Joe Molloy
Acid Detroit: A Psychedelic Story of Motor City Music
Repeater Books, 2023

Detroit was once a city of postcard dreams, the place associated above all others with the rise of the northern Black middle class. It was where, in 1914, Henry Ford made history when he gave autoworkers an unprecedented $5 a day, and then again, in the 1920s, when he hired large numbers of Black migrants moving up from the South. Yet it wasn’t until the boom of World War II that Black workers were hired by the rest of the auto industry en masse. Once the war ended, as federal defense contracts dried up or were diverted to upstart military industries in the Sun Belt, Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler looked at their bottom lines and came to feel that the union movement had won too much. Ford opened its automation department in 1947. Automakers took advantage of the brisk new transport routes opened by postwar highway construction to shutter or downsize their centralized Detroit plants, moving production to remote cornfields or to the unionless sunshine of the South.1

Already by the end of the 1940s the city had grown a little emptier. White residents took their tax dollars and receded to the suburbs. Black residents, excluded from housing stock, were cramped into a single neighborhood, Black Bottom, which local authorities saw as a slum ripe for renewal. The city razed it in the early 1950s, running the Chrysler Freeway and the world’s largest collection of Mies van der Rohe buildings right through Hastings Street, the hub of Black commerce and blues-club nightlife.

The new neighborhood, Lafayette Park, remains a beautiful emblem of compact yet spacious urban design: acres of park space encircled by two-story modernist townhouses and residential high-rises with floor-to-ceiling glass walls. As Walter Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers and the lead backer of the project, argued, the new development promised to house a diverse population, showcasing “how all classes and groups of people could live together in a democracy.” Instead, construction grew too expensive and developers slashed the allotted low-income units — in classic postwar style, the clean Bauhaus aesthetic lived on while its socialist vision withered. By the early 1960s, when the demolition-and-rebuild dust cleared, what was left was a half-ghostly, half-heaving gleaming-glass city that had shuffled people around and made for volatile intersections. Middle-class Blacks moved west, running up against whites packing for the ’burbs. Working-class Blacks squeezed into ever tighter apartments, praying that the wait list for the Brewster-Douglass housing projects would start moving.

Detroit’s ills were supposed to be soothed by the 1962 election of a young Kennedyesque mayor, the liberal Catholic Jerome Cavanagh, who was backed by the Black professional class and fawned over by national media. Cavanagh inherited a city with mounting debts and simmering racial tensions. But he had luck on his side. The first few years of his mayorship were boom years for the U.S. economy, lifting the auto industry into a brief resurgence. For his part, Cavanagh proved a wizard at securing federal funds. He spent the money on downtown redevelopment projects, on small-scale inner-city jobs programs, and on a long list of new committees and councils, with leadership often plucked from the Black elite, that did things like monitor diversification at city departments and hold community relations seminars with police.

These efforts made for great PR, as did the 1963 civil rights march where Cavanagh strode down Woodward Avenue with Martin Luther King Jr. Detroit was a city, Cavanagh boasted, where you didn’t “need to throw a brick to communicate with city hall.” But Black unemployment stayed high, housing access stayed woeful, and police abuse stayed rampant. By 1967, the friendly economic winds had changed course. Federal funds were diverted from the city’s coffers to the war in Vietnam. Black youth unemployment ticked upward, hovering around 30 percent. That year, for the first time in Cavanagh’s tenure, the city budget tipped into the red. In late July, a Cavanagh aide complained that the only thing the administration hadn’t had to deal with was “a riot.” Two days later the city burst into flames.

The Temptations’ 1970 album Psychedelic Shack begins with a knock and the slow creaking of an ancient door, before bursting into a quick-pulse, wah-wah world.

It began around four in the morning on July 23 when undercover cops slipped past the doorman of a “blind pig,” the local term for a speakeasy. On the second floor of a vacant industrial building, partygoers celebrated the return of two Vietnam vets, as the Parliaments—not yet P-Funk—played over the speakers. The police smashed the jukebox, beating anyone who resisted, and arrested 85 people, though they only had room in their vehicles to haul away 14. The rest stood outside in cuffs and waited. Soon word got out. A crowd gathered, jeered, threw bricks. Cop cars were smashed. The police lost control and fled. One of the largest riots in U.S. history had broken out. By dawn, plumes of smoke thickened the sky, and after four days of destruction that ultimately required a deployment of the U.S. Army to end, Mayor Cavanagh walked outside and told a reporter it looked “like Berlin in 1945.”

In the months and years that followed, new moods surged through Detroit. Gun clubs multiplied across the suburbs. Black militant and leftist groups sprang up and deepened in influence. Headlines lingered over the stories of Black workers like James Johnson, known around the factory as an unassuming Bible reader, who, after being fired in the summer of 1970, walked back into the Chrysler plant and shot dead two foremen, one white and one Black. A mix of elation and anger — of possibility and newfound power — spread through poor and working-class Black neighborhoods.

