Meeting the Beatles, retreating to the Rockies

Two excerpts from Mitch Ryder's autobiography Devils and Blue Dresses

Mar 21, 2012 at 12:00 am

Devils and Blue Dresses: My Wild Ride as a Rock and Roll Legend is Detroiter Mitch Ryder's account of his roller-coaster life of incredible highs — does it get better than headlining for an opening lineup of the Who, Eric Clapton, and Smokey & the Miracles? — and crushing lows. The following excerpt takes place after he's climbed to the top of the charts with the Detroit Wheels, scoring with hits like "Jenny Take a Ride" and "Devil with a Blue Dress On/Good Golly Miss Molly." Under the influence of producer Bob Crewe and manager Alan Stroh, he's ditched the Wheels to seek the next level of stardom with a new band with whom he's about to tour. But first, a few introductions: Lionel is Lionel Bart, the creator of the hit musical Oliver!, who had become a friend on an earlier trip to England; Susan is Ryder's first wife.

We flew over to Lionel's, Susan and Alan and me. Once there, we were invited to attend a party in the English countryside that was being thrown for the Beatles, who by this time were as big as they would ever be. The trip through the countryside was very mysterious, and deliberately so. We were provided with a map, which had substituted visual images for geographic locations. It said things like, "travel along in this direction until you come upon the girl with kaleidoscope eyes. ..." And sure enough we eventually came upon a beautiful barefoot maiden standing alone in the middle of a grassy field in the open country dressed only in sheer silk, flowers all about her and in her hair, and eyes the size of small moons. It went on that way, clue after clue being taken from songs on the Sgt. Pepper album. 

Finally, we came upon a huge farmhouse and in the drive was parked the colorful paisley Rolls Royce that carried the Beatles. I soon found out there were only a few Americans invited, and probably no more than 30 people all told. Susan, British singer Lulu, and Cynthia (John Lennon's wife) were the only women there. The party would officially last for three days, but we only stayed until the afternoon of the second. In the main room was a massive walk-in fireplace where people gathered. People also gravitated to an upstairs living area because there were two bedrooms there. In short, it was a large farmhouse lying on the gently sloping English countryside and everything was in its summer beauty. 

We settled in and after a while I took Susan to an empty chamber room that held a grand piano. We were so excited. The Beatles! Oh, my God, the Beatles! All of them were there, except for Paul, who was visiting a girlfriend in America. Inside the room Susan and I sat at the piano and amidst the excitement I began to calm us by starting to play a song for Susan. The door to the room suddenly opened and in walked George Harrison and his publicity agent, Derek Taylor. We hadn't been introduced yet and as I rose to greet them Taylor said, "Get out of here, I want to use the piano." We got up and left without saying a word. 

Maybe Alan was right. Maybe I did lack the confidence I needed to become the superstar they were shaping, but how would anyone act if one of the gods of their age wished you to be gone from their presence? Susan went to talk to the other women. I, visibly shaken, walked into the main room. Sitting alone in front of the huge fireplace was Ringo, who was staring straight ahead and wearing a frown. I reasoned he was not having a good time, so I approached him because I felt the need for a kindred soul and I thought he might as well. I wasn't there for more than thirty seconds when a beastly person came rushing toward me and chased me away. 

I was beginning to feel very depressed. There I was, rejected by two of the gods of that century. I don't think I could have felt any lower than I did at that moment. Alan and Susan were nowhere in sight so I walked away slowly and took a seat at the other end of the room but still in front of the huge fireplace. I stared into the fire, asking myself what I could have done differently that would have made them like me. I wanted to kill myself. But, as the gloom and paranoia slowly took hold a miracle appeared. A human figure appeared before me and spent the next hour repairing my psyche and covering me with words of encouragement and love. The miracle was John Lennon. 

Ryder reflects on the highs of his career in Devils and Blue Dresses. But more so he dwells on the missed opportunities that kept him from becoming a superstar — that next level post-Detroit Wheels career never arrived. Even remaining a star was impossible — at least with any consistency. The successor band Detroit, like Mitch and the Wheels, had its moment — then the moment ended. Bad luck, bad choices, bad associates and bad habits, not to mention an often debilitating insecurity, are undertones throughout the book. This next excerpt picks up at a particular low point. Ryder signed on with a new manager, Bud Prager, formed and scrapped another new band (including guitarists Wayne Kramer and Fred "Sonic" Smith), worked through a grueling tour with guitarist Leslie West (of Mountain fame) ... and found himself left with nothing to show for the episode beyond mutual recriminations between himself and Prager. Pumping gas in Detroit to earn a little money he found "People recognized me and some were mean and others just laughed." Facing eviction with his second wife, Kimberly, his "moral reservoir" empty, he tried to commit suicide with a mixture of booze, prescription meds and THC. 

