Ghetto Dreams

The Detroit Cobras scuff up yesterday's forgotten soul gems

It's another hot and muggy summer afternoon in Detroit, but Rachel Nagy is happy to be home.

She just returned from playing a show in even-more-humid New Orleans, and now takes pleasure in watching trees popping out the windows of abandoned houses in Detroit's downtown. Back in the late '90s, the city bustled with the construction of temporary casino facilities. Today, permanent ones are beginning to sprout, chock-full of luxury and refinement. From Nagy's perspective, it's opulent waste.

"It's so dumb," she observes. "Why build all that for people here willing to blow their last paycheck? Gambling isn't recreation. I don't care who you are or how much money you have. It's always been a ghetto dream."

Nagy has never had much use for splendor or get-rich-now schemes. She and her band, The Detroit Cobras, look backward to forgotten soul and R&B gems of the '50s and '60s, and give them ferocious garage-rock makeovers. Nagy's raw, sensual vocals are the centerpiece, with guitarist Mary Ramirez adding touches of six-stringed evil.

The Cobras' latest release on Bloodshot Records, Tied and True, is a seething batch of songs that each should have gone on to become oldies radio staples--like "(I Wanna Know) What's Going On?," a Southern soul masterpiece, and "As Long as I Have You," a chugging gospel-powered rocker that filmmaker Quentin Tarantino needs to reserve for his next magnum-cum-pulp.

Nagy, however, doesn't let the artistic success of her band go to her head.

"What we did is a fluke," she says. "But we did ourselves a favor by not paying to play. When people would offer us no money to come to New York, we had an attitude: 'You want me to leave my house, drive somewhere and play for free? I don't think so.'"

As a result, the Cobras skipped the whole jamming-econo thing by being what Nagy calls "lazy motherfuckers." Besides, she says, desperation stinks.

"You can smell it on someone, and people just let themselves get worked over," she observes. "It's like L.A.--all those bands willing to pay to play? When I was a stripper, we got paid under the table. Now, girls today pay to dance. Clubs are charging the entertainment. It's the desperation of too many people wanting to be in the spotlight. That whole cult of celebrity? People want it so band without realizing how sad it is."

For the Cobras, the music they perform isn't something designed to make them celebrities. It's music near and dear to their hearts. It's music Nagy listens to, because it speaks to her like music from no other era.

"I can't remember the last new CD I bought," she says. "At the same time, (our covers are) about the quality of the song. We don't have rigid parameters. Good music is good music. We've done everything from '30s country to '70s funk. The end product comes through the filter of us, and turns into a different animal."

Of course, the Cobras have their own gods. For instance, when the group played a Nashville, Tenn., bar, they noticed an old guy, maybe 70, approach the stage in overalls. After the show, they were introduced to legendary songwriter Dan Penn, co-author of many of the greatest soul hits of the 1960s: "Dark End of the Street," "Do Right Woman" and "The Letter" by the Box Tops.

"We fell to our feet," says Nagy of the experience. "We did one of his songs on our last record, Baby, called 'Slipping Around.' He said I have a great voice."

As incredible as such encounters are, the Cobras do what they do out of love, not because they're on a mission.

"Still," Nagy adds, "if we can keep one less kid from listening to something like the Backstreet Boys, then we've done something good."

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