Nothing gave form to these feelings better than the city’s music. MC5, the resident garage rockers of Detroit’s left counterculture, rose to new levels of notoriety, signing big and appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone. The Stooges, based in the nearby college town of Ann Arbor, released Fun House (1970), a vexed, relentless record that veers between bliss and wounded fury, tight guitar coils and unspooled industrial daze. Most surprising of all, however, was Motown’s turn. The label’s old sweet soul style — white suits, finger snaps, innocent little choreographed routines — had aimed squarely for the mainstream. Its innovation was to fashion a Black American commercial culture for the world. But after years of sticking to the script of KISS, or Keep It Simple Stupid, label founder Berry Gordy allowed a young producer, Norman Whitfield, to launch Motown in a new direction. What lay in store was hinted at in 1967 by the Supremes’ hit “Reflections,” with its spacey opening and glinting propulsion, and realized in the Temptations’ 1970 album Psychedelic Shack. The album begins with a knock and the slow creaking of an ancient door, before bursting into a quick-pulse, wah-wah world, full of antiwar sentiment and hallucinatory prospects for self-reinvention. “It’s got a neon sign outside that says come in and take a look at your mind / You’d be surprised what you might find . . .” This was music as counterculture gateway drug, a sliver of new sounds that could be bleak and furious or utopian and psychedelic, and sometimes all at once.

As Joe Molloy argues in Acid Detroit: A Psychedelic Story of Motor City Music, this post-riot cultural turn seeded a musical lineage that carries on to this day, registering and responding in ever-new ways to the world-altering mood of deindustrialization — a mood that first seemed to imprint itself on the city’s consciousness with the ’67 riot. In the decades to come, avalanches of new sound jarred Detroit. The jangly, deep-groove jazz-funk of trumpeter Donald Byrd. The lush, down-tempo protest hymns of Marvin Gaye. The electric space travel of Funkadelic. The Midnight Funk Association radio takeovers by the Electrifying Mojo, a local DJ who scrambled pop music’s racial codes by playing everything from deep-cut Prince to the B-52s and Kraftwerk. The cold, machine-haunted techno of Cybotron. The militant noise of John Brannon’s hardcore punk. The rushed, bone-dry snare claps, automated yet askew, of hip-hop producer J Dilla. Detroit’s assembly lines, whose rhythms Gordy had begun his career humming along to at the Lincoln Motor Company Plant, had ground to a halt, and the city’s musicians responded by turning out-of-joint history into odd, fusing, out-of-joint rhythms.

Nothing gave form to the feelings of elation, anger and possibility better than the city’s music.

Acid Detroit packs this lineage into a pocket-size 170-page history. It moves in episodes, roving from soul to proto-punk, acid rock to acid rap, touching on a great number of artists but delving at length into around a dozen, who compose for Molloy a post-riot tradition. Follow this tradition, Molloy argues, and you end up with a whole history: the book’s opening page claims it to be the first book to “survey the entire territory” of Detroit’s music.

But the power of Molloy’s book flows from a larger argument. Its title borrows from the cultural critic Mark Fisher (who co-founded Repeater Books, the imprint behind Acid Detroit, in 2014). When Fisher died by suicide in 2017, he left behind an introduction to an unfinished book called, charmingly, Acid Communism. The introduction promised a major second act to Capitalist Realism (2009), an end-of-history tale of how capitalism came to feel interminable, as if it were a world system without alternative. Acid Communism, in historical subject its prequel, traveled back to the New Left window in the 1960s and ’70s when “the convergence of class consciousness, socialist-feminist consciousness and psychedelic consciousness” attracted mass converts to the image of a very different world: a vision of less work and more collective freedom, offering a “new humanity, a new seeing, a new thinking, a new loving.”

Fisher was fusing two worlds — New Left politics and an emerging youth culture of new freedoms, new desires — which fed into a wider left cultural ecosystem, and yet never fully converged. Acid communism named a process and an aspiration: the mainstreaming of the desire for a life freed from capitalist scarcity, and the frustrated dream of giving this desire political form. This was a dream, Fisher argued, that had spilled out into the New Left era and birthed a flurry of cultural and political experiments. The era’s freedom dreams flashed out of the democratic socialism of Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular coalition in Chile; the pirate radios and housing co-ops of Red Bologna; the living room delirium of the BBC TV adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and, perhaps most important to Fisher, the time-stretching, out-there music of Motown’s late psychedelic turn, the slightly strange, electric-jolt, strobe-lit soundscapes that made Berry Gordy miss the good old teenage-love days of the early ’60s.

This is Molloy’s cue. A sort of acid communist ethos, he argues, unites post-riot Detroit’s music, putting the city in the running for something like acid communist capital of the world — a place where Fisher’s idea can rub against the grain of history and come out a little clearer.

He’s on to something. If you want to understand the dreams and dilemmas of acid communism, few cities offer a better case study than Detroit. And yet it’s easy to finish Molloy’s book and feel that the matter has only been half explored. Molloy’s treatment of Fisher’s vision, which fuses culture and politics, seems here to lose track of politics, or to reduce the political to a kind of fog rising from the city’s music. To uncover Detroit’s acid communist past, you have to tell its left-political history alongside its cultural history, to see how organizers and artists worked in divergent ways, at the same time and place, toward something of a shared horizon. And first you need to go back, to see the snowed-under seeds laid before the riots shook up the city.

