Last dance

Sep 4, 2002 at 12:00 am

Motor blew its head gasket last Friday night after six years. John Acquaviva played to a seemingly beyond-capacity crowd, his every record inspiring fist-pumping, full-lunged hollers. It was witheringly hot in the club. The ceiling shook as it dripped condensed sweat back onto the crowd.

With a sea of ecstatic onlookers screaming their heads off from below the DJ booth, Dan Sordyl, the club’s managing owner, got on the microphone. He thanked everyone who made it happen: his business partners, its promoters, the DJs, the bar staff, and, of course, “each and every one of you.”

That Sordyl thanked his fellow owners first (and loudest) seemed both gracious and ironic. One of them, Carlos Oxholm, has a lawsuit against Sordyl and the other, Steven Sowers, left the club in 1998 after a sordid power struggle with Sordyl.

Sowers split Friday before Sordyl’s eulogy. Oxholm reportedly didn’t show for Motor’s swan song.

Bartenders wept, shouted and hugged. At 3 a.m., an employee was sent to take down the club’s metallic logo — someone had tried to rip it off the previous morning.

Until the end, everybody wanted their own piece of Motor, the Hamtramck club that one hipster magazine tagged “the best club in America” in 2001. It defined the post-rave era in Detroit, and attracted some of the most talented crowd-movers on earth.

Motor had a good, long run. Six years is an eternity in club years. It evolved — some say devolved — and weathered a fire, deaths and the antipathy of its neighbors.

In the end, though, the original partners lost the enthusiasm their crowds engendered. The dispute among the owners actually inspired a disgruntled Oxholm in early August to clean out the club’s safe.

Appropriately, everyone has his own spin on Motor’s denouement.

Three’s company

Motor started on its unwitting rise to dance-floor fame in 1996, sporting grand prix potential from the very beginning: There were three rooms featuring live bands, DJs, a juke box, cigars and top-shelf everything. It catered to a largely suburbanite crowd, but its message was Detroit all the way. Motor screamed bigger, faster and louder than any other club in the city right from the start.

It was something of a bastard brainchild. The founding team of Sordyl, Sowers and Oxholm all have a slightly different story about the club’s genesis and wildly different theories about its acrimonious collapse, the most telling being the lawsuit that Oxholm recently filed against Sordyl alleging fraud.

All three men, now in their 30s, had extensive résumés in the club business. Sowers owned the then-successful Martini Room in Royal Oak. Sordyl had cut his teeth as manager for the Shelter 1984-1990, then managed Pontiac’s Industry.

Oxholm had done sound for Derrick May’s fabled Music Institute and countless early raves. He was also the sound man for what had been the Falcon Club, 1315 Caniff in Hamtramck, and brought the property to his future partners’ attention. They scrounged up savings, maxed-out credit cards, borrowed from friends and family, then rolled the proverbial dice.

Sowers reportedly came up with the original format for the Motor Lounge (although the name “Motor” comes courtesy of onetime employee Scott Ross). Sowers denies that he simply mirrored his Martini Room model.

“The place was never a ‘cigar and martini’ bar,” says Sowers. “It was always a dance club from the minute I thought of it to today.”

A dance club, though, that featured massive martinis, a thriving humidor, and bands ranging from swing groups to the Howling Diablos.

“We tried to offer things that you couldn’t find in other places,” says Sordyl. “The cigar and martini thing was just starting to hit then, and we were right there to give it to them. The cigar sales were equal to the bar sales for any register. We had a full martini menu, all the champagnes, single malt scotches, ports. … We really strived for customer service.”

“We wanted to have the coolest club on the planet and spent every nickel that we had,” he adds.

Sordyl took over what Sowers calls “the nuts and bolts” operations. Oxholm was responsible for sound, lighting and plumbing matters. Sowers handled booking, promotion, schmoozing — selling the image of the club.

Disco inferno

Motor’s grand opening almost didn’t happen. Hamtramck officials were a constant annoyance.

“Luckily, my father knew some people … and they quit harassing us,” claims Sowers. “The harassment … went on right until the week before we were gonna open. The inspector looked me square in the eye and said, ‘I’m never gonna let this place open, so just give up.’”

A fire, which Sordyl believes was arson, damaged the parquet dance floor and speaker system just three days prior to opening.

“Everyone who was involved in the club was polygraphed, “ says Sordyl, “and nobody was suspected of any wrongdoing. The fire marshal told us that we couldn’t open. … The sprinkler system saved the building, but there was a hell of a lot of water damage. There were about 60 people working at Motor for free. We got it all cleaned up and the fire marshal couldn’t believe it.”

