Some months ago or perhaps even a few years ago – my memory is hazy now, I started talking to Jett Plastic Recordings owner Jarrett Koral in Detroit about working together. Our output started with him putting out a single of mine, Stay Alone – a song that I had recorded in the audio-visual room at Gezhi High School in Downtown Shanghai with my violinist Haffijy , on the flipside’s He’s the Candy which is the demo version of one of the cornerstones of my new record Robbing the Nuclear Family.
We did this as a co-release with Shaking Shanghai, the label that artist/rocker Matt Goad and I launched. During the process of putting out the single, Jarrett and I discussed putting out my album Kitchens and Bathrooms on vinyl, an album that had a limited release in 2004 and I later loaded to iTunes in 2006. Since we got on so well, I suggested he put out my upcoming record, the aforementioned, Robbing the Nuclear Family.
Why Jett Plastic? Jett Plastic is an exciting home for my music because Jarrett has already gained a great reputation for putting out cool stuff, not to mention the Guardian wrote a feature on him and Rolling Stone named him as one of the 17 youngsters changing the music industry. And after talking to him on the phone a few times, I realized first and foremost he loves music. He is a fan first and foremost just like me.
Although he had been putting out Detroit garage rock records since he was a tween, Jarrett got national and international notice when he released Macaulay Culkin’s Pizza Underground EP, a tribute to the Velvet Underground with pizza themed songs. I love how Jarrett thinks. Jett Plastic is soon releasing an album by John Sinclair, manager of the MC5 and public dissident that John Lennon wrote a song about. Said album is a funky Frank Zappa cum Captain Beefheart cum Tom Waits cum Funkadelic affair.
Since this was all happening, I thought it might be a good idea if I visited this young record label tycoon. We then discussed just that. Since I hadn’t played Detroit in 20 years, I thought playing a show might be fun and since Jarrett knew a lot of the Detroit musicians and is a musician himself, I asked him to put a band together for me and be the musical director. I had no idea what I was getting into but thought this would be interesting. Pumping new blood into my songs, some that are 30 years old at this point, seemed to be a cool idea.
In October, we nailed down a date for a show – December 17th at the UFO Factory bordering Downtown Detroit. At this point, Jarrett discussed who the band might be. His friends in the Britemores were up for the challenge of learning a bunch of my songs. This seemed like a great fit. One of the guys, Jeff, had previously been in the infamous Detroit Cobras.
As October whizzed by, we talked more about my upcoming time in Detroit. Jarrett was excited to take me to the Motown Museum among other places. He was set to take his friend Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Billy Davis on a VIP tour of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. He invited me along. He then set up a show for me with Billy Davis at a church that had been converted into a studio and a performance space.
Suddenly Detroit seemed much more lively than the City I had remembered 20 years earlier that at that time looked as if it was still recovering from some unnamed war, some automobile apocalypse, some sort of MC5 meltdown. Jack White had added to the changing cityscape by opening a Third Man Records location in Midtown complete with a record pressing plant attached. John Varvatos opened a huge boutique in the downtown area. The Heidelberg Project, rows and rows of abandoned houses made into art houses, had popped up in one of the most dangerous areas of the Motor City. Grande Ballroom, where the Who premiered Tommy in America and where MC5 and the Stooges played their most incendiary shows, was slated for restoration. I was excited to see this Detroit.
Finally, the day arrived for my flight to Detroit. Jarrett messaged me to tell me there had been a huge snow fall the night before but that the roads were mostly clear. However, his father has a better vehicle for snow so he would be going with Jarrett to the airport to pick me up. So I left, the warm Plains for the cold Northeast.
When I arrived, Jarrett was sitting on a carousel not in use at baggage claim waiting for me. My bag came off the conveyor fairly quickly so we were soon on our way. Gary, his dad, was waiting curbside at his GMC SUV for us. I hopped in the backseat and we took off on the now crunchy snow. Once we were on the highway, the road was fairly clear.
Gary asked if I was hungry. I was. I had not eaten much that day. I had planned to grab a snack on my layover in Atlanta but the plane was a bit late getting in so I had to quickly disembark and run to my gate to catch the connecting flight. So, yes, I was hungry.
We stopped at Lafayette Coney Island on Lafayette, a Detroit institution in the downtown area. I had eaten there 20 years earlier but at that time, there was nothing around it, the downtown was a ghost town. 20 years ago, my tour guide ran red lights because there was no reason to stop for them. There was nothing in Downtown Detroit then, nothing but a lone Coney Island a lone Coney Island with delicious Conies.
Since that time, the downtown had been gentrified and another Coney Island, American Coney Island had opened next door to Lafayette Coney Island. Coney Islands are the most popular fast food in Detroit and there is one on about every block. They all have different names – Nicky D’s Coney Island, next to McDonalds. There is Woodward Coney Island, Detroit One Coney Island, Hollywood Coney Island, Universal Coney Island, Zeff’s Coney Island to name a few and then places like Coney Town and Coney King. Yes in Detroit, the Coney was indeed king.
Lafayette Coney Island has the atmosphere of an iconic eatery that is in its own time capsule, with the same tables and ambiance that it has had for the last forty or fifty years. Naturally, I ordered a cheese Coney and a coke. Gary said I should order two Conies. Since midnight was approaching, I erred on the side of caution and stuck with one Coney. How a Coney can be that delicious, I don’t know but it was. After all, in Detroit, the Coney is king.
