Blog: Brett Callwood

Brett Callwood is a Detroit-based author, journalist, and copywriter originally from England. He writes regularly for the Metro Times. He has also been published in Metromix Detroit, Crain's Detroit Business, and the national magazines Alternative Press, Spin, Metal Edge, Modern Drummer, and Fangoria.

His first book, MC5: Sonically Speaking, was published in the UK in 2007 and is now available in North America via the Wayne State University Press. His second book, The Stooges: Head On, will be published by the Wayne State University Press in fall 2011. Read more here.

Photo by Michael Spleet
Brett Callwood - Most Recent Posts:

Post 7: Burning Records

As I sit to write the last of these blogs, I realize that I haven't said anything like as much as I would have liked to have said. The important thing that I wanted to get across is that everybody in the Metro Detroit area should embrace the music, not to mention the art, the film and everything else, that the area is spurting out at an impressive rate right now.

It's inevitable that people will look around and say "it was better in the '60s". Others will claim the '70s was the golden period. Etc, etc. See how redundant that exercise is?

The truth is that, while San Francisco shone brightly in the '60s, New York had the '70s, LA the '80s, and Seattle the '90s, Detroit produced consistently incredible, challenging and artistically relevant music throughout those decades and right up to the now.

That's something to be immensely proud of.

In the last blog, I talked about Marco Polio & the New Vaccines, and the influence that the MC5 has obviously had on them, even if it's indirectly (as it probably is). When I wrote my MC5 biography, Sonically Speaking, I wasn't writing about a quintet of old men, shuffling through life. I was capturing the essence of a band that burned bright for a brief moment, but man did they burn.

Now, just look around. Lightning Love, the Ypsilanti-based, female-fronted group. Is there a band in the world capable of writing a pop song that is more pure, honest, and exciting? Nope. They burn.

How about the Rogue Satellites, the electro-melodo-rockers regularly slamming across Detroit right now. They burn also. Gypsy-rock-frenzy-makers Punk Lightning? They burn like bastards. Country rocker Ty Stone? His voice makes us all burn.

The list goes on and on. Eric Hoegemeyer's Deep See Sound System incorporates dub rhythm in a way that would make experimental maestro John Sinclair proud. The Octopus doesn't know how to do anything but lay us all to waste.

We're all, all of us, absolutely lucky to live in the Metro Detroit area.

I know things get tough, and we all have real worries. As I said in an earlier blog, I lost a job last month. But this is Detroit, filled with the salt of the earth, and you can't keep a good man, or woman, down.

For as long as we need to, we'll keep picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves off, and moving forward. And you can be sure that, in the process, the area will be producing the best music in the world.

It's what we do.

Post 6: Music for the Decades

In the past three years since relocating from London to Detroit, while covering the local music scene for the Metro Times and Metromix, and having written books about two of Detroit's legendary and classic bands in the MC5 and the Stooges, I genuinely feel that I have been able to write about some of the greatest music ever recorded across the decades.

One big thing that I admire about Metro Detroit musicians and artists is their tenacity. They don't understand the concept of giving up. I adore the fact that Scott Morgan, who made such remarkable music in the '60s and '70s with the Rationals and Sonic's Rendezvous Band, is still battling with bands like Powertrane. I wrote about those guys very early on during my time with MT, and I found them all to be genuine and charming. Then there's Jimmy McCarty and Johnny "Bee" Badanjek, both former members of Mitch Ryder's Detroit Wheels. Before reigniting themselves as the Rockets, these awesome musicians were battling away as the Hell Drivers and I wrote a feature on those guys that I'm also very proud of.

John Brannon, the vocalist who made his name in the '80s with seminal hardcore band Negative Approach is still pummeling all comers with the incredible Easy Action, and I was delighted to give Brannon plenty of press space when I wrote a cover feature on him.
Vinnie Dombroski from Sponge is still out and about in the bands Crud and the Orbitsuns, while I even got to write about former MC5 manager John Sinclair when he recorded an album with experimental jazz-rock ensemble Pinkeye.

I feel like it's this spirit that keeps Detroit alive, keeps it so artistically relevant. Never say die.

Of course, the city will always need the young blood coming through to shine. And shine they do.

The music scene, across the genres, in Metro Detroit right now is as eclectic and exciting as at any time in its history. The artists might not immediately sound like the likes of Nugent, Iggy or Aretha, but the Detroit sound is absolutely there.