Motor’s opening night shattered everyone’s expectations. Sowers recalls folks waiting three hours to get in; most of those in line never made it into the club at all. Traffic was backed up to I-75

The opening also began what Sowers calls a love-hate relationship with Hamtramack: “They loved that we gave exposure for the city. The new guard wanted to bring in more arts and entertainment. But the old guard — the bars, the old-school politicians — didn’t really like it because it shook things up and they didn’t have a piece of it.”

Changing lanes

Motor racked up big numbers. After a year, though, the club would have to innovate to dominate.

Enter Derrick May. For its one-year anniversary, Motor booked the techno legend and inadvertently heralded a new direction.

Ex-general manager Tre Wallace says no one in Detroit was approaching the bigger local DJs “because they were getting such big paydays over in Europe. They wanted to play [in Detroit], but there wasn’t much going on.”

Until May’s gig, that is.

“Our original intention wasn’t to run a world-class club,” says Oxholm. “That was incidental and accidental. The person who got it all going was Derrick May. After that, everyone wanted to spin at Motor.”

Sowers says May simply requested a fee above Motor’s resident DJs. Sowers gave him chump change, and the two had a good laugh.

Sowers — helped by Laura Gavoor — served as ambassador.

“I was goin’ all over the world, looking at what other people were doing. That’s how we got Doc Martin, that’s how we got Sneak,” says Sowers. “Everybody wanted to play in Detroit. Their agents were calling me off the hook because now they didn’t have to book them at raves.”

Sowers was able to keep expenses down because artists were hungry to play in Detroit — for many techno and house DJs, it was a pilgrimage. DJs en route to Chicago and New York gladly stopped to play for $500. The 89X broadcasts of Motor’s “Maximum Overload” Fridays made the draw all the more enticing: The artists were guaranteed good exposure and dance-floor response.

DJ Bone, Motor’s local Friday night mainstay at the time, insists the broadcasts “offered people an opportunity to rediscover electronic dance music.” But when asked how well the club was supporting local talent at the time, Bone’s response is less enthusiastic.

“I was paid very well,” he says, “but I wanted everyone else to be paid well too. I felt they should only have an out-of-town guest once a month and book locals when I was not in town.”

The crowds didn’t seem to mind the influx of internationally known deck techs. Cajmere, CJ Bolland, Kevin Yost, the Advent, Grooverider, Dave Clark and Frankie Bones added gravity to the club’s growing reputation.

The honeymoon ended as the millennium approached. Sowers and Gavoor occasionally brought in top-dollar acts, paying $5,000 and $10,000, respectively, for nights with Goldie and Fatboy Slim. The boost to the club’s international reputation, Sowers says, was priceless.

“There were Ferraris, Porsches, and Jaguars lined up in front of Motor every single week,” he says. “Those people really didn’t give a shit who the DJs were. We kind of educated that crowd to the DJs, to the world-class music that we were bringing in. A lot of them had been to South Beach and they were surprised to see a club like this here.”

In the early days, Sowers says Motor “was never really about the music. Motor was about the people who came there. That was the point of the club. People were coming there because it was the cool place to be, then they were hearing the music and saying ‘Wow. This is cool.’ By the time I left, every club owner in town was trying to do a techno night.”

Sowers left on Halloween 1998. Depending on who’s talking, he was either forced out or left voluntarily. His assistant, Linda G, took over booking, and, with Sordyl, further changed the club’s aesthetic.

Wallace, the ex-manager, says they turned the club into “a rave cave.”

“They wanted to get as many people in there as possible, instead of trying to make it a place where adults want to go. They made it into a warehouse,” he says.

Sordyl changed to an all-electronic format in late 1998. Saturday nights featured Recloose in the smaller room (“the study”). Tuesday night’s “Family” event hit full stride as one of Motor’s longest-running and most carefree club nights. Hosted by Adriel Thornton, “Family” featured Brian Gillespie, Derek Plaslaiko and DJ Echo. The night’s regulars partied like it was, well, 1999.

Linda G jokes that the door policy changed to “phat pants and good-lookin’ hookers first.”

Sordyl sees this period as the club’s highpoint.

“People were coming down because of the energy. There would be 1,200 people in the club; only 400 would even know who the DJ was and only 300 of them cared. The rest of the people were there because of the energy.”

Meanwhile, booking prices in many cases had doubled or even tripled. Sowers claims paying those fees was the club’s eventual undoing. And other clubs were starting to pop up. Pure and its clones siphoned business from the Sowers-era Motor.

“The problem with any club,” theorizes Linda G, “is that you’re either going to be a vibe place, or a name place. When a club is new, everybody goes there because it’s new. But then you have to do something to keep them coming back. Once you start booking bigger names to keep people coming in, then you get into a rut of people not coming in when there aren’t big names. So you paint yourself into a corner.”