*   *   *

Detroit’s first glimmers of New Left cultural politics began in the McCarthy-stalked early years of the 1950s. By then, three of the U.S. left’s most original organic intellectuals had transplanted themselves to the city, or at least had made plans to. In 1937, the year the United Auto Workers won their first contract, an 18-year-old James Boggs hopped a freight train heading north with no luggage and $1 in his pocket. He was leaving the tiny Alabama cotton-farm town of Marion Junction, “where white people were ladies and gentlemen by day and Ku Klux Klanners by night.” His great-grandmother, who had told him stories of slavery and given him his first real sense of history, still lived there, as did his parents, who worked for the household of a white doctor. But his entire life, everyone had been moving north. Boggs made his way to his uncle’s home in Black Bottom, where 20 years later Mies would build his modernist neighborhood. He found temporary employment with the Works Progress Administration, hoboed way out West during the last days of the Depression, and returned to Detroit at the onset of the war to work in a Chrysler plant.

A decade later, in 1953, a group of Marxist intellectuals split from the Trotskyist, New York City–based Socialist Workers Party and relocated their newfound group, the Correspondence Publishing Committee, to Detroit. Their towering leader never made the move. C.L.R. James — novelist, theorist, historian, revolutionary, editor, cricket journalist, in no particular order — instead was deported for overstaying his visa, but for the next nine years, despite living in London and his native Trinidad, he conducted much of his intellectual life in Detroit, a place he inhabited through the mail.

Detroit’s first glimmers of New Left cultural politics began in the McCarthy-stalked early years of the 1950s.

Meanwhile, Correspondence’s other members set up shop in the city, foremost among them Grace Lee. The daughter of Chinese-immigrant restaurateurs, Lee had grown up in a large house in an all-white, middle-class New York City neighborhood that her family had moved into through subterfuge, signing the deed with the Irish name of their contractor. A gifted student, she finished a philosophy PhD at Bryn Mawr, fell under the spell of Hegel, and in 1940 took a job making $10 a week in the University of Chicago’s philosophy library — as close to leading the life of the mind, she imagined, as a Chinese American woman with a doctorate could get. She lived rent-free in a damp Hyde Park basement, learned firsthand about poverty and the exploitation of Chicago’s South Side Black community, and one day came across a Socialist Workers Party flyer on the street. She joined.

When C.L.R. James came to Chicago to visit the local party branch, she met him at the train station and saw he had Hegel’s Science of Logic in his hand—the first auspicious emblem of a long intellectual partnership. Years later, they plotted their new breakaway group, of which Grace Lee became a leader. She moved to Detroit and married the group’s prize recruit, the Black radical factory worker, theorist, and feuilleton writer James Boggs, becoming Grace Lee Boggs and bringing her husband closer into Correspondence’s inner circle.

Correspondence was a small group with a theory. No one in 1950s America, its members argued, placed faith in the working class’s ability to think and act for itself. Their old Socialist Workers Party comrades believed in the necessity of a vanguard party. The trade unions and the Democratic Party were stifled by bureaucracy and quietism. Popular culture, for its part, refused to touch the great issues of the day. As C.L.R. James argued in American Civilization, early ’50s culture gave voice to pent-up working-class fury only through a million obliquities: the mystifying gangster fog of noir; the uneasy chill behind Sinatra’s feather-light mood music; the zany, laugh-it-off stress of I Love Lucy; or the clean, Pacific, keep-it-below-the-surface cool of West Coast jazz. Correspondence aimed to let some air into this stifling hothouse. Among the many utopian experiments of the 20th century was their vehicle for midcentury American revolution: a 12-page biweekly newspaper, put together in a small basement office on Detroit’s west side, called Correspondence.

The publication became the group’s sole activity. It served, they argued, as one crucial step of a transitional revolutionary strategy, providing a place for the working class to figure out what sort of society they wanted to build. Once enough people had agreed on political ideas, a militant workers’ organization would follow. As the historian Stephen M. Ward writes in In Love and Struggle: The Revolutionary Lives of James and Grace Lee Boggs (2016), “Correspondence set out to record and amplify the interior worlds of ‘ordinary people’” — people whom the organization referred to as the “other America.” This forgotten majority consisted of rank-and-file workers, women, Black people, and youth, each receiving their own section and invited to treat the paper as a participatory space. As the masthead announced, it was “A Paper That Is Written — Edited — Circulated by Its Readers.” Before the openness of feminist rap sessions, before the what-are-the-masses-thinking populism of cultural studies, there was Correspondence — an original foray into participatory consciousness-raising. Over the course of its 11-year run, it became the great collective literary document of the U.S. working class.

Once enough people had agreed on political ideas, a militant workers’ organization would follow.

Correspondence was a lively and eclectic project. It published reports on small incidents in the factory, dispatches on raising children and confronting abusive husbands, documentary transcriptions of working-class family budgets, criticism of pop culture, and notices on revolutionary currents abroad. While its subscriber base stayed small, cresting at about 4,000, the editors developed locals across the country (West Virginia; Los Angeles; Flint, Mich.; San Francisco; Philadelphia; Boston) and canvassed Detroit’s working-class neighborhoods with a dedicated ground game, spending hours soliciting stories in people’s living rooms and turning them out to editorial meetings, breathing “the paper all over the place now as our way of life.” “What struck me about the paper,” “Woman Reader” wrote in from Morgantown, W.Va., “is that there was hardly a section that you could not turn to with any person and say, ‘Here is your life.’”

