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One Saturday evening last fall, this band you’ve never heard of—The Ritz–took the stage at a rock-and-roll joint in suburban Detroit. It was our first gig in forty-seven years. “It’s been a long time since I rock-and-rolled,” I sang in the Led Zeppelin classic that opened our show. Twenty tunes later, we finished with Rod Stewart’s “Stay With Me.” I told the two hundred people packed into the Token Lounge, “We’ll see you again in 2069.”
Turns out I lied.
When we showed up that October night, my four bandmates and I really weren’t sure what to expect—from the audience or even from ourselves. We’d prepared the best we could with two of us living hundreds of miles from Detroit. We knew the chords and changes and licks and lyrics of the songs we’d first performed together in 1975. And, man, I had my cowbell parts down. But what would happen when we actually got up in front of a roomful of people?
I’ll tell you what: We had a fucking blast.
I almost didn’t make it. A few days before the show, my wife and I evacuated our home on Florida’s Gulf Coast as Hurricane Ian barreled toward us. We’d just made the Atlantic shore when Ian swerved south, sparing our area. Now I had to get my butt to Detroit, half a country away with no flights out of Florida. I drove 550 miles to catch a plane in Atlanta. Soon I was sitting with Ritz guitarists Pete Klein and Fred Nemenski at Pete’s kitchen table near Detroit, going through our setlist unplugged: Aerosmith, Bowie, Bruce, Stones, Doors, Mott, Mitch Ryder, Peter Green, etc.
We were three of five guys who formed the Ritz to play an epically loud, raucous, drunken show in the summer of ’75 before going our separate ways to college and jobs and so-called real life. Most of us didn’t see each other for forty years. We decided to reunite after I bumped into Fred at a high school reunion in 2019. Covid postponed our plans, but finally we booked the Token and sold tickets for twelve bucks apiece—about what it cost to see Jethro Tull back in the day.
Once I made it north, we rehearsed for a couple of days in our then-bassist Nic’s recording studio, a room of towering ceilings and walls painted black, the sweet smell of Nic’s pipe smoke (no, not that kind) floating on the air. It took us a while to click. At one point we were quibbling over some rhythm or shift and Nic told us to chill. “People are coming to the show to be entertained,” he said. “Nobody’s gonna care if you miss a beat or play a wrong note.”
Back in ‘75, we performed on a patch of dingy tile in a dive that lured a crowd of our buddies with a $2.50 all-you-can-drink cover charge. This time we had an actual stage, a superb sound engineer, an actual light show, and a full house of people quaffing beverages that, alas, were a bit more expensive than before. They probably had low expectations of a band that hadn’t played together since the Detroit Lions weren’t horrible (or, wait, yeah, the Lions were pretty bad in the 1970s too). But I suspect we surprised them. Hell, maybe we surprised ourselves.
You might expect me to say it was all a blur, but it really wasn’t. I remember plenty of details, especially my mistakes. I screwed up the ending of the opener, scrambled the lyrics to Tull’s “Locomotive Breath,” and skipped an entire verse in Ian Hunter’s “Once Bitten Twice Shy,” earning me a sideways WTF glance from Pete.
If the other guys messed up, I missed it. So did the crowd, which danced and cheered and sang along, led by drummer Matt Hathaway’s awesome twenty-something son Shane and his pals in the front row. When the show ended, I think everyone wished we had one more song to play. Or two or three. But the Reunion of the Ritz was over.
Or not. I mean, we’re only in our mid-sixties, so why not have a fucking blast again? Why not a Ritz RE-Reunion, this time with our original bassist, Matt Locker, who couldn’t make it last time? You can be part of it on Saturday, April 29: https://www.ticketweb.com/event/the-ritz-reunion-the-token-lounge-tickets/12817755?pl=token&REFID=clientsitewp. Your expectations should be higher, which is great because I’m determined not to botch more than two songs.
Forty-seven years ago, at the age of 17, I was a rock star for one epic show on a hot summer night.
