The new raconteurs

It's just before seven o'clock on a Thursday night in downtown Detroit, and we're making our way toward Cliff Bell's, a legitimate (now revamped and legal) speakeasy in the city's theater district. The club's curved awning crests the street's horizon like some sort of beacon; it's a striking club inside and out, clean with art deco lines — the shining example of quality inner-city gentrification — but its looks are exceptional this evening. See, there's a long line of people waiting to get in; pairs, trios and gangs of four or more, a queue that stretches to the end of the block and around the corner. 

There are probably 100 people — and more closing in, and this is before sunset. But not everyone will get in; soon the club hits capacity and more than 90 people are turned away. Fire marshal's orders.

Inside, Cliff Bell's is jumping. This is "buzz"; a body either sitting, leaning, crouching or standing occupies every square foot like a human Tetris. Servers maneuver around us with scowls and skill. If there's music on the juke it's drowned by the clack and hum of a mass kibitzing. There's Phreddy Wischusen, general manager of the Pontiac's Crofoot, talking about the hearing the Moth Radio Hour on WDET. Behind me couples talk: "actually, listening to the podcast is a weekend activity we enjoy sharing." It's a crossword-tackling, bookstore-frequenting, NPR-lovin' crowd, here for the Detroit Moth StorySlam premier. 

A large sheet of paper onstage reads "Detroit Moth StorySlam." It also shows 10 slots to be filled with names of 10 unknown audience members who've dropped theirs into a hat. We don't know their names, but we do know there'll be some soul-baring tonight. Soul-baring, for points, that is. 

We've heard there's going to be tragedy and comedy and it's all going to be unscripted, honest and real, kind of like a good 12-step meeting minus the confines of addiction. Some are here to see necks go limp, to watch people bomb or to witness a personal breakthrough. Most are looking to be moved, and to laugh. But this is a contest too, as its New York City host Dan Kennedy explains. And aside from the results, a slam is a test of guts. 

Slams are juried by a group of judges comprised of audience members who rate performances on a 10-point scale — decimals allowed. Each of the 10 contestants picked get five minutes to tell a story, their personal variation on the evening's theme. It's a modern exercise in the historic tradition of oral history: the tale has to be true, the storyteller has to be the essential subject, and neither notes nor props are allowed. Tonight's theme, fittingly, is "firsts." 

But it's not just about the competition warns Kennedy. "The Moth is a combination of theater and rehab." Still, at the end of the night, the raconteur with the most points goes home the winner and will be invited back for the GrandSlam around this time next year. 

Tonight the judges are split between three groups — the First Amendments, the Adam and Eves, and the decidedly bitter Virgins (led by 91.5 FM CJAM jockey Jon Moshier) — each of three to six people. 

At 7:30 p.m. the stories begin. The first guy is David, who was "raised in a filthy flat on the east side of Detroit." He looks like John Turturro as a beat poet: red-eyed, a bit grungy, in corduroy and plaid. He spins a deprecating and melancholy yarn about shooting a gun for the first time — throwing in anecdotes about his "notorious alcoholic" mother, whom he and his friends called Shap (sadly we never got to know why). His eyes mostly closed, Dave says of Mom: "She'd always call me punk and tell me things like, ‘Eh, you're not worth the powder ta blow ya away.' But the most memorable thing she ever said to me was, ‘Go on, go fuck your ass — or don't you know how?'" Lending some humor to an otherwise depressing aside, "And if I ever write a memoir I might call it that: Go Fuck Your Ass … and Other Advice my Mother Gave Me." David sets the bar. It's a whirlwind of words and emotions for rest of the night. 

Adam talks of his first tongue kiss. "It wasn't French, it was American — less crème brûlée, more sloppy Joe." Other notable firsts come and go: Sabrina's first time burying a sibling (lesson learned: a heavy story told poorly makes for an awkward five minutes), Wally's first spanking (from a parent, in a non-creepy way) and the first time Barry really understood why his fellow African-American men call each other brother. 

Of two (very funny) first date tales, one sticks. I didn't get her name. Her story began when, at 7 years old, she signed a contract with her father that said she could go on her first date at 16. But there was a catch: Her dad got to go on it too, and he'd pick up the tab. It was all there in the contract; her mother signed as a witness. What's sad is she finally went on her real first date a few years after she turned 16, I think she said she was in college. But when the guy asked her out, she said to him, "Yes, I would love to go on a date with you — and the good news is that you won't have to pay for anything." She was cute and amusing and had a perfect delivery: "I picked the most expensive restaurant in all of eastern Iowa … my chocolate cake had gold on it." Even the low-balling Virgins dig it. 

Then this Whitman-looking guy, Kevin Wilson, shared a story about his first love that brought the room to a roar. You should remember his name.

After 12 years in New York and three in Los Angeles, the Moth hit Chicago for that city's first StorySlam. Two days later it landed at Cliff Bell's in Detroit. 

