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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Happy Birthday Mitch Ryder: Devil With A Blue Dress

Today is Mitch Ryder's 63rd birthday. Both a friend and mentor, Mitch is also one of the great rock singers and songwriters--a talent people don't often associate with him. We first met when I wrote this profile of Mitch for the Detroit Metro Times back in 1994. Here it is again, in celebration of his birthday. Mitch himself is touring in Europe as we speak--enjoying the success he describes in this piece as a form of salvation.

Happy Birthday man, you're one of the great American artists. Here's many more years of hearing new records together...Love you.

"I don't know what it is about Mitch Ryder, but he has one of the greatest voices in America." --Brian Wilson

"Somewhere deep inside my wreckage, I will shine." --Mitch Ryder "Let It Shine"

"A shouter is what they call me," says Mitch Ryder, now in his late 50s and still in search of his own soul. The irony in Ryder's secondhand self-description comes both from time's indifferent march and his own sometimes-tortured progress: That's to say, Mitch Ryder ain't Mitch Ryder anymore. Not the one we know. Hasn't been for some time.

The Mitch Ryder we speak of remains, of course, a boy, or at least a very young man: Dark hair hanging in a hip '60s slope, in chinos and a tight T-shirt, mouth stretched taut in a wild scream, a Marlon Brando look-alike singing some of the most joyous and unforgettable rock and roll ever made.

That Mitch Ryder is famous, a singer responsible for melding hard rock and R&B into what they called blue eyed soul, perhaps better than anyone, ever.

The Mitch Ryder sitting in front of me at a Royal Oak restaurant--hat on backwards, sunglasses, still athletic, his hairline the biggest concession to age--is a man who has worked hard to come to terms with that youthful specter of himself, that summer of love revenant who had the world at his feet.

To the current Mitch Ryder, that kid is a frozen image--an image that connected gloriously with his age, an image America fell in love with, but still an image. And that image creates an unsettling stir of expectation, frustration, broken promise, joy and heartache for Ryder today.

"Who cares who Mitch Ryder was in the '60s?" Ryder says. "It's got to be irrelevant because it serves no purpose. But it's also completely understandable. At a very young age, we achieved the success that people strive their whole careers for. It's unfortunate that we found success so early on in life. I honestly feel when I listen to those old songs that they symbolize that success and also recall the memories of being a victim of a system that was in force at that time. "Devil With A Blue Dress" is still included in the American landscape, whether it's at a sporting event or in a movie. That little piece of us will go on."

The tendency today is to reduce Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels to a kinetic period piece, to lump them in with classic rock or oldies tours. Even astute rock critics have distilled Ryder's contribution to rock down to just a pair of exuberantly conceived medleys, 1965's "Jenny Take A Ride" and 1966's "Devil With A Blue Dress/Good Golly Miss Molly".

The fact that the Wheels ended far too soon obscures their legacy. Add to that Ryder's later move away from soul into a musical form characterized by a joyless expressiveness and commercial failure, and the conflict becomes clearer. Yet the truth, marketplace be damned, is that he improved as he progressed. Ryder's value lies first in the fact that he survived, and secondly in the manner in which he's survived.

"It could be very depressing, were it not for the fact that I found rebirth in Europe," Ryder says. "I feel saved. I've learned to accept the way that Americans feel. But I don't have to let it stop me or slow me down. I don't take it to heart. I've put the memories in their proper place in my life, and I've allowed myself to move on and try to continue to fulfill my destiny as an artist."

Although the greater part of his career (everything after 1971) has been spent in a kind of obscurity, Ryder has increased the complexity of his search and the depth of his spiritual and moral investigation. In the young Mitch Ryder, we hear a raw eroticism. In his 11 records since that time (released independently and on Line Records, a German label), we hear a man attempting to make sense of his own often sordid experience.

Before he was Mitch Ryder he was Billy Levise, a kid from a good home on Detroit's East Side in love with black music and Hank Williams. In 1962, you could hear some of the good stuff on the radio, yet you could breathe it in downtown Detroit clubs like the Village (now a burlesque theater on Woodward just north of downtown's theater district) or the Twenty Grand (now known as the Grand Quarters on Grand Boulevard just east of Woodward).