Allow me to provide some examples…

When my MC5 book was released in America in September of this year, I had a launch party at the New Way in Ferndale and there was no doubt that I wanted Marco Polio & the New Vaccines to play. I had written a Metro Times feature on these guys, having stumbled across them playing in the streets of Royal Oak outside the Noir Leather store, and I believe that they're one of the most exciting bands on the scene. In spirit, they're very MC5 even if, upon first listen, you might think me crazy for saying that. There's an almost religious, preacher-like quality about front man Steve Puwalski, much like Rob Tyner. He can hold a crowd in the palm of his hand even if initially, as at this years Arts, Beats & Eats Festival, the crowd is fairly disinterested in him and his band. That's why Marco Polio is so important, and why they remind me of the 5. They feel like far more than just a band.

But they are just the tip of the iceberg.

Post 5: Musical Scribes

Metro Detroit is blessed with some incredibly talented music writers and I've been fortunate enough to work with many of them and meet the others, and they've all been supportive at a level I never found in London and, from what I'm told, I wouldn't find in cities like New York or LA. There are many, but Brian Smith, Bill Holdship, Rachel May, Gary Graff, and Sue Whitall come jumping into my head. There are others, and I don't want anybody to get offended, but these five names should be enough to whet anybody's literary appetite.

Bill Holdship was the first to give me a leg up when I arrived. At that time, he was the music editor at the Metro Times. He surprised me, because he was aware of my work with Classic Rock Magazine in England. He welcomed me and immediately started giving me work. Of course, as soon as I started freelancing for MT, I was introduced to Brian Smith. This is an enormous blessing. See, in the almost three years that I've been writing for the MT, I've improved as a writer more dramatically than at any other point in my career. I can see the transition myself, and it's startling. It's mainly down to the guidance and, at times, hard editing of Brian and Bill.

In December 2009, my first MT cover feature was published, on the artist Niagara. This in itself was an amazing experience. With the help of Brian Smith, we produced a feature that, if I do say so myself, is impressive. In my opinion, I bettered it six months later when my second cover feature was published, on punk rock icon John Brannon. Reading that feature now, it's obvious that I learned a lot from Smith during the Niagara process.
Both of those features can be found on the Metro Times website.

Meanwhile… another person I met soon after I arrived was Rachel May. I knew her solely as the singer with Broadzilla (that band had played in England at a Hell's Angels event called the Bulldog Bash, and I had been at the front wearing my Lions cap), and I turned up at the New Way in Ferndale on a Monday evening to see May perform an acoustic set with Novadriver guitarist Bill Reedy. I met up with my now long-time buddy Eric Hoegemeyer there, and he informed me that Rachel also writes for the Free Press. I introduced myself and she informed me that they were involved with a new website, Metromix. I was introduced to then-MMX editor BJ Hammerstein, just as the site was getting started. He gave me work reviewing hundreds of bars, restaurants, nightclubs, stores, and seemingly everything else. Once that initial groundwork was done, I was and am able to concentrate on covering local music for them also.

Finally (for now), things really took a swing in the right direction when I met with Kathy Wildfong at Wayne State University Press. She had a good look at the UK editions of my MC5 and Stooges books and, with the endorsement of her colleague and talented writer ML Liebler, agreed to put both of the books out in North America.

MC5: Sonically Speaking has just been released.

Post 4: The Pencil Driver

Don't make the mistake of thinking that I believe life in Detroit is easy. Since moving to the Metro area, I've worked myself into the ground only to have the rug pulled away from under me from time to time. I know how difficult life can be here.

Only last month, an advertising house that had been employing me as a copy writer decided they didn't have an opening any more. Thankfully, I'll forever be more driven than they are. A huge chunk of my income, and health insurance for my wife and I, is temporarily gone at the time of writing, and we're going to have to scrape by for a while.

Welcome to Michigan, right?


No matter how difficult times have gotten, I've never entertained the idea that Metro Detroit isn't the place for me. My wife is a big reason for this. Toni is an amazing person. I know everybody says (or should say) that about their spouse, but she really is. She couldn't be more supportive, even when the aforementioned dark days come. Especially when, in fact, the company that she runs, Stiv Deville Productions, books shows for various venues and events, and she's extremely good at her job. Needless to say, I love her more than life, but I respect her deeply also.