Kennedy, who hosts the Moth StorySlams in Manhattan, says Detroit's crowd and storytellers blew Chicago out of the water. "It sounds completely trite to say it, but the whole night swept me up by surprise," Kennedy says after the Bell's show. "Sometimes in New York, I get to feeling like everyone at the slam knows what they're doing. Here are these people in Detroit who have the guts to give this a shot for the first time. These people aren't getting on stage every week; these are people who felt like they had been waiting a lifetime to tell their story to someone. Tonight was a night that reminded me of the first time I ever experienced the Moth — the raw unpracticed energy of it."

Here's some Moth backstory: Before taking New York by quiet storm, the Moth was basically of a group of friends to author George Dawes Green (The Juror, Caveman's Valentine) who'd congregate on a porch in St. Simon's Island, Ga., to imbibe and share beguiling life stories. A group of maddening moths would get trapped in the screen door that led into the house, and it's said that that's the genesis of the name, Moth. 

The boring moniker proved useful in remaining somewhat anonymous, which was part of Green's plan when he relocated to Manhattan in 1997 and formed a Moth group there. The size of the audience and the caliber of the participants quickly outgrew his apartment. After nine near-mythic years, the Moth mainstage shows — which are curated for storytelling the same way a gallery would a group show — made a second home in L.A., burrowing further into pop culture. To date, with little to no press coverage or advertising, mainstage Moth shows in either city have sold out in 48 hours or less. The Moth podcast was one of the hottest downloads on iTunes this year, averaging more than 800,000 downloads per month, and The Moth Radio Hour is public radio's darling new arrival. 

In all of its forms (there's the radio show, podcast, long-format main-stage show and quick-hitting StorySlams) the Moth's success hinges on one of man's most significant art forms: oratory. And if Obama's presidential campaign reminded the world of its power, then the Moth is reminding of its pleasure.

From a rickety Georgia porch to the East and West coasts and into a Detroit jazz club, it's been a journey for the Moth. And Kennedy knows about those. 

As Bill Clinton was being shown the door, on display for the world was a matronly navy-blue dress accented by the most famous stain in fashion history, Kennedy, a budding New York author — like so many writers, artists and number crunchers — lost his job at a once-thriving dot-com. But while the ax was mid-swing, his derisive work for McSweeney's (publishing house and online pop-lit site) caught the attention of Moth curators, fresh in New York City. In months and years to come, late-memoirist Jim Carroll, street prophet Darryl "DMC" McDaniels and the smartest guy in sex, Dan Savage (found in these pages each week), would be invited to come share an episode from their lives. Kennedy took his turn. 

The theme that night was "journeys." Recalls Kennedy: "I was sitting on the floor of this tiny apartment in Greenwich Village with one last paycheck to my name, so I went to the Moth and told a story about moving to Austin, Texas. See, I was convinced that's where the alternative rock explosion of the early-'90s was going to happen and right when I got there, alternative did explode — in Seattle. After that, I started telling stories at the Moth a lot, mainly as a way of trying to kind of stay sane; it's an odd combination of theater and rehab." Kennedy was soon asked to host the slams, which he says forced him to "finally grow up and learn how to deal with emotions." Some inner peace isn't all he found — the Moth has led to other opportunities for other aspiring wordsmiths.

Comedian Mike Birbiglia took his Moth stories and turned them into a notable off-Broadway production called Sleepwalk With Me. Memoirist Jonathon Ames' Moth-y yarns are now an HBO original series called Bored to Death, which stars Ted Danson, Zach Galifianakis and Jason Schwartzman as Ames, who is, you'll note, the show's creator, writer and executive producer. Kennedy, too, worked his own Moth material into his first book, Losers Go First, which he describes as "an account of how I've managed to screw up everything in my life." His latest, Rock On: An Office Power Ballad arrived last year. While many Moth story slammers and main-stage elite have segued into theater, film and literature, Kennedy's adamant that if it's "some idea of fame" you're after, "you're muddying the waters." 

He continues: "Do it because you're compelled to. The truly great performers are the people who show up and you can see it on their faces: They're not entirely sure what the hell they're doing there, but there they go and it's from the heart. There's nothing wrong with success, and plenty of it comes from the Moth, but that should only ever be a side effect." He pauses, and then says, "What's that T-shirt? ‘I went to Seattle to score some heroin and I accidentally got a record deal'?"

Kennedy landed in Detroit to host Detroit's first Moth StorySlam, lay its foundation, get the ball rolling, find a permanent host, and get his ass back home to the Nuyorican Café, where he hosts weekly slams. "At the risk of sounding like I've spent entirely too much time on the West Coast," Kennedy jokes, "there's a strange healing quality to being in that room with people sharing their stories." 

Kennedy's sentiment is echoed by J. Mikel Ellcessor, 101.9 WDET FM's new general manager, who, along with public radio GMs from around the country, was invited to New York last year for what was basically a Moth junket. After being taken out to a StorySlam and a mainstage show, the GMs got to hear and comment on the pilot episode of the Moth Radio Hour. Segments of the Moth have been used for public radio's This American Life, but these were uncut, expertly recorded full performances looking for airtime. Ellcessor was into it from the get-go. 