Yet the paper never really fulfilled its participatory vision. As one issue admitted, the “fact is that despite its intentions Correspondence is not really being written and edited by its readers.” Only about a hundred subscribers regularly contributed to the paper. The policy of simply recording people’s views perturbed readers who wanted a clear political line. Soon enough certain editors—already bickering amid political disagreements and the hostile weather of McCarthyism — came to feel similarly. In the final years of the paper’s run, James Boggs felt as if they’d gathered rich evidence of working-class self-activity but hadn’t given “analysis to help the workers in the constant struggle to uncover, make more specific the nature of the new society, which, except as a phrase among us, does not yet exist. . . . We’ve abandoned role[s] of educators, illuminators, leaders, advocates, to become mere reporters.”

After two splits, the paper folded in 1964, having somehow survived the bleakest years of American socialism and landing, dead, on the lip of a new era. But so much of what Fisher thought represented a slightly later era’s acid communist ethos — its expanded New Left consciousness, its democratic and antibureaucratic reflex, its engagement with pop culture, the suffusion of art into life — seemed to emerge, prophetically, out of that dim basement office on the west side of Detroit.

*   *   *

Three years later, and three months after the July riots, a new newspaper appeared: Inner-City Voice. Its editors were veterans of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, still-young organizers who had traveled to Cuba in 1964 to play baseball with Fidel and talk revolution with Che, and who had just finished a crash course on Marx’s Capital with Martin Glaberman, one of Correspondence’s lead editors and a lifelong comrade of C.L.R. James. They stood in the aftermath of the country’s most spectacular urban uprising and wondered, after the fires stopped smoldering and the sky lost its pall, how to give shape to all this Black working-class anger. As Inner-City Voice editor John Watson explained, they decided a paper could be “the focus of a permanent organization,” providing “a bridge between the peaks of activity.” It was a place to start.

Led by Watson, half the group behind Inner-City Voice got to work on the paper; the other half, led by a Dodge Main factory worker named General Baker, threw themselves into organizing the auto plants, meeting workers late at night in the newspaper’s office. Watson and Baker were roommates and good friends who shared a paradoxical style: they were unassuming men who knew how to take brashly militant ideas down to earth. Baker was a broad-shouldered, second-generation Detroit factory worker whose parents had migrated from the South a few years after James Boggs. Watson was a slender, off-and-on Wayne State University student who organized the Marx reading group with Glaberman. They met through Black radical circles at Wayne State, where Baker briefly studied in the early ’60s, attending classes after his factory shifts. By the summer of 1967 both had extensive movement experience, and momentum around their new initiative built up quickly. Within half a year, the Baker-helmed organizers led 4,000 autoworkers to walk off the job and shut down Dodge Main. The workers gave themselves a name: DRUM, or Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement.

Watson and Baker were roommates and good friends who shared a paradoxical style: they were unassuming men who knew how to take brashly militant ideas down to earth.

Workers at Dodge Main were rushed through endless Chaplinesque speedups; they worked amid poisonous chemicals, in freezing or sweltering rooms, grappling with rusting equipment that might malfunction and lop off their fingers, or leave them heading toward a mountain of steel in a brakeless jitney with a wobbly steering wheel. They suffered mandatory overtime, growing estranged from their families. Through all this, their union, the UAW, stayed quiescent, acting in harmony with management and obsessing over the construction of its new lakeside retreat. Black workers faced the highest rates of exploitation: they were concentrated in the most dangerous quarters of the factory and were often cycled through in less than 90 days to avoid union regulation.

Neglected and misrepresented, the workers responded by making DRUM their own parallel, revolutionary union structure. Before long, workers at plants, hospitals, and other industries across the city launched affiliated Revolutionary Union Movements. Unprecedented for the decade, a group of Black Marxist workers had organized the start of a citywide revolutionary formation, which took on a new umbrella name and brought the Inner-City Voice editors and the Revolutionary Union Movement organizers together under one heading: the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

Meanwhile, Watson took strides on his long march toward cultural revolution. Unlike much of the spectacle-soaked, image-worshipping New Left, the League was skeptical of the idea that it could use mainstream channels for its own benefit. They had little interest in appearing on the front page of the Detroit Free Press or the Detroit News, in whose back delivery room three of the League’s most influential organizers happened to work. Their ambition was instead to take control of their own cultural institutions and turn them into mass-popular venues. The first target was the Wayne State student daily South End, at which they secured enough votes to elect Watson editor in chief. As Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin write in Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, the League won “virtually full control of a newspaper with a daily run of 18,000, a printing budget of $100,000, an editor’s salary of $2,400, and a staff payroll of $23,400.” Watson recast the paper as a public resource, distributing the majority of the run outside factories, schools, and hospitals and updating the masthead to read “One Class-Conscious Worker Is Worth 100 Students!”

Under Watson’s editorship, the South End published special issues on DRUM, exposés of deteriorating conditions at Detroit General Hospital and in the city’s public schools, attacks on the UAW and the big three automakers, and articles in solidarity with Palestine’s liberation struggle. The city’s power structure — the UAW, a wealthy Wayne State alumni group, business forces, mainstream newspapers, even the state legislature—took notice and pressured the university’s president to discipline the paper, but he had little opportunity. South End appeared daily, never lapsed into vulgarity, and followed regulations.

