Get Out the Vote
DETROIT Featuring Mitch Ryder
Alive/Total Energy Records
By John Sinclair
The spring of 1972 was a wildly euphoric season in the emerging Dope Capitol of the Midwest. Ann Arbor had hosted a massive benefit concert and rally headlined by John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Stevie Wonder, Bobby Seale, Allen Ginsberg and Archie Shepp which drew some 15,000 people to Crisler Arena on the University of Michigan campus the previous December 10th to demand freedom for this writer, who had by then been incarcerated in the Michigan prison system for 29 months of a 9-1/2 to 10-year sentence for possession of two marijuana cigarettes.
Our prolonged assault on the state’s draconian marijuana statutes (dating back to 1965 and the formation of Detroit LEMAR) had resulted, just the day before the rally, in a welcome restructuring of the drug laws by the Michigan legislature. Marijuana, long classified as a narcotic drug with a 10-year penalty for simple possession and a minimum-mandatory 20-year sentence (maximum: life imprisonment) for selling, dispensing, or giving away any amount of the evil weed, was redefined as a controlled substance carrying a one-year maximum jail sentence for possession and up to four years for its sale. The new law would take effect on April 1, 1972.
On Monday, December 13, 1971, three days following the John Sinclair Freedom Rally at Crisler Arena, appeal bond was granted by the Michigan Supreme Court, posted by the Rainbow People’s Party, and I was returned to my family, friends, and fellow radicals in Ann Arbor, where I assumed my post as party chairman and resumed the frantic pace as band manager, concert producer, politico-cultural activist and tireless propagandist which had been so rudely interrupted back in the summer of 1969.
I had worked with the MC-5 for two years prior to my lengthy imprisonment, but they had left the fold to pursue a career as popular entertainers. The Up had picked up the revolutionary standard and continued to carry it well into 1974, but they were managed by my brother David. I was eager to take up the reins of artist management with a band as powerful and charismatic as the MC-5 had been, and to develop the sort of intense personal and professional relationship which had proved so emotionally rewarding when I was with the 5. I still felt that a hard-driving, socially conscious rock & roll band was essential to our goal of reaching the masses of young people with a revolutionary message and enlisting them in the popular struggle and besides, managing bands was simply one of the things I did then, and I wanted to get back to work.
While I was in prison, a National Committee to Free John Sinclair had been formed, and people like Jane Fonda, William Kunstler, Allen Ginsberg and many others raised their voices in my behalf. The great Detroit singer, Mitch Ryder, had joined this effort, and upon my release I wanted to get together with Mitch to thank him for his support. Although we didn t really know each other, I was a huge fan of his music, and we hit it off at once, quickly becoming close friends and confidants.
Mitch was leading a fantastic band he called Detroit, had issued a masterful album on Paramount Records, and was pursuing the second stage of his career as a bandleader for all he was worth. Problems with his current management had led to a point of departure, and now Mitch was asking me to take over the position and work with Detroit as its personal manager. I was in the process of forming a new production & management company, Rainbow Multi-Media, with SRC manager Peter Andrews and my brother David, and we made the Detroit band our first working project.
At the same time our political arm, the Rainbow People’s Party (formerly the White Panthers), was pondering its community organizing priorities and meeting with representatives of the newly formed Human Rights Party, an electoral coalition of left-wing activists from the University and the streets who were determined to reshape city government to reflect our own concerns. The RPP committed itself and its legions of scruffy supporters to the HRP’s electoral program and began working to register voters and get out the vote for the April elections, for which the HRP would field a full slate of candidates including the RPP’s Genie Plamondon.
As winter turned to spring, our impressive string of victories in the legal, political and cultural arenas was crowned on March 9th by the decision of the Michigan Supreme Court to overturn my marijuana conviction and declare the weed laws unconstitutional and void. Since the new laws wouldn t take effect until April 1st, the state’s pot smokers would enjoy an amazing period of grace: three weeks without the threat of punishment for toking the benevolent herb, followed by a new deal which would reduce simple possession to a misdemeanor.
The Rainbow People’s Party was determined to make the most of this little window of opportunity and immediately organized a series of dance/concert rituals around Ann Arbor where weed would be smoked openly as the people rocked & rolled to music by the Up, Guardian Angel, Mojo Boogie Band, Radio King & His Court of Rhythm, and other popular area ensembles. The three-week celebration would culminate April 1st with a public demonstration called the 1st Annual Hash Bash, to be held at the Diag in the center of the UM campus, where dope would be freely smoked and the new marijuana laws scornfully mocked by a defiant assembly of thousands.