After we ate our Conies, we drove to the Detroit – Gross Pointe border where Johnny, leader of Detroit rockers the Britemore, would be putting me up. He owns a duplex. He lives on the top floor, which is where I stayed. He arrived a short time after us, coming in from the U.K. where he had gone to see friends and hang for a bit.
Johnny talked about flying into Windsor Canada from the U.K. and how much cheaper it is to fly into Windsor instead of Detroit. Windsor is just across the Detroit River. Since Johnny had just flown in from the U.K. and I had just flown in from the South all of us realized how tired we were. Johnny showed me to my room and I quickly fell asleep.
The next day, I was left to my own devices until the afternoon. Johnny has a day job and Jarrett was finishing his first semester at University. Although it was only 7 degrees outside, I was itching to explore the area. A half a mile away from the duplex I found Cornwall Bakery. Thus everyday after that, I went there and had coffee and a pastry and started my day.
The Cornwall Bakery staff are exceedingly polite and even chatty. I told the lady at the counter that I applaud that they are able to deal with that kind of cold weather. I went on to tell her that I feel as if I had accomplished something just by walking to get my coffee and pastry. She laughed and told me that the cold weather is just starting in Detroit.
Each day in the afternoon, Jarrett took me to see the sights. The first day, he took me to Hamtramck, home to a diverse population and delicious Polish restaurants. We ate at one called Polonia and had the Polish Trio Dish, which included dill pickle soup along with dumplings, pancakes, and sausage.
Before lunch, we went to a hip little record store Lo and Behold. It was exactly what I would expect from a record store in Detroit. It was a mix of vintage clothes, framed photos, posters and prints, musical instruments set up in the store ready to play, a wall of 45s behind the counter, and of course along a wall was the records for sale, not to mention rock and roll debris scattered around the store giving it its authenticity.
That night we walked to a local bar Marges with Johnny, a bar that had bar food and had Detroit Red Wing paraphernalia. At times, some of the Red Wing players came to hang there and celebrate victories. On this night, however, other than a couple of folks sitting at the bar, we were the only patrons. Johnny ordered chili and a beer. Jarrett drank water.
The next few days were similar to that first day. I would go to Cornwall Bakery and then usually Jarrett would pick me up at the bakery and we would go see the sights of Detroit, be it Third Man Records, Motown Musuem or the Heidelberg Project where the abandoned houses had become large-scale works of art. Sadly, abandoned houses are burned down in Detroit. There is a love for arson. Quite a few of the Heidelberg houses had met a fiery fate. Their remains buried in the new December snow.
As we walked around the Motown Museum, Jarrett pointed at a pic of two kids. I looked at the description. One of the kids was Barry Gordy. The other kid was Billy Davis who I had not yet met but would meet in a few days. They looked young as if they were 12 or 13. I made a note to myself to ask Billy about the man behind Motown.
Wednesday evening, Jarrett’s parents invited us to go out to eat. Sho-Gun was the place they chose and I felt as if this indeed was a celebration of what was to come for Jett Plastic and Tyson. Before dinner, we went to their house. Gary knows how big of a music fan I am so he dug out picss taken by Leni Sinclair – ex-wife of John. He sells signed prints of hers. She and he are good friends.
I was completely transfixed by the pics of rock royalty she had snapped like John Lennon, Janis Joplin and Alice Cooper and punk godfathers the Stooges and the riotous MC5 but there were also iconic pics of the Black Panthers, John Coltrane and Fela Kuti, who I would learn later is one of her heroes. Looking at the photos, many that I had seen often because of how iconic they are, I knew that I had to buy at least one or two. Deciding what to have for my own would be difficult.
As the days went by, I was more and more excited to meet Billy. Seeing a pic of Billy and his band the Midnighters with the fab four, the fab ‘64 four at Jarrett’s house reminded me I would soon be meeting an integral piece of rock and roll history. Not only had the Beatles been fans, but Elvis had been a fan too. Billy mentored a teenage Jimi Hendrix. He had played guitar on Jackie Wilson’s Higher and Higher. Friday was quickly approaching, the night I would be playing with Billy at an old church that had been converted. I so hoped that I would get to talk to him about all of these things swirling around in my head. His legend was looming larger and larger for me.
Thursday night, I practiced with Jarrett and the band that he put together for me for the show Saturday. There was a change in plans with the Britemores because they were added to a show in Brooklyn on the same night as my show at the UFO Factory. Jarrett found some of his friends to be my band placing himself on bass.
Although I only had one practice with these kids, I knew the guys Jarrett put together would rise to the occasion. They are in their late teens and early 20s and had all been playing since they were pre-teens. They met at the School of Rock. I knew the songs would not sound as if we had practiced them and played them for years but I knew they would sound fresh with energy oozing from them. I was immediately awestruck by the drummer Krystian. He stayed instinctive and rock steady through the entire practice.
During practice, I could tell that everyone had spent a lot of time listening and learning the songs but, at the same time, songs could fall apart at any moment because this was all spontaneous and slightly tentative. After going through the songs a couple of times each. We were ready for Saturday’s show.
Although we would have loved to practice longer, I had the acoustic show with Billy Davis the next evening and I couldn’t afford to lose my voice. After practice, Michael, the ace rhythm guitarist, told everyone we needed to live and breathe these songs until the show. This was most endearing. I was excited that these youngsters had taken ownership of my songs, my songs that had been a written and recorded before any of them were born.
Don’t miss part 2 is which I will talk about Billy Davis and his wealth of stories. He is a legend.