Devils and Blue Dresses – Mitch Ryder (book review)

Devils & Blue Dresses – My Wild Ride As a Rock and Roll Legend – Mitch Ryder (Cool Titles) review 

There’s a moment in Mitch Ryder’s new book where we find him out at a bar, spending the last few dollars he has on drinks with a buddy.  He’s just gone through his third divorce and is living in an apartment with no furniture.  Yet, when one of the pretty patrons finds out he’s “Mitch Ryder,” she wants to go home with him!  If there’s one thing we learn through reading Devils & Blue Dresses – My Wild Ride As a Rock and Roll Legend – it’s that fame is a very funny creature.  As Ryder contends, you never really lose it.  You can blow all your money (which he did), get screwed by several managers (which he also did), destroy perfectly good relationships with numerous women (ditto), and yet, still remain technically “a star.”  But, as he asks very plainly in his introduction: “Did fame make me a better person than you?  You read this book and tell me.”

You will never read a more honest, downright blunt, look at the music business than this book.  For awhile, Mitch Ryder was on top of the world.  Scoring several mid-Sixties’ hits like “Devil With the Blue Dress On,” and “Jenny Take a Ride,” he and his band, the Detroit Wheels, were part of America’s answer to the first British Invasion.  But, it’s what happens before and after his success that makes this book riveting.  For anyone who’s ever daydreamed of being a musician, this brings a lot of that folly down to earth, as we see the gory details of his deterioration.

And that’s what sets this book apart from the hundreds of others out there.  While most rock autobiographies are sweetened up with the help of co-authors, Ryder has assembled everything himself.  At times, the book jumps haphazardly from subject to subject, and his frequent rants (titled “A Window Into My Soul”) are unnecessary and border on lunacy.  But, we’re getting the story straight, and unfiltered.  The memoir has also been published by the small Cool Titles company, who gave him more leeway than a large corporate publisher.  Ryder doesn’t hold back – throughout the book pointing fingers and naming names of the people who did him wrong, time and again.

Not surprising, Mitch Ryder grew up on the tough streets of Detroit.  His early childhood was marred by violence, abuse and molestation – the kind you wouldn’t wish on your most-hated enemy.  For better or worse, these nascent events helped shape the person he’d become – reckless in his pursuit of pleasure and fame, yet seemingly unable to form any kind of healthy relationship, male or female.

Ryder hooked up with hot-shot producer Bob Crewe (the man behind the success of the Four Seasons) for several mid-Sixties’ hits.  As with many artists of the day, he signed a rotten management deal, which he claims cheated him out of millions in unpaid royalties.  Crewe also essentially killed any momentum he had by trying to turn Ryder into a Vegas crooner (hmmm…imagine James Brown doing Sinatra…no way!).  Eventually he broke free of Crewe’s control, but when he did so, he found himself virtually penniless.

Several other artists have traveled this same road.  Yet, instead of picking himself up and taking control of his own career, Ryder set out on a long path of self-destruction.  Remarkably, even when he finds people truly willing to help him, he manages to mess things up – for example, being unprepared for a Gamble & Huff audition that could’ve changed the course of his career.

After hitting a rock bottom that’s more gruesome than most, he stumbles on a diamond in the rough; an adoring overseas audience, particularly Germany, where rock fans are eager for a legend that they can call their own.  Ryder spends the next several years nurturing this European following, and his popularity there still stands to this day.

Ryder was one of America’s answers to the original British Invasion.  Because of this status, he found himself in several interesting situations.  Of note, is a strange story of him attending a post-Sgt. Pepper Beatles’ party and the odd circumstances where John Lennon actually saved his life.  He also touches on the craziness surrounding a tour with the great Wilson Pickett.

By the end of the book, you come to the realization that, while Mitch Ryder did get screwed over by a manager a long time ago, he has no one else to blame but himself for a great deal of his problems afterwards.  In many instances, instead of taking the outstretched hands of people who tried to pick him up, he slapped them away (one such story involves John Mellencamp, who reached out to produce Ryder in the early Eighties, yet he comes off as ungrateful for that help).  As a result, Ryder has few friends left in the industry.  Even his current wife is on her second go-round, after first divorcing him several years ago.

Further adding to the honest account, Ryder has included personal photos, handwritten letters from his wife, and even reprints of several of his record contracts.  The end result is a no-holds-barred take on a lifetime in the music industry.  You really want to know what it’s like to be a rock star? Devils and Blue Dresses is the book for you.  –Tony Peters