Through the Wreckage: On Joe Molloy’s “Acid Detroit”
By Alexander BilletAugust 19, 2023
Acid Detroit: A Psychedelic Story of Motor City Music by Joe Molloy
We can picture it in every city, but very often that city is Detroit. The American imagination has always needed Detroit. Seventy years ago, it was held up as proof that American industry was unmatched, that the factory ecosystem could provide every family with a stable job and home. Now, despite the PR spin, detractors point to Detroit’s clusters of abandoned houses as a kind of cautionary tale for the anxious neoliberal soul. The city’s refusal to do more with less, say its detractors, to quell its unruly and entitled denizens, can only lead to where it is today.
The implication is that this shrinking city—once the fourth-largest in the United States, now comfortably outside the top 10—not only has no culture, but also doesn’t deserve any. It was barely a decade ago that financial commentators smugly insisted that Detroit Institute of Arts should sell off its permanent collection to pay the bankrupt city’s debts. For all their apocalyptic warnings that the city was falling into the rule of ruthless looters, you got the sense that they would like nothing more.
This, however, is also the city whose assembly lines left deep imprints on the sound of popular music. It can still be heard in the very rhythms of rock and roll, hip-hop, electronic, and dance music, stubbornly chugging along well after the auto plants shuttered. Lazy critics associate these sounds with only pain and loss, but they also communicate the indomitable promise before, during, and after the economic decline. “It is perhaps Detroit that best encapsulates the rise and fall of the hopes of modernity,” writes Detroit native Joe Molloy.
In Detroit we see the social and psychic costs of having been at the core of the Fordist post-war project, as well as the ruinous edge of neoliberal globalization. Simultaneously, it is here we see the ways in which wider continuities of resilience, community and aesthetics have stayed true to a certain form of countercultural desire, sowing among the ruins the seeds of emergent post-capitalist futures.
Molloy, ergo, wrote his new book, Acid Detroit: A Psychedelic Story of Motor City Music, to tell an alternate story of his city. In mapping this history, he is also aiming to provide us with an alternate future—not just for Detroit but for all cities—radically divergent from the bleak imaginative cul-de-sac that prevails under late-late capitalism.
Capitalist realism is what the much-mourned and ever influential Mark Fisher famously dubbed this cul-de-sac, and Molloy is open about this debt. The book’s title is a direct tip of the hat to his concept of acid communism, formulated as a proposal to revive a liberatory imagination and a feasible alternative to capitalism’s depredations. (It bears mentioning that Molloy’s publisher, Repeater Books, is the press founded by Fisher and Tariq Goddard after the two parted ways with Zero Books.)
Given that Fisher’s book on acid communism was still in its embryonic stages when he died, Acid Detroit is presented with a challenge shared by many of his readers (including this writer) whose minds were lit up by the notion. With only a schematic of acid communism available to us, we are forced to improvise, to apply it on the fly and see how the theoretical gaps fill in.
As it happens, the music of Detroit was rather important to Fisher’s notion of acid communism. In the unfinished introduction to what would have been his book on the matter, he held up the work of Motown legends the Temptations, specifically their work in the late 1960s with producer Norman Whitfield, which today is credited with pioneering the subgenre of psychedelic soul. About the group’s expansive and groundbreaking 1970 single, Fisher argued:
The egalitarian social space projected in “Psychedelic Shack” could not be dismissed as a passive pipe-dream or a distraction from actual political activity. Rather, music such as this was an active dreaming which arose out of real social and cultural compositions, and which fed back into potent collectivities, and a new existential atmosphere, which rejected both drudgery and traditional resentments.
In songs like “Psychedelic Shack,” Fisher located a febrile and fecund egalitarianism, the active imagination of a place “where you can really do your thing” and “you can learn the meaning of soul.”