That night the faithful would congregate at Hill Auditorium for a big Get Out The Vote blowout and rally headlined by Detroit featuring Mitch Ryder intended to focus the attention of progressive students and residents on the City Council election to be held the following Tuesday.
The Rainbow People’s Party, organizers of the event which also featured stirring performances by Ann Arbor’s own Scott Morgan & Guardian Angel, the Chicago band Wilderness Road (then signed to Columbia Records), and, from England, the Spencer Davis Group had an even more pointed aim: we meant to deliver thousands of newly enfranchised Ann Arbor voters to the Human Rights Party ticket and thus elect one, two or more of the radical HRP candidates to office. This, we thought, in turn would usher in a new era where the power of the people would be manifested in every facet of daily life and Ann Arbor could serve as a revolutionary base area from which the people’s movement could spread and grow among the masses of disaffected students and working-class youth throughout America.
Hindsight allows us to perceive that these ideas were doomed to an early death: within three years the mass movement which began with the civil rights sit-ins of the early sixties would entirely collapse and the so-called post-modern era would begin, epitomized by the twelve-year reign of terror inflicted by Ronald Reagan and George Bush which was dedicated to eradicating every progressive gain the movement had made.
But in the spring of 1972 we were still looking forward: we would end the war in Vietnam, the Black liberation movement would prevail, marijuana would be legalized, Nixon would be defeated in November, and we could definitely impact the local political system by electing our own representatives to city government on the Human Rights Party platform.
On Tuesday, April 4th, we would celebrate the election of HRP candidates Nancy Wechsler and Gerry DeGrieck to the Ann Arbor City Council. The two seats now held by the HRP gained us unprecedented power in the affairs of the city as they represented the swing vote necessary for the Democrats to enact local legislation; in order for their programs to pass into law, the Dems had to trade their support for certain key HRP initiatives and make compromises they d never previously had to contemplate.
This led to among other things the passage of the infamous $5 marijuana law, a city ordinance limiting punishment for marijuana possession, use or sale to a $5 fine. (Similar local ordinances were subsequently enacted by progressive councilpeople in Ypsilanti and East Lansing.) Burning issues of the day like racial and sexual discrimination, ecology, rent control, free medical care, gay rights, and freedom of expression were brought into the official public debate, and new laws were passed to effect progressive changes in the way things were done.
So often today the mass popular movement of the sixties and early seventies is portrayed as a dismal melange of political and cultural crazies who agitated ineffectually on the fringes of American society to destroy everything this great nation stood for. In fact, the Movement and its cultural component fashioned massive alterations in the basic fabric of our national life which continue to hold fast twenty-five years later.
The musical forms created by young Americans in the 60s as an expression of their feelings about what was happening around them still prevail, although their emotional content has shriveled and died with the passing of the mass movement that inspired them. What gave these forms such incredible power was their intimacy with everyday life and the people who lived it; the rock & roll and soul music anthems that ruled the airwaves and shaped the lives of millions of Americans of all ages came straight out of the nation’s hippie enclaves and Black ghettos and were stamped with the rhythms and emotions of people struggling to survive and overcome the exigencies of daily life in an oppressive social order.
This was particularly true in the Detroit area, where both the Motown Sound and Motor City Rock & Roll had been spawned by a vast working class and its renegade sons and daughters. Detroit’s first great rock & roll band, Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, had roared out of the city’s east side to conquer the national airwaves with its string of smash singles like Devil with a Blue Dress, Jenny Take A Ride, Little Latin Lupe Lu, and Sock It To Me Baby. Everyone else Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, the MC-5, Grand Funk Railroad, and all the rest came up under the Detroit Wheels, who inarguably set the pace for the hard-driving rock & roll that would henceforth be identified with the Motor City scene.
The sad thing is, at the height of the Wheels popular success, Mitch Ryder was persuaded to leave the band and venture out as a nightclub singer in the mode of Bobby Darin or Tom Jones. This gambit proved personally unacceptable, and one day Ryder just walked away from the whole affair, flew back to the Motor City, dug himself out from under the wreckage of his career, and formed a new rock & roll band named after the city.
Detroit, the band, was headquartered in the depths of the Cass Corridor at the offices of Creem magazine and was managed by Creem publisher Barry Cramer, who signed the group to Paramount Records and began booking Detroit on regional tours. Ryder and Cramer had their differences, I was released from prison, Mitch and I got together, and all of a sudden the band found itself operating under the banner of the Rainbow people in Ann Arbor.
