Thursday, May 16, 2019

Death: Hard Drivin' Detroit Rock and Roll (an interview with Bobby Hackney Sr, with photos from Sharon Steele)

Bobby Hackney Sr, of Death, at the Venue, 2015.  Photographs by Sharon Steele, Not to be reused without permission

Preamble: If somehow you have missed the story of Detroit proto-punk band Death, you still have a few days to catch up! They play the Rickshaw on Wednesday, May 22nd. Start with ...For the Whole World to Seeif you haven't heard it yet. If it seems like a throwback to the glory days of the MC5 and the Stooges - it is. And it's a pretty unlikely thing that the band made a comeback at all. See the documentary about them, listen to the album, and if you like, read what follows. It's a remarkable story - but also, it's remarkable music that they make, and we're very lucky to be hearing it. 

Bobby Hackney, Sr., the bassist, lyricist, and main vocalist for Death, is a born storyteller, but he’s also an excellent interview subject. He’s very generous with his answers, and has a pretty good understanding of how music writing works: he’ll tell a story, then pause, to give the journalist a chance to interject shape the conversation, because he  understands that the writer has his or her own angle or direction, and may even have begun to write the piece in question, even if only internally, before the interview actually takes place.  

Sometimes in shaping a piece, however, a writer might choose an angle that plays up a particular aspect of a story more than is accurate. The interactive nature of the interview process means that the writer actually influences the subject a bit, which can in turn bend things a bit; if the writer has a particular point of view, and the subject is obliging and willing to go along with it, you might get a distorted picture of the band. 

Take the article on Death I just did for the Straight    – the quotes in it are from Bobby Hackney (and borrowed from a clip of Wayne Kramer, online, which is actually an outtake from the doc, not included in the film proper). Hackney does say that the band never called themselves a punk band – “we just called it hard-drivin’ Detroit rock’n’roll,” he said, in a line that ended up cut from the final print version. But the whole quibble with the idea of labeling them a punk band – “punk before there was punk” – is not coming from Hackney: it’s coming from me (and my editors, who actually were the ones who came up with the title, amplifying the quibble further).

Which I hope is understandable: it adds to the conversation about Death, builds on what's already been said, and maybe draws a few readers to the article. And calling them punk rock before there was punk was itself an angle created by journalists to call attention to this remarkable band. 

In the end, though, it really, really doesn’t matter that much. If you call the MC5 a proto-punk band, you can call Death one, too, if you like. It just needs to be acknowledged somewhere that the music of Death is definitely much more complicated than the cruder forms punk often takes.  There are traces of Hendrix (especially in “Keep On Knocking”), and traces of funk and math rock (especially in the dizzyingly intense “Politicians in My Eyes"). While the Ramones get cited in the documentary, even compared to Death, what the Ramones did is much more Spartan, simple, and repetitive than those early Death songs – and I’m here citing the two that actually did get released back in the 1970’s, and heard by a few people, that could actually have HAD an influence...

In any event, whatever you call them – “hard drivin’ Detroit rock’n’roll” sounds pretty good, to me – the point is, this is a great band. Vancouver audiences have a chance to see them on the 22nd at the Rickshaw, with a great local band, WarBaby – whom I have previously interviewed for the WestEnder, and have a Straight piece online about here – opening.

Bobby Hackney Sr and Bobbie Duncan, of Death, at the Venue, 2015.  Photographs by Sharon Steele, Not to be reused without permission

What follows are outtakes from my Straight conversation with Bobby Duncan Sr. Thanks to Mo, Sue, and Michael for helping facilitate this, to Mike Usinger and John Lucas and the other people working behind the scenes at the Straight, and thanks to the great Sharon Steele (here making her Alienated debut!) for digging up some Death photos to run with this article, from the last time Death played Vancouver.

Allan: I’ve been listening to Death’s most recent album, N.E.W., and comparing it to …For the Whole World to See. The contrasts are striking. The new stuff seems a lot more positive, even comparing a song like “Rock and Roll Victim” to “Relief,” say. The first album seems actually kind of paranoid!

