Sometimes Detroit love can be a little different
For some people, the tale I’m about to tell will seem like a perverse selection when I say it’s one of the reasons why I love Detroit. But for those who live here, at least for some, I think maybe they will get it. Anyway, here goes.
This goes back nearly 20 years, which is before I actually became a resident here. Back when I was a reporter for my very first newspaper job at the Ann Arbor News. A buddy of mine and I who also worked for the paper decided to drive down and stir up some fun in the Big City. We had a mutual friend who lived here and was a reporter at The Detroit News. Naw, wait. This was actually the first time I’d met her.
Anyway, we come down to the city and hang out for part of the night at Bert’s, back when the club was located downtown before it moved to its current location in Eastern Market. Robert Penn, a local guitar and performance monster, was doing a solo instrumental routine that pretty much wiped me out. The man was singing with a voice so big it threw its own shadow, plus holding down the rhythm, and handling the lead all by himself. Oh yeah, he was also entertaining the crowd in-between numbers, chatting with the crowded, tightly-packed room as if we were all one person and that person was his best friend. Just plug the man in, step back, and watch him work. All alone he was better than a lot of three, four, or even five-piece bands I’d seen in other cities.
Not long before the second set ended this scruffy-lookin guy walks through the door with his scruffy twin buddy, looking like your standard-issue hoodlums. He looked just hungry enough, had that predatory look in the eye, to make your internal alarm system tap you on the shoulder. The two of them sat off in the corner, the one wearing a torn, dirty blue jean coat and a crooked pork pie hat. He was carrying a hardshell guitar case that looked like it had led a tougher life than he had.
Sure enough, once the break came, he asks Robert Penn if he can sit in for a few numbers next set. Right about then I’m thinking, “Damn. This cat’s gonna screw up the show. And here I was enjoying myself.” My buddy and I shared a look, and I could tell he was thinking the same thing. Neither one of us wanted to say anything out loud because the place was so small we were afraid we just might get heard.
Second set comes. Penn plays a few numbers then calls the guy up. The guy gives his name as James Glass. Says he plays with a group called the James Glass explosion. Yeah, OK. Fine. Whatever. Just play your little number and sit your ass down is what I’m thinking.
But then he starts to play. He was playing “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix. Then he started to sing. Jesus. Who the…? Guitar singing, screaming, howling, purring. He was handling that guitar like a cowboy handles a wild horse that knows it’s been broken.
Then he was through. Thanked the crowd, packed up his stuff, and strutted on out the door with a “I blew y’all’s damned mind” grin stretched across his face.
Next day we’re still in Detroit. Or maybe we went back home and came back. It’s been awhile. Whatever the case, I remember my buddy had this beat-up white Toyota (I think it was a Toyota), and we were making something like a U-turn downtown on Jefferson heading back east. Actually we were in that U-turn lane, if that’s what you call it. We were waiting on the light. Right next to us is this huge 18-wheeler. Wheels were almost as tall as my buddy’s car. Engine growling like it was mad at us for being in the way.
Light changes. Right away the guy starts to turn his truck, not realizing that one of his wheels is grinding into the backside of our car and starting to drag us along. We can’t get out the car, and we’re hollering like crazy for this fool to stop because he’s about to kill us and you can hear the metal starting to crunch like the Terminator was giving us a beating.
Finally, after what seemed like much longer than it could have actually been, somebody flagged the guy and he stops. Somehow we manage to back up and disengage ourselves from the 18-wheeler. Me? I’m pissed. So’s my buddy. So we both get out the car and start walking towards the cab so we can exchange our information and, you know, maybe ask him what the fuck was he thinking…?
I dunno. Maybe it was the enraged look on our faces that gave it all away, you know? I mean, I was trying my best not to look murderous, but maybe I just wasn’t succeeding all that well. So gradually at first, the truck starts to pull away. Then, the closer I get to the cab, the faster he starts to drive away.
“Hey. Hey! Hey, man!!”
Now comes the really crazy part. And I fully admit up front that I could not have been in full control of my faculties. But I was really pissed. So what do I do? I kid you not, I start to run after this 18-wheeler down the middle of eastbound Jefferson, and I was actually starting to gain ground. But then two things happen kind of at once. The first thing is this brother pulls up alongside me as I’m sprinting down Jefferson. Broke down Detroit-style ride. At first I didn’t quite process that he wanted to start a conversation.
“Hey man,” he says.
“Huh?” I say, starting to feel winded.
“Hey, man. I saw what happened. Get on in, man. We’ll catch that mother-fucker. I got me a gun. Check it out.”
I shake my head no, but not in anger. Actually, crazy as it was, I appreciated the gesture. Brother sees another brother wronged, decides to help out and offer his services. That’s cool. Detroit love. Thing was, I was mad, really mad, but I didn’t want to kill anybody just yet. You know? I just wasn’t quite there yet.
“You sure, man? We can catch him.”
He shrugs his shoulders and speeds off. Then I hear my buddy behind me. Damn. I’d forgot all about him, and it was his car that was all messed up.
“Get the license plate, man! Get the license plate!”
Right. Right. A voice of reason calls.
But brother, if you’re reading this, just want to say I appreciate the love in the spirit it was given. I knew you meant well. For real. But sometimes, Detroit love can be a little bit different…
And yes, believe it or not, this s a true story.