When Detroit's auto industry blues forced John Brockmiller into retirement after 36 years on the line at General Motors, he feared his life had come to an end. He’d given everything to the company—been down at the plant each morning at the crack of dawn and gone years at a stretch without taking a sick day. But now, after decades of service, GM decided he was no longer needed.
“He was depressed and scared,” says Jeff Brockmiller Jr., John’s grandson. “When your body stops doing what it’s used to, it wants to shut down.” The outlook was bleak. If the lingering recession has knocked the entire country off balance, it’s kicked Michigan in the balls and punched out its teeth. Fortunately, though, even as auto plants downsized and factories padlocked their doors, John Brockmiller was able to find a new place to clock in—the Michigan Brewing Company in Webberville, a small town 70 miles northwest of Detroit.
One Thursday this fall, just before noon, Brockmiller zoomed across the brewery in his yellow forklift, dropped a pallet full of bottled beer off in the gymnasium-size indoor fridge, and careened back toward the loading dock, where a shiny black Cadillac Escalade had pulled in. Sitting in the passenger seat, puffing on a fat cigar, was Brockmiller’s new boss, Detroit’s ambassador,
tireless advocate, and one-man economic stimulus package: Kid Rock.
“I don’t know a lot about a lot of things, but I know about music, bourbon, raising a kid, maybe,” says Kid Rock. “And I definitely know something about beer.” As Kid Rock, 39, watched Anheuser-Busch get bought out by the Belgians and Miller sell to SAB, a South African conglomerate, he had the idea to build a truly American beer brand, which would, at the same time, create jobs to help combat Michigan’s flailing economy. He partnered with Bobby Mason, a passionate Michigan brewmaster, to produce American Badass beer, which premiered at Rock’s back-to-back sold-out shows at Detroit’s Comerica Park in July 2009, much to the
delight of the Motor City faithful, who downed more than 400 kegs of the stuff.
The Michigan Brewing Company is tucked close to the Interstate, surrounded by empty farm fields and patches of dense woods, from which deer and foxes occasionally wander, as though drawn, Homer Simpson–like, by the smell of suds. Inside, beer sloshes, cools, and ages in giant steel tanks the size of grain silos, while thousands of bottles rattle along a motorized track to be machine-filled and capped, then slapped by a frantic, octopus-armed automatic labeler. The brewery floor is bigger than a football field, and its 50-odd full-time employees use scooters, beeping carts, and even BMX bikes to scurry from one station to the next. The younger workers project an urban vibe, dressed in baggy pants and T-shirts, while their elders, in camo vests and fatigues, look prepared to head up north to track down 14-point bucks. It’s as if a small army of
Eminems and Ted Nugents were working together, with Kid Rock bridging the gap.
Rock has stopped by to check out the new bottling operation. Previously, American Badass beer had only been available on draft, mostly in the Midwest, but the next step is selling the crisp, light lager in 12- and 22-ounce bottles and expanding its distribution. Rock spends a few minutes chatting with John Brockmiller, 67; his son Jeff, 46, a production manager; and Jeff Jr., 24, a brewer’s assistant. John tells Kid Rock that he relates to his songs about women, because there was a time in his life, “between marriages,” when he dated so many women his friends
dubbed them the Brockettes.
“Did they all stand in a line?” Rock asks.
“There was some kind of line,” says the eldest Brockmiller, “but they weren’t standing!”
Kid Rock has made it his mission to do everything in his power to keep Detroit’s head up. He reps the city hard in every song and endlessly promotes Michigan in his travels. “I could go live in the sunshine anywhere in the world,” says Rock, “or in a big glass house on a mountain, but Michigan’s my home, and I love it here. I’d never want to leave it.” He gives substantial time and cash to a wide range of local charities, funds college scholarships for Detroit-area students, and has become a constant fixture at sports events and concerts. A few years ago Rock heard that a locally based clothing line he admired called Made in Detroit, which had been around since 1991, was struggling financially, so he bought a large share of the company; under his stewardship the business has flourished. American Badass beer, meanwhile, is adding new salaries to the state’s economy. For a state hemorrhaging jobs, every one counts.
After an hour, his tour of the brewery complete, Kid Rock heads for the Escalad and says goodbye to all three generations of Brockmillers. As his right-hand man, Shakes, steers onto I-96, headed back toward the city, Rock says, “There’s nothing better than seeing people you know being able to work and support their families.” He nods, lighting another cigar. “Knowing you have a little hand in it? Now, that really makes you feel good.”
