Hamtramck is Michigan’s big little music town

Lili Karwowski and her son Art Lyzak, former owners of Lili’s Bar on Jacob, played a key part in Hamtramck’s rich musical past.


By Walter Wasacz
Special to The Review
In 1998, when the first Hamtramck Blowout was launched by the Metro Times as a fundraiser for the Detroit Music Awards, the city was already on a decades-long musical high.
I surely was, beginning with my introduction to songs I’d heard on CKLW and WKNR AM-radio stations beginning in the mid-1960s. Another source of inspiration was Robin Seymour’s “Swingin’ Time,” a teen dance TV show from Windsor that aired on CKLW-Channel 9. It was there that I first saw a performance, lip-synced though it was, by a young Bob Seger fronting his band the Last Heard.
This all led to searches for vinyl 45s on Jos. Campau, at Old Town Records and Federal’s, which had a surprisingly good selection for a department store.
It turned out all the Motown hit singles were available within walking distance of my home, as were the revolutionary acid rock sounds of the day; but on full length LPs, another revelation, heightening the listening experience even more.
Change was in the air, and the most innovative agents of change were doing it with music so strong it penetrated the consciousness of kids like me all over the world.
At the age of 12 — which I turned in July of the “Summer of Love” in 1967 — I felt connected to an exciting youth culture in ascendance.
I was not alone in my own city either. Far from it.
Boys’ hair was getting longer, girls’ skirts shorter (noticeable even in the city’s three Catholic high schools: St. Florian, St. Ladislaus and Immaculate Conception) and local teens were starting bands, most notably the Rockin’ Levis, whose sound and look was influenced by British Invasion bands the Swinging Blue Jeans (yup, obviously) and the Rolling Stones (the Hamtramck group incorporated the Stones’ hit “Paint it Black” in their live sets).
Another breakout star of the 1960s was a singer born William S. Levise Jr. in Hamtramck in 1945. You know him as Mitch Ryder, and with his band the Detroit Wheels had a string of hit singles including “Devil With a Blue Dress On/Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Jenny Take a Ride” and “Sock it to Me Baby.”

Developing culture: 1970s
The 1960s only set the table for what was to come in the 1970s, when a homegrown music culture began to stir.
In spring 1974, at the end of my first year at Wayne State University, I discovered a crowd of Hamtramck rock ‘n’ rollers who seemed as eager to create and build a local scene as I was. We all read Creem Magazine and scoured the area for hard to find British music weeklies, Melody Maker, New Musical Express and Sounds (luckily for me, all three were available at the WSU bookstore).
I became reacquainted with an old Little League Baseball buddy, Volodymyr “Wally” Palamarchuk, who sang and played guitar in a group called Shazam.
The name was cool as was the band’s sound, both inspired by British bands like the Move (their 1970 LP “Shazam” is the source of the local band’s name), the Pretty Things and the Kinks.
Shazam changed its name to Harlow — which also included Art ‘Archie’ Lyzak of the Rockin’ Levis — and later helped populate the Romantics and the Mutants, two of the most significant Michigan bands of this era.
Other Hamtramck musicians who played in these groups included bass player Richard Kowalski (later Rich Cole of the Romantics), guitar player Pat Supina (Pasadena of the Mutants), and drummer Greg Karpinski. Oh, and by the late-1970s Palamarchuk was fronting the Romantics as Wally Palmar, a name he’s used ever since.
Even more critical to Hamtramck’s trajectory as a music town in the 1970s was the bar Misty Inn (later known as Crest Lounge), which hosted live bands playing original music — unlike most of the bars in Detroit and west side suburbs, where cover bands were the rule.
The Mutants were the main attraction here, a smart, funny guitar band with dance appeal that attracted fans from across the metro area on the regular.
On a personal level, I was so turned on by the Mutants that I flew out to New York City in 1975 to join them on their first east coast tour. We stayed at the Hotel Chelsea, a vintage 1880s Queen Anne Revival/Victorian Gothic urban palace that had seen better days but was now perfectly suited to host guests like the Mutants.
This is when Blondie, Talking Heads, Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Heartbreakers and the Ramones were on the verge of critical, if not commercial, breakthroughs.
Very soon their impact would be felt around the world. I felt it a privilege to be there then as it was happening in real time and feel the same way now.
That scene was culturally magnetic and had some influence on what was coming to Hamtramck in the 1980s.