Now, nearing 65, I will do it again, fronting the same rock-and-roll band for what we hope will be another epic show. I won’t be making any more money (zero = zero) or attracting any more chicks (same) than I did in 1975. But if I learned anything back then, it’s that there really isn’t anything quite like grabbing that microphone and seeing the heads turn to you as your souped-up voice—it took me totally by surprise—commands the moment, the room, the night. Even if it’s only for a few hours.
My late mother would attribute what I just said to my chronic need to be the center of attention. I won’t even try to argue. (“All writers have to be conceited,” a perceptive friend once told me.) Yet upon reflection, I think my happy memory of that long-ago evening and my anticipation of this fall’s redux have as much to do with fear of failure and its polar opposite: the sweet existential beauty of zero expectations.
When I was a freshman in high school, my parents bought me a squat Panasonic radio that I set on the desk where I did my homework. The radio’s telescoping antenna drew crisp signals from four killer stations: WABX, WRIF, and WWWW in Detroit, along with Windsor, Canada’s CJOM–classic rock outlets before the rock of that era was yet “classic.”
This was the real beginning of my musical education. Prior to that, I’d walked to school and church belting out songs by Three Dog Night, the Monkees, and Blood Sweat & Tears. (Imagine a 13-year-old warbling, “And when I die / And when I’m dead and gone …” on his way to confession at St. Gemma Catholic Church.) The Panasonic on my gray metal desk now immersed me in Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, the J. Geils Band, the Moody Blues, the Rolling Stones, Yes, Dylan, Mott the Hoople, and Cream. I almost jumped out of my skin when I first heard the opening whomp-whomp-whomp-a-whompwhomp of Bowie’s “Panic in Detroit.” I had no headphones, so my parents were fortunate to have stuck my desk in the basement where they couldn’t hear Tull’s Ian Anderson questioning the foundation of their religious faith, with a kick-ass flute solo thrown in.
Eight-track tapes came next. When I think of those chunky plastic boxes with the album covers pasted on the front, I can’t help but also think of cars, because it was in our cars that we blasted eight-tracks on our way to and from school and hockey and weekend parties at houses where mom and dad happened to be out of town. My car was a black 1970 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight with red pinstriping, power everything, and a 455 that could push six guys, six hockey bags, a dozen sticks, and two cases of Stroh’s up Interstate 75 at 90 mph as all of us roared, “Wham bam, thank you, ma’am,” to the song blaring from the rear deck speakers. One night, my Ziggy Stardust eight-track got tangled in the player and I flung the whole mess into my Dad’s garage, the knotted tape spooling out like spaghetti.
My first concert was Tull at Cobo Hall in downtown Detroit, Sept. 13, 1973. (I was amazed recently to find the show’s set list online.). We sat on the main floor, twenty-first row, with tickets I purchased via snail mail through a classified ad in The Detroit News. I promptly followed with Elton John, Geils, and Zeppelin. Many years later, I told our youngest daughter that I had seen Bowie twice—on the Aladdin Sane and David Live tours–and she said, “Omigod, you saw Bowie?” Once in a while, it’s pretty cool to be an old mofo.
My friend Pete Klein and I were driving home after a weekend in northern Michigan when we cooked up the idea of putting a band together for a one-night stand before heading off to college. It was August, 1975, the summer of Springsteen’s Born to Run. Pete played guitar and some piano; I endeavored to sing; we’d written a few songs together. Pete knew a drummer, a bassist, and most important, a guy whose parents would let us rehearse in his basement. I knew the owner of a bar I frequented with my lacrosse team. We musicians hadn’t rehearsed even once when Pete, who was into the band Roxy Music, dubbed us The Ritz. A cheesy name, but what the hell, it’s just one night, and it might not happen anyway.
I told the owner of the Yankee Clipper bar that The Ritz would play his place for nothing if he’d let us have the run of the joint for a night. (Remember, I was only 17, one year under Michigan’s then-legal drinking age). The guy was reluctant to turn away his regulars, so instead he proposed this: he’d charge our friends a $2.50 cover that would pay for any and all drinks from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., after which they’d pay as they went. At first I thought I didn’t hear him right. Two-fifty for anything and everything a bunch of adolescent girls and boys could drink? A packed house was guaranteed. Now we just had to provide the music.
