Mo Pop and the Cult of Wellness
I bought a photo of Rod Stewart from Leni Sinclair at the Mo Pop Music Festival in suburban Detroit. It was late 60’s, Faces era. He was shirtless, tight white bells, skinny as a rail, spent after singing his heart out into the Grande Ballroom. I’ve never cared much about Rod Stewart and only bought the photo for a friend as a gag. It was a well-composed black and white shot. Leni is one of those artists you are familiar with even if you don’t know it. She is credited with many of the iconic shots of 60’s rock n’ roll, pictures of Iggy Pop, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and of course, The MC5.
Leni Sinclair was married to MC5 manager, White Panther Party leader and 60s anti-war activist Jon Sinclair. Their work in Detroit’s Cass Corridor in the mid-60s is stuff of legend, and Leni made the scene and photographed it exhaustively, sorting through the detritus of shutter and light to pick out the gems. In 2004, Detroit’s weekly entertainment magazine, The Metro Times, ran a profile of her that dubbed her “Rock photography’s overlooked grand matriarch.” Speaking to writer Chris Handyside for the piece, Sinclair characterizes her process as a series of happy accidents, saying, “I was just lucky to be there, and now it’s something that helps put food on the table. Like my Jimi Hendrix photo, out of the whole roll, one shot was good, but I’m glad for that one shot!” Sinclair adds that “The iconic nature doesn’t become apparent until years later,” and in that sense, the photograph I hold is a recursive emblem of renewal and decay.
I was wandering in the sunlight of an August afternoon, trying to stomach the overwrought craft beer, three small samples of which came with the price of admission, when I found the booth. The couple who along with my wife had dragged me here were drinking their hopalicious beer beneath a tent. I kept disappearing into the bathroom and worrying about my liver and they had already asked my wife several times if I hated them. I didn’t. I had been up late the night before playing my guitar and drinking Budweiser and Canadian Club in my garage. Today had been a quick turnaround, and I dreaded the music the festival was featuring.
These friends of ours were gearing up for the night’s big payoff, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more nauseating arrogation of the hippy aesthetic than this band. The Magnetic Zeros’ dalliance with neo-hippyism is centered around the vomitous self-empowerment ethos of the new left. The music entreats us to find spirituality and God through the messianic cult-stylings of its frontman, a chignon-wearing jackass whose tautological blend of doggerel and mysticism guts hippiness of its polemical force.
Edward Sharpe tells the audience that this is great, he’s never been to Detroit before, and he still hasn’t. This is not Detroit, and something about Sterling Heights has always left me feeling empty. It is a middling, middle class place, one in a cluster of eastern suburbs of Detroit full of cookie cutter subdivisions and nuclear families whose squares of lawn and dirt, the safety to make what they might retrospectively mistake for memories, are contingent upon the Chrysler Corporation in one way or another. I lived here with my parents for a year when I was a kid. My father hated it, dubbing it “Sterile Whites” and moving us back to the city as soon as he could.
In the photograph I bought, Rod the Mod is leaning back into darkness, footlights lending his lithe body its ethereality so that you might think he was the paragon of rock wisdom if you didn’t know better. The rasp in his voice puts me in mind of two of my uncles who partied too late into the 70’s for partying to be any fun, whose cheeks were bright red, who liked Rod Stewart and would defend him, telling the story of his visit to the Tipperary Pub in West Detroit after a gig at Cobo one night, how he came in wearing a big peasant’s hat pulled down tight over his head and drank a Guinness. They are notorious liars, but the picture was there on the wall of the erstwhile pub.
Rod Stewart’s music seems to dead end at a dreary afternoon, the kind of music that fills the dust motes with its sound. It reminds me of my one clear memory of my family’s year in Sterling Heights. My father takes me up to the K-Mart to buy a red ten-speed bicycle. He has them bolt a yellow kid’s seat to the back of the bike for me. When we move to West Detroit the following year, my foot will dangle in the spokes of that bike while we are riding toward Fairlane Mall on Evergreen Road, broken ankle, tassels of blood and skin like a studded change purse. My father clutching me in one arm and wheeling the bike along in the other, telling me not to look down, but I must.
Rod Stewart is the sort of music that would have been playing over the tinny K-Mart PA that day. The thick melodies gathering like billirubin in the skin around the eyes. The music of devolution and the wrong kind of plaintiveness. Edward Sharpe is Rod Stewart cleansed of plaintiveness and aging. I find myself singing softly: I’ve got nothing to do on this hot afternoon except sit down and write you a line. There is wiry strength, and there is emaciation. I find myself singing: I’m a man on fire…though it is clearly the passionless kind of fire, the utterance of fire in hope it sounds familiar enough to stick.
Last night I stood before the bathroom mirror and traced the crimson capillaries on my right rib cage. They looked like overexposed Lichtenberg figures the way they fissured and streaked from the larger vein. The body transforms the abuses we heap upon it into fractals, I thought, and the shape of my family will persist over scale. I was born with the many failures of its constitution; in this I am not unique.
This morning I ate a marijuana cookie, hid behind women’s sunglasses, and reminded myself that the cirrhotic are beyond regeneration. Man is a denatured animal, Zizek writes. We are animals sick with language. And how sometimes we long for a cure. But just shutting up won’t do it.
In William S. Burroughs’ metaphysiological theory of rock (one I am partial to in this hepatotoxic state [I’ve been drinking for three days and haven’t slept]) the body becomes only what it hears, it will spy itself in a window or a mirror and recoil at what is not there. It will look and find itself absent from the grotesque mess framed by stringy hair. It will yellow and age while ingesting the requisite substances to make the music of its day palatable. Bad music, make no bones, but it will make bones nostalgically after it has begun the failure to oxygenate extant bones. Because if listening to inchoate sounds and internalizing them affords anything, it is the narcosis to engage in the hagiography of mediocre pop stars. I watch Edward Sharpe dally into the audience. People reach out to touch him, and if they needed to be healed, it would be forgivable, but they are lily-white and well. I feel something churning beneath my right ribcage. I’d stretch my hand out, but he has already floated back to the stage.