Mitch Ryder on Nirvana Fandom, Winona, and Being a Horny Teenager

Speaking by phone from his home in rural Michigan, not far from Detroit, where he grew up and initially found fame, Mitch Ryder sounds surprisingly sedate, even laid-back. It's certainly a far cry from the gruff, raging rocker who initially gained fame wailing on such riveting records as "Devil With a Blue Dress On," "Sock It to Me Baby!," and "Jenny Take a Ride" back in the mid-'60s. Born 66 years ago as William S. Levise Jr., he debuted as a member of a black doo-wop group before venturing out on his own under the name Billy Lee & the Rivieras. He subsequently came to the attention of legendary songwriter/producer Bob Crewe, who opted to take the band under his wing and rechristen them Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels. Over the course of the next couple of years, the group became fixtures on the Top 40 charts and one of the top live bands of the era.

Despite the fact that he's faded from the spotlight, at least on these shores, Ryder's never really gone away. He's still cited as a seminal blue-collar rocker and an early influence on the likes of John Mellencamp, Bob Seger, and Bruce Springsteen (who, not coincidentally, contributed a rousing rendition of "Devil With a Blue Dress On" to the No Nukes concert soundtrack). These days, however, Ryder's popularity is chiefly confined to Europe, where he continues to draw enthusiastic crowds and release new recordings. 

New Times caught up with Ryder prior to his upcoming South Florida jaunt and asked for an update. He not only obliged but filled us in on a whole lot more:

New Times: Believe it or not, I actually remember seeing you with the Detroit Wheels on the same bill as the Byrds in Dallas, Texas, back in 1966. Of course, I was a mere child at the time. 

Mitch Ryder: Oh yeah, yeah. I remember that gig. There were one or two other acts as well. I remember that gig because David Crosby was backstage and carrying on, and all these girls were back there sitting on the guys' shoulders and doing that "hook 'em horns" thing. Wow, I'll never forget that gig. 

I was with on a date, but unfortunately her parents had imposed an early curfew. So I never got to see the Byrds, other than watching Crosby and Roger McGuinn onstage checking their equipment. But I did get to see you, fortunately. And you made it memorable. That said, how are you doing nowadays? 

I'm good!
Your longtime fans would like to know what you've been up to lately. It seems you've been pretty busy on the oldie circuit, with those "Woodstock" and "Happy Together" tours. 

Well, that's only the American side of it. I've got a whole other career that occurs in the winter months and eats up a lot of my time too. It's my European career, which I have a huge catalog over there as opposed to over here. I have 12 or 13 albums that have never been released in America, so I end up doing two-and-a-half hour shows with no intermission because I have all these songs to choose from that the people over there are familiar with. America's very much a different kind of trick. It's more of an oldies thing where I have to be kind of inventive until I get to the point where I can get these products to the American audience and to my fans over here. And that's quite a trick because I'm doing it at a time when the record business over here is in turmoil. So it's going to be hard to do. I also have an autobiography coming out in December, and I'll be on TV promoting it, and it's being cross-promoted with a new album produced by the Grammy Award-winning Don Was. In addition, I'm writing songs for an album I'm going to record prior to my winter tour in Europe, and I'm working on a musical which I expect to be finished by next summer. 

It really seems like you helped pave the way for artists like Springsteen, Bob Seger, and others of that ilk. You were the first of those kind of populist, blue-collar rockers, and in retrospect, it seems like many of them took their cue from you. 

That's what they say. But I'm in no position to say that myself. But I do appreciate the nod, if you will, from the other artists. If they think that much of me, I'm pleased, of course.

Springsteen has been known to cover "Devil With the Blue Dress On" in concert. 

Yeah, in fact, we performed it together onstage. It was years ago. I have a photograph of it hanging up in my office here. 

And of course Mellencamp produced an album of yours... Never Kick a Sleeping Dog. That was a terrific record.

That brought me back into the charts in the '80s. That was really cool. To be in the charts in the '60s and all of a sudden to find yourself back in the charts in the '80s. That was nice, and it was my first chance to be on MTV, because that wasn't around when I was coming up in the '60s. It had a lot of pluses to it for sure. 

Your music is timeless... basic rock 'n' roll that transcends every generation. 

There may be one or two songs that fit that definition. I saw on TV -- it wasn't too long ago... it was either in North or South Carolina -- they were having a cheerleader competition, and all the teams were getting together, and this one South Carolina team chose "Devil" as the song they were going to do their dancing and gymnastics and routine to, and they came in second, and that was kind of cool. So it's still being played. It's one of those classics. It's like hearing "Stand by Me." When you hear that, it stands up even today. 

Did you ever think back then that you would still be doing the same thing 40, 45 years later? 

No, I thought it was early retirement at 35. In fact, I don't want to retire because I don't know what else to do. I saw my father go through this. He held the same job his whole life, and when he retired, it just drove him mad. He didn't have anywhere to go, and he didn't know anything else. And I don't know anything else. What am I going to do if I retire? God's been good to me. I still have really good pipes, and I can still move around on stage, so I'm in for the long haul. 

How do still maintain your energy level and get yourself psyched to go on stage? 

It's difficult [chuckles]. 

Do you work out? 

