Sometimes, if you view the same vacated sightlines and crash the same potholes long enough, life in Detroit can begin to resemble a sound file of droning white noise, a kind of flat-lined, sense-dulling hum — particularly if your pockets are empty.
So, to counter said mean reds, we've set up a little sightseers starter guide (a day's worth of stops) to help you to rediscover your city, in all of its ramshackle elegance and musical heritage. All you need is some gas and beer coin. And then start from scratch.
Can't forget the Motor City
OK, the most obvious but always sweet place to start is the Motown Museum (2648 W. Grand Blvd.), which hardly has the rustic appeal of staring at empty lots and decrepit structures. What's less obvious is to realize how humble the beginning of the Motown project was, with Berry Gordy moving into the one house-studio on Grand Boulevard, including his familial living quarters upstairs in the company's earliest days. You can see the mogul-to-be's spartan earlier quarters, galleries of memorabilia (from record jackets to sequined stage getups from the company's heyday) and the like. There's the original Motown echo chamber (literally, and ingeniously, a hole cut through a ceiling to the attic), and most impressively, there's Studio A, the unpretentious, barebones room where hits were continually cranked out from 1959 until 1972. You look at the vibes and hear them plinking in the background of "Where Did Our Love Go." The room's crowded with ghosts, musical and otherwise.
The Gold Dollar
Ground zero for Jack White and the White Stripes, the Dirtbombs — as well as other sadly overlooked trailblazers such as Rocket 455 — and the whole "garage" din that miraculously launched thousands of backward-gazing bash-and-din bands the world over, is this abandoned little dive on 3129 Cass Ave. near downtown, which operated as a music venue from 1996 to 2001. It was one of those classic love-it-or-hate-it "moments in time" where you actually had to be there to understand. But if all those who claim to have been there actually were there, every night would've been sold-out, which was hardly the case. In fact, in a 2001 Metro Times interview, owner Neil Yee said, "This is the only place you can do a show that'll draw six people where the owner will be happy about it."
The Gold Dollar, which began as a lounge back in 1934 or so, had become, we're told, a drag bar by 1956, and was abandoned by 1990. Yee purchased the joint and turned it into an "experimental" rock bar. He had no idea the place would become world-famous, of course; in fact, he was sometimes too embarrassed to admit he even owned the joint. After Yee sold the Dollar (he says he just wanted to travel instead), the place became just another rotting and boxy Motor City structure that's available.
The 1920s was the Jazz Age in America, its decadence fueled on bathtub gin, Clara Bow gossip and music born in the south. The Graystone Ballroom on Woodward south of Canfield (now a McDonald's and empty lots) was Detroit's No. 1 Jazz Age temple — with elaborate bars around dance floors, silent movies showing on balconies, ornate indoor fountains and tuxedo-clad bouncers. Until morning's wee hours, dancers literally floated on the spring-mounted dance floor where it was said you could "dance to your health" — although "you" had to be white to dance there any night but Monday, then reserved for African-Americans.
Duke Ellington's band and other top-ranked national outfits played there. Local bandleader Jean Goldkette's group boasted white legends-to-be such as Bix Beiderbecke and the Dorsey brothers (Tommy and Jimmy). Meanwhile, the black McKinney's Cottonpickers would later be recognized in hindsight as one of the greatest bands of the late 1920s.
Later taken over by Berry Gordy's Motown Records in the 1960s, the ballroom entered the decline that led to the wrecking ball in 1980. One fan compared the end to "tearing down the Eiffel Tower."
Smokey Robinson and kid-neighbor Diana Ross
The 1940-born son of a bowling-alley employee, William "Smokey" Robinson Jr. lived at 581 Belmont St. around Detroit's North End neighborhood, down the street from Diana Ross' childhood home, and across the alley from a young Bettye LaVette — where the wee-hour parties on weekends must've irked the Robinsons to no end. Smokey lived here, attended Northern High, at which time he formed the pre-Miracles combo, the Matadors.
Built in 1913, this bungalow-style, 2,431-square-foot duplex is a two-bathroom, single-family home that last sold in 2007 for $15,000. In 2009, it was appraised for $13,500. No takers. But now? Hell, you could probably put this place on your credit card and point to a bedroom and say Smokey slept here for a song.
Since you're on Belmont, you might as well roll down a few houses to the old Ross family place at 635, and imagine hazy images of a 12-year-old Diana Ross out front, skipping rope, playing hopscotch and humming Frankie Lymon's "Why Do Fools Fall in Love." The single-family home, which sits just west of Oakland, housed the young Diana in years leading up to her 14th birthday, at which point, in 1958, she moved with her folks to Brush Park's now-hauntingly abandoned Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects. Within a few years, the budding couturist was performing alongside Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard in the Primettes, before, um, handily altering the course of American culture.
The old house on Belmont is now classic Detroit blight, basically abandoned, worth something only to those looking to score something toxic on a drive-by.
Locker Room Lounge
In a 2004 Metro Times story, Bettye LaVette reminisced of her "lost" years — those that found her in constant sorrow, longing for the kind of career that matched her slightly older contemporaries, such as old North End neighbors Smokey Robinson and Aretha Franklin.
The R&B and soul singer, whose first single dropped when she was all but sweet 16, did everything right; the songs, the recordings, the performances. But streams of bad circumstances and shaky record deals kept her demand low, most of the time. Hence, she spent a few nights a week at the warm and cozy Locker Room Lounge (18290 Livernois Ave. between Six Mile and Seven Mile roads) perched along its oblong bar, on and off for nearly 15 years, "whenever she could get a ride." Her friends the Spinners also hung here, sat at what LaVette laughingly calls the "big shot end of the bar," while she drank at the "dirty end" and would often be approached by folks asking things like "Didn't you used to be Bettye LaVette?"
You'll recall how LaVette's comeback was of Balboan proportions, evidenced by her performing "A Change Is Gonna Come" at Obama's inaugural celebration. In fact, her 2007 Grammy-nominated The Scene of the Crime album includes the telling remake single of Elton John's "Talking Old Soldiers," whose beautiful Lex Halaby-directed video LaVette shot back at the Locker Room on Livernois. "I associated the song with the Locker Room," LaVette said in a 2007 interview with USA Today. "That's the place I drank many nights. Cried."
Detroit R&B legend Nolan Strong — who was a big influence on Smokey Robinson, and whose Fortune Records classics include the 1954 stunner "The Wind" — has often been cited as an underrated "life-changer" among northern soul enthusiasts over the years. But after his 1977 death, at the age of 43, Nolan lay buried without a headstone here at Westlawn Cemetery (31474 Michigan Ave.). In fact, a group of local rock 'n' rollers held a benefit in the '90s to raise money for Nolan's fetching gravestone, which is inscribed with the historically accurate "Daddy Rockin' Strong."
While here, about 75 yards away, you'll find Jackie Wilson's gravesite (memorial No. 2261) where he was buried in 1984 at the age of 49. An inscription reads, as said by Elvis, "The Complete Entertainer."
Brian Smith is Metro Times managing editor. Send comments to [email protected]
Thanks to MT editor Walter Kim Heron for his contributions to this piece.