Monday, December 22, 2008

Michigan: America's Mitten


Home to Motor-City, Motown, D-Town, Hockeytown, Rock City, the originators of Devil's Night, the murder capital of the US, Detroit.

Remember folks, you can't spell Detroit without 'riot'.

However, for all the icky scariness of Detroit, auto bailouts, shuttered factories, and a view of Canada, the state of Michigan has contributed as much to the history of Rock & Roll as any other state in the union.

Seriously. Michigan is on par with New York, California, Illinois, and Massachusetts for pure number of musicians, and arguably outpaces them all when it comes to wholly American musical expression. As much as I have publicly sworn my aversion to Motown Records, even those of us who never EVER need to hear a Supremes song again can appreciate the fact that the R&B sound that came out of Motown in the late 1950's and through the 1960's is the quintessential definition of 'American' music.

Sure, America has been in the forefront of countless pop music phenomena. We're credited with Jazz, Country & Western, R&B, and arguably Rock & Roll, though my personal opinion is that the Brits do that last one better... The thing is, R&B, unlike any of those other forms of music that can be credited as American inventions was NOT just an AMERICAN invention, it was specifically the product of just one city. The city of Detroit. Consider our current musical landscape where Rap and R&B recordings, like it or not, sell at levels equal to or better the sales of rock & roll. As much as New York and Los Angeles influenced the rise of Rap, neither of these forms of music would have existed were it not for the giants of Motown.

That being said, not a single one of them are making my list. Ultimately, this is about what *I* listen to, and *my* impressions of the best music a state has to offer. Michigan, like Massachusetts before it is filled to the brim with talented artists. Luckily for me I won't lose any sleep over dismissing Motown from my personal favorites list, regardless how much I credit their achievements for the current diversity and power of American music.

Enough with the talking-about-music for now. There will be a time and a place when my choices will be revealed and likely disagreed with on a grand scale, but for now, there's wikiness to explore, because enquiring minds want to know:

- The Lower Peninsula, to which the name Michigan was originally applied, is sometimes dubbed "the mitten," owing to its shape. Heh... I didn't know that Michiganders actually used that term... I thought it was just used by the rest of us to mock them...

- The Upper Peninsula (often referred to as The U.P.) is separated from the Lower Peninsula by the Straits of Mackinac, a five-mile (8 km)-wide channel that joins Lake Huron to Lake Michigan.

- I always thought that was just called 'South Canada'...

- The Upper and Lower Peninsulas are connected by the five-mile (8 km)-long Mackinac Bridge, which is the third longest suspension bridge between anchorages in the world.[7] The bridge has given rise to the nickname of "trolls" for residents of the Lower Peninsula, because they live "under" (south of) the bridge.

- That's just awesome. I have a new found respect for all things Michigan. These folks know how to self-deprecate...

- The '20th century to the present' section on Michigan history on Wikipedia says 'See also: History of Ford Motor Company' That pretty much says it all.

- Michigan is the only state to be comprised entirely of two peninsulas, and subsequently is the state with the longest length of freshwater coastline in the nation. You know, all those lakes surrounding the state pretty great...

- See, that's because they're The Great Lakes... You with me? We all caught up now? OK...

- The state has numerous large islands, the principal ones being the Manitou, Beaver, and Fox groups in Lake Michigan; Isle Royale and Grande Isle in Lake Superior; Marquette, Bois Blanc, and Mackinac islands in Lake Huron; and Neebish, Sugar, and Drummond islands in St. Mary's River. Michigan has about 150 lighthouses, the most of any U.S. state. The first lighthouses in Michigan were built between 1818 and 1822. They were built to project light at night and to serve as a landmark during the day to safely guide the passenger ships and freighters traveling the Great Lakes.

- Oh... Is THAT what lighthouses are?? I though we just wanted to make sure the light had someplace to sleep when it wasn't in use...

- OK, that was rude. I apologize Wiki. You are providing helpful an entertaining facts and I appreciate your efforts...