Bobby: Well, it was rock’n’roll in the 70’s, man. Everybody was paranoid! We didn’t want to get drafted, y’know. We unequivocally were afraid of Washington and Nixon, the whole thing. And it was the 70’s – it was post the Woodstock movement. I think John Lennon summed it up best when he said the 60’s was great and then the 70’s was this big drag. We thought the war would be over, we thought that civil rights would take on a whole new plateau in our society, we thought that women would have rights, we thought… y’know, all these things that all these great bands preached about in the 60’s, that was a real hopeful time, but the 70’s was kinda a wake-up call from the ‘60’s: ‘hey, we gotta still fight!’”

Were you around for the Detroit riots of 1967?

Of course. Of course, at the time, I was only eleven years old, dude, when that riot broke out. But you know, my brother David, he was 16, and Dannis, he was a little bit younger than David, but they were more street-savvy than I was, or should I say, than I was allowed to be…

So was there a political vibe in your family, were you guys interested in Black Power stuff at the time, or…

Well, our parents – like most working parents in Detroit – they were Kennedy Democrats, and, you know, they were right on the heels of the Civil Rights movement and the March on Washington. So, I mean, yeah, like most parents in our neighbourhood, probably like most people in Detroit, my Dad was UAW – he worked in the automobile factory as an electrician. So, I mean, around our dinner table, it wasn’t uncommon to hear Martin Luther King, John Kennedy, and Jimmy Hoffa in the same sentence.

The line in “Where Do We Go from Here” about “treasonous liars” – was that in reference to Watergate?

You know what, that definitely was a reference to what was happening in Washington at the time, because Watergate was going on, and pre-Watergate, it was almost like the way the White House is now. It was a revolving door: people was comin’ in, and people was gettin’ fired, left and right. That was an inspiration for that – I mean, ‘have you heard the news lately, leaders steppin’ down greatly,’ and ‘shock has come to pass:’ I mean, it was shocking for our society. You think about, our parents were right out of the Eisenhower era, that led to the Kennedy era, and those things didn’t happen in government, during that time, and along comes Nixon and the ‘60’s, and it was like the two movements were kinda made for each other, you know?

Dannis Hackney of Death, at the Venue, 2015.  Photographs by Sharon Steele, Not to be reused without permission

Okay. So, an aspect of the 60’s that isn’t brought up much in the documentary is drugs. Some of the songs – “Freakin’ Out,” obviously, with it's lyrics about being on the moon with a green sky – seem like they’re inspired by LSD. If you don't mind my asking, was that something the band was into?

There’s a great story behind that song, which is true. My two older brothers, they were basically hippies, you know, and just like everybody else was, they were experimenting with drugs left and right. Drugs were cheap, and nobody thought that they were sinister, as they are today, so you know, they’d get a sheet of blotter acid, Mickey Mouse acid or whatever… and my mother made me breakfast – I was still in school – and those guys, my two brothers, snuck a hit of acid into my orange juice. And I went to school, man, and it was funny, because that whole song is based upon the experience I had that day. I didn’t know what was happening!

Were you pissed off at them?

I was kind of angry at them for not telling me, but to be honest with you, it was quite a wild experience. I have to admit – it was kinda a fun ride, that day!

Bobby Hackney Sr, of Death, at the Venue, 2015.  Photographs by Sharon Steele, Not to be reused without permission

Ha. I bet! Okay, so: there’s a pretty trippy moment in the film, where your brother Earl, I think, plays a tape of David, about how he doesn’t want worldly success, that he wants to “play in front of the throne of Almighty God.” It’s probably the most chilling moment in the film, since that’s kind of what ended up happening. What was the origin of that tape?

Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, he was doing – David did some kinda self-memoirs, you know. He would write a little bit, but David was always a big fan of cassette tape recorders. He would just put in the cassette and talk into it. And it was funny: when the filmmakers went to Detroit and visited our family, and kinda spent some time with them, they got that tape from my brother Earl, and Earl had had it, and when we listened to it, it sent chills down our spines, because David used to always talk about those things. His songwriting was always orchestral, and he would think of the heavenly orchestra, and imagine what kind of instruments would be in the afterlife, and in heaven. And he said, when you read the Bible, you read about angels with harps, and you hear drums, and he said it was music that ushered in great events. So he was always totally convinced that God was a big music fan.