If this version of the Temptations clashes with their contemporary image as a standard R & B vocal group, then this may tell you something about the divide between what actually happened during the 1960s and how the decade is remembered. One of the benefits of looking at the ’60s through the prism of Detroit is that it dispels the most annoying myths about the era. The counterculture—often dismissed as little more than spoiled children—was not, in fact, just the purview of middle-class hippies sustained by copious amounts of weed, cheap college, and substantial trust funds. In Detroit, and many other cities, countercultural values were engaged by working people who increasingly believed they should be the ones in control. Likewise, these workers were themselves contributing to the kinds of culture that narrativized the possibility of a world beyond work—or at least beyond exploitation.
This mélange of industrial militancy and utopian creative expression was, by the decade’s end, a far more accurate encapsulation of its spirit. This was a spirit buttressed on one end by wildcat strikes led by the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and on the other by the sonic dervish and radical invocations of acts like the MC5. Between the two, one got the sense that revolution, a renovation of the individual and society as a whole, was both necessary and possible.
This, more than any number of good acid trips, is what Fisher was pointing to when he proffered the idea of acid communism, and what Molloy is talking about when he describes his musical history as “psychedelic.” It is a state of mind far better described by Herbert Marcuse, one in which false social and individual needs give way to the truest version of one’s ontological freedom.
Molloy utilizes Fisher’s writing on “Psychedelic Shack” to establish an analytical framework for his own book. But he doesn’t locate the acid communist—redolent with the revolutionary hope of the 1960s—solely in Motown. Acid Detroit maps the links between various genres and artists that sprung from Detroit as they evolved into or borrowed from one another. He looks at how jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd was influenced by the radical futurist trends of Motown and soul in his 1974 album Stepping into Tomorrow, and how soul morphed into funk in the early 1970s.
It was George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic collective that led the way in this respect, famously stretching these desires into their outer reaches, a cosmic, experimental sound later heard as a watershed in the evolution of Afrofuturism. “While Parliament-Funkadelic might have been imagining a world far out beyond our own,” writes Molloy, “in terms of their day-to-day practice we again see the theme of black collectivity back at the forefront.”
This, then, is the hope of modernity, an entanglement that countless radical writers have sought to better understand. Undercutting and taming this incendiary imagination, making “utopia” a childish and fanciful word, was an ideological cornerstone of the neoliberal project. Just as this project materially needed to quell a growing militancy among workers in the 1970s, so did it need to decouple this militancy from the hippie dream of a life without work. This process is expertly recounted in books like Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (2010), a book which leaves the reader wondering what might have happened had these affinities remained intact.
This missed concurrence, this grand hypothetical, haunts the pages of Acid Detroit. Haunting, or rather hauntology, as his acolytes call it, played a well-known and major role in Fisher’s work—specifically in the form of a future that was supposed to be but never was.
Molloy is not romantic about the actualities of Fordism and the assembly line. But he takes a cue from Antonio Gramsci’s own critique of scientific management, seeing in it the democratic possibilities of making work ever more efficient and effortless, ever less time-consuming and alienated. It’s a duality captured by Diego Rivera’s Herculean and elaborate Detroit Industry Murals (1932–33), referenced in this book’s introduction. (Molloy is nothing if not voracious in his cultural tastes. Though Acid Detroit is primarily a book about music, its passages are just as likely to reference films of and about Detroit—from Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 movie RoboCop to Jim Jarmusch’s 2013 film Only Lovers Left Alive—to illustrate a point.)
The mission of this book, however, is not simply to insist on a return to these dreams, these musical modes and rebel imaginaries. As if that were so easily done. This author insists that nostalgia is unnecessary, that this post-work imaginary is not just alive but thriving in today’s Detroit. It’s found not by sidestepping the devastation, but by going through it.
In the half century since Motown’s apex, the rhythms of Detroit—its music and the city itself—have gotten much heavier. Though the disinvestment and derelict assembly lines wouldn’t come for a few more years, the mass rebellion of 1967 against police racism, the largest American urban uprising in over 100 years, serves as a turning point in Acid Detroit, an acknowledgment that getting to the good society was going to take a lot more blood and suffering than we might have otherwise thought.
