It’s a March Thursday afternoon at an Austin, Texas, club called Beerland, a place that smells like strange meat and stale beer. Danny Kroha, lead guitarist and vocalist for Detroit’s Demolition Doll Rods, is visibly tired, slumped on a pile of gear just off the stage. He blinks and yawns between words, and scratches his head. He tells of the Rods’ show the previous night at a San Antonio goth club that drew perhaps 30 people.
“It was still good,” he says. “We had fun, man.”
Margaret Gomoll, better known as Margaret Doll Rod, arrives and tells of a guy who licked her boot at the show.
“I smelled it and it smelled like bacon!” she rasps in a road-weary voice.
The Rods’ afternoon gig at Beerland, part of the annual South By Southwest music festival, belies the band’s weariness.
A second show that night at a club called Jackalope sees no shortage of droolly taunts from undersexed thick-necks in the front row. Onstage, there’s a seedy carnival ambience brought on by the band’s self-designed costumes. Margaret wears a top that scarcely conceals her breasts, knee-high black boots and leopard-print hot pants; Danny has a black feather collar, leather hot pants, wristbands and boots; drummer Christine wears a red halter and hot pants.
They burn through a set so loud it shivers the bar glasses. Margaret’s voice is a throaty elastic wonder. Beaming faces bounce in time as if their heads contain beating wings.
And when Margaret prefaces a song with “I wanna feel your balls bouncing off my forehead,” it not meant as a slut-fuck come on, it’s metaphorical rock ’n’ roll call to arms.
Back up a couple of weeks. In day clothes to an audience of one, the Demolition Doll Rods spurt forth sticky abandon, as if they’re already at the Jackalope, rocking a venue crammed with shrieking kids. There’s mad distorto volume, sweat, iniquitous gyrations and bouncing mammary. It’s alchemy of low-rent culture, pop lit and homespun theatrics.
They’re in the basement beneath lead singer/guitarist Margaret’s Ferndale home, a place whose poppy chaos informs the band’s uproar. There are hearts on walls, snaps of Keith Richards, Joey Ramone, and a signed Wanda Jackson 8-by-10, posters of Madonna, Prince and Casablanca-era Buddy Miles. There’s a furry rug. Vocals travel through a distorted, half-working P.A.
“Public service announcement: Be nice to the puh-sssy,” twitters Margaret between songs, in the granular extract of an old blues man.
The band’s name says it all — power, androgyny, obliteration of barriers.
Margaret has a presence filled with sexual anxiety, and is gruff in a ’70s glitter-queen, power-pouty sort of way. But her manly tree-shredder voice doesn’t strive to simulate male virility. With a neck-length, peanut butter-colored power-shag, she’s one part Suzi Quatro, one part howling Southern preacher, one part Mitchell Brothers-era strip-show barker, and one part post-feminism feminist. She loudly proclaims her womanhood and then celebrates and rejoices in it. It isn’t about sex, she says, it never was.
Onstage, Margaret’s curved body takes on another life form. The music isn’t some costume-y platform designed to shock or impress necessarily — it isn’t a persona. Rather, it’s her way of exorcising demons, sexual or otherwise. She squats, kicks, splits and shouts, unabashedly plundering the depths of herself.
Kroha’s guitar-pick-hoisting right arm indicates a healthy childhood love of Ace Frehley, and his guitar phrasing is referential of Son House as much as it is James Williamson and Alice Cooper’s Glen Buxton. The spindly man-boy is a blues guitarist trapped in a glam oeuvre, or the other way around. His homoerotic drag propensities reveal a guy in touch with his feminine side. Record sales say otherwise, but the wide-eyed Kroha is a rock ’n’ roll star.
Margaret’s sister, Christine (“Thumpurr”), is zaftig, auburn-headed and sporting an alluring deadpan expression. She’s a stock-still wall of presence. Her stick skills evoke Tracy Partridge channeled through Maureen Tucker, a standup drummer whose Bo Diddley jungle beats and linear rhythms — on a single tom-tom and deep snare — do little to extend the Rods’ musical borders. No matter, it works. It’s all about the chemistry.
The clunk and wit of the Rods succeeds because of chemistry. That, and faith.
Margaret and her mates share a sexual awareness that is somehow egalitarian and sensitive yet exhibitionist. Beneath the glam shell and nearly nude over-the-top performances exist hippie utopian ideals wherein joy is transcendent and personal freedoms rule.
Lofty and naive? Perhaps. Unjaded is more like it.
