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
Some months prior to my suicide attempt, I had taken a train trip to Denver, Colorado, to see my older sister, Nina. As I walked through the station and approached the platform, I was so paranoid that I actually carried with me an unsheathed and loaded rifle that I held close to my side. As I continued on I was flanked by two photographers who were flashing away. I reasoned they were either from the press or the government. Then, while sitting in my seat for the Chicago leg of the trip, a Catholic priest took a seat across from me and began praying aloud.
Now I was making that trip again, only this time I had such an overwhelming feeling of relief at having gotten out of the music business alive that I hardly had a care in the world. My sister Nina had quite an interesting life going for herself. She had established a church for lost and searching souls, and was in the process of creating a ranch near the foothills of the Rockies where she and her considerable following could go to be away from the madness of modern society. I, naturally, found their motivation all too familiar and was intrigued by the fact that other humans could share in my desire to rid their lives of an age and time that found itself wrought with cynicism and hurtful behavior.
When I arrived in Denver I went into a long convalescence hidden away in the back of an aging mansion Nina had acquired to do her spiritual work in. I was exactly the image of Humpty-Dumpty, cracked head and all. My body's systems were taxed to the point that I could have died under any more pressure.
Months passed before I felt strong enough or safe enough to venture outside. Nina's husband, Willy Trobaugh, and I began to go on fishing outings and on one occasion were followed and observed by a young man with a camera and a quick little car who ended up getting a blurb somewhere in National Lampoon.
Other than that, two things happened of great importance. Under the awesome power and beauty of the Rocky Mountains, life became more tolerable and my fear slowly melted away. Now there was peace and time, and the opportunity for privacy and reflection.
The second important thing to occur was the empty slot in Detroit that could now be filled by the next talented local boy or girl. The whole Mitch Ryder ordeal distracted away from the natural creative process for which my city is world-renowned.
It was the time of Watergate, and the media took on a new importance and level of power they wouldn't have dreamed they could hold just a few scant years earlier. Richard Nixon had just been driven from the presidency by the media. No one else. The country plunged into a deep period of introspection and self-whippings that could be the envy of any radical fundamentalist Islamic religious student.
I sat in my sister's library for hours and read volumes of religious and spiritual writings by her, and others, and always walked away feeling a great desire to learn more about this philosophy of love for mankind. It was in direct conflict with the prevailing attitude of society at that point. It was also ironic that I would be reunited with my best friend Nina after all these years. When we were small children, it was my big sister Nina who watched over me and protected me from everything dangerous — real or imagined. Such a long passage of time for two different worlds to finally come together as one.
I had spiritually evolved to a place I would never have dreamed possible in light of my past, but it was unlike any death bed conversion I had heard or read about. It wasn't about finding God after man had brought me down. It was, instead, a cautious examination of self, guarded by a distrust for any human influence, and depended mostly on a communion with nature and the simple beauty of life in its most uncomplicated forms. It was about the reawakening of all living things under a warm, spring sun after a hard, cruel winter. It was the birth of a child before the parents had an opportunity to imprint their mistakes and ignorance. It was about renewal without conditions, and help without a price. But mostly, it was about learning to love myself along with the world that exists outside of "civilization." The quiet world. It was about love for more than one.
Nina was my teacher and she shared, by word and example, all that she had learned on her journey to enlightenment. As time passed, and within the first year as her guest, I felt strong enough to face the world. Nina wanted me to go more deeply into her world but I felt, with some misgivings, that the communal experience, which had been badly tainted by John Sinclair's vision, was not to my liking. And so, I set about finding employment in the "outside world." Having been involved in music from the age of 16, and not feeling safe enough to go back to it, I chose the only work my past had prepared me for. I became a common laborer.
My first job was hanging gutters for one of the church members who had a business doing seamless gutters. That's where I met Forrest and Doll. They were great people from down Louisiana somewhere, but the job didn't last very long once my fear of heights was exposed.
My second job was the only other work I did while in Colorado. I became a warehouse worker for a chemical and scientific supply company called Sargent-Welch. I made friends, but the inevitable question always worked its way to the top. What are you doing here?
This, I think, would have been the perfect place to end this story, but that is what is so screwed up about my life. And that is what most people don't understand about music.
Mitch Ryder belts it out in 1972.
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