Some songs are working-class rock anthems in a 1960s vein, some are classic 1970s midwestern punk from that weird moment when the two decades collided in Michigan…”
by mike mosher
Recently I ran into my high school English teacher, one of only two in our school called “Doctor” for his Ph.D. Doc was now a checker in a big chain grocery store, underemployed again. As we spoke and he scanned, I remembered his nostalgic stories of how in the 1960s he had to give Scott Morgan his final exam early. Morgan and his brother, both teenagers then, were going east to Philadelphia with their band, the Rationals, to sing—probably mime, electric guitars unplugged—their regional hit “Respect” on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.
Fast-forward some forty-odd years and now we find Scott Morgan, who had a generation of midwesterners exclaiming “That’s the Rationals’ song!” when they heard Aretha Franklin’s (or Otis Redding’s) version on the radio, reappearing with a CD of his latest band, Powertrane. Recorded live, Ann Arbor Revival Meeting is drawn from a concert at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor, Michigan in April, 2002, with one track recorded at a November concert there.
The disc is distinguished by three notable guests: Deniz Tek (at less than fifty, the youngest of the bunch), Ron Asheton, and Hiawatha Bailey. Tek accompanied his math-professor parents from Michigan to Australia early in his high school years. There in 1977 he began Radio Birdman, and one might say he brought to the antipodes the meme of Detroit rock. One of their songs name-checked, “We saw the Stooges and the MC5…”. Now a physician in Montana, Tek plays guitar throughout both concerts, which bookended Powertrane’s 2001-2002 tour of the upper midwest.
Ann Arbor Revival Meeting is an archive of 1970s guitar sounds, with echoes from the MC5 to Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers or Radio Birdman (a version of “What Gives”). Some songs are working-class rock anthems in a 1960s vein, some are classic 1970s midwestern punk from that weird moment when the two decades collided in Michigan, while the songs by Deniz Tek are as speedy as any from the post-Sex Pistols era. His “Shellback”, about crossing the equator, sounds so hippy-loopy in its lyrics one suspects he wrote it on the move to Australia when he was in ninth grade. One of Morgan’s most successful bands was Sonic’s Rendezvous, a late 1970s group featuring the late Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5. “Taboo”, written by Powertrane’s Robert Gillespie with the late MC5 lead singer Rob Tyner, sounds like an MC5 cut, and “Outside” jams on gamely in the MC5 manner for six and a half minutes.
Perhaps the “trane” part of the band’s name alludes to John Coltrane. Props to jazz players denotes seriousness in Michigan rock, whether or not the music reveals any influence; there was once a band called Django which didn’t sound anything like Django Rinehart. It’s also more than likely the name means the powertrain of a car or truck, though at one time I believe Powertrane was a registered trademark of General Motors Corporation—Morgan, after all, grew up less than a mile from Bob Seger; you know, the guy who now emotively sings “Like a Rock” about Chevrolet trucks. Even university-town Ann Arbor can’t forget the motor city, and the genre that expresses this might be called UAW Rock. Songs on this CD like “Hangin’ On” and “Ready to Ball” are gruff and fist-in-the-air defiant, where everybody growls and goes home. “Runaway Slave” is a Springsteen-like paean to generalized escape from daily life, and misses its chance for specific allusions to the historical African-American experience. When it comes to politics, Powertrane are loud but defanged and sadly, ultimately impotent. Perhaps that’s an unfair charge, for over the decades Morgan’s various bands have played numerous free and leftist fundraising concerts.
Morgan had played with ex-Stooges drummer Scott Asheton in a mid-1990s band named Scots Pirates, but for this project, Scott’s guitarist brother Ron Asheton is brought on for a six-song Stooges medley that closes the set. This prefigures by several months the Ashetons’ participation in the Stooges revival tour of 2003, thirty years after their dramatic breakup onstage, recorded as “Metallic K.O.”. In 1973 the Stooges played a final L.A. date for contractual reasons without Iggy. They called from the stage for volunteers, and Ron later reminisced that he was impressed with a young teenager (Jello Biafra?) who jumped onstage and knew all the songs, miming Iggy’s moves to a tee. The Stooges songs, driven by Ron’s fuzzy guitar, are propulsive and fun…yet predictable, like countless other midwestern bands’ covers of them; ever see three teen bands—including this reviewer’s—playing for a church youth group gathering, all ending their sets with “I Wanna Be Your Dog”? Nevertheless, this part of the recording remains interesting for other reasons. Iggy Pop wasn’t there to sing, so Hiawatha Bailey stepped up. In 1970 Hiawatha was “the black White Panther”, the sole African-American face in many photos of that political organization’s white longhairs dancing at free concerts, smoking dope, living communally, or protesting John Sinclair’s imprisonment. Seven years later he was the vocalist for wiry punk group the Cult Heroes. Now the skinny, gay black man in his mid-fifties is all gristle, with an intense stare more Miles Davis than Johnny Rotten. At a packed Iggy Pop concert in Detroit in May 2001, Hiawatha left stacks of flyers for an upcoming Cult Heroes gig on every countertop and washroom sink. It looks like he’s still in the game.
Nothing is lacking in Hiawatha’s credible shout-out vocals on these thirty- to thirty-five-year-old, crowd-cherished songs, but sung in his voice we ponder the difference between performance and performativity. What aspects of the formula that consciously make up Iggy Pop’s constructed stage persona—put on some “black”, turn up the masculinity to “gay”—have greater credibility onstage in Hiawatha? Iggy Pop has been called a lot of things, but rarely has he been called replaceable. On Ann Arbor Revival Meeting, Powertrane drives home the point that he can be, even in his home town.
More information on Scott Morgan’s Powertrane can be found on his website: http://www.scottmorganmusic.com/
Mike Mosher <mosheratsvsudotedu> has godzillions of contributions online at Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life and Leonardo Reviews.
His obsessions are Michigan rock n’ roll of the late Revolutionary era (1970-73), and the traditional pedagogy of the Three C’s (comics, community murals and cyberspace).