Book excerpt: Novelist Peter Werbe trips back to a pivotal ‘Summer on Fire’ in Detroit

February 23, 2021, 8:08 AM

Names and dialogue in “Summer on Fire” are made up, but the drugs, history and rock ‘n roll are as realistic as some of what Peter Werbe experienced in the Cass Corridor as a young activist six decades ago.

The lifelong Metro Detroiter describes his first novel, which went on sale this week, as “a fictionalized memoir” set in the summer of '67. Its seven weeks include anti-war marches, civil rights protests, the Grande Ballroom, the White Panther Party, a bomb plot and the city-changing spark of a police raid on after-hours drinkers at 12th and Clairmount depicted in the excerpt below. Tangents include a Belle Isle “love-in” three months earlier.

"Mostly it's a story to talk about themes of race, war, violence and choices," Werbe tells Deadline Detroit by email.

Peter Werbe looks at "race, war, violence and choices" in his first novel. (Photos from the author)

He lives in Oak Park after a career that includes decades as host or co-host of “Nightcall,” aired on WRIF from 1970-2016 as the longest-running talk show in radio history. He also was a DJ on Detroit rock stations WCSX, WWWW, and WABX, and remains part of the staff collective at Fifth Estate magazine – another survivor of the Sixties that began in November 1965 as "Detroit's new progressive biweekly newspaper," founded by Harvey Ovshinksy when he was 17. (Its Cass Avenue office is in the novel, along with a fictionalized version – Sidney Shaffran – of the founder, still a friend of the author.)

"Today’s turmoil is a mirror of that era," says the back cover, which has a blurb from Michael Jackman, former senior editor at Metro Times. "A radical political novel that makes you laugh? Now, that's revolutionary," he says in part.

Out front, John Sinclair – a legendary influence during that time – calls the 262-page paperback "a refreshing read about Detroit in the 1960s."

"My goal in writing was to address questions of war, violence, racism and the resistance to them," Werbe says in a section with historic footnotes. "Not everything portrayed should be dismissed as either fanciful or a plot device. … Although many of the characters are based on real people, publications, and organizations, all of them, including the two main ones, are a hodge-podge of different personalities."

As an aural tie-in, "there will be a soundtrack," Werbe teases in a message. "I mention 80 bands and musical artists that a friend is compiling into a Spotify list."

-- Alan Stamm

Hear the author

♦ March 12, 6-7:30 p.m.: Virtual book talk and Q&A hosted by Source Booksellers of Detroit. Free (register here for invitation link) or $20 with book, plus $1.99 fee.

♦ March 16, 7-8 p.m.: Live Zoom discussion (“Our Back Pages") with Werbe and Harvey Ovshinsky, who also has a new book. Streamed to Book Beat’s Facebook page, as well as to each author’s (here and here).   

(Design: Ralph Franklin)

Buy the book

Excerpt: ‘File outside peacefully
and no one will get hurt’

Chapter 19, excerpted nearly in full below with the author’s permission and with subheads added, imagines his character’s activities amid a historic turning point at 12th Street and Clairmont Avenue on Detroit’s west side.

By Peter Werbe
Saturday, July 22, 1967

The Detroit spring was hot and the summer even warmer. The heat was relentless, day after day reaching the 90s with several rising into triple digits. The nights offered only a little relief, but despite the temperature, almost two thousand rock and rollers jammed into the Grande Ballroom Saturday night to hear a return performance of Tim Buckley, plus The Up, and The Shaggs.

Paul and Michele drove to the Grande in her VW. It was really both of theirs, but because Paul’s only income was a $15 a week stipend from the Fifth Estate plus all of the newspapers he could sell on the street, it was Michele who provided the majority of their income. She purchased the brand new 1965 model for $1,750 having saved for a down payment out of what she earned at her secretarial jobs.

The author, circa 1967

She pulled into a parking spot half a block from the Grande entrance thinking what good luck it was to find a space so close.

“Should I leave my purse?” Michele asked.

Paul was high enough that he couldn’t venture a definitive opinion, so she hid it under the front seat.

