Rock City

On the eve of the Tucson Area Music Awards, a jaundiced Tucson musician writes in from Detroit

A tap on my shoulder.

"Are you Brian Smith?"

"Uh, yeah," I said, turning around.

Then the world switched to slo-mo.

The fist came hard. I watched my beer form a graceful arch from the bottle into the freezing night air. Woodward Avenue and the Detroit skyline dived, and my head bounced hard on the ice. Hurt like it cracked open.

Real time: I looked up and felt my head. Some dude in a cheesy facial mullet gazed down on me. What? Am I already dead after a few weeks in Detroit? Who the ...?

I saw under his jacket that the T-shirt he wore sported some sort of trendy Detroit phraseology across the front. Little tips of burnt-yellow flames peeked out from under the neckline, and I thought: Really? I imagined a chest-sized tattoo of flames wrapped around a giant horseshoe emblazoned with the word "Luck." They make such people in Michigan, too?

"Welcome to Detroit," he said, adding, "asshole."

He turned, and I watched his pointed-toe cowboy boots take him back into the club.

Wait. I recognized this dude. He was in a band that I tore mercilessly apart in the pages of Detroit's Metro Times. I couldn't tell you what instrument he played, but the band was a grungy quartet that had, before I arrived in Detroit, switched to a silly, Kid Rock-like cowboy ruckus, if you can believe it.

I learned later that this guy didn't actually live in the city of Detroit, despite his welcoming comment. He claimed Detroit for cred. He lived in the suburbs.

I discovered lots of other people claimed the same thing. In truth, they were too scared to actually live in Detroit.

My eye swelled to an ugly purple lump that oozed puss. It stayed that way for a week or so. Because I got punched, my editor, who hired me to call out the truth, bestowed upon me an employee bonus in beers at local bars.

That "critique" was my first piece for the Metro Times. Weeks later, I wrote about the White Stripes, and Jack White didn't like it. I heard he wanted to beat me up—and he was already a huge rock star. He'd leave long-winded messages on my voicemail late at night telling me how little I knew about Detroit and its music, and to go back to Arizona.

I was pretty happy when he moved to Nashville and said horrible things about Detroit.

We called out Kid Rock often, so he was no fan of ours. We once honored him as "Boob of the Year" for his overall right-wing douchebaggery. Our cover illustration featured Rock protruding from one of Pam Anderson's grotesque mammaries. Not everyone got the jokes.

An Eminem piece we ran in the early aughts—in which we pointed out that he made domestic battery pop-culture friendly, and how he won fame on the backs of black Detroit rappers—earned the writer death threats.

See, Detroit, and parts of its burbs, run on a kind of "don't fuck with us" passion. And its citizens are fiercely loyal, even provincial. Lakes surround the area, so there's a sense of island-like isolation, which begets invention, creativity. That's what has fed, for years, Detroit's rich music and arts, and given it its regionalism and feel.

There's also the heavy, 2/4-time beat-pound of the assembly lines that still pumps in the hearts of natives.

When I fronted Tucson's Pills and then Gentlemen Afterdark back in the '80s—we kohl-eyed kids never dreamed we'd live to see 25—it was all very rock 'n' roll in the mythological sense. We got hassled relentlessly by rednecks—called "faggot," "homo," "punk-rock pussy," etc.—even as we stepped into the lighted safety of a Circle K for beer. We learned early to have a legitimate fear of murder. We learned to never travel solo.

So years later, in 2002, I figured Detroit was perfect. Why not? A troubled dude for a troubled town. Like the city, I made enervation my own, and Detroit often feels sealed in entropy; it invites the heartbreaking loneliness in to show you depths of geographically inspired despair that will complement your own despair.

On gray winter days, sometimes Detroit's only comfort is the enveloping warmth of steam rising from manholes, or the soft, amber glow inside old-man bars with a few regulars on the stools.

It was often that way for me. At first.

I saw Detroit as the end of the line, a place to go and likely expire, some romantic idea of an alcoholic writer typing out his last days accompanied by a bottle, a smoke, a cough and a shot liver—a man empty in the house of himself in a city filled with empty houses. How perfect!

