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A2's Sacred Turf Spirit Of People's Ballroom Lives On

A2's Sacred Turf Spirit Of People's Ballroom Lives On image
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"Could arts live in dead mail on Liberty?" asked the headline in The Ann Arbor News. That's something which hadn't occured to me when in last month's AGENDA I wondered aloud whether they'd evertear down Tally Hall, which it seems is now called Liberty Square. Cali t what you want to, it's a goddamned disgrace. And I do consider the phrase "Dead Mali" to be redundant, as Mails are Death in Partridge Family lace. But now consider the news that the Performance Network, The Ark and Community Access Televisión have each expressed interest in the gaping vacancy. It's even possible they might all three end up in there together, making for a well-rounded cultural experience in that part of downtown Ann Arbor. That's potentially wonderful news. It would improve our mental health considerably, and especially mine. Why mine? What is the signifigance of this particular spot? Well, we. need to go back to 1 972. Or rather go and stand near the ramp where automobiles go darting up the winding concrete tongue of the parking structure. Not a pretty sight by any stretch of reason. What tweaks my sensibilities is that the ramp is almost exactly placed where once there stood a counterculture community center, with cozy offices occupied by a Community Switchboard, Ozone House, and a Drug Help service with Suicide Prevention Hotline. Each office was fairly tiny and had overstuff ed armchairs and very dedicated people in it. If you walked to the back of the place and stepped through a small vestibule, you were suddenly staring across a ballroom with a stage at one end of it. This was what the Rainbow People had done with the old FischerCadillac building, which had been a very greasy abandoned industrial garage type of thing. And how beautiful it became when energetic young idealists took it on! The only reason I witnessed any of this was my involvement as a Psychedelic Ranger at the free rock'n'roll concerts held on a former landfill off of Fuller Road, next to Huron High School. Lots of kids my age were spending Sundayafternoons helping to pólice the grounds so that the official pólice could keep their distance. We were most of us 1 4, 1 5 years old. Very ndividualistic but tending to run in a pack. And so it carne to pass that one Sunday evening, after the concert garbage was all cleanedup and the equipment had been hauled down off of the outdoor stage, I followed my friends into town where we watched the finishing touches getting applied to what was being called the People's Ballroom. One thing about the Rainbow People-they hadarefreshingattitudetowardsyoungerfolks. Let us get right in there and help with just about anything. I recall being encouraged to .particípate in the laying down of oaken floorboards, the very act of creating a dancefloor, even though it was nothing like anything l'd evertried to do before. You'd swing a mallet and strike this heavy steel gizmo in such a way that you'd be driving a nail and secuhng the thick bit of wood snug up against the previous floorboards. Oh sure I messed it up at first, but it meant so much to us that we were trusted with such important doings, we'd do our best to show that we were capable, or willing to try and get capable. The Rainbows were amazingly patiënt with us. Soon the People's Ballroom was completed andopeneditsdoorsforavigorousscheduleof knock-you-on-your-ass live music shows! The rock'n'roll bands were hot and steamy. Loud as heil in there, and often packed to the gills with asweaty, stoned-outarmyofwildyoungthings. Certainly the most memorable night for me in that place was when Mighty Joe Young got up there with his Chicago Blues Band and cooked for us. Growing up in America, we hadn't seen this kind of a show before; a trumpet wailing over the electrified rhythm, and an alto saxophone in the arms of a man wearing a stetson hat. That left an impression which changed my life n a very good way. Naturally t took awhile to set in. But these events did point us in the direction of real music, much of it roundly ignored by the entertainment industry. I for one can trace my involvemsnt with Jazz back to the live music scène in this town 20 years ago, when people like John Sinclair and Pete Andrews took decisive steps to bring some of America's most inspired and least promoted artists to perform in Southeast Michigan. The first Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival kicked in just after the Ballroom opened, and Rainbow Multi-Media was promoting live music at a pace which was almost hard to keep up with. Some folks have less-than-gratifying memories of the way business was conducted, but I really do believe there's no such thing as concert promotion without glitches and regrettable mistakes. The enduring impact of a genuine dedication to Blues and Jazz music cannot be dismissed. On a personal level, I remember gobbling my first hit of blotter acid Sunday night at the Blues and Jazz Festival, going apeshit with joy as Miles Davis blasted his trumpet trills out across the field under the night sky, and ending up at the af orementioned Drug Help office right there on East Washington Street. Somebody took me there not because I was in trouble (quite the contrary!) but because t was late and they wanted someone to take care of me. Once the Drug Help staff realized I was happy and in no peril from within, they relaxed and let me wanderroundthepremises. There was aposter of martyred Black Panther George Jackson on the wall of the community center, and I stood staring at that face for a long time. I tiptoed into the Ballroom, but there were about 150 people, out-of-town patrons of the festival, lying n sleeping bags on the dance floor. Later on I followed the Drug Helpers to a Coney Island which stood where the Nectarine Ballroom is today. I watched them eat chili dogs and we laughed as the juke box emitted Chuck Berry's latest single, My Ding-a-ling. It was a perfect first acid trip. I was a week shy of my fifteenth birthday. And the next morning, still tripping f airly heavily , I attended my first day of high school, which was incidentally the very day they first opened Community High. What happened to the People's Ballroom, with its counterculture offices and the photo of George Jackson? It's a sad tale. Among our Psychedelic Ranger staff was a Black Vietnam veteran, a good and honest man who had horrible problems with his mind; once ortwice, during a gig at the ballroom, he'd freak out, thinking he was in the jungles of Southeast Asia, and lash out at the nearest persons, thinking they were The Enemy. In December of 1 972, suffering from some kind of awful inferiority complex, this fellow set a fire in the basement of the community center, intending to put it out and be a hero. Trouble was, he started the fire in a room which was filled with cans of paint and turpentine! There was no controlling that blaze, and luckily nobody was hurt. The building itself was entirely gutted, and the ballroom, which had been open for less than five months, was completely destroyed. Then there was a vacant lot. And then someone built a mail. Can you see why l'm haunted as I walk around the block in this part of town? So much lingers. And so much is still possible. If in fact the Dead Mali which usedto becalledTally Hall and which is now Liberty Square becomes a cultural arts focal point right there on-the same turf where stood the People's Ballroom, why then we may have gone full circle. Or perhaps history is a spiral, connected with the past and going round while always moving forward. l'm sticking around to see what happens.


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