Professionally, I can't see myself ever not writing about the local music scene. I love the art of writing, of putting words together so that they flow beautifully. I could have fun writing a 5,000 word thesis on a pencil.

But music, and specifically music that is local to here, will always be my favorite subject.
That is why the Metro Times and I are such a good fit. When I first arrived in Detroit, former Creem editor Bill Holdship was the music editor and he welcomed me into the country with enthusiasm and grace. Obviously, there was a learning curve. I knew more about the current music scene than many, but I didn't know everything that I felt I needed to know. I'm not sure anybody ever will.

I did, however, have more than enough knowledge to get a good head start with the MT. My early features were on bands that I still love – the psychotic punk brilliance of They Never Sleep (featuring former Thrall duo Mike Hard and Karen "Queen Bee" Neal), the garage-blues swagger of the Readies (featuring former Demolition Doll Rod Danny Kroha) and the '50s influenced rockabilly Ronettes swing of the Gore Gore Girls (although now front-gal Amy Gore plays in Gorevette).

A few features in, and I was swinging for home runs.

Post 3: Across the Big Blue Sea

MC5: Sonically Speaking was released in the UK early in 2007. The reviews were almost exclusively positive and, more importantly, the guys in the band – Wayne Kramer, Michael Davis, Dennis Thompson and also manager John Sinclair – liked it.

I swiftly followed up with my second book in the UK, a biography of the Stooges called A Journey Through the Michigan Underworld. That's a story for another time, but the research for that book did lead me back to Detroit for another round of interviews in September 2007. This time I stayed for two weeks (in a spare room belonging to Gold Cash Gold / Charm Farm guitarist Steve Zuccaro – see, everything comes full circle). I met more people, I saw more games (the Lions and the Tigers on that trip, I believe, and they both won) and I saw more local bands. That trip coincided with the first People's Arts Festival at the Russell Industrial Center, a fabulous event right from the get-go. I remember seeing Alien Inquisition, Audra Kubat and Jill Jack, and meeting the artists Mark Arminski and Carl Lundgren, plus photographer Leni Sinclair. It was a great day. During that fortnight, I also saw Broadzilla, Overloaded, the Hadituptoheres, Freer, Ko & the Knockouts and Bulldog. I was truly hooked by Detroit and the music scene.

So hooked, in fact, that within weeks I had decided to pack up in England and move to Detroit. Looking back, it seems startlingly naïve but at the time it was the easiest decision to make. Metro Detroit was my home and I needed to be there.

And so it was that at the start of January 2008, I put the majority of my belongings into storage, I packed two suitcases with the base necessities and I flew to Detroit, before making my way to a room in a shared house in Madison Heights that I had found on Craigslist. That night, I remember lying in that bed and breathing deep, because I was home at last.

Within weeks, my work visa was sorted, and I was able to start looking for work. (Not many people come to Michigan to look for work, but I did). The national magazines Metal Edge, Alternative Press, and Modern Drummer were quick to offer up some sporadic freelance work, and for that I'm eternally grateful. But the meat of my journey began when I started writing for the Metro Times and Metromix, and covering the local music scene. I was doing what I loved, in the place I love.

Post 2: Heralding the MC5

Most music writers get to a point where they want to write a book. Contributing to publications is great, but a book is a very different beast. It's a huge, time consuming undertaking, but also a uniquely satisfying one.

And so it was that, in 2006, I decided that the time was right for me. I was freelancing full time by now, and I really want to add some meat to my resume. What better title for a writer than "author"?

Writing a book about the MC5 was a no-brainer. There wasn't a full biography of the band available before mine, I believed that there would be interest in such a book, and I believed that I could do the band justice simply because I was and am so passionate about them. As long as I was able to get interviews with at least the three surviving members and John Sinclair, as would prove to be the case, I didn't see any reason why the fact that I'm English and I was born in 1975 should stop me from writing about a Detroit band from the '60s. I was going straight to the horse's mouth, after all.

The English publishing house Independent Music Press, a very cozy and admirable company, agreed to put my MC5 book out in Britain. Better, with the advance I could afford research trips to both Detroit and also Los Angeles (at that time, both Wayne Kramer and Michael Davis of the 5 were based in LA).

