27 February, 2008

Detroit, lift up your weary head

Ever heard of Sufjan Stevens? He wrote an incredible album about Michigan; the expansive and sometimes epic "Greetings from Michigan the Great Lake State", and it includes odes to cities including Detroit and Flint, the Upper Peninsula, and vacation areas such as Tahquamenon Falls and the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes. It's a collection of eloquent "folky" songs and instrumentals inspired by his home state. But, lying below the surface of his melodies, are scenic descriptions and characters, as well as his own declarations of faith in God, of sorrow, love and his passion for the regeneration of Michigan. If Philip Glass wrote pop songs, they might sound something like these. And I love them. They describe and evoke the feelings I experience for this tragic and beautiful place. As Brandon Stosuy said: "The record is stacked with impressive space for Stevens' shimmering geography, and it manages a melancholy beauty; Michigan is a frost-bound tone poem in which average people live out their victories and defeats with a shadowy, dignified grace."

Melancholy beauty. Yeeeees Brandon Stosuy, well put. It is an excellent description for this desolate place. It walks with sorrow. But it carries that sorrow with dignity and pride... perhaps that is why it feels familiar. I know what it is to walk with sorrow; and I attempt, though I do not always succeed, in carrying it with dignity. (No. Let's face it. Sometimes my sorrow is lugged around awkwardly like something out of Weekend at Bernie's Just with more snot. And less extraneous physical comedy). But what is it that draws us to ruination? What is the exact affinity? Why do we find it so compelling?

I admit I am always struck by the sadness Detroit evokes in people. Yes, there are abandoned buildings, yes there is extreme poverty; and OH yes, it is very, very cold. But the "ruins" of Detroit are as real as the ruins of Rome or Troy, and yet those are celebrated as the remains of pinnacles of civilization.

Perhaps Detroit's ruins are the symbols of what might have been, and that is why it strikes a chord with those of us who fear the presence of own own missed grasps at actualization? Our unfulfilled dreams? Our unrealized potential? Or worse, (and perhaps more accurate), we do not only experience the doubts. No. We feel and see our shortcomings as fully as anything. And Detroit embodies this fear. It forces us to confront the reality of disappointment. The snowblinding vision of what could have been. If only things had been different.

And yet, despite it all, out of nowhere and completely unexpectedly, Detroit has nuzzled it's dreary way into my reluctant heart. It says to the broken travelers of this world, Come, add your sorrow to my heavy load. I will carry it for you. I will lighten your burden. I will give it shape so you won't have to. Come. Lighten. Accept. Live. Ah Detroit. How I love you. And how I never thought I would yet here we are. Your voiceless character. Your will. Your tenacity. You have allowed yourself to be destroyed by lost, desperate, and clutching men and women. And this historic education is fixed in your throat like a snake, and spoken through a voiceless windpipe.

Detroit, lift up your weary head. There are those of us that will always love you.

"Ever will we conquer grief
and find it faster to resolve
the dead, to be absolved
and fed, to restore.
If the advantageous
reprimand misgivings,
We wont grow.
We will not ever know.
We will not!
(Lift my life in healthy places!)"

- Sufjan Stevens, Michigan


  1. Alex, This is just so poignant and evocative. You should really consider publishing a book of prose or poetry.

  2. I love Sufjan Stevens; I think he's one of the most innovative and imaginative musicians writing popular music today. I also highly recommend his second state album: Illinoise.

  3. "Michigan is a frost-bound tone poem in which average people live out their victories and defeats with a shadowy, dignified grace."

    Is this the most beautiful description of Michigan ever? Yes, I submit that it is. I'm teaching in a down-trodden area right next to Romulus and the Romulus song on the album is all too accurate. Sujan's depth of lyric coupled with his unique tonal palate make his music more moving than any other pop music I've heard in recent history.

  4. "Detroit has nuzzled it's dreary way into my reluctant heart."

    Mine also.

  5. You're spot on with much of it. I don't always fully understand why I miss it there, but I'm sure it's in that blog. Doesn't mean I don't know why I had to leave, but as one of my good friends there told me when I left; "If anyone asks you what Detroit is like, tell them 'It's a great place to be from.'" I think that, when someone asks why it's a great place to be from, I may very well direct them to your blog.

  6. PS, wherever you're going or end up post-states visit, you may want to try a Tigers game with a sold out stadium in the middle of the summer on a sunny day. They're quite good now, and it's amazing how much hope and faith they provide to a city and community that is sinking. That ballpark, for four months of the year, absolutely SAVES "Detroit." It's quite a thrill.

  7. Lovely piece, Al. If only those who have created all these problems here cared about it as much as you (and I) do. May I suggest that you also cross post this to London Still, so non-FBers can read it.

    But, gosh, you have no idea how crazy it's been here with that whole Kwame circus.. it has sucked the air out of everything. I hope you've been following the Freep and clickondetroit, both of which were streaming all the hearings last week. Truly, truly surreal, and he's not even out until the 18th...and did you see his speech? He's planning a comeback.... oy.

  8. Hello Alexandra, I was one of your Grandmother (M. Silber) caregivers. She is the most awesome person that I have ever met. She inspire me to write a book. She also spoke of you very very often, telling me of your talent. I had just purchased a Smartphone and we where able to see some of your performances which made her so happy. My name is Sharon Evans I wished I could have met her 50 years ago...my life would be different that's for sure. Take care and keep perfecting your craft. Someday you'll have a Oscar. After all you are a Silber.

  9. One of the most consistently surprising and creative popular music composers of the past few years, genuinely deserving of the term Artist.



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