Locals feel a connection with Gold Dollar even years after closing

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News
In 1996, the Gold Dollar became one of the centers of the city's garage rock revival scene.

Memories and tributes flooded social media shortly after word spread that a fire had hit the former home of legendary Detroit rock club the Gold Dollar in Detroit's Cass Corridor Monday night. 

The small bar was only open for five years, from 1996-2001, but because of the energy happening with the local rock scene at the time — and because of the open-minded, experimental booking practices that resulted in an eclectic lineup — the impact of the Gold Dollar is still felt today. 

MoreGold Dollar bar destroyed by fire is 1 of 34 empty Ilitch-owned buildings

The club's owner, Neil Yee, was known for booking off-the-wall rock bands, experimental noise groups, film events, open mics and world music. It was normal to see a soul-infused garage rock band's album release party, a ska show and a lineup of metal bands all in one week. 

Area music expert Willy Wilson, who at one time booked shows at the Gold Dollar, said Yee's willingness to give budding artists a chance and book a variety of acts is partly what endeared the club to so many people, even years later. 

"I do think people felt a connection to the Gold Dollar because the club allowed bands to grow and develop, and at the same time people grew as well," he told The Detroit News Tuesday. "The Gold Dollar was more of a community of social misfits that found their fit and gave them a confidence that they could do anything and succeed, be it through music, art or photography." 

Wilson said bands could find a stage and an audience at the Gold Dollar when other clubs said no. 

"They could find acceptance and nurturing there that they couldn't find anywhere else," he said. "It was never 'you can't do that,' but 'go for it.' That's why it was so special." 

Barbie Morrisey of Roseville was riding along the Slow Roll bike group Monday night in Detroit when she saw the fire starting from Trumbull. 

"We rode by the building around 6:15 before Slow Roll and I said out loud 'oh the fun memories I had here,'" she said. "After the ride, I wasn't sure what building (was on fire) because I was still on my bike. Once I back tracked to my car parked on Second between Peterborough and Charlotte, I looked down the alley and realized it was the Gold Dollar." 

She said she was sad even though the club had been closed for nearly two decades. 

"I always hoped it would make a comeback as another small venue," said Morrisey. She remembers the club as being the place to see local bands, open mic nights and "random movies and documentaries." 

"It's sad to see a place like that close or burn, because it holds a happy place in my heart from my young and not-quite-an-adult days." 

Former Gold Dollar bartender Amy Abbott points to the spontaneity of the place and time. 

"It was the possibility that anything could happen," she said, adding that back in the late 1990s and early 2000s you couldn't look up show listings and directions online like you can today. "You had to live it, and all the mistakes that went with it. If you made it inside the Gold Dollar, that was half of the adventure. The other was whatever was going to happen next that night."

The Gold Dollar, on the 3100 block of Cass, was purchased by an entity linked to the billionaire Ilitch organization in 2017. 

While the club was known for being eclectic, it's the connection with the garage rock revival at the turn of the century being the reason music aficionados worldwide have heard of it. 

The most famous show at the Gold Dollar is likely the storied first appearance by the White Stripes in August 1997, about four years before breaking into the mainstream with their third album "White Blood Cells."  

Before the garage rock heyday, the bar was an underground gay hangout.

It should be remembered as a haven for gay men and drag queens during an era of fierce discrimination, said Patrick Dorn, a longtime Cass Corridor resident and executive director of Cass Corridor Neighborhood Corp., a nonprofit that manages several affordable-housing apartments in the area. 

“Back in the 1970s it was hopping. It was the place to be — because really it was one of the few places to go when there was so much prejudice. It had a hell of a history,” Dorn said. 

More:Fire at ex-Gold Dollar bar 'suspicious,' fire chief says

More:$2.2M land buy in Cass Corridor linked to Ilitches


Twitter: @melodybaetens

Louis Aguilar contributed