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A funny thing I noticed a few years ago, talking to members of the Trashmen, the Castaways, and other Minnesota "teen bands" from the 1960s: They never called their music punk, or even garage. They called it rhythm and blues. Applied in retrospect, "garage" was a class (and by extension, color) designation. Suburban kids played R&B like anybody else, only their households had garages.
So go figure: The widely heralded godfather of the Detroit Garage Scene is a black man who grew up in the city. Named the 28th coolest person in rock by Spin, openly worshipped by Jack White, and frequently credited with producing (or influencing, or playing in) half the new bands from his hometown, Mick Collins shrugs off the godfather thing when I reach him by phone at his Motor City home.
"I'm being blamed for the Strokes, is how I look at it," he says, laughing. "It's nice and all, but I don't give it much nevermind."
The Dirtbombs, who play the 7th St. Entry on Thursday, are the best of Collins's many current bands, and sport the kind of windshield-shattering fuzz guitar you associate with garage (along with Collins's own rhythm guitar), plus fuzz bass (alongside the regular kind), and even a second drummer (Collins likes two of everything, though it would be a stretch to call these "fuzz drums"). But it's not "garage," the singer says, nor are most of the bands that get lumped in under that label: "The White Stripes play a lot of blues-influenced music, but so does Led Zeppelin."
Better to call Collins a punk. Michigan birthed the beast, after all, in the form of the Stooges, as surely as Detroit gave us Motown and techno. Collins first heard punk in 1980, when he was 15, flipping from one end of the dial to the other in search of anything that didn't bore him. He came across Devo's "Gates of Steel" on a local public radio show, Radios in Motion, which also played an uncensored "Too Drunk to Fuck" by the Dead Kennedys. Collins had never heard anything like it and couldn't wait to tell his friends about it.
"For a period there, between '80 and '82, every kid in town listened to punk and new wave," he says. "It was just what we listened to. In high school, kids knew about [British punk group] 999 as much as they knew about any other band. I was not the only black kid in Detroit that listened to punk rock. I'm just the only one that's still in a band after 20 years."
Collins never worried about being cool: Beneath his leather, Converse, and shades seemingly surgically affixed to his dome, there's an early internet geek who says he remembers his last day job, in 1994, as being a network administration IT. (The 'net proved great for finding academic papers on psychotropic drugs.)
"People would not think I was half as cool if they saw my comic collection," Collins adds. "I like furry comics, the ones that deal with anthropomorphic animals. Like 'toon animals, Omaha the Cat Dancer, that kind of thing."
In the studio, the performer has been experimenting for 20 years, and now summons a rare, textured roar on the Dirtbombs' third album, Dangerous Magical Noise (In the Red). It's less a strenuous genre-buster than a half-conscious work of pan-rock--very much in the spirit of R&B when the tag could still be freely applied to noise. Between the sneer-along boogie of "I'm Through with White Girls" and the organ-rich funk workout "F.I.D.O.," the Dirtbombs have made a pop album--a surprise turn from a bandleader who, with his seminal '80s outfit the Gories, defined the bass-free minimalism that the White Stripes seized upon as revelation.
In fact, Collins never expected his newer side project to amount to anything, much less become one of the most popular live bands in Detroit. The Gories were a different story: After briefly banging on a toy organ with the U-Boats ("We played in a basement--we played basement rock!") and singing for the Floor Tasters (think Wire for the beerhall), he picked up the guitar for the first time to make music he wasn't hearing anywhere else. In 1985, Beat Happening-style primitivism (not to mention the retro pounding of the Nights and Days) was barely a rumor in punk. No wonder that in Detroit Rock City, the Gories were anything but hep.
"They hated us," Collins summarizes. "People would tell us to our face that we sucked. It wasn't until the very, very end, like '91--when we had built up a sort of cult following--that we could be assured of going into a club and not getting booed off. That's why I'm so combative about the Dirtbombs: Like, man, there's nothing you can say to me that could make me feel bad about this band after what I heard in the Gories. I do what I want now."