IT CAME FROM DETROIT (James R. Petix, US, 2009, 87 mins.)
James R. Petix
"Fuck you, we're from Detroit. We're gonna show you how it's done." —Mark Walz, Rocket 455
Any documentary that opens with the Gories has already earned a place in my heart, so take everything I have to say about It Came from Detroit with a grain of salt. As you can probably guess, the film doesn't cover a broad spectrum of Motor City music or it would begin long before the mid-1980s. Instead, director James R. Petix focuses on the garage-rock scene of the past three decades.
Fortunately, he doesn't leave the previous generation in the dust. If there's no Iggy Pop—who split the scene for sunnier climes—he's got the MC5's Wayne Kramer to reflect on Detroit as an automobile-making city that no longer makes automobiles, leading to a white-collar exodus, a development that brought the price of apartments and practice spaces down (something that rarely rates a mention in most of the hand-wringing about its economic decline). What's bad for the middle-class isn't always bad for musicians. By contrast, the indie artists in the Austin doc Echotone, which I just watched a few weeks ago, have nothing but lamentations for the way gentrification is pricing them out of existence.
I can never get enough of this song and video—and it's even better live.
The way Mick Collins sees it, "Most of the people who are in bands in this town are big record geeks." Collins, Dan Kroha, and Peg O'Neill of the Gories knew their rock & roll history, but they favored a grittier sound, so they purposefully chose instruments they didn't know how to play, and I don't think it's completely coincidental that I discovered them around the same time as Beat Happening and Pussy Galore, who all took the bass-free concept in different directions.
Though the Gories had their fans, most of the city hated them. Even Mary Ramirez of the Detroit Cobras says that they were out of tune so often she sometimes thought, "You know, I love you guys, but this is painful."
"Detroit in the '80s," may have been, "kind of a shit-hole," according to Mark Walz, but after Alex Chilton produced the Gories' I Know You Fine, But How You Doin', the scene came to prominence again, just as it had in the days of the MC5, the Stooges, Suzy Quatro, etc. (to say nothing of Motown, which will always tower over everything else, at least in commercial and pop-culture terms).
With a smile, Collins quips, "We somehow proved that you didn't have to be talented to be in a band." Petix proceeds to profile some of the acts to fill the void after the Gories packed it in, like the Demolition Doll Rods (with Kroha in drag), the Hentchmen, Bantam Rooster, the Go (who signed to Sub Pop), the Von Bondies (who signed to Sire Records), and Collins' ever-lovin' Dirtbombs.
Apparently, front woman Rachel Nagy used to beat up rowdy audience members.
Naturally, Jack White's name comes up several times, but he didn't provide an interview—nor did Meg—and that's par for the course. Plus, Petix doesn't overlook the time he slugged Jason Stollsteimer of the Von Bondies in the face. In any case, the now-solo White isn't lacking in media attention, he's since traded Detroit for Nashville, and he tends to opt out of grass-roots efforts in favor of projects like Davis Guggenheim's It Might Get Loud with Jimmy Page and the Edge.
Much like You Weren't There: A History of Chicago Punk 1977-1984, Petix includes outfits who didn't hit it big and clubs—Garden Bowl, Gold Dollar, etc.—that won't mean much to non-natives, but that doesn't mean the film was made specifically for those from Detroit, though I do think they'll appreciate it more. His narrative also covers some of the same territory as New Garage Explosion, except co-directors Aaron Brown and Joseph Patel took on the entire country.
Speaking for myself, I once had a layover at the Detroit airport en route from New York to Seattle, and that's been my only contact with the city thus far. I'd love to say I ran into a Marvelette or a Funk Brother during my stay, but no such luck.
As for the idea that Detroit's garage-rock heyday has passed, In the Red's Larry Hardy, who's released records from a few of the artists featured in the film, doesn't see a downside to the decline in press attention, stating, "There will always be cool bands in Detroit, they're just not always gonna be in NME."
It Came from Detroit plays the Grand Illusion Cinema from April 28 - May 3. Petix will be in attendance on Saturday night for a Q&A after the 7:30pm screening, followed by a live set from Hausfrau. The Grand Illusion is located at 1403 NE 50th St. in the U. District. For more information, click here or call 206-523-3935. The soundtrack is also available for free via this Spotify link.