Mitch Ryder, Steamboat, March 16, 1985

Mitch Ryder

Steamboat, March 16, 1985

Life in Detroit ends unbreathed, I think. It ends in the quiet, late hours, a man sitting at his kitchen table in a sleeveless white undershirt, silently sipping a beer and gazing into a long night broken only by the metronomic rhythm of a bar's flashing neon sign and the low rumble of one of those big Detroit automobiles on the cruise. It is at that hour when a man tortures himself. He wonders where it all went. That's what I figured had been happening to Mitch Ryder as I listened to this Detroit City voice-wrestler struggle half-drunkenly through his first set at Steamboat. At first, attired drably in a dark suit, white sneakers and an aquamarine scarf, Ryder revved the big engines one more time to belt out commendable versions of such battered warhorses as "C.C. Rider" and "Rock 'n Roll." Halfway through the set, however, Ryder, backed by a five-piece band (two guitars, bass, drums, keyboards) sputtered into weak versions of newer original material and tepid covers of "Heart of Stone" and Prince's "When You Were Mine," which concluded the set. Throughout, he was alternately bitter ("Know what I like about Austin?" asked this hard voice from the Rust Belt. "You still think you have money to spend."), confessional ("I got no secrets."), and fatalistic ("If I paid $8.50, I'd wonder what was goin' on, too."). "Ah, I'm havin' fun," he quipped at one point. "I don't even feel like throwin' up yet." I left Steamboat concluding that this Detroit everyman personified everything tough and proud and, ultimately, lost and desperate about that city; the second set, then, was nothing short of a miracle. I arrived midway through it, stunned to find Mitch and the band (called the Detroit Wheels, but they weren't the originals) cruising as smoothly and confidently as a freshly tuned Olds Delta 88 on the Ford freeway. Ryder himself looked more in control and his voice, stalwart during the first set, was as strong as one of those 357 engines that have never heard of obsolescence. The two guitarists dueled in the grand Michigan industrial-strength tradition, and the drummer kept a beat as hard and fast as pistons at 85 mph. The whole thing was a testament to urgency, vitality, and rebirth. Ryder concluded with a magnificent, haunted version of the Doors' "Soul Kitchen," with Ryder's last words being the repeated refrain: "Learn to forget." It was a painfully appropriate conclusion for a man who will never again matter as much as he once did, but who nonetheless has too much drive and talent to foreclose on himself.

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