Or, with lots of luck, it would offer a new beginning for a Tucson-weaned, rock 'n' roll singer who had miraculously—with salutations to Salinger, Camus, Harry Crews, Denis Johnson, Jim Thompson, Flannery O'Connor and an editor named Jeremy Voas, among others—slipped from a power-pop band called Beat Angels and drunken stages into a new career as a "writer." I started out at Metro Times as the music editor, moved up to features editor, and then became managing editor.

I wrote and edited stories on the forgotten, the rising, the under-sung and the dying. There isn't a city in America that's better for such things.

Welcome to Detroit, yo. A gutted paradise established by French settlers in the 1670s, it was "Paris of the West" in the Jazz Age, a moneyed utopia mostly defined by Henry Ford's dreams of an automobile Earth and a mass-produced America.

When I first arrived, I lived downtown and walked the streets at night. It was mostly deserted and lonely, but I heard the music, and often felt the culture, carted up by Southerners—and from folks the world over—who came for factory work. For them, it was a workingman's utopia. Auto production moved at a remarkable clip then, and time clocks punched out rhythms to match. The sound was melodious. The city got drunk on its own wealth. Holy shit, it must've been some party.

Hence the hangover. It has been long and ugly.

Here's some drive-by Detroit history: The beauty of the Motor City's art-deco skyscrapers, mansion-lined streets and legendary nightclubs peaked in the '50s, when the city's population topped out at nearly 2 million. In the following decades, folks fled to the burbs and beyond, and the auto industry's downward slope pretty much killed the city's tax base, and also the city's optimism. In 2010, 713,000 souls inhabited this Rust Belt behemoth. More than 20,000 have bailed since. Yet 3.5 million people live in the suburbs, made up of townships responsible for their own taxes, which doesn't do Detroit any favors. Many people live in the burbs, work in the city, and then take the money and spend it back in the burbs.

When you cross a city border, such as 8 Mile, into the suburbs, your taxes and insurance costs slice in half, and streets and neighborhoods suddenly are well-lighted and appear safe. The cops are responsive there, and the trees stay trimmed. It's no wonder people leave the city.

Detroit is too vast to afford an infrastructure that was designed for a few million people. No one is moving back. So how do you pay a police force to protect a city whose population has shrunk by two-thirds, while its size geographically has stayed the same? You can't. Republican state Gov. Rick Snyder is now overseeing a city in financial emergency. Whole thing's a mess.

More, the city has never suffered a shortage of political boondogglers, the most recent of whom, and the most glamorous in a gentlemen's-club kind of way, was Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, in office from 2002 to 2008.

His gigantic presence—statuesque, big-voiced, broad-shouldered, egomaniacal—resembles what would result if you crossed an articulate, pre-TV-era politician with a Southern preacher. His charisma played stopgap for his besuited rap-star image, down to his entourage, body guards and sparkly SUVs. Whoever said politicians are just ugly pop stars had it right. But the then-30-something Kilpatrick wasn't ugly at all, and that made him frightening. Everyone loves a star, and Kilpatrick made old-school political thugism pop-rap art. He claimed to love Detroit, so he proved said love by stealing from the city, lying and cheating. He got jailed a few times after costing a city, too poor to care for itself, millions.

Detroit is like a historical figure who, years ago, found a red curtain to cower behind. To some, Detroit is now readying to reveal a new face. Hipster hoods such as Corktown draw myriad white folk, which, in a city that's 89 percent black, can make it resemble a white-pride rally—call it segregation in a uniform of gingham, Converse, ironic eyewear and bored indifference.

Detroit's midtown and downtown are coming up, too—in gentrifyingly white ways—and the Paul Ray-coined term "cultural creatives" is too easily tossed about, slapped on app designers, bloggers, ad men, Web developers and millionaire CEOs such as Quicken Loans' Bill Emerson, who received more than $100 million in tax breaks to relocate his company here, with promises of a "new Detroit."

But this isn't really about social activism or community, and these changes feel, in fact, cold and digital. It's as soulless as any place where lots of white people gather to be hip. But who knows how such shifts might aid a city that's billions of dollars in debt?

A Whole Foods store recently broke ground in midtown (with $4.2 million in tax incentives)—but not really within walking distance from downtown—and the entire city went down on bended knee.

But I have hope. Lots of it. But there's still plenty more reason not to. This is where two American cities I love, Tucson, Ariz., and Detroit, Mich., couldn't be any more polar-opposite, though each has seen downtown redevelopment that didn't seem possible a decade ago.

