On with the show

There are eight million stories in the naked city, and in Detroit at least half of the great ones would involve this region's rich musical history and legacy. But no Detroit musical tale is more inspiring than the story of the Muggs. Detroit music fans already know them from their incredible live performances, delivering what sounds like classic rock with heavy instrumental interludes and big, hook-classic rock with heavy instrumental interludes and big hook-filled choruses.

But beyond the music, it's a powerful story of friendship and loyalty, of faith against horrible odds. It's a story, as the Little Mary Sunshines of the world might say, about making lemonade from lemons. It's a story of a group that endured one of the worst tragedies, aside from death, that could happen to a band, leaving its members little hope for a future. And it's the story of a band that ended 2007 by making a bigger name for itself on national primetime TV.

On the eve of the release of the Muggs' second album — and only weeks after, from all media reports, the trio stole the show at the Detroit Music Awards, where the band won Outstanding Rock Group and guitarist Danny Methric took the Outstanding Rock/Pop Instrumentalist honors — amiable bandmates Methric, bassist Tony DeNardo and drummer Matt Rost gathered at a funky watering hole near the Wayne State campus to reflect on their tale, a kind that generally only takes place in fictional movies.

Danny Methric and Tony DeNardo have been lifelong friends. They grew up together near City Airport off Connor and Gratiot on Detroit's east side. The chums attended Notre Dame High School in Harper Woods together. But even though they were music fans, as most kids are in high school, their musician aspirations didn't come until long after graduation. While much has been made over the years about Eric Clapton not picking up a guitar until he was 16 years old, one of Detroit's premier gunslingers has Ol' Slowhand beat by a couple of years. Methric didn't pick up a guitar until two months before his 20th birthday, in 1991, when he was a student at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Several guys on his dorm floor played acoustic guitars, as so many sensitive college dudes have been doing since the folk explosion of the early '60s, if for no other reason than to attract sensitive gals — and Methric became curious.

"I loved the Beatles so much back then," Methric recalls, "and I wanted to learn how to play their songs." His parents bought him his first guitar.

"The Valdez!" exclaims DeNardo.

"Yeah, the Valdez," laughs Methric. "And I still got it! It was a typical first guitar; they bought it at the pawn music shop on Kelly Road. I then sat down and tried to learn the riff to 'Day Tripper.' For two weeks straight, days and nights, I played that same riff over and over again to the point it drove my roommate crazy. But then I started learning some more chords. I'm not bragging, but it took like five months for me to surpass those other guys on my floor."

Of course, having some of the strongest musical roots there are didn't hurt.

"The Beatles teach you everything you need to know," Methric agrees. "How to play riffs; how to put chords together. When people ask me how to learn to play, I tell them to learn the Beatles — the whole catalog, which is what I did.

"And then I got into the blues and rock-blues stuff like Savoy Brown, Mountain, Cactus. And I started to love that stuff so much that I didn't want to stop. I wanted to learn everything about it. At that time, I wasn't thinking of it as a career. I didn't know what I wanted to do — but I figured that would come later."

It would be two years before the fledgling guitarist would find the courage to form a band — he'd play in two simultaneously, in fact, both with his old pal Tony back in Detroit. First, however, Methric had to convince DeNardo — whose father had also bought him his first acoustic and electric guitar ("I was pretty much into whatever the radio fed me") — to play bass instead.

"He talked me into it," DeNardo says. "He said, 'Well, somebody has to play bass,' and Danny was already a prodigy on his way to being a great guitar player. I mean, hanging around him for those six years, you couldn't pry the guitar out of his hands — for six years straight! And he also argued that a bass and guitar were almost a band and could go anywhere ... so he was the one with the foresight and wherewithal to turn it into a band."

Methric refuses to take all the credit. "Tony already had an amazing melodic sense," he recalls. "He was already writing songs. I mean, by the time he knew three chords on the guitar, he was writing three-chord songs with wonderful melodies. I couldn't even write lyrics yet. He was also the first singer in the band because he was the only one with the balls to stand in front of a microphone. I was scared to death. So he became the bassist-singer, even though he didn't want to be that. But he just said, 'OK, then. I'll be John Paul Jones and Paul McCartney.' He went straight to the best bass players and decided that would be his style."