Some months prior to my suicide attempt, I had taken a train trip to Denver, Colorado, to see my older sister, Nina. As I walked through the station and approached the platform, I was so paranoid that I actually carried with me an unsheathed and loaded rifle that I held close to my side. As I continued on I was flanked by two photographers who were flashing away. I reasoned they were either from the press or the government. Then, while sitting in my seat for the Chicago leg of the trip, a Catholic priest took a seat across from me and began praying aloud.

Now I was making that trip again, only this time I had such an overwhelming feeling of relief at having gotten out of the music business alive that I hardly had a care in the world. My sister Nina had quite an interesting life going for herself. She had established a church for lost and searching souls, and was in the process of creating a ranch near the foothills of the Rockies where she and her considerable following could go to be away from the madness of modern society. I, naturally, found their motivation all too familiar and was intrigued by the fact that other humans could share in my desire to rid their lives of an age and time that found itself wrought with cynicism and hurtful behavior.

When I arrived in Denver I went into a long convalescence hidden away in the back of an aging mansion Nina had acquired to do her spiritual work in. I was exactly the image of Humpty-Dumpty, cracked head and all. My body's systems were taxed to the point that I could have died under any more pressure.

Months passed before I felt strong enough or safe enough to venture outside. Nina's husband, Willy Trobaugh, and I began to go on fishing outings and on one occasion were followed and observed by a young man with a camera and a quick little car who ended up getting a blurb somewhere in National Lampoon.

Other than that, two things happened of great importance. Under the awesome power and beauty of the Rocky Mountains, life became more tolerable and my fear slowly melted away. Now there was peace and time, and the opportunity for privacy and reflection. 

The second important thing to occur was the empty slot in Detroit that could now be filled by the next talented local boy or girl. The whole Mitch Ryder ordeal distracted away from the natural creative process for which my city is world-renowned.

It was the time of Watergate, and the media took on a new importance and level of power they wouldn't have dreamed they could hold just a few scant years earlier. Richard Nixon had just been driven from the presidency by the media. No one else. The country plunged into a deep period of introspection and self-whippings that could be the envy of any radical fundamentalist Islamic religious student.

I sat in my sister's library for hours and read volumes of religious and spiritual writings by her, and others, and always walked away feeling a great desire to learn more about this philosophy of love for mankind. It was in direct conflict with the prevailing attitude of society at that point. It was also ironic that I would be reunited with my best friend Nina after all these years. When we were small children, it was my big sister Nina who watched over me and protected me from everything dangerous — real or imagined. Such a long passage of time for two different worlds to finally come together as one.

I had spiritually evolved to a place I would never have dreamed possible in light of my past, but it was unlike any death bed conversion I had heard or read about. It wasn't about finding God after man had brought me down. It was, instead, a cautious examination of self, guarded by a distrust for any human influence, and depended mostly on a communion with nature and the simple beauty of life in its most uncomplicated forms. It was about the reawakening of all living things under a warm, spring sun after a hard, cruel winter. It was the birth of a child before the parents had an opportunity to imprint their mistakes and ignorance. It was about renewal without conditions, and help without a price. But mostly, it was about learning to love myself along with the world that exists outside of "civilization." The quiet world. It was about love for more than one.

Nina was my teacher and she shared, by word and example, all that she had learned on her journey to enlightenment. As time passed, and within the first year as her guest, I felt strong enough to face the world. Nina wanted me to go more deeply into her world but I felt, with some misgivings, that the communal experience, which had been badly tainted by John Sinclair's vision, was not to my liking. And so, I set about finding employment in the "outside world." Having been involved in music from the age of 16, and not feeling safe enough to go back to it, I chose the only work my past had prepared me for. I became a common laborer.

My first job was hanging gutters for one of the church members who had a business doing seamless gutters. That's where I met Forrest and Doll. They were great people from down Louisiana somewhere, but the job didn't last very long once my fear of heights was exposed.

My second job was the only other work I did while in Colorado. I became a warehouse worker for a chemical and scientific supply company called Sargent-Welch. I made friends, but the inevitable question always worked its way to the top. What are you doing here?

This, I think, would have been the perfect place to end this story, but that is what is so screwed up about my life. And that is what most people don't understand about music.

Mitch Ryder belts it out in 1972.