See, it's as if most of the rest of Detroit, these myriad square miles, doesn't exist. Yes, downtown occupancy is at 100 percent, but endless miles of thoroughfares, such as Grand River, Gratiot Avenue and Michigan Avenue, cut straight through apocalyptic wastelands to the shiny suburbs. It's hard to imagine that this is an American city. Even from a strictly aesthetic standpoint, if Broadway, Speedway and Grant Road were ghettoized from one end to the other, it still wouldn't compare. You'd have to throw in Fort Lowell, Ajo Way and River Road.

It's where barely sustained businesses hang among block after block of abandoned or crumbling storefronts. It's where doomed children amped on sugar sit in classrooms that are battlegrounds of inertia in a bankrupt school system, their very futures reflected in the dead eyes of the street urchins who gave up long ago. It's a dystopian futility as grim as any Ray Bradbury vision. It's an unimaginable future of American failure, and there's absolutely nothing like it in Arizona, except maybe old Bisbee, if that glorified ghost town were splayed out flat on 143 square miles.

But there is heartbreakingly beautiful art and music, and lovingly kept historic neighborhoods. Community gardens, DIY startups and makeshift music/art venues accent community. There are countless bittersweet tales of ingenuity, too, like the guy whose financial desperation led him to open a strip bar in his basement.

Patti Smith said recently that Manhattan is over, that hungry artists and musicians should relocate to Detroit, because it's vital now, crammed with DIY energy and dirt-cheap real estate. She's right. True inspiration can thrive in sadness and abandonment of lost eras; creation is sourced from possibility, and rises from ruin. This is where techno music was born. Detroit gave America new garage rock, dirty soul and R&B. It gave us rock 'n' roll and Motown. Jack White—with the history lessons in his music and strange verisimilitude in his aesthetics, lyrics and performances—still personifies Detroit, new and old, in brilliant ways.

I drove home after a party one night, and my right hand covered my right eye while the left attempted to keep the car on a blurry road made of melting rubber. My then-girlfriend—a woman I'd met in Detroit whose tragic flaw included a passion for the bottle that equaled my own—was drunk, passed out in the passenger seat. I had a rule to never drive hammered, but this was Detroit, where traffic laws, as my old editor Voas would say, are "optional." I didn't give a shit in a city that didn't give a shit. Nice.

We did make it home. Barely. What a selfish chickenshit, I thought. Sure, death for me was an entertainable option, but someone else's life could've ended that night. The drinking wasn't even romantic or joyous anymore. Nor was it creative or smart, just broken and sad, a symptom of some inner deadness, and a silly Bukowskian cliché. I even looked yellow.

I stopped drinking the next day. Cold turkey, as Lennon would say.

Quitting was brutal beyond comprehension. I white-knuckle detoxed for three days straight, not in a hospital, but in my office at work and at home. The first 24 hours—a Saturday—I felt like I was trapped in a car crash for hours straight: skidding tires, screams, shattering glass. The sickness and terror were real. I swore someone was trying to deck me—invisible madmen leapt from corners and threw invisible sucker punches. I often ducked at nothing.

The tremens and muscle twitches weren't easy to hide when I appeared at work on Monday—with a writing assignment due. Have no idea how I did it.

That was 2003. Been sober since. Before that, I'd been drunk every night since Gentlemen Afterdark expired in the early 1990s. Sobriety hasn't been an easy ride. There's an ex-girlfriend, a flopped marriage, lots of 12-steps, therapists and, finally, a woman for whom, it seems, I'd waited my entire life. But she had to be earned.

My bank account was suddenly flush with the funds that I normally funneled to area bartenders. After several months, I had enough to plop down on a house. I found one in a still-desirable neighborhood on Detroit's west side, an area populated with retired educators, teachers and city workers who lived mostly in brick colonials built before World War II. There were giant trees, large yards and flower gardens.

The quiet, once-all-Jewish neighborhood was how I imagined white people lived in the 1950s, inside city limits with well-kept yards—not exactly permissive, but neighborly, with a nosy sense of lookout duty. Every night, TVs flickered blue behind drawn living-room curtains; dads watered lawns at sunset, and their sons came around in winter offering to shovel snow from your walkway. The elderly often died in their homes. Not at all rock 'n' roll.

A few neighbors welcomed me to the street with gifts of potted plants and fresh-baked cookies. No joke. We were the only whites in an otherwise all-black neighborhood. I dug it.