They named the group Fat Belly Brown, a modern rock band that played original music influenced by such then-popular bands as Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots. On the side, they played in the Detroit Underground Blues Band, which became their "classic blues outlet. We actually learned everything there," Methric says. "Tony learned to play blues bass; I learned to solo. And the other band was where we learned to write songs. I guess you could say the Muggs eventually became a blend of those two bands, though I never thought about it until now."

Although both bands had respectable local followings, the pair became dissatisfied playing with musicians who didn't take things as seriously as they did.

"The guys in Fat Belly Brown didn't want to play the blues at all," Methric recalls. "I remember them saying, 'The blues won't get you anywhere.'" Rather than fire their fellow "good guys" musicians, they decided it'd be fair to just break up Fat Belly Brown and form a new band.

The original blueprint for the Muggs, however, was for a four-piece, with a lead guitarist added to the lineup to allow Methric to play rhythm. Fatefully, every single lead player they approached wasn't interested in joining a blues-rock project (gratifyingly, several have told them in the years since: "I sure wish I'd have joined the Muggs when I had the chance!"). It took them a year and a half to recruit Rost, the drummer they wanted — and when he showed up for the first practice, he was greeted with an apology.

"I was like, 'Matt, we're really sorry but we don't have a second guitarist," Methric remembers. "And he was like, 'Power trio, dude!' He actually said exactly that. And Matt was so fantastic at that first practice, we just figured screw it, and started writing for a three-piece."

Rost — who grew up in Canton before moving to the Bloomfield area, where he attended Southfield Christian High (and who, interestingly, works during the day as an undertaker in his family's funeral business) — was the missing link. The now-married father of a 9-month-old started playing drums when he was 16.

"My dad played, so there was always a set in the basement," Rost explains. "I was a typical teenager with too much energy and just came home from school one day and started bashing." His dad was a jazz fanatic who took him to shows and clubs and got him to listen to big band recordings, which helped broaden his horizons beyond the rock and heavy metal he absorbed at school. Instead of the Beatles, he's more apt to tell beginning drummers to listen to Steely Dan instead.

Rost had been playing with the Immortal Winos Of Soul — an R&B-ish party band with an Otis Redding vibe — when Methric approached him one night at a club. The guitarist indirectly encouraged the drummer to join his new project by asking if he knew any percussionists interested in playing blues-rock. Rost was eager to give it a shot and the Muggs were officially born in February 2000.

There, of course, wasn't a MySpace then, so the trio went into a Royal Oak recording studio to cut four original songs for booking purposes only; they obviously had something going on from the get-go, as three of those four tunes would be rerecorded for their 2005 self-titled debut album. The group played its first show at Paycheck's Lounge shortly after forming, but it was a subsequent Paycheck's gig — in March 2001 as part of the Hamtramck Blowout festival — that pushed the band into the local limelight.

"We opened the night at 9 p.m.," Methric says, "but the place was packed. After that, we were offered a lot of opening slots and cool shows."

The band had also ingratiated itself within the local scene after Tony and Danny visited the legendary Gold Dollar one night shortly after forming. "I'd never seen anything like it before," Methric recalls. "We discovered there was a Detroit rock scene and we never looked back. We were the latecomers, sort of the last ones on the scene. In fact, we felt like we'd stuck our foot in the door right before they closed it. But we became good friends with everyone."

The Muggs played the Gold Dollar three times before it closed a year later, including its very last night of existence, at a "private party" for 60 of the Muggs' invited friends so that owner Neil Yee could sell the rest of his beer before closing the doors for good. Their star was on the rise — arena power rock in a club environment is how some folks were describing what they did onstage — and they'd just been booked to play Detroit's Dally in the Alley fest when, six months after that breakout Blowout gig, on September 4, 2001, tragedy struck and the Muggs' entire world as they knew it was blown apart.