Linda G left the club in November ’99 to promote for a new club, Science, which competed head-on with Motor.

Her replacement was Jon Ozias (Jonny O), who introduced Joshua Glazer to Sordyl. Ozais and Glazer — who had known each other from their days as “Camel guys,” doling out cigarettes to clubgoers and barflies — found themselves booking and promoting their favorite club.

They created some of the club’s most memorable nights. The exciting Transmat Records tour — featuring May, Aril Brikah and Time Space — filled every room

Richie Hawtin’s New Year’s Eve 2000 event, “Epok,” was incredibly high-maintenance and high-concept, yet lived up to its high price. The entire building was covered in cargo netting. Sordyl, Ozias, Glazer and a small army spent a week setting up.

Later, Ozias and Glazer would ensure that some of their favorites were booked, including John Acquaviva, whom Sordyl kept on as a resident DJ. Ozias and Glazer conceptualized the “Research and Development” series, bringing in eclectic talent such as Thomas Brinkmann and Stewart Walker. “Departure” Saturdays featured artful selectors Clark Warner and Liz Copeland in the lounge as well as Stacey Pullen, whose monthly performances always shook the floor.

Ozias says that he and Glazer “were always trying to come up with something that would get people to come outside of this concert mentality of ‘I’m going to see so-and-so.’”

Adds Ozias: “There are so many brilliant DJs who live right here in Detroit, and the reality is that the only difference between someone dancing to them as opposed to somebody else is the hype that somebody else gets from Mixer magazine. If people see somebody’s face on the cover of a magazine, they’re going to have it in their mind the entire drive down that it’s going to be a crazy night. When you have that many people driving down with the same thing in their heads, it perpetuates the myth. But the reality is that if you have Derek Plaslaiko or Craig Gonzales up there, they’re 10 times the DJ that these famous people are.”

Ozias says he and Glazer also brought a touch of unpredictable theater to the club. Events like DJ Hell on Halloween 2000 (Glazer swears the attendance clicker read 666 that night) and Acquaviva’s first gig (with 8-foot Acquaviva-style glasses hanging from the ceiling) characterized their approach.

“I think the big change that happened when Jonny and Josh were working together,” explains former resident DJ Plaslaiko, “was that they actually sought out DJs to play instead of just getting whoever was coming around. They weren’t booking just the norm in every club around the country.”

Sordyl says he “let Jonny go” in September 2001 to cut costs. Glazer, however, stayed, doing flier design and promotion. Sordyl hired Gabe Real and, later, Dennis Cox to bring in the big names.

Check engine

As with any noteworthy megaclub, a little unwanted notoriety is bound to sneak past the velvet rope. In 1999, Motor had its first brush with bad press. Channel 4 was on the case.

“They had done undercover video every weekend at Motor for about a month,” says Sordyl, shaking his head. “Every day there was a new snippet of video. I admit, it was a little out of hand. … We weren’t selling drugs, we weren’t taking drugs … We were letting people party. I didn’t really realize it, because when you go to Chicago and Toronto, it’s the same way. But this isn’t Chicago and it isn’t Toronto — this is Detroit. So we were forced to crack down on drug use in a severe way.”

Sordyl claims that the video debacle prompted a police crackdown that led to 16 drug arrests in Detroit and nearly that many elsewhere.

Meanwhile, dwindling numbers convinced Sordyl to make the club 18-and-over all the time. Previously, Fridays had been the only under-21 night. Most promoters will tell you the college crowd is enthusiastic — they’re the first ones to get the dance floor going. They’ll also say that the risk of drug use is high among those who aren’t allowed a drink.

After a “discussion” with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, Hamtramck Police and U.S. Customs, Motor was forced to make changes. Sordyl says he hired undercover guards to buy drugs from suspected dealers. He says the powers that be urged him to go back to 21-and-over, get more lighting and ban glowsticks (an unfortunate remnant of the rave era that authorities apparently believe goes hand-in-hand with Ecstasy use.)

“I hated glowsticks anyway,” says Sordyl, “so that just gave me a good excuse to ban them. But I told them that I couldn’t go 21-and-over because 40 to 50 percent of the crowd was under 21.”

Things quieted down, but on New Year’s Eve 2000, the mirror ball dropped painfully, tragically, hard. A 20-year-old woman who had taken MDMA, also known as Ecstasy, overdosed at the club and died four days later. As cruel irony would have it, Glazer had run an ad billing Motor (customarily a nonviolent club) as “The most dangerous club in America.” He forgot to pull the ad, and it ran again after the woman died.

Sordyl took the death hard. He says he felt for the woman’s family and he was scared about what it meant for his club. No charges were filed against Motor, though the victim’s boyfriend was charged for giving her the drug.

