“Calling out around the world:
Are you ready for a brand new beat?
Summer’s here and the time is right
For dancing in the street …
They’ll be swinging, swaying,
Dancing in the street!
(Martha and the Vandellas, “Dancing in the Street,” 1964)
DETROIT—For 30 years, I have been living a lie. The bottom has now fallen out of my world. The raison d’être (and possibly even, at a pinch, the sine qua non) of my existence proves to have been a complete myth.Yes, folks, it is self-flagellating confession time. Turns out that—contrary to what my contemporaries and, indeed, complete strangers, have been assuring me for three decades—I was not the dorkiest-looking adolescent Motown fan in history.
That particular accolade remains safe with the individual, mercifully unnamed, whom a quick-reflexed publicity photographer captured in 1966 during a British tour by Motown royalty. Depicted in gloriously evocative black-and-white and described simply as belonging to a local “Tamla-Motown Appreciation Society”—quite apart from the long-forgotten prefix “Tamla,” doesn’t the very phrase “Appreciation Society” now conjure up images of duffel-coats, bad teeth, and priapic lecturers on the lam from a Kingsley Amis novel?—he sports a memorably asinine grin, accompanied by coke-bottle glasses straight from the Austin Powers Academy of Understated Eyewear. He is also, this being Britain, dressed in the hourly (and doubtless justified) expectation of flash floods. He is an icon.
As an icon, he has earned a permanent place in Detroit’s Motown Museum, formerly the Motown studio complex, to which I went on a pilgrimage this fall. Unless you have, as I had, a tireless driver, the place is not easy to get to. (Save for a limited and wildly uneconomic monorail system, Detroit, shall we say, “has issues” with the concept of public transportation.) But the difficulties of getting to the Motown Museum are as nothing compared to the difficulties of leaving it. For any self-respecting Motownophile, the place takes about six nanoseconds to become addictive. Now I know how Hobbit obsessives must feel when trapped in a shop filled with garden gnomes.
First of many surprises is the museum’s smallness. Except for the “Hitsville U.S.A.” sign, it looks indistinguishable from the other squat, nondescript, slightly shabby houses along West Grand Boulevard. Somehow I had expected that the Motown Sound’s palatial thunder could only have come from a building that looked like a cross between Radio City Music Hall and Mussolini’s Sala del Mappamondo. Instead, it came from a rabbit warren of corridors and studios where anyone bulkier than Calista Flockhart must periodically remember to inhale or risk being trapped. Is it true what I read years back, that great art always derives from cramped surroundings?
No time for an answer to that question and scarcely even time for me to buy my admission ticket, before the uniformed majordomo—built on the lines of that former television superhero Mr. T, although beardless—makes an announcement in his cigar-stained baritone. I have trouble discerning his words, partly because of the Diana Ross warbles simultaneously being pumped through the ceiling speakers, but he seems to be saying: “Welcometomotownhitsvilleusathesoundofamerica.”
To prepare me and my friend Karen (and, to my surprise, no one else: though this is a temperate Saturday morning, the staff outnumber the visitors) for the flotation tank of Motownism, the majordomo ushers us into a minuscule auditorium—approximately 40 seats—for an introductory video. You would think they could afford to transfer the introduction onto DVD instead of repeatedly using this scratchy tape, where the colors are as luridly artificial as Salvador Dali’s, the vertical hold periodically malfunctions, and the sound quality suggests a car radio from about 1957 being played underwater. And yet, the intro (which lasts for less than half an hour) does its job.
There are interviews—late 1990s? It would have been nice to be told—with Motown’s supremo, Berry Gordy Jr., still looking fit and energetic. Interviews with the similarly fit and energetic-looking Martha Reeves, of Martha and the Vandellas fame. (No interviews, alas, with Marvin Gaye, who has been Otherwise Engaged ever since he lost an altercation with his gun-toting father in 1984.) Of all the interviewees, Smokey “Temptations” Robinson alone bears even the smallest sign of his calendar years. The others must have acquired the patent on Dorian Gray’s preservative. But then again, before the video’s conclusion, so have I.
Maurice Chevalier—not, it would seem, a regular Motown artiste—devoted one of his best-known songs, “Valentine,” to the horror of a belated reunion with his first love, who in the interim had become a monster of ugliness. Will the Motown Museum, I wonder upon broaching its entrance, bring a similar disillusionment to me? Against the accompaniment of adult tristesses, whether global or trivial (on the one hand, bin Laden and Kim Jong-Il; on the other hand, my credit-card debt and my metastasizing bald spot), will those entrancing anthems from Hitsville U.S.A. sound half as good as they did when my youthful Australian memory cells, incapable of retaining quadratic equations or French irregular verbs, had no problem whatsoever in retaining every last syllable of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”?
