‘I NEVER MEANT TO BE A SINGER’: REMEMBERING DETROIT COBRAS’ VOCAL POWERHOUSE RACHEL NAGY

“Dear friends, family and fans,

It is with a heavy heart and great sadness that we announce the loss of our beloved friend and musical colleague, Rachel Lee Nagy. There are no words to fully articulate our grief as we remember a life cut short, still vital and inspirational to all who knew and loved her. With the Detroit Cobras Rachel Nagy carried the torch of Rock, Soul and R&B to fans all over the world. More than just a performer, she embodied the spirit of the music itself and vaulted it to new heights with her own deeply affecting vocal power. I know that I am not alone when I say that I was inspired by her vitality, her fierce intensity and her vulnerability. Once plans have been finalized by the family we will post more information regarding further details to memorialize Rachel and pay tribute to her life. Until then, please know that if you are as devastated by this news as we are, you are not alone. We are with you in your grief. Rachel is survived by her brother Paul Nagy and her mother Marge Nagy.”

– Greg Cartwright (The Detroit Cobras)

Life, Love and Leaving – Third Man Store

Lovers of spirited garage-rock and soul lost an iconoclastic voice when news broke over the weekend that Rachel Nagy, the sultry, spitfire singer and frontwoman of The Detroit Cobras, died at the reported age of 37 (although that’s inconclusive). No cause of death has as-yet been given. Fittingly, there have been an outpouring of tributes from musicians, listeners, friends, and fans everywhere who were touched by Rachel’s spellbinding talent as a vocalist who imbued the Cobras’ brand of tough and tender Rock & Roll with heart, soul, and no small amount of swagger.

I was knocked out when I first heard the Detroit Cobras, specifically their simmering, low-slung reworking of Charlie Rich’s “Midnight Blues,” from their 1998 debut album, “Mink, Rat or Rabbit.” To me, the Cobras were among the most intriguing (read: kick ass) of a gifted gang of retro-rock & roll outfits spawned in and around Detroit during the mid-1990s through the early 2000s.

Mink, Rat or Rabbit - Album by The Detroit Cobras | Spotify

Led most famously and successfully back then by The White Stripes, these upstart artists were injecting the storied birthplace of Motown and proto-punk with a new vitality, verve, and volume; reinvigorating it as a musical hotbed for a new generation of noise addicts.

Though they were skeptical and wary of being tagged anything as trendy as a new Seattle, the Cobras were also riding that raw momentum of possibility, headed to Boston as part of a tour aimed to put their music in front of audiences outside their hometown. I felt the momentum too, and pegged an advance feature and interview with Nagy and Detroit Cobras’ co-founder/guitarist Mary Restrepo (later to be known as Mary Ramirez) to a larger Boston Globe trend piece that talked about — and to — a few of those brazen young bands rolling out of the Motor City.

Then came the show. Even though it’s been nearly 20 years since that April night, I remember the Cobras’ performance at a packed T.T. The Bear’s Place in Cambridge, Massachusetts as a pure distillation of galvanizing rock and soul that immediately connected to the crowd like a hot fuse. Nobody in that room could take their eyes (or ears for that matter) off of Rachel and Mary out front near the lip of the stage, reveling together in their sublimely raucous chemistry. Clearly, they were enthralled with playing this music as much as we were enthralled with hearing it.

I still am, thanks in large part to the transfixing voice of someone who, as you’ll read, never set out to sing. But often, the best rock & roll is an accidental art. Impetuous, unruly, borne of inspiration and circumstance; and nurtured by an unshakeable desire and fervent belief that the music will lead the way. To me, all of those elements capture the essence of Rachel Nagy and her band, which struck like its namesake. Here’s what she and others had to say back in April 2003, when anything and everything seemed possible.

Detroit Cobras frontwoman Rachel Nagy has died, according to band :  r/Detroit
Rachel Nagy, left, and Mary Ramirez get their garage-glam on. Photos by Doug Coombe

MADE IN THE MOTOR CITY: Rock and rolling off the assembly line with the bands, and brand, of Detroit

Detroit Cobras singer Rachel Nagy is talking about her city, and how crazy the hype’s gotten since the audible buzz surrounding her young neighbors the White Stripes became a deafening roar.