This is fitting, if counterintuitive. Though the notion of acid communism might connote a certain preoccupation with pleasure and euphoria, it was not the full sum of Fisher’s heuristic. Writing for Krisis, Matt Colquhoun, a former student of Fisher’s, wrote of the “acid” in “acid communism”:
‘Acid’ is desire, as corrosive and denaturalising multiplicity […] an ideological accelerator through which the new and previously unknown might be found in the politics we mistakenly think we already know, reinstantiating a politics to come.
This requires as much a commitment to facing an often terrible reality as it does to the feasibility of a better world. Motor City had burned. The internal contradictions of the Fordist dream were buckling under the weight. Nobody could look away from the wreckage. And from the sound of it, the city’s garage rock bands didn’t want us to.
Yes, this is where the MC5 play a particularly pointed role. It’s also where Iggy Pop and the Stooges take the stage, and Molloy spends a good portion of the second chapter examining them—particularly their landmark 1970 album Fun House, which managed to both point to the end of the 1960s and insist that the fun times were far from over. Then there’s Death, the trio of young, Black musician siblings whose fast and loud songs were almost entirely forgotten until the early 2010s but are now lauded as a missing link in the gestation of punk rock.
Acid Detroit correctly sees this lineage continued in the garage and punk bands that emerged from the city in the 1980s and ’90s, with bands like Negative Approach, the Gories, L-Seven, and the like. These were groups removed a few steps further still from the relative financial security of the auto plants, still more from the democratic possibilities imbued in the abortive radicalism of their workers.
There is, however, always a rough kind of dialectic at play: a dark reality, and the response of the young and disaffected, mimetically processing and rejecting that reality. For sure, all utopian frameworks require some form of negation, even if that negation is little more than a loud and visceral “no.” If that were all hardcore punk had to offer, it would be one thing, but in the context of other diverse styles, genres, and modes of expression, it becomes clear that this raw refusal exists on a continuum, and necessarily points to some other mode of being.
One of the book’s most original sections, an examination of the prolific musician John Brannon’s work, illustrates this. Brannon is a legend of Detroit’s underground, best known for fronting the hardcore group Negative Approach and, after their disbandment, the blues-influenced post-punk band Laughing Hyenas. Both projects are seminal in their respective genres, though as Molloy writes, Brannon’s own musical output is far wider than these two groups.
Molloy uses Brannon’s work and its respective phases as a kind of psychological cipher for the hard times that slowly consumed Detroit starting in the early 1970s. Each phase in Brannon’s career is assigned one of the five stages of grief. For Static, his unremarkable late-1970s glam rock group, it’s denial. For Negative Approach, it’s anger (of course); for the paranoid madness of the Laughing Hyenas, an amalgam of bargaining and depression; and finally, with Brannon’s rollicking early-aughts garage-punk project Easy Action, acceptance.
“What we ultimately see in Brannon’s journey through the dark night is the possibility of moving through,” Molloy writes.
Throughout his musical career, we find him wrestling with the notion of being caught in repetitions and cycles. In order to work through such a compulsion to repeat, we find art not for art’s sake, but the role that art plays for many: art for survival’s sake. Or rather, art for sanity’s sake.
We might quibble about the merits of the “five stages of grief” formulation, but this incorporation of psychology isn’t alien to liberatory praxis. Freudian psychoanalysis played a role in Fisher’s own work, as in the radical schizoanalysis of Deleuze and Guattari. Recent years have also seen more traditionally Marxist scholarship and writing—from Enzo Traverso’s Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory (2017) to the British journal Salvage—insist that the Left has yet to fully mourn the massive defeats that accompanied the rise of neoliberalism.
To be sure, these defeats are monumental. Whatever the limits of truly extant communism, its collapse in the late 1980s and early ’90s lent credence to the Thatcher-Reaganite dictum that there was no alternative to capitalism. Just as working people were in the direst need for this alternative—in the wake of crushing losses for British miners, American air traffic controllers, and across virtually every sector of industry—its viability was foreclosed. Clearly, the old, comforting bromides, our incessantly repeated rituals and slogans, have not been up to the task of reopening this avenue of possibility. Indeed, as we’ve watched cities drown and continents burn, they’ve barely been enough to provide us with crude comfort.