Bobby, Dannis, and David Hackney in the 1970s

Were your parents also an influence on your musical development?

Oh definitely. The thing about it was, they wasn’t musical people, per se, on instruments, but they did love music. We had 45’s in the 50’s from the Chess Records label, and we had blues, all the Memphis stuff that my Mom and Dad used to buy. Of course, my Mom was heavily into Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington, and of course Aretha came along just a little bit later. And then there was, of course, Dionne Warwick. My Mom loved all that stuff. They loved Patsy Cline, and they liked Johnny Cash. They really taught us. We’re basically a black family living on the East Side of Detroit – which was a very mixed community at the time we were living in it – but they encouraged us to listen to everything. And then of course, my brother Earl, who was around 12 years old, in the early 60’s, he brought the first Motown album into the house. Well – the first Motown 45. It was around 1960, maybe 1961, but that just changed everything that we as young people were listening to. It was either that blue Motown label or that burgundy Gordy label, that was all the records we were buying – on up until something happened in 1964.

Do you remember what the song was?
“Oh Baby Baby” by the Miracles. That was the first Motown record that came into the house!

[Note – there’s a hole here. I was holding onto the “What was the first Motown single you heard, and didn’t pick up on Bobby mentioning that “something happened in 1964.” I have no idea what that was. I’ll ask him, if I remember to, when the band plays the Rickshaw]

There’s also no mention of live shows in the documentary. I know you’ve said that the focus for a young musician in Detroit at the time was on getting out records, not playing live, but I also heard you mention online that you played garage and cabaret shows?

The only people that really saw Death when we were young and kickin’ it with this music, us three brothers, you know – we’d just go into our Mom’s garage, we’d open up the big door, and we’d just play. People would gather around, there would be people coming from downtown in their cars from work, that would stop on (Warner street?). For awhile, it almost became a weekly ritual, and then it got to the point to where the cops were showing up, so we had to move everything up into our rooms. Fortunately, when we were doing the garage shows, that was before we landed all the big Marshall stacks and the big acoustic bass amps, and Dannis got [word indecipherable] on the drums. We really had beginner’s  equipment when the garage thing was happening, so it was loud, but it wasn’t loud like it was when we was in that room, you know? (Laughs). And any other shows, we just got rejected, because of the name Death. When David named the band Death – man, we would call up Harpo’s, which was a big club in Detroit, and we would call up all the rock clubs that we used to hear on the radio stations, that was advertising, and some of them would actually hang up on us because they thought we were playing a prank. They’d say to David, what’s the name of the band, and David would say, “Death,” and they’d just hang up, because they thought we were pulling some prank. We couldn’t get any shows. 

David Hackney

So David decided to book us at a cabaret, which was at Warren Avenue in Detroit, right down the street from the Chrysler plant where all the factory workers came. These cabarets were, like, bring-your-own-bottle, you pay one price, bring your own bottle, bring in your girlfriend or your wife, you sit at the table, and usually there would be either a blues band or a rhythm and blues band, and so they decided – David was one of the guys who organized the music there, and he convinced them to let us perform a show there. And man, I gotta tell you – I’d like to tell you they gave us standing ovations and they screamed out “rock’n’roll,” but it was quite the contrary. This was an all black audience of factory workers, who loved the blues, and here we are, playing all these songs, like “Keep On Knocking,” “Politicians in My Eyes,” and all that stuff, and right after we ended a song with this rock and roll crescendo – we were up there workin’ hard, but you could just hear a pin drop. They were just looking at us like “What the heck is this?” Finally, after three or four songs, one older gentleman just kinda walked up to us, walked up to me and said, “You’re too loud!” And went back and sat down. So you imagine that – a whole packed house of people, and not one person is clapping. You know, we learned some things that night, but we tried our best.

