Summer love is overrated here. It flutters in as something exciting, new, and warm, but is fleeting and weak, often breaking before the first cool September breeze skates across Lake St. Clair. There is instead a preference for the colder months. People always complain. They talk of the wind and the snow and the ice, but deep down the cold is a foundational brick in all our lives. You can hear the fondness for the Wintertime aesthetic in the sounds that come out of the city. Detroit’s cold and so is the music. That honest, reflective shiver is what makes it so good. From Motown to the modern day, the city has been a hub for all things soulful, truthful, and bold and it’s easy to see why.
As I walk through Hamtramck with the skyline glaring over my head, the city presents itself as a patchwork of its robust, beautiful, troubled, and terrible past, present, and future. The sun is setting, and I pick up my pace. To my left, a well-maintained early 20th century. To my right, an overgrown grass lot, hiding the grave of a foundation whose structure was burnt decades ago. To my left, a modernistic boutique. To my right, a wooden home that could topple with the next wind. A beautiful, suburban family home. A food truck. An adult entertainment cinema. An abandoned adult entertainment cinema. My favorite bar.
I duck in.
“Where you been?” a friend asks.
“Three more please.” another friend requests of the bartender.
“Sorry I’m late,” I say, failing in any way possible to turn our three statements into something resembling a conversation.
We toss back the shots. Gin.
“Fucking gin?” I ask judgmentally as if I was expecting it to taste good. But still, I think gin is a terrible decision for a shot. We grimace, but the booze has me instantly feeling warm again.
I take the next minute stripping off the mass of layers necessary for a Northern Winter. I untangle my wool scarf, messily wrapped and made messier by the breezy walk. I lay it over the chair back. Next, a brown suede jacket that was my father’s when he attended university and has been beautifully worn by a lack of care for suede’s relationship with the wet Michigan climate. An oversized cream knit cardigan that I got as a Christmas gift from my mother some years ago. The weight of it all leaves my chair teetering, barely at balance with the mass of its own legs against the mass of fabric clinging to its upper.
An old man who seems it his duty, his career to choose what to play on the old, janky jukebox sits next to it with a pocket full of quarters. As Ain’t That Peculiar begins its signature Motown fadeout, the man instinctually and smoothly slips in another quarter, shuffles through the options, and makes a choice. Perfectly timed and with the precision of a practiced radio DJ, Mayer Hawthorne’s When I Say Goodbye slowly emerges in the gap left by Marvin Gaye. Another solemn, slow jam oh so fitting of its environment, its history, and its people. That cold sound. Those Winter vibes.
We nod at the man for his timely decision and make way for the pool table next to him. We grab our cues, polish their nubs with chalk as if we know what we’re doing, and all point fingers when deciding who should break. It doesn’t matter. We’re all garbage so the old man and the bartender stab at our egos and our self-confidence with every bad shot. Eventually, the game of cutthroat comes to an end and as usual, I owe everyone another round of shots.
“Three more please. Anything but gin.”
I grasp the three glasses in a triangular hold with my fingers and haul them to my friends standing around a table surrounded by chairs piled high with jackets, sweaters, scarves, caps, and gloves. We toss back the drinks. Whiskey.
“Fuckin’ Whiskey?” my friend rebuttals 20 minutes after my own snarky remark.
Without a conversation about it, we all start to redress. I guess it’s time to go. It’s a short walk to our final destination, but anything further than a block is impossible in this weather without the proper prep.
The all too familiar rush of arctic air stifles us all as we walk out of the bar. I pull my scarf up over my mouth. We trek in silence, stepping in slush filled gutters, slipping on icy sidewalks, and never deterring our eyes from our north star – the faint yellow glow of downtown through the burgeoning snowstorm.
We walk through the North End and Midtown at a lightning pace, conflicted by whether we’re more excited for the concert or for the shelter that comes with the old concert hall. Either way, we walk fast.
In fifteen minutes, we’re outside the Fillmore, its walls and our stillness protecting us from the cold. The crowd outside is quiet but sizeable. The weather may deter some conversation, but never experience and we’re here for just that. The doors are open so we’re waiting our turn. Naturally, our conversation brightens back up as excitement takes hold of our thoughts.
In no time, we’re in. We check out coats – a customary action in this part of the world – and grab another round of shots at the bar, completing the rotation of buyers.
From the outside, the Fillmore is exactly what you would expect from the glory years of Detroit. A 1920’s Beaux-Arts granite complex, beautiful to this day, and beautiful forever. The interior is more of the same. Old, beautiful, high class, sporting a central dome reminiscent of Rome and Florence. It’s perfect for Detroit and it’s perfect for tonight’s artist. So is the audience. A quick look around shows a crowd unconstrained by any sort of social genre, constrained instead by the definition of Detroiter. Weatherproof, stylish boots, thick, comfy jackets, undeterred by the weather but using it and the music inspired by it as the driving force of conversation. Perfection.
The lights dim. The crowd becomes still. My friends and I exchange excited glances and take excited sips of cocktails we acquired somewhere along the way. A fellow Detroiter made of the same cold, the same music, and the same weatherized boots steps on stage. Take it away Dwele. Make us proud.