Saturday, July 27, 2013

Detroit Story

I don't claim to know a lot about Detroit.  How could I, really?

All I know is that what I lack in first-hand gritty experience, I make up for in a steady stream of  rumination and hope for Detroit.  Some surely inconsequential love, but love none-the-less.

It's like this. I'm not going to posture, I'm going to be forth right and honest. I don't live in Detroit. I never have. I live in a northern suburb. And although I'm only seven miles away, the homogeneous, upper-middle class city that I live in might as well be another solar system. 

But most people who live here in the suburbs, all 3.7 million of us, most of us have a Detroit story. Not just an anecdote here or there, but a Detroit tale, that spans beyond our lifetimes, and farther out from the quiet hollows that we dwell in now.


My Mother grew up in Detroit and speaks fondly of it. As a little girl, she took the bus alone. Went down Woodward Avenue to attend children's art classes at the DIA. They went to see the holiday displays in the windows at Hudson's department store where men wearing white gloves operated the elevators.

 I've seen the old movies of Detroit, the sidewalks were full, the people looked formal and fancy. Everything sparkled and prospered and grew. In 1930, Detroit was the fastest growing city in the WORLD.
 THE WORLD! Did you know that? Now, it's the fastest shrinking city in the US. 

In 1950, Detroit had a population of 1.8 million, and was the 4th largest city in the United States. Today, there are only 700,000 people,  if that, and barely makes the top 20 in size.  How can such a vibrant, alive city lose nearly half it's population? Think about it....New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, losing HALF it's population!

These days, at least from the outside, Detroit is a desolate, dangerous, tumble weed kind of place. Romantically as they say: "reverting back to prairie", which in some is.....

I think that a lot of people feel the same way that I do about Detroit's decline. Sad, confused, frustrated, uncertain about what a true solution would be. And so many of us just don't talk about it, because what more is there to say? But then there are others who are pushing and pulling and using their lives to work towards change. I'd like to be the later. Somehow.

This could easily turn into an essay about facts and statistics on Detrroit. About the juxtaposition of desolation and hipster revival, about architectural ruins, and hidden historical gems. This could be a post on horrible crime, and neighbors that join hands and fight together. Poverty and the wealth of the automotive industry. Young, old, black, white.

Instead I'd just like to write about my Detroit story, and about something that has helped to grow my love for this city -  Detroit techno. As we come up on the DEMF,  (The Detroit Electronic Music Festival. Which, is actually now called "Movement", but I refuse to call it that.), my mind goes to a time when I was younger and everything was new.



From WkipediaTechno is a form of electronic dance music[2] that emerged in DetroitMichigan in the United States during the mid-to-late 1980s. The first recorded use of the word techno in reference to a specific genre of music was in 1988.[3][4] Many styles of techno now exist, butDetroit techno is seen as the foundation upon which a number of subgenres have been built.[5]

Detroit. 1985

The first thing I can remember is hitting the deck, cowering on the floor of my Grandfather's Lincoln. I made myself into the smallest ball of kid that is humanly possible. "See that man over there?" my Grandfather said, pointing to a figure on the corner in a black floor length trench coat. "He's a drug dealer. He probably has a machine gun under that trench coat. Don't you ever, ever, EVER do drugs."

We were coming home from the Detroit Science Center. My Grandfather was just trying to help keep my six-year-old brother and I on the straight and narrow. Grandpa was a Detroit city cop. He had no fear. He knew his stuff.

As a kid, we didn't go into the city too often. I can't remember a lot, but I remember some. Running in Heart Plaza near the river, a Tiger's game on a beautiful summer afternoon. Some trips to the Art Institute, the Science Museum, and my favorite, the Children's Historical Museum. All wonderful, positive experiences, but always with an edge of fear. I held my breath in transit. I remember that part. Always sure of certain doom, should the car breakdown.

Sad when you think about it. But luckily, Detroit was just awakening then with a bump and a thump and rhythm of it's own, that one day, was going to carry me back in.........

Metro Detroit, 1994

Techno. Techno? "Yes, techno music" Alan said. "You've got to hear this album. It's by Plastikman."

In a teenage display of mock authority and individualism, he had just painted his bedroom walls pomegranate red, bought black satin sheets, and hung posters of aliens. We wore baggy "skater jeans", spent hours sitting on railroad tracks talking about life, and drank an almost daily Slurpee. Life was good.

He played Plastikman's Sheet One for me over speakers much to large and much too loud for his little room.  In one of those life-changing, quintessential moments of wide-eyed youth,  it sounded both unintelligible and amazing to my inexperienced mind. Techno.

The music was catchy, and before long, like Alan, I had the CD too. A great relief from the constant play of a four CD box set of Led Zepplin, bought the previous year with a summer's worth of babysitting money.