Death at the Venue, 2015.  Photographs by Sharon Steele, not to be reused without permission

I do have to say, there was one club that gave us a shot, and that was in Iggy’s town, in Ann Arbor.  And it was Uncle Sam’s – it was the biggest rock club in Michigan – and it was because he had heard the record. W4 (WWWW, a popular Detroit radio station), I mean, we were trying to get them to play the record like crazy. We were bugging them so much, til they got annoyed with us, and they did play it once or twice after midnight. I think one of the people at Uncle Sam’s actually heard the record, but he still didn’t like the name. So he said, I’ll give you guys a Monday. Here we are on a Monday night, with about three people, four people there, and we’re playing our brains out. I’ll never forget that show, because I’ll never forget there were just two couples – an older couple and a younger couple – and they were dancing to our music, you know? And they had a great time. But that’s the most we could really get at that time, that was all we could really get, because everybody was so terrified of the name Death. A lot of people think it was because we were an all black band, but that really wasn’t the case. It was our name. For some reason, we just got all kinds of scuff for that, man.

How about seeing live shows? The documentary mostly focuses on the Who and Alice Cooper, for good reason – but what about other bands, like, say, the MC5 or Iggy and the Stooges?

We had the privilege – see, our Mom’s boyfriend was a security guard and he worked all of the arenas, the Olympic Arena, the KOBO arena, Kobo Hall, Michigan Palace, Ford Auditorium, and there were some concerts we saw that were just totally amazing, like seeing Mick Jagger and the Stones with Stevie Wonder opening up, for $8, you know – or like seeing the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges at Michican Palace. That was the congregation place for the rock’n’rollers, you know? KISS would play there on a regular basis. And we wasn’t really much into that scene, but I do remember, going to the KISS shows, you never could tell the band from the fans, because all the fans would dress up like KISS, you know? That was a lot of fun. We saw the Who, we saw, of course, Iggy, we saw – I mean, Bob Seger was our favourite, we grew up with Bob Seger. We used to see Bob Seger as a local band, who would play the Detroit Auto show, that was his yearly gig. Him and the Rationals and – of course, Grand Funk Railroad was the three piece band of Detroit, of Michigan. Those guys were our poster guys.

That’s how we learned – we just watched and learned and immersed ourselves in everything, from Grand Funk to the James Gang to everything. Todd Rundgren, everything – anything and everything rock’n’roll, we would get the albums and we’d dissect the sounds and read the liner notes while smokin’ a good joint, you know (laughs). That kind of thing – that’s what it was.

And then you guys were big Who fans, right? I love the Who, but to tell the truth, I’ve been listening to Death more than the Who, lately…

Aw, thank you man – that just means so much to us, because if we had idols, those guys were our idols. When Quadrophenia came out, David was just so excited about that album: ‘this is the album where rock has arrived. It’s finally met the orchestration of classical music.’ Quadrophenia was just his favourite, favourite album, and he had so much respect for the Who for just being able to put that whole package together. I don’t think there’s a day that went by in our room where we didn’t hear at least one of them songs from that album!

 Bobbie Duncan of Death at the Venue, 2015.  Photographs by Sharon Steele, not to be reused without permission

Kind of a different question, here, but how do you feel about – you know, a white guy like Eminem might get criticized for appropriating rap, or you see videos online where white people are getting heat for wearing dreadlocks – the whole cultural appropriation thing. But you guys were influenced by white rock bands, who themselves were influenced by black R&B – the Who used to call themselves “maximum R&B,” if I recall. So do you think that there’s “white music” and “black music,” or do  you think there’s just good music?

Well, it’s good music, and what Eminem and all those guys are going through is the same thing we went through, when we decided to play rock’n’roll. The crazy thing about it is, I can bet – I can’t be sure of this, but this is what we went through – is that most of the criticism that he is probably getting is from his own culture, his own race of people. Like we did! We got, “Man, you guys don’t need to be playing this stuff, you need to be playing Earth Wind and Fire, James Brown, Isley Brothers, man – give me some Isley Brothers, give me some Kool and the Gang!” What my oldest brother said in the film was 100% true, that’s what they used to call us, “white boy music.” And I’m sure those guys probably get the same thing. Most of the guys I know who are black LOVE Eminem. But I’ll betcha that a good percentage of his criticism is coming from his own race.

Could be, could be. So… you obviously have interacted with Wayne Kramer and Alice Cooper, since they’re in the film. How about Iggy?