A Detroit Electronic Music Festival afterparty in May 2001 brought more heartbreak. A young man was shot and killed after leaving the club.

“Motor’s days were numbered,” explains Sordyl.

The murder apparently was drug-related. Motor’s and Hamtramck’s images seemed to change overnight.

“The three months after the shooting were the slowest three months in Motor’s history,” says Sordyl. “We lost money every single weekend until September.”

Then, of course, the whole country was shaken up.

“I had already pulled numerous rabbits out of the ass of Motor,” jokes Sordyl. “We just got over the murder in September, then 9/11 hit. I knew what that meant to the world when I was watching that unfold and I knew that it meant really bad things for Motor.”

Sowers believes that Motor could have withstood the barrage if Sordyl hadn’t changed the club to 18-and-over and hadn’t cut back on security.

“I think people died because of it [lax security],” says Sowers. “If you’re adamant about it, people are a lot more careful. But if you lower your guard and you act like you don’t care about security, people run rampant.”

Get a muffler!

When told of the club’s closing, many of its neighbors are ecstatic.

“Thank God! It’s about time that damn place closed!” exclaims Michelle Campbell.

“My tree has been broken,” she says, “I’ve had my windows broken. … My tires have been flattened. I’ve seen people pull up right in front of my house while I’m sitting on my front porch, whip it out and start urinating!”

She blames the club, saying that security guards could have protected neighbors from wayward clubgoers while protecting clubgoers from the prospect of being robbed. “Why couldn’t they have a security guard walking up and down the block to make sure that our property isn’t being damaged? They said they couldn’t do that.”

Another resident, Ziggy Kramiszski, has a more subdued take. “It is a good club,” he insists. “There’s just a problem with the parking, but everything else is good. Every Friday and Saturday I can’t find a place to park.”

Councilwoman Kathy Kristy offers: “There were problems with litter scattered down the street, but the club can’t do too much when it’s down the entire block. The parking issue is a mess, but that’s an issue all over the city, really. Hamtramck’s always been known as a music and bar town. So I hate to see it go in one sense. … I hate to see any of those establishments close.”

Internal combustion

Dan Sordyl, the “managing member” of Motor LLC, which owns the club, is tired of taking flack. He’s tired of people complaining about how the club went to more mainstream club music and alienated its crowd. He’s tired of letting too many people get in on the guest list (Friday’s “Last Dance” party was billed as having “absolutely no guest list”). He’s just tired.

His partners in Motor LLC are tired too, but for different reasons.

Oxholm’s lawsuit accuses Sordyl of all manner of bookkeeping fraud and alleges that Sordyl used Motor’s money to fuel other businesses. Oxholm is upset because he feels Sordyl has violated the company’s operating agreement and that Oxholm hasn’t gotten his proper cut as a member of the business.

Sowers claims he was never fully bought out of the business and hasn’t signed proper papers to divest.

According to Oxholm, this whole mess could lead to Motor eventually reopening.

“I don’t want Motor to close,” says Oxholm. “I think it’s still a viable business. It needs to change. … I’d like to bring live music back into it.”

In early August, Oxholm admits he went into the club after-hours and took about $6,000 from the safe — something he says he was entitled to do as a partner.

“I’m still a landlord of the building. Dan and I are both landlords,” Oxholm says. “He can take away my right to be in the business, but he can’t take away my rights as a landlord.”

Sordyl filed a complaint with the police, but the status of any investigation is uncertain. Hamtramck police did not return numerous phone calls. Sordyl says he changed the building’s locks and told security to keep Oxholm out — though Sordyl did invite him to closing night.

Sordyl denies Oxholm’s charges and claims it’s Oxholm who has done wrong. Since he is the majority owner, he says, the club is definitely closing for good — end of story.

Yet, the past year wasn’t as bad as some would make it out to be. The club got a double-header boost from a sold-out Carl Cox performance which Cox later described as “through the roof!” (In a recent interview, Cox expressed his love for the Motor audience as one of the best in the world.) During this year’s Hamtramck Blowout, Acquaviva, Sordyl and the rest of the crowd were surprised to find Richie Hawtin with laptop in tow offering to tag team with Acquaviva for free champagne.

“That’s definitely the best night in the history of Motor,” says Sordyl.

There were countless nights that the club’s energy pushed the red zone. Other times, Motor gave the impression that post-rave wasn’t post-rave enough. Yet the club fought for a niche in Hamtramck, in Detroit, that will likely remain unfilled by any future nightclub architects.

“All in all, it was an amazing time,” says Sordyl. “I really think we captured a moment in the history of Detroit. Any clubgoer in the late ’90s and early 2000s is going to remember Motor. And most of them are gonna have fond memories.”

Robert Gorell writes about electronic music for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]