Mitch Ryder really shouldn’t need any introduction: Hamtramck-born, he came to the attention of the public in the ’60s, first in Detroit, then the larger musical world, with his rockin’ R&B band the Detroit Wheels. He went on to play in a harder rock ’n’ roll band simply called Detroit, before all but disappearing in the United States. In Europe, he continued to sell records by the bucket-load but, while he remained a much-loved figure in the D, his recorded output here was elusive.
But now his latest album (something of a return to form), The Promise, is about to be released in America. Produced by Don Was, the record captures a mature but still-vibrant Ryder. Previously released in Europe as Detroit Ain’t Dead Yet (The Promise), the record is Ryder’s first U.S. release in nearly 30 years.
A biography of Ryder by James Mitchell, It Was Alright, came out via Wayne State Press in 2008. Ryder gave the book his support, but he obviously felt that there was a story still to tell because he has written his own book, Devils and Blue Dresses, out now. City Slang caught up with the 66-year-old legend (and we don’t use that word lightly) to ask him about the album, the book, and other assorted projects, which include a possible stage show. (Ryder says, "my next challenge ... is a musical, a stage play musical.")
Metro Times: How is your book different from Mitchell’s?
Mitch Ryder: I wanted to do a work of just road stories. All of the silly stuff that’s happened to me, nothing deeper than that and not a biography for sure. He turned it into something a little bigger than that, having ambitions, as writers will. It was really fun, not only to see how seriously he took it and how hard he labored over it, but for him to have that opportunity to be published finally. I felt really good about allowing that to happen in his life. However, my book is a literary work. I chose to use a higher level of language than I’d normally use. It educates people, and it’s compelling to read something where you’re not quite sure the meaning of a word and it pushes you to a dictionary. I think that’s really cool if you can do that to people — help broaden their understanding of the English language. It’s a beautiful language once you get to know it. It’s done in the first person and it is truly subjective. It proves to me that I can write. The next book isn’t going to have to be an autobiography. It can be a fiction, or about some other topic.
MT: You describe your book much like people describe Dylan’s literary work. Challenging, intensely personal ...
Ryder: Dylan must have a huge collection of notebooks and journals that he’s kept, because he describes things in such alarming details. Like, there was a brown piece of paper underneath a pink lamp with a red lampshade. He’s got all this incredible detail. I don’t get that deeply into it because I didn’t keep journals. I suspect he’s got either mountains and mountains of journals, or an overactive imagination. The only comparison I ever got to Dylan was by Don Was when he was producing the new CD. He told me that Dylan and myself were the only two artists he never asked to look at the material in advance. That could be high praise or it could be that he didn’t care. I take it as high praise.
MT: You mentioned that you are working on a musical ...
Ryder: It’s like a dream-nightmare. I had no idea, starting out. I thought that you simply write a story and you write some music. Believe me, it isn’t that simple. There’s a whole set of rules, and at some point I’m going to have to collaborate. I’ll have to deliberately pick people who are very talented in specific areas and allow them to collaborate in order to realize this musical. That’s new territory for me. I have the songs, the words and the basic music, but I don’t have the embellishments. That’s where the orchestration comes in.
MT: What is the plot?
Ryder: The topic is contemporary and it’s timeless, that’s all I’ll say. I’ve gotten some flak for it from people close to me, although they’re supportive in that they are going to let me pursue my fantasy. It’s about trying to define the most powerful element that we know as human beings and that is love.
MT: Musically, is this a traditional musical, or a rock ’n’ roll musical, like Grease?
Ryder: I can tell you what I’m not aiming for — a rock opera, or another Jersey Boys. Something stupid like that. It took them about 10 minutes to create that fucking musical, and yet it’s paying off. That’s not what I consider theater. I consider theater something deeply emotional. Something that affects human beings on different levels.
MT: Tell us about The Promise?
Ryder: Don wanted to give me the chance to create something that we could put out in America. He took me to one of the best studios with one of the best engineers and with some of the best musicians. He let me in to the candy store and I got to pick the candy. He’s a great producer and he’s got a lot of good credits to his name. I would describe the session as being magical. We recorded it last November and the caliber of musicians was such that there was no need to show them something a second time. I don’t believe there were any second takes or anything. A couple of years ago, The New York Times said that I still have my voice and deliver, but it noted that I was starting to address in my music my chronological age. I don’t know if they viewed that as a positive or a negative, because of the way it was worded. At my age, you can’t pretend to be something you’re not. I won’t make another "Devil with a Blue Dress On" just to prove I still can. The fact that I get on stage and do it proves that I can still do it. In terms of my music, I think you need to be able to talk about age-relevant things. So in [the title track] I talk about having good schools for my children and medicine for my wife, good tools for my work. These are things that we should be able to expect as American citizens. I think we have a right to those basic things — medicine, education and good tools to work with. It’s a sociopolitical comment, but done in a tasty way. It has an R&B feel.
MT: I saw you play in Don Was’ revue during the Concert of Colors with Jim McCarty. Does that suggest that some Detroit Wheels bridges have been rebuilt?
Ryder: I don’t think there were any bridges ever torn between the two of us. McCarty was the only one out of all of us to get a major recording contract. He was the first, with Cactus. He has enjoyed tremendous success. The only thing that bothers him is my use of the band name "The Detroit Wheels." As I explained to him, I looked on the Internet and it was waiting for somebody to grab it. If Jimmy or Johnny had wanted it, needed it or had to use it, then they should have gotten it. It’s a brand name, and what I did is grab it to protect it. In my contracts to appear, I state clearly that the artist prefers that he be billed as Mitch Ryder, period. If the promoter chooses for whatever reason to use "and the Detroit Wheels," he can. I wasn’t about to let that brand name get picked up by some kid in New Jersey. That’s the only difference we’ve had really. At this point in their lives and careers, if that was their biggest accomplishment then I feel bad because I don’t look at it that way.
MT: Isn’t a lot of the affection for your old music related to the feeling of magic surrounding that whole late ’60s, early ’70s Grande Ballroom period?
Ryder: It’s a part of the history and we do need to hold onto it, but we don’t need to do a revisionist history while we do it. Anyway, I’m going to be putting out my back catalog, the albums previously available in Europe. To my fellow citizens. My fellow Americans. That sounds very presidential, doesn’t it?
Mitch Ryder’s The Promise is out now. He plays a record and book release party on Jan. 14 at Callahan’s; 2105 South Blvd., Auburn Hills; 248-858-9508.