Yes—this is Kid Rock, the same guy who told British tabloids before a tour, “I’m coming to snort coke, fuck bitches, and get paid.” Groupies say he’s into orgies and exhibitionism, and then things get hardcore from there. He’ll down a fifth of Jim Beam in the time it takes you to crack the bottle. And he’s known to brawl when necessary—he’s making court payments for pancaking a dude at a Waffle House in 2007. This is perhaps America’s last great unapologetically depraved rock star. Uncle Kracker, Rock’s former DJ and one of his best friends, recalls their life on tour: “There were a lot of mornings when everyone woke up and said, ‘What the fuck happened last night?’ or ‘Where the fuck are we?’¿” So if Kid Rock seems an unlikely do-gooder, keep in mind that his entire career has consisted of a series of strange turns and odd contradictions.
Born Robert James Ritchie in 1971, Rock grew up comfortably in the quiet town of Romeo, north of Detroit, where his dad owned a Lincoln dealership. As a teen Rock rebelled, drawn to Detroit’s burgeoning underground hip-hop scene, crashing with pals in the tough, black, inner-ring suburb of Mount Clemens, working at a car wash, and honing his skills scratching records and rapping. He became a hit DJing at parties, making 30 bucks a gig.
“I met him when he was 16,” says Uncle Kracker. “My first impression was that this kid knew where the fuck he was going. He was the most confident, cocky kid I’d
ever come across, but in a great way, not an I-want-to-punch-you-in-your-face kind of way. You just wanted to hop in and roll with him.”
By 18, Rock had signed with Jive Records, and ended up opening for Ice Cube and Too $hort on tour. But his debut album got little support, and Jive soon dropped
him. For the next decade Rock pounded the Detroit pavement, putting out a series of raunchy Beastie Boys–style albums, playing open mikes, and collaborating with
other up-and-coming Detroit MCs like Eminem and the Insane Clown Posse, eventually building a large, loyal local following. After selling 60,000 copies of a self-released album, he caught the eye of Atlantic Records and recorded his 11-million-selling breakthrough, Devil Without a Cause, in 1998.
For Rock the past decade has brought a blink-and-you-missed-it marriage to Pamela Anderson, a brawl at the Video Music Awards with Anderson’s ex, Tommy Lee, and a series of rock anthems and country-tinged megahits. But he’s never lost sight of his roots: In 2000 he gathered his Twisted Brown Trucker Band, and they commemorated their time on the road with matching tattoos: the Detroit Tigers’ Olde English D. “It was a pact we made,” Rock says, “to always bind us together and not
let us forget where we were from.”
Only Motown, it seems, could produce a unique talent like Kid Rock, whose music combines heavy metal, Southern rock, country, hip-hop, and even gospel and blues.
Artistically, he’s a one-man Detroit-rock melting pot with hedonistic tendencies rivaling Iggy Pop’s and a sense of music roots reminiscent of Jack White’s. He’s a
white boy raised in a black town, a country boy who loves his city, a proud Yankee who waves a Confederate flag. As Rock himself sings in one of his early hits, “You’ve never met a motherfucker quite like me.”
The Metro Detroit industrial belt is a strange patchwork weave of forgotten farmland and struggling factories. On the way to Kid Rock’s house, sagging barns slip past next to battered mills coughing black fumes from their smokestacks. For the singer it’s been agonizing to watch from close range as Michigan suffers. “You see friends who are doing well one month, and the next month they’ve got foreclosure signs up in front of their house,” he says.
For years Kid Rock has sought to offer Detroit a lifeline, and at some point he realized his instinct for helping people would inspire others to do the same. “I’m not Bono, I’m not Elton John,” he says. “I couldn’t do stuff on such a grand scale. But I know how to help people in small ways, and I’m a firm believer in helping your neighbor.”
Michigan may be where Rock hangs his hat, but his charitable efforts aren’t limited to the state. On the road he likes to watch the local news and scour local
papers looking for stories of good people down on their luck. In Ohio he read about a pizza delivery guy who was brutally robbed for $15; when he heard that
the driver lived with his mom and was trying to work his way through college, Kid Rock got in touch and paid the guy’s tuition for a year. In Florida he read about
a man who kept having the American flag stolen from off his front porch, so Rock bought him a 30-foot flagpole. He’s a huge supporter of U.S. troops, and has
played volunteer USO shows around the world. His assistance even has an international streak—through a foundation, he just paid for a home in Africa for
young HIV victims.
Drugs, booze, groupies, fisticuffs—that’s the stuff that makes headlines. But the people of Michigan know about Kid Rock’s compassion and the pride he has in his
state; in fact, he’s often called the King of the Motor City. As Uncle Kracker says, “People feel like he’s their pony, and it gives them a charge to look at him
go. He really strikes a chord with Detroiters. He doesn’t talk above them, he talks with them; he’s not just for the city, he’s of the city.”