Cottage industry: 1980s
The Misty Inn/Crest Lounge scene only lasted a few years, the building where it was housed (on the east side of Jos. Campau just south of Commor) was badly damaged by fire and demolished. It’s now a parking lot.
What came after was about to give Hamtramck even more exposure as a music town.
Lili Karwowski bought an old shot and beer joint called the Columbia Bar (on Jacob St. just east of Jos. Campau) in the early 1970s, but only started hosting bands there in 1979 upon the urging of her son Art Lyzak, who was then the singer in the Mutants.
The hot punk club of the day was Bookie’s 870, not far from Hamtramck in Detroit’s Palmer Park neighborhood, but Lili’s caught up quickly (and outlasted Bookies by nearly 20 years).
Aside from live music or the bar’s legendary jukebox stacked with punk, mod and soul singles, the social scene was a bonus: you might look down the bar and see a Detroit music luminary like Iggy Pop or recently dearly departed Wayne Kramer of the MC5 (I missed Iggy but did meet Kramer there in 1979).
In 1980, Lili’s hosted a memorable after-concert party for the Clash, London punk trailblazers of the 1970s about to enjoy more mainstream success in the new decade.
Meanwhile, on Caniff, Paycheck’s became another key piece in Hamtramck’s burgeoning cottage music industry, aggressively booking local, national and international touring artists from the punk, new wave, Goth and metal undergrounds.
John Cale, formerly of the Velvet Underground, performed there in the 1980s, as did 10,000 Maniacs, Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, the Butthole Surfers, Flipper, Discharge, Specimen, the Dead Milkmen and many more.
Hometown favorites the Reruns — and their later iteration, the Polish Muslims — played at Paycheck’s (and Lili’s) often, as did the Mutants, the Hysteric Narcotics, the Sillies, the Cult Heroes, Bootsey X and the Lovemasters, the Gories, Negative Approach, L-Seven and Laughing Hyenas among many other Detroit and Ann Arbor bands.
Another bar that opened in the 1980s was the Attic, which quickly became a must stop for Detroit area blues purists. Uncle Jessie White and the Butler Twins, high quality blues performers, had regular gigs at the Attic, which was at the corner of Jos. Campau and Pulaski St. from 1987 to 2007.
The 1980s also saw the Romantics release five LPs, appear on “American Bandstand” and tour coast to coast and overseas. The decade would seem to be a hard act to follow.

National Breakout: 1990s
But Hamtramck’s reputation as an attractive music hub flourished in the 1990s, with Lili’s, Paycheck’s, and the Attic getting more local and out-of-town attention.
New venues emerged in the city, the largest being the repurposed Polish Falcons Hall, which had been shuttered a few years prior by its fraternal organization. The newly-named Falcon Club booked ska, punk and shoegaze bands – most notably Majesty Crush, which also used late singer David Stroughter’s house on Holmes St. for practice sessions.
In 1996, new investors once affiliated with St. Andrew’s Hall in Detroit and Clutch Cargo’s and Industry night clubs in Pontiac, upgraded the Falcon building (at Caniff and Klinger St.) and rebranded it Motor.
The new club was an instant smash, causing traffic mayhem and drawing lines around the building. Not for rock concerts but for electronic dance music events experienced beforehand at raves in abandoned factories, like the nearby Packard Plant south of 1-94.
The club had three rooms with three distinct sound systems – so three parties could be going simultaneously. Artists from the UK and Germany and elsewhere in Europe were booked along with DJs and producers from Detroit’s fertile techno and house dance scenes.
Lush, more lounge than dance club, was a Motor spinoff in a building at the corner of Jos. Campau and Trowbridge St., as was Small’s (Conant and Caniff). Both opened in the late-1990s (Small’s later built an additional stage for increased capacity and continues booking shows to this day).
Also in the late-1990s, Hamtramck got some unexpected national hype from Minneapolis-based magazine the UTNE Reader, which listed the city as one of North America’s 15 hippest places to live (some cool company was kept on this list, including Los Feliz in Los Angeles, Wicker Park in Chicago and Williamsburg, Brooklyn).
The Holbrook Cafe, another former Polish social club and banquet hall, also opened in the 1990s and became part of the Blowout circuit. The same building now contains the Holbrook Market.
Some non-traditional venues also popped up in the decade, like Shadowbox Cafe (where Grant McLennan of Australian band the Go-Betweens played an acoustic coffeehouse set); and sculptor Michael Hall’s by-appointment-only art gallery G.A.S., which hosted Jon Langford of the Mekons exhibiting his art works and doing an informal sing along with a small group of friends and fans. I was one of the fortunate few in attendance at those events.