Tony was working
at a scrap yard, with heavy machinery, at the time it happened. Had he been in one of the cabs of the trucks, as he often was, he'd be dead now. But instead, he was in the main office, talking on the phone to a booker at the State Theater; Outrageous Cherry's Matt Smith was slated to produce the Muggs' debut album and, to get that Led Zeppelin feel, he wanted to record the tracks inside the downtown theatre (now the Fillmore) late at night.

"Suddenly, my speech started to slur to the point I could hardly talk," DeNardo recalls. "So I went into the bathroom and the right side of my mouth was sagging and I was doing weird things like saying swear words involuntarily. I was like 'What's happening to me?' My boss said I was scaring him, even though I'd probably just been stung by a bee — I could no longer talk at that point — so he had one of the salesman drive me to the hospital. My right side was completely paralyzed by then. It was, strangely, actually euphoric. A lot of tingling. Picture yourself at the most punch-drunk you've ever been — just sloppy, falling-over drunk. At one point, though, I looked up at the driver and was able to say, 'I think I'm having a stroke,' although I doubt it was coherent. A guy came out with a wheelchair and asked, 'Can you walk?' I didn't know I was paralyzed. But I just fell into his arms. And from there, it just got more grim."

DeNardo had indeed suffered a hemorrhagic stroke due to an undetected congenital condition.

"There's only a 3 percent chance of survival," the bassist says. "Then I had a pulmonary embolism, which is like the third leading cause of death. So somebody wanted me here."

He spent one night in Oakwood Hospital before being transferred to Henry Ford, which is one of the leading stroke centers in the country, where he spent the next two months before beginning treatment at the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan which, ironically, was two blocks from the Magic Stick Theatre. He had to learn to both walk and talk again. Forget playing bass with the Muggs. That was over.

"I could see in his eyes that he wanted to talk," says Methric, who showed up at the hospital when he heard about the stroke. "The doctors were giving us just the grimmest diagnosis. I was devastated."

A week later, two planes flew into the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

"That was the darkest day ever," Methric reflects. "It was a disaster. There was a death in my family right before all this happened. It was a very dark period for me. It was like, 'OK, I get it. We're not supposed to play music.' It was a sign. Everything had been taken away from us and I thought it was over."

Did he ever consider restructuring the band with a new bassist?

"No!" He couldn't be any more emphatic. "No, I just couldn't. Tony's like my musical soul brother. It just won't work with anybody else. It just would've been terrible. So there could be no more Muggs."

What there could be, however, was a dream that Tony would play again despite what the doctors said.

Methric decided it was important to keep Rost close to him until Tony was well enough to play again. He knew DeNardo would play again. So he formed Over Under Sideways Down with the drummer to play old Yardbirds, Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck covers in the local bars. He also thought it important to keep a high visibility on the scene, which he accomplished by joining a few local bands — most notably the Paybacks, playing lead guitar on their second and third albums and touring the United States and Spain with the group. (He still considers himself a member of Wendy Case's long-on-hiatus musical project.)

Six months later, DeNardo was up and walking with a cane — and Methric started taking him out to some local shows. Matt Smith, the producer of the aborted album, soon suggested that DeNardo learn to play bass on a keyboard like Ray Manzarek did with the Doors.

"At that point, six months in, I was offended," DeNardo remembers. "I said, 'What do you mean? I'm going to get my arm back. I'll play the bass guitar! How dare you?' But then, after a year and three months and little physical change, that suggestion started to sound pretty good."

In late 2002, DeNardo was in Southern California for some experimental physical therapy, living with his father, when he borrowed a keyboard from his aunt and learned to play. "I called Danny first," says DeNardo. "If I was going to be in the band again, I never wanted it to be 'Oh, that's Tony; let's feel sorry for him.' And in a three-piece ... well, you can't bullshit in a three-piece. So I wanted Danny's blessing. Because if he was embarrassed by me or didn't want me in the band, I would've respected that. But he told me to go for it. And that's all I needed. So I practiced four hours a day, nonstop, for three months straight until I was one with the instrument. It wasn't beautiful at first but I learned to approach the keys the way a bass guitar player would."

