Rebel Yell

For over 20 years Detroit icon Mick Collins has been rebelling against everything -- including rebellion

“I'm a freak,” admits Mick Collins, with the deep laugh that punctuates all his sentences. “I've always had a really bad streak, where if everybody in the crowd's doing it, I'm hellbent on not doing it.” The 35-year-old Detroit native is discussing his anarchistic sonic evolution — from his early days as a mod DJ to his present incarnation as the frontman for the manic, genre-defying outfit the Dirtbombs — via telephone from his home. For the past two decades, Collins has concocted all kinds of infectious noise, from a house single in 1988 to albums by his aggro punk project the Screws to an upcoming funk act called the Voltaire Brothers. Collins is probably most worshipped in underground circles for his work in the seminal '80s garage punk band the Gories, but his raw, freaked-out racket comes in all shapes and sizes — with one common current running through them. “One of my firm beliefs is that if you can't dance to it, it isn't rock 'n' roll,” says Collins.

Collins calls the Dirtbombs “my current ultimate rebellion against conformity.” The group, Collins' first as a creative leader, isn't afraid of crossing stylistic borders: It's released a Christmas folk single and a glam rock EP, and has plotted out a bubble-gum pop record. “This is a band that even rebels against rebellion,” says Collins. “We have no qualms about cutting a complete pop song. If we feel like it, we'll do it. We'd be entirely likely to cut a rap record.”

Even within punk rock's anti-establishment circles, Collins says there are plenty of bylaws to bypass. “It's really this totally conservative scene,” he says. “Like you dare not step out of the line, and God forbid you should wear the wrong color straps on your pants. When the '60s punk thing moved in, there were very strict rules about what you were and were not allowed to do. They're kind of unspoken, but as soon as I figured them all out, I decided it was time to start breaking them. It's like all these garage punk officiators, the self-styled scene nabobs — they were all bummed when they heard the Dirtbombs. They were like, “This isn't garage punk,' and I was like, “No, it's not supposed to be garage punk. We're not a garage punk band.'”

Collins got the idea for the Dirtbombs back in 1992, while on tour in Europe with the Gories. At that time, he says the punk trend was to chuck the bass player and just have drums and guitars — a trend he reacted to by having two bass players. Since then, the band has gone through 10 lineups. “There's enough ex-Dirtbombs to make five whole bands. There's a couple people whose names I don't even remember,” chuckles Collins. (The latest configuration includes Ghetto Records owner Jim Diamond on bass, Tom Potter on “fuzz” bass, Pat Patano and Ben Blackwell on drums, and Collins on vocals, guitar, and harmonica.)

The group has released a crateful of singles and two full-lengths — 1998's Horndog Fest and this year's Ultraglide in Black. While Horndog lived up to its name with lusty punk-blues tunes like “I Can't Stop Thinking About It,” “Fox Box,” and “She Blinded Me With Playtex,” Ultraglide is a smoother operator, steeped in soul and R&B. The new release is almost all covers swiped from Collins' childhood — from Barry White's “I'm Qualified to Satisfy You” to Marvin Gaye's “Got to Give It Up.” “I think of Ultraglide as being black music. It isn't necessarily rock music to me, because I grew up listening to those songs,” he says. “I'm not playing a rock version of the O'Jays, I'm just playing a louder, faster version of the O'Jays. It's still the O'Jays, though.”

Ultraglide isn't just a collection of louder, faster covers; it's also one of the cleanest showcases of Collins' hearty, honeyed vocals. Had he come into this world a little earlier, Collins could have battled with '70s heavyweights like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. He has a vocal gift you don't get to hear much in rock — one that's introducing a mostly white subculture of punks to black music. “He's such a great singer,” says Larry Hardy, owner of Burbank's In the Red label, which has released all of Collins' various incarnations since 1992. “No one else sings like that these days. He's the last one. There aren't many black singers that sing like that anymore, either — not in rock 'n' roll music.”

Growing up, Collins was surrounded by soul and rock records. Even his first mental image is of an LP — Girl From Kenya by the Fabulous Counts. “All my earliest memories involve records,” says Collins. “I remember all of my sisters and their friends going off every week with their allowances to buy records and have listening parties. After I got to be 3 or 4, I got sent off with them to play. They would sit around and talk about records and boys, and I'd listen to the records.”

The Collins family amassed quite the music collection, and not just through Mick's sisters. His father regularly worked on the car of the owner of Michigan's largest record distributor. “This guy found out that my dad had a bunch of kids, so he would give my dad new records that came in every week. This [practice began] in the mid-'50s when rock 'n' roll was starting, so we had tons and tons of old 45s around the house all the time.”

As Collins got older, he also found inspiration in Detroit's radio stations, which hadn't yet succumbed to the scourge of playlists and payola. “Radio was probably my biggest influence,” says Collins. “Detroit had amazing radio up until the summer of '82. From about '79 till '82, almost every station in town had a radio show where everything went. We had three album-rock stations, and they all had shows that played just local bands or just indie bands. There was always some freak down there at 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning playing whatever got sent. The first time I heard the Dead Kennedys was on the radio.”

In 1982, Collins says, five men from England began the bloodletting of the airwaves. “Usually when we talk about it around here, we tie it to the release of “Rio' by Duran Duran,” laughs Collins. “For some reason that was the death knell of Detroit radio. I also remember “Come On Eileen' by Dexy's Midnight Runners really bummed me out. I couldn't bear it because I'd been hearing that band on the radio as this great blue-eyed soul band, and then they come up with this complete waste of time track. And it was a hit, so I went, “OK, I'm done here,' and retreated into the NPR station and CBC [Canadian] radio.”

After playing drums in the U-Boats and Floor Tasters and a solo project called Man Ray Man Ray, Collins switched to guitar in 1986 when he hooked up with the Gories. (“I still only know two chords,” he proudly admits.) The trio's bass-free, primitive approach to punk rock lasted six years, leaving in its wake a wealth of garage rock revivalists. After the Gories combusted in 1992, Collins worked on a vast number of musical projects, from recording his own groups to producing and remixing bands like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Demolition Doll Rods and singing with nasty bluesman Andre Williams.

Now, with the Dirtbombs, Collins seems to have found a way to combine all his disparate tastes. As good as his band's records are, though, Collins' fantastically far-out nature shines brightest in the live setting. “We're extremely loud live because we have two drum sets and two full bass rigs — and we keep the beat going all night,” says Collins. “In addition to “loud,' I guess “unpredictable' is a good word. We never know what's going to happen. There's a lot of give-and-take with the audience — the more they're into it, the more we are. We encourage people to dress wild, wear costumes and stuff. Don't worry about looking cool; don't worry about that scenester crap. We don't fit in, why should you? Let your freak flag fly high, baby! Let it all hang out!”

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