tempting! Tantalizing!! TERRIFYING!!!

The True Story of Niagara, Destroy All Monsters & the Desecration of Detroit

by Todd McGovern

Niagra - Photo: Colonel Galaxy

Photo: Colonel Galaxy

Ann Arbor’s storied dive, Joe’s Star Lounge. The last song that Autumn night in 1984 from Destroy All Monsters was The Stooges signature, I Wanna Be Your Dog, added to their set when Ron Asheton joined the band.

Asheton’s immediately identifiable guitar squall rode the wave of
ex-MC5 Mike Davis bass line, the crashing chaos of drummer Rob King and lead singer’s vocal wail. As the song clamored to an end, it happened: Niagara, her dark hair with painted streaks piled on top of her head, black tights, thigh-high boots and black leather bra jumped off stage and into my arms. She cooed into my ear, “Where’s the party tonight?”

Destroy All Monsters: From their art school beginnings in the early 1970s through their decade of Stooges-influenced rock of 1975-1985 and on to the menacing sound of Detroit “super-group” Dark Carnival, there was always Niagara. Alternately known called “Punk Rock Pin-Up Girl,” “Queen of Detroit,” and “Thrift Store Nico,” by Creem Magazine, PUNK and other publications, Niagara had the face of an angelic Edie Sedgwick, and was an incendiary presence on stage, her lithe dancer’s body wrapped in fur and leather. Kim Gordon, Kathleen Hanna, Courtney Love, Carrie Brownstein, Corrine Tucker…hell, even Madonna owe a debt of gratitude to this Midwestern trailblazer who screamed, screeched and sang such screeds as Bored, I Love You But You’re Dead, Meet the Creeper and November 22,1963.

With HOT BOX 1974-1995 (Munster Records) a new 2-CD, 3-album retrospective now in stores, Destroy All Monsters is a band referenced in reverence by every underground music geek from Thurston Moore to Byron Coley, but chances are that unless you lived in Ann Arbor, Detroit, Cleveland or New York in the mid-Seventies to mid-Eighties, you never saw them perform.

Formed in 1973 at the University of Michigan, Destroy All Monsters began as more an art school collective than a band. Niagara met Mike Kelley at orientation and along with Cary Loren and Jim Shaw put out a Xerox magazine to promote their collage art. A basement band soon followed, with each member flailing away on trashcans, drums, guitars and vacuum cleaners. Their live shows, all two of them, ended before they began – with the “band” booed off stage. By 1976, when Kelley and Shaw decided to go to graduate school (and eventual art world success) in California, Destroy All Monsters found themselves at a crossroad. New members joined, including twins Ben (saxophone) and Larry (guitar) Miller, whose older brother was a founding member of Mission of Burma. Also around this time, word spread that Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton moved back in town.

Niagara on Ron Asheton:
“He was instilled with all sorts of manners. He drank spirits in a cocktail glass. His hair was always Brian-Jones-perfect. His aviator glasses & his leather boots gleamed like that of a WWI German flying ace. His cigarettes were in a black holder. He would offer me puffs & always say, `Don’t hotbox it.’”

Niagara recalls her first encounter with Asheton in 1975: “I first met Ronnie at Second Chance, this beautiful club in Ann Arbor. For a while, Fred “Sonic” Smith’s band, Sonic’s Rendezvous was the only band in town. It was that weird interim between whatever was happening musically in the Sixties and whatever was coming – like punk. So we’d go hang out there whenever Sonic’s Rendezous played. Ronnie had just left The Stooges, moving back from LA. He was hanging out at Second Chance, looking really dapper. I remember he came onto me, saying, ‘Yeah, I can get these female Nazi jackets…!’ I thought, Ok, this is a unique come-on. I really have nothing to say to this. It seems that all the previous girls Ron and his brother Scott hung out with were fast and loose. Rock chicks, party girls,”groupies” – not that there’s anything wrong with that. They really changed their attitude when they dealt with me. Also, he was kind of LA’d out. I had to rub that LA stink off of him. I wasn’t going for it. I had to get him back to reality, my reality. A little later, Cary became obsessed with Ronnie and started bugging the hell out of him to come to one of our practices.”