When hyperbolic reviewers refer to contemporary Motor City rock ’n’ roll as “dirty and sleazy,” the Rods are as close as it gets. The bass-free trio creates a pitched din in which every note and nuance can be traced historically to the primordial ooze of blues, soul and rock ’n’ roll. It’s bludgeoning and purposely spare, strident yet sing-songy, and edging on collapse. It’s remarkable how it coalesces with no aural glue — no kick drum, no bass guitar, just thump and whack and fuzz and melody; a soaring wreckage signaling amped-up Chicago blues, the Shangri-Las and the New York Dolls. It’s a sonic melting pot so essentially undersized, almost monochromatic, that it’s huge, and wholly all-American. The Rods eschew pop gloss, have done so since forming more than a decade ago.
The cellar set (which includes a funked-up, rearranged version of the Gories’ “Baby Say Unh”) sinks at the end — either by design or ear fatigue — into a gloriously tortured rendition of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” on which Kroha’s telling lyrical reworking switches the drug reference to the female: “You’re my hero, you’re my heroine.”
On the outside, the threesome is fearless and obsessively persistent in purpose. On the inside they are principled, communal, smart — monastic, even. They practice yoga, eat health food, eschew drugs and liquor. They live holistic lifestyles in the confines of writing, recording and struggling to make ends meet.
The storied Rods are a Detroit rock ’n’ roll constant — been-around-the-block bridesmaids, if you will — having reaped few of the monetary rewards that have blessed many of their peers. They lack that sort of legendary status that floats around Jack White or Mick Collins or even the Detroit Cobras. Yet they’ve toured the United States countless times, and did four tours of Europe. They’ve paid their dues. They’ve been ridiculed and adored. And they insist that they are happy and grateful.
Not everyone catches the Rods’ glittery irony. Lazy dismissals characterize the oft-misunderstood band as a novelty. One review from for the band’s second album, 1999’s TLA, says this: “After a few years of touring their schtick has been worn as thin as tracing paper. Put a fork in this band because they are definitely done.”
Their third full-length, On, is out next week.
Over the years the Rods have collected an odd assortment of fans: Daryl Hannah, Alan Vega, the Seeds’ Sky Saxon, Jon Spencer, Iggy Pop, rockabilly crank Hasil Adkins, a pre-death Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Lenny Kaye (whom Margaret dated for more than a year, a union that inspired her 2002 acoustic-y solo album Enchanté), various film directors and authors and so on.
Prior to the release of Tasty, their 1997 debut, the Rods did West Coast theater dates with Iggy Pop and toured the United States and Europe with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
The Rods’ local lineage is rich: Kroha co-founded the heavily mythologized yet historically valid Gories with Mick Collins in 1986. Neither had much experience with musical instruments.
“I met Mick and we’d all hang together,” remembers Kroha. “Mick had all these great ideas. He had great taste in music and an unbelievable record collection, and he turned me on to a lot. We were hanging out listening to ’60s soul and garage records and Mick was goin’, ‘We could do this shit.’ And I said, ‘Let’s do this.’ Mick was the main songwriter, I was the collaborator; I was also the organizer. Mick didn’t know how to play guitar, when he’d pick it up and just play one note you could tell that he had it.”
Kroha’s then-girlfriend, Peg O’Neill, took the drum stool on a whim.
“Peg just happened to be there,’” says Kroha. “At first, she didn’t want to do it.”
The trio was a mélange of ’60s garage punk, tortured R&B, Chess blues and inner conflict. They covered Suicide, Mose Allison, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Spinal Tap. The bass-free attack was consistent with ’60’s margin-dwelling Detroit folk like the Keggs and Nick and the Jaguars, both of whom the Gories covered on a 1992 Australian single. Their success was limited, and they often played local clubs to handfuls of friends, Detroit oddballs and the curious.
But the band was a musical junkyard flower that blossomed wide.
If as many people who claimed to have seen the Gories actually had seen them, “those shows would’ve been packed,” says Detroit guitarist/songwriter Jeff Meier, who actually did see the trio numerous times. “Some people thought they were shit, I thought they were fucking great.”
In the Gories’ 1990-1992 peak, says Kroha, “a hundred people at the Old Miami would be a good show. We might have 50 friends and 50 people we’d never seen before.”
The Gories released a string of singles and an album (1989’s Houserockin’) produced by Len Puch on his now-defunct Detroit label Wanghead With Lips. Cult godhead Alex Chilton (Big Star) heard the band, loved it, got them to Memphis and spun the knobs for the Euro-only release of 1990’s I Know You’re Fine, But How You Doin’ (New Rose). The aptly-titled Outta Here (Crypt) was the band’s 1992 swan song. The Gories sold few records at the time, but managed to influence a generation. Band bootlegs circulate, as do reissues of the albums, and record geeks shell out enormous sums for original pressings of Gories vinyl.
