Brenda’s Unfortunate Record Of The Week #3 (The Detroit Edition)


Lost tapes, forgotten moments. This Unfortunate Track Of The Week ain’t so new but neither is my story …

About a billion lifetimes ago (2001 I think – ooooooooo the Future) my then boyfriend and I embarked on a journey across the duckpond to film a documentary. I was 19, fresh-faced, as naive as they come and had only just been introduced to the murky waters of what was then a burgeoning East London electro scene. Si worked at a record store, already had heaps of musical culture and knew a hell of a lot more than me. With the help of his employer we set off to Detroit to attend the second annual DEMF and explore the city’s role in techno (serious stuff). 

Our shoestring budget flew us first to Montreal, followed by a hellish overnight Greyhound journey down south of the border. 

Not sure anything could have prepared me for arriving in Motorcity. It was more than a ghost town. Totally deserted with all the iconic American architecture I knew from New York & Chicago, but Detroit was boarded up, dilapidated, and sprinkled with an odd assortment of empty 80s casinos, conference centres & odd-ball infrastructure which reeked of vanity and civic corruption. ‘The 20th Century in ruins’, ‘a gaping wound in the heart of the Empire’. All the problems of the nation laid out bare, only no one seemed to be watching.

At first we stayed right downtown in what was then the Ramada. It had definitely seen better days. Once a grand old place, most of the floors were closed or condemned, bar one reserved for a handful of full-time residents (your usual assortment of inner city down-and-outers) and ours at the top, on which we were the only guests. The view was spectacular. Early summer storms rolled across the river. We set up camera at the window to capture time-released images of the skyline through the night; dark, bulging clouds and scrapers, all lit up with lightening. 

There wasn’t much around us. A few run-down boozers, pawn shops and a desperate corner shop who’s cashier cowered behind bullet proof glass. Shelves were void, choice was scarce, (let alone fresh) and groceries weren’t to be found anywhere in the city centre. We’d sit alone on the People Mover (their uni-directional monorail) and make the surreal, silent journey across town to the one restaurant which served a classic salad – iceberg lettuce, diced cucumber and pale, watery tomatoes, piled high with a kind of feta-cheese and your choice of dressing (I’d switch it up between the Eye-talian and the delightfully pink Thousand Island).

I can’t remember much, but we did manage to make some friends pretty quick. There was a kid from Ann Arbour who acted as our chauffeur, driving us out to the sticks for various interviews with DJs he was scared of. I remember having to duck down with the camera whenever we stopped at traffic lights. I suppose the danger was real, but we found as soon as we opened our mouths and spoke in anything other than an American accent, people were generally pretty cool. We’d hang about the tavern over the road, talking with all-sorts and even ended up in some stranger’s station-wagon for a spin around the city. He was carrying lots of guns, driving very fast and running lights. It was the one time I felt really nervous. 

Weeks rolled by. We filmed out in the abandoned car factories, in the half-empty festival arenas, scored interviews with Mad Mike, Octave One, Robert Hood, Suburban Knight….. We spent a day in the home of Ron Murphy. His wife served ice-cold lemonade and fed us cookies while he demonstrated the lathe, regaling us with stories about the early days. 

I remember lots of raves, dancing in candle-lit warehouses, hopelessly trying to move my hips as smoothly as all the sexy locals. There was a club in the basement of our hotel. A long, pitch black corridor lead to a cavernous room, illuminated with nothing but a single laser bouncing off the disco ball. This was Richie Hawtin’s domain & his party went uninterrupted through to the following evening. We met Magda that night. She rolled about in our room & convinced us to check out of the Ramada, dragging us across the river to stay with Marc Houle in Windsor. He was still working as a graphic designer back then but had already amassed a huge collection of vintage synths & on top of taking very good care of us, he showed me how to make electronic music. 

More tapes were filled with more footage, more interviews, more adventures. 

Memory can be deceiving but there are definitely some stand-out moments. On our way out to the Polish suburb of Hamtramck we came across an abandoned tank truck, laid on it’s side, engulfed in flames. The motorway was completely deserted and the black smoke billowed up, blocking the sunset. Against the backdrop, a tangle of weakened & arthritic overpasses were missing such big chunks of concrete you could see their metallic skeletons melting out of shape. We pulled over to film. Camera rolling, out of nowhere a huge flock of seagulls suddenly appeared. They circled our heads for what seemed like ages. I don’t think I’ll ever witness a more dystopian, cinematic scene. 

We arrived back to London with hours and hours of rushes but gradually new excitements took over and in the end, nothing was ever made. Years passed, we went our separate ways and all mighta been forgotten had Si not mentioned a few weeks back that he still had everything. A screening was arranged. 

I was pretty excited. Neither of us has seen the images since we’d shot them but disappointment loomed. The day of, we realised the tapes weren’t in the bag he thought. There was only one mysteriously labeled pack which definitely wasn’t from Detroit. Seeing as we’d gone to all the effort though, we decided nonetheless to check it out. 

And oh my fucking god, it turned out to be something he’d filmed shortly after we met (in the year 2000!). We’d spent a completely debauched weekend in Marseille, flying about on obscene amounts of MDMA. Again the details are hazy but this footage was ‘Part 2’ i.e. close-ups of 18 year old me in the airport, saucer-eyed, detailing what we’d been up to. Cringe is an understatement. If I thought I was green in Detroit, here was next-level. Babbling away like no one’s business. At one point I put the camera on Si and although he’s looking totally messed up and spotty, he still manages to come out with something kinda cool and funny. Me on the other hand …. groan, my toes curl just thinking about it. The fact it’s all shot in pristine, hi-def DV just makes it worse. 

We’re not meant to stare back through the mirrors of time and see ourselves in such crystal clear, life-like reflection. It fucks with the psyche. I don’t wanna be reminded of who I was. Not in such detail. A photo, even a journal is fine, but god knows what it’s like for someone who’s grown-up on Youtube. Do you do a cull every few years? Kill off your formal selves? 

I’m still kinda of curious to see the Detroit stuff, if not just for the interviews, archival shots of the city and that beautiful motorway moment …. but I’m weary of memory and witnessing more of young me. It’s all too vivid, ye know? 

Like cats and dogs, maybe past and present ain’t meant to co-exist.  Not #IRL, surely. 


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