BY JONATHAN VALANIA Borne of riots and ruin, under a bad moon rising in the end times of the Age of Aquarius, Detroit’s MC5 were an unholy marriage of jacked-up vintage rawk n’ roll boogaloo, bloozy black snake moaning, free jazz interstellar overdrive, stick-it-to-the-man radical chic and lysergic emanations. Doing their level best to unleash anarchy in the USA, their rallying cry was “Dope, rock n’ roll and fucking in the streets” and their guru/manager was John Sinclair, self-appointed leader of the White Panther Party, a caucasoid analog to the Black Panthers.
The original line-up was as follows: haystack-haired blooze shouter Rob Tyner on lead vocals, the cosmic crunch guitar trust of Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith (who would go on to become Patti Smith’s husband) and the high-octane pedal-to-the-metal rhythm section of bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson. During their turbulent eight-year career, roughly spanning 1964 to 1972, they released three albums of transcendental hemorrhagic rock n’ roll mapping a career trajectory marred by bad juju and bad attitudes and ultimately doomed to oblivion, a fate hastened in no small measure by the unnerving fact that there was no controlled substance they would not drink, smoke, snort or shoot or, barring that, attempt to fuck.
Their lodestar remains 1969’s Kick Out The Jams, an incendiary live document of a typical night headlining their old stomping ground Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, which they would routinely pack out with 1,000-plus kids and pocket upwards of $10,000 for their troubles. A half a century later, Kick Out The Jams remains a towering inferno of hellfire rock n’ roll, free jazz mojo and revolutionary jive. There would be no punk rock without it.
Back In The USA, released the following year, dialed back the band’s gloriously scuzzy roar, tightened the lugs and polished the chrome to a high shine at the behest of Rolling Stone writer turned producer Jon Landau (who would go on to drive Bruce Springsteen’s career to mansions of glory) in a bid for a commercial glory that would never come. As a result, the album alienated their old audience without gaining them a new one. Their final album, 1971’s High Time, split the difference between the first two with diminished returns. By the winter of 1972, they were done. A few years later, Kramer and Davis were reunited in federal prison in Kentucky where they were both doing time for drug trafficking. Both Tyner and Smith died of a heart attack in 1991 and 1994, respectively. Both Thompson and Davis passed away in 2012.
Upon his release from prison, Kramer straightened out and flew right, and re-invented himself as a proto-punk godfather for the Epitaph kids, cranking out 11 albums of high octane shred between 1991 and 2004. From 2003 to 2012, Kramer helmed a re-constituted MC5 that included the original rhythm section and a revolving cast alt-rock luminaries, such as Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, The Lemonheads Evan Dando, and Handsome Dick Manitoba of The Dictators. To mark the 50th anniversary of the release of Kick Out The Jams, Kramer has just published The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, The MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities, a jaw-dropping memoir that is at turns hilarious, horrifying and heartbreaking. It’s a gonzo read about a gonzo life. Concurrently, he assembled the world’s greatest MC5 tribute band — Kim Thayil from Soundgarden on guitar, Fugazi’s Brendan Canty on drums, King’s X bassist Doug Pinnick, Philly’s own Marcus Durant, formerly of Zen Guerilla, on lead vocals — aptly dubbed MC50. They are currently in the midst of a whirlwind world tour that stops at Union Transfer on Saturday. We got Kramer on the horn on Wednesday aboard his tour bus, in transit somewhere between D.C. and Boston.
DISCUSSED: underpants, dope, guns, fucking in the streets, Syd Barrett, Janis Joplin, war and peace, civil rights, marijuana, Chairman Mao, the Velvet Underground, Eisenhower, John Sinclair, Delicate Steve, the “wretched grifter in the White House” and the new American Ruse.
PHAWKER: Hello, Wayne. Long time fan, first time caller. So, MC50, very impressive lineup. Tell me a little bit about the tour, putting this band together, and what kind of show can people expect?
WAYNE KRAMER: People should expect a premiere hard rock experience that carries a message. We’re advocating self-efficacy and self-determination, and that people can make a difference in the world but they have to make a full-hearted commitment. One person can make a difference. I know we’re in a tough time in our country right now and we have an opportunity to change it by participating in democracy. When you look at the statistics on how many people show up to vote, it’s stunning how people ignore their responsibilities.
PHAWKER: A big excuse is, “I don’t have the time.” You can’t take one hour out of your 365 days in a year to pull a lever? Well, let’s not even get started on all of that. Let’s go back in time to your book, I loved it. It answers almost every question I have, but congratulations on that. I think the funniest line in the book, or mantra, you return to this a couple of times in a facetious way, but, “Revolutionaries don’t wear underwear.” Which was the cause of embarrassment at your army induction, and a bit of scandal when the crotch of your skin tight pants ripped open on stage and a bunch of teenyboppers might have seen your junk, and parents were outraged. I’m curious are you still a revolutionary, Wayne, or have you joined the ranks of the bourgeoisie wearing their tighty-whities.
WAYNE KRAMER: They’re Calvin Klein. I like the ones that go down below your thighs.
PHAWKER: Oh yeah, that’s my jawn too.
WAYNE KRAMER: I’ve joined the bourgeoisie.
PHAWKER: You get better support that way in the undercarriage. So, the rally cry of the band was, “Dope, Rock & Roll, and Fucking in the Street.” I was always under the impression that it was, “Dope, guns, and fucking in the streets,” was that added later or am I mis-remembering that?
WAYNE KRAMER: Yeah people have filled in the blanks on their own accord. Our’s was, “Dope, Rock & Roll, and Fucking in the Street.” That was our initial three point program, and then when we formed the White Panther party, we sort of started to take ourselves a little too seriously and we had a ten point program. Then ultimately we took ourselves way too seriously when we became armed, violent militants. That was a terrible mistake.