No, but I don't use any synthetics or drugs or anything, and I don't drink. So what I do is to try to get as much rest as I possibly can. For example, when it takes a lot out of you just to travel and get to gigs. So what we do is, the band is familiar enough with my stuff, unless I'm doing a solo thing where I'm appearing with a band that I'm not used to and I'll go to sound check. But I'll sleep right up to the sound check and then right after the show is over and I'm done signing autographs and stuff, instead of going to a bar or a party, I'll go to bed and get as much sleep and as much energy as I can that way. Because it's not easy, and I see the band dragging their tails and regret the party the night before, but I'm ready to go. My philosophy seems to be working. 

You really did set a high bar for yourself early on when it came to the energy level of your performances. 

Yeah, I really ruined the idea, because I didn't have a huge slow song that I could sort of coast through. 

What were some of your influences when you were growing up? 

There was Hank Williams, James Brown, and Little Richard. Those were the three big ones. Why Hank Williams? Hank Williams was a very soulful singer, and plus, he wrote his own music. He wrote his own songs, so you knew he was talking about his own life experiences, and it was just a revelation. His songs are just beautiful. 

Why do you think your hometown of Detroit has always been such a wellspring of musical innovation and diversity? 

I think it's because of desperation. It's no picnic now in Detroit, and the world knows it. You should see the way the European press treats Detroit. It's a shame. I'm proud of my city, but everyone here is competing to be either an athlete or a star or an artist, because you have to provide for your family if you have one. But no one really wants to spend all that time in a factory. So you've got a lot of talented people, and frankly, I think the gene pool up here is predisposed to creating artistic people. I just think it's in the water. It's always been very competitive. In fact, my father worked his whole life, but he began as a singer on the radio. He was a big band singer, and he used to sing on the radio here in Detroit. Danny Thomas would come through and sing with the band... But it was a Catholic family, and there were eight kids, and so my mother gave him a choice. Feed your kids or follow your dream, but don't expect me to follow with you. So he gave up his aspirations in show business to provide for his family, so it was the honorable thing to do in his case. 

So it must have been satisfying to see you go on and be successful. 

Ummm. [pauses] Yeah, he got to live vicariously through me. But it created a different problem for my siblings, because all of a sudden, my parents started doting over me and took away valuable time from loving the other children. And so there was some resentment on the part of my siblings. I didn't ask my parents to dote over me, but you know how it is when you're famous and you come home from the road, and they invite a million people over to meet the star and you become the focal point and your brothers and sisters are peeking around the corner and get very jealous. It wasn't good. And we're still working that out, my brothers and sisters and me. It did a lot of harm that way. The other negative part of my career was finding success so early and not being mature enough to handle all the huge changes that fame brought to my life. 

Did you experience the usual pitfalls that young actors and artists often encounter at an early age? 

My judgment as to what was morally sound and correct needed some schooling. I acted like a horny teenager. I didn't pay attention to the money. It was structured in such a way that my producer was not only my manager but he was my lawyer, he was my booking agent -- he did everything, and he ended up ripping us off for several million dollars. And we weren't paying attention because there were girls out there and songs to play... [a phone rings in the background] Hold on a second. Hello. Hello? Damn! I hate when that happens. I think I know what happened. We got new phones, and I pressed a button, and I shouldn't have pressed it. 

Who are you following nowadays? Any current artists you're particularly fond of?

Current artists? It changes so rapidly that my current reference point would still go back a year and a half. Let's talk in terms of revolutionary in terms of what people brought to music. I don't think there has been any real change in American rock 'n' roll since it came with a grunge rock band out of Seattle.

Are you talking about Nirvana? 

Yes, Nirvana. That was the last big change that I saw, and that in some respects was a repeat of what we did in the '60s. So it's kind of made a circle. There's a lot of stuff out there, and my wife is very aware of what's going on. But when I get in a writing mode, I don't want any outside influences whatsoever. So I shut everything off, and I don't want to be influenced or accused of sounding like somebody. I only want to rely on my intuition and life experience when I write my music... The last group to make a significant change in the way music was presented was Nirvana, and that goes back 15 to 20 years now, right? Obviously a lot has come and gone since then. Disco never did leave; it just kind of hid in a corner somewhere. Rap has been around 20 years itself, so what's new out there? You tell me. 

Were you a big Nirvana fan? 

Oh yeah, absolutely. I actually bought -- bought -- some of their stuff. What I liked about them was they understood what dynamics were -- the soft and the loud. So right after they came out, you saw like you do every time, just like you saw in Detroit, in San Francisco, in New Orleans... wherever it is... if a hit artist comes out of that town and they're new, the record companies flock to that town and sign up everything that's moving. That's what happened in Seattle too. Everyone took that formula -- the soft and the loud -- and what was cool about Nirvana was the lyrics and the bass changes, which I was particularly fond of. They were inventive. They came up with that formula. Nobody was doing that extreme dynamic that they were, where you're playing quietly and then boom, you're being blasted off the planet. I thought that was so, so cool. 

Speaking of cool, didn't Winona Ryder borrow your last name? 

Yeah, I guess so. She got it from her father's record collection. Of all the people she could have chosen... Just another element to ensure your immortality. [phone rings] Let me see if I can answer the phone correctly this time... Hello? Hi, honey. Did you call about five minutes ago? [pause] OK, let me get off the other phone and wrap up this interview... 

Mitch Ryder. 10 p.m. Friday, July 29, at the Nectar Lounge at the Seminole Casino, 5550 NW 40th St., Coconut Creek. Tickets cost $30. Click here.

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