Less than a year ago, we muttered discontentedly as countless musicians consistently passed over Detroit on North American tours, skipping straight from Cleveland to Canada without even a glance in our direction. Now, with the ever-increasing light shining upon anything and everything Detroit, everybody wants to come here, if only to take a gulp of the river water that must make our city so damn funky. Lately, it’s not so much “Why won’t they come?” — it’s more, “Where are we going to put everybody?!”
The closing of Bittersweet Coffee House a while back, along with less-frequent bookings at other small venues, such as 7th House and Mill Street Entry, is taking its toll on up-and-coming bands who need a small space to develop their craft. This Saturday’s final performance at Gold Dollar — the somewhat short-lived, yet monumental experimental live venue tucked away in the Cass Corridor — only chips away at our increasingly depleting source of how to answer that magical question of “where?”
Detroit is going to miss this eclectic bar, much as Chicago probably missed the Lounge Ax after it closed a few years ago. But Chicago has its fair share of venues to make up the difference. Motor City musicians and music lovers are already wondering what will pick up the slack the Gold Dollar leaves behind.
As an alternative to the bar-as-venue idea, a collective of artists is determined to get a performance space and studio together called Logic. They’ve faced a few obstacles — getting kicked out of their original space, and complaints from neighbors, but they’re still going for it. Other artists are getting creative, holding CD-release parties in skating rinks, backyards and wherever else people will show up. Several basements in Ann Arbor host touring bands weekly. Space is still tight, however, and nothing will re-create what Neil Yee started five years ago at 3129 Cass Ave.
“It actually was a bar in ’34 or ’35,” Yee says of the Gold Dollar space. “It was called the Gold Dollar from ’35 to ’89. And then it was Cartell’s Lounge for a year. And then it was closed and abandoned. I got in end of ’94, beginning of ’95. We opened in ’96.
“I heard all these stories from everyone, all the old cops and everything. ‘Oh, you know what that place was …’ so as far as I know, from ’56 to ’88 or ’89 it was a drag show bar.
Yee had a hard time coming up with a new name.
“I thought of some, but it’s like band names. Every name is stupid until it’s actually popular and then it doesn’t sound quite as bad. So I just figured, I couldn’t argue with history. It was ’35 to ’89 and as soon as the name changed, the place closed, so I figured, we’ll go with the old name.”
Somewhat of an introvert, Yee needs a break from the prominent role of bar owner. For a while, he wouldn’t admit that he owned the place. If anyone asked, he was just the sound guy. After the final show, he plans on traveling — backpacking, sailing and general wandering. While he lives quite simply, many would put more pressure on him as a sort-of proprietor of “the scene.”
“The empire,” Yee jokes. “Today the Cass Corridor, tomorrow the world! But it’s not really true. I’m not that ambitious. I just generally tend to go where other people won’t. In this building, there’s a friend of mine who was originally going to be a partner in this. He didn’t even really want to get out of the car for this building when we came down to it. Someone who lived across from the Old Miami was saying, ‘Oh, you’ll never get people to the South Cass Corridor.’ Now all of a sudden it’s trendy here — not entirely because of this, but all these other things moving in here. I got the building before the empowerment zone, before any of this stuff happened. The empowerment zone has done nothing for me, by the way.”
The empowerment zone has left the corridor’s denizens a bit divided on how to “develop” the area. Some lean toward upscale apartments and Starbucks coffeehouses.
“I tend to fall more on the side of low-income housing and paying attention to people who are here now. I’m kind of, in a way, anti-progress. Because what’s happening is that smaller and interesting things are disappearing for the progress of Detroit, for big things. It’s much more difficult to do something like this now than it was then. Looking around, this area isn’t any better than it was five years ago. It just costs more.”
Yee says that he thinks he’s sold the Gold Dollar for real this time. “I’ve sold it a few times already. Something always falls through at the last minute. I can’t really say. I think I have, but I thought I did twice before.”
He doubts that the new owners will use the space for live performance, however.
