19 Jun 2015

Detroit 67 by Stuart Cosgrove

Detroit 67 by Stuart Cosgrove
The Most Incredible Social History Book Yet.
What a blast.  Detroit 67 by Stuart Cosgrove is without doubt one of our books of the year. 

The great thing about Detroit 67 is how Stuart Cosgrove combines his interests in music and social justice to accomplish a book that is about several separate entire social movements, and yet returns unerringly to fondly drawn although never over-romantically portrayed descriptions of his favourite Motown hits of the day.

From detailed anecdote to broad social sweep Detroit 67 cannot be beat. In fact one of Stuart’s familiar phrases from Off The Ball, as any listener will know, is “ye cannae beat it” and it is certainly true of this book. 

Sorry Stuart, but I just really had to get that in there.

Back to the review however, and what is truly terrific about this fine book is that it is personal, as well as entertaining, and Stuart Cosgrove’s own tough journalistic chops ensure that it is never tendentious, while still managing a sense of outrage at the racism, the economic desperation and the occasional calamitous politics of the era.

To try and work out why this was such a great read I dipped in and out of it again, once I completed it, and it seems that Cosgrove’s passion pushes complexity aside, and he is able to explain everything, from broader social trends, to very finely detailed moments.

For example, in talking of the riots in Detroit in 1967, Cosgrove tracks and describes the motives of individual rioters and the feelings of victims of the riots, all in such detail that you feel you're watching a documentary - it is a marvelous effect.  Part of this is achieved with character sketches which hook the reader in every instance - and he really takes his time.  

Cosgrove dances around so beautifully in fact - his keen eye on social justice and on the interplay between pop music and political life - that the overall effect is not unlike watching Muhammad Ali’s own chop-chop footwork.  And like in any prodigious work of non-fiction, readers are brought directly into the lives of the subjects.

If it is anybody’s book, Detroit 67 feels to me to be the story of Florence Ballard of The Supremes. Don’t get me wrong — you’ll meet a host of real lives within these handsome covers — Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Berry Gordy, Muhammad Ali, Mayor Cavanagh and oh so many others — but it seems that Cosgrove is particularly drawn to Florence Ballard, who herself is at times a calamitous conglomeration of talent, jealousy and inexperience.  Stuart Cosgrove looks closely at an early rape Florence Ballard suffered, and has such a feeling for her, and for many of the other victims, criminals, wannabes and superstars that he writes about, that the book is unputdownable.

Yes, there is something about Florence Ballard that keeps drawing Cosgrove and the reader back to the same kernel of truth — that for all the excess and the violence, the tensions in the studios, offices and on the streets, and the hard work of The Supremes and other bands, the cast of Detroit 67 is largely from a hugely underprivileged place, and that Motown's success as a company, as a brand and as a sound, is testament to so many factors, and not just the hard work of those involved.

Perhaps it is details of Florence Ballard’s early rape that draws Cosgrove back to these basic human needs, for security and acceptance.  We even meet Ballard’s rapist too, in a book that does not miss a trick or a single individual when it comes to its passionate, unsentimental discovery of recent American history.

It’s almost as if you could take two or three of Charles Dickens’ best novels and combined them into one sprawling tale.  Yes, Berry Gordy and Florence Ballard stand out as key characters, but there are literary hundreds of people within these voluminous pages.

You will particularly enjoy, for example, the uncertain rise of Black Nationalism as described in Detroit 67 and the continuing march of civil rights, as embodied in the painting of the Black Madonna as installed by Albert Cleage in his Detroit church in that year.   

Joyfully, nothing is straightforward.  Stuart Cosgrove describes many random deaths that occurred during the riots of 1967, almost it seems taking time to honour each separate victim with their own passage.  Again, his feeling for social justice is intense, and not just as a music fan, but as a historian of civil rights, and someone whom you have no doubt cares about these issues as much as he loves the music of the era. 

The importance of this is mind-blowing for a reader, for the reason that we would normally in perusal of either history or the news hear something like ’43 people died in the Detroit riots of 1967’. 

Instead, the roots of the violence are carefully traced, and every lead is followed up, and presented with all the expertise of a master historian.

This is where pop and social justice meet ... head on.
For Stuart Cosgrove to do his utmost to characterise these deaths as real, lasting, tragic and personal incidents is stunning to read. It’s true that Detroit 67 is a helluva large book — nearly 600 pages — but that my friends is because it is virtually a bible of social justice, making an effort to not just describe events but memorialise them.

Better still, Cosgrove doesn’t argue that 1967 is a definitive or era-defining year.  He simply proves, through his own passion for music and his feeling for collective equity and human rights, that human progress is the work of more influences than are normally assumed.

At the same time, we are constantly reminded that Motown started as a small operation, which was driven by hard commercial nous and raring musical genius to become in a matter of years a household name, producing some of the most successful pop music in history.

Of course, none of these stories can be properly confined by 1967.  Take Ali for example.  On April 28, 1967, with the United States at war in Vietnam, Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces, saying: “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.” 

Stuart Cosgrove’s Detroit 67 follows Ali every step of this journey, and on June 20, 1967, Ali was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years. He stayed out of prison as his case was appealed and returned to the ring on October 26, 1970, knocking out Jerry Quarry in Atlanta in the third round.

So, for what on first appearance looked like a music (and sport) lover’s paean to a distinct American sound, is a keenly felt piece of historical research, that is more readable and more passionate than any history book I’ve seen of late.  I promise you, if you read this book, you will be touched and transported out of our present time, and placed nostalgically in the thick of another world.

If it will fit in your suitcase (aye, you might need a separate bag for this whopper ay a doorstopper!) Detroit 67 will be perfect material for your getaway this year.  It's easy in its style, but hard hitting in its portrayal of American life, politics, and of the amazing Detroit sounds of the sixties. 

Not only that but you will learn much about the people, places and events of the time, as well as spending some quality studio  time, watching some of the best pop creators of all time, at work.  Well done, Mr Cosgrove. I say to readers of this blog - buy or borrow this book if you can - even if (like me) you know virtually nothing of The Supremes - and 'Come And Get These Memories.'

Visit Detroit 67 website