I-Rock, you rock, we all rock in Detroit Rock City
(Intro to a feature from GLONO contributor, Phil Wise)
Being in a local band is cruel business. Local music scenes are full of assholes and egos—and that’s not counting the musicians. There are loads of ruthless club owners and booking agents who will take a band for every cent of the two hundred or so dollars they make in a night. There are dilapidated vans waiting to strand their hopped up occupants just out of reach of their gigs. There are jealous bands scheming to wreck your set to ensure that they walk out the favorites. There is very little to encourage local musicians to stick with it, but the rewards do come on occasion. You all strike THE note at the right time and your head spins and your spine tingles and that feeling you had when you heard the first record that moved you is coming from your own body.
The Overtones were my band. The whole concept was my idea and we paid heavily for it. I had hung out in Kalamazoo for years and seen ball crunching rock from groups like the Sinatras, Twister, Fortune & Maltese, the Sleestacks and King Tammy. All of these bands were actually just different variations of the same five or six guy line up under different names. Mike Limbert was bass player for Twister and the Sleestacks and he was also Mike Maltese, the keyboard-playing partner of the nefarious Freddy Fortune. Fortune & Maltese were backed up on drums by Sinatras smasher Scott Stevens and later the group was augmented on keyboards with Karl Knack when Jason Fortier, who came by way of King Tammy, left F&M under mysterious circumstances and Mike Maltese (Limbert) had to take over bass duties once again. The whole lot made up the fantastic and semi-fictional label Leppotone Electrical Recordings and I wanted to join the club.
My first stab at Leppotone stardom was with the Vantrells, a four piece pseudo-mod group that quickly disintegrated when lead guitarist, Matt Southwell, headed west in search of movie stardom and Mike Nesmith. The Vantrells wore skinny black ties and suit jackets and played crunchy power pop with a hint of the Who and the Knack—maybe it was more than a hint, I’m not that creative. When the Vantrells died I moved quickly to establish a new group and saw a hit with other Kalmazooians Jay Howard and Collin Stoddard. Jay and Collin signed, skinny ties and all, and we set out on Michigan with a grudge and crappy amps.
The problem with being a local band is getting out of town. The Overtones had great shows in Kalamazoo, thanks to loyal friends, lots of attitude on stage, and Jay’s good looks, which drew a sizable crowd of girls to our nights at the legendary Club Soda. But we were determined to break from Kalamazoo and we looked east to the BIG BROTHER of Michigan: Detroit.
I-Rock, you rock, we all rock in Detroit Rock City
Spyder Howard, Jay’s cousin and our manager, booked us a night in Detroit. It was only a Wednesday night, but it was Detroit Rock City, the home of the Stooges, MC5, The Atomic Numbers, the White Stripes and even Freddy Fortune! Mid-week or not there would be a crowd ready to eat up our blue-collar garage sound and we were ready to serve it up.
I was working as a machinist in Grand Rapids at the time and was using up all of my vacation time with missed days or late arrivals following raucous nights in Kalamazoo. I got out of work at 3:00 and raced home to shower and change before loading my guitars into my Plymouth Grand Voyager mini-van. I kissed my girlfriend Meg goodbye and sped off to Kalamazoo to meet the rest of the band.
Kalamazoo is 55 miles south of Grand Rapids, and the whole way there I thought about the fact that in the four years of our relationship, Meg and I had never taken a vacation together. The shows, rehearsals and missed work days had taken up all of my earned time and the guitars, amps and various other costs of being in a band had eaten up any money for a vacation. I felt guilty as hell, but thought it would all be worth it if the band could just get the right exposure, and playing shows was how you got that exposure.
I rolled into the driveway of the house in which we practiced and Jay and Collin lived. Spyder’s Mustang was parked in the back. He was in the same predicament as me. He worked full-time at the Ford Wixom plant and used all of his vacation time to attend our shows and make contacts. Given what he had to work with, Spyder was a great manager and booked us into shows we didn’t deserve. I was glad to see his car parked back there.
