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Book Review: Devils & Blue Dresses: My Wild Ride as a Rock and Roll Legend by Mitch Ryder

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“Fame only did one important thing for me. It gave me a goal to overcome, or die trying”  –Mitch Ryder

While the title of this new rock memoir alludes to one of Mitch Ryder’s biggest hits, the Detroit singer talks about many more demons than the specific breed who wear dresses of any color. From start to finish, Ryder’s story is of a performer who has much to be angry about. On one hand, he was a victim of many harsh circumstances in his business and personal life. On the other, he admits to a string of mistakes that kept him from achieving the goals he set for himself all those decades ago. As a result, Devils & Blue Dresses: My Wild Ride as a Rock and Roll Legend is a chronicle of a hard, fast life told in vivid, tightly-sketched chapters that are engrossing even when events are more shocking than many readers might expect.

Born into a dysfunctional working-class family, Ryder is clearly disgusted by the disparity between those dogged by poverty and the monied class who seem to pull all the strings. This resentment was part of his psychological makeup even while he was trying to get that very class to help make his career possible. So his book is full of stabs at the music establishment, and Ryder apparently has good reasons to feel betrayed by the likes of Four Seasons producer Bob Crewe and super-manager Robert Stigwood. Such power brokers not only used him as a pawn for their own ambitions, but contributed to Ryder’s drug and alcohol excesses as well as a sexual confusion that few other memoirs have the courage to lay so bare. Yes, there were women who enabled Ryder’s personal tortures, but he is frank about his own failures in his relationships and his inability to understand love.

Likewise, Ryder’s performing career was a mix of rough-and-rumble years on the road, in the studio, and in duels with management and recording companies. Again, he admits to his own bad choices like turning down Jimi Hendrix and Mike Bloomfield of the Electric Flag who both asked him to join their bands. He praises John Lennon for helping him survive a bad acid trip but has mixed feelings about John Mellonkamp who produced a “comeback” album for Ryder, but without showing much respect for his musical mentor. Ryder worked with some of the best musicians on the planet along with some of the most quarrelsome groups in rock. So music fans will get more than their share of insider insights. For example, Ryder observes one advantage British Invasion bands had over their American counterparts is that they were not decimated by a wartime draft.

In the main, after his ‘60s heyday, Ryder’s story is one of a rock and roll survivor who came to define success in his artistic achievements even without much popular or critical response to his work. While few in the states have been listening, he has released some 25 CDs over the years and has a high profile in Europe, particularly Germany. He has a long-time relationship with his third wife who Ryder describes as having to curb his bad habits in order to make their life together possible. Throughout his tale, Ryder has much to say about not only his own life, but his feelings on topics ranging from abortion to universal health care. In the hands of any other author, such musings might come off as mere self-indulgence. But due to Ryder’s taut style and overall themes of fighting back against the forces that have granted him fame but minimal rewards for it, this book would be missing its heart without Ryder sharing the lessons he has learned. His anger isn’t all personal — it represents the working class he feels endures many of the same struggles he fought through, just on different battlegrounds.

In early sections of Devils & Blue Dresses, Ryder describes many of his actions as being based on low self-esteem and cowardice. Neither of these terms can describe a book that holds nothing back and frequently points out that the music of Mitch Ryder deserves wider appreciation and credit for opening the way for the likes of Bob Seger, John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen, and all the “Heartland” rockers with roots in urban R&B. Released as a hardcover, apparently this book comes with a CD that wasn‘t available to this reviewer. Too bad. After reading this story, I first wanted to hear again familiar songs that I can listen to anew with a deeper awareness of what made those songs so powerful. Further, I want to hear the music I didn’t know Ryder has been putting out the past four decades. If this book prompts others to do likewise, it will have done its job.

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About Wesley Britton