Photograph Credit: Vito Palmisano/Getty Images
IF, AS THE saying goes, you make your own luck, then it is just my luck to wind up here, in this dive bar in Detroit.
Oh, I hear ya. Making your little jokes. Crackin’ on the city.
I know, because I saw the looks on the faces of friends when I told them I was going to Detroit. You’d think I had told them I was being punished for a crime and was condemned to a flogging.
But I mean luck as in you-should-be-so-lucky luck.
Let’s start with this dive bar, PJ’s Lager House.
This may not be the dive of choice. That would be the fabled Gold Dollar, where the White Stripes played while coming up. The Gold Dollar closed years ago. But the Lager House is one of a scad of next-best things. The White Stripes played here too.
The Lager House has been fixed up, so they tell me. Maybe they didn’t used to have the twinkling green Christmas lights strung along the wall. Maybe the Tom Thumb–size, um, dance hall facing the stage in the room adjacent to the bar area was not as tastefully adorned with a veritable wallpapering of posters. Dunno.
I only know that if you like visiting music shrines, as I do, Detroit warrants a pilgrimage. Detroit is maybe the most underrated music city in America. When you’re thinking about great music towns, Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, New York, Minneapolis, Seattle, Memphis and New Orleans all pop to mind before Detroit.
And yet … Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Elvin Jones, Kenny Burrell, Milt Jackson, Kid Rock, Ted Nugent, the MC5, Iggy Pop, Eminem, Madonna. Am I missing anybody? Yeah, a lot of folks.
Not all are from Detroit, but all made their names here, producing a diversity that encompasses many of the major genres of American music over the last 60 years, from R&B to pop to jazz to rock. Oh, and did I mention that one of the biggest annual techno-music festivals is held in Detroit?
Earlier in the night, I had been to Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. Having celebrated its 75th anniversary last year, Baker’s is arguably the world’s oldest continuously run jazz nightclub.
You feel hipper just walking toward it, what with its blue-neon script on the outside, lighting up the corner. Inside, the bar is a curvaceous simulation of — what else? — a piano keyboard. Beyond the bar is an intimate seating area. A few tables, some just inches from the stage. Low lighting. Mirrors along the length of the back wall. I took a seat, ordered a scotch and felt like I was somebody else, somebody cool, Denzel or Bogie. That’s the kind of place Baker’s is. A place that takes you somewhere you wish you could always be.
A trio of young cats worked what had come down to them through the ages. They performed on a stage that has held a who’s who of jazz masters: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Fats Waller, Art Blakey, Oscar Peterson and on and on and on.
The trio was playing ball in a park that echoes with greatness, and they were swinging for the fences.
That afternoon, I had taken a tour of one of the great hit-making factories in history: Hitsville USA, aka the Motown Historical Museum, the home of Motown Records.
Out of the small basement studio in that three-story house came some of America’s most infectious, enduring music. There are album covers all over the walls and a glassed-in display case holding Michael Jackson’s famous hat and white glove. Everywhere you turn, there is music history. The candy machine? It was installed, says the tour guide, because if you were out having lunch when it was time to record a song, you’d miss your chance and some other band might get the opportunity instead. Oh, the Baby Ruth bar, three over from the right as you face the machine? Kept that way for Stevie Wonder so that he could always find his favorite treat.
True, Motown, Baker’s and even the Lager House less represent Detroit’s future or even its present than they do its past. True, too, that when you talk about luck, Detroit has been down on its own for some time now. The new mayor, former Detroit Piston Dave Bing, announced in his first State of the City address in March that the city would demolish 10,000 buildings. He said it was time to reimagine the city, it having gone from a peak of 2 million residents to around 900,000 and declining.
A lot of ideas are floating around. One of the most intriguing is to use vacant property and abandoned buildings to pioneer what is called urban agriculture. Using advanced indoor-farming techniques such as aeroponics, proponents intend to “transform the landscape of the city,” as Michael Score, president of Hantz Farms, put it to me in an interview. “Urban farm[ing] can be a leading industry. Detroit can be its laboratory.”
A person could make all sorts of jokes about Detroit going to seed. But it has already done that. What they’re trying to do now is to turn the soil.
In so doing, maybe they can turn around Detroit’s luck.