Musical matriarch

This space was to have originally been filled with a wrap-up of this year’s local music happenings, releases, trends and developments. But then, at about 10 a.m. on Wednesday the 22nd, I started receiving e-mails, phone calls and visits from co-workers, all asking whether I’d heard yet. Heard what? That Lili had died that morning.

That’s all that needed to be said till the news sunk in. There was no other Lili. Maria Lidia (Lili) Karwowski was the Hamtramck rock ‘n’ roll matron, the woman generally decked out in wild garb manning the door of her bar-nightclub, Lili’s 21. Lili’d been there forever (20 years and counting, anyway) and, it seemed, would continue to be there, shepherding the shot-and-a-beer crowd, aspiring and established Detroit musicians and music-hungry fans alike into her funky Hamtramck bar. (Not to mention the time in 1980 that Joe Strummer, then frontman for English punk legends the Clash, got knackered on Polish liqueur courtesy of Lili.) She was an icon. There is nothing one person can write that can come close to capturing the sense of community Lili fostered for the past 20-plus years.

That maternal well ran deep, too. After emigrating from Poland with her parents and settling just outside Poletown, Lili Karwowski raised five sons, often working three jobs to support them. 89X DJ Kelly Brown remembers the maternal side of Lili, too. "She was like a second mother to me," says Brown.

"It was a blessing for her to be downstairs in the later years because you knew she was feeling good.

"When I first started at 89X and I wasn’t on the payroll, I came in and she adopted me. She let me pick up bottles for $30 a night, and she let me get onstage and introduce the bands in between. When I had my doubts, she made me get on stage.

"When I talked to her on the phone Tuesday night, she was her normal, firecracker self. There was a benefit for HAVEN Thursday and she wanted to be sure that it happened," continues Brown. "When I got up on stage, it all just came rushing back. I remembered everything. She was an incredible, incredible woman."

"Her contribution to local and original music has touched and inspired many in her years of operation of the club. (Lili’s was) also the first local and original venue I experienced when I moved to Detroit in 1990," remembers Neil Yee, musician and proprietor of Detroit’s Gold Dollar, in an e-mail statement.

Years — heck, decades — before Hamtramck was deigned hip by Utne Reader and the media illuminati, Lili had created a safe haven for rockers, aspiring songwriters and elbow-tipping music fans with herself at its core — clad in animal print, lamé, sunglasses at night and the sort of welcoming proprietorship you only find from someone tending to their labor of love.

It’s bittersweet in retrospect to remember the wonder with which I thought, "Who the heck is that woman at the door?!" as I loaded in gear for my first show at Lili’s years ago. "And how the hell does she know everybody who walks in here?!"

In a year when many of Detroit’s musical talents have sprung from the hometown scene to national prominence, it’s a woman such as Lili and a bar (but much more) such as Lili’s 21 that reminds us how interconnected Detroit’s music scene really is — and how vital the vision and character of one person can be to that community. You’re in that community. I am in that community. It is the loss of a woman such as Lili that makes us feel that truth.

Visit the Lili’s 21 Web site ( and browse through the photo gallery of Lili, tending her bar, being joyous with her friends — and reflect on the following poem, which expresses the way in which Lili would have you remember her:

Do not stand at my grave and weep,

I am not there, I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow;

I am the diamond glints on the snow.

I am the sunlight on ripened grain;

I am the gentle autumn’s rain.

When you awaken in the morning’s hush,

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circled flight.

I am the soft star that shines at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry,

I am not there; I did not die.

Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]. Handyside writes about music for the Metro
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