The Detroit Cobras
9 p.m. Monday, Feb. 6 House of Blues
Baby, the third album from The Detroit Cobras, is a dangerous record. It’s not that its ideas or performances are particularly risky, but the album will undoubtedly lead many garage bands astray, just as early albums by The Rolling Stones and The Pretty Things did. The Detroit Cobras rough up classic R&B – with “Hot Dog (Watch Me Eat” being the lone exception – giving it a rock ’n’ roll edge, which sounds so easy that countless bands are going to try it to far lesser effect. Their versions work because they pay attention to the details rather than plow through them with sweat and energy. Hank Ballard’s “Cha Cha Twist,” for example, works because they keep it a cha cha and a twist.
The band’s covers are also distinguished from other garage tracks by singer Rachel Nagy’s voice. Again, lesser bands mistake intensity for soul and bellow or shout their way through songs, but Nagy is a genuine singer. You can hear her claustrophobic frustration in “I Wanna Holler (But the Town’s Too Small),” and her voice catches the same edge of hurt tinged with excitement that is heard on the best girl group recordings on her version of “Mean Man.”
The latter was written by Allen Toussaint, the recent recipient of OffBeat’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In fact, Baby has two Toussaint songs – “Mean Man” and “It’s Raining,” originally performed by another Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Irma Thomas.
“Your town has us totally nailed,” Nagy says.
As The Detroit Cobras get ready to resume the tour they started last fall, they’re a bit discombobulated. On one hand, they’re enjoying having Greg Cartwright – formerly of The Oblivians, also in The Reigning Sound – with them on guitar, but they lost bassist Joe Mazzola and drummer Kenny Tudrick over the Christmas holidays. Talking about their departures by phone from her hometown of Detroit, Nagy laughs a lot, and sounds like she’s having the time of her life, even when her drummer leaves to play with Kid Rock.
So you’ve just undergone membership changes?
That’s a nice way to put it. Our drummer just ran off with Kid Rock! It’s like your lover telling you he’s gay and leaving you for another man. You don’t even know what do with that. It’s like, “What the fuck? I thought you liked music, man.” He’s going from drumming to playing guitar in Kid Rock’s band.
It’s the curse of the Cobras. As soon as we get our shit together, something tragic happens. The tour was great. It’s so good to have Greg Cartwright playing with us, and we actually looked forward to playing every day. Then as soon as we got it all together, it’s like, “Oh yeah, I’m running off with Kid Rock.”
What happened to the bass player?
I’m not sure. I haven’t talked to him. A couple of days after Kenny quit, he decided he didn’t want to do it, which is fine. If someone doesn’t want to be there, they should go. I’m not going to stay in a marriage with someone who doesn’t love me.
I think there were a couple of bruised egos because all of a sudden, the bar got raised. Having someone like Greg playing with us meant there was no more fucking around. I think certain people liked to have that option, as if it really doesn’t matter if they get drunk and fall off the stage. I don’t know — I haven’t talked to him, so I don’t want to say for sure.
Everybody thinks at 16 or so that they want to be in a band, and as time goes by, they find out just how hard it is.
It has always been a hard thing to keep five people’s lives running on the same track. We’re not exactly a hard touring band; we’re not touring all year. There’s a lot of down time, then you have to pick up and do it again. It’s a strange thing for anyone to get in gear with and stay in gear with.
We have a lot of people who would love to play with us, who love the music but when they try to play, they show they don’t really understand it. It’s a weird type of music to do, particularly people with a punk or rock ’n’ roll background. They dig it, but they don’t quite get it. Or they’re blues scholars who take any soul out of it. They’ve been studying how to be black for so long that they’re triple white.
How did you end up playing with Greg?
The Oblivians were friends of ours. Greg’s a really cool guy, and we respected his ability and taste.
He has his own style, but it works so well with ours. He has a deep knowledge of the music, and he’s one of those people that loves music. Truly loves it, truly understands it. Everyone’s got an ego, but he’s really easy to work with.
Mary [Ramirez, The Detroit Cobras’ guitarist] and I have been doing this band for — I don’t want to think how many years, but guys still get weirded out with girls telling them what to do. No matter how diplomatic or sweet or self-deprecating we are, they’re like, “No bitch is going to tell me what to do.” Greg is cool. He’ll listen. He has his own thing, he has his own style, but he knows how to blend in. He has taste. He can be tasteful. A lot of people don’t realize you don’t have to play as many notes as you can shove in. A lot of the stuff is what’s between the lines and what you don’t do. He’s one of those people who knows exactly what not to do.
Often I’d ask a band why they did a certain cover. Since all you have recorded so far have been covers, the question is reversed. Why did you write a song?
We’ve never been really concerned with writing songs, but we’ve always said if it happens naturally, great. “We have to sit down and write a song now” is the opposite of what we’re about, but with Greg, it happened naturally. He has a really good understanding of my voice and how I sing.