"I could tell there was a marked difference between Pat Boone and Little Richard," Ryder says of that time. "Like any kid, I had to choose the kind of music that excited me; I had to claim it. My heroes were black singers. It just happened that way. I didn't know what Little Richard was angry about, but I knew it came out in his sound. I naturally chose to go near the people that were making that music. The funny part is that it alienated me from my peers in school. Their whole thing was a case of beer, a football game and getting laid that night. So I went elsewhere and I found a great deal more than I was expecting."

Ryder was drawn to this scene by the music's sensuality and its veiled political promise. Bent on what they might later call the dream of democratic bliss, white kids fell in love with the sound and style of R&B in the early '60s. In Ryder's story, two things of note happened at the Village: He learned how to sing and he met Johnny Badanjek, Jimmy McCarty, Joe Kubert and Earl Elliott--The Detroit Wheels.

"They thought the way I did," Ryder says. "We were kids that liked the same music. The Beatles were very powerful at the time and like any American kid we said, "Fuck the British. We can do that." It=s a fierce anti-British thought that continues to this day.

Yet before they were officially the Wheels, they were Billy Lee and the Rivieras, playing sock hops and dances at the Walled Lake Casino or sitting in at the Village. At 16, Ryder, with money from his parents, went to Los Angeles to fulfill what he considered to be his teenage destiny.

"My parents were very supportive," Ryder says. "They bought me a sharkskin suit, put me on a plane and gave me some money. I was dropped off, petrified, at Hollywood and Vine. I sat in the hotel room for days, just going out for food, and one day I put my suit on, walked out of the hotel, stopped and got my shoes shined and walked down to RCA. The secretary was sitting in the lobby. And I said something like, 'Is this who Elvis Presley records for?' She said 'Yeah.' I said, 'Well then, I'm at the right place.' I went back to the hotel and waited. Days passed. I had to go back home with the bad news -- quite humiliating."

When he returned from L.A., he cut a single, "Fool For You," for Carrie, a gospel label, and set about making the Rivieras happen. In 1963, the band cut Bobby Freeman's "Do You Wanna Dance?" for Bryan Hyland's Hyland Records. A year later, Billy Lee and the Rivieras became a sensation at the Walled Lake Casino, where they would play for as many as 3,000 kids a night.

"It was a very tight show," Ryder says, "a show we approached in warlike terms. We did make a couple attempts at doing that British thing, but we realized it wasn't honest, wasn't righteous, and they were full of shit."

After hearing of the band through local radio DJ Dave Prince, producer Bob Crewe -- then known for his work with the pop group the Four Seasons -- flew to Detroit to hear the Rivieras open for the Dave Clark Five. After dragging his feet a bit, Crewe offered a recording contract.

By 1965, they became Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, having selected the singer's name from a phone book in Manhattan, where Crewe had brought them to record.

"The hotel we were staying in had 19 or 20 lives in it and only five were human," Ryder says. "It was at 71st and Broadway -- Needle Park. We hung tight and waited."

When they finally got into the studio and recorded a medley of Ma Rainey's "CC Rider" (via Chuck Willis) and Little Richard's "Jenny Take a Ride," the Wheels were just doing what they'd been doing all along back at the Casino.

"The medley thing came about because we never felt like stopping," Ryder says. For the most, they cut things live in the studio. One of the reasons for the manic, unhinged tempo of "Devil With a Blue Dress" was that the Rolling Stones happened to be present at the session.

"When the recordings came out, everything was primed to the point of perfection," Ryder says. "Bob Crewe was a master at working the phone, a real hustler. It exploded because everything was in the right place. It took about four weeks for 'Jenny' to reach the top 10."

Crewe was also skilled at cutting thrilling tracks. Where he failed was in not seeing that Ryder's attractiveness was a combination of the singer's raw sexuality and the band's accomplished understanding of R&B forms.

Other hits -- "Little Latin Lupe Lu," "Sock It To Me Baby" -- made Ryder and the Wheels stars. He was, the thinking went at the time, another acceptable white substitute for Little Richard. The Wheels provided the sonic and spiritual groundwork for what would become the much-heralded, high-energy "Detroit sound".

"Once they said, 'This is you, you have hit records and you'll continue to have them,' we started to take it all for granted," Ryder recalls. "I can comfortably look back at that group and say we were deserving, but it's in the way we were manipulated and victimized that brings the painful memories up."