Our studio was the cramped basement in Fred Nemenski’s brick bungalow on Detroit’s far west side. I didn’t really know Fred, except that he graduated from the same high school I did, Detroit Catholic Central, and his mother bowled with mine. (Pete didn’t think his name quite fit a lead guitarist, so he renamed Fred “Troy Charmel.”) We rehearsed two times, maybe three.
Fred, Pete, our bassist Matt Locker and drummer Matt Hathaway were all fine musicians who knew how to play the 20-odd songs on our set list. Not me. I mean, I knew the songs, but I didn’t know all the lyrics, and I certainly couldn’t sing in the register of Zeppelin’s Robert Plant or Paul Rodgers of Bad Company. Instead, I resorted to screaming. I tried to hit the notes, with mixed success, and I divined that Fred in particular wasn’t enthralled with The Ritz’s front man. But I was the one who negotiated that $2.50 all-you-can-drink bonanza. So I would be the guy doing hot moves with the mic wire.
We would all soon would be dispersing to our respective college campuses. Mine was Notre Dame, a place I saw for the first time when my parents dropped me off. I’d be missing my buddies, missing a girlfriend who was losing interest in me, missing the familiar routines of home. I had no idea what to expect. I tried not to think about it so I could just rock out with my pals.
The Yankee Clipper was a smoky boxcar dive with music usually provided by a dimes-and-quarters jukebox. An hour before we were due on stage—there was no stage—the place was jammed, with a line out the door. We set up on a patch of floor near the restrooms. I don’t think I told my bandmates this, but I was scared shitless, afraid of forgetting lyrics, hitting flat notes, shrieking over Fred’s searing solos. I waited in the men’s room, wearing a sequined shirt a buddy made for me, while the boys played the rhythmic opening bars of Aerosmith’s version of the blues classic, “Walkin’ the Dog.” When they exploded into the rocking first verse, something went off inside my chest and I burst out and leapt to the mic. “Met a maid dressed in black,” I sang.
Which was wrong. First line of the first song. Wrong.
The crowd went wild.
The rest of the night was a blur of tunes from the Panasonic. I remember seeing a girl walk past us, in heaven with a tray full of banana daiquiris. I remember a buddy asking if we played any Eagles (we didn’t; no Roxy Music either, come to think of it). I remember feeling amazed, even giddy, at the sheer power of it. I remember Pete, Fred, and the two Matts sounding fantastic, as if they’d been rehearsing for weeks. Me, I made all the boneheaded mistakes I feared I would: botched choruses, blown notes, atrocious off-pitch screeching. It didn’t matter. In the eyes and ears of our peers, we killed it. I killed it. I had a live mic and a riveted audience and that was all that mattered. At midnight, we were all grins and sweat and blessedly numb to the fact that we were about to start our real lives.
Almost three years ago, I ran into Fred at a high school reunion. We hadn’t seen each other in more than 40 years. It was great to catch up. We took a selfie I emailed to Pete, who has remained a close friend. He emailed me back: We’re putting The Ritz back together. No way, I thought. But I knew I wanted to do it. I mean, there are probably hundreds, maybe even thousands, of 60-somethings who can look back on a similar rock-and-roll fantasy. How lucky was I to have the chance to relive it?
Soon, four of our original five were rehearsing in Pete’s suburban Detroit basement. Our first bassist lives too far away so we replaced him with our pal Nic Cocco, who runs a recording studio and has played as a side-man with some major acts. It was late 2019. I couldn’t believe how good the other guys were. All of them have played professionally while holding down high-level day jobs. I’d learned a little guitar, written some songs, and talked my way onto a few stages where I bellowed the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues.” Again I felt wildly outmatched.
As in 1975, I was on the verge of a transition. I’d decided to retire after 40 years as a newspaper and magazine journalist (though not from writing fiction and other stuff, like this). I could’ve hung on for a few more years but, as I told my wife, I felt like I was done, my motivation no longer in synch with my employer’s understandably high expectations. Which, once I accepted it, was a relief. I recalled something my favorite professor told me in my final semester of college. I was sick of classes and assignments and papers and being told what to do. I wanted to goof off with my buddies and Pam, the woman I would later marry. “You have nothing left to prove at Notre Dame,” my mentor said. “Go enjoy your last semester.”
