Radical Detroit comes to life in 1967 novel “Summer of Fire”

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Peter Werbe rides a bike, plays handball, does tai chi and still works for social justice with the same fervor he had in the 1960s.

The longtime political activist took part in a demonstration in Detroit last weekend to end hatred against Asian Americans. This weekend, he’s probably going to lead the right fight somehow, somewhere, and he’ll do so with a spirit of protest that remains, to raise a word from the still young Bob Dylan.

Yet, at age 80, Werbe no longer knows what is perceived as radical.

“These days, I’m not even sure what it means to be a revolutionary. Sometimes that can mean you want Medicare for everyone,” he says. According to Werbe, the right wing of American politics controls speech so much that “someone who wants reforms in the direction that most conservatives in Europe support, like a national health care system, would be these radical leftists.”

Radicalism in all its retro glory is captured in Werbe’s new novel, “Summer on Fire,” which takes place mainly in 1967 in Detroit.

“Summer on Fire,” published by Black & Red Books, is described as a fictional memoir in which the characters spend seven weeks living in the counter-culture landscape that encompasses the five-day civil unrest of the Detroit Rebellion, a great anti-Vietnam war march, regular performances of the Great Ballroom by future legends of rock, drugs, sex, anarchism, the Black Panther Party, the White Panther Party and even a subplot involving an attack potential.

Like two current Oscar nominated films, “The Trial of the Chicago Seven” and “Judas and the Black Messiah,” the book takes you back to an era of rebellion that has changed the world to some extent.

But deep down, Werbe’s novel is a journey through time that evokes what it was like to be part of the underground newspaper Fifth Estate, the iconic Detroit publication launched in 1965 that had an impact far beyond its existence. counter-culture.

In the Detroit area, Werbe is probably best known for his radio career. A former DJ for WCSX-FM, WWW-FM and WABX-FM, he was a staple of the airwaves for generations of listeners on “Nightcall”, the WRIF-FM telephone talk show which ran from 1970 to 2016. Werbe was his host. for most of what is billed as the show’s record run.

Yet Werbe’s front seat in the tumultuous 1960s was the Fifth Estate, which continues to live as a magazine and of which he is still a member of the editorial board.

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The Fifth Estate, which was one of the first underground newspapers of the 1960s, is home to most of the novel’s main characters. Among them, Paul and Michelle, who are somewhat inspired by Werbe and his wife, Marilyn, but not totally, of course. As Werbe points out, this is fiction, not autobiography.

He seems amused by questions regarding his character’s closeness to real life. “One of my neighbors who edited a chapter and made very important suggestions in the drafts, she said: ‘I didn’t know that Marilyn could ride a motorcycle.’ And I said, ‘She can’t. She did not do it. I did it.'”

So why did he choose the form of the novel instead of the autobiography? “The straightforward answer to why I didn’t do a memory is that I don’t have enough hardware or memory to do it,” says Werbe, who admits he’s amazed by friends who have kept a careful and detailed diary of their experiences.

“I never had the sense of preserving history.… We thought we were going to experience the world revolution and the Age of Aquarius simultaneously. We didn’t think historians would wonder who said what when.”

The Fifth State Archives are part of the Joseph A. Labadie Collection, a radical history research library at the University of Michigan. As the Curator of the Labadie Collection, Julie Herrada, said via email: “It’s amazing that anything from FE was saved because they were fomenting the revolution, not preserving the story.”

Herrada says there is still enough material in the newspaper’s archives to attract academics, writers and filmmakers from around the world to research a variety of topics, “not the least of which is what was happening in Detroit in the 60s and 70s “.

The Fifth Estate was “the source of the counterculture for music, politics and the arts in general,” according to Herrada. “It was not just a political newspaper or just a hippie newspaper, but addressed all the communities that defined the 1960s in politics, culture and the arts.”

He was also an early member of the Underground Press Syndicate, a national network that served as a sort of Associated Press for nearly 500 alternative newspapers during its heyday.

While the Fifth Estate was a forerunner of today’s Metro Times in Detroit, it also had a great deal of influence on the city’s mainstream newspapers, which “realized they were being left behind by the younger generation of readers ignoring people of color and young people, ”Herrada says.

She points out that, in the wake of the Fifth Estate, the free press has started to pay more attention to rock music and other content aimed at hip readers.

Harvey Ovshinsky, who founded the Fifth Estate in 1965 at the age of 17, puts it another way. “We were the first media disruptors. The internet, the web, social media, they are late in the party,” he says.

