The Detroit Ideal, Incarnate
"A Christmas in Detroit Story"
By Stewart Francke DETROIT (YN) - It was one of those moments you can't plan, an event you can't count on. Rarely do you get to see the things you believe in actually come to life before you in walking, talking human form. You don't often get to see those fragile and ephemeral tenets that guide you, those vaporous words behind living a life that counts toward something.
I've been lucky enough to be included in this tremendous project called Christmas In Detroit, the third installment in the Brothers Pastoria' musical and spiritual statement about Detroit. I didn't want to just contribute a re-make of a Christmas standard, so I asked Brian Pastoria about a song of mine called "Faith In Faith Itself,"Â which I'd written but not yet finished recording. There seemed to be this dimension to the project. Skeleton Crew had already completed a lovely song called "Faith,"Â and in these times, we all need to hang on to some kind of belief in each other, in a turnaround, in our own economic and spiritual re-invention. Even just remember to keep believing in belief, which is what my song is about in part.
After finishing the vocals on my own song, I was sitting in the offices of Harmonie Park Studio with Skeleton Crew pianist Dan Hess, Brian and Mark Pastoria, engineer nonpareil Alan Tishk, and their production assistant Lori Levise, listening to all the other cuts on Christmas In Detroit 3. Funk, soul, black music, white music, brown music, blue music, flat out rockers, clever turns on the traditional Christmas theme, sparse acoustic songs of despair in this season of peace and giving' it seems every kind of song was represented. I was floored and proud to be part of this, my city's monumental yawp of musical expression. All to benefit Mitch Albom's S.A.Y. Detroit, a non-profit organization for the homeless. It wasn't just a Christmas record, or just a charity record, nor did it ignore the troubled year and troubled place in which it was created. We're all on life support around here, but Extreme Unction is not being given, and if anything we all believe we will not only survive; we will prosper in a new day and way.
So we're listening, and talking, and up comes this gorgeous song called "Love For Christmas,"Â a neo-soul ballad that sounded somewhere between D'Angelo and Stevie Wonder, but its own thing - new and vital and beautiful.
Just as I asked, "Who is this?,"Â in walked this sharp young cat and his friend, both musicians. "The song is by that guy," Brian yelled over the music. "Quentin Dennard." Talk about an arrival. Turns out Quentin didn't just write it; he sang it and played most of the instruments on it. Very Stevie-like.
Both Quentin and his friend, Danny, more a hard rock musician than funk like Quentin, were stopping by the studio after their first-ever trip to the Motown Museum. Their minds and hearts were blown by what they'd heard and seen, and as we sat there, they began to talk... about music in Detroit, about what had been and what could be, about Marvin and Levi and Martha and Michael, about Detroit's role in the world, about how a scene is fostered and cared for, and how they now recognized how this magnificent continuum of people, ideas and method was and is uniquely Detroit. Most importantly, they were suddenly aware of their own place in this river of music and thought, how important it was, and how they would now proceed differently with their music-making and careers.
I sat there stunned...quite literally music to my ears. This ain't just anywhere is what I've been saying and writing for 30 years, and now I was witnessing that idea being born a new in younger artists, who just got it. There it was, The Detroit Ideal Incarnate.
Maybe the true idea behind Christmas In Detroit and its music and musicians is that we all have a choice. We don't have to live here; we don't have to stay when it gets rough. When I first heard Mitch Ryder, Levi Stubbs, David Ruffin, The MC5 or Bob Seger as a young kid, it completely turned my head around about new ways to think, dress, and live. I had to be here. We've now taken that music--our music--into what they call middle age without any loss of passion or vitality. And only now are we able to prove, just like sculptors and painters and pilots and accountants and corporate executives, that you get better at songwriting, recording, and performing as you go through life. Yes, as you age.
I stay here in Detroit because of the lingering promise that music made to me when I was younger, that music of the MC5 and Motown. Because I want to add to it; I want to build on it; I want to further define this music if I can.
If you're a musician and you're from Detroit, there's a certain way we do things around here. Yea, it's always been about attitude. It's how we wear what we wear, what we drink, and how we swear. But it's also about forgiveness and tolerance and avoiding the chasm between artist and image. It's about leaving a part of yourself on every stage you take and never faking it, whether you're playing powerfully loud rock and roll or sweet, soft jazz.
The pure life in the phrase "Kick out the jams, Motherf*#*@r,â€Â the brave urgency in those words, surely led to the equally redemptive music on Christmas In Detroit. It's good for us to remember that there's a second part to "Kick out the jams". The finish to that sentence is, "or we'll get somebody who will!.Â It's just plain important to mean it, and never go through the motions. And never quit.
In my songs, and in my imagination, places like Saginaw & Detroit have been both common and sacred. Writing songs about this place has allowed me to discover my true self.Detroit audiences have held me accountable as an artist. I'm a Midwesterner; we're all Midwesterners around here. In the Midwest, we place the value of living in loyalty to friends and family, loyalty to our work, maybe one or two chosen institutions, in our music, and finally in a deep trust with the land and water around us.
I've said it many times before, and I'll say it again at the end of this very tough decade: Separation between us is an illusion. While we often seem like strangers, or more accurately we're often played off each other as strangers ("fear, fear, fear" says the TV), the reality is that we're bound by things like music and thought, love and mortality, and we're dependent upon one another more than we think we are. And each of us is significant, even in our anonymity.
There's truth in the all of us; there's genius in the all of us; there's kindness in the all of us. Most of all there's hope in the all of us. It's in this sense that we should think of ourselves as Detroiter's: As a collection of friends who have identified with a song or a band or an artist--an idea expressed out of individual experience that throws the brightest light on what we all feel. One idea says that rock and soul music has lasted so long and sold in such enormous numbers because it says that all of us are at heart alike in love, longing and ambition. After all, we really are looking for what it is to live, more or less, from this music, from these words and these melodies. No small thing.
Stewart Francke is a freelance writer for yournews.com Detroit and welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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