We haven’t connected with Iggy yet, but the amazing thing is, Iggy gave us a shout out when he received his recognition at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but we haven’t connected with him as of yet on a personal basis. But some of the rockers – one of the Rationals came out to a show that we was doing in Ann Arbor, about maybe three years ago, and that blew my mind. We was talkin’ about how “we used to see you guys on Robin Seymour’s Swingin’ Time.” When we said Robin Seymour’s Swingin’ Time, he just lit up, because the Rationals were kinda like a mainstay on there. They would always be on that show.

I don’t know them well.

You might want to look them up. They don’t get talked about as much as a lot of the Detroit bands do, but yeah, they were a killer band. They were actually one of David’s favourite bands. And of course, Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes – I mean, everybody loved Ted Nugent. “Journey to the Centre of the Mind” was just classic, and everybody wanted to play it. And, you know, it was just great. When Alice Cooper came there from Arizona, and the Who set up a kind of mini-residence at the Grande Ballroom, I mean – it was just a great, great town for rock’n’roll, man.

Bobby Hackney Sr, of Death, at the Venue, 2015.  Photographs by Sharon Steele, Not to be reused without permission

Has anyone shared stories of similar bands to Death?

Oh yeah, yeah, there’s a few bands. We’ve even met bands that have said, “Hey, wait a minute, we thought we were the first black punk band!” We’ve met a couple bands like that, but according to the historians, 1975, none of them could pre-date 1975, you know.

The story I'm pretty curious whether you've heard - the one closest to the story of Death - is a Baptist rock band called the New Creation. They recorded one album in 1970, did a small private pressing just like you did with the single, and they mailed it to churches and Christian radio stations, hoping someone would notice. No one did. Then thirty years later a local record dealer found it, thought it sounded interesting, and suddenly, it was reissued on CD and became a bit of a hit. 


I'm just curious if anyone has mentioned them to you? 

You know, I think I've heard that name before, but we never even had a conversation... I sure would like to hear that music. I'll bet it's incredible!

Oh yeah! I'd love to hear that. 

I'll try to bring Chris Towers, the guy from the band, to the show...

Awesome - if he's got one of those reissues hangin' around, tell him to bring it to the show, I'll trade him. 

I think that you guys, having had a Baptist upbringing, might like it. Speaking of Christian rock, though - has the 4th Movement (the Hackney brothers 1980 Christian rock record) gotten a reissue, too?

Yes, it has, on Drag City Records - you can tell all the people in your piece. That was one of those awesome things that has also been preserved. I'm just so glad we preserved all that stuff, because I think that's some of David's best guitar playing, is on that first 4th Movement album. 

Any high points from the last ten years? How does it feel, looking back?

The great thing of it is, myself, my brother Dannis, and [current guitarist] Bobbie Duncan all just happened to be still playing music when this Death discovery took place, man. We had been playing reggae music [in Lambsbread] for 20 years. And in the back of our minds, what we did in Detroit always stuck, you know. But we just thought that was something that was passed, and especially with the passing of our brother David, we said, ‘okay, that kind of closes the door on it’ – and we’ll just keep goin’ on. And little did we know, years later, that this thing would come out and explode like this. It was just totally amazing.

A lot of people ask me, how did this happen, and the only thing I can say is, it was like a suitcase that’s sitting over there, with all the ingredients, all the elements in it, except our brother David. But everything that David left in it was there, and it was just sittin’ in the corner for 40 years. And we just grabbed that suitcase, dusted it off, looked inside, and said – like everybody else in the world – ‘wow, we actually did this.’”

Thank you so much for doing this, Bobby. Looking forward to seeing you!

 Bobby Hackney Sr, of Death,at the Venue, 2015.  Photographs by Sharon Steele, Not to be reused without permission

The documentary, A Band Called Death, plays the Rickshaw on May 21st. Tickets are $5 at the door, and can be used towards admission to the concert the next night - because Death plays live, May 22nd, at the Rickshaw, with WarBaby opening. Details here! Also check out the Drag City website for the 4th Movement/ Death bundle, featuring all of Drag City's Death and 4th Movement reissues. 

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