27 March 2008

Michigan Seems Like A Dream To Me Now

I swear I've used that title before, but what the heck, all the leaves are brown and the sky is gray, and my mother woke me up just past noon calling from California, which is just as well, as in my dream I was having a unending argument with this very exasperating person on the beach.

How's that for a scattershot opening? No? It'll have to do, because while I've been carrying around an outstanding first sentence ever since last night, it seems to have flown away on the wings of sleep and though I still have a number of things to tell you, I can't for the life of me remember how I meant to begin telling you about them.

Never mind, then; I'm holed up in a chilly but otherwise cozy little motel room outside of my ancestral hippie home of Ann Arbor, where I came last night to see my old friends, the Weakerthans, who in addition to the usual gifts of fellowship and great music, presented me with this outstanding t-shirt seen on the right. The show was at the Blind Pig, which I remember complaining about when it opened because it was "commercializing" our hippie culture. This was in 1972, apparently, but by 1973 I was visiting it regularly because it was one of the only places in town where you could get the cappuccino I had grown used to out in California.

Anyway, I'm apparently over any issues I might have had with the Blind Pig, fortunately, and I thoroughly enjoyed the show except for the fact that, as I discovered to my chagrin, Michigan is one of the only places left in the (allegedly) civilized word that STILL allows people to smoke indoors in public places. I mean, come on, people, what century is this already? Also very much enjoyed the opening acts, Christine Fellows (who's also joining in as the fifth Weakerthan on this tour, and one A.A. Bondy, who in the past several decades is the first and only Dylanesque singer-songwriter (well, unless you count J. K. Samson in his solo persona) that I have ever been fully impressed by. I was also excited by the opportunity to introduce him to all of you, on the premise that if I had never heard of him before, nobody else had either, but I see he's playing on Conan O'Brien April 11, the same day he'll be appearing with the Weakerthans back home in Williamsburg. Back home for me, that is, not him.

So, flying to Detroit was a bit depressing. For some reason, tucked in among my keepsakes and memorabilia I used to have a flight schedule from 1966 detailing the flights between Detroit and LaGuardia (including the fare: $16). Back then, when I made my first visits to New York, there were flights pretty much on the hour, and they were in full-sized airplanes packed full of people doing (presumably) important things in both places. Now there's only a handful of flights per day, they're in those little toy airplanes where they don't even have room for overhead baggage, and even then the plane was only half full.

And landing at Detroit Metropolitan (do they still even call it that?) was like time traveling back to the 50s or 60s; at least the terminal they dumped us off at (outside of, that is; we had to walk across the tarmac just like in those old time movies) had scarcely changed at all since the first time I came through there in 1964 or so. The rent-a-car guy told me he was upgrading my compact car to a luxury convertible at no charge, which I didn't see any advantage to, since it's about 40 degrees and fitfully raining and snowing outside, but unless convertibles now have metal tops that don't open, I think he was confused. Pulling out of the airport, I impulsively turned right instead of left and headed toward my old Downriver stomping grounds, where I was strangely appalled at how small and desperate all the houses looked.

Odd, that, since I've been back many - well, at least 10 - times over the years, and I'd never particularly noticed that aspect. Well, the small part, maybe, but desperate? Maybe it was just the last-days-of-winter malaise that I remember settling over the place every year as a boy just before spring burst into sight. Drove past my childhood home and didn't approve of what the new owners had done, like cutting down all but one of the trees and shrubs, went past the school where I got drunk for the first time (and also, a couple years later, got arrested for the first time), past the spot down by the creek where in April 1961 I met up with my first gang, past the other school where we hung out through the summers of 61 and 62, and the drug store across the street, where they'd finally wised up and removed the bench that we always used to lounge around on.

Then, still not having had enough nostalgia, I headed into Detroit proper, or what's left of it, and strangely enough (maybe because the sun had come out by now), it didn't look nearly as bad as it has the last few times I've been there. Oh, also past the park where I first saw the MC5 play on a tennis court in 1965 or 66, and then out Clark Street and onto Michigan Avenue, where things did start looking a bit more like the ruined, post-apocalyptic Detroit that I've come to know over the past couple decades. But even there I saw signs of life, especially in the form of many new immigrants who were blithely strolling past the wreckage as if it never occurred to them to ask, "I left Chiapas/Baghdad/Sierra Leone for this?"

It was almost dark by the time I got to Ann Arbor, but there was still time to look around at what still strikes me, despite its many changes in recent years, as a beautiful and excellent town. Parts of it look like a living museum to small town America of a century ago, and I stopped in one shop to look at some photo books that showed me that indeed, many parts of town had changed very little in the interim. Also found a photo book full of shots of Detroit when I was a kid, when downtown was a place of wonder, a bustling, vibrant city that resembled Manhattan or Chicago rather than the squalid wasteland it's now become.

The reason I went into the bookshop was an odd one: for some reason, while strolling past, I had a sudden inexplicable impulse to buy a copy of Maximum Rocknroll, a magazine I've only seen once in the last five years, and haven't bought in longer than that. It's not so much that I've been boycotting them, it's more that at some point they made one of those ideologically motivated punker-than-thou decisions to the effect that their distributor was getting too successful, so they started doing their own distribution and subsequently disappeared from the great majority of stores that used to carry it.

But for some reason, I knew this particular Borders (did you know Ann Arbor was the home of the original Borders, and that it was once a tiny cornershop itself? Domino's Pizza had its start here as well) would be carrying MRR, and sure enough it was. Having picked up my copy, I was shocked - and, I'll admit, a little pleased - to discover that they were still talking about me. Well, one columnist, anyway, but last time I perused a copy, about two years ago, I was mentioned in two columns, which led me to wonder in a vainglorious way if this was a bit of odd serendipity or if I was a regular subject in a magazine I hadn't been a part of since 1994.

Apart from that, however, it was interesting to see how the magazine has carried on in the absence of Tim Yohannan, different in some aspects, but fundamentally the same, much as Gilman Street did after Tim moved on. Even if it's no longer a magazine I'd regularly pick up and read, it's sort of reassuring to know that it's still there and still carrying on the struggle for... well, for exactly what, I'm not quite sure, but they're struggling nonetheless. Actually, I'm kind of glad to know they're there in a world where so much of what used to be isn't.


amy said...

I don't know if you've used the title before but I know you've talked about the song before. By the way, I always love your blogs about Michigan. I can't stand living there but I seem to love reading about it. I didn't know Borders started in Ann Arbor until last year.

Josh said...

Jesus, it has been since 1994 since you wrote for MRR? That's nuts. I'm surprised it is still publishing but I agree that I'm happy that it is.

J.B. said...

Let me guess: Lefty Hooligan?

Ps. Speaking of th W'thans, did you watch the women's curling worlds? We kicked China's ass!