Wayne Kramer on the legacy of MC5 — 50 years later
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The year 1968 was an auspicious start for the legendary proto-punk band the MC5 as they readied their debut album. It was at the height of the Vietnam War while the ongoing race wars were at a fever pitch closer to home. It was the year Bobby Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated. And in Detroit, where the quintet was born and bred, the city was still in shock mode after the infamous 1967 Rebellion, when police unleashed a raid on a speakeasy on 12th Street that quickly escalated into one of the deadliest conflicts in American history with 43 people killed and 7,200 arrested, prompting then President Johnson to send in the National Guard.
MC50 PRESENTS: KICK OUT THE JAMS — THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR
When: 7 p.m. Oct. 24
Where: Metro, 3730 N. Clark
Tickets: $37.50 (in advance)
MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer and his bandmates — vocalist Rob Tyner, fellow guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson — were watching closely, even participating in the demonstrations. Songs like the blues-licking wail of “Motor City Is Burning” say it all, encapsulating the feeling many had of the world on the brink: “Well, there were fire bombs bursting all around the people / Ya know there was soldiers standing everywhere / I said there was fire bombs bursting all around me, baby / Ya know there was National Guard everywhere.”
The track was featured on the group’s cult classic debut, “Kick Out The Jams,” recorded live on Devil’s Night and Halloween at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom in ‘68 and released the following February on Elektra, becoming a counterculture bible for anti-establishment and left wing dissenters. It was the “deserted island” album for punk bands to come like The Clash and The Ramones, and later, Rage Against the Machine.
Though the MC5 would only last a few more years — breaking up in ’72 after releasing two more albums — their lasting influence is undisputed. So as the 50th anniversary of the band approached, Kramer knew a celebration was necessary, but who would do it was the lingering question. Besides Thompson, Kramer is the only surviving member of the band as Smith, Davis and Tyner have long since passed.
“It’s hard to say [what they’d think of the anniversary],” says Kramer during a recent phone call while on the road with the MC50 tour. With 35 dates across the country, ending almost to the day “Kick Out The Jams” was first recorded, Kramer has assembled a super group of sorts to support the effort and play the album in full each night, including Metro on October 24.
The lineup includes Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil (his first tour since the passing of bandmate Chris Cornell), Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, Faith No More bassist Billy Gould and Zen Guerilla singer Marcus Durant. Thompson will also appear on select dates. “You know, the MC5 didn’t end well, there was no grace and there was no understanding and there was no sensitivity. But I think the band would appreciate the fact that the music holds up so well and as relevant today 50 years later as the day we wrote it,” says Kramer.
He begins to compare Nixon’s rule with Trump’s, and is no fan of either. “There are some parallels between them — both were criminal-minded, both had utter contempt for the rule of law, but I say that as a convicted criminal,” he says, laughing. Of course Kramer infamously was incarcerated for two years in Kentucky for selling drugs to undercover federal agents. Today he also works with his own organization, Jail Guitar Doors (co-founded with his wife Margaret and British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg and sharing the name with a Clash song written about Kramer), to provide instruments and music workshops to prisoners as a mode of rehabilitation. The program includes a collaboration with Cook County Jail. On October 30, the MC50 group will re-record “Kick Out the Jams” live at Jack White’s Third Man Studios, with proceeds going to the nonprofit.
“Now we have a perpetual war going on in the Middle East that most Americans are untouched by. Race is still a major challenge in America that still has not been addressed correctly. And the people that care about the planet seem to be getting beat up by people who care about industry,” Kramer continues. “So there are some similarities [between 1968 and 2018] but some differences. It was actually worse with Nixon because of the war in Vietnam – the sheer fact that over 50,000 young American boys died in that war — [that] scale of evil is much worse than what this corruptive grifter we have in the White House now [is doing] by far.”
Calling himself a community artist and the MC5 a community band, Kramer says the group never stalled on their decision to get in a car and drive from Detroit to Chicago to perform at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, even as the other bands that were supposed to assemble for a concert backed out. The group ran power from a hot dog stand to play their gear. “The fact that none of the other West Coast bands showed up has more to do with them being sensible about the Chicago Police Department and us being crazy,” he chides. “It was something we did all the time, though, and it was not out of the ordinary at all. If there was a political event or we wanted to support some legislation or raise money we were always there.”
The moment form that August ’68 day that still stands out to him even now, he says, is “the fact that for the first time in American history families across the nation saw Chicago policemen beating protestors mercilessly. There were white kids that were there to exercise their democratic rights being beaten on national television. That never happened before. If you’re a person of color or limited economic means you know all about police violence. Police have been beating, jailing poor people and people of color since America started, but it used to be kept on down low. That expression, ‘the whole world is watching,’ was very powerful that day.”
Many of Kramer’s memories and torrid accounts are catalogued in his new memoir, “The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities,” but the musician says if he has any message it’s “to encourage people to meet their democratic rights and responsibilities and participate in the American experiment and vote. …Our founders were wise enough to place the power in the hands of the people, but the people have to exercise that if we want change.”
Just a few weeks ago Kramer learned that the MC5 was up for their third nomination for inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His thoughts on the award? “You’re asking the Susan Lucci of music here, but if the MC5 was recognized for its contribution I’d be happy with that. I would like the friends and families of band members to be able to claim a little piece of the rock pantheon for themselves. I think the MC5 earned it.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.