily smiling while half-asleep — or we'd be snapped out of our low-rent Joy Dividing by the "whoosh" of her broom inches from our heads, shooing us out of the place.
Neither Anne Be Davis nor HJCR played into local Detroit scenesterism — nobody would take kids from Grosse Pointe seriously, after all … except Meg White, and you see where that's gotten her.
Anne Be Davis formed for the 1987 Grosse Pointe "Battle of the Bands," but was soon opening for such long-forgotten local heroes as Second Self and Crossed Wire. They were frequently the opening band at St. Andrew's Hall downtown. The group soon found its own audience of suburban kids drawn to the band's natural fiber take on melodic college rock — so much so that many of those kids grew up, found the ABDB page on Facebook and asked for — and got — a reunion. Manager Kevin McDermott reconnected with Ray, singer Dave Harris (Buddhist artist, now in Port Huron), drummer Sande Satoskar (software developer, North Carolina) and guitarist Julian Go (sociology professor, University of Boston, "publishing articles and books about American imperialism") and started the "Anne Be Davis Reunion" group. "We had over 100 fans within two weeks," McDermott says.
Then the Chronic, inspired by Lew hanging out at Anne Be Davis rehearsals after school, grew from a dorm-room Beck-like vibe to an 11-member cabaret act that builds an always entertaining — and not always because of the schadenfreude — bridge between Goober and the Peas' fun and the Afghan Whigs mash-funk, replete with "Chronette" backup singers. As their bio puts it: "All but the youngest among us are under big mortgages, demanding jobs and growing families, and care deeply about high quality em-effin' rock."
They care about causes as well. The Chronic has become a philanthropic juggernaut, says Lew, "the biggest money pit in town" for local charities. In fact, the NICU at St. John Hospital has a plaque commemorating one gig in honor of our niece. So on a day that saw Lew's 4-year-old namesake learn to ride a bike, he still found time to juggle morning show appearances in Little Rock, stumping for Ford's new cars (Taurus SHO's back, y'all!) to talk to Ray and me in our garage studio in Long Beach, Calif. where we honored the legacy of ABDB and forgotten '80s Detroit bands; praised the idea of the well-executed cover version, and gave Jack White some shit. Here goes:
Lew: Where are you guys?
Ray: We're sittin' in the studio.
MT: Where're you?
Lew: I'm sitting in my car. We just got done practicing. The Chronettes sound awesome. They're singing the chorus to [Joy Division's] "Love Will Tear Us Apart." [Son] Lewie learned to how to ride a bike today — put 'im on a small bike, just like Kitty Hawk, probably just five seconds — and he just went.
MT: So, Lew, how were you and the Chronic influenced by Anne Be Davis?
Lew: Anne Be Davis was just so goddamn innocent. Dave [Harris, singer] said he had a shitty voice but he practiced by singing along to radio. I was also that guy in an Explorer, in my suit during rush hour, screaming along to the radio. I hated going home after school, so I'd go to Anne Be Davis practices. And you guys were writing "Too Much Weight for My Shoes" over the drum line from OMD's "Forever Live and Die." It was the first time I heard how songs could be triggered from other tunes. I didn't realize that later it would be the definition of our whole band. You guys would drop in "3's The Magic Number" or "Nobody Does It Better" to make these extended dance mixes — mash-ups, really. To give you an idea how influenced we were, we have a mash-up in every song we do. Tonight, we worked on the Chronettes breaking into "Nothing Compares 2 U" in the middle of "You Don't Fight Fair [In Your Underwear]." It's very redeeming to hear Afghan Whigs doing [the same kind of thing] on "Fountain and Fairfax."
MT: Well, one thing about your bands and our family history is that we can talk about this very specific post-punk, late-'80s time in Detroit.
Lew: You guys made sure I was fed a very high-protein music diet. I was deprived of Top 40. I was listening to Black Flag's Damaged or Adam and the Ants Kings of the Wild Frontier. The kind of bands that spent their cash on looking flash and grabbing your attention. The Ants were the original cabaret act. I remember you spinning [Prince's] Controversy in dad's Town Car, while I was sitting family dog in the back seat, waiting for dad to come out and kick our asses.
MT: I remember we were all way into Crossed Wire, which was this like Waterboys/R.E.M. band of guys who used to be in hardcore bands.
Ray: You guys [Chronic] were looking up to us while we were looking up to Crossed Wire. We were bringing them to Grosse Pointe as these sort of back pocket heroes.
Lew: I remember one Crossed Wire show where Opie [Chris Moore, drummer of Negative Approach] came out in the middle of his set and played Aerosmith "No More, No More." It was so random, you listened to it in a way that [made you realize] how much you loved that song.
MT: How do you see your bands fitting into Detroit music?
Lew: We always thought of ourselves as the "anti-band." A lot of that came from watching Anne Be Davis. I remember you guys would play "B-I-N-G-O" just as this comment on how everybody [in rock] was so serious at the time. Actually, for this reunion show, we're doing an Eminem medley. We see Jack White being heralded as the guy who made all the right moves. Now, I love music. Music moves me every day. And to me, that [Jack White's] music is awful — it's not uplifting. I don't connect with any of it. Kid Rock? Love 'im but he's gone Top 40. But Eminem's got that flow and so does Chronic [goes into 8 bars of parody Eminem lyrics]. Jack White doesn't flow. But we're not trying to be a joke band — we're trying to be a cabaret act. Actually, between the rehearsal space and costumes, Chronic's already into this reunion show about two g's.
Ray: Dude, that's what it's costing me for the whole family's airfare [from California]!
MT: That's an investment.
Lew: And, Lou, you'll love this, but there's an eviction notice on the door of the rehearsal space. Everything has to be out by July 31.
Ray: So after we load out, there's no loading back in.
Freelance writer Hobey Echlin is bumming his band Majesty Crush won't be a part of this family reunion! Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Anne Be Davis and Harry Chronic Jr. perform a reunion show to benefit the American Cancer Society on Friday, July 31, at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-544-3030. Tickets available at the door only; show start promptly at 9:30 p.m.
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