As Shakes pilots the Escalade through Detroit’s tranquil far-north exurbs, Kid Rock grows reflective. “Yeah, I give a lot of love to this city,” he says. “But I
get a lot back. If I was in L.A., I’d just be another number. Here I really feel like somebody. I try not to take advantage of them, but there are things provided
to me that I love. I’m not gonna be in L.A. and have two courtside seats with my name stitched in them given to me as a gift. I record a new album, I know I’ll
have 50,000 of my best friends ready to come out and celebrate with me.”
The Escalade cruises along a woodsy street and cuts left down a long driveway, guarded by a massive, automobile-size Civil War cannon. Rock rolls down his window
and sucks in a gust of crisp autumn air. He smiles: “Ain’t no place like home.”
Kid Rock lives 20 minutes from his parents’ house in Romeo, where he grew up picking apples from their backyard orchard, and 40 minutes from Mount Clemens,
where he learned to rap. His house, situated on a deep 30-acre lot, is grand, even palatial, but has a comfy old-farmhouse quaintness. Inside, on the kitchen
counter, sits an honest-to-God fresh apple pie—made from apples his mother gave him. Over the fireplace mantel hangs a double-barreled shotgun. On the sofa,
watching TV, is Rock’s current girlfriend, a gorgeous brunette. “We hang pretty steady,” he allowed on the drive in, “and she’s cool as shit, but I don’t have to
call her just ’cause I’m not home by midnight. I’ll never be in that type of relationship again.”
Rock’s son, Bobby, a high school senior, troops in the door wearing a sideways ballcap and a backpack slung low. He gives a shy but friendly “what’s up,” then
heads for his bedroom to pack: He and his dad are going to Nashville in an hour to check out some colleges. For one of the world’s brashest rock stars, Rock has
found a way, between tours, to lead a surprisingly normal day-to-day life. He shoots hoops twice a week with the same pals he grew up with; he plays video games
with his son and helps him with his homework. In a studio in the garage, he noodles on his guitar and hammers out tunes.
On his new album, Born Free, due out November 16, Rock worked with legendary producer Rick Rubin, who gathered an all-star roster of musicians, including
Metallica’s James Hetfield on guitar and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith. They recorded each song as a single take, all playing together. “When you play
with people who are that good,” says Rock, “it makes you elevate your game.”
As they constructed the album, Rock often asked Rubin if his new songs were too Detroit-centric. Rubin encouraged him not to dilute his lyrics’ hometown pride. “When an artist talks about something really personal,” Rubin says, “the thing that connects with people and makes it relatable is the passion conveyed.” Hearing
Kid Rock croon about Michigan is like hearing Springsteen sing about New Jersey: People hear “Detroit” but picture their own hometowns.
And Detroit will survive; of that Kid Rock is certain. The city is now like a blank canvas, he says, waiting to be remade and rebuilt. He’s encouraged by the steady trickle of young artists moving in, lured by cheap housing and the city’s rich history. Urban gardening projects have begun to sprout. The Hollywood film industry has moved in, spurred by generous state tax credits. Ford, Chrysler, and GM are clawing their way back, now in leaner and meaner shape. Michigan folks, he says, are a tough, hard-working, and resilient people, and when they get knocked down, they dust themselves off. Bobby Mason, Rock’s American Badass beer partner, believes that by celebrating the state’s toughness, Kid Rock has turned being from Michigan into a badge of honor. “He gives people hope and inspiration,” Mason says. “When you’re down and out, everyone can use someone to help you rally, to put a hand out and lift you. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and this time it’s not a train.”
Mason went with his brewing-company colleagues John Brockmiller, Jeff, and Jeff Jr. to Kid Rock’s 2009 Comerica Park shows, where Rock unveiled a new song called “Times Like These,” a moving tribute to the state of Michigan and the people of Detroit. “The entire stadium was standing,” recalls Jeff Brockmiller Jr. “The vibe made the hairs on my arms stand up. It was electrifying. It was like being in the world’s largest church.”
Later that night, Kid Rock says, his son Bobby confided that he’d seen hundreds of people crying during the song. “That really affected me,” Rock says. “It’s been a
long haul for everyone in this country,and it’s OK to shed some tears. But I want to take those tears of sorrow and hardship and heartbreak and turn them into tears
of in spiration and joy. Let people know we’ll always be here, watching it all go down. And we’ll still be here when it all comes back around.”