The Books Issue 2012
Meeting the Beatles, retreating to the Rockies
Two excerpts from Mitch Ryder's autobiography Devils and Blue Dresses
Published: March 21, 2012
Devils and Blue Dresses: My Wild Ride as a Rock and Roll Legend is Detroiter Mitch Ryder's account of his roller-coaster life of incredible highs — does it get better than headlining for an opening lineup of the Who, Eric Clapton, and Smokey & the Miracles? — and crushing lows. The following excerpt takes place after he's climbed to the top of the charts with the Detroit Wheels, scoring with hits like "Jenny Take a Ride" and "Devil with a Blue Dress On/Good Golly Miss Molly." Under the influence of producer Bob Crewe and manager Alan Stroh, he's ditched the Wheels to seek the next level of stardom with a new band with whom he's about to tour. But first, a few introductions: Lionel is Lionel Bart, the creator of the hit musical Oliver!, who had become a friend on an earlier trip to England; Susan is Ryder's first wife.
We flew over to Lionel's, Susan and Alan and me. Once there, we were invited to attend a party in the English countryside that was being thrown for the Beatles, who by this time were as big as they would ever be. The trip through the countryside was very mysterious, and deliberately so. We were provided with a map, which had substituted visual images for geographic locations. It said things like, "travel along in this direction until you come upon the girl with kaleidoscope eyes. ..." And sure enough we eventually came upon a beautiful barefoot maiden standing alone in the middle of a grassy field in the open country dressed only in sheer silk, flowers all about her and in her hair, and eyes the size of small moons. It went on that way, clue after clue being taken from songs on the Sgt. Pepper album.
Finally, we came upon a huge farmhouse and in the drive was parked the colorful paisley Rolls Royce that carried the Beatles. I soon found out there were only a few Americans invited, and probably no more than 30 people all told. Susan, British singer Lulu, and Cynthia (John Lennon's wife) were the only women there. The party would officially last for three days, but we only stayed until the afternoon of the second. In the main room was a massive walk-in fireplace where people gathered. People also gravitated to an upstairs living area because there were two bedrooms there. In short, it was a large farmhouse lying on the gently sloping English countryside and everything was in its summer beauty.
We settled in and after a while I took Susan to an empty chamber room that held a grand piano. We were so excited. The Beatles! Oh, my God, the Beatles! All of them were there, except for Paul, who was visiting a girlfriend in America. Inside the room Susan and I sat at the piano and amidst the excitement I began to calm us by starting to play a song for Susan. The door to the room suddenly opened and in walked George Harrison and his publicity agent, Derek Taylor. We hadn't been introduced yet and as I rose to greet them Taylor said, "Get out of here, I want to use the piano." We got up and left without saying a word.
Maybe Alan was right. Maybe I did lack the confidence I needed to become the superstar they were shaping, but how would anyone act if one of the gods of their age wished you to be gone from their presence? Susan went to talk to the other women. I, visibly shaken, walked into the main room. Sitting alone in front of the huge fireplace was Ringo, who was staring straight ahead and wearing a frown. I reasoned he was not having a good time, so I approached him because I felt the need for a kindred soul and I thought he might as well. I wasn't there for more than thirty seconds when a beastly person came rushing toward me and chased me away.
I was beginning to feel very depressed. There I was, rejected by two of the gods of that century. I don't think I could have felt any lower than I did at that moment. Alan and Susan were nowhere in sight so I walked away slowly and took a seat at the other end of the room but still in front of the huge fireplace. I stared into the fire, asking myself what I could have done differently that would have made them like me. I wanted to kill myself. But, as the gloom and paranoia slowly took hold a miracle appeared. A human figure appeared before me and spent the next hour repairing my psyche and covering me with words of encouragement and love. The miracle was John Lennon.
Ryder reflects on the highs of his career in Devils and Blue Dresses. But more so he dwells on the missed opportunities that kept him from becoming a superstar — that next level post-Detroit Wheels career never arrived. Even remaining a star was impossible — at least with any consistency. The successor band Detroit, like Mitch and the Wheels, had its moment — then the moment ended. Bad luck, bad choices, bad associates and bad habits, not to mention an often debilitating insecurity, are undertones throughout the book. This next excerpt picks up at a particular low point. Ryder signed on with a new manager, Bud Prager, formed and scrapped another new band (including guitarists Wayne Kramer and Fred "Sonic" Smith), worked through a grueling tour with guitarist Leslie West (of Mountain fame) ... and found himself left with nothing to show for the episode beyond mutual recriminations between himself and Prager. Pumping gas in Detroit to earn a little money he found "People recognized me and some were mean and others just laughed." Facing eviction with his second wife, Kimberly, his "moral reservoir" empty, he tried to commit suicide with a mixture of booze, prescription meds and THC.
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