A prodigal son returns

"Face it, Bill. You're getting old."

Those words appeared on the Metro Times letters page 20 years ago in reference to an article on CREEM magazine for which I'd been interviewed. Of course, in many ways, ageism has always been the most hilarious and probably least harmful of all the "isms." One won't wake up tomorrow morning to discover they're a different race or sex. But as the great bard once sang, those not busy being born are busy dying — and I still always answer such accusations, trying to make 'em jealous in the process, with replies like: "Yeah, I may be old but I just read in the Free Press that some people in Detroit paid as much as $1,200 for Police tickets last week. And while I wouldn't pay 12 cents to see them play across the street in 2007, especially if Sting is gonna play that fucking lute, I did see them in Detroit at Bookies on their first tour in whatever year that was. And I saw 'em three or four more times after that."

In fact, I saw some of the most memorable shows of my life in Detroit and surrounding areas during my first two decades of existence, be it an unknown KISS opening for the New York Dolls at the Flint IMA in 1974; the Monkees at Olympia Stadium in '66 (thanks, Mom!); Springsteen at Ann Arbor's Hill Auditorium right as Born to Run hit the streets (both figuratively and literally); Mitch Ryder singing "Rock 'n' Roll" with Lou Reed at Masonic in '78; or the premiere of Alice Cooper's Killer show in Saginaw on the day the album was released in 1971, several hours before which a bunch of stoned but still innocent adolescents from Bad Axe actually met the band inside a Taco Bell — and at least one aspiring lawyer and future rock writer's life was forever "ruined."

Despite that age problem I was battling back in 1986, Metro Times founder and then-editor Ron Williams offered me a job as entertainment editor at the paper right before CREEM made that fateful move to L.A. This girl, Beth, the great all-time love of my life (I still can't hear any version of "The Way You Look Tonight" without immediately thinking of her), married some dude from Italy (she'd end up despising him, three kids later) the day after Christmas; she called me several days before the Michigan wedding to inform me she now knew it was possible to love two people at the same time (oh, that old cliché: if I only knew then ...!). And so, a week later, the day after New Year's, I left the Motor City for the land of fruit and nuts. Culture shock doesn't even begin to explain it, but the city really was glamorous (in a sleazy sort of way) at first and the weather was stupendous. And I'd never had so many immediate "best friends" in my life —"friends" who remained "friends," of course, until I left CREEM. Welcome to L.A.!

I've often wondered how different my life might have been if I'd taken the Detroit gig instead. On one hand, I would've never experienced many wonderful moments, be it hanging with George Harrison and James Brown (well, as much as one could actually "hang" with the latter); doing shots of vodka with Robert Mitchum; asking Stevie Nicks if she'd truly had cocaine blown up her butt by a roadie (she even finished the question for me and, of course, denied it); attending Gregory Peck's funeral (OK, it was open to the public, but still ...); having Weezy Jefferson hand me a free ticket to Flower Drum Song when I was waiting in line to buy one; watching this sweet kid named Duff, (the first person I ever saw in the strange getup of short cut-offs and cowboy boots) who lived in the Hollywood Boulevard apartment two floors directly below me, regularly load the van across the street with his still relatively unknown band, Guns N' Roses; becoming genuine friends with people I'd idolized since childhood (be it Van Dyke Parks or the Cowsill family); having lunch, just a month ago, with Sex Pistol-turned DJ Steve Jones; or having Gene Simmons devote 99 percent of a cover story to me in BAM magazine, explaining that my role in life was on the toilet paper holder next to his throne, and that I'd surely "get more pussy" if I listened to KISS instead of Dylan. ("Gee, thanks, Gene," I responded, "but I prefer smart girls. You should try one some time.") Y'see, the whole Simmons feud grew out of a long-running readers' opinion poll in the pages of the mag, which I was editing at the time, as to whether Zimmy or ol' Bat Lizard was more important to the overall history of rock 'n' roll — a debate which I still believe to this day led to Dylan (during his "Lost Weekend" drunken phase) writing a song with ol' God O' Thunder that later appeared on Gene's appropriately titled Asshole solo LP. Such reader-generated fun has always been the goal of any music section I've ever worked on, mainly because it doesn't take any money out of my editorial budget ... nah, I'm kidding. Just because it's cool to bring readers into the editorial mix.

So, 20 years later, I'm back in Detroit Rock City — and the other side of the coin is if I'd stayed here, I may not have the incredible experiences and stories I now have to tell, but I'd also have never encountered some of the genuine and genuinely frightening insanity I experienced over two decades in the city of angels, a place where people will sell their soul not just for 15 minutes of fame but simply to be near that 15 minutes of fame.

Not that those stories (some of which I hope to eventually tell here, if you'll allow me, in an ongoing series of columns called "A Detroiter in L.A."; after all, I obviously can't relate music to your experience so I'm forced to relate it to mine and hope you identify or at least understand) don't have their decadent appeal. But L.A. was also a place where, to paraphrase Ginsberg, I saw some of the best (and, of course, some of the very worst) minds of my generation destroyed by madness.