Sheet One was a perfect audio match for the overly-dramatic, existential angst of a teenage life.

But soon, as with all things, change came in the form of a first boyfriend, and his propensity for emo, punk, indie and "straight-edge." (He was also the drummer in a band, that played in a teen club called "The Black Cat." Really, I wouldn't make something that stupid up.) And most of all, you know, he had a Jeep.

East Lansing, 1996

The thing that I remember most about the night, was that it had just started snowing. It was the week before finals, and my boyfriend had dumped me. The drummer. Two years it lasted, but the end was abrupt and disorienting.

I had promised a friend a ride somewhere, to a class they make you take when you've receive too many points on your license and are in danger of having to hoof it.  I remember that drive to some municipal building in Lansing, sobbing all the way there, and all the way back.

For the first few days I cried and cried. My friends were amazing. I don't know what I would have ever done without them. They came to see me often, just to listen or to try and make me laugh again.

One of those friends was Roger. He appeared at my dorm room door one day with something for me in his hand, something to pay attention to- other than my heartbreak. The gift was much more than the CD in his hands. It was the return of techno into my life, and the beginning of a  Detroit adventure.

East Lansing,  1996/1997

It was a Speedy-J album that Roger gave me.  My first new techno since the quintessential Plastikman of 94'. It was this album, Speedy-J's lyric-less music that I listened to each and every night as I tried to fall asleep. The reverberating noise, pushing my sad, post-break up feelings and ECON 201 fears to the back of my brain. Speedy-J got me through.

And that's why, when  Regor invited me to go see Kevin Saunderson, a Detroit techno legend, spin at a local co-op , I said: "yes" without missing a beat. (Pun intended.)

We piled into my car and drove across campus. Which in retrospect, was probably an equally as long walk to the student parking lot to retrieve my car, as it would have been to just walk over to the co-op know as "NASA House."

Oddly, none of us seemed to wonder why or HOW a random, semi-delapadated student co-op at Michigan State University, could ever attract the famous Kevin Saunderson. Which also in retrospect, is really strange. The whole things was strange.

I vaguely remember wearing an Alien Workshop tee-shirt, (because I was such a  skater poser) emblazoned with a dramatic anime scene depicting a ninja moon princess poised for battle. Or, given the time, it could have also been my "Girls Kick Ass" baby tee.

Roger was driving my car, because I had, and still do have an "issue" with curbs, and would convince anyone else into carting me around when given the chance. I can't clearly remember who went along with us, but I'm pretty sure it included a roommate, a hall mate, and two of my best friends from the boys' side of the dorm.

There was a lot of loud music and people in tracksuits. I remember one of my friends enthusiastically dancing around a speaker that was nearly as big as he was. The party was in the basement of the old  co-op.  It was dark and crowded, and if Lauren of 2013 was in there, she'd be suspiciously eyeing every heating pipe for asbestos. And sensing certain air quality doom, instead of dancing.....

After several hours it felt like it was getting late. On the college student continuum of not wild party animal to wild party animal, I was sadly about a 1. A totally not wild party animal.  As I am now, I've always kind of been one of those, "early to bed, early to rise" people. Which is all kind of surprising because although I wasn't a party animal, I also wasn't very "studious." I never studied. Ever. Too much distraction on a University campus. What do you expect!?
So what DID I do with all of that spare time? Well, I taught myself how to speak and write semi-fluently in Japanese. I rescued an opossum. And I went to the cider mill a lot.....

Roger and I and a roommate or two, left the party and headed towards home. But not before Roger said: "Hold on, I have to stop at 7-11, I need orange juice for tomorrow morning." Now put some thought into that for a moment. What college student leaves a party at a reasonable hour, only to stop at the convienence store for orange juice, NOT BEER, just so he can be sure that his little dorm room fridge doesn't run out. That's unheard of! I loved it then, and I still love it now. A person who isn't worried about following the flock or looking "cool" in other people's eyes. A person who has enough self-confidence to walk into a 7-11 on a busy corner in a college town, at 1:00am on a Saturday night, to purchase a bottle of Tropicana.

That semester was a time of good music and good friends. A Tribe Called Quest came out with Beats, Rhymes and Life,  and I seem to remember a lot of Digable Planet's Blowout Comb  being on continuous rotation over on the boy's side. Nothing could compete though, with the influx of specifically electronic music into my life that year. Ken Iishi's Jelly Tones made me love Japan, which lead me to Cornelius' Fantasma.  The Aphex Twins both freaked me out and cracked me up with the song Milkman. What was that all about? And Roger brought Jeff Mills to the table.