"I think the Moth is all about finding yourself and finding your community," he says. "It's about making sense of a senseless world through a narrative; it's about essential human drivers." Not only did he want to bring his listeners the radio show, but he thought Detroit would be prime for the StorySlams, too. 

Evidently no one else had really thought of that.

Jenifer Hixon produces the Moth in New York. When she met Ellcessor she says he was obviously the most excited of the bunch. "Something about his determination and excitement wore off on us — after he left we got talking about how interesting it could be to have the Moth set up in a city that felt so very different," Hixon says. "Detroit had not been an obvious choice for StorySlams. I guess, to be honest, Chicago was the clear choice, but the more I'd research Detroit the more I was like, ‘Wow, this seems like a pretty hip city to live in. A city with stories to be sure.'" 

Given the kind of biased national coverage this city gets, it's no wonder Hixon hesitated, but even Detroiter Alex Trajano, WDET production manager, who was just named Detroit's StorySlam host, had doubts. 

"Being a Detroiter, you hate to say it, because we love our town, but my expectations for the actual storytelling weren't that high," Trajano says. "I knew we'd have brave people, but I think there's this part of being a Detroiter that makes you approach new events with the mindset of ‘this could suck or this could be great.' By the end of the evening I felt like we had just done the greatest thing in town." 

Ellcessor's got a mission of his own: "The last thing anyone wants are outside media types parachuting in to do these stories of decay, despair and decline. That's all been well-documented, but there are people living their lives with huge dignity, people overcoming enormous struggles in this city — we see the Moth as an extension of that story," he says. "We're bringing people into a room where they can discover each other and tell their authentic Motor City tales." 

Perhaps the best Moth by-product is that these stories are recorded and sent to New York where some of them will be included in future episodes of the Moth Radio Hour, heard on radio stations around the country. 

"Other Americans can hear what Detroiters have to say about their lives," Ellcessor says, "real Detroiters speaking for themselves." 

And what exactly are these Detroiters saying? They're saying that they are human, that they've been hurt, they've had close calls, and they've persevered, lost and loved. 

Kevin Wilson wears a green shirt tucked into khaki pants held up by suspenders. As he stands on Cliff Bell's stage, with the white beard and wide-brimmed fedora, he actually looks wise, enduring in his age. Wilson was once an unruly teen who spent his life in the 1960s writing poetry on drugs for his first love. As a means to keep his phone bill down, he wrote an entire book of love letters and psychedelic sonnets. It was his first.

"Every day I sat down in front of a picture of a round-faced girl with ironed-flat blond hair, her name, Susan, embossed in gold in the lower right hand corner, and I wrote to her," Wilson says, holding the mic, slow and sure. "I wrote to her all that sappy stuff that a 17-, 18-year-old is just discovering about the world: the color of the autumn leaves, the blue-eyed son of Lake Superior and the northern lights over Houghton, Michigan, when you're high as a kite on PCP." 

Wilson has what Hixon calls "the mojo." He has everyone's attention, he could stay up there all night and we'd let him. He's only halfway through his story and he's already won the night. 

"I remember rhyming orange juice with syringe use," he says and laughs rise and fall. He wrote to Susan, like he says, everyday until one day, his 19th birthday, she sent them all back to him in a bound book. She copied each page, 60 in all, in purple ink on yellow onion skin, adding a dab of White Shoulders perfume to each page. "Life tumbled along as it does, without much plot — wars end, people line up to pay 55 cents a gallon for gasoline and I ended up in a hospital. Susan only came once, long enough to hear ‘chronic, lifelong, incurable Chrohn's disease.'" 

The book sat in desk drawer for decades. In ensuing years, Wilson had found love again, had children and, up till a few years ago, the book stayed in the drawer. Until one day. 

"Hesitantly — remembering ‘orange juice and syringe use' — I opened the top. And I can tell you this … if you put purple ink on yellow onionskin, bind it in vinyl and put a little White Shoulders perfume in there, you've got a pretty good recipe for disappearing ink. Sixty pages with not one word and not a trace, except for a little whiff of White Shoulders perfume."

The evening at Bell's comes to a bittersweet end. Seven people whose names weren't picked from the hat go on stage to share their 20-second summations of what they had story-wise. And even after all those folks are off stage and perhaps out of the building, others hang around — many turning to those they arrived with, or to complete strangers, to collectively process the evening's stories. Walking back to the car takes a while. I talk to at least a half-dozen people, including Wilson, and most say they "felt high" — elated on what could be called a nonsexual yet sensual storytelling exchange. Aside from Kennedy and Ellcessor, the rest of us leave with a new story of our own, a first. What Hixon says has got to be true, "You'll never forget your first Moth show."

The next Moth StorySlam is Nov. 5, at Cliff Bell's. The theme is "Blunders." Stories begin at 7:30 p.m. Cliff Bell's is at 2030 Park Ave., Detroit; $5.

Tune into the Moth Radio Hour on 101.9FM WDET, Fridays at 7 p.m. and Saturdays at 4 p.m. 

Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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