- Located north of Windsor, Ontario, Detroit, Michigan is the only major US city that looks south to Canada.

- Though a certain Governor would be happy to remind ya that they can't keep an eye on Russia from there...

- Detroit was founded in 1701 by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. I bet he drove a nice car...

- 'Detroit' is a metonymy for the American automobile industry.

- A Metonymy is a rhetorical figure of speech in which a thing or concept is not referred to by it's own name, but rather by something intimately associated with that thing or concept.

- For example, instead of referring to all cheesy 70's emotion-rock as 'cheesy 70's emotion-rock' one could instead simply use the metonymy Bread.

- Bread is not from Michigan, they are from Los Angeles, and likely weep at the sight of sunsets.

- In summer, the state of Michigan can be pleasantly warm with temperatures reaching the 80 degree mark on average during July and August.

- In winter, there are no words or numbers to accurately describe just how cold it can get in Michigan, so I'm going to make one up.

- Winters in Michigan can best be described as frozoosish. You may think you can wrap your mind around just how cold 'frozoosish' is, but trust me, you are wrong.

- The next fact is here specifically for some of my better educated, earth-rock loving readers.

- The geological formation of the state is greatly varied. Primary boulders are found over the entire surface of the Upper Peninsula (being principally of primitive origin), while Secondary deposits cover the entire Lower Peninsula. The Upper Peninsula exhibits Lower Silurian sandstones, limestones, copper and iron bearing rocks, corresponding to the Huronian system of Canada. The central portion of the Lower Peninsula contains coal measures and rocks of the Permo-Carboniferous period. Devonian and sub-Carboniferous deposits are scattered over the entire state.

- Even if you understand and are intrigued by the geologic makeup of Michigan, you still don't know how cold frozoosish is.

- Certain counties within Michigan are primarily Dutch in origin.

- The other counties ain't much...

Good lord. Do I EVER stop yammering? Why don't I just get on with the music selections already. Seesh...

Solo: Iggy Pop

I should probably wax all Lester Bangs here and talk about the exploding cacophony of pure diesel truck force found in Iggy's exalted yalp just before projectile vomiting waves upon waves of pure psycho-punk plasma all through the sonic chambers of my cerebral brain bucket, but I'm just not that colorful a writer.

Instead I shall say Iggy my fine man, you hath bestowed upon us a new and complicated definition for the simple term 'stooge'. Whether it me birthing the stage-dive, spinning on broken glass, yacking all over the front row, or flashing your piece to a packed house at CBGB you are now as you always have been, Iggy Pop. Do us a favor and never apologize for it.

Born James Newell Osterberg Jr. in Muskegon Michigan, the one-day-Pop was raised in a trailer park outside of Ann Arbor in the town of Ypsilanti. Raised on a combination of early rock & roll and the machinations of the near by auto plants Iggy's sound could be born only of Michigan. He became a champion of the garage-rock genre before being outed as the grand-daddy of punk by the above mentioned Lester Bangs. If there is a performed who needs to cred-polishing for a spot on this list, that performer is Iggy Pop. Every single punk and metal band that has come since owes Iggy for their sound, style, and on-stage masterwork. Those who claim they do not are flat-out lying.

Here's Iggy performing with a Georgia honoree, the B-52's Kate Pierson. I've always felt this sounded more like a Lou Reed tune than an Iggy Pop one, but pair this with Lust for Life or I Wanna Be Your Dog and you have what amounts to a rather well rounded stooge... The track is called Candy.

Band: Tommy James & The Shondells

Sometimes life just makes you think way too hard. Be it a challenge at work, a personal problem, or even really crappy freeway traffic that seems unavoidable no matter which of a thousand routes you try and take home. It's times like these that I turn to simple, clean, and crisp rock and roll tunes. Seriously, the last thing you need when trapped on a freeway for forty five minutes when normally you can get home in ten is Motorhead screaming in your ear, or Iggy Pop doing... other things... to it...