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Ron Asheton & Niagara (1982) Photo: Bob Matheu

 

Niagara continues, “So finally Ronnie is convinced to come and play in the basement of our house. I remember the Miller brothers and Rob King were there. We were just foolin’ around, I mean it wasn’t anything big time, we were just trying to get organized. We wanted to ask Ronnie to join the band. I mean he was one of our favorite all-time guitar players! At the same time, Ronnie was thinking, `I can go to their practice, get some free beer and never see them again!’”

“He kind of fell for me and it made him come to another practice and play with us. I mean, I don’t usually put it that way cuz it’s so creepy, but there was nothing else really to hold him there. I was nervous about singing, even just at practice. It’s the way I was. He was like, `Why is she so nervous …playing with these clowns?’ Then we played I Love You But You’re Dead, and it cracked him up. He just really got a kick out of us.”

“I remember the first time Ronnie and his brother Scott visited my apartment in Ann Arbor. It was five in the morning and they were tippy-toeing around. They treated me like I was a mystery; an ethereal aberration; a new kind of character in a story they never thought they’d hear.”

“They couldn’t understand how my skin was so white. I told them I never went out in the sun. They would skull around (their expression) looking at my things, like everything was some kind of oddity. Scotty looked in the freezer. Of course, all my rainbow pills were there, Tuinal, Nembutal, Redbirds (Seconal). He was mightily impressed.”

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Niagara, Max’s Kansas City (1978) Photo: Lester Bangs

 

Niagara admits the exact dates are a bit hazy of her first gig with Ron Asheton, but she clearly recalls that first show was a huge success. Niagara has over 50 journals from her twenty-odd years fronting rock-n-roll bands, but she’s hesitant to even dip back into them for fear of looking back. She tries to piece it together in her mind.

“Then the guys in the band fired Cary after that first show with Ron on guitar. I wasn’t aware that his guitar playing was that abhorrent to them. I didn’t think they should fire him, but even the guys who really liked Cary said, ‘No, he’s gotta go.’ Ron took on the job of finding new band mates. The first practice, Ronnie said, ‘Well, Mike Davis (ex- MC5) is getting out of jail, he can be our bass player!’ We said, ‘Cool, perfect timing.’ A few days later, Mike got out of jail and walked into our lives. He was really smart, fun and witty.”

At the time Ron joined Destroy All Monsters, the band had no money. Ron and Niagara, now dating, eventually moved into the Asheton home…with mom Ann, brother Scott, and four cats. “It was the house in Ann Arbor where Ron and Scottie grew up. It was a trip at that house,” Niagara recollects.

“The Stooges song Ann, My Ann was about Ronnie’s mom. She was great. She kept the family together after Ron and Scott’s father died and got a job organizing food menus for the Ann Arbor public school system. She worked really hard. I guess because her husband died young, she tried to give her kids more – she was a real worker. And Scott and Ronnie were the laziest bums on earth!”

“People think rock people are hardcore and that they’re like pirates and they’re big drinkers, because they’re hardcore. They’re big drinkers because they’re very sensitive and terrified people.”

“So yeah, we all lived together and that was the insanity of the Asheton house. Scott was living in the room next to ours. His room was maybe as big as a big closet. Sometimes the mood was very heavy, of course. Other times it was hysterical. We had some really good times, a lot of laughing.”

“I felt really bad moving into the house and Scotty was not happy about it. But we went out every night to practice, so it wasn’t like we were just looking at each other or knocking on the walls. Once Scottie locked me in the basement, he thought I was gonna kill him. It was just madness. I think I had a knife in my hand and he misconstrued my intentions. But after a time, we were really having fun. We’d all come home late and sit around getting high. It was hysterical. Scottie was so funny, and he and Ronnie together were crazed.”

In addition to playing existing Destroy All Monster songs, Niagara and Asheton began writing new songs. Ron would come up with the music, with Niagara handling the lyrics. “It was tough to tell Ronnie anything. I’d try to arrange things a little bit and he’d get so emotional (laughter),” Niagara recalls. “Oh, God – I forgot how he used to be. It wasn’t really until we formed Dark Carnival that we finally got it down. It would be just him and me in the basement. He’d play me a couple riffs and say, ‘I can tell you like them because you start pacing and smoking. That’s when I know you like it.’ I didn’t even know that. And I’d take what I liked and arrange it and say, ‘OK, play this twice and take this note out here.’ We worked it out.”