But it wasn't until things got live, that I made the connection with Detroit.......................

Windsor, Early 1998

We traveled through the dimly lit tunnel. The one that makes my skin crawl with claustrophobia , the one that smells so strongly of exhaust and always has at least half a traffic jam. You pop out the other side in new country. A kinder, cleaner, more polite version of us. CANADA.

In a rare display of stepping outside of my box, I bravely let Roger talk me into going with him to a bar in Windsor called "The Hook."  It was to see Matthew Hawtin, who is Plastikman's brother, spin. Not wanting to look like a bore and certainly not wanting to lead on to any of my Detroit fears, I quickly said "sure" through gritted teeth and worry. But as you might expect, we found safe passage that night, down interstate 75, through Detroit, through the freaky tunnel and on into Canada.

In an old building, upstairs, Roger and I watched Matthew Hawtin play records and mix music. Also, it was Canada, and being Canada, you can drink at NINETEEN! I was petrified to partake in my first drink from a bar. I had absolutely zero idea of what to order and amateurishly left it up to the bar tender, who, sensing my complete lack of understanding, awareness and experience, quickly shoved a weak girly cocktail in my hand and called it a night. A slow gin fizz.

Detroit, Christmas 1998

For unto us a Roger is born!  A real Jesus baby, but not really Jesus. Roger was placed into a stocking at his birth on the 25th of December. And still to this day, he claims that he does not feel cheated in any way, to have his special day celebrated, at precisely the time when everyone else is focused on Christmas. That says a lot about a person I think.

One Christmas night for many years, a large "rave party" was always held called "Home". A party that ran from about midnight through dawn. I had followed Roger to a few true Detroit rave parties that year, and shows at the cramped but famous Alvin's on Cass.

I secretly lamented the fact that they began way WAY past my bed time. I did not want to lead on to my innate un-coolness. I had to be young! I had to be adventurous! I had to be fearless! And although the flashing lights were annoying, and the kids with pacifiers and lollipops ridiculous, and some of the music went on FOREVER, at least it was giving me a special Detroit experience. Me and my crew, we were as sober as sober gets, and that's why I can remember these parties to begin.

The doorbell rang on Christmas night, as our family party began to wind down. It was Alan and Madge.(Not her real name, but her preferred name after purchasing a used waitress's dress at Value Village that year).  Alan and Madge, if I am remembering perfectly correctly, both had buzzed hair, Madge's dyed purple. Alan with some gnarly looking face piercing. My Grandma, who opened the door, looked like she was going to faint.

It was snowing quite hard when the Jesus baby arrived. At least his uber -normal - suburban looking black NorthFace jacket quelled some of my Grandmother's fears. If only she knew it was he who started this whole techno fuel Christmas outing.

Detroit, 2013

And then life takes hold again. You graduate college, your become more than just the books that you study and the music that's playing. You attempt to launch. Move across the country. Fall in love, get married, buy a house, have a kid.

Lucky for that kid, you found a love for Detroit, long before he was born, and you hope to help him find that Detroit love too.

Memorial Day weekend 2013 was just perfect, lovely weather. Sunny and warm. Like for many years before, Roger and I went down for the final day of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival -where it promptly began to pour. Thunderstorm aside, that was fine, because  1.) I got in for free because Roger being a young, euntrpenural Detroitsmen  (He bought and restored a skyscraper with twelve other people, and is on to his second and third) scored VIP wristbands.    And 2.) I was there, hearing great techno and it was G-d Damn TWO FLIPPIN' O'CLOCK in the AFTERNOON! NOT THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT!  A techno miracle!  But also, 3.) it was almost TWENTY-YEARS after the first techno adventure that I had gone on with Roger. I  stood there in Heart Plaza and just watched, full of nostalgia and amaze. How could seventeen years fly by like that?

The afternoon was nice. We hid in the space underneath the plaza from the rain. Everybody was smoking, which was disgusting. I wasn't wearing any neon, I can't break dance. I felt old.

I would have worn fairy wings, had I owned them. Maybe.

Sometimes the skyline, what there is, distracted me from the music. 

As did the dancing man dressed up as Tanuki Mario. 

We took a long walk at one point when the rain stopped, and appreciated the architecture.

And later, when the rain was so heavy and cold, that even the VIP tent was soaked, we called it a day.

Which is all so fine and swell because I came home to these two........... and we'll have more Detroit stories to come.



lisajay99 said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing your adventures...

Lauren said...

Hey Lisajay,thanks!!!! :)

Unknown said...

I so enjoy looking through your charming blog. Keep up the wonderful work! Miss Jodi from

Lauren said...

Wow! Thank you so much Jodi, it's nice to meet you!!!

Lauren :)