After loading up the van and waiting for Collin to find his clothes, which were inevitably in the dirty clothes bin or crumpled in his closet or stashed in his girlfriend’s room, we headed out onto 94 East to Detroit and rock stardom.
The drive was fine until we hit the outskirts of Detroit. As cars whizzed passed us and people honked and gave us the finger, I stayed the course at 65 mph. Collin loved to tease me about driving like an old woman, but there was a good reason. The van was great; it got great gas mileage, carried all of our equipment and even had a decent stereo. But, it was a 10-year-old mini-van packed beyond capacity with our gear and running on a cracked head gasket, so I wasn’t keen on pushing my luck with it.
We actually pulled up in front of the venue with two hours to spare. The I-Rock; an appropriate name, I thought. The exterior was blazing yellow with massive black letters spelling out the name that the bar shared with one of Chevy’s finer products. It was a good size venue, large even. Here we were. This was it. We were ready to kick ass.
The first thing I saw when we walked in was an autographed picture of Quiet Riot. A recent photo. I knew this because I had just seen the Monsters of Arena Rock play in a bowling alley in Grand Rapids two years before and had sent the very same autographed picture to my homey Jeff in Los Angeles. Next to the photograph was another autographed picture of Y&T. Next to that a picture of Dio. Next to that, Dokken. I was getting nervous. The entire place was covered with autographed pictures of washed out hair bands of the 80s. I recognized about 60%, having been a bona fide metal head in junior high. Where were we? We were at the I-Rock, the bastard little brother of Detroit’s notorious ROCKER club, Harpo’s. Good God.
The doorman greeted us coolly and checked our IDs. He told us we could load in about an hour when the sound guy arrived. He told us we couldn’t hang out in the bar since it wasn’t really open yet, but we could hang out in the parking lot. I immediately lobbied to leave.
“Let’s just blow, you guys,” I pleaded.
“What?” Spyder said. “No way, we should play. It’s not that bad.”
“Are you fucking kidding me? Dokken, man. Seriously; Dokken,” I retorted.
Now, I have a healthy respect for metal. My formative years were spent listening to Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Mötley Crüe and even Dokken. Hell, I was member of the Ratt fanclub. I had autographed pictures of Stephen Pearcy, Bobby Blotzer and the rest of the Ratt pack. I recognized them on the wall of the I-Rock. But the Overtones were not of that ilk and I was convinced we would not go over well with the drunken mob of metal heads. But it turns out I had nothing to fear. Nothing at all.
Despite my pleas to leave, I was outvoted and we unloaded our gear when the soundman, Ozzie (go figure), arrived. We were garage rock and played old combo amps that would break up easily. Jay had an old Ampeg bass amp and I played a much older Heath-kit do-it-yourself model powered by my Fender SE 112 stage amp. Collin played on a completely stripped down ’63 Slingerland kit he’d refinished himself with a pearl finish. We were compact. Hell, the whole setup fit in the back of my mini-van with the middle seat still in!
The two other bands we were sharing the bill with arrived shortly after. Odd Man Out arrived in three separate cars because their gear wouldn’t fit in one and the drummer was in the middle of divorcing the guitar player to hook up with the bass player. This would have been very rock and roll were it not for the fact that they not only all got along, but were obvious suburban part-timers with a penchant for Nirvana. But they had massive gear and immediately made us look amateur.
The second band was another thing all together. Suffer Bus was strictly in it for the noise. Marshal double stacks, Hi Watt double 4X10s and what looked like a 50-piece drum kit soon took up all of the room in front of the stage, which was designated as the “staging” area. None of this settled my stomach and I again begged to leave.
“This is a waste of my vacation time,” I said.
“We play shows we book,” Spyder countered valiantly.
To make matters worse, the other bands told us that WE were the headliners. What the fuck was going on? How could we be the headliners? Turns out we were the band with the most experience and name recognition. Us, a band from the other side of the state. My head was ready to explode.