In comes Tommy James and his Shondells to get your head on straight. Motorhead's Lemmey was once quoted as saying "If Motörhead moved in next to you, your lawn would die." I'm saying if Tommy James moved in next to you, your lawn would remain green and lush, but your wife might leave you for Tommy's dreamy vocals...

I guess what I'm trying to say is you're better off not living next to a rock star. What I'm ALSO saying is that there's nothing to be ashamed about liking TJ & tS.

James started his rock career at the ripe old age of twelve, forming his first band Tom and the Tornadoes in 1959. By 1963 he had renamed the band The Shondells, and recorded his first rock tune Hanky Panky. He was just sixteen years old.

The track didn't sell well outside the greater Michigan area, so Tommy broke up his Shondells content with living the pedestrian life of a Michigan teen, but a few years later a Pittsburgh radio station uncovered the tune and began playing it on the air as an 'exclusive'. The song generated so much heat amongst the listeners in Pittsburgh that a different local DJ, "Mad Mike" Metro called Tommy and asked him to come perform the song live in studio. At this point the rest of Tommy's original Shondells had moved past their dreams of rock star glory, so Tommy made the trip solo.

Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, he made his way to a local rock club and ran into a band of musicians he thought were pretty talented. He asked them if they'd like to become The Shondells, and the rest is two-number-one-singles-and-five-other-top-ten-hits history.

In more recent years the memory of TJ & tS lives on not just through James' sporadic solo work, but in the form of rock covers of classic Tommy James tunes. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts' scored a hit with their version of "Crimson And Clover" (1982), Tiffany's took a spin around the mall with "I Think We're Alone Now," and Billy Idol's cashed in with "Mony Mony" (both 1987). Surprisingly, Idol's version of "Mony Mony" replaced Tiffany's "I Think We're Alone Now" at the #1 position on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart toward the end of 1987.

Here's Tommy James & The Shondells with a track that could cost you your wife if you're not careful, Crystal Blue Persuasion.

Honorable Mention: The White Stripes

OK I've paid homage to the purveyor of Punk and Metal, and stepped back to the quintessential sound of the golden age of rock and roll. Let me know have a moment to break the cardinal rule of list making and select a modern band with just a handful of albums and boatloads of praise thrown at them. Admittedly, The White Stripes don' need me to tell you that they are good. EVERYONE will tell you that they are good, but unlike everybody else, I won't qualify that statement with:

...for a NEW band...

or ...but not as good as (fill in the blank)...

I, like most people outside of the greater Michigan area, was first exposed to the White Stripes upon the release of their third album White Blood Cells and can still vividly recall my initial reaction to hearing Fell In Love With A Girl for the first time, and the best way I can describe it is that it was kind of like falling out of a tree. You don;t quite expect it before it happens, you can't stop it once it's started, the fall itself seems to take longer than it actually does in real time, and when it's all said and done you'll probably find yourself out of breath.

Fast, staccato, strong back beat, intense, brilliant, and at the same time a simple sub two-minute rock number. Just a few years later The Killers would perfect this rock-revival art form with the 2003 album Hot Fuss, but by then The White Stripe had blazed new trails adding a level of DIY-electronics to their production that did nothing but make the fall from the tree seem a little bit higher.

Here's a track from what I consider White Stripes 2.0, the 2003 Elephant album. As good as this tune is, IMO it doesn't hold a candle to The Denial Twist off of 2005's Get Behind Me Satan. This one is Seven Nation Army.

...and since we're all friends here, and I really do did The Stripes, here's The Denial Twist.

A thousand thank yous for your support on my first half-year of blogging. Hopefully I can get through 2009 without any two and a half month hiatuses. Next time we'll take a break from the 50 state strategy and unveil my extra special holiday song countdown to get you through the end of the year. After that, I'll see you in 2009 and we'll complete this bugger of a blog list...

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