With Asheton an integral member of the band they also began incorporating Stooges songs into the set list. “Ronnie wrote those songs; it wasn’t like we were covering them. During his time with Destroy All Monsters, he just wanted to play the Stooges songs loud and fast. We’d yell at him to play them slow. They’re turning into cartoons!” We could hardly get through to him.” But more on that later.

Destroy All Monsters tours – mainly to other Midwest cities, Canada and the East Coast – were strictly low budget affairs. “We were playing around every week or so, going here and there. It wasn’t a ton of money obviously. It never is,” Niagara remembers. “At one point, there were like, what…seven people in the band. Sometimes we’d go to Canada or Washington, DC. In New York, we played Max’s Kansas City before they closed, CBGB and a couple other clubs.”

As Niagara recalls, tours were just made for things to go wrong. “We were just this band trying to deal with everything. That’s why we’d laugh all the time, because everything would go wrong. I remember one time we were driving back to Michigan from a gig in New York. We were knee-deep in empty beer cans when a cop stopped us. He opened the door and they just poured out, so many cans. The cop said, `I’m due to get off in an hour. This looks like about two hours of paperwork. Just get off my fucking highway and don’t come back!’ And then he just let us go. It was pretty cute.”

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“In Ann Arbor we played Second Chance every month or so, then when Joe’s Star Lounge was the hot commodity, we’d play there. Every band played there – every punk band that got big or disappeared. So I met everyone, which I don’t remember at all but I’m sure I wrote it down.” But Niagara actually does remember, as she recalls conversations and meetings with the Ramones, Johnny Thunders, Stiv Bators and the Dead Boys, among others.

Often on the bill with a hometown band, Destroy All Monsters would get top billing – and this would be reciprocated when that band came to Ann Arbor or Detroit. In Cleveland, the Dead Boys or Pere Ubu would open; in New York, it would be the Ramones. Then in Ann Arbor, Destroy All Monsters would open for the Ramones.

“I remember the first time Ronnie and his brother Scott visited my apartment in Ann Arbor. It was five in the morning and they were tippy-toeing around. They treated me like I was a mystery; an ethereal aberration; a new kind of character in a story they never thought they’d hear.”

“Remember all the glue songs the Ramones used to do – Joey singing about glue? One time we played on the same bill with them at Second Chance. I was backstage and saw Joey with his head in a bag of glue! And I was like, ‘You mean you really do glue? I just thought you sang about it!’ And Joey just smiled. I told John Holmstrom (founding editor of Punk magazine) that story and he didn’t believe me. I mean, he found it hard to believe. Danny Fields was standing right next to him. But yeah, he was doing glue. I mean, why sing about it if you’re not doing it?”

Niagara recounts, “It was peak punk times. One night we opened for the Dead Boys at Second Chance. The bar was full to the rafters with college jocks, ready for war. Meanwhile back stage, Stiv was pacing around like a cat, Johnny Blitz, his drummer was pushing his luck, acting as de-facto leader of the band, saying what songs he would play. When they finally took the stage at midnight, Johnny Blitz made his move, yelling, ”Ladies and Gentlemen, These are my Dead Boys!” This was the last straw. Stiv threw down the mic and stormed offstage. That started a melee of unbelievable proportions. A cascade of full pitchers of beer rained down from the balcony. Full, unopened beer bottles tore through the drum kit and Marshall stacks. Everything shorted out, the lights flickered and went black. It was announced that the cops had been called, sending people running wild onto the stage, through the club and out the exits, literally wild in the streets. The club owner was apologetic when paying the band (full fee by the way), ‘So sorry Stiv.’ Stiv was having none of it. ‘Are you kidding? That was the best gig we ever played!'”

“Dee Dee actually lived in Ann Arbor for a while. It’s funny. I was living in Detroit, but we’d run into each from time to time and he came to my art shows. I remember hearing that he was beating up his girlfriend. He was kind of a split pea, you know? He was kind of psycho. He was always very nice to me, but when I heard that story and ran into him at a club, I slapped him! I hadn’t said a word to him, but I figured he knew what the slap was for and then he was really nice to me again.”