The League’s social and cultural ambitions kept scaling up. Mike Hamlin, a League member hired by Watson at South End, aspired to move into films, radio, and publishing, envisioning a Marxist dream factory. The two also took advantage of a plan to decentralize Detroit’s public schools by forming a community coalition, Parents and Students for Community Control, running members for school board positions, launching a radical citywide high school newspaper, and doing battle against the police union and the Detroit Board of Education. League members highjacked a conference on Black economic development and demanded that participating white religious institutions pay $500 million in reparations; they interrupted services, informing liberal constituencies that their church or synagogue hadn’t paid up. Eventually they won $80,000, much of it going to the League and affiliated community groups. They elected Marxist judges; planned for a mayoral run; and succeeded in making one of the era’s great political documentaries (Finally Got the News), a production company (Black Star Productions), a Black Star bookstore, where radicals could learn printmaking, and a popular lecture series organized by Hamlin under a new coalition called the Motor City Labor League. By the early ’70s, the League had built, as Georgakas and Surkin write, a shadow “multilevel power apparatus parallel to the power apparatus of the system it sought to destroy.”

If the League came closer to attaining real left power than most New Left movements, it was in large part through the leverage they wielded at Detroit’s core industrial point of production.

But a schism emerged. Amid propaganda campaigns and movie debuts, guilt-burdened money pots and mayoral dreams, Baker and the League’s labor organizers began to feel as if focus was being diverted from their factory-worker base. By 1970, the once-feverish Revolutionary Union Movements had cooled off. The movements that formed at plants across Detroit in DRUM’s wake often stayed small and inactive, alive in name only and lacking organizational resources. The rank-and-file core had dwindled or had never been properly fleshed out. And all this while Watson was out prospecting for film production capital in Europe and pen-paling with Jane Fonda about a planned Rosa Luxemburg biopic.

If the League came closer to attaining real left power than most New Left movements, it was in large part through the leverage they wielded at Detroit’s core industrial point of production. At the same time, the League’s power also emerged out of its wider social and cultural ambitions: it tried to pull off a working-class cultural revolution unique in U.S. New Left history. This double strategy was discussed by the Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson in a famous lecture from 1983, “Cognitive Mapping.” Maybe, Jameson suggested, the League’s core tension was not just a showdown between culture and politics, labor organizing and film production, but also a vexation of geography. As the League deepened its foothold in Detroit, certain members came to feel that its model would be strengthened if it spread nationally and internationally, attacking capitalism on a larger territory. Watson was sent to meet with Italian socialists and autoworkers in Turin, who soon after repaid the visit. He and others attended a conference in Sweden organized by a solidarity committee for the League, where they met with Swedish and Finnish labor unions. Back in the U.S., the League put out a manifesto for a Black Workers Congress, hoping to pull Black radical groups from around the country into a new coalition. Their film served this same goal. Finally Got the News uses heady, swivel-eyed montages and informal interviews to broadcast the League’s organizing to the world. Its early distribution was limited, but it found its greatest success in Italy, where the Communist Party helped air it on national television.

For Watson and Hamlin, culture was a way of spreading the League’s model into the mainstream. Their dream failed, Jameson admitted, but its attempt made it “the single most significant political experience of the American 1960s.”

*   *   *

The league fell apart in 1971. One way to understand its demise is as a failed attempt at mainstreaming, an idea at the core of Acid Communism. For Fisher, the mainstream wasn’t some immutable cultural empire that leftists and artists were supposed to oppose; it was better used as a verb, and therefore seen as a process through which experimental culture and left politics could make a play to alter the common sense of their time. The League’s attempt at this came up against hard limits—the limitations, in part, of a highly imaginative group of organizers who operated through autonomous institutions. But by the 1970s the mainstreaming of New Left ideas was already happening elsewhere in the city, with a bit more fog and indirection but much greater reach, in the worn family home on West Grand Boulevard that had been converted into Motown’s studio and corporate headquarters.

Motown saw itself as Detroit’s successor to Ford Motors, a music juggernaut that churned out pop on an assembly line. Its studio was called the Snake Pit; its talent manager, William “Mickey” Stevenson, tasked with making sure recording sessions ran on time, earned the nickname Il Duce. Motown was a family, Gordy liked to say, but really it was more like Taylorism in a living room, with unionless session musicians plucking world-historical bass lines at a pace that would’ve been familiar to DRUM’s autoworker cadre. Their product in the early to mid-’60s was a bright, infectious bubblegum pop that had begun to feel a little behind the times.

The label execs knew this. They knew the sound of soul had migrated to Stax Records in Memphis — bluesier, more gospel, more down-home and gritty — and they knew the future of pop rested not in their own familiar candied melodies, but in the scene forming in the communes, ballrooms, and subterranean jazz clubs of Detroit’s underground. Standing at this scene’s center was John Sinclair.

By the 1970s the mainstreaming of New Left ideas was already happening elsewhere in the city, with a bit more fog and indirection but much greater reach.

