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The End for Cobo Arena


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The end of Cobo Arena leaves great music memories behind

Susan Whitall / Detroit News Music Writer

Workers renovating the old Cobo Arena into a sleek ballroom with river views may run into a few ghosts when construction starts next summer: shards of guitar feedback from Jimi Hendrix echoing in the walls, the laughter of a groupie as the roadies load in for a Kiss show.

Cobo hasn't been used for a concert since Phish played there in 2009, but the much-vaunted $221-million renovation will make its demise official. The funky 12,000-seat hall with the sound that lit up live albums like Bob Seger's "Live Bullet" will disappear.

What will remain are memories of a time when the round, steep bowl inside Cobo Center was southeastern Michigan's dominant venue, and the music business hadn't yet become sterile and corporate. It could get rough at Cobo.

A scene in Cameron Crowe's 2000 film "Almost Famous" always reminds me of Cobo. William Miller, the earnest young Creem magazine writer, barrels up to a security guard backstage and proudly announces that he's on the list. "No, you're not!" the guard barks, shoving him back down the stairs.

That's how it was at Cobo during the 1970s, when I was a writer/editor for Creem. I saw several colleagues pushed backwards and even punched for saying basically the same thing Miller did: "Hello, I'm a writer, and I'm on the…" — bam!You didn't want to dress up in more than a T-shirt and jeans if you were going to a concert at Cobo. There might be beer spilled, a fight nearby or one of the front row chairs whacked on someone's head. Sometimes the messes were even earthier. We all laughed when a particularly pompous music critic garbed in a three-piece wool suit stepped in a pile of buffalo droppings at a ZZ Top show.

If you got past the paid enforcers, backstage was the house party of all time, with journalists allowed casual, breathtaking access to musicians. I was backstage at a Rod Stewart & the Faces concert with my fellow Creem editors when Faces guitarist Ronnie Wood asked if we wanted to go to a party at former Temptation David Ruffin's house. Oh, heck yes. Wood jumped into our van and got singer Bobby Womack to ride shotgun and direct us.

The backstage goings-on fed into the fans' enjoyment, photographer Ken Settle is convinced. "The access that we got as journalists conveyed a feeling of excitement and importance to our coverage," Settle says. Photographers were routinely allowed to shoot an entire show, then hang out and shoot backstage. Back then, musicians weren't as camera-shy, and publicists weren't yet strictly controlling access, wringing all the life and joy out of the business.

At first the city didn't want to book rock and roll into their shiny new venue, called "giant" Cobo Hall by Billboard in 1960. But when the doors opened to rock, bands came to love the arena because of the famed, manic energy of the Detroit audience.

Cobo was a steep, round bowl, so the sound didn't carom around a vast arena, as it did at Joe Louis or The Palace, but would bounce off the wall of fleshy, breathing humanity packed in seats going almost vertically upwards from the risers.

Even way at the top, in the cheap seats, you felt as if you were in the middle of things. The air was electric from excitement and sweat, and when the musicians ramped up the energy onstage, the crowd would respond, roaring back.

The 1999 film "Detroit Rock City" showed how Cobo ranked in the music world. In a scene where the bedazzled Kiss fans arrive in Detroit, the camera flashes on iconic local landmarks: the (then) General Motors building, Ford headquarters, Motown Records and lastly — the holy of holies — Cobo Hall.

Gail Parenteau, who worked for Bamboo Productions, Cobo's main music promoter in the '70s, cites another reason bands liked to play there: top-notch stagehands. "The IOTSE local there was among the best in the country," Parenteau says. "The bands felt that the Detroit crews actually understood the music business."

Cobo was funky and homey. Bamboo had its own caterer, Susie Olsen, and bands like J. Geils Band and Journey appreciated the personal touch, with tablecloths and candles. Olsen would make up to-go plates of prime rib for the rock stars to take back to their rooms.

Most importantly, Cobo was the perfect size for most rock bands at roughly 12,000 seats, a size Detroit currently lacks (we don't count Joe Louis). Sell that many at The Palace and you've failed. Twelve thousand tickets at Cobo means you sold out! The band's excited, the promoter is happy, and the fans clamor for more shows. Winning.

An infamous riot

One of the most infamous Cobo Hall incidents was the "Average White Band riot" that took place at that band's 1977 Cobo show. TV judge Greg Mathis described in his 2002 book "Inner City Miracle" how, as a teenaged member of the Earl Flynn gang (a misspelling of "Errol" Flynn), he was with the gang when they jumped down from Cobo's second level onto the main floor during the intermission, crashing onto the concrete floor in 4-inch clear platform shoes.

Garbed in double-breasted suits topped off by Borsalino hats, the gang rampaged through the terrified audience yelling, "Earl Flynn! Earl Flynn," demanding purses, wallets and jewelry. They got them.

By the time riot police rushed into Cobo to quell the mass robbery, the Earl Flynns were safely sauntering down Congress Street with their booty, breaking windows and stealing more clothing.

Live at Cobo

Here are some of the live albums recorded at Cobo, with the year the recording was made.

The Doors, "Live in Detroit" (1970)

Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, "Live Bullet" (1975) and parts of "Nine Tonight" (1980)

Kiss, "Kiss Alive" (1975)

J. Geils Band, parts of "Blow Your Face Out" (1975)

Yes, most of "Yesshows" (1976)

Journey, "Captured" (1981)

Madonna, "Live: The Virgin Tour" (1985)

Kid Rock, "Live Trucker" (2004)


From The Detroit News: http://detnews.com/article/20110308/ENT04/103080313/The-end-of-Cobo-Arena-leaves-great-music-memories-behind#ixzz1G0xnzKdL

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And the wheel(of destruction) rolls on. Fillmore East...Winterland...Boston Garden...The Fabulous Forum...lots of historic venues are disappearing.

And now Cobo Hall. :(

As if Detroit hasn't suffered enough.

As a devoted reader of Creem from the magazine's inception 'til its demise in the 80's, I knew about Cobo and the importance of the place as a music venue. I'm glad to see Susan Whitall is still writing, as she wrote one of the all-time classic Zeppelin articles in Creem back in 1979...one that SHOULD have been anthologized in that Creem book a few years ago, but wasn't.

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I can't read this story without feeling a few pangs of nostalgia. Although it wasn't a great room acoustically, the place had a feel all it's own. I've seen many concerts there. Some I may not even remember, but to list a few; Grand Funk, Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Kansas and of course, Bob Seger (while he was recording Live Bullet). But the one thing I fondly remember is Big Time Wrestling w/ the likes of The Sheik, Bobo Brazil, Wild Bull Curry and Lord Layton. The radio ads used to say "at beautiful air conditioned Cobo Arena" I don't know if the new Cobo will do anything to revive Detroit. That's such a monumental task that may be unattainable. But, if it saves the Auto Show, it may be worth it. Another piece of my youth going away :boohoo:

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