The miraculous Gories car crash was central to garage rock’s revival sweepstakes, and was a pivotal influence on, among others, the White Stripes.
Kroha intends no irony when he says, “The Gories were bad. But there was something about them. I still listen to the records, I’m proud of that band. I used to dream of us being an influential cult band, and that’s what happened.”
Kroha had split with O’Neill when he met take-no-shit college student Margaret while visiting his sister at a University of Detroit dorm.
“I saw inside her room when I was visiting my sister and it piqued my interest,” Kroha says. “I saw these ’60s Playboy centerfolds on her wall, tapestries. … I knew I had to meet her.”
They hooked up in the biblical sense in early 1991, and that part of their union lasted on and off for five years.
Margaret tagged along when the Gories went overseas in 1992. “I became a Gories groupie/roadie,” she says.
“Yeah, I took Margaret to Europe,” says Danny through a strain of reserved laughter, shaking his head. “So Peg had a boyfriend and she brought him.”
First rule of rock ’n’ roll: no girlfriends/boyfriends on the road.
“I went to Europe with the Gories. And how. I got blamed for the whole Gories breakup,” Margaret says. “I really didn’t realize that I had that much power! … I’ve heard Mick Collins say in interviews that it wasn’t my fault, which is nice to hear. For years I got blamed; people would come right up to me and yell at me about it, and I was like, ‘What-the-fuck ever, I don’t have control over Peg O’Neill, or Dan or any of those people.’
“If not for the Gories. I would’ve thought U2 was a great band. They had that kind of power over me.”
The story is that Margaret was untamed, and would writhe on stage and sometimes strip during Gories shows.
“It was too much for some people, particularly Peg,” says Kroha.
“I was a total drunk,” Margaret says. “I took all my clothes off at a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins show; I got on stage and chased him around. … Dan would find me passed out and would have to take care of me.”
She erected impenetrable defenses. “I didn’t even like myself,” she says.
At the end of the Gories run, Kroha hooked up with Nervobeats guitarist Jeff Meier and formed the underrated Rocket 455.
“We wanted to be like the Stooges and the MC5 — back then people didn’t know who they were,” says Meier, who’s presently playing and writing with long-in-tooth soul shouter Nathaniel Mayer.
“When REM was huge, everyone wanted to sound like REM,” continues Meier. “We were, like, ‘Fuck that.’ In Detroit there wasn’t a lot to do then. We’d get high and listen to records. I always admired Danny, he turned me on to a lot of shit.”
Danny bailed on Rocket 455 to join Margaret in the Rods.
“Margaret asked me if I’d be a girl in her all-girl band,” Kroha says. “Sounded like fun to me.”
Though he was miffed, Meier says, “I got over it. We were just kids then.”
With Karen Brown on the drum kit, the Rods started playing in 1992. Kroha did Rocket 455 and the Rods simultaneously for a few months. When the two bands did shows together, Kroha would change between sets and emerge onstage with the Rods in drag. He took to the man-enough-to-be-a-woman gender-bender mantra with gusto.
“I’d come out in drag and people would be like, ‘What the fuck? …’”
The Rods did their first show in 1993 at Paycheck’s in Hamtramck. They’d gig with the Hentchmen, Outrageous Cherry and Rocket 455, among others.
Christine became the Rods’ drummer after Brown couldn’t make a Canadian tour. She’d never played drums before, and learned the songs in a week, practicing with Margaret using spoons on a telephone book. Since day one she’s played a tom-tom and a snare.
The Rods did four stripped-down singles on as many labels before California indie In The Red released their 1997 debut full-length. Tasty cost $5,000 to make and was produced by Mick Collins and Jon Spencer over two separate sessions in Detroit and New York. The record collected piles of glowing reviews, and, according to In The Red owner Larry Hardy, sold 5,000 copies. Hardy was a huge Gories fan, had released an early single of theirs and an album from Collins’ post-Gories band, Blacktop.
“Jon Spencer saw them, and he phoned me and was like, ‘God, wait till you see ’em,’” Hardy says of his Rods introduction. “The next time the Blues Explosion toured they brought the Doll Rods with ’em. It seemed then that they were getting a lot of hype really quick. Both the Blues Explosion and Boss Hogg were takin’ ’em on tour, and Boss Hogg was covering their songs. I vied very hard and jockeyed to be the label to do their debut album, and I got to do it.”
Hardy says he invested almost everything he had at the time.
