A Hard Day's Night

Mar 31, 2010 at 12:00 am

You can hear the working-class sound of Detroit in the stamping-plant percussion of those classic Motown records, in the raw power of the Stooges (which Iggy always claimed was inspired by the constant drone from the nearby factories he heard as a kid) and in the searing worm-gear saw slicing through the groove of an Upholsterers' track. 

It's little wonder the country has tagged Detroit proper as the poster child representing the United States' current economic meltdown. Stroll one of Detroit's streets and it's virtually impossible to avoid running into obvious visual metaphors for fiscal devastation.

The flipside of the equation, however, is that Detroit is a city where people actually work and a city that has actually always made things, whether the rest of the world still wants those things or not. And when it comes to our city's cultural history, you can find a long line of local musicians — from Rodriguez, who turned to construction work after his music career fell apart before its revival a few years ago, to Jack White and Brian Muldoon, the latter White's partner in upholstery (and later, in the band called the Upholsterers), working with their hands in an industry that had little to do with melody.

While culture historians have often lamented a musician "toiling away in obscurity" at a point that could've been a creative peak, few artists actually register any regret; some argue their artistic output is all the better for it. White, of course, went on to enormous success with the White Stripes, Raconteurs and Dead Weather. He recently expanded his current Nashville business venture, Third Man Records, to include a brick-and-mortar store and production house that all share a similar aesthetic (with a yellow, black and white color scheme), philosophy ("Your turntable's not dead" and natural-sounding records) and the same moniker as his early stab at proprietorship with Muldoon — Third Man Upholstery. While such White business practices as writing poetry on the inside of furniture or scrawling receipts in crayon may not have equaled fiscal success early on, they did take the concept of Shop Class as Soul Craft to a new level.

Takin' Care of Business

Parents, grandparents, other family relatives and even lengthy relations with the local unemployment office have subsidized some musical endeavors over the years, but the Midwest, and particularly the Motor City, was built on a strong work ethic. So it's nearly impossible for the area's musicians to have not been impacted or influenced by that hardworking concept and the sounds or imagery that accompany it.

"Growing up there middle-class, lower-middle-class or blue collar, I think Detroit naturally makes you tougher," says the Detroit Cobras' lead singer, Rachel Nagy. "Not 'tough' like a badass, but it makes you walk a certain way because you're not going to walk down the street looking like a victim or Little Bo Peep. You're always protecting yourself and giving off a vibe, like, 'Hey, don't fuck with me!' You walk tall and with a certain amount of confidence. Growing up in Detroit makes you pay attention to your surroundings, and you give up a degree of safety for another degree of freedom."

This freedom — specifically, an abundance of free time and free space — is part of what makes Detroit's music so vibrant, Nagy says. Not to mention the city's frighteningly rich musical history. "[Music] is almost like a birthright there. You grow up listening to soul and R&B or Motown, and then the MC5, the Stooges. It's a special thing." 

If the musicians featured here have anything in common, aside from a hard-working nature, it's that their careers have been anything but chronological. 

"It's been a crazy odyssey," Rodriguez says. And you can hear a kaleidoscope of amazement and exhaustion in the 67-year-old's voice, just as you can in his earlier melancholic, psychedelic songs.

You Better Work

"A lot of times, people see musicians in bands and they think that's all they do," Nagy says. "Usually, that's not quite possible. I've known guys in bands who were headstone makers. I knew a gravedigger. Most musicians always have great crazy stories about what they did on the way up or still do when they're not onstage." 

When Nagy is onstage, she's got raw sex appeal — and a certain element of danger — that dovetail sweetly with her expressive voice. In a way, it makes sense that she once carved meat for a living. Likewise, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine Dick Valentine (aka Tyler Spencer) of Electric Six working as a TV weatherman. During the band's formative years, Valentine headed down to Starkville, Miss., to study broadcast meteorology at Mississippi State University. But he only lasted three weeks. "I couldn't imagine spending three years in Starkville, Mississippi," he says. Fortunately, things started picking up for his music career around that point; so far, he hasn't had to look back. 

