Howling Diablos: Detroit stars of a million bars
Let's hear it for those good, old, 'dirty, filthy, trash-dumpster blues'
Published: October 19, 2011
On just another mild evening in Royal Oak, Tino Gross called Johnny Evans to lay down some saxophone tracks for a Howling Diablos song in his basement-turned-studio. I then received a subsequent call from my brother Johnny and gladly accepted the opportunity to join them as they recorded tracks for their new album, Ultra Sonic Gas Can. Fitting that we return to a basement, since I'd been the youngest sister who'd stood at the top of the basement stairs listening to brother Johnny practice his saxophone for hours down below. Though I'd moved away from Detroit years ago, for a job teaching high school English in the Maryland suburbs, respect for my roots continues to deepen, as does my admiration for Johnny, who has remained. He's in It — Detroit, his music and the Diablos — for the duration.
Tino Gross' personal studio is a simple space, with a low ceiling common in 1930s-style bungalows. Gross mans the computer and the ProTools software. Evans stands behind a microphone on one side of a wall the color of lime sherbet. "Funky Parade," an upbeat, New Orleans-style blues track, plays through the speakers, while Gross leans back in his chair, flutters his fingers, and makes eye contact with Evans through the window between them.
"Fill in those spots right there. ..."
Detroit Music Awards from 2005, 2006 and 2007 line the base of the window. On Gross' table, a framed, signed photograph of Steve Farmer, a Detroit rock 'n' roller, is displayed alongside another framed picture of Gross' British Spaniel, Nigel. Farmer played with Amboy Dukes in the late '60s and early '70s, a band led by Ted Nugent. The more time spent in Gross' company, the more Detroit rockers he cites, and with some research, their history, influence, relationship and relevance take shape. He's not just name-dropping. He's reciting, in much the same manner as ancient traditions, his ancestry — his musical parentage. And, as it goes with good parents, he sees them as heroes.
Gross shakes his head back and forth, his thumbs meet his fingertips in rapid succession like the gesture of chattering birds; he punches in the air to emphasize a beat. He and Evans communicate seamlessly, layering sound on sound with only brief pauses as tracks gradually develop into music. Gross' black tennis shoes keep the time, ball-heel, ball-heel. He giggles as Evans finishes the song with a standard walking line, bap-bup-bup bup bup-pa-dup bup. Evans joins Gross on the other side of the wall to listen to the playback. Evans' toe taps on his flip-flop, Gross' shoes continue seesawing back and forth. He lifts his shoulders dramatically as Evans' solo plays back and hits a sustained note.
"Sinclair's gonna love this. He's gonna be proud," Gross says, adjusting his fedora. He's referring to John Sinclair, the activist who became manager for the rock band MC5 in the '60s and then manager of Gross and Evans' '80s band, the Urbations. Sinclair moved to New Orleans in the early '90s and finally to Amsterdam in order to live in a society that made sense to him, with public mass transportation, national health care and legalization of marijuana. Sinclair is a fan of the Howling Diablos and watched their rise in popularity, proudly, from afar.
Sinclair observed the band building a following among its own people, which, in his opinion, isn't done anymore in the music business, where careers are instead dependent on promotion, television and the media rather than actual talent. Money changes the artist, and in a sense, kills the artist, in Sinclair's estimation, whose credibility for matching beliefs with creative expression and action is best illustrated in his organization of the White Panthers before being jailed and later memorialized by the John Lennon and Yoko Ono song, "John Sinclair."
Evans and Gross pause to set up amps and fiddle with harmonica sounds, a particular "recipe" — they joke such a recipe is the stuff of "blues secrets." As Gross carries in another amp from a back room and Evans hovers close by, their postures are stooped, their heads brushing the ceiling as if they're physically too big for the space, or the space itself has shrunk in a world created by Lewis Carroll, a space they must shrink to fit.
The two friends survived the adventures of the record industry in the late 1990s after receiving a contract from Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records. Simultaneously, they found themselves grieving the unexpected death of their dear manager, David Leone, and navigating a world of lawyers and discovering a record industry that, despite expressing a strong interest, decided that their age mattered more. The Howling Diablos would reflect upon what felt like a surreal death, but not linger on failures. Evans suspects that he will encounter failures again with an acceptance that it is part of life, part of a musician's life. Gross sees the music business as "avenues of reality." People who focus on commercial success might see their band as "failures — or old guys who are living in a fog," but their band did not follow the typical narrative, breaking apart in bitter disappointment, starting a new band or giving up altogether.
Eight Mile Road, running along Detroit's northern boundary, serves both as a borderline and the personification of a character with creepy inclinations, which can be, sadly, all too real. A.J. Abdallah, once a percussionist for the Howling Diablos, owned a music studio on Eight Mile. He'd put it up for sale, a place he touted as being a location where Eminem had once recorded, and where on Jan. 2, 2005, Abdallah would be discovered shot dead. The murderer, Terrence Terrell Moore, had a tattoo on his forehead, the number 13, (which was his nickname). So the murderer, "13," was easy to identify when he went into a pawnshop with one of the stolen studio mixing boards. He'd had a history of firearm possession, fraud and car theft. He'd been angry with Abdallah because he felt he'd been overcharged at the studio. So, he shot him. Twice.
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