“It was the first album I ever hired a publicist for,” he continues. “He was this really flamboyant gay guy who didn’t like much rock music. He was sort of like, ‘Oh, god, I hear it’s two sisters, one of whom is blind, and a drag queen. … I love ’em.’ The record had a huge John Waters appeal, I guess. They got a lot of press on that. They got reviewed in Entertainment Weekly and most of it really positive. Things like, ‘The Doll Rods make the Cramps sound like Emerson, Lake and Palmer’ … that’s fucking genius.”
The Rods toured copiously in support of Tasty, including a cross-country, often-sold-out theater jaunt with the Cramps (a band love and reference point), and two weeks on the 1997 Lollapalooza tour, sleeping in their trusty van with the built-in loft. In some cities, particularly Los Angeles, their headlining shows were standing-room-only.
In Detroit they’d pull 400 people into the Magic Bag. The Rods were the rock band in Detroit.
“Attendance-wise, I think that’s when we peaked here,” says Kroha.
In 1998 Kroha did a record with seamy one-time Fortune star and Rods’ fave Andre Williams.
“Somehow we got on the bill with him in New York,” explains Kroha. “… We Saran-wrapped chicken and biscuits to our bodies in honor of Andre’s song ‘Greasy Chicken.’ We met him and somehow he and Margaret hit it off.”
Margaret phoned Hardy at In The Red, who agreed to do the Williams record.
“I called Larry and set the whole thing up,” Margaret says. “That’s my ass on the cover of the record, and I designed the cover.”
The prospect of having the Rods help on a Williams record sounded good.
“I got Mick [Collins] to play drums. Me and Mick wrote all the songs and laid down the basic tracks, just guitar and drums, and Andre came up with the words,” says Kroha.
A roundelay of local all-stars was brought in to play. The end result was the album Silky. With it, tensions between Hardy’s label and the Doll Rods rose.
“Margaret was unhappy with the way the record came out,” continues Kroha. “Like the song ‘Pussy Stank,’ she thought it was in poor taste. It seemed that Hardy was encouraging that kind of thing with Williams.”
A Rods/Williams row ensued, and it spilled over to the band’s relationship with Hardy.
“It was a weird falling-out, and it seemed to have most to do with Andre Williams and my involvement with him,” says Hardy. “They can all show their claws, but it was usually Margaret that sort of initiated it. There were just a lot of weird moments dealing with them that I’ve never experienced with any other band.”
Still, Hardy says getting the Doll Rods on his label was a “score.”
“The whole time I was thinking, ya know, it would have been really hard to have worked with Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard,” Hardy says. “If someone’s difficult or kind of nuts and whatnot, and they’re real visionaries and a real talent — and I think Margaret is that — then it makes them more real.”
“I wanted Andre to be able to tour,” says Margaret, “to take care of himself and not be some homeless guy.”
The Rods did a monthlong Euro tour with Williams that left a sour taste. His antics, according to the band, were intolerable. Remembers Kroha, “As the tour went on he was drinking and drinking and drinking. He was partying every night. …”
Margaret: “I didn’t want my name associated with that crap. I’d hear things like, ‘Well, you run around in your underwear.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, you don’t get it at all.’”
Hardy, band and Williams have since resolved their differences.
The Rods inked with major indie Matador — who had Liz Phair, Teenage Fanclub, Yo La Tengo and Guided by Voices —and in 1999 released TLA, which was recorded with Dave Feeny at Tempermill. The record — 15 songs in a little more than 33 minutes — includes some of the Rods’ best work, including “Fast One,” “Sex Machine,” “Rock It Up” and “Best Friends.” The record is, in relative terms, a bit polished.
They headed out on the Flaming Pasties tour. Again, the Rods got huge press in weeklies and magazines, and made Spin magazine’s “Hit List.”
Since the millennium, while other Motor City bands that had ostensibly come in their wake were taking flight, the Rods have marked time. Then the White Stripes happened.
There are parallels between the Stripes and the Rods — no bass, female drummer. Jack White cites the Gories as an influence.
“When the Stripes first broke I was upset, but I wasn’t bitter,” says Kroha. “Not upset because I didn’t think they deserved it, or because I thought it should have been us, but just that it upset my little apple cart. I sure didn’t see it coming. It caused me to have to confront myself. I think that was the most upsetting thing. I look at the Velvet Underground, Stooges, New York Dolls — they didn’t sell any records. But don’t get me wrong, I’d love to sell records.
“In the early days we were the only touring [Detroit] band. People saw us and were like, ‘If they can do it, we can do it.’ I think we influenced people here because of that. We were out getting press and touring, doing shit. The Gories were getting notoriety and then the Doll Rods did, and that was influential. It’s cool, I never once thought anybody was ripping us off.”
