Embers of sympathy

They burned his house down.


Just when I was starting to feel good about how well things had gone in Detroit during the blackout, I got a call from a buddy who asked if I had heard what happened to R.J. Spangler. I hadn’t heard a thing. My phone hadn’t been back on for that long, and I couldn’t imagine what would have been so urgent that someone would have been trying to reach me about R.J. that soon.

There are people whom I worry about from time to time, but R.J., one of Detroit’s best-known and most-respected musicians/promoters/producers on the blues and jazz scene, has never been one of them. R.J. has always seemed to know how to handle things. Some might say he comes on a little strong at times, but in the music business, especially the music business in Detroit, you’ll get chewed up like a wet noodle in a lawnmower if you don’t know how to hold your own. Hell, Detroit is like that for just about anybody, when you think about it.

If you want advice on how to handle the club scene, talk to R.J. Want to find out how to book your own tour? Ask R.J. Need help finding a gig? R.J. That two-part series on the history of blues in Detroit that I wrote for Metro Times a few years back? Without R.J.’s help it wouldn’t have been nearly as complete and thorough as it was. He had so many sources that I wasn’t even able to use them all.

And if R.J. is your friend, then you know all there is to know about what a friend and a brother really is. How could anything go so wrong for somebody like that?

“Somebody burned his whole house down, man. He lost everything. It’s all gone.”

I don’t cry easily, but that bit of news just about did it. I felt like all the air had just been sucked right out of my lungs. When you’ve been through a few of your own challenging moments, the hurt cuts deeper when a friend experiences similar difficulties. Once you’ve gone through something like that, you don’t want to ever see the same thing happen to anybody you care about. Some things just shouldn’t even happen to a dog, let alone a human being.

Before going any further, I want to acknowledge that my editor, Jeremy Voas, wrote a column about what happened to R.J. last week (“R.J.’s house of blues,” Metro Times, Aug. 20-26). It offered plenty of detail about R.J.’s towering status in the Detroit blues community, as well as his vast record collection and other irreplaceable memorabilia destroyed in the fire. It also put the word out about how local musicians were already rallying to help the brother out.

I thought about whether writing another column about R.J. might be too much, and some may think that it is. But R.J. has been a close friend for years and it just wouldn’t feel right not to write about what happened. Quite frankly, once I heard about the incident, I couldn’t think about much else, let alone conceive of anything else more important to write about.

But I also had reservations. After all, there has been a virtual celebration in this city about how Detroit conducted itself during the blackout. In other words, we didn’t tear (much) shit up — or burn (much) shit down. I’m glad that things stayed relatively calm, and I was angry when I heard news reports suggesting that riots might break out the minute it got dark. We’re not all a bunch of thugs, and I get just as fed up as most other Detroiters when folks want to speculatively convict the entire town.

But just because we aren’t all thugs doesn’t mean the thugs aren’t still here. Crime in Detroit has been on the decline for some time now, but that doesn’t mean that crime has left the building. Detroit is showing signs of being on the comeback trail, but that trail is visible to both the good and the bad, each of whom has conflicting ideas about what should decorate the path.

And just because the city didn’t turn into a pillage and plunder fest doesn’t mean that everything was A-OK. Don’t expect R.J., or anyone else who was hit during the blackout, to smile proudly when they hear the reports about how Detroit was a model for the nation. Doesn’t mean it’s not true, but it also doesn’t take the sting out of losing virtually every material thing of value to you, accumulated over a lifetime’s dedication and work, in just one night.

Imagine how you might feel if it had been your house that someone burned down, then you watched the news to witness how happy everyone else was that only a few incidents of crime related to the blackout had occurred. Puts things in a new perspective, doesn’t it?

While we celebrate how well Detroit weathered the darkness it’s important to think seriously about what happened to R.J., and anyone else who suffered during the blackout. It would be easy to try to sweep such an incident under the rug out of fear that it might dampen the feel-good atmosphere; we Detroiters can be notoriously sensitive about how the media chooses to highlight the negative things in this city.

But sometimes it’s necessary to pay even closer attention to the negative things to remind ourselves that this is still Detroit, and every so often, no matter how far we get down the road toward the bright and shining new Detroit we all hope to see one day, the darkness will still reach out and tap the city on the shoulder from time to time.

A concert to benefit R.J. Spangler is scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 12, at the Magic Bag in Ferndale. In addition to financial assistance, friends are seeking records, CDs, books and other memorabilia that might help Spangler begin to re-create the vast library lost in the fire. Assistance can be sent to PO Box 1092, Hazel Park, MI 48030. For more information, call 586-634-2884.

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