Devils & Blue Dresses: My Wild Ride As A Rock and Roll Legend
By Mitch Ryder
Published by: Cool Titles
Wednesday, 24 July 2013
Mitch Ryder bio a brutally honest look at life in rock and roll's fast lane
Review by: Geoff Dale
In so many rock and roll biographies, the self-obsessed sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle – that shiny bright but tainted symbol of success – is there front and centre. Yet the rationale for pop stars becoming so self-destructive seems strangely missing.
The reader gets the vicarious thrill of looking on from afar, but still leaves without ever really understanding what drove their idols to such explosive behavior, what devils and demons have possessed them and led them on the path to fame, fortune and ultimately ruin.
Mitch Ryder’s Devils & Blue Dresses: My Wild Ride As A Rock and Roll Legend may just be the exception to the rule. The author, in a spectacularly self-analytic and at times self-effacing style, lays it all on the line in the very first pages. There may have been secrets before but no longer.
Those who followed the pop scene in the 60s and 70s will recall Ryder as the man who brought fire and soul to the heart of the Detroit music scene and on the international stage with such dynamic chart-toppers as Jenny Take A Ride, Little Latin Lupe Lu and, of course, Devil with a Blue Dress On.
This book gives him the freedom to reveal just who he was during those heady days and how the 68-year-old rocker has managed to survive in such an unforgiving world that has claimed so many victims – Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison and more.
For a man chiefly known as a songwriter/musician and performer who seemed hell bent in delivering the show of his life every time he cranked it up in front of a live audience, he’s now proven to be a surprisingly articulate writer who grasps the power of the right words and where to use them.
If there was any mystery as to whether his early days in the small seven-block neighbourhood of Warren, Michigan had any bearing on shaping his later years in the crazy, unbridled world of rock and roll, he clears that up soon and with great eloquence:
A bizarre, eclectic crowd who, with few exceptions, were culled from the debris of human failings and moral bankruptcy, peopled the neighborhood. There was alcoholism, drug addiction, violence, beating and battering, incest, adultery, child molestation, prostitution and a sense of well-being that any sane person would find disgusting and repugnant.
From that particularly painful recollection, one sees quickly how Ryder, born into the world as William S. Levise Jr. on February 26, 1945, seemed destined to consume and be consumed by the kind of craziness and utter disregard for law and order by which the lords and ladies of rock and roll lived and so often died.
His time with the Detroit Wheels, as a solo artist, later incarnations of the Wheels and The Thrashing Brothers, was peppered with the famous and infamous. He was an integral player in the heydays of Motown, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Berry Gordy and masters of soul and rhythm and blues such as the volatile Wilson Pickett.
The book is a living, breathing account of a roller coaster ride that would see him deal and ultimately been shunned by music powerhouse Bob Crewe, playing to packed houses and then learning the hard lessons of reinventing oneself. In his early days he would watch in dismay as the once great jazz drummer Gene Krupa, nearing the end of his career, would stumble and fall in a New York. He would chuckle at the odd behavior of Tiny Tim and watch on as Jimi Hendrix, who would later offer him a job, rocketed to superstardom.
Along a sometimes magical road that took him to Great Britain and, in later years to Germany, Ryder would taste the highs and lows of stardom, only to see dreams shattered, his groups dismantled and resurrected – all of this and more, as he watched and became part of a world marked by violence and drug addiction.
His brief encounter with John Lennon, whom he dubbed the “Good Beatle”, is recalled as a life-saving moment. The wonder at hearing and simply being in the presence of such pop luminaries as Bob Dylan, Procol Harum and the Doors is a tribute to Ryder’s odd penchant for being modest. A strange thought because so many, like an up and coming John Mellencamp, openly admitted to how strong an influence he was and continued to be on his career.
Often Ryder is poetic in his observations, particularly when he turns to his love of music:
Music is such a natural and significant part of the American character, flowing so effortlessly, commercially and aesthetically through inbred class differences that its impact defines who were are to the rest of the world. It is loud and quiet, and beautiful and ugly and powerful. But never, never weak.
He also demonstrates a keen sense of vicious humor. His view of noted music critic Dave Marsh: He was Mark Twain’s cynical, illegitimate, genetic missing link. Packed with insights and recollections of the times when he dallied with possible movie stardom, the book is one eye-popping jolt after another, each one packing a delightful punch that rocks you with surprise.
Perhaps the most telling revelation of Ryder’s character in this wonderfully enlightening book is a passage in the author’s note:
The only thing that makes me different from you is a bizarre twist of fate. I found fame in America. Fame is a twisted concept that garners such an odd reaction from the public that it borders on insanity. Did fame make me a better person than you? You read this book and tell me. Did fame solve any of my problems or make my life easier? Hell no. Fame only did one important thing for me. It gave me a goal to overcome, or die trying.
For the reader, it poses a delightful dilemma. This time it is no cliché – how do I put this book down? For anyone remotely interested in the life of the man who in many ways defined the Detroit sound and has been called the unsung hero of Michigan rock and roll, it is nearly impossible.
Compelling and beautifully written, packed with a genuine sense of personal drama and often bone-chilling insights, it’s as if Ryder was belting out every word on each page in his trademark rock and roll voice – crying out for the reader to feel both his pain and sorrow.
A must-read that garners **** out of four stars.
This review was originally published online at The Beat Magazine.