Thus, I was able to return to Detroit, this time for a week. After making many friends during my first brief visit, I was offered a sofa to crash on by Phil Dürr, former guitarist of Big Chief and now in Luder – check both of those bands out.

Obviously, I was able to do all of the research necessary during that week. I interviewed Dennis Thompson, the drummer in the MC5, plus Russ Gibb (manager of the Grande Ballroom), Gary Grimshaw (Grande poster artist) and Jackson Smith (son of Fred and Patti). I also attended an excellent concert at the Royal Oak Music Theater, celebrating the 40th anniversary of rock 'n' roll at the Grande Ballroom. Third Power, a local band from back in the day, opened the show and stole it away from the likes of Big Brother & the Holding Company (obviously minus Janis) and Canned Heat.

However, despite my MC5 leanings that trip didn't turn out to be solely about the old. I started to really realize just how eclectic and damned impressive the current Detroit scene is by going to shows at Memphis Smoke, the New Dodge and more – bands like the Terrible Twos, SSM, and Whitey Morgan & the 78s.

Further investigation was warranted.

Post 1: From the Land of Shakespeare to the Lap of Rock

As an Englishman living in Metro Detroit through choice, the number one question I get asked by Detroiters is "why?" Meaning, why did I leave the land of Shakespeare, the Beatles, that dude from House, and numerous castles, in order to live in Detroit, the desperate, decrepit death pit. But, see, England isn't really one big scene from Pride and Prejudice, and more importantly, I don't see Detroit the way that Julien Temple described it in his BBC documentary at all.

But for those that still require a why, here's why.

In 1999, I was working an excruciating day job, programming computers. Ever day was worse than the last. However, that was the year I began submitting articles to Kerrang!, a weekly heavy rock magazine in the UK. It was a dream gig. I would spend my evenings attending concerts or listening to CDs, and then I would review them. Not only that, but I got paid for the honor. The assignments got bigger, eventually progressing to interviews and features. I switched publications a few times and, by 2003, I was writing for all of the magazines under the Future Publishing umbrella. Included in this list was and is Classic Rock magazine.

MEANWHILE… this was the early 2000s. People from Detroit often find it hard to believe, but during this period Detroit was everywhere in England. From Eminem (and the huge 8 Mile movie) and Kid Rock to the White Stripes, the Von Bondies, the Dirtbombs and those crazy Insane Clown Posse dudes, the Motor City seemed to be central to everything.

David Bowie, that grand old chief of cool, had long before told his minions to listen to Iggy Pop and the Stooges. Generations later, and we were still listening. Except that it wasn't just Bowie anymore. Now, everyone from Dinosaur Jr. to Green Day to Guns N' Roses was telling us the same thing. Metallica was covering Seger, everyone was covering the MC5's "Kick out the Jams" and, wait a minute, Alice Cooper and Ted Nugent are from Detroit too?

Hence, early in the new millennium, I had come to the conclusion that the vast majority of the bands and artists that I held most dear, old and new, were in fact from the Metro Detroit area.

In 2003, just before Christmas, Classic Rock asked me to travel to Detroit to interview an up and coming band called Gold Cash Gold. The band had just put their debut album out in Britain, Paradise Pawned Vol.1, and Classic Rock wanted a "new band" feature. I liked Gold Cash Gold a lot. I still do, even though they only play the occasional reunion show nowadays. They had a dark, blues rock sound, and three of them, Eric Hoegemeyer, Steve Zuccaro, and Dino Zoyes, had been in the (ironically) Brit-pop influenced Charm Farm. But most of all, I liked Gold Cash Gold because they sounded like Detroit.

Of course, I couldn't get on the plane quickly enough.

I spent one weekend in Detroit during the cold December of '03, and that was enough to confirm that I loved the city and the surrounding area deeply. I saw the band play at Smalls in Hamtramck, and I fell in love with Smalls, and Hamtramck. I went over to their label HQ, Times Beach Records at Rustbelt Studios, Royal Oak. Naturally, I fell in love with Rustbelt and Royal Oak. Times Beach put me up in the Atheneum Hotel in downtown Detroit. Ditto that.

By the time I returned to England with a severe case of the blues (truly, I was homesick for Detroit), I loved the Red Wings, the Tigers, the Pistons, the Lions (YES the Lions), every bar, every band and everything else associated with Metro Detroit.

Most of all, I loved the people. It was only a matter of time before I came back.

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