Rocking in the Streets
The pioneer of the electric guitar procession brings the phenomenon home to Detroit
Published: March 13, 2013
On the afternoon of March 20, the first day of spring, a procession of guitarists will take over the streets of Detroit. Outfitted with portable amplifiers, they’ll create a sonic stew while walking through the Cultural Center, Wayne State University and the Cass Corridor, before circling back up Woodward to the Detroit Institute of Arts for their finale. For those expecting it, the performance will be an opportunity to witness a spectacle from New York they’ve only heard about. And, for the unwitting, the scene will be a delightful surprise as they watch from windows, stop their cars or perhaps even drop everything to join the procession.
The project, called Tilted Axes Detroit, is the brainchild of Detroit native Patrick Grant, a New York-based guitarist and composer who has worked with some of the biggest names in avant-garde music. It will be a homecoming of sorts for him, as well as a way to honor the city that he feels has bestowed upon him its special musical sensibility.
As a native son, he’s excited to bring the pioneering, experiential avant-garde work he has staged in Manhattan back to the city of his birth, a return gift to a city that has given New York so many talented young people.
Grant is speaking with us from the cramped workspace in his Manhattan apartment, surrounded on all four sides with keyboards, audio gear and the guitar-laptop performance rig he’s practicing on. For decades, he lived in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood, long a destination for inbound creatives seeking their niche among the bookstores, bars and cafés centering on St. Mark’s Place.
Now he lives a 10-minute walk away, at Waterside Plaza on 23rd Street, after experiencing all the changes the East Village went through over the past three decades.
“I used to live at Third and C,” the 49-year-old composer says, “And I lived in a basement, like all aspiring musicians. But with new kids coming in every year to go to NYU, it felt more and more like waking up in the middle of a frat party every day. … Now I’m in a building with concrete construction, so I can do rehearsals here without bothering my neighbors.”
Born on Winthrop Street on the west side of Detroit, he grew up in the city, son of a third generation Detroit cop. As a child, Grant remembers returning from a day at Boblo Island Amusement Park and seeing smoke rising over the city from the 1967 Detroit riot. Not long after, Grant’s father resigned the force, moved to Livonia and started working for Ford Motor Company, where Grant said he could get good pay and benefits without putting his life on the line.
Eventually, his parents split up and Grant moved with his mother, who remarried, to affluent Oakland County, allowing him to go through the Birmingham public school system.
“Thankfully,” he says, “they had a great arts department. I was always into drawing, and my mom was a theater graduate from Dennison University in Ohio, and she always had theatrical music playing. So I was always surrounded by music. At home, I had Man of La Mancha and Cabaret growing up, whereas my dad was more into Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Scottish bagpipe music.”
But what really threw Grant over the edge and into music completely was a record that grabbed him in the sixth grade: the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange.
“That’s when I really started doing music. I shoveled snow and saved enough money so I could buy the album for myself. I had never heard classical music played on a Moog synthesizer before. I switched straight to music from art from then on.”
From the soundtrack, he discovered the work of Wendy Carlos, the early electronic music composer who programmed a Moog for her album Switched on Bach.
“I was especially inspired by Switched on Bach. I find I often have a lot of elements of Bach in my own compositions, a sort of point-counterpoint, a lot of individual parts that interlock into a whole.”
Soon, the budding composer was writing music that he couldn’t even play yet.
“I wrote a cantata that I performed when I was 14 at Our Lady of Victory in Northville,” he says, with a modesty that implies a roll of the eyes. “I was pretty proud of that.”
“And then, about 10 years after the fact, I discovered the Beatles. I had loved classical music and pop music, but I thought pop and classical could never meet. And then I heard Sergeant Pepper, and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever,’ and it all came full circle.”
Something else was brewing in Grant’s young mind that would eventually conduct to such spectacles as Tilted Axes, and that was liturgical music.
“When I was young and discovering Bach, a lot of his work was cantatas. I really liked that idea that for a specific event you write specific music. I found a lot of music inspired by some sort of ceremony. For instance, in the Lutheran church, every Sunday has a meaning in the liturgical year. A cantata for, say, the third Sunday after Advent will have a specific theme.
“They all have a particular form. You’ll have a prelude, a large chorus, soloists, and you’ll end with a big chorus, big, noisy, fast trumpets and kettle drums. Of course, I liked those parts best, but, as I got older, I appreciated the more subtle parts. But that big, festive sound and that sense of ceremony stuck with me. And it was probably what drew me into certain aspects of new wave, the way it would combine visuals and costuming with music.”
After graduating from Ernest W. Seaholm High School in 1981, Grant started becoming more aware of the larger culture. He decided to dive in, enrolling at Wayne State University and living in an apartment on West Forest Avenue. “For my two years at Wayne State,” he says, “I was a student by day, and playing the Old Miami by night.”
He played with a new wave group called Walk Thru Walls before getting involved with Changing Bodies, a band that featured Skeeto Valdez on drums and was named Best Detroit Band of 1984 by none other than Metro Times.
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