After a one minute sound check, Suffer Bus took the stage. They took it with genuine bravado. The singer yelled out from the stage with absolute sincerity, “Yeah Detroit! The I-Rock! We are Suffer Bus and we’re going to kick the shit out of you!” Baffled, I looked out to an empty room and wondered who he could be talking to. There was literally nobody there. This guy was yelling to empty tables and flashing video games (Zaxxon, keeping with that mid-80s bowling alley feel). We “suffered” through 40 minutes of Sepultura-type mush mouth rock the end of which finally came when the guitarist broke his E string on a sick riff and he had no replacement strings. Odd Man Out was next and I couldn’t wait to hear what Detroit’s version of Fleetwood Mac had to offer.
Well, Kurt Cobain can rest easy knowing his title as Voice of Generation is in safe hands with Odd Man Out. Not only did the singer ape all of Kurt’s moves and look, he even taught himself to play left-handed. The songs droned on about misunderstood youth and references to a fetus here and there and really did no harm. After Suffer Bus, Odd Man Out was a relief. The songs were relatively catchy, but the Cobain Idolatry was unsettling. Again, after 40 minutes they were done. Now it was our turn.
We took about one third as much time to set up as the other two groups and I think we took the sound guy by surprise when we told him were ready. I guess we were a bit too fast in setting up because the rowdy, beer swilling, nose smashing, ass-shaking crowd we were expecting in Detroit still hadn’t shown up. As we were ready to launch into the searing opening notes of our EP opener “She’s The One,” there was nobody in the room. Not a soul. The sound guy again asked us if we were ready. Upon our confirmation, and in his best classic rock FM voice, he gave us our introduction:
“Now, from Kalamazoo, let’s hear it for OVERTONE!”
Overtone! He metalized our name from the garage-ish The Overtones to the 80s hair metal sounding OVERTONE. At this, I laughed out loud. But as I laughed a look of somber washed over Jay’s face when he looked from the stage and saw that no one had entered the club since Suffer Bus. Not one paying customer. The place was empty and we drove 200 odd miles to play to the bar staff of the I-Rock.
Nobody paid to see us. We played to an empty room. In the middle of our fourth song Odd Man Out loaded up their cars and limply waved to us as they walked out. Frustration and sickness welled up in my gut. And as we pushed faster and faster from one song to another in our set, I began to question the point of playing. Why were we doing this? What did we get out of it?
And as that question rolled back and forth across the folds in my mind, the band played harder and louder and faster. Each song came without introduction. Who would we introduce our songs to? We were all pissed and sick of it all. By the time we hit the last song, we’d had it. Our set closer was an angry Sonics rip-off called Psycho. Before slamming into the opening chords, I turned and turned up my amp, pushing it beyond the point of breaking up but to the verge of combustion. And somewhere in the middle of that song we hit it. Jay, Collin and I hit THE note. We hit Pete Townshend’s Universal Chord and exploded into absolute energy. We weren’t in the I-Rock. We were beyond it. We’d hit that G-spot that musicians strive for. It lasted only an instant but we were there. And in an instant it was gone.
We loaded our shit into the van and started back to Kalamazoo. For a long time nobody said anything. Finally Collin, the man of stone and most introverted of the group, spoke up from the back seat.
“I think we should call the van the Suffer Bus,” and so it was.
I dropped the guys and the gear off in Kalamazoo and made my way back to Grand Rapids where my girlfriend was waiting in bed for me. I parked the Suffer Bus and lumbered up to our second floor apartment. I took off my skinny tie and threw it on the floor next to the bed. It was 4:45 am and I knew I’d miss at least a half a day of work the next day. That was at least four more hours of vacation time I wouldn’t spend with Meg. As I crawled under the blankets and next to her warm body she woke up.
“How was the show?” she asked.
“It was great,” I answered and fell asleep.