Kramer vs. Kramer

MC5 founder Wayne Kramer constantly competes with his revolutionary past and can still kick out the jams

Everybody has an agenda, you say? That may well be true, but it's hard to imagine Creed, Fastball or whatever selections you can order from the BMG Music Club putting sentiments like these on their album covers: "We are a lonely people, pulled apart by the killer forces of capitalism and competition and we need the music to hold us together. Separation is doom."

Or how about, "We don't have guns yet, but we have more powerful weapons--direct access to millions of teenagers is our most potent, and their belief in us is another. But we will use guns if we have to--we will do anything, if we have to."

And let's not even start with this "money sucks" business!
So wrote White Panther Party Leader and marijuana martyr John Sinclair in his censored liner notes for the MC5's legendary Kick Out the Jams album. Before serving two years of a 10-year sentence for possession of a pair of joints, Sinclair managed and mentored the MC5, the most menacing and misunderstood group ever to respect the boards and disrespect just about everything else. Here was an act that had risked career suicide more times than Michael Jackson, a band that wanted the world more than the world ever wanted it.

Not much has changed since the MC5's implosion, except maybe that people are even more afraid of feeling too much or making too many waves. And while Wayne Kramer, guitar hero and surviving member of the MC5, freely admits he could use a little more of that sucky money, he still believes rock music can change more than the width of some artists' billfolds.

"Songs are our most organizing tool in a real frustrating time like the present," he remarks at the start of our phone conversation. "Songs can be vehicles, which we can use to share our opinions and our attitudes, our hopes and fears, and what we think is possible."

At age 50, Kramer relishes his elder-statesman status but finds little new music on the airwaves to champion. "They have armed guards to keep people like me away from radio stations," he laughs. "They don't play my songs on radio that much. I'm an adult, and I wanna hear something that's done with intelligence, humor, wit, craft, creativity and passion, and that's not what the record industry is all about.

"A lot of these bands like Fastball and Counting Crows, I don't feel like I'm in the same world with these people. I'm sure they're nice enough people, and they wanna do well, but my tastes run more towards things that are pushing harder or trying to get someplace new. Make me laugh. Tell me a story. Don't advertise to me."

At a time when the record industry is downsizing worse than Detroit, Kramer's original hometown, he has no problem operating outside of the mainstream. Early on, major labels like Elektra and Atlantic decided that the MC5 was way too much trouble and dropped the band. Since 1994, Kramer's had no problems releasing four albums on punk indie mainstay Epitaph. Kramer's latest is a live set called LLMF (stands for Live Like a Motherfucker! Ya happy now?).

Although the CD cover looks like you're in for a nightmare of Joe Satriani guitar heroics, LLMF delivers on Kramer's promise of wit, intelligence and passion. Even if it occasionally gets a bit preachy on the scared-straight front, who's better qualified to tell you lessons on how to fly right than Big Brother Wayne?

That the MC5 remains one of the great untold stories of the '60s owes much to the fact that the MC5 never quite realized its potential commercially. The White Panther party affiliation frightened many people off, even though the party's 10-point program was less a call to arms than a wish for rock, dope and fornicating in the streets. Music provided the MC5 with its lasting impact.

While post-Woodstock America was still being anesthetized by flower power, bands like the MC5 and the Stooges were inventing the hard, fast rules of punk virtually alone. This Michigan quintet released three albums from 1969 to 1971, all of which met with near universal indifference at the time of issue, yet demonstrated the way for thousands of bands to follow. Just sample a random album track like "Baby Won't Ya" and you hear both the Black Crowes and Kiss sitting up and taking notes.

Here are some classic rock touchstones to help you put the MC5 into historical perspective. In September of 1968, the Rolling Stones put war protesters on the picture sleeve of its "Street Fighting Man" single and shrugged, "What can a poor boy do, but sing for a rock 'n' roll band?"

The MC5 had already refuted that sick-note excuse weeks before by playing at the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago, braving tear-gas canisters and the National Guard. Incidentally, this was a gig that wussie West Coast bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane signed on for, but chickened out of appearing.

The following year, still wanna-be revolutionaries Jefferson Airplane would claim, "We are outlaws in the eyes of America," but meekly sang, "Up against the wall, motherfucker," like some glee club afraid of the word. The sheet music for "We Can Be Together" probably says "mother father," too. On the other hand, the MC5's debut loudly and proudly had "Kick out the jams, motherfucker" stamped into its grooves until Elektra Records recalled the albums and shipped a sanitized version.

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