Bettye LaVette on the Death (and Possible Rebirth) of Detroit

Categories: Q&A

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Marina Chavez
Bettye LaVette
When Bettye LaVette swears, she swears.

The Detroit songstress sounds passionate when she talks (and occasionally tosses out a little blue language), but she punctuates each burst with a wonderful laugh, one that somehow conveys the power in her voice as much as her songs. She's been busy exercising her voice, both with her new memoir, A Woman Like Me, and her new record, Thankful N' Thoughtful.

"That's the way it used to be: Writers used to really be important," she explains, detailing her work on the record, which finds her wrapping her voice around songs by The Black Keys, Gnarls Barkley, Bob Dylan, The Pogues, and more. "For one thing, they didn't then become rockstars themselves. They just wrote, goddammit!"

Up on the Sun: How did you prepare for the process of writing a book, to reach back like that?

Bettye LaVette: These are stories that I've told. I've always said, "Everyone who's black in Detroit, over 50 and done anything -- I've seen them broke, drunk, or naked, or all three." If I had known how confessional it was going to be, maybe I wouldn't have done it. [Laughs.]

But I have a manager, something I've not had for 40 years, and he was at one of these conversations where somebody said invariably said, "You should write a book," and he said, "Yeah, you should!" I said everybody says that, and he says, "Well, would you like to?" I said, "Someone is probably going to write a good one about me after I'm dead," and he said nothing more. The next day [author] David Mintz is in my dressing room. I thought he had come to meet me, but he had come to start writing the book. So, there wasn't any preparation.

Thankful N' Thoughtful is a great collection of songs. Who brought these songs for you to choose? I was curious about the decision to include two versions of The Pogues tune, "Dirty Old Town."

Well, the record company liked one, and I liked the other. Neither of us was willing to give. Have you seen the commercial with the peanut butter and the chocolate? [Laughs] "Let's do both."

Which side were you on? Were you more in favor of the slow version?

Well, I created and put together the slow version. I'm the only one there that was from Detroit, so I'm the only one who felt like it should be a funeral dirge. I'm watching my city die before my eyes. Everyone else was able to think a little more commercially. You know, I could see their point; it just isn't the way I wanted to tell that story. I liked them both, I liked the other one as well, but for me, it was like singing "Happy Birthday" at a funeral. [Laughs] I like "Happy Birthday," but you know. They were gracious enough to let me have my version, too.

That's the way you, a Detroiter, feels? Like Detroit is dying?

I feel like it could very well die. Less than 30 years ago I was doing a play in Atlanta, and you could have shot off a cannon and not hit anybody in the whole downtown. You know? So that gives me hope. I look at Toledo, which is right there next to Detroit, and now looks better than Detroit. I know where it came from; that gives me hope. I look at the cities that have not come back, like Buffalo. Everybody is doing a little something-something in every town...I'm so very glad that the president [worked to] keep the plants there, keeping some of them open. One thing that's encouraging when I go home, everybody is trying to do something. Some of it, I can tell when they're telling me about it that it's futile -- that's not going to work, but that everybody is trying to do something is a positive thing."


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