The band went without a label for three years. After TLA, Matador had optioned out of the deal. Problems deepened when Margaret hurt her back on a 1999/2000 European tour that put her out of commission for months.
“We hit a lull,” explains Kroha. “I called some [label] people, but I hate doing that. Nobody was really calling us. And I was kind of waiting for somebody to come forward. It finally happened with Swami.”
Rocket From the Crypt guitarist/singer John Reis heads up Swami records, a San Diego indie whose “micro universe” revolves around punk ideals and a familial unity among its bands. Reis became a Rods fan after seeing them open for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in the mid-’90s. He’s also a big Gories fan, and says the Gories had a profound influence on his friends and on Rocket From the Crypt.
“I heard they [Rods] were talking to others about putting out this next record, and I told Danny I’d match any offer,” Reis says. “I told him, ‘You’re not gonna get someone as into your band as I am.’”
Was Reis at this point hearing anything negative about the Rods? That perhaps some didn’t understand the band, or that Margaret could be difficult?
“For the most part I wasn’t hearing anything negative,” he says. “I was hearing wild stories, and some may interpret wild as negative. I’ve heard some weird things. … But I have to tell you, with the Doll Rods I hear something subversive and beautiful. I think On is the best record they’ve done.”
On — recorded in fits and starts — is a scrap-heap pastiche of everything Doll Rods, a piquant brew of song and culture and free-will testimonials, owing as much to the Runaways and Stooges as Willie Dixon and Yardbirds, driven by distorted and cheeky top-headers like “Get it On,” “Born Wild,” the hilarious “Fat Pussy,” and a sugary spin on the traditional “Big Rock Candy Mountain.”
If it isn’t hindered by the band’s misunderstood dress-you-up-honey deportment, On should (re)establish the band as a force in international pop circles. It’s that good.
In his small second-floor, walk-up apartment near Wayne State, 38-year-old Danny Kroha spins selections from his record collection — old Fortune sides, the Falcons, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Danny Zella and the Zell Rocks. Kroha’s thin face, sharp nose and tousled hair are paradigmatic guitar hero. The man is ageless.
His place is decorated in a rock ’n’ roll Mexican whorehouse kind of way. Found objects (an exterior sign from an old Detroit strip club, a chunk of column statuary from the Grande Ballroom, an EQ he scavenged from the Fortune studio before it was ripped down) are displayed amid countless eight-track tapes and albums, CDs, videos, books and vintage rock ’n’ roll magazines.
He spins the Muddy Waters’ gutbucket “She Moves Me,” and raves: “There’s no bass on this.”
His voice lifts in volume, which is rare, and his tone almost sounds defensive: “I’m not anti-bass, but there’s different ways to skin a cat. And I like records with fuck-ups and mistakes. When it gets too slick, to me, it gets too boring. You listen to Bo Diddley and you don’t hear all these cymbals crashing around!”
He plays a pair of raw and effectively ambient blues dirges he recently recorded in his bathroom and mixed at Brendan Benson’s studio. The songs will be included on the sound track to the movie based on JT Leroy’s short story collection The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. The forthcoming film sees Asia Argento — the Italian actress who starred in XXX and Les Miserables — directing and starring (with Peter Fonda and Winona Ryder). Turns out Argento is a Gories and Rods fan. She asked Kroha to contribute “some dirty blues” to the sound track. Being a fan of the author, he says he was honored to do so.
Kroha reads, can talk about metaphysical stuff endlessly, as well as Aleister Crowley, Zecharia Sitchin, and Jim Marrs’ alternative history theories.
Outside of the Rods, Kroha earns part-time cash as a groundskeeper at a Grosse Pointe mansion. He says royalties from the Rods and Gories stuff are minimal at best.
Kroha grew up in Detroit near Eight Mile and Livernois, the oldest of three kids. His “very businesslike” dad started his own auto parts packaging company out of the living room and grew it into a factory. Most of his formative years were spent in Catholic school. Kroha picked up the guitar in 1983, and his parents weren’t keen on him pursuing music.
At 18, Kroha went to Fairfield University in Connecticut to study business, mainly, he says, to please his parents. There he discovered the Velvet Underground. He would raid the campus radio station for records and discovered Them’s cover of Big Joe Williams’ “Baby Please Don’t Go.”
“That song ripped my head off,” he says, his unblinking brown eyes boring like lasers. “I was only in school for about a year.”
Kroha began to discover Stax soul, and Motown, and stumbled onto the blues the same way ’60s American bands did — through the Yardbirds, Animals, Rolling Stones. He produces a copy of the Yardbirds’ Having a Rave Up, and explains how it led him to Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters.