Well, actually, they sound better than ever. I have seen the past, and it works. I have seen one wall’s group portrait of the Jackson Five, while in London, being introduced to an improbably hip-looking Queen Mother. (This, I presume, is what political scientists mean by “Jacksonian democracy.”) I have even seen, at the Museum—and never did I imagine I would behold this shrine—Berry Gordy’s living quarters. Almost asphyxiatingly tiny, like everything else about Ciudad Motown. The furnishings, lovingly restored to their pristine 1960s state of plastic kitsch, resemble one of those Shag cartoon books (Around The World in 80 Drinks, and so forth) in which an immaculately groomed, beehive-haired, slacks-wearing demoiselle with legs up to her armpits holds a champagne glass with one hand and changes the portable record-player’s disc with the other, while from her dauntingly perfect teeth dangles Holly Golightly’s spare cigarette holder. Only one incongruous element, which Shag’s chic heroines would never have countenanced, obtrudes in the living room: a playpen for the Gordy offspring.And as if the Gordy den (plus a vending machine crammed with authentic 1960s candy bars, 10 cents each) isn’t a sufficient culture shock, the studios themselves are unforgettable. Yes, the Motown studios. As in, the actual rooms where those hits got made—including Studio A, renowned among aficionados as “The Snake Pit.” You can pose in front of the original microphones. You can sit at one of the original grand pianos. You can even, almost unbelievably, touch some of the original paraphernalia sitting near the piano’s music stand: an ashtray and a paper cup with distinct traces of lipstick. It is like a jam session with ghosts.Then there’s the Motown gift store. Motown beer mugs. Motown key rings. Motown baseball caps. Motown T-shirts. Motown CDs, naturellement. You can even buy an ingenious Monopoly spoof called Motownopoly. (“Your hit has dropped off the charts. Go to jail, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.”) Among the bookshelves’ contents: the Marvin Gaye biography Divided Soul, which reveals details of such gruesomely thorough cocaine use on the ever more self-destructive Gaye’s part that I fail to understand how his nose did not simply fall off.His duet partner and princesse lointaine, Tammi Terrell, may have been ultimately luckier in her fate than he in his. Copies of her portrait, one that I can’t recall ever seeing previously, are also on sale in the store. Her brief life’s story, if arguably less horrific than Gaye’s, is still almost too poignant to contemplate. In 1967, while performing live in Virginia, she collapsed unconscious in Gaye’s arms. The cause of her collapse: a brain tumor. Three years afterwards she died, aged 24. Not only as a performer, but also as a lady, she must have been quite something. After all, Gaye seems never to have had, or even to have sought, sex with her. And this despite the Clintonesque ebullience of Gaye’s libido when faced with any other female more alluring than Grandma Moses.
Near the building’s exit, a world map, where colored plastic drawing pins represent each tourist’s origins. I see one visitor to the museum came all the way from Launceston, Tasmania. The mind melts down at the mystery of what conceivable attractions in Launceston, Tasmania could make any Detroiter dream of a similar journey in return.Yes, there is joy (and how!) at the Motown Museum. But there is also great sadness. I mean to say, speaking—possibly out of turn—as a mere Aussie, could someone please bring me up to speed on wotthehell-Archy-wotthehell went wrong with American mainstream pop music after Motown’s golden era ended in around 1973? It took the visual-art world centuries to decline from Rembrandt to “Jack The Dripper” Pollock. American radio has managed a similar dumbing-down, a similar auto-lobotomy, within just one generation. For Pete’s sake, even (or especially) during their most impassioned vocals, Misses Terrell, Reeves, and Ross managed to keep their clothes on. Ditto Florence Ballard, Kim Weston, Mary Wells, or Motown’s other grandes dames, an artistic feat transparently beyond Britney and Kylie and Christina and Mariah and J.Lo, whose combined range of musical expression runs the entire gamut from navels pierced to navels unpierced.Maybe Motown erred there. Maybe it wasn’t selling enough sluttishness, enough aggression, enough hate. Maybe it was selling too much elegance, too much happiness. However crude the forms that happiness sometimes took, however periodically sharp Gordy’s business deals—and you need merely watch Standing in the Shadows of Motown to realize that King Berry, in financing or even acknowledging Motown’s session musicians, scarcely constituted a Good King Wenceslas thinkalike—the suspicion remains: Motown did more for the fabric of America’s social contract than any number of racial quotas, plagiarized sermons, Marches on Washington, or orgies of black-supremacist “empowerment.” A notice near the museum’s exit invokes Horatio Alger. Quite right too. But of course, what could more scandalize the Entitlement Culture than that particular comparison?
R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia, and is the author of The Unsleeping Eye: Secret Police and Their Victims.