But even this sedate little hood near University of Detroit Mercy had rich Motor City history. In the '60s, Motown head Berry Gordy placed Stevie Wonder and his family in a house a stone's throw away. Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops lived around the block, and up the street was Marvin Gaye's house, where he wrote one of the greatest albums of all time, What's Going On. Temptations singer David Ruffin and songwriter Eddie Holland (from Motown and Holland-Dozier-Holland fame) each once owned big, beautiful homes a short walk away, when the city was still desirable. Eminem's pal, D12 rapper Proof, grew up at his grandmother's house the next street over. The whole city's like this, crammed with cultural history born of songs and people who continue to touch the world in profound ways.

A nearby section on Livernois Avenue thrived in the '50s and '60s as the "Avenue of Fashion." That stretch now is basically shrimp shacks, 24-hour hair salons, dollar stores, an African art gallery, a shop for strippers and some abandoned spaces: your basic mishmash of Detroit, good and bad. A mile over, on McNichols Road, the scenery suffers further, depending on your perspective. You'll find block after block of streets filled with dead streetlights and ugly landscapes where houses once stood, collapsing homes and burnt-out apartment buildings, all filtered in among semi-cared-for places, like rotted teeth in an otherwise-OK mouth. Other streets in the vicinity are drop-dead stunning, built with auto money in the '20s and '30s, still kept up within reasonable distance of historic luxury.

The well-dressed black ladies in church hats, these octogenarian matriarchs of shoot-straight wisdom and Southern whip-ass, became my own personal gods. I imagined one on each shoulder, protectors. They've suffered riots, murder, segregation, unemployment, poverty. They watched as crack rotted their neighborhoods and their beloved city fell apart. They emerged with countless grandchildren, a gut-rich cackle and ear-bending stories. I befriended two in my neighborhood, and they'd take me in for coffee and storytelling.

But it didn't take long for a sense of isolation to creep in—that particular strain of entropy and loneliness—particularly when the sun drops around 5 p.m. in wintertime. I began to long for human variety like that found in other Detroit areas: some Middle Easterners, South Asians and Eastern Europeans. Walking my streets was humiliating, because few people here did. Most drove. One reason why there's a high percentage of tubby Detroiters.

Besides, there wasn't really anywhere to walk unless you needed your nails done, or that dollar-store toilet brush, or a stiff cocktail where the Spinners and Bettye LaVette would drink back in the day. This was a university neighborhood, sure, but it was at least five miles to the nearest New York Times. The lovely university is fenced off—and there's an abandoned Burger King across the street.

I still get called lots of funny names on major streets and on corners, but never with menace. Such cat-calls include "Nikki Sixx," "Marilyn Manson," "Mick Jagger" and—from a gaggle of homeless gents to whom I donated almost daily—"Yo, Woodstock!" The best came on a day I was doing a story on an older jazz percussionist. I was at a Detroit elementary school to observe him entertain fourth-graders, and as we walked the hallway, a little kid who stood about waist-high saw me approach and stopped dead in his tracks. Then he hopped back a few steps, pointed and shouted with no irony, "Is you Michael Jackson!?" I never felt so white in my life.

And forget any kind of big-sky openness, like any-day wintertime Tucson. Motor City winters mean hunker-down time—whiteouts and a frozen life. I marveled at how anyone could've survived these ravaging months here hundreds of years ago. Me? I prayed daily for the furnace to stay in proper working order.

Tucson's Catalina, Rincon and Tucson mountains suggest a kind of natural optimism. Their lovely, rocky peaks are sometimes (well, rarely) capped in snow; their rich crevices and purple hues frame the valley, imparting a kind of subtle sense of invulnerability and protection.

When the economy tanked in 2008-2009, Detroit got nailed. I bailed on my house in late 2011, because it wasn't worth more than $15,000. Its value was $140,000 when I moved in. The mortgage company wouldn't budge, its loan guaranteed by the government. Assholes.

It was difficult to move out of my house—rather like jumping off a cliff. It soon became yet another particle-boarded place on a street increasingly dotted with for-sale signs. At least my mother got to see me in it before she died several years back. Finally made her proud.

My memories in that house are shaded with sadness, but it was a house, not a home.

I really miss the two women in church hats.