“I love soul, I love the glitter rock and the down-home blues, and I know Margaret and Christine do too. That’s what I love about the Stones,” he says.
Detractors have claimed that Kroha was, and is, perhaps, under Margaret’s thumb. He dismisses it.
“Sometimes I let people think that, and I knew that they were thinking it,” he says. “I control my own destiny but, I’m a little ashamed to admit, there were times when I didn’t take responsibility for myself and maybe I put it on Margaret.
“When I met Margaret I loved how she was so out-there. She could walk into a room and people would get upset. She’s so powerful, and it’s uncomfortable for a lot of people. Margaret’s got more balls than four or five guys. She doesn’t care what anybody thinks. As a person, she’s hard-driving and ambitious, but it’s not for herself, it’s for the good of humanity. I felt that she would give me a solid foundation, that I could build my music, which she has. It’s the same thing I love about Mick [Collins]. When he gets on stage, he goes for it. On stage with her I feel that presence.”
Cross-dressing to perform rock ’n’ roll is certainly nothing new. See Iggy, New York Dolls, Bowie and Alice Cooper.
“I started dressing up as a little kid,” he explains. “I was always into fashion and magazines. Sometimes I’d play with my sister, pretend I was a mermaid and have my feet tied. People discover their sexuality in different ways.
“I’ve always been straight. But there’s guys that I see that I think are attractive. And I didn’t consider myself a drag queen because I knew what it was to be a real drag queen.”
When it comes to gender, rock ’n’ roll is still, by tradition, rather archaic, and is much like the nuclear family: Predetermined role-playing that minimizes the significance — or coexists with the oppression — of women. And in Detroit rock ’n’ roll, women more often than not play a more passive role (Meg White, Marcie Bolen, etc.) to the male songwriter.
Margaret burst out with a big fuck-you to rock’s patriarchy.
“I’m not into being passive unless the time and place requires it,” she explains.
Early on, Margaret embodied the true spirit of punk as an avenue to independence, a tool for dispelling shame. An indolent guess might see Patti Smith or Poly Styrene as role models. When pressed, the singer rattles off a list that includes Bette Davis, Slim Harpo, Etta James, early Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson, Gypsy Rose Lee, Tina Turner, Iggy Pop and Jesus Christ.
Margaret assumes the role of slut goddess inertly, almost sans sexuality. She isn’t doing, she just is. It’s about sexual freedom and free will, release and expression. Her métier sidles (however accidentally) toward sex-positive feminism; she’s a kind of rock ’n’ roll Annie Sprinkle. Margaret is all about cultivating excitement and joy, sexual or otherwise. She rebels against the well-practiced falseness of conventional programming.
“I think sex is really healthy and really important and I want people to have it,” she says. “I’m not afraid of my body. I don’t think that my body is a bad thing. I want everyone to be enlightened spiritually and sexually.”
At 35, she is more at home talking about self-realization and spiritual growth than discussing who played what guitar parts on Raw Power.
There’s the contradiction. The Rods’ songs, most of which are written by Margaret (though credited to the band as a whole), can take a back seat to the bands’ randy displays of slinky trash wear and cross-dressing. It’s one thing to stage a full-on rock show built upon a base of sexual tension (see: Little Richard, Tina Turner, early Stones, etc.) and it’s another to wield catwalk stripper antics in a band dolled up in G-strings and hubcaps, or pussycat costumes and tutus. The Rods are juiced-up parody and self-actualization. The blend is brilliant.
This postmodern mix is heady, rampant with irony and pop collision that dovetails perfectly in new songs such as “Get It On” and “Take It Off” (“So take it sweet darlin’/Take it off and be yourself”).
Margaret’s singing is the sound of a crowd unleashing from her gut, a setting free of the inhabitants — the sound of a life ready to lust, to overcome, to assist. There’s deliverance. It took years for her to arrive at a place where this was possible, to come to grips with “childhood demons.”
Her reservoir of timidity and cheek is a weird contradiction, a yin/yang push-me-pull-you that camouflages equal seams of insecurity and self-belief. The band draws its endurance from a foundation of undying faith, perhaps childhood hangovers of Catholic schools and churches. Margaret’s sense of self-reliance and confidence in her band mates is fierce. It’s the source power in her gospel.
Margaret doesn’t indulge in glib conversation about herself. She speaks in loud tones (an overcompensation born of a gnarly childhood ear infection after a dip in Lake Erie). She is free and open about her life. Like the others in her band, conversation is rarely, if ever, tainted with self-interest.
As bold-willed women often are, Margaret is loved and loathed. Some write her off as domineering.
“People have spit on me, people have thrown beer on me and it was nothing compared to what my mother prepared me for,” Margaret says one afternoon at her house.