I went to Phil Spector's bowling party months before the "incident"; was once at a small party for Rodney Bingenheimer where Kato Kaelin was the biggest "star" in the room; and had Robert Blake glare menacingly at me in a Tarzana coffee shop just last summer. I felt Jane's Addiction's mantra of "Nothing's shocking" slowly become a reality in my life, and I've been thinking for the last several years — and maybe even since my house in the Hollywood foothills burned down early one Sunday morning nearly a decade ago: "Maybe if I get out now, I can still escape with my sanity intact." Well, just barely anyway ...

And then there's that other age-old cliché about Los Angeles: Yeah, the weather is great ... and then you wake up one morning and you truly are old, especially if your dreams have turned into your regrets. (Besides, they let Paris Hilton out of the slammer the day before I left, and that seemed as good a time as any to make an exit.)

So, I do thank Metro Times for giving me a reason to escape. Still, as I asked my editors here when they hired me: Is there really a need for a music editor anywhere these days? As far as the music business itself is concerned, all that's left there to document are the final death throes of a crumbling empire. Pretty much the same with the very notion of rock 'n' roll itself. Yet, Detroit has always been an insular music community; people here have always cared about and appreciated music more than the national average, at least from my experience. In the process, the city has produced all kinds of notable sounds that have repeatedly changed the world. So maybe there is a need to cover a scene in Detroit these days. On one hand, I'm thinking: "This could be very exciting." And on the other, I'm thinking: "OK, Detroit, prove it to me."

Truth be told, when I left here 20 years ago, Lili's was my favorite club (there's never been any better anywhere ... and I'm not just saying that because my own Let's Talk About Girls band was a popular draw there at the time), while the Motor City Mutants and Bootsy X & the Lovemasters were still the two area bands that could've "made it" anywhere (something I realized only in retrospect; like the Ramones, we took 'em both too much for granted).

While I'll always love Detroit for raising me on CKLW — (sing-along, please) "the Motor City" — I drove Woodward last night, from the Hard Rock Cafe to where the CREEM offices used to be in Birmingham — and absolutely nothing looked familiar. It's severe cultural shock all over again. Kinda scary, actually. So, I'm actively seeking participants to re-educate me on both Detroit and the local scenes. I've kept up with the "biggies," of course, from the Dirtbombs and Cobras to the Go and Outrageous Cherry. But I'm certainly on the lookout for newcomers who want to contribute some good writing to these pages (in addition to the notables who've already been scribes for this section) or anyone who simply wants to show me around town.

Just let me get up to speed first. I'm still homeless ... and the drive cross-country — my first — was exhausting if not depressing. Maybe I'll write about it in a future column. For now, suffice it to say it was all downhill after Vegas; the Beatles Love show (fantastic!), and a gal named Angel who took me to Heaven there (well, maybe the John Ford-ish mountains and landscapes in Utah as well ... those were kinda cool). After that, though, I now know why Springsteen wrote his second most depressing album about the state of Nebraska. As for Davenport, Iowa ... well, let's just say there's trouble in River City, friends; it's got nothing to do with a pool table; and you'd be more likely to hear "Dueling Banjos" (if you catch my drift) than "76 Trombones" in that nightmare of a place these days. Grand Rapids totally freaked me out when the local news reported on a district judge who almost didn't get appointed because she — gasp! — once attended a lesbian wedding. In fact, Detroit had the first hotel room I stayed in outside of Vegas that didn't have three Jesus stations and Fox News on its cable remote (and in two rooms — I kid you not — Fox as its only news source) ... so I took this to perhaps be a good omen for the future.

Aside from that, I was peeved that a thread about me getting this job, on an online music chat board, devolved into a discussion about Doug Podell's hair transplant and "Terrible" Ted Nugent's two upcoming area shows. This led me to wonder if Arthur Penhallow is still growling "Baby!" on the local airwaves, especially since this summer's schedule at Pine Knob (which I'm told has some ridiculous new corporate name) seems to feature many of the same bands that were playing there when I left the city 20 years ago. (Some publicist pitched me just yesterday on an upcoming DTE concert by Great White, but my initial thought was: "Honey, I lived through a fire. I don't want to relive anybody else's ...")

So, we'll ultimately see how I feel about this move come February and March. For now, though, it's interesting to be back in a place where the skies are blue (hell, a place where you can actually see the sky, for that matter!); where tomatoes taste like tomatoes; where I don't have to pay an arm and a leg for Diet Vernor's (though I must get used to calling it "pop" instead of "soda" again); and a place where I can eat perch to my heart's content (well, if I can afford it ... what the hell happened? When did perch become lobster?). Remind me to tell you the story about "liverwurst" and the two Michiganders at the MTV Video Awards afterparty (where I shook both Milton Berle's and Flavor Flav's hand within two minutes of each other). Oh, and I'm still not all that overly impressed by the White Stripes.

And, finally, no, I never have learned how to play euchre.

Bill Holdship is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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