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Former Grande Manager Chronicles His Life In Rock
Tom Wright brought The Who to Detroit in March 1968, for what turned into an historic gig at the old Grande Ballroom.
And he couldn’t wait to get back.
“I went crazy about Detroit,” says Wright, who went on to manage the Grande from 1968-70. “We discovered that first night in Detroit that rock ’n’ roll was alive and well, but it wasn’t living in San Francisco with the Jefferson whatevers and the Grateful Dead guys.
“It was kicking ass in Detroit.”
And Wright wound up kicking a little butt of his own in the Detroit rock scene — some of which he chronicles in his new memoir, “Roadwork: Rock & Roll Turned Inside Out” (Hal Leonard Books, $29.95), which hits stores this month. It’s an intimate portrayal of a life spent in rock, not just in Detroit but also on the road with The Who, the Rolling Stones, the Faces, Joe Walsh, the Eagles, Elvis Costello and others.
Filled with anecdotes, insights and frank opinions, “Roadwork” is a breezy and warm insider’s view of the music world told by someone who loved the life and the people — but also isn’t afraid to say what he really thought of them (or, apparently, tell them to their faces). And Wright’s view extends beyond just words; a photographer by trade, he fills the book with selections from an archive of more than 500,000 images that are now housed at the University of Texas at Austin.
“It is a memoir, but it’s a photographic memoir,” says Wright, 63, who now resides in northern Michigan, near Central Lake. “It’s not a photographer’s portfolio, which, if they had left it up to me — and thank God they didn’t — it would probably be.
“The word memoir ... I fought it at the beginning. I thought it was only people like (Winston) Churchill, people who did something — they write a memoir. I’m doing it in reverse; I’m coming out of the bushes and hoping the memoir itself is some kind of accomplishment.”
It is — but mainly because Wright has the accomplishments to back up the book.
The Alabama native met The Who’s Pete Townshend in 1962, when both attended Ealing Art School. They had a profound impact on each other, with Wright introducing the fledgling rock star to pot and American blues and R&B.
“Had I not met Tom Wright, The Who would never have become successful,” Townshend, who remains a close friend, writes in his foreword for “Roadwork.”
Townshend also inherited Wright’s apartment and record collection when the American was deported from Britain after being arrested for marijuana possession.
Wright ultimately began photographing musicians and accompanying them on the road, using a portable dark room he’d set up in hotel bathrooms. Rock ’n’ roll history traipsed in front of him — including Who drummer Keith Moon’s infamously raucous 21st (actually 20th) birthday bash at the Flint Holiday Inn, though in “Roadwork” Wright dispels the myth that Moon drove a Rolls Royce or any other car into hotel’s empty swimming pool.
Wright “reluctantly” found himself tour managing The Who’s 1968 trek through America, which introduced him to Detroit. He hastened to return after his apartment in New York City was burglarized, convincing Grande owner Russ Gibb to let him manage (and live at) the Grande.
Wright’s 18-month Grande tenure familiarized him with the city’s music community and its luminaries, from White Panther leader and MC5 manager John Sinclair to radio personalities such as Gibb and Dan Carlisle to all the key musicians — Iggy Pop, Bob Seger, Ted Nugent and more — who are chronicled through words and photos in “Roadwork.” Wright also stagemanaged the 1969 Rock & Roll Revival at the Michigan State Fairgrounds and the 1970 Goose Lake Festival near Jackson.
“When you talk about the Grande, you’ve got to talk about Tom Wright,” Gibb says. “He was one of the fixtures and really helped maintain the spirit of the place. I just happened to be the guy that signed the lease.”
“At first it was scary,” Wright notes, “the fact that you had to be tough to survive in Detroit. That was a little bit frightening to an outsider. But the longer I stayed, I took pride in that.”
He was also seduced by the city’s “no-prisoners approach to rock ’n’ roll. There were so many good bands in Detroit, and the people were like, ‘Hey, man, I work all week in a horrible factory environment,’ or, ‘I’m facing the draft,’ or, ‘I’m going the school to avoid those options and ... when somebody jumps on stage, I want to shut my eyes and I want to rock, and if you don’t deliver, you’re gonna hear from me.’
“I just thought there was kind of a raw beauty in an Americana kind of way. It was Norman Rockwell America, but with a guitar slung over your shoulder and a bag of weed in your pocket. To me, that’s what Detroit looked like.”
Wright attended and spoke at last year’s Grande 40th anniversary celebration at the Royal Oak Music Theatre, but he rarely makes the five-hour drive to Detroit. Still, the city remains an old friend — just like the rock stars he photographed and hung out with over the years.
“No, Keith Richards is not my pen pal,” Wright says, “and Rod (Stewart) doesn’t call me to ask if he should wear the fringe jacket. Everybody grew up, but when you do see each other, the minute you reconnect it’s like you never went anywhere. The bonds are still there.”
Meet the author
Tom Wright will speak and sign copies of “Roadwork: Rock & Roll Turned Inside Out” at 7 p.m. June 28 at Barnes & Noble Booksellers, 17111 Haggerty Road, North ville. The Oakland Press’ Gary Graff will moderate the discussion. Call (248) 348-0696.
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