2000 and beyond
After a six-year run, Motor closed in 2002 and Lush was sold and eventually became THC, where a promotions group called Proper Modulation booked techno artists from Detroit and Germany (one of the performers, Hamburg’s Lawrence, later memorialized his visit here with a dance track called “Hamtramck”).
A few storefronts south on Jos. Campau, the old Belmont Bar and Belmont Grill were renovated into a new music club called the Belmont, which booked bands and DJs drawing solid crowds for several years. Oloman Cafe now occupies the former Belmont space.
Some other venues and related businesses in the ’00s and ’10s that supported the local music scene include Painted Lady (in same spot as Lili’s, which closed in 2002), Sanctuary (in the former Paycheck’s, which closed in 2016), Planet Ant/Ghost Light, Outer Limits, Baker’s Streetcar, Bumbo’s, Barter (now closed), Skipper’s (closed), Detroit Threads, Henriettahaus, Lo & Behold, Mephisto’s (closed), High Dive, New Dodge, Kelly’s, Trixie’s, Fowling Warehouse, Whiskey in the Jar, Polka Dot (housed in the same building as Roadrunner’s Raft, one of the original Blowout venues in 1998) and Polish Sea League, which has a long historical connection to Hamtramck music since the 1970s.
The first years of the Blowout ran parallel to a fruitful period of Detroit music history, when rising stars like White Stripes, Dirtbombs, Detroit Cobras, Eminem, the Von Bondies, the Wildbunch (later the Electric Six), Outrageous Cherry, the Volebeats and the Go! all played the event.
The Blowout expanded to more local venues in the early ’00s, before the Metro Times added Ferndale and Midtown Detroit venues (a bad idea that blew up the interconnected neighborhood vibe that was its real charm), and then shut down the entire sputtering enterprise in 2015.
By that time other local organizers had already started the Hamtramck Music Festival (just like the Blowout, at multiple local venues). Meanwhile the Hamtramck Festival during Labor Day weekend was loading up two stages for three days and nights of intense street partying, underscoring the city’s status as a music powerhouse.
It’s fitting then that the resurrected Blowout concept and the late-summer festival combine their missions into a powerful new Hamtramck music brand that welcomes all to party up (and down) in the city at least twice a year.
And who knows, maybe more than that. Keep building, keep growing: easy for me to say, but I’ll say it anyway.
There is some impressive living music history here that many of us have participated in — some, like me, for over 50 years — and no reason to stop now. Rock on, Hamtramck.
(Lili Karwowski and Art Lyzak photo courtesy of Jeff – UHF Records. Walter Wasacz is a former columnist for The Review and is a national freelance writer.)
Posted March 1, 2024

4 Responses to Hamtramck is Michigan’s big little music town

  1. Casey Coston

    March 2, 2024 at 5:46 pm

    Walter, thank you for this all-encompassing and enjoyable trip down memory lane!

  2. Ken

    March 3, 2024 at 8:38 am

    Great article!! Trixies last night felt like a throw back to Hamtramck 1979. Bluecher and Degens feat. Carl Kondrat on drums were excellent.

  3. John Scott AKA John Szafarczyk

    March 4, 2024 at 9:11 am

    This is a great historical piece, Walter. Thanks for pulling it together.
    Well done!
    As I heard Ike Blesset (Pro-Baseball player from Hamtramck (1960s) express, Hamtramck was a wonderful place to be a kid growing up in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. It was safe, walkable, had a great recreation program by which many of us kids got to know other kids from the many different schools in Hamtramck, and was the birthplace of some of the best music of the times.
    Keep at it!

  4. Mike Paczki

    March 31, 2024 at 1:20 pm

    Paczki Mike What a great article brings back memoirs.

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