Paul was glad they were near the entrance since he was so stoned it was difficult for him to navigate the walk from the car to the stairs leading up to the Grande. Once inside the familiar interior, an audience of like-minded people, and music that was new and exciting, tamped down the anxiety he felt about being high on the street.

When they entered the crowded, steaming dance floor, The Shaggs were doing their number, “My Pal Foot Foot,” with two of the sisters on guitar and the third playing drums. Their guitars were gratingly out of tune. The drummer kept missing the beat, while the other two sisters sang standing almost motionless.

The Shaggs were three sisters from New Hampshire who seemed to purposely play badly and affected a strange on-stage appearance. But for some reason, audiences loved them. A Roll­ing Stone article described them as “sounding like lobotomized Trapp Family singers.”

‘No one was there to talk’

When they finished their set, the audience cheered wildly, shouting for more, but the sisters had played the only 12 songs they knew. The house DJ immediately cranked up the new Jimi Hendrix LP, “Are You Experienced,” so there was seamless music at a volume making conversation impossible. But since no one was there to talk, only to listen and dance to the music, the crowd was pleased to hear Hendrix’s inventive guitar licks and surrealist lyrics.

With 90 percent of those in attendance stoned on one substance or another, the marijuana and LSD fueled atmosphere was en­hanced by a psychedelic light show casting waves of amorphous patterns and random photographs across the dancers as they be­came the screen on which the In Sight Light Brigade projected their images. Also, with Janis Joplin gone, the mirrored disco ball was operating, sending thousands of points of light shards cas­cading randomly around the room. . . .

Peter Werbe at the Fifth Estate office during the July 1967 disturbance. (Photo: C.J. Walker)

Most of the audience, both men and women, wore only three items of clothing—a T-shirt, cut-off Levi shorts, and hand-made sandals from local leather craftsmen. No underwear.

Paul and Michele were there with many of their friends and most of the Fifth Estate staff. Sidney Shaffran, who founded the Fifth Estate two years earlier, arrived home the day before from a month-long pilgrimage to San Francisco, the counterculture’s Mecca. He was filled with new energy for the paper, particularly for the use of more color and psychedelic graphics. So far, the is­sues were only black and white, and for all its radical content, had the appearance of a conventional newspaper.

Paul knew the members of the light show group who invited him up on their scaffolding at the back of the ballroom to give a whirl at operating the overhead projectors used to create the im­ages. They were the type normally used in classrooms to magnify text or graphics on a wall. In the ballroom, rather than a chart showing supply and demand or Doric columns in Greece, glass plates were filled with cooking oil to which different colored veg­etable dyes were added and when swirled about by tipping the vessel, giant amoeba-like shapes appeared when magnified and projected outward.

A wild human canvas

The psychedelic ambiance was further enhanced by a guy op­erating a slide projector casting rapidly changing images of the weirdest slides he could find in thrift stores or attics onto the au­dience. The face of some unknown person’s mother or an image from the 1939 World’s Fair would appear on a dancer’s back illu­minating them, often spurring the human canvas to dance even wilder.

Tim Buckley finished his set to great roars of approval with “Move with Me” and “Sweet Surrender.” At midnight, the crowd headed out into an 82-degree night that was cooler than the place they had spent the last four hours. The Detroit air smelled clean and fresh by comparison, since cigarette smoking was allowed in the ballroom.

“Fuck!” When Paul and Michele got back to their car, they saw the small side window was broken and she discovered her purse had been stolen from under the front seat. “Why didn’t you tell me not to leave it?” she demanded accusingly of Paul, who said nothing.

Realizing that all her identification and the $16 that was in her wallet was gone, she swore all the way home. Paul remained si­lent. They got in bed at 1 a.m., gave each other perfunctory kisses, and even as hot as it was with only a small fan running, fell immediately asleep.

At that moment, unbeknownst to them, just a mile and a half to the north, at the corner of 12th Street and Clairmont Avenue, in the heart of the West Side Detroit Black neighborhood, an af­ter-hours party was getting under way in the offices of the United Community League for Civic Action, located above the Economy Printing Company. ... 