Just as success arrived, Crewe felt Bandanjek, McCarty and Kubert to be expendable (Elliott had already left for the military). In 1967, Crewe persuaded Ryder to go solo in bombastic fashion -- a big Vegas horn band, glitzy costumes and an album, "What Now My Love," that featured sappy arrangements and Rod McKuen's lyrics.

"The group should have stayed together," Ryder says flatly. "Crewe drove a wedge into it. His self-interest overruled the wisdom of giving us an identity. His frame of reference was Vegas; in his mind that was as high as you could go. He kept telling me I deserved more; he played on my vanity and my youth. But you've got to understand: The group was headed for a crisis anyway because of Jimmy and me. Jimmy had the wisdom to see it was about guitars and drums. I didn't feel that way. I didn't have the courage to make it happen and neither did Jimmy. Crewe exploited that. Here I've got tons of money, girls everywhere, everything I've ever wanted. Why? Well it must be because I'm great. It wasn't a hard sell."

By early '67 it was all but over. The Wheels continued for about a year without Mitch; Ryder himself toured with the show band for some time before it became evident it was all wrong. The money was huge (as much as $18,000 per show), but it was squandered.

And the bad feelings among the Wheels lingered. Since then, Badanjek has never seen a royalty check from those great Wheels singles. And Ryder sees himself as the unknowing naif, victimized by a corrupt system. In the summer, the oldies tours and the old hits help him financially; in the winter, the wolf is at the door.

Thinking back, Ryder recalls "a very dark time": "My personal life suffered, my business dissolved," he says. "I had a divorce pending and two lawsuits against management. As far as I knew, everything was given to me and now they were taking it away. Why?"

In 1968, Ryder returned to Detroit briefly before going to Memphis to work with Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn at Stax. Released in 1969, the Detroit/Memphis Experiment is a flawed masterpiece. When Ryder sings with great acumen, he lacks soul. When he sings with real conviction, he's a little out of the pocket. Only on the marvelous "Liberty" is he both technically and emotionally sound. As The Detroit/Memphis Experiment was about to be released, Ryder hooked up with Creem magazine founder Barry Kramer in a management situation. Out of step with both psychedelia and the burgeoning singer/songwriter movement, the record stiffed.

"Barry set about trying to re-introduce me to an American audience," Ryder says. "And here I am, hair down to the middle of my back with a mustache. Becoming a hippie and losing myself."

The Detroit Wheels got together one last time, on Sept. 17, 1969, in Sarnia, Ontario. The event would have gotten noticed if it wasn't held on the last night of the Woodstock festival. The closest the group ever came to re-forming with any meaning was with the short-lived 70s supergroup Detroit. Featuring Ryder, Badanjek and guitarist Steve Hunter, the band released an eponymously titled album in 1971. Full of ferocious guitars and hermetic grooves, Detroit is, along with the MC5's Kick Out the Jams, the seminal Motor City hard rock record -- complete with a scorching cover of Wilson Pickett's "I Found a Love" and Dave Marsh liner notes.

The band's cover of Lou Reed's "Rock and Roll" became huge--an early '70s FM radio staple, yet that wasn't enough to keep Detroit from dissolving in front of Ryder's own eyes.

"The problem was we lived what we were. I had changed management and allowed my politics to affect the direction of my music. So I hooked up with John Sinclair. Now that was a wild experience."

Then, the dark night of the soul.

"The subsequent years were the darkest period in my life," Ryder says. "I was still living here, if you can call it that -- extremely paranoid and self-destructive.@

Embittered, fractured and strung out, Ryder moved to Denver to work a day job and sort himself out. He stayed five years. "I was able to detox and become very spiritual," Ryder says. "Not that I found God, but I found life. I was completely out of the public eye. I had to work for my support. All of a sudden it was like what I felt as a teenager again. I became extremely productive. I'm thankful I was able to pull myself out of it. I'm not here to tell anybody about drugs. I'm saying that for me as a person, they're completely unproductive and hurtful. I don't need 'em. Not that I didn't go to therapy kicking and screaming."

The musical result of his time in Colorado, 1978's How I Spent My Vacation, ranks with John Lennon's "Mother," Nick Drake's "Pink Moon" and Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear as examples of personal honesty and artistic clarity.