"Oh, man, I don't know that this is going to work," was drummer Rost's reaction at the reformed band's first rehearsal, which took place in his basement. "But after a few practices, it started to sound pretty good," Rost says. "And then it reached a point where we thought, 'We can do this.'"

It sounded good enough for the band to play a comeback show at Detroit's Cadieux Cafe (which is where they played their final show two days before DeNardo's stroke and also where Methric has worked since he was 16; these days, he's a bartender) on September 1, 2003, almost two years to the day since tragedy had struck. "It was a nerve-racking show," Methric recalls. "And it wasn't bad. It wasn't good but it wasn't bad either."

"It's a work in progress," DeNardo says of his condition now. Aside from some paralysis on his right side that still affects his hand, one would never realize he suffered a stroke based on his voice or step. In fact, he's the one who rattles off important dates in the band's history without even thinking about it. "I'm a lot better than I was four years ago," he says, "but I still get tremors and my right hand is paralyzed. But I believe if you apply yourself, anything is possible and I'm going to keep after this until the day I die. So at least I can hold my head up and say I tried.

"It was most difficult dealing with the Medicaid doctors who write you off. 'If you're not better in two years, you might as well hang it up, kid.' But tell me that and I'll do everything I can just to prove you wrong. I do still dream about running and sports and walking on my hands — all the things I used to do before."

The Muggs continued working, playing and improving; they released their debut eponymous album via the Royal Oak-based Times Beach label on July 17, 2005. A little more than a month later, a DVD of one of their shows at the Magic Stick was released, offering their fans and the curious a double whammy by spotlighting the band's great songs, such as "If You Please," which comes on like the Howlin' Wolf-lovin' illegitimate spawn of Steve Miller's "Space Cowboy" and Led Zep's "How Many More Times." The DVD concert was picked up by PBS affiliates, and broadcast several times throughout Michigan and all of Canada, which definitely helped the band's visibility and fan base.

The Muggs would've been content with the little niche they managed to carve for themselves here in the Mitten State. ... but then Hollywood came calling.

It was a friend
who first told the Muggs about a show that was going to be like American Idol on Fox TV, only with rock bands instead of diva wannabes — and she even downloaded the entry forms for them.

"A lot of Detroit bands would probably be like, 'I'd never be on something like that!'" says Methric. "But we decided to do it in a second. It sounded like a blast."

Two weeks later, the band was flown to Los Angeles for three days, after being chosen out of 7000 submissions, for their first audition for The Next Great American Band.

"We played in this little room to the producers and we had like five minutes to set up," Methric remembers. "They had a back line of equipment — but unfortunately, they had no idea about Tony playing bass on a keyboard. We had to explain it to them and all they had was a little electric piano. But we played 'White Man's Blues' and just thought that would be it — at least we'd have a cool story to tell — but the producers came in and told us they were sending us directly to Las Vegas for the next auditions.

"Those were the auditions that were filmed by Fox for broadcast on the show. But we had an especially hard time there explaining to the sound guy about Tony playing bass on the keys. It was terrible. The sound guy was like, 'But wait! That's not a bass!' Um, we know it's not a bass but we're trying to get a bass sound from the piano. This is going on while the judges are sitting there and the cameras are rolling! We finally had to do it ourselves, adjusting things to get a close enough sound. But we were demoralized by this point, although I don't know that it showed on TV. But it sounded terrible in the studio. Matt couldn't hear anything in the back. Tony had a crappy sound. It was 108 degrees outside and my voice was going. It was 11 in the morning! But we got through the first song — a lot of bands were stopped — and so we also did 'Slow Curve.'"

And then they had to pass all those Fox-TV tests.

"Psychological tests," Tony says.

"Drug tests," Matt adds.

"They wanted to know if we'd beaten anyone up in the first grade," laughs Danny.

Drug tests? Really? For rock bands?

"Oh, yeah," Danny says. "Fox is pretty diligent over the fact that you're not going to embarrass Fox. They wanted to make sure no one was a coke hound. But they were just happy I was honest with them. I told them I like to smoke a little grass and they were happy that I admitted it. They didn't want anyone lying to them. It was the same with all three of us."