“My mom is 4’ 11” and can be more frightening than the Hulk,” she says
She pauses, returns to her stove-top stir-fry and adds, “Now I have this huge capacity to love. And I know that probably sounds really lame.”
Her hazy blue eyes implore after she expresses an idea that might tip a conversation southward. There’s a frail power about her, not dangerous, but resilient. She’s well aware of shit-talk that has followed her.
“I just am what I am, and that’s all. If that’s lame to some people, that’s too bad. I think a lot of people would be happy if the Doll Rods quit. I let that shit inspire me.”
She has wisdom acquired from years spent in and out of the margins, fucked-up, then sober, near death and, as it is, alive and happy. Her childhood wasn’t a lazy Sunday frolic amid the lilies — parochial school, booze, drugs and dark things of a sexual nature (not involving her immediate family), things she would only talk about off the record.
“I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me,” she says.
Her voice, in the soft spot of discontent, becomes heavy, then mellows into self-conscious probity: “My experiences have made me sympathetic to human souls, people who can’t get the kind of love that they need or want.
“My parents are so good at saying the sky is pink when it’s blue. They love me and they hold me and I don’t ever want to hurt them.”
Born of strict Catholic parents, Margaret and Christine were raised Downriver, in a rural, blue-collar setting. They shared a bedroom. Margaret describes a dirt-road tableau, with the occasional car engine hanging from a tree, muskrat Easter egg hunts, fireworks, loose chickens. So much incredible beauty.
Lots of Southern families had resettled there for auto-industry jobs, she says. But the industry “failed them.” Her father lost his Firestone factory job in the early ’80s, a few years shy of his retirement.
Christine was born four years after Margaret with a sight deficiency — the state considers her to be legally blind.
In separate interviews, the sisters describe their youthful relationship with each other as odd.
“Christine and I really didn’t know each other,” Margaret says. “When we grew up we were never close. I really didn’t appreciate her at the time. Because she was born legally blind, I felt like I had to be the seeing-eye dog. Now we have this love. She’s taught me so much about the beauty within people, about trust and using your sixth sense.”
Margaret took classical guitar lessons from nuns at St. Mary’s in Rockwood. She sang and played guitar for the church choir. She started drinking in the eighth grade and once got plastered at a school outing and “told off the nuns.” She graduated the eighth grade with honors. Dad was out of work so Catholic school was out. A priest offered to cover costs to continue her education. She balked, preferring public schools, to be with “other kids.” She left home for the first time at 15.
“When I left, I stayed with some people in basements and things like that until some parents got together and they took me to a halfway house in Ann Arbor. I stayed with my brother for a while,” Margaret says.
Christine recalls, “She really didn’t get along with my parents. And when I see a lot of conflict, I just don’t really pay attention.”
Margaret: “I was getting big enough to know that I could fight back. It was one thing for them to hit … but I was getting to the point where I could hit back. I didn’t want that to happen.
“If they had the award for the most likely to get knocked-up and drop out of school, it would’ve been me. Even though I left home I still went to school, occasionally. I had a great boyfriend who’d call and say he was my dad and come and pick me up.”
She took her SATs and, as a fluke, scribbled U of D as her university of choice. “That was the only college I had ever heard of,” she says. The scores came in exceptionally high.
“My mom and dad would frequently have the police looking for me for various reasons, mostly to see if I was alive. One time they found me, and I discovered that I had scholarships and financial aid waiting.”
At 17, she enrolled at U of D.
“And it was an hour away from my family and I had food every day and a place to stay,” she says. “I think I was kind of getting tired of climbing in and out of boyfriends’ windows.”
Though she got superior grades and earned a bachelor’s degree, she was hardly a model student. In her final year at U of D, booze got the best of her, and her liver shut down.
“It did completely fail. I jaundiced. I always had olive-colored skin, so the fact that it was really turning quite green didn’t bother me, but my parents were concerned. There was a church on campus, and you know it’s pretty bad if I started gravitating toward church. One day I buckled over and fell down and could not get up. I had to call my mom. I was rushed to the hospital. They thought I was having an appendicitis attack and took my appendix out. Then they thought it was PID [pelvic inflammatory disease].
“They didn’t know it was my liver. For somebody that age for their liver to be failing is pretty unheard of.”
Healing began after a visit to an MD who practiced holistic medicine.
“This was is a wonderful woman because she knew I wasn’t gonna clean up overnight, and she didn’t want to see me die, which was kinda nice. … She’s like, ‘You don’t have a PID, what you do have is a failing liver, so you might as well tell me what you’re doing in your life that might be causing this.’ That was the first time in my life that anyone really confronted me. I was warned that if I continued living the way that I was living I would die.”
