Over the next three weeks, we’ll be previewing David Bardallis‘ upcoming book, “Ann Arbor Beer: A Hoppy History of Tree Town Brewing.” Below is an excerpt from the book, slated to be released Aug. 27. To pre-order David’s book, please visit Amazon.com.
Iggy Pop is not the only famous Ann Arbor musician to request beer for his performances. Just before his 1975 album Beautiful Loser launched his career into the stratosphere, all Bob Seger wanted from one concert promoter was a six-pack of Heineken for his tour bus. Unfortunately for Seger, there was no beer to be found at the rustic outdoor venue. It had all just been dumped into a nearby lake during a police raid.
That concert promoter, Robert Jr Whitall, remembered the event very well. “It took place on August 9, 1974, the day Richard Nixon resigned,” he said. Today, Whitall runs Big City Rhythm & Blues magazine from Royal Oak, but he was “just a poor college kid” when he and his late friend Steve Post had the idea to throw a “big barn dance party” on the Ypsilanti Township farm where Post lived. The farm, adjoining Ford Lake, was being sold, and a party seemed like a good way to say goodbye to the property. But it was to be no ordinary party.
“I used to golf with Bob Seger’s manager, Punch Andrews,” recalled Whitall. “Bob agreed to come play at our barn party, and it turned out to be his last gig before he hit the big time.”
Whitall and Post lined up three other bands — the Rabbits, the Martian Entropy Band and the Rockets—and printed up flyers to distribute around Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti advertising their “Barn Dance for All the Animals.” “Five dollars a head, all the beer you could drink, and Bob Seger: what’s not to like?” Mike Gould of the Martian Entropy Band remembered in a 2007 Ann Arbor Observer article.
The barn, being a barn, had no power, so Whitall’s crew ran a cable out to illegally tap an electrical box on the side of Textile Road. They bought 40 kegs of beer — Whitall believes it was Molson Canadian — and 40 cases of wine and set it all up in a picnic area on top of a hill. Whitall’s fiancée collected the five-dollar “donations” from cars as they drove up the dirt road, though as Whitall recalled, most of the “immense crowd” parked across a field and just walked in for free.
The first two bands went on, then Seger took the stage and everything seemed to be going well, at least until Whitall looked out the window of the farmhouse where he was sitting and saw cops coming up the road. Someone had reported the party to the state police and the Liquor Control Commission to boot.
“We didn’t have a liquor license, but that’s why we asked for donations,” recalled Whitall. “We weren’t selling beer, and our lawyer had said that would be fine.” The cops would have none of it, so Whitall made a decision. “I sent a runner up the hill and told him to throw the kegs in the lake,” he said. “If we couldn’t have them, the cops weren’t going to get them either.”
Gould remembered being in the barn loft helping put on the light show behind Seger when he looked out and saw people rolling kegs of beer down the hill and into Ford Lake with a splash. Steve Post and Whitall’s lawyer were hauled off by the cops, but the party continued, beer-free.
Shortly after, Seger’s set was over, and he asked for his Heineken. “I had to scramble to find someone who could go get him the beer so we could satisfy his rider,” remembered Whitall. “But he stuck around for the Rockets, and it was great seeing him dancing in the barn — it was such a low-key and wonderful event.”
Local legend has long held that the kegs of beer are still lying somewhere at the bottom of the lake, but Whitall said that the police came back later with a dive team to retrieve them. And a court eventually ruled that the cops had no right to bust the barn dance in the first place, but as Whitall wryly noted, “That ruling didn’t do us any good 10 years later.”