Clash Road Trip: Detroit, Michigan

Motown!
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In search of the roots of rock and roll, Clash embarked on a pilgrimage across America and discovered the musical foundations the country was built on.

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Seeing a city’s bad side by way of introduction is hardly ideal, but such was our experience as we rolled into Detroit via 8 Mile, the notorious thoroughfare that divides the downtown and poor neighbourhoods with the more affluent northern area, and which was surrounded by threatening corner dwellers, dilapidated buildings, homeless beggars and general poverty and danger. No wonder Eminem got out of there fast.

Detroit fell victim to extreme economical hardship when the booming automobile industry there (hence its nickname Motor City) began to struggle in the ’70s - the combination of rising fuel prices, oil shortages, international competition and, in the ’90s, labour saving technologies left thousands out of work and destitute (including those who’d migrated there from the south), and a city without a purpose.

Who could believe that this was the same place that produced the compelling life-affirming music of Motown Records? With songs that make up the very fabric of 20th Century American soul music, Motown provided hope and joy to millions, and gave unthinkable success to local talents, turning them into international icons.

Motown was run like a car factory. Indeed, its founder, Berry Gordy, once worked on the factory line, and used his experience there to turn his record label into a machine that built stars and delivered hits. Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson - they all came from nothing to become the sound of a young, black America.

In a downtown hotel, Clash met Motown heroes The Miracles. Initially Smokey Robinson’s backing group, The Miracles struck out on their own in the early ’70s, losing and acquiring new members along the way. Today, only Bobby Rogers is an original member from the ’50s. He is joined by David Finley, Mark Scott and Tee Turner.

The group all still stay in the Detroit area. Motown has long gone - it moved to Los Angeles in the early ’70s, taking its hitmakers, glamour and money with it - and all that remains is a museum in the modest house which served as its fertile studio. They have witnessed the changes since the financial downturn. “This is a time when Detroit is in transition,” David says, rather optimistically. “The people are survivors. They’re gritty, hard working people.”

It was such perseverance and empathy that proved Motown’s success. “Motown has survived because it’s the richness of the music with messages that have never died that crosses around the world continuously,” Tee explains. “That’s a message that will never die - the same thing you feel, I feel.”

Motown’s appeal broke racial barriers by selling black music to a mainstream white audience for the first time. This wasn’t Elvis Presley bastardising “race records”, this was black songwriters, black performers and a black workforce selling their music to a world that was listening. As America threatened to be ripped apart by civil rights struggles in the ’60s, it was Motown that was blasting from the speakers as people were ‘Dancing In The Street’.

The Miracles still work and tour regularly - they have to; Smokey wrote the songs and makes the money, but they’re the ones most eager to perform for their fans. They, like their fellow townspeople, are fighting to earn a living. “This is a life you have to want,” Mark stresses. “It’s a lot of hard work. And it’s a lot of hard work without a nickel. You don’t get the nickel ’til you finish at the end of the road.”

Clash was faced with the fate of those other Motowners whose plights were hindered by the neglect of Motown as we paid our respects at Woodlawn Cemetery, the final resting place of many of its artists. It was pitiful to see the faded plaque of legendary bassist James Jamerson concealed on the ground amid overgrown grass.

Saddened, we forsook any plans of a Stooges/MC5 pilgrimage, and packed up for Nashville...

Motown Museum: 2648 W. Grand Blvd, Detroit 48208
Woodlawn Cemetery: 19975 Woodward Avenue, Detroit 48203
Many thanks to Jeanne Sorensen.


Watch, and read, the full interview with The Miracles HERE.

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