If acid communism had a mascot, it would be Sinclair. The white middle-class son of a schoolteacher and salaryman at Flint’s Buick assembly plant, he grew up listening in awe to the blues and R&B that the rhyming radio DJ “Frantic” Ernie Durham would play on WBBC—the music, he later wrote, “that would turn my whole life around and shoot all of us into a totally new future.” By the end of the ’60s, Sinclair was notorious as the king of Detroit’s hippies. He was a huge, basketball center–size man with a woolly mustache and long curly locks and a weed smoker’s Seth Rogen laugh who held down, at one time or another, seemingly every plausible New Left vocation. He was a beat poet; a rambling radio DJ; a hyperbolic jazz critic at DownBeat; publisher of an obscure militant rag, Guerrilla; and a music columnist for Detroit’s alt-culture paper the Fifth Estate. He served as impresario for the jazz and visual arts collective Detroit Artists Workshop; an associate of the Committee to End the War in Vietnam; and lead guru of a revolutionary hippie group that first went by the austere name of the Steering Committee, later the more florescent Trans-Love Energies (offering the plush services of an “inner-space travel agency” and its own hippie police force, the Psychedelic Rangers), later still the White Panther Party, and finally the Rainbow People’s Party.

The names changed, but the group stayed fairly consistent. Composed of student-adjacent white radicals inspired by the Black Power movement, they saw political revolution as something you organized around, but also as something you just sort of lived. They held massive Woodstockish love-ins on Belle Isle, an island park just off the city’s mainland, organized agent provocateur media stunts in favor of ending the Vietnam War and legalizing marijuana, hosted food co-ops and voter registration drives, and eventually held political education classes alongside the Black Panthers. “On the one hand,” Sinclair reflected before a group of BBC Four documentarians, “we were serious political revolutionaries who wanted to overthrow the government. On the other hand, we were on acid.”

Sinclair lived at the intersection of two distinct Detroit cultures, the Black music scene and the bohemian student communes around Wayne State University. He bridged the two in an obvious way, in that he helped everyone maintain a steady weed supply. But he also brought them together more subtly. Starting in 1967, he crossed paths with the upstart rock band MC5, took them into his Trans-Love commune, and became their manager, promoting them as the hottest new act in Detroit’s underground.

Sinclair didn’t even like ’60s rock, but really neither did MC5. Some of the band had art-school backgrounds while others were white working-class dreamers, and they were inspired by everything from Coltrane to Motown and James Brown funk, striving to play shatteringly loud rock music as improvisatory and idea-packed as free jazz. (Their lead singer even picked his stage name, Rob Tyner, in honor of McCoy Tyner, the great pianist in Coltrane’s classic quartet.) Sinclair branded them “rock-and-roll guerrillas,” the face of the White Panther Party’s “total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock-and-roll, dope, and fucking in the streets.”

Before long, their circle grew. Jim Osterberg, an unhappy kid who grew up in a trailer park in the small Michigan town of Ypsilanti, moved to Ann Arbor for college and started making frequent runs to Detroit to take in the blues. He renamed himself Iggy Pop and formed a band called the Psychedelic Stooges, the younger brother to MC5 in the proto-punk scene that revolved around the Grande Ballroom on Detroit’s west side. The Stooges played a stripped-down, primal rock — mysterious, trancelike, degraded. They looped simple, monotonous, industrial sounds shorn of MC5’s blistering swing, matching around-the-house, avant-garde jazz-style instrumentation (sleigh bells, vacuum cleaners, microphones submerged in water-filled blenders) with a performance-art flair for costumes, writhing on stages covered in broken glass, or smearing peanut butter on their bare chests and leaping into crowds. They became fast friends with MC5 and Sinclair, and fast friends, too, with another transplant to Detroit named George Clinton.

“On the one hand, we were serious political revolutionaries who wanted to overthrow the government. On the other hand, we were on acid.”

John Sinclair

Clinton dreamed of signing with Motown. His group, the Parliaments, was literally a barbershop quintet, in that they had all met while cutting hair in New Jersey. At first they even looked like one. They struggled to find success, however, in their two-tone mod suits and white polished shoes, and moved to Detroit, where they lurked around the Motown family home and stayed more or less unnoticed before signing to a rival label and turning out a one-off, lightly funked hit, “(I Wanna) Testify,” released just a month before the July riots. After a few quiet years, they returned as an expanded universe of musicians grouped loosely together as Parliament-Funkadelic, with a sound and style that traded in doo-wop for avant-funk, pressed suits for interstellar costumery. Running with long-standing interests in psychedelics and sci-fi, they crafted an aesthetic cribbed together from Sun Ra, acid rock, and Star Trek  —  an early, Moog-warped taste of Afrofuturism. By the last years of the ’60s, hints of strange futures radiated off George Clinton and his Funkadelic crew  —  a new sound that emerged out of the experimentalism of their race-crossing milieu. This was the future percolating in Motown’s backyard: the shape of pop to come, with its political compass pointing leftward, out toward flag-burning anti-imperialism (MC5) or queerish, race-warping Black militance (P-Funk).

Motown responded to these underground innovations with great hesitance. Gordy’s attention had drifted to TV, movies, the dollar-green pastures of crossover media ventures. But change was in the air. Whitfield, kept his ear to Detroit’s underground. He fell in love with Funkadelic — Clinton claimed that Whitfield would show up to their gigs with a tape recorder, capturing their whole sets — and gave himself a crash course in P-Funk’s wider cultural world. After scoring a surprise smash hit in 1968 with Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” a jilted love song with devious, paranoid-political connotations that Gordy had rejected and failed to release for a year and a half, Whitfield received the go-ahead to produce as he pleased. The Temptations were his laboratory. Their next few albums — from Cloud Nine (1969) and Psychedelic Shack (1970) up through Masterpiece (1973) and 1990 (1973) — conjured up a revamped Motown sound. Hypnotic instrumental interludes stretched songs to 13 or 14 minutes, political messaging came across sometimes subtly and sometimes loudly, and synthesizers fuzzed the records. Whitfield had built a pipeline between the left counterculture of Detroit’s acid underground and mainstream pop, and things kept flowing through it: Marvin Gaye’s protest classic What’s Going On (1971), Stevie Wonder’s gorgeous early ’70s synthesizer music.