To grieve, then, isn’t just to acknowledge the gravity of what was lost, but to internalize as well the belief that you should not have to do without it. This in turn means clearing the way for our imagination to think of all the ways we can do better too. Not only do artistic and musical expressions provide a cathartic outlet for this; they also sensitize the creator and listener to such possibilities. It is, in this respect, a kind of biopolitical purge, a first psychedelic grasp toward a new way of living.
This treatment allows us to conceive a utopian possibility even as Detroit’s own place in time is increasingly bent and twisted. Yes, most of the assembly lines that chugged out a rhythm you could write a song to have long since disappeared. But the music continues, even if we hear in it this temporal desiccation. The instrumental hip-hop of James Yancey—better known to the world as the highly influential and gone-too-soon producer J Dilla—is exemplary of this.
Dilla’s beats are viewed in and out of hip-hop as so groundbreaking for, among other reasons, their off-kilter, almost drunken tempos, avoiding the quantization favored by many of his contemporary producers. “Simply put,” writes Molloy, “quantization is the tool that allows producers to perfectly lock their patterns into place, removing the distinctly human touch of a real player.” To remove this tool is to reintroduce the human touch.
Much the same is said for the White Stripes, probably the most successful and influential Detroit rock band of the past two decades, whose stripped-down analogisms produce a similar wobbliness. Molloy interprets this rhythmic anomaly as more than just a metaphor for the city’s deindustrialization. He hears a radical contingency in it, and contingency in time itself. Not unlike Walter Benjamin’s concept of jetztzeit, “now-time,” time in which ruptures become possible. If artists like John Brannon must “go through” something to find a mode of living worth surviving for, then these rips in the bleak telos of decline provide them the entry point.
Molloy applies a similar rubric toward the book’s end in considering the work of rapper Danny Brown. Brown is an artist who, like Brannon, is haunted by the knowledge that his life could have been quite different had it not been for history’s cruel sense of irony. Brown’s output—referred to as “acid rap” by both him and others, well before Chance the Rapper appropriated the term as the title of his 2013 mixtape—is analyzed in the book through a similar prism as Brannon, though without the five stages of grief.
Each album—incorporating a litany of influences from Detroit and beyond, including Nine Inch Nails, A Tribe Called Quest, early-2010s festival EDM, the White Stripes, the Insane Clown Posse, and so on—sees Brown wearing his sometimes fragile psyche on his sleeve. The manic outcast on 2011’s XXX. The depressive mood-swinger on 2013’s Old. The extremely online paranoia of 2016’s Atrocity Exhibition. Finally, on 2019’s uknowwhatimsaying¿, an older and wiser artist surveying the damage with sobriety.
This isn’t a linear process of an artist learning to face his demons. It references other points in time and location, tracing relevant connections and hinting at universal traumas. Atrocity Exhibition, for example, shares its name with Joy Division’s 1980 single, and Molloy compares Brown’s approach to music with that of doomed Joy Division front man Ian Curtis. Separated by an ocean and a near quarter century, both artists emerged from crumbling industrial hubs. Their work grapples with what it means to be unstuck in history’s end—to be, as Joy Division guitarist Bernard Sumner described it, “into the extremities of life.”
Both titles also take a cue from J. G. Ballard’s 1970 experimental novel The Atrocity Exhibition, which is quoted at the beginning of Acid Detroit’s chapter on Brannon:
The car crash differs from other disasters in that it involves the most powerfully advertised commercial product of this century, an iconic entity that combines the elements of speed, power, dream and freedom within a highly stylized format that defuses any fears we may have of the inherent dangers of these violent and unstable machines.
Taken, appropriately, to the extreme, it is easy to see what this through line tells us. There’s no ignoring the wreckage that late capitalism has made of Detroit. Doing so merely dooms us to relive the accident again and again. Acknowledging this, however, isn’t to accept or wallow in it. It is to regard a city’s history, and future, as mutable.
Molloy starts the final full chapter of Acid Detroit with a quote from influential socialist feminist activist and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs, a longtime Detroiter. Boggs’s own work was animated not just by the fortunes of American heavy industry and its effects on the lives of its workers, but by the constant, urgent need to imagine how it would be different if the workers were the ones shaping it rather than the other way around.
