Kramer conjures fiery MC5
> BY BRIAN LYNCH
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.