Generational Sounds: Rock Icon Ivan Kral Listens To Metro Detroit

Where would you rather live: Pittsfield Township near Ann Arbor, or Manhattan? For one former musician-in-the-spotlight, Pittsfield wins, hands down.

Ivan Kral, the rock guitarist, songwriter, and filmmaker, has no regrets about leaving the life of a rock star behind for life in the country writing music for other musicians and creating film soundtracks. He's also editing a huge archive of material he filmed in the '70s and '80s at legendary New York venues such as CBGB's for release as musical documentaries.

One of his best-known tunes, "Dancing Barefoot", was a hit for Patti Smith Group. He was Smith's guitarist in the '70s. He's played with Iggy Pop, David Bowie, and Blondie, among others. Today he lives on a dirt road overlooking a pond, with his business and life partner, Cindy Hudson, and two white bunnies named Keith Richards and Angus Young.

Life was more precarious in his early years.

"I came from a country that banned rock 'n 'roll. We came to this country [to New York City] because my journalist father spoke publically against the 'damn Commies' to U Thant at a United Nations meeting. After the New York Times published it, the secret police were tailing us. My country was called the Czech Socialist Republic [from 1969 to 1990]."

Being away from the public eye is fine with Kral, and so is his country life in Pittsfield Township. Kral fell in love with the Ann Arbor area and decided to move here in 2003. The dealmaker: It's close to the airport. Other than that, he savors the mental space the region provides him. And apparently, he is not alone in his appreciation of the simple life. One of his neighbors is Ted Nugent's manager, Doug Banker.

"It's a private place to write. It's secluded. These days, you can write from anywhere, record each track and home, then email mp3s to clients," he says.

Write he does – with more than 300 songs ready to roll, he offers them to musicians around the world, sometimes producing them, too. "I go for the song. I don't just go for an image. A song has to be catchy. Of course, image doesn't hurt," he says.

"I remember listening to the 78s my parents had – "A Tisket A Tasket" (sung by Ella Fitzgerald), Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson. Today, in 2010, you can still listen to those recordings and say 'Wow.' "

He recently recorded a batch of MP3 demos at Ferndale's 54 Sound studio, run by Joel Martin, Eminem's publisher. The session's recording engineer, Steve King, boasts high profile names such as Eminem and The Romantics among his many credits. The band that day included members of The Howling Diablos and local studio musicians.

It's part of the songwriting profession, along with licensing songs for films, such as a recent deal for three tunes that became part of an anime, Yozakura Quartet. Two songs from the film are currently on YouTube.

Kral is also a heavy consumer of live music on the Detroit scene. His favorite venues include the Magic Bag, Magic Stick, the Fox Theatre ("fabulous") and, closer to home, Guy Hollerin's in Ann Arbor.

"I miss Second Chance (now The Necto.) The Majestic is comfortable, not pretentious, homey – that's how it should be. That's how it's stayed around so long," he says.

"Detroit music has history but speaks for itself [today.] When there was a lot of money around a few years ago, the music was mediocre. A bad economy leads to creativity," he says.

He's waiting for a musical leader to step forward, someone who can take raw talent, a recording studio, and a dream and meld them into a new Detroit music industry. "I feel like we're on the verge of a breakout. It's not going to be schlocky, either. There are incredible players here – and incredible singers. Why isn't there a person to put it all together and see what comes out of it? There's nothing like that: A new Berry Gordy, a new Motown."

He remains a huge fan of former bandmate Iggy Pop. "Whenever I'm outside the US and they see where we're from, it's always MC5, Iggy. When you saw all of them, Niagara [Destroy All Monsters], the MC5, it was OK. When you saw Iggy, you were knocked out by the originality. He jumped out at you."

"To this day, he can do rock, punk, glam without alienating fans of the other genres. Hundreds of bands try to be Iggy Pop. As someone once told me about John Lennon, 'Don't try to be him – there already is one.'"

Iggy's long-lasting career is especially remarkable in light of the revival bands trading on past successes, Kral adds. "I see a lot of bands that play the same thing they played 30 years ago. There needs to be a kick in the butt, a new direction in songwriting. Kids don't relate. Long-time bands need to direct themselves to a wider audience."

The Howling Diablos is one of his local faves. "They're great musicians, and have guests such as former members of the Detroit Wheels. Mitch Ryder has great bands. Gary Quackenbush. I enjoy the Wynans Family -- turn them on on Sunday and it's great gospel," he says.

"Maruga Booker, the wild man of Serbia, is a legendary drummer. I'd like to do something with him. He's a long-time George Clinton standby who lives in Ann Arbor now."

Kral will offer one aspect of his work on July 29 when he'll screen The Blank Generation at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. The punk rock documentary has been remastered and digitally restored for the 35th anniversary of its original release.

Last March, The Blank Generation was shown at CIMMFEST, a Chicago music and film festival, and more recently, at a sold-out screening for several hundred viewers at NxNW, a large festival of new and upcoming music held in Toronto last month.The response at the Toronto festival was unexpected, as was the film's place in Canadian musical history.

The footage was never intended for commercial release, he says.

"Even in 1974-75, I feared deportation. I thought I'd be able to share my home movies of the scene with my band mates in Prague. It's all what I saw backstage. When I had to go onstage with Debbie [Harry] or Patti [Smith], I would just hand the camera to someone and ask them to continue filming,” he recalls.

The response at the Toronto festival was unexpected, as was the film's place in Canadian musical history.

"Canadians told me that in the 70s, they got hold of a bootleg. Pre-punks studied it for what to wear and how to play. I had no idea. While we were at NxNW, we negotiated a deal to distribute the film in Canada. My partner, Cindy Hudson, is working on US distribution," Kral says.

"Cindy is not just a scout for local musicians who might record demos. She handles my publishing and licensing. She is so valuable. Cindy plays a big part. I just can't push myself. I need that other person," Kral says.

That includes hammering out the contract for an August 7 concert Kral will perform in the Czech Republic, where he's one of the country's best-known and most beloved rockers. From fears of deportation to a triumphant return, the times have certainly a-changed.


The Blank Generation will show at The Michigan Theater – a 7 pm benefit for The Shelter Association of Washtenaw County - will be its U.S. public premiere. Tickets are $10 general admission. For more information, visit www.MichTheater.org.


Constance Crump would rather burn out than fade away. She is also an Ann Arbor writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard Magazine.  She is a regular contributor to Concentrate.

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All Photos by Dave Lewinski
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