My first beer in Detroit was at the Music Menu. Since I’ve lived here, I’ve spent myriad nights at said bar rewarding my liver with heady toxins and witnessing some of Detroit’s finest — Thornetta Davis, Jim McCarty and Maggie’s Farm to name but a few. I’ve also witnessed some horrific acts.
I dig the Menu. I dig it because it has heart. I dig its sense of community and lack of pretense. And I can say that without the risk of bruising my knees.
If there is a subtext to the Music Menu it would have to be this: Fuck the burbs.
I dig that too. Hell, the black interior — trimmed neatly in russet and burgundy — sports decidedly anti-corporate, anti-chain bar ethos, as do the booking policies of Rick Pinkerton, one of the joint’s four owners.
In its 10-year history the Menu has seen a steady stream of top jazz, blues and folk names blow through. And this month is its anniversary; a frothy 10-day celebration will start on Friday, March 14.
Pinkerton’s presence at the Menu is, oh, just a bit ubiquitous. Every time I’m there, he’s there. And Mr. Pinkerton is a talker, which is not a bad thing, ’cause he’s a good talker, a genuinely likable soul whose sentences are punctuated with affable guffaws.
Pinkerton — along with his brother Scott and another pair of brothers, Glenn and Gordon Novak — own the concern. He looks like a guy who spends inordinate amounts of time in the dark recesses; he’s got a barroom pallor and an appearance that sometimes suggests nights spent on the sofa in his office. He also has a degree in literature and history, and he minored in philosophy — schooling that he says set him up perfectly for standing behind a bar and serving drinks.
Over beers, Pinkerton explains that the genesis of the Music Menu rose from a simple frustration: crappy jukeboxes. During his days as a house painter he had trouble finding a jukebox worthy enough to embrace, one filled with songs to reminisce to, to cry to, to laugh to. Seems Pinkerton, who is a musician himself and stores astonishing sums of musical knowledge in his cranium, is a romantic at heart.
“We loved to go to bars in the afternoon,” recalls Pinkerton, whose parents emigrated from Scotland. “And we could never find a good jukebox. So, finally, I said, ‘We should just open our own damn bar.’”
Pinkerton says they wanted to open a bar in downtown Detroit as opposed to the suburbs because they wanted “a diverse crowd. I didn’t want just a bunch of white people. That was when Coleman Young was still mayor, so the atmosphere then was still kinda weird.”
The partners obtained financial backing from family friends (“They’ve all been paid off”), leased a 70-plus-year-old building in Greektown and became publicans. Within six months the Music Menu was open, armed with a class “C” liquor license — one that allows both booze and food.
Initially, the Menu didn’t start as a live music venue; rather, it was as an “all-request juke joint.” As evidenced in the bar moniker, the idea was to create a musical menu of songs that could be chosen from a enormous list. And the list has thousands of tunes — from Koko Taylor and Louis Prima to the Clash and Nick Cave. And there is no jukebox. You choose the songs from a hefty book, write them down on a piece of paper and give the choices to your server, preferably with a tip. The songs are then programmed into a giant CD player and spun.
The bar quickly became a mecca for musicians, which led to a variation on the bar’s basic “juke joint” premise. Sunday nights became all-Grateful Dead. “The place was packed,” remembers Pinkerton. “And I’m not the biggest Dead fan. That lasted until Jerry Garcia died.”
Then a musicians’ workshop led to actual performances, and “slowly but surely” the Menu began to play host to live music, eventually seven nights a week. At which point Pinkerton “wanted to make a commitment to live music in downtown Detroit.”
Enter Detroit R&B impresario R.J. Spangler and guitarist Johnnie Bassett. Pinkerton says both gents helped legitimize the place.