 Meanwhile, Scarlet Oaks singer/guitarist Steve McCauley (and his wife, artist Sarah Burger), bought a home a few years ago in the Woodbridge neighborhood. It was a bit of a fixer-upper but that was no problem for McCauley, who, during the day, restores and paints old houses for his family's business. 

"It's great because we make our own hours and I get lots of free time," he explains, "Plus, I like old houses. Scarlet Oaks has been doing a lot of out-of-town gigging, so it's been nice to have a job like this that allows me to make the music thing work." 

Still other locals go retail: Monster Island's Cary Loren is famously (and understandably) supportive of his creative staff at his Book Beat store, as are the owners of the area's few remaining independent record stores; Car City has long employed local rock stars, including Matthew Smith. And in the '90s, it was hard not to trip over a punk rocker at your local Kinko's. After all, who could pass up benefits like free rein on a copy machine for show flyers and zines? And if you head over to Ferndale's Flip salon you can have former Von Bondie Marcie Bolen do up your 'do. Bolan's current band, Silverghost, is on track to becoming the area's next big export. And until just a few years ago, you might have caught soul man Melvin Davis at his stable post office gig. Now, however, you'll find him touring the world, playing to fans born at least a decade after he penned such recently rediscovered classics as "Find a Quiet Place (and be Lonely)."

Coming from Reality

After helping the Motown label rack up Billboard hits as a member of the Funk Brothers, as well as recording with and producing for other area artists, guitarist Dennis Coffey took a job on the assembly line at Chevrolet. Several years later, in 2002, he was featured in the Standing in the Shadows of Motown documentary. His memoir, Guitars, Bars, and Motown Superstars, came out two years later — and as of late, you can sometimes find him performing with his jazz quartet at Baker's Keyboard Lounge, or each Wednesday night at Northern Lights Lounge playing Motown and funk with his trio. Just another local workin' man ...

 One of the major label recordings Coffey produced back in the day was Rodriguez's Cold Fact in 1970. Funk Brother Bob Babbitt was, in fact, responsible for laying down the incredible bass line that skips through that album's "I Wonder." A year later, Rodriguez (born Sixto Diaz Rodriguez) recorded Coming from Reality in London, England. Alas, neither album took off commercially, for various reasons. So the singer-songwriter studied philosophy at Wayne State University, worked in construction and took on other odd jobs over the years to support his family. He also ran for various city and state political offices. 

"I ran for mayor of Detroit. I ran for city council of Detroit. I ran for state rep of Michigan. And I also ran for my life," he says, laughing. But the decision to take a break from music was simply Logic and Reasoning 101 for this student of philosophy. "I had no choice," he says. "We all have to do hours. The only thing worse than having too much to do is having nothing to do. So I had to work [because] nothing was happening for me in music. You do what you do to survive."

For Rodriguez, though, every job has been a learning experience. In addition to the construction gigs, he worked demolition jobs, did renovations, even took gigs as holiday help at both Frank's Nursery and a local candy maker. There are, of course, physical benefits from some of that work: 

"It keeps you strong and keeps the blood circulating," he says. "You also learn patience. And in music, there are a lot of lulls — when there's nothing happening." Rodriguez fans know that's an understatement. By the mid-'70s, while forgotten in America, his music gained traction in Australia and South Africa, where a collection of his studio albums and singles had gone platinum. Throughout the following decades, Rodriguez tripped back and forth between cult stardom abroad and a quiet life at home in Detroit ... until 2008, when Light in the Attic Records reissued Cold Fact in the United States, with Coming from Reality following a year later. Both landed on critics' year-end best-of lists, and it was time to hit the road again — only this time domestically. 

March marked the 40th anniversary of Cold Fact, and he's celebrating with a tour of Australia. Recently, he had to turn down a $7,000 offer to play a single show because he was already committed to the Australian tour. 

"I could pay a couple bills with that!" Rodriguez says, with a tone of bemusement dripping from each word. Overall, though, life is good these days; certainly better. 