PHAWKER: I was going to ask if you wanted to speak to that. You sort of do express regrets about playing around with violent imagery and sometimes you guys would carry guns on stage, unloaded, but sort of that militant white revolutionary vibe that you guys were tapping into. In retrospect, that seems ill-advised or folly of youth, or worse?
WAYNE KRAMER: What it ended up doing was undermining a legitimate anti-war movement, civil rights movement, and decriminalize marijuana movement. We were young and frustrated with the older generation, sometimes you make bad decisions and that was one. I made many.
PHAWKER: Well they were very heady times and everybody was on something all the time, I’m sure there were many regrettable choices made.
WAYNE KRAMER: I don’t regret any of it, but I do view it as a mistake.
PHAWKER: That was the question I wanted to ask you. You say you don’t have any regrets, but if you had anything you could do over, what would be the one thing you would do the opposite of what you did or take a different path?
PHAWKER: Getting back to the revolutionary thing for a second, after John Sinclair goes to jail he turns on the band for reasons that aren’t quite clear. He tells anyone in the underground press that will listen to him that, “They want to be bigger than The Beatles, I wanted them to be bigger than Chairman Mao.” It’s a great line, as per so many of Sinclair’s quotes, he had a way with words and was a great communicator. Where do things stand with you and John Sinclair these days?
WAYNE KRAMER: We are best friends. I talk to him weekly, we just played together three weeks ago in Ann Arbor at the end of our jazz and blues festival. We were able to salvage our friendship and rebuild it. He’s one of the few people in the world that actually understands me when I’m talking.
PHAWKER: You mentioned turning down an invitation from Janis Joplin to go back to her place, and presumably do heroin and probably have sex, which you politely declined. You also mentioned in the book you were underwhelmed with her as a blues singer, most people revere here for that very fact. Can you speak to that or was that just your opinion at the time and maybe it has changed now?
WAYNE KRAMER: I just didn’t hear it. I still don’t hear it. You listen to real R&B singers and real Blues singers, and I just didn’t think she was that compelling of a vocalist. I didn’t think she was that skilled or talented.
PHAWKER: There’s a hilarious scene in the book where the MC5 was playing with the Velvet Underground at the Boston Tea Party, and they or maybe just Lou Reed, refuses to go on until everyone who has come to see MC5 leaves the building. What else do you remember about that show or the Velvet’s at that time? Did you see them play that night? Were you a fan then or now? Did you have any interaction with them?
WAYNE KRAMER: No we didn’t have any interaction, they stayed in their own camp and I’m afraid I was underwhelmed with their performance as well. Gosh, I sound like a snob.
PHAWKER: Some version of the MC5 played with Syd Barrett’s band, Stars, in the UK in ‘72. I don’t remember if this was in the book or not but is this true?
WAYNE KRAMER: Yes.
PHAWKER: What if anything do you remember about that show, his band, or his state of mind?
WAYNE KRAMER: I remember that he was withdrawn, and in his own world. He wasn’t really one of the guys or as gregarious as most young musicians are with each other. I don’t know it seemed like he had a lot on his mind. Clearly he suffered from grave mental and emotional difficulties.
PHAWKER: You redid the MC5 song “American Ruse” for the age of Trump with artwork that looks like a Make America Great Again hat, that says “Look Around” with a fellow named Delicate Steve on vocals. I’m not familiar with Delicate Steve, maybe you can tell me a little about him and why you chose to redo this song now?
WAYNE KRAMER: We do it almost every night on the tour now and it holds up pretty well under the circumstances. That recording was the artist’s decision, he wanted to record the song and part of what I do in this sphere of work, I’m a studio guitarist. He called me up and asked me to play on the session. He’s the one that heard the value in it. Kudos to him, it’s a good version.
PHAWKER: Your guitar sounds great on that, and the song sounds like it could be recorded in 1969, but it still sounds relevant today.
WAYNE KRAMER: That’s the irony of irony. Here we are 50 years later playing an album that was recorded 50 years ago and the music and the content is more relevant than ever.
PHAWKER: The America that you describe in the book, those were very fucked up times. The country had a lot of problems and there was great unrest, social dislocation, and fear. Do the times that we’re living in now give the 60s a run for the money in terms of fucked-up-ness or how would you contrast or compare those two eras?
WAYNE KRAMER: I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave you with this last answer, but I’ll try to make it a good one.
Things are different in many fundamental ways but the similarities are disturbing. We have a wretched grifter in the White House, not dissimilar to Richard Nixon, who has utter contempt for the rule of law, and I say that as a man who has served a federal prison term. I believe in the rule of law and apparently the leader of the free world does not. The level of corruption from the halls of Congress down to local city councils is unimaginable right now. We’re in perpetual war in the Middle East which is exactly what Eisenhower warned us against. I think it’s time that people get out here on the ground and take an active role in their civic right. I urge people to get out there and vote, it’s one of the most powerful tools we have to participate in democracy. Democracy is not just a concept or word, it’s something to do. I think we might be able to nip this in the bud with this upcoming midterms and put the brakes on this criminal enterprise that is masquerading as the Chief Executive of the United States of America.
PHAWKER: I’m hearing talks that A True Testimonial of the awesome MC5 documentary that I saw back in 2003 might be released imminently. True or False?
WAYNE KRAMER: It’s possible, I am not blocking the movie. I settled my legal dispute with the filmmaker ten years ago and I would be happy to see the film come out as well. I never had a problem with the film, I had a problem with the filmmakers.