For years, people said, “We really like your band. When are you going to write a song?” and I thought, “You really don’t get what we’re doing, do you?” Then we did “Hot Dog (Watch Me Eat)” and people went, “Wow – you wrote a song!” There are a couple of good songs we did, so we’ll see what happens.
The emphasis on writing songs seemed strange to me. When most people first picked up a guitar, they did it to play the cool songs they liked.
Exactly. People get into playing instruments to experience playing something they like already, but some people always have that desire – it’s like breeding. “I want to see what my kid will look like.”
Some people have to create. Some people are natural at it, and some people just want something of theirs out there. Just like some people want to be famous. I don’t want to be famous. I don’t understand that or want that. The love and attention of lots of strangers creeps me out.
I figured people wrote because they followed the blueprint that had been laid out for them, that they assumed they were supposed to write songs because that’s what other guitar players before them did. The truth is, there are a lot of songs out there better than most anything they’d write.
Exactly. You just nailed the Cobra manifesto. People forget that on the old Stones records, the majority of the songs are covers. There’s also so much crap out there now. We’ve gotten to the point where it’s the copy of the copy of the copy of the copy. It’s just boring. It’s like, just because you have a baby doesn’t mean it’s good looking. You can’t really tell them that, and it’s the same thing when people write songs. There’s so much great shit out there. You don’t have to do “Tears of a Clown.” There’s a million songs.
And, it’s good to remember where songs came from. There are so many copycats out there, and they don’t even know they’re copying. They’re writing songs that are direct rip-offs, but they don’t know. It’s part of their subconscious. “Dude, that’s a Beatles song. What are you, retarded?”
There was a long time when people didn’t realize we were a covers band. We’d tell them and they’d be like, “No way! These are covers? I’ve never heard these songs.” Now people know because we’ve been labeled, but unless they know their shit, they don’t know what songs these are, which is the point.
Are you an obsessive record collector?
I used to be. As I’ve got older, I’ve burned out on it. We’re lucky. The more we’ve traveled, the more music people send us. It’s great. I don’t know if I can do the dollar bins anymore, going through 600 45s at the flea market. I’m over it. I know there’s still good stuff out there, but the lust for sitting there for hours going through a bunch of shit and ending up with five stupid things and one really good thing — I’m betting on the sure things now. Just send me some records, just send me a tape. I don’t go on Easter egg hunts, anymore. You give me a full beer bottle hunt and I’m cool. That’s worth my while.
It’s funny, too. Now we’re in a time when everything’s being reissued and is available on the Internet. It’s got easier, which is cool but kind of a drag at the same time. Greg bought this new 4-CD girl group collection [One Kiss Can Lead to Another, on Rhino Records]. I knew half the songs; I have half the songs. It’s a really great collection, and I love this because I don’t know where half of my shit is anymore, but at the same time, there are a bunch of songs we can’t do anymore because they just put them on a CD. You don’t want something that’s right there. There has to be some work behind it.
How did you decide to cover “It’s Raining”?
I’m such a huge Irma [Thomas] fan, it’s ridiculous. Mary and I joke that when we’re older, we’re going to form and Irma and Five Royales cover band.
I’ve always wanted to do an Irma song, and it was between that and “Ruler of My Heart,” and Mary wouldn’t let me do “Ruler of My Heart.” She said, “Everybody knows that song!” So we did “It’s Raining.” I’ve always loved that song; then the rains came and it became time-appropriate.
What about Irma moves you?
She’s got this voice that is so beautiful, but it’s not polished. You can hear the heartbreak in it. There’s a roughness to it. It’s an old saying that she could sing the alphabet to me, but she makes me understand the saying. I don’t want to hear Mariah Carey sing the alphabet and hit her high notes. I don’t care what your ability is. You can sing the octaves all day long, but when there’s a real feeling in someone’s voice and they don’t even have to say a word because of the way their voice cracks or the timbre of it – that just nails me. It makes me want to curl up and die. She has always been my number one favorite. Even some of her not-great-songs are just amazing. When she does a cover, she blows it out of the water.
I know her story. Usually I don’t like knowing about the people I like to listen to. The first time I read a Rolling Stones book, I almost cried. “These guys are bastards!” The person and their talent don’t have to match up, and I’d rather not know if it doesn’t. But I know Irma’s story and the woman’s been through hell, and you can hear it. It’s really, really real. She takes pain and makes you want to experience it, which is pretty sick – and I can appreciate that.
The first time I saw her play, it was the first time I understood Beatlemania. She got onstage, she opened her mouth and I started crying. I fell down and Mary started kicking me, going, “Get up! Shut up! You’ve got to play tonight and you’re going to lose your voice.” I couldn’t stop screaming and crying and falling on the ground. It was ridiculous, and it was the first time I’d had any sort of musical hysteria ever. If she asked me for a kidney, I’d give it to her, and I don’t care about anybody that much.