Ovshinsky is the inspiration for Sidney’s character in “Summer on Fire”. He says he was flattered to be included in Werbe’s novel and that he recognized himself in some of Sidney’s qualities, but not others.

“I was grateful that he thought enough about our relationship (to have a character based on me),” Ovshinsky said. “Our collaboration was very important to both of us. He will be the first to say it. I will be the second.”

Ovchinsky now has a thesis, “Scratching the Surface: Adventures in Storytelling.” Published by Wayne State University Press, this is a broad autobiographical look at his early days in alternative press and radio and his long career as a documentary maker and educator. It’s also a “survival guide and instruction manual,” as WSU Press describes it, on how endurance and resilience are factored into the creative process.

In the chapter “Scratching the Surface” on the Fifth Estate, Ovshinsky credits Werbe’s role in transforming the newspaper “into something more powerful and persuasive and, ultimately, louder and more radical than I could ever have imagined. Or even, sometimes, preferred. “

Describing their working relationship and long-standing friendship, Ovshinsky writes that, as he told Werbe, “We were like the Beatles, only I was Paul and you were John.”

“Summer on Fire” is linked to the history of Detroit. In that sense, it has something in common with Alice Randall’s 2020 novel “Black Bottom Saints”, which is filled with vivid sketches of real celebrities, artists, doctors, lawyers, and African American sports stars from across the country. bygone days of Detroit. If your curiosity is piqued by Werbe’s novel, you might leave him wanting to read 10 more books on Detroit’s counterculture movements.

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There are scenes in “Summer on Fire” that seem intended for a movie – and expanses of dialogue that are as politically charged and confident as an Aaron Sorkin monologue.

In one scene, iconic Detroit rock band MC5 rehearses at full volume in the basement of the Fifth Estate’s office as staff members design the layout for the final issue. In another, poet and activist John Sinclair reads dramatically from his latest fiery editorial.

Werbe says one of the more realistic parts of the book involves Paul and Sidney teaming up to account for the chaos and violence that erupted after cops in Detroit raided a party at a blind pig’s house. on 12th street. The rebellion against systemic racism and police brutality resulted in the deployment of National Guard and Federal troops in the city and 43 deaths.

“Harvey Ovshinsky and I, the character of Sidney, were really there and going to that A&P store on Trumbull, and going to Grand River and West Grand Boulevard, and seeing the street being looted and threatened by a National Guard, and having the National Guard threw a tear gas canister through our windows.

The hardest part for him to write concerned the horrific events at the Algiers motel, where three African-American teenagers – Carl Cooper, 17, Aubrey Pollard, 19, and Fred Temple, 18 – were killed. Several other people were beaten and terrorized. Three white Detroit police officers have been charged in the events related to the deaths. None of them have been convicted.

Werbe says writing about that night affected him deeply. He has never seen the 2017 film “Detroit” which describes what happened in great detail. “I can’t watch movies like this,” he says. “I am actually obviously angry and saddened.”

Werbe takes a road less traveled in the rhythm and style of his novel. He interrupts the story at times to delve into Detroit’s history, leaving the characters behind to skip several paragraphs or pages on subjects like hate groups in Michigan or the Ossian Sweet trial of 1925.

Werbe remembers how a novelist friend told him that “Summer on Fire” read like a Fifth Estate article. “And I said, ‘Well, thank you!’” Instead of taking his advice to focus more on character development and other literary techniques, Werbe chose to stick to his path. “I want (the book) to tell the story of people interacting with these historical events,” he says.

Werbe says he was surprised and pleased with the positive response to his novel, which performed well in Detroit subway stores like the Book Beat in Oak Park and Source booksellers in Detroit. Part of its popularity may come from its echo of what is happening today in the struggle to save democracy and end social injustice.

So, is Werbe pessimistic or optimistic about America’s current outlook?

“It depends on the day you wake me up,” he says. “The fundamental problems have not been solved, and whether or not this new administration, which goes further than anyone else in the direction of what you would call political social democracy in Europe, intends to face the worst abuses… if it will be enough (in) time, I don’t know.

What encourages Werbe is the broad support for the Black Lives Matter movement that was sparked by the death of George Floyd in May 2020. Millions and millions of people have rallied for global marches against systemic racism, this that even a longtime activist like him hadn’t seen before.

Wherever people come together to tackle the ills of society, the spirit of the 1960s lives on. Seeing the outrage of contemporary young people springing up in unexpected places is enough to impress even a well-known Detroit anarchist like Werbe.

“Two hundred people walking the streets of Pleasant Ridge shouting, ‘Black Lives Matter! “I have never been so flabbergasted (by) anything in my life,” he says.

Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at [email protected]


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