"I'm having a great year," he says. "I'm lucky to have this going now." 

And he's grateful to his three daughters, who are now supporting him in a sense, helping their not-so-computer-savvy dad keep up with his resurgent career in a changing landscape. 

"The reward of this whole touring thing," he says, "is that I can take them with me. So they can see what I do."

Bringing Home the Bacon

Back in the early '90s, Rachel Nagy's friends got her drunk enough for her to finally admit her natural talent as a rough-and-tumble soul singer. Her first job, though, as a stripper, probably hinted at a future onstage.

"I was pretty young when I left home, and it's harder to get a real job when you're 16 and 17," she says, "so unfortunately, you have to start looking at off-the-grid stuff." 

Nagy danced for a few years, winding up in New Orleans for a while. "I just remember one night getting onstage and being so sick of it and so frustrated and so disgusted." Later that night, she sat at home, thinking: "'I just wanna be a baker. I just want to wake up in the morning and have a real job and be a real person.'" 

She phoned a friend back in Detroit, inquiring about culinary schools; the next thing she knew, she was on a Greyhound heading back to the Motor City. Nagy enrolled at Schoolcraft College and went through the various rotations — baking, charcuterie, pastries, etc. 

"But the first time I stepped into the butchery class, that's when I knew. I was just like, 'I love this. This ... is ... awesome!'" she laughs. It was the also the first time she recalls ever having a plan for her future. Nagy had a friend who worked as a butcher in a local restaurant. He was angling for a sous chef gig, so he told her if she got a job there, he'd try to eventually slide her in to the butcher role. And that's exactly what happened. "I worked in restaurants for a long time," Nagy says.

The Detroit Cobras were playing some of their earliest shows around this time, and there were nights when she'd have to head straight to a gig without having time to change.

"I've been onstage in my bloody work clothes before," she says, cracking up. "So all those bands like Slipknot and GWAR have their fake blood — but I'm the real deal. I use real blood! The Cobras could be made into a death metal band, you know. I'll butcher a goat onstage and then make everybody dance! Free dinner with your ticket — that'd be pretty good."

As the butcher industry shifted, Nagy moved from restaurants to industrial and supermarket work. 

"I was butchering half cows and stuff, sides of beef, and that was cool too." But when her union started breaking up and jobs were being lost, she was "ready to go all Norma Rae and rally the troops," she laughs. "But the guys I was working with, who'd been doing it for 30, 40 years — they put their arms around me and said, 'Honey, you're still young. Just go find something else to do.' ... It broke my heart." 

Nagy tried to find another job, but doors slammed in her face. Luckily, and around the same time, the world begun opening its doors to the Cobras. "But it was never planned, like, 'Oh, I want to be a singer when I grow up.' There were just no other options at that point."

These days Nagy lives in Wilmington, Del., with her dog — a 150-pound cane corso — and her husband, who works in Philadelphia. "We got married and it was time to, you know, live like real people," she says. The other Cobras call Detroit home. 

Sometimes, though, she thinks of returning to the meat business: "When I'm in the supermarket, especially living out here, I'm looking at the butchers, thinking, 'I wonder if they need any help,'" she says. "Who knows? I might end up doing it again. ... It's very handy, and if the world comes to an end in the apocalypse, I can still hunt and break down the food and, you know, make sausage out of squirrels. So we'll be all set."

King of the Road

"Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine."  —Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley might be the classic blue-collar rock star. In between recording singles at Sun, he worked at a machinists' shop, a tool company and as a truck driver — the latter where he discovered his hair's true calling via the pompadour. Since then, the image of a truck driver has been an ongoing rock and country music theme and image.

And you'd be hard-pressed to find a stronger workhorse than a truck-driving drummer

"The drummers are always the ones doing the heavy lifting for whatever reason," jokes Dave Knepp, who currently mans a truck for the U.S. Postal Service and has provided the backbeat for a number of area critic darlings over the years, including the Sights, the Singles, the Pop Project, Mitch Ryder, Scott Morgan's Powertrane, 750cc and Battling Siki, among others. 