“Johnny Thunders was around a lot too. I don’t know if he lived in Ann Arbor or if he just stayed here for a while, but he’d always hang out. He was very sensitive and very sweet – like all rock people. People think rock people are hardcore and that they’re like pirates and they’re big drinkers, because they’re hardcore. They’re big drinkers because they’re very sensitive and terrified people. Every one of them I knew – they were just generally terrified. Sooner or later some weird, hardcore groupie takes over their life and takes their money. Those girls were incredible monsters half the time.”

Destroy All Monsters wound down in 1985. “The band had run its course, and it was compounded by rivalry and one-upsmanship between Ronnie and Mike Davis. “We’d be practicing in a very small cinder-block basement space and Mike would have his bass turned up to 10. So Ronnie would need to turn his guitar up even louder. That got a little old,” Niagara remembers.

A year earlier, Niagara met “Colonel Galaxy,” a music promoter, impresario and huckster based in Detroit. As Garry Henderson, he was a world-class endurance driver, specializing in 24-hour races and competing in Europe, Mexico, Canada, Puerto Rico and the U.S.

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Niagara & Colonel Galaxy, Seattle (1999) Photo: Christine Taylor

One night, “Colonel Galaxy” (or more aptly, “The Colonel”) had a nightmare. It seems a carnival came to Detroit and set up in the empty lot across the street from his house. More a horror show than a carnival, customers were admitted in, but they were never allowed out. Upon waking, The Colonel had an idea. He would form a band made up of the kookiest, coolest and weirdest musicians from his favorite bands in the city. In 1985, he invited Niagara to join Dark Carnival. Niagara was still living at the Asheton house in Ann Arbor thought to herself, “Oh my God, please get me out of here! What is happening to my life? When I had the chance to join Dark Carnival, I moved my kit-and-caboodle out of the house and went to Detroit.”

“I was still with Ronnie when I started playing with Dark Carnival. Ronnie was filming us…. He’d come to the shows and film. He wasn’t going to play with us, but you know, eventually he broke down and did and we ended up usurping the whole band. It became what we wanted it to be.”

Many members from legendary Detroit bands passed through Dark Carnival, beginning with Bootsey X from the Lovemasters, Greasy Carlisi from The Motor City Bad Boys, as well as members of the Ram Rods, The Mutants and The Cult Heroes. Even Cheetah Chrome and Jim Carroll played with the band at different points.

The Colonel recalls, “When Stiv Bators died in Paris, there was a benefit concert planned to raise money to bring his body back to Cleveland and for the funeral. Scottie suggested we recruit Cheetah Chrome to play with us at the benefit.

“We picked up Cheetah at the bus stop in Detroit. He seemed kind of normal. We got him into the practice room and we’d start doing a Stooges cover and he was devastated. `You don’t understand, this is a religion to me. You can’t just speed these songs up, wily-nilly!’”

Niagara adds, “He was almost crying, saying to Ronnie, `These are anthems! You have to play them as they were meant to be played, but even better! You can’t do this to me, Ronnie. I dropped out of high school because of these songs!’ I think it was The Colonel who finally convinced Ronnie to slow the songs down and make them sexy.”

“Scott and Ronnie were the laziest bums on earth!”

“Cheetah was supposedly clean and sober, but that didn’t last. I mean, he considered himself sober, but it was like nothing we ever saw before,” said The Colonel. “We got up one morning at 10:00am and he’d been up all night. He’s completely naked in the practice room, doing push ups. He didn’t sleep for the next 4 days until we went to Cleveland. When we got to the club, he went down to the basement and started breaking bottles. He was up to his knees in broken whiskey bottles. After the gig, we said, `We’re leaving Cheetah here, we can’t go back to Detroit with him, we’ll never make it.’”

Niagara remembers, “Because we’d asked him to play the benefit gig, he had it in his mind that he was joining the band. After we played our set, we got the hell out of there. We went back to the hotel and we’re running around like the 10 Stooges, bumping into each other, packing quickly to leave before Cheetah came back. He was out of his mind! He was so sweet and so great, but then he had to be Cheetah the punk rocker. They put out this beautiful spread of food backstage and he just threw it everywhere. I think he was looking for heroin. We talked amongst ourselves and said, ‘We are beating it out of this deadbeat town!’”