The quote, from the 2012 documentary We Are Not Ghosts, focuses on how community members had reclaimed some of the city’s vacant lots to grow food, how they had started “to look at the vacant lots not so much as blight but as promise.” To view music and art as playing a role in this same revival isn’t fanciful. It is also worth pondering why it is that so many of the songs and albums mentioned by Molloy are so place-oriented. “Psychedelic Shack,” “Fun House,” Donald Byrd’s Places and Spaces (1975), George Clinton’s cartoon-existential reach into outer space.
Music, as an aestheticization of time, also inheres dimensionality. Time felt implies the space to feel it. If that space doesn’t exist, then it must be built by those who want to occupy it. For this reason, the chapter on Detroit’s legendary techno scene is, deliberately or not, a hinge on which the rest of Acid Detroit turns.
So much has been written on the heights of the rave scene of the 1980s and early ’90s, not just Detroit techno but also Chicago house and London drum and bass and all the various hybridic genres of electronic dance music that could be heard in warehouses and discos throughout the era. More consistently than any other style of popular music to emerge in the second half of the 20th century, EDM gestured toward utopia by attempting to collectively create it. Detroit techno introduced a harder industrial edge to this, more prominently bearing the influence of soul, funk, and (to a certain degree) punk rock.
Steady, fast-paced beats that demanded movement from a mass of listeners? Check. Sonic landscapes that sounded like the future? Likewise. Creative integration of radical politics? Artists like Carl Craig and Underground Resistance made sure of it.
There was something else, though. The history of Detroit techno is partly distinguished by its transforming spaces of postindustrial neglect into something vibrant and free: shuttered auto plants, derelict warehouses, empty factories that became the venues for many of the Detroit area’s most important raves, often held without permission from either landlord or police. In much the same way that Boggs saw the future of the city in the grassroots rehabilitation of its neglected spaces by young working people, the height of Detroit techno saw these same young people insisting that the rhythms of a future worth living could be restarted and recreated.
Acid Detroit glosses over this facet of the city’s techno scene. But the book’s coda sees Molloy recounting a night out with friends, hopping from a punk gig to a dance party, passing by the revered Hitsville U.S.A. along the way and finally communing with friends on the porch of a dilapidated house before the sun comes up. There is, in these final pages, that familiar dialectic between what is and what could be, sites where the future was once buried, now where it blooms.
There is, it bears mentioning, a near-innocence in these passages, a fascination with sensation, the sound of music, the thrill of dancing, the joy of creation and connection. Several times in the book’s closing Molloy repeats “I feel alright,” an elated, unchained refrain. It’s not naivete necessarily, but a bright-eyed sense of joy, untainted by cynicism and crushed dreams.
It’s not just that Molloy is all of 23 years old, an age when it is much easier to forget for a while that work comes Monday morning. Nor is it the MDMA, though neither of these factors hurt. It’s that he seems to genuinely believe that life should be more like this, if not all the time then much more than it is now. Confronted with the tongue-clicking dismissal that it can’t be, Molloy seems likely to respond why not? We should admit: he has a point.
We can picture it in every city because it exists in every city. Or at least it exists in the hopes and, sometimes, the actions of its most marginalized denizens. If Acid Detroit has done anything successfully, it has illustrated that there is, even in the bleakest times, someone, usually some combination of artists and disaffected kids, dreaming of real freedom. In constructing a through line of these dreams—how one morphs into the next, even if it does so by oozing its way through the rubble—Molloy manages to reconnect the disparate moving parts that might comprise a new modernity.
For all the talk of its failures, that its time has come and gone, it is modernity’s contradictory soul, the promise that its inhuman structures can be democratically revamped and renewed, that seems, in that uncanny way, to keep returning. One gets the sense that it will continue until we learn to put the wreckage back together again, this time on our own terms.
Alexander Billet is a writer and artist living in Los Angeles. He is the author of Shake the City: Experiments in Space and Time, Music and Crisis, published in 2022 by 1968 Press.
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