A Short Documentary Called
"Detroit Rock City"

Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

Silverware clinking and the clank of cups, a saucer wobbles on a countertop—no doubt, we're at a diner. In the background, a transistor radio emits the news:


. . . In Detroit, a Pontiac, Michigan youth was reported dead at the scene of a head-on collision on Grand Avenue this morning. The youth was reportedly driving on the wrong side of the boulevard when he struck a delivery truck and was catapulted through the windshield of his car. The driver of the truck is reported to be uninjured. The identities of both men are being withheld by local police….


The reporter shifts to a piece about county legislators rallying to the aid of striking longshoremen, but our invisible hero scoops up his keys and leaves.


We're outside now. A car door slams. We hear that cluster of keys, the one for the ignition rammed home while the driver simultaneously pumps the gas pedal twice to prime the carburetor. The engine revs to life. A second later and the radio blares the guitar solo from "Rock and Roll All Nite" by Kiss.


It's the live version; the studio rendition doesn't have a solo.


Cut to later—could be two minutes, could be 200 miles—and the only sound the motor's purr. Somewhere further down the road and the radio is back on, our hero joining Kiss on the chorus of "Rock and Roll All Nite."


Cut again to unaccompanied pistons and a shift of gears. We're now a minute and 30 seconds into this "film" . . . except it's a song.


The music starts. It doesn't just start, though, it commands. A bass line, drums, and guitar pulsing like an ambulance siren. It grabs you by the shirt with its urgency, the urgency of a young guy so hungry for life that his V-8 can't gobble up the miles between him and his destiny fast enough.


His lust for life gives him anxiety: "I feel uptight on a Saturday night." We get a time hack and a situation report: "Nine o'clock, the radio's the only light / I hear my song and it pulls me through / Comes on strong, tells me what I got to do / I got to . . ."


And then the chorus with its ironic penultimate line:


    Get up!

    Everybody's gonna move their feet.

    Get down!

    Everybody's gonna leave their seat.

    You gotta lose your mind in De-troit Rock City.


On the page, his words have the clipped syntax of a film noir detective, but on vinyl he sings with frantic conviction:


    Getting late,

    I just can't wait,

    10 o'clock and I know I gotta hit the road.

    First I drink, then I smoke,

    Start the car and I try to make the midnight show.


Over a short instrumental section with those exquisite machine gun plucks by bassist Gene Simmons we hear the engine roar (I've always pictured the kid driving a faded blue Chevy Nova.)


Like its protagonist, this "documentary" wastes no time. The next stanza of lyrics shows our hero racing on the highway, albeit a road nowhere near Detroit; 95 runs up and down the East Coast, but so be it. Paul Stanley, the Kiss vocalist and guitarist who co-wrote "Detroit Rock City," was born and raised in Manhattan and Queens (his three bandmates were all New York City kids too.) Stanley would later fix the gaffe, changing the phrase to "doin' ninety five."


    Movin' fast down 95

    Hit top speed but I'm still movin' much too slow.

    I feel so good, I'm so alive!

    I hear my song playin' on the radio-o,

    It goes . . .


    Get up!

    Everybody's gonna move their feet.

    Get down!

    Everybody's gonna leave their seat.


Now the story gets filmed instrumentally. The spotlight shines on drummer Peter Criss. With a driving, martial rhythm and a roll on his snare drum, he heralds a guitar duet, a lyrical doubling of a gorgeous phrase played first by lead axe-wielder Ace Frehley then replicated in harmony by Paul Stanley. It's "Ride of the Valkyries" for 1976.


And it's witching hour, time for our narrator to smash through the gates of Rock 'n Roll Valhalla:


    Twelve o'clock,

    I gotta rock.

    There's a truck ahead, lights staring at my eyes.

    Oh my god, no time to turn!

    I got to laugh 'cause I know I'm gonna die —



    Get up!

    Everybody's gonna move their feet.

    Get down!

    Everybody's gonna leave their seat.


The music stops on a dime and we hear four long seconds of the worst car crash you've ever seen: a ton-and-a-half of Michigan-made muscle on the wrong side of the boulevard striking a delivery truck, a youth catapulted through the windshield of his car….


"Detroit Rock City" opens Destroyer, the fourth studio album by Kiss, released March 15, 1976—the high point of Western civilization as far as I'm concerned.


The song is to Kiss what "A Day in the Life" was to The Beatles, an apotheosis which reaches a startling crescendo, though not with the sections of a symphonic orchestra independently whirling their way to
E-major but with the screech of Goodyear tires on asphalt, steel smashing into steel, and the clatter of windshield glass.


Roll the credits, right? Think again. Emerging unscathed from the wreckage, Kiss barrels into "King of the Night Time World" while headlights and hubcaps are still raining down on Grand Avenue.


Oh sweet, it's a double-feature.


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Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet.
He writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.

©2022 Patrick Walsh
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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