I’ve moved on from my career. I have hopes now, if not expectations, for new projects. The Ritz is one. Back in 2020, we secured a venue and planned our comeback show for the spring. The pandemic scuttled that, but we stayed in touch. We now have an October 1 date to play at the Token Lounge, one of Detroit’s legendary rock venues. (Cheap tickets here: https://www.ticketweb.com/event/the-ritz-reunion-the-token-lounge-tickets/11674165?fbclid=IwAR0DeHc5WDaxw0xebwq0EIDufH6skpEykie8ozgmCAnP058O1ZYI7R03hW8
Nic recently told Fred that over his years of playing, he has learned that if the lead singer has fun, everything else falls into place.
“Hell, yeah,” I told Fred when he relayed this to me. I’ve since decided that when we do “Walkin’ the Dog,” I’m definitely going to sing it wrong again: Met a maid dressed in black … You can expect it.
PURGATORY BAY gets the mystery-thriller form sort of backward. I didn’t plan it that way, but it happened.
The main character in the story is Jubilee Rathman, a 29-year-old woman who lives in a virtual fortress on Purgatory Bay near the Lake Michigan town of Bleak Harbor. I hesitate to call Jubilee a protagonist because she is not a character for whom a reader would naturally root. Jubilee’s life is committed to a diabolical plot to exact revenge on people she considers responsible for ruining her life as a girl.
This is not a spoiler. The reader knows early on what Jubilee is up to. The question is whether she will succeed. Two other women are the keys to stopping Jubilee’s murderous plans. Michaela “Mikey” Deming is a former journalist who may have put Jubilee’s family in danger twelve years ago. Katya Malone is the Bleak Harbor police chief who investigates some strange occurrences in town that may or may not lead her to Jubilee. As one Goodreads reviewer put it, it’s less a who-dunnit than a why-dunnit.
I didn’t set out to write PURGATORY BAY that way. In fact, Jubilee wasn’t even the character with whom I started. That character was Ophelia, Mikey Deming’s sister, a blind sculptor who lives in Bleak Harbor. One night, I woke up with the Band song “Ophelia” playing in my head: “Bars on the windows, mail at the door / Why would anybody leave so quickly for? / Ophelia where have you gone?” Ophelia’s disappearance essentially begins my story. But who took her? Or lured her away? That took me to Jubilee.
Thus far, most readers seem fine with my upside-down tale. Instead of a single, likeable protagonist to take them by the hand and walk them through a tangle of plot threads, they have a main character who plays with their emotions while a handful of likeable people—Mikey and Katya among them—try to save themselves and others while confronting their own troubled pasts. The tale isn’t simple, but I had great fun figuring out how to pull it off. Not that I was trying to “transcend the genre,” but next time I think I’ll take a more conventional approach.
For secondary characters and institutions in my novels, I frequently use the names of friends and family. To wit:
Jim Mitzelfeld worked with me at The Detroit News, and won a Pulitzer Prize doing so. We also skated together in The News’s nasty annual hockey games versus the Detroit Free Press. Jim left journalism after attaining its highest honor, got his law degree, and went to work chasing down scammers for the U.S. Justice Department.
In my forthcoming novel, PURGATORY BAY, I’ve borrowed Mitz’s name for a man in a photo on the desk of a Detroit Times investigative reporter named Robillard. Robo, as people call him, figures prominently in Jubilee Rathman’s vendetta against those she holds responsible for ruining her life. And Jamison Mitzelfeld plays a small but significant role as well. Take a bow, Mitz!
When I was nine years old, I read a story in The Detroit News that terrified me. Richard and Shirley Robison and their four kids had been shot to death in their northern Michigan cottage. A few years later, my parents bought a cottage not far from the Robisons died. I would lie awake at night, waiting for a stranger to show up and kill us all. The Robison murders were the inspiration–if inspiration is the word–for this book. A certain diabolical character named Jubilee came from somewhere else inside me. More on that another time.