Kramer con­jures fiery MC5


The Georgia Straight - - Books -

Even as rock ’n’ roll turned up the vol­ume and chaos in the late ’60s, the MC5 seemed loud and wild. High-revving twin gui­tars, pre­ci­sion-ma­chined rhythms, a fe­ro­cious look—the band had the swag­ger, grease, and roar of the mus­cle cars built in its home­town of Detroit.

This was only nat­u­ral, ac­cord­ing to gui­tarist and MC5 co­founder Wayne Kramer. His new mem­oir, The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5 & My Life of Im­pos­si­bil­i­ties, cre­ates a full, deeply per­sonal de­pic­tion of the Mo­tor City in its blue-col­lar hey­day. As he ex­plains to the Straight, the group he led couldn’t have come from any­where else.

“There’s a fun­da­men­tal sense of Detroi­ters that hard work is what we’re all about, and the peo­ple that worked in the man­u­fac­tur­ing, au­to­mo­bile, and re­lated in­dus­tries gen­er­ally worked hard,” he says by phone from New York, a stop on his tour for the book. “It in­formed the MC5’S ethic in terms of the idea of high-en­ergy mu­sic. The more we put into the band, the more sweat, the more phys­i­cal en­ergy, the bet­ter the au­di­ences re­sponded. And I think that was the key to us dis­cov­er­ing this con­cept. The mu­sic that I loved, whether it was gut­bucket funk or Chuck Berry or Lit­tle Richard, all had that en­ergy to it. There was a com­mit­ment com­ing out of the artist, a vis­ceral in­ten­sity, that other mu­sics didn’t have. I mean, Bobby Vin­ton didn’t have it. Neil Sedaka didn’t have it. James Brown had it. So I think it only could have hap­pened in Detroit.”

The day in Septem­ber 1968 when the MC5 signed a con­tract with the ma­jor la­bel Elek­tra, along­side an in­fa­mous band of Detroit pro­tégés named the Stooges, has long been marked as the big bang that formed the mu­si­cal uni­verse we now call punk rock. But while that lin­eage is beyond dis­pute, it ne­glects es­sen­tial parts of the MC5’S ap­proach—es­pe­cially, as The Hard Stuff makes clear, the love of free jazz and blis­ter­ing im­pro­vi­sa­tion shared by Kramer and MC5 vo­cal­ist Rob Tyner, gui­tarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, bassist Michael Davis, and drum­mer Den­nis Thomp­son.

“I al­ways found it kind of a dis­ap­point­ment that the more ex­per­i­men­tal side of the MC5 of­ten got over­looked by the punks,” Kramer says. “You know, they picked up on the three-chords, thrash­ing rock ’n’ roll part, but they missed the, you know, ‘Let’s go beyond the beat and key’ part—the ki­netic part.”

Driven by this sound and pro­ject­ing an image of de­bauch­ery, sly hu­mour, and rev­o­lu­tion­ary zeal that made the Rolling Stones look prim, the band rode up the face of a wave of youth counterculture and re­bel­lion that was na­tion­wide at the time. But Kramer’s own po­lit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion was, again, rooted in the place where he grew up, par­tic­u­larly in the “ap­pre­ci­a­tion for union­ism” that was wide­spread there. On top of this was “the idea that we were an in­ter­ra­cial city,” he points out.

“My mother opened the first in­ter­ra­cial beauty sa­lon in Detroit, and grow­ing up with kids of colour was nor­mal—that’s just how life was,” Kramer re­calls of his child­hood. “But [there was] also the fact that black peo­ple didn’t par­tic­i­pate in the ben­e­fits of the auto in­dus­try and po­lit­i­cal ad­vance­ment on the same scale that whites did. You know, blacks were com­pletely shut out of Detroit pol­i­tics, state pol­i­tics. Blacks were the last hired and first fired. They al­ways got the ab­so­lute worst jobs on the shop floor. They were roundly ig­nored in their griev­ances by mostly white shop fore­men, and that caused the oc­ca­sional out­burst of vi­o­lence on the shop floor. It wasn’t that un­usual for some­body to just have enough and go off.… You know, just the con­stant abuse. So yeah, I was aware of both things: that it wasn’t fair for peo­ple of colour, and that peo­ple of colour were my neigh­bours.”

In hind­sight, cer­tain moments in the MC5’S ca­reer as a group of self­fash­ioned

dol­lar for im­ported tal­ent like Eminem, Muse, Ken­drick La­mar, and Vi­o­lent Femmes (fea­tur­ing two orig­i­nal mem­bers!!) be­came harder af­ter the loonie started to plum­met fol­low­ing gains in 2008. Worse for the bot­tom line was hav­ing to move the army of folks needed for fes­ti­vals far re­moved from Van­cou­ver. Jay-z and dead­mau5 were the folks you saw on-stage. Work­ing be­hind the scenes were stage techs, site man­agers, se­cu­rity, cleanup crews, cater­ers, and shut­tle-bus driv­ers. They num­bered in the hun­dreds, mak­ing— be­cause no one wants to sleep in a car be­tween Hick­ory Stix meals—for a lo­gis­ti­cal night­mare.

And speak­ing of night­mares, ask any­one who ever camped at Pem­ber­ton, Squamish, or for that mat­ter Wood­stock what it was like to sac­ri­fice the com­forts of one’s bed for the con­ve­nience of not driv­ing an hour (or three) to a des­ti­na­tion site each day. There are only so many hours you can yo-yo a fud­gesi­cle be­fore you have to give up and take care of business in a por­ta­ble crap­per. Know­ing that, if there’s even a drop of splash-back as you stand on the seat, you’re go­ing to have to kill your­self to erase the hor­ror of the mem­ory.

What FVDED locked onto is the fact that—un­less you en­joy lis­ten­ing to other peo­ple fuck in a tent three feet away—there’s noth­ing bet­ter than be­ing able to head home for the night af­ter Fu­ture or the Chainsmok­ers have left you want­ing more.

Here’s a ques­tion: af­ter Florence + the Ma­chine has fin­ished en­chant­ing SKOOKUM with “Queen of Peace”, would you rather kick back in your condo with a Château Che­val Blanc 1947 night­cap? Or crawl into a sleep­ing bag know­ing full well that you’ll end up hav­ing to take a leak some­time around 4 a.m.?


Man, you don’t have to be a Dead­head to re­al­ize that we’ve come a long way.

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