The band returned to Detroit the day after the tests and waited three weeks with no word until the call came. Rost was in Alaska fly fishing, a trip he'd planned for two years, when they were asked to return to L.A.

Surprisingly, they don't have a lot of juicy Hollywood stories or gossip. They were put in the ritzy Plaza Apartments (where The Hills is partially filmed) and saw many celebrities and movie stars walking around.

"It's really a bit of a blur, thinking back on it," Methric says. "There was a lot of sitting in our rooms and being bored." One of the high points for them was befriending the like-minded band Tres Bien from Clearwater, Florida, who became, "our staunch allies and drinking buddies," DeNardo recalls. "We even discovered that their guitarist had the same birthday as me and we celebrated it together." They've remained close; Tres Bien will make the trek from Florida to open the Muggs' CD release show this week.

The Muggs also brought some Detroit attitude with them to the City of Angels. They weren't thrilled when they discovered they'd be covering Elton John and Billy Joel tunes instead of their own material; it didn't help when the family-oriented show had them cover the former's "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues" instead of their first choice, Elton's highly objectionable "The Bitch is Back."

"So it became Next Great American Wedding Band," jokes Methric. "I could've given them several bands that had at least three Billy Joel covers."

"People didn't see the real Muggs and had no idea because TV can paint you in any vein they want," DeNardo complains. "It almost got to the point where we wanted to be voted off."

And it didn't help matters when, the week the band was finally voted off, the judges suggested the Muggs needed a new lead singer — and Methric defiantly answered that no, they didn't. "It definitely hurt us on the Web and there was a backlash on our votes there as a result," Methric says. "[People were saying] 'Oh, Danny's a poor sport. He can't take criticism.' I can take criticism just fine. But to say, 'You need a new lead singer. ...' If they can push the envelope like that, well, then, so can I. When they told us we were all washed up, the only response I had was to boo them and give them a thumbs down. It was like, 'Hey, we know what we're doing and you want to judge us based on one Elton John tune?'" [Shortly thereafter, the Muggs would put an ad on their Web site jokingly announcing auditions for a new lead singer.]

"Plus, it was like American Idol sound where the vocals were turned way up, but they made me set my guitar on 1! It was barely audible. They asked if I could turn it down more! Well, if I turned it down more, it would have been turned off! It was tough.

"But don't get me wrong. I'd do it again in a second," he laughs. "I don't want to bash the show. It was a great opportunity and it came at the right time for us." For one thing, their MySpace hits more than quadrupled.

DeNardo picks up the conversation: "But we didn't cooperate the way they would have liked. They interviewed us the day before our final show for green room footage to broadcast and they kinda thought we were little brats. They'd be like, 'What do you think of Billy Joel?' And I'd answer: 'Terrible. We're really not looking forward to that at all!' And we'd even get in little digs like 'What's next? Air Supply?' If we'd have moved onto the next round, we gave them nothing. Other bands were like 'Oh, we love Billy Joel!' Now, look, we respect all those people as artists. But the Muggs had no business doing Billy Joel songs on national TV!"

For the foreseeable future, the band's focused on their second full-length CD, On With the Show, which they're self-releasing this week — 11 slabs of blues-rock majesty, all credited to the Muggs.

"It's really nice of Dan to do that because he wrote all the songs, all the lyrics," DeNardo admits. "So it's very nice of him to give us an equal share. But it's always been a team effort, even though he's our leader. I think that's one of the most endearing things about the Muggs, that it's always been all for one, one for all."

"But it is a team." The final words are Methric's. "I think back to how I worked to keep Matt around, hoping Tony would come back someday. Nobody else could have done what Tony does on this new album. No other drummer can do what Matt does on this record. It's three guys together, jamming their butts off, playing their best. That's the Muggs' sound. So, with this record, I felt personally vindicated. Because I love this record — and this is the one, as far as I'm concerned. This is why I fought to keep it together. It wouldn't have worked with any other two people."

The Muggs' CD release party is Friday, May 9, at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Avenue, Ferndale; 248-544-3030. With Tres Bien and the Sisters Lucas.

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