Eventually the band settled into a line-up of Niagara (vocals), Ron Asheton (lead guitar), Scott “Rock Action” Asheton (drums) and Greasy Carlisi (rhythm guitar) and Peter Bankert (bass). Like Destroy All Monsters, Dark Carnival seemed to exist, in part, to keep Detroit’s own dangerous brand of rock-n-roll alive. Many shows began with the band in shadow, churning out a menacing noise as the Colonel (a hulking 6’4”) in ghoulish monster mask, carrying Niagara’s limp body onstage.

Niagara and The Colonel agree that Dark Carnival’s best tour was to Australia, where they played 35 dates in 1991.

It hardly started out that way.

“Less than 48 hours before we left for Australia, Scottie’s wife told us he wouldn’t be going with us unless we gave him $10,500 upfront,” said The Colonel. “That was impossible, so Scottie backed out and we had to scramble to find another drummer. Luckily, Larry Steele from Ann Arbor band, Cult Heroes, was available and signed on.”

The Colonel continues, “The night of our first gig in Australia, Radio Birdman opens up for us and they’re really nailing it. During their set, Ronnie said, ‘We’re having a band meeting; everyone must be there.’ Ron was really drunk by this point and we’re all jet-lagged. ‘OK, we’re speeding up all the songs. Speed is life in Australia!’ I said, ‘Wait a minute, they were just sounding great!’ Ronnie said, ‘I’ve got bad news and worse news. You’re fired. And you’re stranded.’”

Luckily, a compromise was reached, no one was fired, and the band went on to bring their aggressive brand of Detroit rock across Australia.

Back in the United States, Cream magazine critic Lester Bangs described their sound as “a raw, yet precise sonic attack.” The band performed intermittently over the years, playing such venues as New York’s Knitting Factory and Coney Island High, as well as Maxwell’s in Hoboken. Dark Carnival released its only studio album in 1997, “The Last Great Ride” (Sympathy For the Record Industry).

The energy and muscle behind Dark Carnival’s music was Ron and Scott Asheton, which got the attention of Iggy Pop. The Stooges reformed in 2003 with ex-Minutemen and firehose member Mike Watt on bass.

After Ron Asheton died of a heart attack in 2009, Niagara concedes she “couldn’t get my mind right.” She headed to Australia to tour with a local band in conjunction with an art show. Now, five years later, she says about rock n’ roll, “I’ve put in my time and now I just want to paint.”

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Niagara in Studio (2014) Photo: Jenny Risher

 

At her core, Niagara is an artist. In the early days of Destroy All Monsters, when money for art supplies was hard to come by, she remembers, “I was doing collage things and decorating things through collages. I could always do that, I could always find old magazines, anything I could get free. You have to be more creative if you don’t have money. We’d go to practice but first we’d scrounge around, looking for money to get a bottle of rum. That was the extent of our thoughts.”

“I wasn’t painting a lot. I did the single covers, the album covers. I figured I’d be in a band for a couple years and go back to my art career. That was really where I was at, but I surely didn’t mind doing the music thing with Ron. Then it was like, my God, it’s 20 years later! I was like, I’m dropping everything and just doing art full time.”

After placing some of her paintings in the window of Noir Leather, a popular clothing store in Royal Oak, MI, Niagara began showing her work at her favorite bars and CPop Gallery in Detroit. Niagara said, “I sold a few paintings at CPop and made more money than my whole music career put together! (hahaha). You can imagine how much money that was!”

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Every article about Niagara’s art points out the obvious Pop Art influence of Warhol and Lichtenstein, but over the years she has created a world of tough-talking, wise-cracking women, curvaceous gun-molls, leggy broads with snub-nosed revolvers in their clutch purses, cheekbones and hormones, a highball glass with a smudge of lipstick. Like the artist herself, the subjects of Niagara’s paintings do not suffer fools gladly.

Niagara is arguably the most successful artist in Detroit. Her work has shown in galleries in Paris, London, NYC, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Sydney, among other cities. A show of her new work opens July 14, 2015 at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York. Her work caught the eye of Kate Moss, who as guest editor of the March 2014 British edition of VOGUE,  devoted an eight-page spread to Niagara and her work.