“Realistically, given the economics of this area, there won’t be anything similar here because it’s just too expensive. This sort of business doesn’t make a whole lot of money, but the real estate is worth enough — I mean, it’s not worth a huge amount and I think I’m selling actually quite low — but it just doesn’t make sense to do this sort of thing here. The way I look at it, people will do whatever they want. If I really wanted to keep this the same, I’d do it myself. It’s not like I have the right to tell anyone if you buy this you have to do this. The only way it would have kept doing music is if SFX would’ve bought it. They wanted to, but some things fell through with the contract. But I’ll help anyone else who wants to do anything like this.”
“You have to find a bar that doesn’t have too many regulars on weekends. Something that’s about to go under and go with it,” he laughs.
Not about money
Yee wants to make it clear that his decision to close Gold Dollar is not a financial one.
“This is the only place you can do a show that’ll draw six people where the owner will be happy about it. If it’s a good show, I don’t care. It would be nicer if someone showed up, but it doesn’t matter.”
Before opening the Gold Dollar, Yee made a very comfortable living working behind a computer for a corporation and then in management at a publishing house. He says his paycheck goes down with each job he takes. Toward the end, however, he started booking certain shows just because he knew there would be a draw and this led to him questioning his original purpose.
“If I’m doing this for the money, I’m doing the wrong thing, because I’ve made a whole lot of more money doing anything else that I’ve done in my life more than this.”
Being slightly overexposed to music and carrying a huge weight of responsibility also got to be a bit much.
“Everyone’s like, ‘Oh you can get someone else to run it.’ I’ve done that. I went out of town for 13 weeks last year, but you still have this underlying responsibility in the back of your mind. They came to take the license away last summer when I was out of town, because they had lost my insurance papers. We’d done everything correctly. They just lost the stuff. And if I wouldn’t have been available by phone all the time, things wouldn’t happen. I just want to get away from that level of responsibility … like a good slacker.”
Some of Neil’s favorite performances were the theater pieces staged in the early incarnation of the bar and some of the wildcard shows, including a recent flamenco performance.
“We did something on a Sunday night called Chaza Show Choir, a group from Milwaukee that had a band with them called Competitor. It was an original play with a backing band. And it was amazing. It was kind of campy and silly, but it was supposed to be. It was just an amazing logistical feat in that they had 25 people in the play. Getting 25 people to be in a play and go two weeks on tour with this play — it’s hard enough to set up a show for a band. Setting up a show for a strange, original play — it was really just amazing. We had about six people here. We’ve had a lot of good shows with about six people. Usually it’s the six people I call. Not to say that the big shows are necessarily not good, but there’s a whole lot more out there that nobody knows about and nobody goes to see because their friends aren’t in it.”
“I’m going to miss a lot of the bands and people who care about what they’re doing, people who are still working out there trying to do something new. And the people who support that — a lot of the customers here, a lot of the people I’ve worked with here.”
What he’s not going to miss is being on call 24/7, bands that get rude when he doesn’t book them, a few of the customers and the drunks. Detroit will miss his dedication to giving a chance to new artists.
“The Gold Dollar has become a right of passage for every aspiring band that comes through Detroit,” says Amy Anselm of the band Blush. “It is such a shame it is closing its doors. It seems mainly musicians attend the smaller-venue live music clubs. Unfortunately, that isn’t enough to sustain the business. Giant nightclubs are taking over the weekend scene with ‘foam parties,’ ‘drag queen dominatrix’ and other gimmicky ideas. Gimmicky ideas seem to be more fun, something out of the ordinary. That’s probably why our CD-release party worked.” (Blush held its CD release at a skating rink.)
Another thing Detroit will miss is just the atmosphere of the venue itself: the “protective devices” shelf attached to the wall behind the bar, which started out as a place to put ear plugs and turned into a display for various other devices — condoms, safety goggles, gloves, back scratchers.
Then there’s the mysterious foil ball, which has been growing since the first annual “Gold Dollar Prom,” when the bar covered the walls and tables in tin foil.
“Prom changes a lot of the decor,” Yee says. “Usually we put up weird decorations and they stay up for a year or two, till they fall down.”
And what about the homemade monitors that nearly every band jokes about when performing?
“There was some national show — maybe Richard Davies — and I was at some store waiting in line and I happened to pick up a Rolling Stone and saw a review of his record. I was like, ‘Wow, I booked that guy. And it was like a four- or five-star review. I thought I should probably build some floor monitors for that. So I did. There’s a lot of stuff in this building that’s homemade, home repaired.”
