A pilgrimage to Detroit’s Grande Ballroom
It’s already noon on my one full day in Detroit and my host Dave Buick has woken with a voluminous hangover. He suggests we go straight to a local bar his friend is tending and the two of us head out into the rain. Dave wears his jeans rolled at the cuffs and his shirtsleeves up past the biceps, and reminds me of Biff Tannen from Back to the Future as he tries to tame his rocker fringe back into place with some Brylcreem.
“See that one there?” he says as we slosh through the neighbourhood. “That’s where Rodriguez lives. He’s always lived in the same old house. Only with the money he’s made since the movie he’s built that high fence to keep the freaks out. I remember when I used to wake up and find him playing guitar on my porch with his pals.”
The Motor City is lousy with music history. Dave himself played a significant part in the garage rock scene of the ’90s, running his own label, Italy Records, and offering to bankroll a couple of 7-inch singles for a young Jack White after his band, The White Stripes, had barely started performing.
But it’s the mythology surrounding MC5 that has caught my imagination lately. A band that, from all firsthand accounts, was such a visceral force of live energy the recordings they left behind are considered cheap facsimiles. The closest you can get is Kick Out the Jams, their first, furious album, recorded live over the Halloween weekend of 1968. Punk was still a way off, and although you can draw thin lines between other hits that year – Steppenwolf, Cream, etc, there’s a prophetic, unbridled, cymbal-heavy rawness and furnace energy that could only be a direct byproduct of this working-class city and its landlocked Midwest location, far from the influence of east-coast intellectualism and the west’s free love.
“It happened all around here, where we’re walking,” Dave says, gesticulating as we pass Wayne State University. “The MC5 house was a part of the neighbourhood that got razed a few years back for this here freeway.”
We cross the freeway via a pedestrian bridge into the midtown neighbourhood where we find the Bronx Bar. Three drinks down, Dave is finding his equilibrium. Mine is starting to tip the other way. I press on about MC5, hoping for another crumb of local knowledge.
“What about that venue where they played all the time?” I ask. “Is it still standing?”
“The Grande Ballroom?” the bartender asks as he pours a complimentary shot of vodka and pineapple juice. “Oh yeah, it’s only a mile away, all boarded up.”
I throw down the concoction, wince, and turn to Dave. “Do you think we could go see it?”
We tell the Uber driver where we are headed and he seems perplexed. He’s lived in Detroit all his life. “That old place don’t look like shit,” he says. “Just an old dump.”
We turn onto Grand Boulevard and cruise slowly past sorry-looking buildings, graffiti-covered monuments to another age. I realise that it’s the windows that give the impression of life to a building, but most of these have only black dead holes. There are swaths of bare grass where some houses have fallen and been cleared away but never replaced. Urban prairies.
The Grande facade isn’t much to look at: a concrete box, the only thing resembling ornamentation being the Spanish tile-lipped roof. A tree grows out of an upstairs window. The vertical sign has long since gone.
Looking suspicious in the grey drizzle, we skulk round the back alley hoping to find an entry, but all doorways are bricked up. One has the MC5 insignia painted on it. Back around the front we look closer at the construction panels nailed in random patchwork.
I gain purchase under the edge of a huge sheet of particle board and yank it free, the whole thing soaked and pliant enough that it bends along the nailed edge like a hinge. We peer into the dark unknown beyond. I go over to our idling Uber and say, “You can go now. Please remember our faces.”
We help each other through and stand still in the dank interior. It has a weather system of its own. Moisture drips in damp echoes like we’ve spelunked into a cave. I hear the crunch of glass to my left and brace for what might happen next but it’s just Dave stepping on a broken bottle. He’s found the torch function on his phone and is waving it around to reveal a mass of fallen beams, twisted metal and the general debris of shelter seekers.
Against the far wall a zigzag of green carpet gives the suggestion of the stairs they once covered, the real thing having long since crumbled. Dim light in the far corner leads us to a second staircase that now more closely resembles a rockslide. We throw out our arms for balance and start to climb.
We reach the second floor and an unexpected vision of majesty. We’re standing in the ballroom. I’ve never seen decay and beauty on such a grand scale, like we’ve entered a work of art that is living and dying around us.
The Grande Ballroom was one of many such opulent venues built at the end of the 1920s for the American big band era, which would then atrophy from disuse as styles changed dramatically after World War II. In 1967 Detroit school teacher and DJ Russ Gibb returned home from San Francisco after witnessing the Fillmore, the legendary music venue, itself a salvaged ballroom. Gibb thought Detroit deserved its own clubhouse, where the burgeoning music scene could truly express itself. He found the Grande, which was being used as mattress storage. MC5 opened the club in October 1968 to a small crowd that would double every weekend until it reached into the thousands. Gibb once brought home so much cash his dad thought he’d robbed a bank.
“It was like The Wizard of Oz,” the guitarist for Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band, Drew Abbott, is quoted as saying.
“When I walked up the stairs everything turned to colour. My life had been pretty much black and white up till that point. People could roller-skate around, paint themselves … the music was loud, there was incense burning.”
MC5 became the house band and would play most weekends. Kick Out the Jams was recorded there to get full effect off the fervent home crowd.
But like some hulking ocean liner, the Grande Ballroom had ridden the counterculture wave to its apex and was soon sailing down the other side. Gibb was feeling the corporate shackles that were starting to bind popular music and had the sense to get out while ahead. On New Year’s Eve in 1972, he closed the doors for the last time, just a few years after its opening. MC5 played, but this time to barely 50 people. Even they were feeling the ominous march of time.
Huge chunks of the roof have fallen away where rain and light pour in at will. Unsure of how unstable the floor has become, we inch forward gingerly, sliding our feet rather than stepping, as if onto an iced-over lake. It feels spongy in parts: at first I think it might be from the sprung dance floor I’d read about but then Dave’s foot goes right through in one place. We get across a section that’s like walking on actual earth; drifts of corroded powder from the ornate Deco plaster columns have formed dunes. It must hold some nutrients, as there are small green shoots sprouting here and there. “Look at these,” says Dave as he pulls some ratty silver pants out of the debris. “Rod Stewart’s flares!”
In the middle of the room where the narrow hardwood boards meet on a diagonal, the join has buckled upward like the spine of a rhinoceros. Nature has made a mockery of the whole structure, wind and water let loose for 40 years.
It’s the invading rain that gives the feeling of being within a living organism. The walls glisten and in the band room off to the right the red carpet, all dank and mangy, is like exotic moss growing from the floor.
We wander around slowly, respectfully, in different directions, inspecting every nook and cranny as if this were a flat we were thinking of renting. There’s Dave standing on the stage under the proscenium arch with its one end hanging unsupported in space.
He collects a few broken pieces of plaster swirls fallen from the ceiling as souvenirs, and a dusty swathe of purple cloth he hopes was once a curtain. He asks if I want to take anything. I pick up a sliver of loose tongue-and-groove board off the stage where I’m sitting, study it and wonder at all the people who’ve trodden it, whose sweat and spit has varnished it. But I’m nervous of disturbing whatever spirit still moves through this place. I’d read an article about how each week the ranger station at Uluru receives packages containing bits of rock stolen from the park, the thieves superstitious at the bad luck it has brought them. “Nah, I’m okay.”
On the Uber ride home, we’re like excited kids. I hope the driver doesn’t notice the white plaster footprints we’re leaving on the floor of his car. Sitting on my lap, a piece of the Grande Ballroom stage stares back at me like a vampire stake.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 8, 2015 as "Kick out the jambs". Subscribe here.