The Menu rapidly began carving a niche in Detroit musical lore, and saw generations of musicians come together. The small stage has been graced by divas Alberta Adams and Thornetta Davis; jazz greats Marcus Belgrave and Ron Levy; Detroit R&B godhead Sir Mack Rice, Joe Weaver and Cub Koda; and, of course, John Sinclair. Guest musicians have included Kid Rock, Joey DeFrancesco, Dave Liebman, C.J. Chenier, Mark Whitfield and Roy Hargrove as well as members from groups as diverse as the Black Crowes, Morphine and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
The Music Menu was instrumental in the comeback of celebrated urban bluesman Johnnie Bassett. Bassett, who is closing out the Menu’s anniversary bash with Larry “The Delta Hurricane” McCray, has a history as broad as it is accomplished. The singer/songwriter was a session man for the legendary Fortune record label. He played on Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ first record and his gig list runs the gamut from John Lee Hooker to Dinah Washington. He’s played with Hendrix and Tina Turner. Over the past decade, Bassett, with his band, the Blues Insurgents, saw a string of releases that harvested international critical and commercial raves.
The Menu is fiercely proud of its in-house song-siren Thornetta Davis. And she responds in kind: “I looove the Music Menu,” she tells me. “I feel like it’s my home. I love it because the Music Menu is a musician’s bar. When I have a bad gig, I can go there and it’s home. They stay true to music there.”
And the Menu has launched a career or two.
“That club is where I grew up musically,” says Brothers Groove keyboardist/singer Chris Codish. “At one time I think I was playing there three times a week. I love the staff, the clientele, old, young, black, white. And not to get all anti-corporate, but the place wasn’t designed by a corporation.” He pauses. “I don’t know, let me blow the place some more.”
“The place is anything but trendy. It’s real. I think we are lucky to have it. Still, 10 years is a long time. Sometimes I think, ‘God, am I gonna be here in 10 years?’” he laughs. “But that’s my own neurosis talking.”
What’s lovely is the Menu, at the golden age of 10, breathes nostalgia. Framed posters abound, from Elvises Presley and Costello, the Stones and Dylan to Billie Holiday, Dexter Gordon and Patti Smith. Bathrooms are wallpapered with D-town rock ’n’ roll nostalgia — yellowed New Wave and punk-rock show flyers.
Pinkerton says the Menu even sports a good relationship with the cops, but acknowledges that feathers get ruffled on occasion.
“I kick people out all the time,” he laughs. “I always say owning a bar is like cultivating a garden; you gotta get the weeds out. I mean you have to have a place where women can feel comfortable.”
Pinkerton is quick to point out that one goal of the Music Menu — through the type of bands he books — is to raise the collective (musical) consciousness in downtown Detroit. Then he smiles and says, “We’ve had our share of shitty bands too.”
Ask any bar owner, jaded or otherwise; 10 years is a long time to run a club.
Pinkerton agrees. “Yeah, it’s been 10 years. But I don’t look too far down the road.”
When asked if he makes a decent living, Pinkerton hangs his head for a moment, lifts it up and shakes it slowly. He laughs. “I was misinformed. I thought that bar owners made a lot of money.”
The Music Menu’s (511 Monroe, Detroit) 10-year anniversary celebration kicks off this weekend:
Friday, March 14: Catfish Hodge & his Detroit All-Stars.
Saturday, March 15: The Lyman Woodard Quartet featuring Robert Lowe.
Sunday, March 16: Saoco, Jazzhead & Phil Harmonic
Monday, March 17: Lucas with Maggie’s “Irish” Farm.
Tuesday, March 18: R.J.’s Rhythm Rockers with the Motor City R&B Pioneers.
Wednesday, March 19: Thornetta Davis and her “Girlfriends of the Blues” with Alberta Adams
Thursday, March 20: The Brothers Groove with Blue Dog.
Friday, March 21: The Orbitsuns with Liz Larin.
Saturday, March 22: John Sinclair and his Motor City Blues Scholars, featuring Jimmy McCarty and members of the Howling Diablos.
Sunday, March 23: Johnnie Bassett and the Blues Insurgents with Larry McCray. For more information, call 313-964-6368.Brian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]