“We haven’t practiced in five years. I don’t know if we’re going to do it, but maybe. We aren’t going to be any good.”
After a long breath, Yee adds, “I’m definitely going to miss this. Actually having somewhere to go. Though I don’t always want to go here.”
Partly due to the lack of venues and partly due to a desire much like Yee’s to just do something different, a few bands are getting creative with show spaces. Anselm explains how the CD release party at the Ambassador Rolling Rink came about.
“We originally were going to have our CD release party at the Magic Bag because it seems to be the place to release your record. The more we thought about it, we didn’t want to do it at the same place every band in Detroit releases their CD. As much as we love the Magic Bag and everyone there, we wanted ours to be different. Skating was nostalgic and a change of pace, but so familiar. Keeping with the nostalgic theme, we asked people to dress in ’80s garb.”
Once the band determined where to hold it, they ran into some issues. There would be no drinking or smoking allowed. They knew this would affect the attendance, but were willing to take that chance.
“The night of the show we set up on the rink and did a sound check. The sound wasn’t that of the Magic Bag, that’s for sure, but we were preparing ourselves for that since the rink wasn’t set up acoustically and equipment-wise for having bands. Since it was the ‘bar crowd’ in attendance, there was always a group of people outside the front door having a smoke and people heading for their car or the bathroom to tip a few down. All in all, everyone seemed to have a great time. There were about 250 people in attendance.”
“I want to have this band play in my living room” — lots of people say it. A bunch of music lovers are doing it, opening their living rooms and basements to national and local touring bands and the public. It makes sense. You’ve got a band that needs a show and nowhere to put them, so you use what you have. A few houses in Ann Arbor and Detroit have become widely known as venues, including the Pirate House and the Gun Shop. There’s a certain charm in hearing a band trying to incorporate the sound of a running washing machine into its set. And then of course, it’s always fun when the ceiling starts leaking. No one cares because it’s a small relief from the heat of so many people in such a small space. Hitting your head on low ceilings, that crumbly white plaster getting everywhere — it doesn’t get any better.
Of course, the downside is paying for noise violations. The Pirate House had to cancel its last scheduled show (this past Sunday) for fear of a massive ticket that they were threatened with after police caught wind of it from fliers posted around town.
If at first …
Logic has had similar troubles since its incarnation. One of the space’s organizers, Joe Kirkland explains how it got started.
“Colin Zyskowski rented a second-story loft in Hamtramck. The rest is short-lived history. We began putting on shows at the Hamtramck location and Colin opened a recording studio in the same space. Complications with the lease and an uncooperative landlord necessitated the move downtown to our new location — a fourth-story loft in the Cary Building on Gratiot Avenue.”
And they continue because they see a need.
“A need for an all-ages show space that wasn’t going to rip off the performers,” Kirkland explains. “A need for a place where artists, without the politics and name-dropping bullshit, could display their art for people to enjoy. A need for something different in Detroit. And we decided to do something about it.
“We were evicted from our first location when the previous landlord read an article in the Detroit Free Press about Logic and, citing the fact that we had signed a residential lease, kicked us out. Upset but undaunted, we found a new loft in the heart of downtown.
“In our new location, we had some trouble involving damage to the building, which understandably upset our neighbors. We’re doing everything in our power to resolve the situation. We’ve secured an alternate location for louder shows (the BHA Hall, located on Caniff, two blocks east of I-75 in Hamtramck) and we’ve refined the focus of the Logic space itself somewhat by focusing on things like exhibits, small gatherings, readings and so on. But we’re absolutely going to keep trying.”
We’re gonna make it
In Yee’s words, “If you put something together and work on it, there’s always a way to figure things out. There’s always a possibility you can do something with it.”
Don’t worry about space. Detroit not only has plenty of it, its residents are known worldwide for their creativity. It’s what’s finally getting people to pay attention to the city. We won’t lose momentum because of a few losses. It will only get more interesting.
But before that, there’s one final party to be had at one of the most interesting venues the city’s known so far.Melissa Giannini is Metro Times’ music writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org