“It’s getting pretty funny,” says Nagy, chatting on her cell phone as she drives a friend to a doctor’s appointment and yells at pedestrians to get the hell out of her way. “In the last year, there’s been this threat that Detroit is ‘The Next Big Thing.’ Now, it’s like somebody lifted the rock and there’s a little light shining on it.”

To be honest, she finds the glare of the spotlight more than a little irritating – not because the bands who are benefitting from the attention (the Detroit Cobras, included) aren’t worthy, but rather because of what she claims is the crass commercial ransacking already underway as a result. To prove her point, she’s telling a story about the entrepreneurs who were selling wares branded with the word “Detroit” at this year’s South By Southwest music industry conference.

“Detroit as a name brand – isn’t that bull?,” Nagy says, answering her own question. “Nothing has even happened and they’re already trying to capitalize on the name. By trying to force it down people’s throats and selling it and putting a stamp on it and turning it into currency, you just ruined anything that could have happened naturally. At least with Seattle, the bands came out first and then they ruined it.”

Business has, in fact, been booming lately for “Made In Detroit”, a street wear company Robert Stanzler founded in 1989. The Detroit designer claims his company fostered an association with local music – especially the hip hop community – years before his city became a hip buzzword. “We were dressing Kid Rock when he was selling cassettes out of the trunk of his car,” says Stanzler as a phone rings constantly behind him. “When we came along, nobody had laid claim to Detroit as a brand identity, except sports teams.”

Stanzler started his business with the hope that the city’s streetwise aesthetic – its gritty reputation and pop culture legacy of music and hot rods – “would resonate with people far and wide, as it seems to be doing now.” Stanzler doesn’t share Nagy’s view that branding will trigger a backlash – nor does he think discriminating rock fans used to making up their own minds will listen to a band solely because it’s from Detroit. “It may be a factor,” says Stanzler. “But I don’t think that because they were from Seattle is why a lot of Nirvana or Alice In Chains CD’s sold.”

In fact, Detroit has long had a rich rock and soul musical tradition steeped in everything from Motown to Mitch Ryder to Alice Cooper to Bob Seger to proto-punk cult icons the MC5 and Stooges. More recent Detroit-affiliated artists have included Eminem and the aforementioned Kid Rock.

But in rock and roll circles, it is the white-hot success of the White Stripes – a couple of color-coordinated garage-punk divorcees who stoked curiosity by purporting to be brother and sister – that’s now drawing international attention to a raw underground rock scene that has, for years, thrived largely unnoticed.

Until now, that is. Rawboned garage-punk and pop groups with names like the Dirtbombs, the Von Bondies (whose first album White Stripes singer-guitarist Jack White co-produced), the Kills, and the Sights – some of whom had never even ventured beyond Michigan – are now finding themselves playing to sold-out crowds across the country and abroad.

The Detroit Cobras, a veteran R&B-influenced outfit, have even started to make a living from their music. Nagy, a former butcher, says the band’s new EP, “Seven Easy Pieces” – which just came out in the U.K. on the Rough Trade label and has yet to even be released in America – has already sold-out of its first pressing of 20,000 copies. Nagy’s voice is the band’s calling card: a tantalizing compound of earthy soul inflection and playful sexual innuendo. But if you told her that she’d be doing this someday instead of cutting meat, she’d have laughed.

“I never, ever meant to be a singer,” says Nagy, who landed the Cobras gig after the band’s original singer failed to show up. Mary Restrepo, the band’s guitarist, urged her friend, who wasn’t even in the group, to give it a shot. Until the moment Nagy stepped up to the microphone, she couldn’t even conceive of such a thing. “Never in my wildest dreams. Actually, it’s taken me until just recently to be able to say ‘I’m a singer’.” Initially, when audiences would compliment her, Nagy would disagree and instead point to her idol, Irma Thomas, as an example of a great vocalist.

Although she’s learned how to be more “gracious” with praise, Nagy claims to not pay attention to the inevitable next-big-thing-from-Detroit chatter. Even now, the band doesn’t send out press releases, solicit interviews, or lobby for radio air play. But people come to the shows and write articles and take photos anyway.