Knepp began playing drums in eighth-grade band. "I didn't want to play the clarinet anymore, and the band teacher needed drummers," he says. "He asked me to play a very rudimentary beat. I'd never played before in my life, but I figured that it was just like counting to four. I can do that." 

He has stacked his Detroit rock résumé in a similar fashion. "I usually quit or get fired from one band and I'm just kind of hanging out until the next project," he says. "I've never really sought out bands, necessarily. It's always happened organically. Somebody's looking for a drummer and I just happen to be sitting there." 

But when it came time to pursue a day-job career, he wasn't sure what to do. His father was an electrician, who encouraged his son to go that route. 

"I tried that for three months and I just hated it," he says. "But I saw these guys driving trucks in and out of these places and was like, 'Those look like guys I could hang out with.' So I decided to go and learn how to drive a truck."

When Knepp first started out, he was hauling steel to be processed into cars. "It was a really great job." he says. "It was good money and I could be in bands because they were really tolerant of me being kind of a scrub." 

The road time also inspires songs. "There's just something about it," Knepp says. "This sounds so stupid, but the way the tires might hit cracks in the road — that'll give me an idea for something to pound out on the drums." 

Other than the "melodies' rising from the asphalt, Knepp, of course, listens to lots of music — especially when he's on the road. "Everybody's like, 'Oh, you must like old honky-tonk' — which I do, but not because I'm a trucker. When I was running the road, especially going South, I used to listen to it and have this whole kind of clichéd experience. Here I am, hauling steel down to Kentucky, and I'm listening to old Merle Haggard." 

And sometimes at night, "Coast to Coast" radio would keep him awake with its talk of UFOs and other unexplained phenomena. When he slept in his truck, he'd flip on the new age channel to lull him out. "I'd be all wound up, and I'd have to be in Cleveland at this certain time, and I'd be thinking, 'What in the hell will put me to sleep?' And it just so happened it was pan flute and Yanni and Enya. I'm not ashamed to say it."

As the only trucker playing in his many bands, Knepp usually ends up taking on most of the band-van driving duties while touring. One highlight was playing Little Steven's Underground Garage Fest with the Singles on New York's Randall's Island in 2004. Numerous bands, including the New York Dolls, the Strokes and Davie Allen and the Arrows, played short sets on a stage that rotated in order to avoid setup downtime. When the rotating stage broke down, Knepp was the one musician hanging around who tried to help the teamsters fix it: "I had a couple beers in me, and I thought, 'Hey I'm good at this.'" 

That gig was also where he met his wife, Eve Doster, former Metro Times listings editor and current Blowout producer. "I met her on a street corner; we just happened to both be from Detroit, trying to catch a cab. And then four years later, we're married. That's memorable."

We Can Work It Out

It's an age-old dilemma — art versus commerce; how to balance real work with the work that feeds you. For a lucky few, the ratio leans heavily toward the love side, with momentary unsavory pauses. Some artists are, amazingly, able to balance disparate loves. For instance, Aliccia Berg Bollig-Fischer "daylights" in cancer research when she's not playing with Slumber Party. 

And being a poster child for the country's economic woes has its advantages. When the media hyped the proliferation of $100 houses here last year, a few international artists poked around and trickled in, looking for cheap workspace and inspiration. Local artists and musicians have been taking advantage of cheap rents for decades, after all. These incentives won't draw waves of immigration that came when auto plants thrived, but Detroit won't ever stop working.

"If you live simply, you can live cheaply," Nagy says. "Yeah, OK, we're not driving new cars and eating at the Whitney every night. But you don't need to do that. We sit around and drink beer and listen to records. When your house is only 400 bucks a month, it's pretty easy to play a couple of shows and, you know, have a whole lot of free time. It really is just about how you choose to live. If you don't need a lot, you don't have to spend all your time working at a job."

Melissa Giannini is a freelance writer living in New York. Send comments to [email protected]