Her advanced grades got her into graduate school at Wayne State, where she earned her master’s in medical social work 1992.
“Deep down inside I wished there was something I could do to gain my parents’ respect,” Margaret says. “That they might be able to love me if I did something worthwhile. Up until then they thought that I hadn’t done anything.”
Her first two years in the Doll Rods, Margaret was not sober.
“The first couple years were very extravagant,” she laughs. “After the first tour, that was it with the drinking. There was no more drinking. … It was too much.
“To this day it kind of sucks because I know my liver isn’t totally what it needs to be. One thing I do appreciate about living this way, becoming metaphysical and being clean and using my brain is I can figure things out more than when I did when I was totally wasted.”
She’s been sober for almost a decade, and her reformation has influenced her band mates.
“I was drunk a lot, hard and cold. Danny’d find me passed out. Once he found me passed out on a toilet, right before a bunch of guys were about to take my clothes off.
“Having Dan in my life was a really positive thing. He’d say, ‘You don’t have to drink to do these things. I know that you’re crazy and it’s a good thing that you’re crazy.’ I feel like Dan saved my life.”
To get living expenses, Margaret worked as a stripper.
“I don’t see anything wrong with stripping, I just don’t want to promote it,” she says. “It was more burlesque and cool when I first started. I think I did it so long just to pay for my house. I felt bad for these men coming in there that they were so desperate for human contact, for somebody to listen to them or somebody to be kind to them for five minutes. To me it wasn’t what I had envisioned with the Gypsy Rose fairy tale thing.”
She saved her money and seven years ago purchased her house for $45,000. The note is paid off and she’s made it into an aesthetically pleasing place. There are cherry, peach, plum and pear trees, and a garden in the back. Christine lives in the upstairs flat. Now she survives on Doll Rods income, which isn’t much.
While training as a medical social worker at Detroit Receiving, Margaret worked the HIV ward. “A lot of people who had HIV were transvestites, hookers, and drug users,” she says, “and they’re giving them all this medication.”
Her holistic — naturopathic treatment of mind and body — approach to life made social work impossible.
“I don’t believe in any of the systems. … I liked these people too much to encourage them to be a part of whatever system that doesn’t really work.
“I knew a lot of prostitutes that were dying of drug overdoses, or dying on the streets. One of our roadies ended being a prostitute that died a year-and-a-half ago, and it was awful. I think prostitution should be legal. I think all that should be out in the open.”
Margaret has interminable empathy for the broken and the fucked-up. She advocates for the prostitutes, the junkies and the homeless, particularly women.
“I never met more loyal people than these female ex-cons. I saw many women incarcerated because they were trying to support their families,” she says. “I have to stand strong as a woman.”
This is the stuff that informs her music.
“I’m giving my heart and my soul and everything that I have. I went to school for a long time to be a social worker because I wanted to work with children. Some children and people in general have come into situations where life hasn’t been so kind to them, and they don’t know how to love themselves. They seem to think that their bodies are bad things for one reason or another.”
The morning after their twin shows in Austin, the Rods settle around an al fresco picnic table at Casa De Luz, an Austin yoga center and macrobiotic eatery/buffet. The trio is feasting on a brunch of vegan fare, food balanced according to yin/yang principles. It’s a peaceful day, and spring blossoms float on the warm breeze. The juxtaposition of band and setting is a weighty one.
Conversation veers to European tour stories: the beauty of the Continent, the difficulty of eating well on the road, how grateful they are to be able to do what they do.
“It would be nice to be in a bunch of magazines and have a lot of people at our shows, sure,” says Kroha. “The truth is, we’re happy. Margaret has got a lot to give, she’s soulful and spiritual and we’ve always had a vision.”
Without a hint of irony, he adds, “We’re on a mission that is outside of all the hype.”
Kroha goes back to his food, chews a mouthful and considers. Then he says, “Alex Chilton told me — and this means a lot — to just keep going, don’t quit and it will pay off one day. And he was the first guy to call what I was doing a career. Though he was bitter, and I couldn’t understand at the time how he could be so bitter. But now, I can understand how he was that way. I never wanted to be like that.”
They climb into their 1994 Ford van that has 250,000-plus touring miles logged. Their spirits are high, the mood good. They drive off into the dusky light to Houston, where they’ll support the Von Bondies.
The Demolition Doll Rods will celebrate the release of On, Saturday, April 17, at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit) with Easy Action, Little Claw, plus films from TM Caldwell and DJs Dave Shettler and Larry Ray. Call 313-833-9700 for info.Brian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]