A blue swan song

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I have been informed by some readers that they don’t care to read about anything pertaining to music in my columns. They want the rough stuff, the hard-news stuff, the racially provocative stuff.

Fair enough.

So in the spirit of trying my best to respect my readers, and because I really do appreciate all those who take the time to read whatever I have to say (whether they feel like setting a match to it or framing it), I feel I owe you an advance warning for what is about to come.

What you are about to read — or skip over — is a blues column, in more ways than one. I do apologize, but the musician in me simply has to say something about the sadly numbered days of the Music Menu. Can’t help it. I promise to try my best to be appropriately outraged about racial injustice in my next column, or outraged about something other than what is happening to the blues scene in this city, but right now it’s pretty hard for me to get past this without putting in my two cents.

The Music Menu is scheduled to change ownership at the end of January. It’s still uncertain what the future of the venue will be — maybe it will still be a bar, maybe not; maybe it will still have music, maybe not — but it will not be the Menu I know.

See, the Music Menu has been a Greektown staple for more than 10 years, which is as long as I have been a Detroiter. I started going to the Menu as soon as it opened. I still remember the days when you used to actually get a menu of music right along with your food menu, and you could order songs right along with your meal. I remember thinking how cool that was. The song menu had just about every kind of music you could imagine, and I used to get the biggest kick out of ordering the familiar as well as the unknown. The Music Menu was, and still is, my favorite spot.

But aside from the song selection list, I always felt that the Menu had one of the coolest crowds. For those of us who sometimes just like to “hang out,” it was one of the best. There were young folks, middle-aged folks, beyond middle-aged folks, business folks, wacked-out folks, white folks, black folks, highly literate folks, and folks who I suspect talked to themselves at great length. Folks, man. The kind of folks who make life interesting, especially when you put them in a room together.

And especially when you put them in a room together to hear live music. Because that’s what made the Menu even more special. Live music, seven nights a week. For a brief period the weekend music stopped several years ago, but then it started up again, and all the bands were pounding on the door and tying up the phones trying to get some dates.

I know about this because I was one of those who worried Rick Pinkerton — one of the Menu’s four owners — to death on a regular basis trying to get a slot for my former band, Blue Spirit Tribe. I still remember the first time the Tribe played the Menu, and I was geeked to the gills that we’d finally gotten in the door. Well, there were times when Tribe really put on a fantastic performance, if I do say so myself. This was not one of those nights.

We were loud as hell and not very tight. Not terrible, but certainly not great. Those who know Pinkerton know that he can get this certain look on his face that’s sort of a cross between sadness and confusion that lets you know, without cutting you off at the knees, that you didn’t quite hit the mark.

It would have been easy enough for Pinkerton to have signaled our fate by drawing a finger across his throat, but instead he gave us another shot. The next time was considerably better, and I’ve gigged at the Menu with a variety of bands, including my current band, the Family, and also with Luther “Badman” Keith, ever since.

I don’t think it would come as a shock to Pinkerton if I said that playing the Menu was never about the money because, well, it wasn’t much. There are definitely clubs — particularly in the suburbs — that pay better. Musicians that perform regularly at the casinos make real good money, at least for local musicians.

But there isn’t a club out there that even comes close to having the same cool atmosphere with just the right combination of diverse music, diverse musicians, diverse crowd, good food, and a well-used, dimly lit pool table surrounded by folks who often look as if they really know how to play the game.

You may have heard some folks speak of that indescribable quality known as “it.” Some folks have “it,” while other folks don’t. Similarly, some clubs have “it,” while others merely pretend. I suppose it’s a sign of the times that the pretenders seem to be doing better than the real deals.

In News Hits last week, where news of the Music Menu’s sale broke, Pinkerton was quoted as saying, “We just thought there was a need for that type of bar out there. … We just tried to create a bar we wanted to hang out at, because we couldn’t find one we liked.”

The need was there, the need was filled, and for 10 good years the somewhat “different” folks like us who needed a place like the Menu found a place that we liked. Today, 10 years later, the search begins anew.

Correction: In my last column (“The son also rises,” Metro Times, Dec. 3-9), I incorrectly made it sound as if my friend Salim had moved into his Harlem brownstone around the time that he graduated from Harvard more than a decade ago. No way did he have that kind of cash back then. Salim, his wife and four kids just moved in last month. Sorry about that.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]
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