In addition, Niagara’s painting Hot Box #1 graces the cover of “First Kiss”, the new album by fellow Detroit native, Kid Rock. She also was commissioned to paint Kid Rock’s portrait.

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In 2008, Niagara traveled to Australia for a gallery opening of her work. It was on this trip that she teamed up with legendary Austalian band The Hitmen, whose line-up includes guitar heroes Chris Masuak (Radio Birdman) and Brad Shepard (Hoodu Gurus) for an incendiary performance. The gig was recorded and released as “Niagara & The Hitmen: St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” (Steel Cage Records). (I highly recommend this CD!)

These days the idea of getting a band together, re-learning songs and playing gigs doesn’t appeal much to Niagara. Not that there haven’t been offers and, as the many positive reviews garnered by the HOT BOX 1974-1995 collection illustrate, interest in Niagara and the band is as strong as ever. When I talk to her on the phone from her studio, I get the sense that Niagara is fine where she is, no need to look back. But for me, I’m still able to conjure up that night in Ann Arbor and I’m 23, riding my bike to Joe’s Star Lounge, high on beer and life, transported by the crackle and hiss of loud electric guitars, black leather jackets and that pale, ethereal vision telling me good times lie ahead.

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Niagara in Garden (2014) Photo: Boswel Hardwick

 



Niagara on the MC5:
“I’d met all the MC5. I think I met Dennis “Machine Gun” Thomson before Mike Davis got out of jail. Rob Tyner was the most wonderful one, just a great guy.  He was kind of nutsy and obsessive sometimes but he had such a great voice!  If he didn’t look like a fat Jewish girl, he might have really gone places.  But Jesus, that look!  In fact the Stooges used to call him “The Boiled Owl.”  That was their nickname for Rob Tyner (hahaha).  There were a lot of nicknames back then.  We called Sonic’s Rendez-Vous “Sominex Rendez-Snooze” (hahaha). Our nickname was “Destroy All Monitors.”

Fred Smith was a trip. The first time I met him, he wanted to talk to me and we were sitting on the grass and he was very sincere and very sweet and we talked a long time.  And at other times, when we met or he was around – he really liked to fuck with people.  He was smart – but he was evil in a funny, awful way (hahaha).  He would drink amazing amounts of liquor and wine.  I loved that Patti lived with him in Detroit and just lived with somebody who drank that much.  It probably wasn’t like he was beating people, but just whole wild stigma of it.  It’s amazing that family pushed on through and the kids are great.  I don’t know shit, but I like her taking care of him…I like that a lot.  She was dedicated to the end.”

Niagara on Iggy:
“I’ll tell you the rip-off that did happen. I don’t want to make it sound bad by calling it a rip-off, but when we recorded Bored, Iggy had come into town and we used to hang out with him…he’d come back every year or two and we’d hang out, go to clubs or somewhere with him.  Ronnie played him our single – so the next thing you know, before we could even put out our single – Iggy puts out I’m Bored, but I was never mad about it.  I was trying to think, ‘Why wasn’t I mad about it,’ but its one of those things like, ‘Imitation is the best form of flattery.’ I didn’t think Iggy would need anything from me or use anything.”

Niagara on Madonna:
“We found out later that she worked at a restaurant right next to Second Chance.  She was a hangout girl, we were the big band there, I’m sure she went there, she probably saw us, I mean we were the band that was kind of happening, but you know, seriously.  I’m sure Madonna did not need me to help her with any part of her career no matter what she got influenced by.  She took dance, I guess.  She might have thought, `this is a cool thing to do.  I mean, look what that girl’s doing.  I could do that and get a wider audience!’”

Niagara on Niagara:
“Am I the same person off-stage as I am onstage? Would you ask Dylan that question? He’d know just where to take you…down the rabbit hole.  So many people say about themselves, that they’re this person on stage and this person off-stage, but I think what you see is what you get.”

For more on Niagara, Destroy All Monsters and Dark Carnival, please visit Niagara Detroit.

Todd McGovern is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY.

http://www.pleasekillme.com