The pipeline gushed for four or five years, from 1968 to ’72 or ’73, before it got shut off. The first signs of trouble came in its underground end. Though the less paisley circle around the League of Revolutionary Black Workers didn’t take Sinclair very seriously (writing in the Inner-City Voice and South End, Black Panther William Leach claimed to have nothing in common with Sinclair’s White Panthers), the feds felt differently. They wiretapped the White Panther headquarters and placed the group’s self-appointed minister of defense, Pun Plamondon, on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. Meanwhile, the local police infiltrated the group. The FBI saw the White Panthers, possibly correctly, as terrorists who conspired to bomb the CIA recruitment office in Ann Arbor in 1968; the local narcotics squad saw them, again with reason, as the center of the city’s drug trafficking. After a series of sting operations, they busted Sinclair for two joints and, under the state’s draconian marijuana laws, sentenced him to 10 years in a prison in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In a last hurrah for Detroit’s acid communist era, all the city’s stars — Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, MC5 — joined a who’s-who of left-counterculture celebs to stage a thundering John Sinclair Freedom Rally in Ann Arbor. John Lennon and Yoko Ono performed original music (“It ain’t fair, John Sinclair / In the stir for breathin’ air”), Allen Ginsberg read poetry, and Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale gave speeches. Three days later the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the state’s marijuana laws were unconstitutional, and Sinclair walked out into the light of day.

He returned to a scene splintering and cannibalizing itself. Students for a Democratic Society, founded in Ann Arbor, had already split in 1969; Sinclair’s own Ann Arbor–based group, hobbled by government repression and rebranded as the more gentle-sounding Rainbow People’s Party, limped through 1972 and dissolved in ’73. After some unpleasant run-ins on the road with the more militant, slightly criminal fringes of the New Left, MC5 put away their little red books and started talking about how they’d always really just been into music. They dropped Sinclair for Jon Landau, a Rolling Stone writer who later found success as Bruce Springsteen’s manager. After a few more polished, less explosive albums, they flopped, retreating into heroin, a drug also consuming Iggy Pop. Unable to survive amid rock’s wider corporate consolidation, the Grande Ballroom shuttered for good in 1972. June of that same year brought the final blow. With Gordy’s Hollywood dreams still soaring, Motown packed up its bags and decamped for Los Angeles, leaving its studio-musician family behind.

*   *   *

So goes the end-of-an-era story Molloy wrote his book to argue against. As he writes, the “spirit of the counterculture—politically, sonically, aesthetically—never left Detroit.” Without an industry, music-making democratized and decentralized, taking place less in studios than in bedrooms and warehouses. Producers and radio DJs looked around for sounds that broke away from Motown soul and George Clinton funk and found them, on the other side of the globe, in the machine-fetish computer worlds of the German band Kraftwerk. On albums like Trans-Europe Express (1977) and The Man-Machine (1978), Kraftwerk evoked a lush, automated Eurotopia—elevator anthems for Europe’s glorious future. On the surface, nothing appeared more alien from the soul music still drifting through the city.

Yet three Black teens from suburban Belleville —  Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson — sensed that Kraftwerk’s robot music did more than set them free from the city’s musical past; it also rhymed with the conditions of Rust Belt Detroit. They looked out their car windows onto a hollowed 1980s landscape, rich with ruins, and thought they saw a demented version of the Kraftwerkian future that played nightly on their beloved local radio show, Electrifying Mojo’s Midnight Funk Association. Absorbing Kraftwerk’s silicon reveries and the warmer, more obviously soul-influenced house music coming out of Chicago, these young innovators took their hypnotic influences and deindustrialized them. They crafted a haunted, oneiric, richly ambiguous new music — cold and transporting, utopian and dystopian, whispery and brittle  —  that first went by the name of Detroit house and later, with the release of its first compilation record, became known as techno. “Gordy built the Motown sound on the same principles as the conveyor belt system of the Ford Plant,” Atkins told the writer Stuart Cosgrove in the liner notes of that first record, Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit. “Today the automobile plants use robots and computers to make their cars and I’m more interested in Ford’s robots than Gordy’s music.”

As Molloy writes, the “spirit of the counterculture—politically, sonically, aesthetically—never left Detroit.”

These three artists composed the core of techno’s first generation. They started their own labels, set up shop in the same building on Techno Boulevard, the name for a brief stretch of Gratiot Avenue in the Eastern Market, and recorded under a cloud of pseudonyms: Cybotron (Atkins and Rik Davis), Model 500 (Atkins), Rhythim Is Rhythim (May), and Inner City (Saunderson and Shanna Jackson a.k.a. Paris Grey). The irony was that this fanciful nightmare music, on the surface a rejection of the icon of Detroit soul, was also a way of coming home. Kraftwerk drew inspiration from ’60s and ’70s Black American soul rhythms and saw themselves as updating Motown for the digital age. Whitfield’s endless, trance-y instrumentals opened the door to the sped-up four-on-the-floor dance music to come. The distance between the Temptations’ “Zoom” (1973) or Stevie Wonder’s “Race Babbling” (1979) and Model 500’s “No UFO’s” (1985) or K-Hand’s “Starz” (1995) isn’t so far after all. Detroit techno was both local and far away—“like George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator, with only a sequencer to keep them company,” May quipped.

