pilgrimage: A Great Miracle Happened Here: The Grande Ballroom

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pilgrimage: A Great Miracle Happened Here: The Grande Ballroom

The first time I visited Detroit on my own with enough time to explore was in September of 2017. As I was planning my trip, I thought to myself, “I wonder if the Grande Ballroom is still there” and plunked it into a web search and voila. Holy shit. It’s still there? The building is still there. I can’t believe it.

I first learned about the Grande Ballroom because of the Who. It was one of the first places in the US that they had a devoted following. And then not long thereafter (or probably right around the same time) I learned about the MC5. It might have been when I was writing a paper for American History junior year and I decided to write about the Chicago 7 and the protests but it was probably a combination of many things coming at me from all sides. Somehow I was convinced that this was music I wanted to hear and a band I wanted to learn about. I bought the censored commercially available reissue at some place like Caldor’s so that some record store dude didn’t try to talk me out of it.

What was it about the MC5? When I read about them, the first time they made an impression on me, it was this sense of a band that existed for five seconds and then disappeared in a puff of smoke, that was loud and sounded dangerous but not in a personal peril sort of way — I could go to a hardcore show if I wanted that (I did not) — but in the kind of way where you believe that rock and roll could change the world or at least could make you think twice about everything you had previously known. They were a phoenix, a flurry, a confetti cannon, and they may not have gotten it all right but they tried and they meant it. My opinion on this has not changed over the ensuing years.

So for all of these reasons, the Grande Ballroom was sacred ground. It had exalted status for me because so much of what happened on that stage was absolutely insane. Let us remember that the MC5 and the Stooges were the local talent. The Five are on dozens of Grande posters as an OPENING ACT. (Who would even be stupid enough to try that?) I don’t know that I understand why there wasn’t the equivalent of Monterey happening on that stage every time the MC5 were on the bill in a support function -- and for all we know, it did happen, but because the Grande Ballroom was in Detroit and not on the coasts, and because CREEM could not dedicate every single issue to the MC5, this information has not been captured. Also probably something to do with consumption of illicit substances and alcohol.

So the Grande was a place I needed to go and pay my respects to, and that Monday morning I picked up the rental car and set out on my journey. It’s funny how that part of Detroit does not phase me at all now, but that day, I was worried I was going somewhere I shouldn’t be. Now I am used to driving by entire blocks of vacant lots, lots that were once very much something. The residential street on one side of the building is not untypical -- a handful of well-maintained houses interspersed with decaying, once gorgeous homes, some marked with the firefighter’s sign for collapsed roof, others with boarded-up windows.

I remember the moment, though, when I was coming down the street and I recognized the building like out of some kind of dream. Holy shit. That’s it. Colored terra cotta tiles. Three flagpoles on the corners of the building, up on whatever is left of the roof. I had goosebumps, I had that oh my god I cannot believe this feeling of wonder and delight and elation.

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I parked, and stepped out. My mind tried to place it in some kind of shimmering mirage of what it must have looked like in its heyday, what it must have been like to roll up and walk in under the marquee. I have this thing where I have to physically touch the building if it is still there, or stand on the ground if it’s not. But I was going to touch the Grande Ballroom’s physical form no matter how uncertain I was about where I was. As a New Yorker who grew up in the 80s I am nothing if not hyper vigilant to my surroundings and I know when I don’t have a good sense of what is safe and what is not safe. I would rather be overly cautious and come back another time than act on unfounded bravado and get mugged.

My poor heart was beating so fast. This happened here, it all happened here, this was the building, this was the place, this was the city. I’m not shocked that the building is falling apart and that it’s not landmarked or taken care of (although well-meaning people have tried their best) -- that is not how this story ever ends. (And given everything I have learned over the last four years about the tendency of developers in this city to tear things down and replace it with a parking lot I am even more astounded that so much of the building remains in situ.) But I was amazed that the edifice is still here in any form.

You can't just generate all that energy and have it dissipate into nothing. The ancients had these concepts of vortexes and ley lines that channeled energy and I am not quite woo enough to wholeheartedly buy into it but I also know at this point in my life that magic is real and that it happens and that it definitely without a doubt happened here in this very spot, this concrete building my hand is resting against, wishing I had a time machine, trying to imagine the heat and the sweat and the smell of beer and weed and patchouli and nag champa, the glitter and the sequins and the paisley and the velvet. How loud it must have been, bouncing off the walls of the old former dance palace, peeling plaster and fading gilt.

I could have sat there for hours just staring at the building and trying to conjure some more stardust, but I absolutely feel as though the action in showing up here, the action of finding it and making a plan and deciding that coming here to stand on the concrete entitled me to the most infinitesimal glimmer. It could also have been just how much I wanted that to happen, I freely admit it; this could all just be my imagination. But I also know I am part of the continuum of perpetuating the history and the magic, and that this is a place I would have belonged.

And six years later, now I do. Although at the time I was so busy racing around seeing everything I needed to see because I had no idea when I’d ever be back in Detroit, let alone that I’d move here. The Grande building still isn’t in any better shape, although now there’s a MC5 mural on the wall, which is a nice reward for anyone who wants to pay their respects. It’s probably too late to rescue it or it would have happened already, and in some ways it’s probably okay that Live Nation can’t put in a VIP room and sell unlimited soda add-ons for shows here. I wish there was a better solution.