“Honestly, none of us really talk about it,” Nagy says. “It’s everybody else who’s looking into the fishbowl, but the fish are just swimming around. I’d rather just ignore it and keep doing what we’re doing. We’re not doing anything new. We’ve been around for six, seven years, and we didn’t put Detroit in our name because it was a trend.” Rather, the band’s moniker was lifted straight from a T-shirt Restrepo wore one day, emblazoned with the name of an intramural football team.

Nagy’s sentiment echoes one Jack White made less than two years ago (in 2001), just as the Stripes’ independently released disc, “White Blood Cells”, was transforming the duo from peppermint-striped novelties to brazen indie-rock flag-bearers. “It’s been kind of weird,” White told me then, about the hype beginning to swirl around the group. “It feels odd for a garage-rock band from Detroit to get that kind of attention. We haven’t done anything different than from what we did a couple of years ago.” Now signed to the major label V2 Records, the Stripes have just released their fourth album, “Elephant,” and have gone from playing cramped clubs to expansive theaters and arenas, such as the 2,800-seat Orpheum in Boston.

“There was no plan for any of this,” says Detroit Cobras guitarist Mary Restrepo. “I don’t think the band expected to go anywhere and do anything. I never would have thought that I could pay my bills playing music. And that’s what so impressed me with the White Stripes. Like us, I don’t think Jack expected all this to take off.

What I like about Jack is that he seems to have learned as he goes along without compromising anything,” Restrepo adds. “It’s great to watch him do exactly what he did down the street from us — only now he’s going to be doing it four nights in a row on Conan O’Brien.”

Von Bondies singer-guitarist Jason Stollsteimer, whose band recently signed with Sire/Warner Bros., says Detroit’s underground music scene had been brewing for years. The White Stripes were merely the perfect vehicle to put it on the map. “Something had to take off, and the White Stripes were the easiest thing to sell,” says Stollsteimer. “They have a look, it’s not like they’re just another punk band with long hair. Thank God Jack could write songs, and really good songs.” Ultimately, he says, “the White Stripes sold themselves.”

Stollsteimer recalls White as the guy who always showed up at Von Bondies gigs and asked to produce their first record. “I was like, yeah, whatever. Like we’re ever going to put out a record. Who’s going to put out a rock and roll record nowadays, with Limp Bizkit at number one (on the charts)? We never had any intention of being signed.”

In 2001, White and the Dirtbombs’ Jim Diamond co-produced “Lack of Communication”, a beautifully cruddy slab of garage trash made in two days. The disc was released on the tiny independent Sympathy For The Record Industry label, then home to both the White Stripes and Detroit Cobras.

What sets the Cobras apart from the pack is that they’re an outfit that chooses to cover other artists’ songs rather than write original material (although that may soon change due to the group’s chance meeting with songwriter Jackie DeShannon, whose “When You Walk In The Room” the Cobras cover; Restrepo says DeShannon now wants to write new songs with the group for its next album). Since its inception, the Cobras’ repertoire has consisted of a treasure-trove of songs gleaned from old soul 45’s, AM pop curios, and obscure punk compilations.

Restrepo says that sometimes “you get slagged for doing covers, but you know what, people? I’ve been in bands and there’s not as many geniuses as people think there are. I never really cared who wrote what – I like good music, I don’t think everybody’s a genius and I don’t think everybody should be writing.” Nagy is even more direct: “I’m not going to pretend I have anything new to say. No one is saying anything new, so why pretend?”

Instead, the Cobras prefer to scour the record collections of fans around the globe, hunting down cool material for the band Restrepo says long ago exceeded expections. “Since Rachel didn’t think she could sing and I didn’t think I could play, it just felt good,” says Restrepo, remembering the group’s humble origins. “I mean, c’mon. I’m just a drinker at a bar listening to good records.”

One comment

  1. Equal parts love letter to the transporting power of music and moving tribute to one of its great embodiments, this post does both justice as perhaps no one else can. As always, I’m educated and inspired by your writing. And must now immediately listen to the Cobras.

    Liked by 1 person

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