Released on his own Seeds and Stems label (as was its follow-up, Naked (But Not Dead), How I Spent My Vacation runs from the poignant ("Passion's Wheel") to the sexually explicit ("The Jon") to stately punk rock ("Tough Kid"). The record is also notable for laying bare Ryder's sexual ambivalence.

"It's one thing to be frank about your sexuality," he says, "and it's quite another thing to be mistaken about your sexuality while you're being frank about it."

More than that (or because of it), this was rock and roll of an uncompromising, unguarded nature as done by one of its troubled architects. In its theme and tone, How I Spent My Vacation said that the world of appearances is both real and a mask through which we painfully see more ultimate forces at work--that our only protection from the destructiveness of self-deceit is the presence of others.

If the young Mitch Ryder wanted to sock it to you, and the Mitch Ryder of Detroit wanted to retreive something stolen from him, something he could barely recall, then this new Mitch Ryder wanted to above all else disturb you by shouting out the unwelcome truth.

Ryder's affiliation with Line Records produced more records -- Live Talkies, Got Change For a Million, Smart Ass -- before he again found himself at an American major label, this time at the insistence of John Mellencamp. Their collaboration, 1983's Never Kick A Sleeping Dog, featured a torrid take on Prince's "When You Were Mine" as well as a bare duet with Marianne Faithfull. The record's momentum eventually withered after selling a respectable 80,000 copies. Two other Line records, Red Blood, White Mink and In the China Shop, were released after the Mellencamp record.

Ryder still tours regularly, both here and in Germany, where his audience is larger, younger and more enthusiastic. He will still occasionally perform with Johnny Bee and McCarty, as he did the night before we spoke. But the Wheels, as they were in 1967, do not exist.

"I think it's been forgiven," Ryder says of their past trouble. "I think they understand it wasn't my fault."

Even so, the enigmatic McCarty wasn't present when Ryder and the Wheels were given lifetime achievement awards by the Motor City Music Awards in 1994. Later, when Ryder sang "Devil With a Blue Dress" at the awards ceremony, it still sounded alive and relevant. Yet he must dream of performing an American show where the emphasis is on the material from his later work rather than Break Out!

The American record industry, he says, wants people to believe that "the only way you can be successful is to walk through fire."

"Well, I've walked through the fire and I don't believe that's true. I believe there's another way -- I just haven't found it. I can be satisfied knowing that I'm pursuing my art honestly or I can long for that mass adulation. What's that worth in terms of me being able to live my life? I'm in hot pursuit of a life that's peaceful and fulfilling, and still I'm wondering, 'Why can't I do this in America?' I want to be famous again in America. My music's good enough. I don't know where the conflict comes from, but I can tell you I'll get to the bottom of it sooner or later. It may come to pass that it's just a wish."

After a couple of failed marriages, Ryder is again married and living in the Detroit area with his wife, Megan, and her children. It is a measure of his own self-respect that he's now attentive to the fragile nature of familial connections; they matter greatly to him, perhaps as much as the artistic struggle.

"Right now I'd like to see all of us -- my stepchildren, me, my wife -- feel emotionally safe," he says. "If I had a wish for anything in my life, it would be that we go on, on the best possible terms."

If not resolved, then Ryder's conflict is well clarified-a beginning to peace of mind. Maybe he's defeated that clinging notion of sorrow and self-doubt just by getting better at his craft and caring for his family. Maybe that's all we have.

But you just can't kill those frozen images, those haunted pledges of a time when we all seemed so much younger. And you can't, despite all of its promise and deliverance, rock and roll them to death. You've got to swallow hard and learn to live with it, whatever it is.

"Rock and roll as defined is about rebellion, sex and unfortunately drugs," Ryder says. "You have to accept it but you don't have to embrace it. I've found I can't embrace the drug culture. Questions of my own sexuality have been explored and dealt with through my music, so I'm comfortable with it. That leaves rebellion. It's the one anchor to rock and roll that I can't raise up out of the water. Because I'm afraid I'll no longer know what the music is about. Rebellion helps me define my youth; by holding on to it I can still claim my youth. In the end, if you don't have the money and the mass adulation, at least you have your dignity and your self-respect intact. You can say, 'Look, I've been true to this.'"

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