Back in the mid-70's, Detroit was a vast arid wasteland for bands playing their own music. The coffeehouse and ballroom scene of the mid-60's had disappeared. No band got a bar gig without five sets of Top 40 mainstream radio covers. Bar owners would actually give song lists to bands with the condition that they had to play those songs if they were going to play at all. Stages were short and tiny or nonexistent and no bar had it's own PA.
Then, disco reared its ugly head. It was cheaper to hire a deejay than a band and bar goers seemed to like it. Original rock bands had nowhere to play unless they were huge national acts. Even mid level bands from outside Detroit had nowhere to play if they couldn't pull in 4,000 people.
One band that was willing to do something about it was The Sillies.
They formed in 1977 and did their first show second-billed to Rob Tyner's new version of The MC5, renting a theater for the show. The crowd topped 1,000 but the band lost money due to a curious lack of money at the door.
Something smaller and on a weekly basis was needed to kick start the local music scene again. By early 1978, The Sillies did a few shows in closed bars that were open one night for the event. They soon got an invitation to play Frank Gagen's, an old supper club on West McNichols (Six Mile) that was operating as a gay disco.
The bar down the street (Menjo's) had taken most of their business and the owner Sam Stewart was willing to try anything. Though the sign said "Gagen's", the place was known as "Bookie's Club 870" after Stewart's nickname and the address, 870 W. McNichols. Two weeks before the scheduled show, Don Fagenson, better known now as producer "Don Was", came in with his Motor City Revue and his attempt at a punk band, The Traitors.
bided their time and did their scheduled shows on March 17 and 18. By the end of the second night, Bookie handed the bar over to The Sillies to book as they chose.
After that, every weekend was a concert with three bands doing a set of their own music instead of one band doing five sets of radio hits.
Detroit acts like Wayne Kramer, The Romantics
, Destroy All Monsters
(with Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton, Niagara, Rob King and MC5 bassist Mike Davis) would headline some weekends while bands such as The Police
, The Damned, Ultravox, The Cramps, The Dead Boys, and many others made Bookie's their one and only Michigan tour date.
Bowie parked outside the front door in his limousine the night he played Detroit in 1978, but only his band actually came inside to hear "punk rock disco" for an admission price of 50 cents (it was a weekday with no live band).
The music before and between the live sets was the only place people could hear the latest punk and New Wave records in Detroit as no radio station would play them. Sillies vocalist Ben Waugh would bring his own records from home or borrow others from friends and bar regulars, then stop the music and run to the mixing board to run sound for the live band.
Radio deejays like Sky Daniels of W4
would occasionally come to the club and hear "Roxanne" by The Police before it was ever released in the U.S. Eventually, Bookie's was a victim of it's own success. A concert promotion company took over the club and The Sillies concentrated on touring the U.S. and Canada.
A succession of promoters ran the room for varying periods of time until Bookie sold it to someone who thought it would be a good idea to turn it back into a drag show bar.
The building mysteriously burned to the ground in 1991 and was torn down. Now only a parking lot exists where J. Geils played to a packed house after a three day sellout at Pine Knob.
A handful of unreleased recordings, videotapes, and photos are all that is left of that brief moment of creativity and originality. On the other hand, Bookie's inspired the opening of Lili's, Paycheck's, and an endless stream of like-minded clubs that exist to this very day. Bookie's itself disappeared before its ashes were cold, but its legacy as a showcase for Detroit music continues to this very day.
"It wasn't huge, but it had a faded elegance about it that gave it a lot of character. After I left in late 1979, they gutted it to shoehorn as many people as possible. It was awful. It was like they stuffed and mounted Syd Barrett and put him on tour. I saw what they did to it and it almost made me cry."