Ann Arbor has always been a cultural oasis of sorts – a plateau that protrudes through the lackluster blandness of small-town midwestern life, that provides a unique stepping stone between the industrial sprawl of Detroit and the thriving bustle of Chicago.
While this is due largely to the magnitude and diversity of our beloved “U,” the quality of Ann Arbor’s “scene” owes a lion’s share to the reciprocal dialog between the artistic movements – specifically musical ones – that have taken place over the years in those two midwestern giants.
As a result of its location, Ann Arbor has been enriched by such legendary hotbeds of hipness as the Chicago blues scene, Motown R’n’B, early-’70s Detroit punk and early-’90s Detroit techno.
Jimi Hendrix once played here, as did John Lennon. Punk prognosticators Iggy Pop and The MC5 played some of their earliest gigs right inside our own Student Union. George Clinton lives right down the road in Jackson, as does that notorious king of ’70s cheese metal Ted Nugent.
Throughout the years The Blind Pig, a popular local nightclub and concert venue, has played an instrumental role in the ushering in and showcasing of this musical activity. Since its incarnation almost 30 years ago, The Blind Pig has gone through several phases, each of which has been equally notable in the annals of Ann Arbor’s cultural diary.
Tom Isaia, a University of Michigan senior, and Jerry Delgiudice started the club in 1971 shortly after Jerry graduated from Loyola University in Chicago. They purchased what was originally office space built for the mill next door and did some renovations, which included building a small stage and bar in the basement. They named it “Blind Pig” after a Detroit slang term for police officers that had been bribed by speakeasy proprietors during the prohibition era of the 1920s (though had more recently been used to describe the illegal after hours liquor clubs in Detroit whose seizures by police contributed to the 1967 riots), and with that, a legend was born.
The Blind Pig of the ’70s was a considerably different entity than the one that we know today. It was not strictly a nightclub, but also doubled as a café. Serving cappuccino, pastries and other such coffeehouse delicacies during the daytime, the establishment helped open Ann Arbor up to the “coffee culture” that can now be found on virtually every street corner in the country.
The night scene at the Pig also leaned a bit more toward finer and more eccentric tastes than the average town pub. There was an extremely limited bar that served only top-quality items. Guinness was the only beer on tap and several varieties of French wine were available, as were premium brands scotch, Irish whiskey and other liquors.
During the first 10 years, the preferred style of musical entertainment at the Pig was blues, more blues and strictly blues. The club was a premier showcase for local blues artists from Ann Arbor, Detroit and Chicago. Legends such as Koko Tayler, Boogie Woogie Red, Hound Dog Taylor and Roosevelt Sikes, among others, were regulars there.
Clientele at the Pig ranged from University intelligentsia to older, hardcore blues enthusiasts. The establishment accumulated a diverse variety of regular patrons, often packing the tightly confined space to capacity. A handful of musical legends in their own right, including Frank Zappa, Bonnie Raitt and Vladmir Horowitz were said to have been spotted in the crowd at Pig functions.
The thriving blues scene at the Pig in the ’70s inspired Delgiudice to take things one step further and start his own record label under the moniker of Blind Pig records in 1975. Many of the same artists that performed regularly at the Pig released material on the independent label. Still owned by Delgiudice and now based in Chicago, the label remains intact and continues to release records by a variety of area blues musicians.
In 1981 Isaia and Delgiudice moved on, transferring ownership of the Pig to an area couple who, along with coordinating manager Todd Headrick, led the club through a period of considerable change.
The ’80s saw the significant expansion of the establishment, both physically and artistically. The new owners more than doubled the interior space of the club by purchasing an adjacent building and bringing the stage area from the minuscule basement to the upper level. They also added an additional bar, The Eight Ball Saloon, downstairs.
This new version of the Pig made it possible to drastically alter the musical itinerary. Whereas the basement area of the ’70s was tightly confined, and therefore not conducive to loud rock shows, the new setup was ideal for just that.
The Pig quickly became a hot spot for both local acts and touring bands. Names as notable and varied as Joan Baez, Bo Diddley and George Thoroughgood – who even filmed the video for his “Treat Her Right” there – graced the Pig’s banner during the early ’80s.
Aside from already well-established artists, the Blind Pig also played host to a wide variety of bands from the then-underground punk, new wave, and “college rock” genres. Bands such as REM, 10,000 Maniacs, Sonic Youth, Soul Asylum and The Rollins Band played there early in their careers, well before they hit the big time.
During the late ’80s and early ’90s “college rock” turned into “alternative” and “grunge.” Again, the Pig showcased a series of bands during this time that, while barely having enough money to tour, were unknowingly destined for world fame and acclaim. Among these were Soundgarden, The Screaming Trees, The Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam and a scraggly little band of upstarts called Nirvana.
It was Nirvana, years after they played there, who gave the Pig their most flattering moment in the limelight when they, on a televised MTV interview, cited the club as their number one venue of choice anywhere, ever.
Perhaps it was because, way back in ’89 when they were barely scraping across the country in a rattletrap van, the Pig gave them the biggest audience turnout that they had ever had. Whatever the case, the club payed homage with a framed shrine to Nirvana that is featured inside the club, the centerpiece of which is a record containing songs that the band had performed at the venue.
Despite all of its successes, there were a few times in the past 20 years when the Pig was dangerously close to the brink of catastrophe. While most concerts pass by uneventfully, every once in a while the excitement level goes through the roof and chaos ensues.
Legendary California punk band The Circle Jerks, for example, once got the crowd so charged up that audience members took to destroying the interior of the club, tearing down the bar rails and laying waste to furniture and mirrors.
Another unfortunate incident occurred a few years ago when the now-defunct local band Gangster Fun painted over dressing room walls that had previously boasted the signatures of many of the artists that had played at the club in years past. The band met with such vehement disapproval immediately after the incident that they were forced to flee from angered concert-goers.
These days, The Blind Pig continues to provide Ann Arbor with its small, although profound, corner of the music world. Showing an even mix of local talent and the occasional larger act, the Pig is still the hippest place in town and stands as a testament to the area’s rich cultural heritage.
Just as the midwestern blues acts called it home in the ’70s, so do bands like Midwest Product, Funktelligence and Donkey Punch call it home today. Although Ann Arbor may not be the largest spot on the map, the Blind Pig is to the city what CBGB’s is to New York or what The Whiskey A Go Go is to Los Angeles.
It is a living legend, a place that has seen history unfold inside its very confines.
By Steve Gertz
Daily Arts Writer
The Michigan Daily