By the late 1980s, techno had grown from a Detroit-based scene with a small international following into a full-blown European phenomenon. Londoners vacationing in Ibiza fell in thrall to the island’s ecstasy-laced dance parties. They returned to the U.K. in search of music and parties that could match ecstasy’s all-night waves, and thought they found them in techno and house, cerebral dance music from the Black American Rust Belt mistranslated and simplified into the pure sonic highs of druggy European rave soundtracks — and from there, exported back to the U.S. as the music of 1990s rave culture. (Detroit techno was a much more sober affair; its early clubs didn’t even serve alcohol.) In the same years that techno was being scraped of its origins, however, its second and third generation of Detroit artists responded by burrowing deeper into the underground, starting new indie labels and becoming, in the 1990s and 2000s, more political and shadowy. With artists and collectives as militant as Underground Resistance, as utopian as Drexciya, and as experimental as Carl Craig, techno grew in myth.

New music kept coming. Molloy is right about this. But his slightly boosterish optimism obscures what was special about Detroit’s late 1960s, early 1970s acid-pop New Left moment, and what changed when it ended. It was a time when a loose dynamism circulated between left politics, underground experimentalism, and mainstream pop. Afterward these things winnowed, or hardened into antagonistic worlds. From the producer Moodymann to the rap group Slum Village, Detroit’s avant-pop lineage continued to deepen from the 1980s into the 2000s and beyond. But it had receded into the periphery.

We woke up to a world where the relation between culture and politics seemed to reconfigure and lurch right.

By the mid-’80s, a different mainstream image emerged out of Detroit to define the Rust Belt heartland, in rhythm with the Reaganite moment and embodied above all by one figure. Seger grew up a white working-class townie in Ann Arbor. His father, a medic at Ford’s River Rouge plant who harbored after-hours music dreams, ditched the family when Bob was 10 for the chance to make it big with his band in California. Seger spent his childhood in love with the soul music and R&B playing through his radio. He grew his hair long and joined bands, moving in the same acid-rock circles as the Stooges and MC5 but fitting in oddly. A conservative outlier, he wrote a song in 1966, “Ballad of the Yellow Beret,” scorning the antiwar “cowards of the USA,” limp-wristed stay-at-homes who dodged the draft while “their friends get shipped away.” Two years later he signed his first major label deal, learned that a close friend had been killed in Vietnam, and released a single, “2 + 2 = ?,” which savaged the war. This eased the distance between him and the acid rockers; it brought him on board for the John Sinclair Freedom Rally. But his politics remained a wash of conservative values and Midwest working-class common sense.

In 1976, he released Night Moves, a beautiful record, and finally cracked the mainstream. The album inaugurated an easy-listening, self-conscious dad rock, which Seger perfected throughout the Reagan era. Masculine, nostalgic. Riding the anti-disco wave. Dreaming us out of the deindustrialized future and back into the patriotic comforts of small-town glory days. Make-America-great-again music for a make-America-great-again moment. In 1990, a decade after General Motors shut down the Dodge Main auto plant where the League of Revolutionary Black Workers got its start, the company launched a famous ad campaign for their Chevy trucks, now much more likely to be built in the U.S. South or overseas. Majestic American flags billowed over a montage of farmers and construction workers, as Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock” roared over top.

With the dawn of Reaganism and the advance of deindustrialization, the Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition, rooted above all in the northern industrial workers of a city like Detroit, continued to cleave apart, and white working-class Detroit and the wider Rust Belt heartland came to signify nothing as outlandish as acid communism. Instead, the region was portrayed as a yesterday landscape, the core of America’s blue-collar conservative interior. We woke up to a world where the relation between culture and politics seemed to reconfigure and lurch right. Old-school social democracy had clattered off the table, and in its absence the right made inroads into the Rust Belt with conservative cultural appeals. But there are other ways of imagining how culture and politics have played off each other in the industrial Midwest. Acid Detroit’s final contribution lies here, in the slant spray of irrigation it lofts into the cracked ground of our regional imagination. Molloy’s book persuasively shifts the iconography of the 1960s away from the bright beach trance of California and toward the cavernous factories and garages of the Motor City — for resurfacing the lost fantasies of the country’s deindustrialized interior, and hinting at the futures it might hallucinate again.

  1. I’m grateful for the work of several writers. Of particular importance, and not otherwise cited: Stuart Cosgrove’s Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul (2015), DeForrest Brown Jr.’s Assembling a Black Counter Culture (2022), David A. Carson’s Grit, Noise, and Revolution: The Birth of Detroit Rock ’n’ Roll (2006), Dan Sicko’s Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk (1999), Thomas J.  Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996), and Sidney Fine’s Violence in the Model City: The Cavanagh Administration, Race Relations, and the Detroit Riot of 1967 (1989). ↩︎
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