Sometimes it's simple things. Sometimes I return home to Tucson to see my dad and friends or to play in some kind of silly reunion show with my bands, and this never fails: I'll roll in to, say, a Circle K or gas station, and shock hits. I see clean lines, open aisles, mopped floors. Even a mirthful face or two.

We used to get beat up in such places? Where are the dirt-hued walls and the smudged, bulletproof glass that separates cashiers from customers, like it is in about every Detroit liquor outlet, convenience store (party store) and filling station?

It's not easy for me to forget Tucson summers, either. The dry, subtropical heat worked the senses so thoroughly that you could actually hear the heat. That hum. It was indelible as the cicadas' sweet monotonic symphonies out near Old Spanish Trail where I grew up and raced bicycles. Certain Ramones songs easily call up the smell of chlorine and after-school swims in pools, and the futile longing for girls who hung around them. Dark clouds remind of those mad monsoons that marched over the Rincon Mountains from the southeast and whisked up desert perfumes of chaparral bushes and palo verde trees, that kicked out city power and turned dry washes into raging, mud-colored rivers that sucked up lawn chairs and whole trees, and upturned barbecues and the occasional little kid.

In spring, in the gentle aftermath of melting snow and ice, Detroit's empty fields open gently, and wild flowers radiate from within, and it all grows and grows, sometimes over your head. I can fall into grass that towers over me, in the middle of the city. Acres of green rise up, around and through the city, in vacant lots and on roofs of abandoned buildings. The city opens up; people crawl out from winter and celebrate its fertility and rebirth.

Summertime air fills with scents of countless barbecues upon which unidentifiable meats sizzle. It rises from parks, streets, front yards. Outdoor music, canned and live, varies hugely, sometimes from neighborhood to neighborhood, from electronic, '60s soul and big-lunged gospel, to hip-hop, world and jazz—reflections of the city's population. In evenings, fireflies zigzag above lawns, around porches, in gardens. The city's half-natural, half-manufactured beauty is constant wonder in summer months. Its busted grace is hazy, sad, poetic. Once-architecturally (and -historically) significant lines and elegant curves are but piles of rebar-ribbed cement and burnt-rust beams; other buildings stand hollowed out, with crazy open space and views, and whole ecosystems growing within. In wintertime, it's silent as death.

Imagine dozens of structures larger than Tucson's old Pioneer Hotel, but in various stages of decay, scattered all around Tucson.

A few months back, Metro Times informed me that it could no longer afford my salary. "All business," they said. Yeah, well, I lived most of my life with no salary. Back to normal. I was getting accustomed to, and quite fond of, biweekly checks and zero financial desperation. As I wrote on Facebook, it doesn't matter how many readers you cultivate or how many writing awards you earn; you won't survive a collapsing world.

I love Detroit, though. It's a love affair fraught with negativity, ugliness and contempt, and also complete pride and adoration. From my high-rise apartment, I can squint at faded downtown towers and the famed GM towers and make them look like cathedrals. I watch rippling reflections of lights of Canadian casinos on the Detroit River, and see hundreds of people on Detroit's Riverwalk, people who weren't there five years ago.

Yet the futility is pronounced, and overcome, in the hoods and their abandoned Victorian houses. See torn layers of wallpaper trace bloodlines of single-income families who subsisted on factory work through the decades. See a tree grow from the basement of this old place. It pushes through the first floor into the den, and continues into the master bedroom on the second level. Then it blooms into the sky through an aperture in the ceiling. You swear the breeze through the holes in walls and missing doors creates voices as mournful as lost souls. You note the children's initials carved in front-yard sidewalks long ago.

This is a transition, a return to Earth, but also life springing eternal—pushing through dead foundations, self-created obstructions. It overcomes, man. Either that, or it dies. This is where I live. This is where I love.

I never reconciled with that dude who knocked me flat in my first weeks in Detroit. I did just realize that the only time in Detroit that I ever got assaulted, even hassled, was at the hands of that one suburban mook. But that sucker punch sparked a bigger thing—something that, crazy as it sounds, jolted me awake, to begin the trip to quit booze and drugs, which then led me to appreciate the small wonders, like mornings and fireflies and grace in a city that's busted in every way imaginable, but a city that's also providing for itself a place in the present, and one in the future.

Then she came, the once-in-a-lifetime love, an earned reward. Had to go through that to arrive in this house of myself.

Brian Smith was born and raised in Tucson. He still calls the Old Pueblo home.