Not really hippies but more like long-haired greasers or outlaw bikers and certainly not communalist revolutionaries the members of Detroit nevertheless shared the basic world outlook common to millions of young Americans by 1972: the established social order was insensitive, inhumane and corrupt, the government served the rich and betrayed poor and working people, the war in Vietnam was insane and should be ended at once, Black people were getting a raw deal and deserved to be treated equally in every way, and everybody should be free to get high, dance to the music, and pursue their personal and social happiness however they saw fit.
Like so many of their peers, the musicians in the Detroit band didn’t so much question our ideas or our practice but more the sort of startling language we used to frame our concepts and the abrasive way we presented ourselves to the world at large. Happily, like most of the many people we worked with in our far-flung activities, the band embraced its new management as the industrious, imaginative, ambitious and fair music business operatives we were, despite the weirdness with which we surrounded ourselves, and a warm, effective working relationship was quickly established.
Mitch Ryder himself was a slightly different case: in the course of his early ups and downs as a rock & roll star, the former Billy Levise had evolved for himself a fairly sophisticated social and political analysis and, like Rob Tyner before him, delighted in serious discussion of the questions of the day and the noble quest for potential solutions to the problems of our fellow humans. Billy was actively seeking alternatives to the established way of doing things, in the music world and as a citizen artist, and he relished the prospect of teaming up with me and my people to take on the powers that be.
Mitch had taken Detroit to Washington, DC to perform at the massive May Day demonstration in the spring of 1971; he had become an active member of the Committee to Free John Sinclair and often spoke out on controversial issues; he had converted Lou Reed’s tongue-in-cheek ditty called Rock and Roll into one of the most powerful working-class anthems ever recorded; and he was following our Ann Arbor electoral strategems with great interest.
It was easy to see that a big Get Out The Vote concert on campus just before the election could make a real difference in the outcome, and Mitch and the band committed themselves to the Hill Auditorium show to be staged on April Fool’s Day. A rough tape was made by Detroit’s sound engineer, J.B. heard here giving a rare political oration at the start of the proceedings and the original 7 reel, recorded off the mixing board at 3-3/4 ips on both sides of the tape, has somehow survived to see its release on CD some 25 years later.
This final edition of Detroit featuring Mitch Ryder the band would dissolve some three months later when Mitch decided to quit singing rather than face the threat of a possible throat operation was built upon the dual thrust of Ryder’s frantic, forceful vocals and the relentless drums of Johnny Bee, a fellow east-sider who d been putting the push in Mitch’s fantastic performances from the age of 15. A brilliant young guitarist, Steve Hunter, who would go on to work with Lou Reed and Alice Cooper later in the 70s, provided spectacular leads and muscular solos, backed by an even younger Brett Tuggle on rhythm guitar. Harry Hairless Phillips on the Hammond B-3, Ron W.R. Cooke on bass, and the indomitable former roadie, Dirty Ed Okalski on congas, drove the rhythm like a full-bore Harley-Davidson hell-bent for mayhem.
Mitch Ryder, whose third incarnation as a bandleader in the mid-70s would focus on the singer’s exceptionally fine original compositions, still fashioned his repertoire largely from the works of his musical mentors and contemporaries, infusing songs by Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson and Shorty Long with immense personal energy and treating well-known tunes by his peers to the ride of their life. Ryder’s impassioned reading of Lou Reed’s Rock And Roll amply magnifies the impact of the song; his exuberant version of Edgar Winter’s Rock & Roll Hoochie Koo clearly improves upon the original; and he turns the Jagger-Richard masterpiece Gimme Shelter into a searing, prophetic cry against the physical and emotional violence engulfing America then and in the years to come.
The Detroit Wheels are re-membered with scorching versions of the C.C. Rider/Jenny Take A Ride and Devil With a Blue Dress / Good Golly Miss Molly mega-medleys that propelled them into popular consciousness. Steve Hunter contributes a catchy City Woman, and the band roars back onstage to close the show with the extremely high-octane Detroit Boogie. Ryder throws a musical bouquet to his man and mine, the great Detroit disc jockey Ernie Durham better known to his fans of the 60s and 70s as Frantic Ernie D of WJLB before taking the evening to its frenzied climax.
In a just and equitable world we would be privy to several well-recorded documents of Detroit featuring Mitch Ryder working its magic in concert between 1969 and the summer of 1972. But the band recorded only one album, an apocryphal 45 of Gimme Shelter, and nothing at all from the legendary live shows which gained Detroit its reputation as one of the hardest-hitting, most consistently exciting rock & roll bands in the history of American music. While the recording itself leaves much to be desired in terms of sound quality and balance, the all-out musical attack mounted by Mitch Ryder & Detroit in their prime deserves to be heard in all its primitivistic glory and here it is at last.
April 10, 1997
Tags: essay, John Sinclair, Mitch Ryder, Reviews