"Nightcall" co-host Juline Jordan and the author at a Detroit protest.

These revelers were dressed in sharp suits and fashionable dresses. Driving the dancing at the 12th Street party was the music of Gladys Knight & the Pips, James Brown, Sam & Dave, and, of course, endless Motown from The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and Dionne Warwick, stacked on an automatic LP record changer.

By 3:45 a.m., the party was in full swing with almost 85 people eating, drinking, and dancing the Jerk, the Hully Gully and the Watusi.

Undercover vice squad pair

Among those shaking their butts to the music was Sgt. Jerome Evans of the Detroit Police Department, who was working undercover for the Vice Squad with his partner, Patrolman Ed­die Jones of the 10th Precinct. They were planning a raid to shut down this blind pig for the last six weeks. Both were dressed in their finest befitting such a celebration. This was going to be the night.

Evans was wearing a Stacy Adams white-vested 3-piece suit with a bright blue patterned shirt opened three buttons, black and white Johnson and Murphy shoes, a gold chain around his neck and a gold bracelet. He was dancing the Watusi energetically with Veronica, a woman he just met. Both were sweating profuse­ly as was everyone in the room. The food was mostly consumed, and little was left of the alcohol that at the beginning seemed as though it was in excess.

Neither Veronica nor anyone else except for Evans’ partner knew that the police sergeant went into the bathroom 20 minutes earlier and radioed the precinct that the blind pig was filled with people and the Vice Squad should initiate the raid.

September 1967 cover of The Fifth Estate, founded two years earlier.

Aretha Franklin’s #1 hit record was on the record player am­plified through two Philips speakers. Everyone on the crowded dance floor that was buckling a little under the combined weight of the partiers was singing the chorus in unison, “All I’m askin’ is for a little respect. . .” Suddenly, 15 uniformed Detroit cops, all white, burst into the room led by Capt. John McCullough of the 10th Precinct shouting through a bullhorn, “You’re all under arrest. Everyone file outside peacefully and no one will get hurt.”

At first, three-quarters of those in the room weren’t even aware of the presence of the police as the music . . . was louder than the bullhorn.

‘Stay where you are’

The police began shoving the loudly protesting people out of the party space towards the stairs that descended to the street. Once downstairs, other officers roughly pushed people against the wall of the print shop to be searched. Several knives and guns were dropped on the stairway from the party hall.

Once outside, Capt. MacCullough yelled through his bullhorn, “You are all under arrest for loitering at a place where an ille­gal business is being conducted. Stay where you are against the building. We have called for paddy wagons to take you to the precinct where you will be processed.” . . .

When the police wagons arrived from other precincts, the mostly white cops began roughly herding the arrested partiers into the waiting vehicles. It took over an hour for the arrestees to be loaded into the police vans, sufficient time for a crowd of a couple hundred people attracted to the commotion to show up and begin shouting insults at the police.

This raid and the treatment of Black people at the hands of the cops seemed no different from what was experienced regularly on the streets of the city. The Detroit police were roundly hated by the city’s Black population as a white occupation force staffed by corrupt and brutal racists who routinely made life even more mis­erable for a mostly impoverished community. Normally, arrests and police harassment went unanswered.

This time it was different. Bill Scott, son of the owner of the il­legal drinking establishment, saw not only his father’s friends and neighbors being pushed into police vans, but witnessed the usu­al disrespect and unnecessary force being used, including cops twisting the arms of some of the women.

Scott grabbed a discarded beer bottle from the street and heaved it at a near-by police lieutenant. It tumbled end over end, missing its target, shattering against the side of a blue and white cop car, igniting a social conflagration that was hundreds of years in the making. The one bottle contained enough social force be­hind it to begin the most destructive and deadly urban uprising of the decade.

Another empty was thrown. Another came flying at the cops as they ducked behind their cars. Then, a brick smashed a patrol car windshield. It became a cascade of bricks and bottles as the crowd grew. The cops left the area quickly.

Oh, say, you could see, by the dawn’s early light, stores were being looted and fires were burning.

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