He lacks the headline features which mark out Motor City’s most famous front men: the elegance of Smokey Robinson; Stevie Wonder’s wraparound modernism (woven into his sharkskin suits; signed and sealed by sunglasses the blind boy wore but never saw).
At the microphone, Kevyn Orr looks like a backing singer; but he is the ‘emergency financial manager’ who took the lead when the City of Detroit filed for bankruptcy on Friday.
This is the city that built the cars that gave America wheels, and wrote the soundtrack to twentieth century social mobility in the form of Tamla Motown records. When he founded the label in 1959, ex-car worker Berry Gordy modelled his ‘Hitsville USA’ on the assembly line composed by Henry Ford and first aired at Ford’s Detroit factory.
Before the riots which broke out in 1967 – troops on the streets, 43 dead: with hindsight, the first casualties of early-onset deindustrialisation – Detroit City must have seemed like a fast track to the Great Society.
Tamla Motown’s Detroit sound had embodied the prospect of inner city blacks moving onwards and upwards; it also meant whites listening to black performers not for their ‘authenticity’ but because they were ‘mod’: more Mondrian than Mississippi (John Hurt).
But in 1972 Tamla outsourced itself to Los Angeles, city of suburbs. Released by Marvin Gaye a year earlier, ‘Inner City Blues’ (Panic is spreading/God knows where we’re heading) elegised the imminent demise of Detroit’s aspirations.
Though his home ground is a different Northern city – Chicago – Barack Obama serves as full realisation of the Tamla-World that Wasn’t-To-Be: the African-American president whose white shirts are brighter, his suits even sharper than JFK’s. Obama is Stevie-Wonder-in-the-White-House; he brings the elegance of Smokey Robinson into the Oval Office. But this is the West Wing transported into Dreamland. Detroit’s Kevyn Orr is the mundane reality – the stolid performer whose background in corporate revues and rescue packages should have condemned him to remain in the backline, instead of starring in Detroit’s farewell show.