Kramer vs. Kramer

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

Anywhere you drop a needle on High Time, you hear a classic album. Unfortunately, not many people did that. Old fans disillusioned with the first album's hype and the second album's Sha Na Na-isms didn't stick around to see the MC5 get it right the third time around, and Atlantic quietly dropped the band.

"The band broke up in '72, and I've had a lot of time to work on it now, but it was a tremendous loss for me," Kramer continues. "It was a very romantic but dangerous time. There was a hard cynicism and ultimately the pain of not grieving over your loss. We were best friends, we were brothers, we literally ate together, slept together, fucked together, played music together, fought together, and one day we walk away and pretended like none of that ever happened.

"I descended into a life of being a junior criminal, which I wasn't very good at. I'd seen The Godfather one too many times. I wanted to ride around in a nice car, carry a gun and go to business meetings in nice restaurants. That's what led me into the criminal underworld. There was a way to get respect and attention and be a star, by channeling the energy of music into criminal activities. Writing a bad song doesn't send you to prison. Maybe it oughta."

After selling drugs to an undercover cop in 1975--an incident he self-deprecatingly recounts on LLMF's "Count Time"--Kramer spent a little more than two years in a federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky. There he met former Charlie Parker sideman Red Rodney and formed a prison band.

"He'd been in Lexington a few times before, said he liked to do business with established businesses," Kramer says laughing. "Red always had a great spirit, and, needless to say, a tremendous musical influence on me. He taught me a Berklee School of Music course on writing and arranging while I was in. And we played in our band. There wasn't a lot of good musicians in prison, but musicians have always gone there. There's a long list of them."

While incarcerated, Kramer heard rumblings of punk rock from the outside.
"People used to send me Billboards. I'd get these magazines in the mail and there'd be these bands like the Ramones, they would be talking about how they were influenced by the MC5 and it was this thing called punk music. I used to tear the magazines up and flush them down the toilet. In prison, 'punk' had a different meaning; it meant a predatory homosexual is going to make you his girlfriend and have you washing his socks. I didn't want to be associated with this 'punk' music."

After prison, Detroit seemed almost like a lateral move, so Kramer left for New York, where he produced Lower East Side bands and closed out the '70s in a short-lived band with Johnny Thunders called Gang Wars.

Kramer's highest-profile gig since the split of MC5 came in the form of session work for Was (Not Was) in the early '80s. "Don and David Was were MC5 fans," he says. "We played at their school, and we made somewhat of an impression on them. One of their goals was to be able to make records that affected people the way Kick Out the Jams affected them. We just played together last week.

"We're getting together to make a new Was (Not Was) record. Some of the things we're working on are so funky they'll upset your stomach. It's real cool."

David Was produced Kramer's live album as well and has collaborated with Wayne on his last three studio efforts. Another frequent collaborator is former Deviant and Pink Fairies bardsman Mick Farren. Farren contributes many a pithy lyric to Kramer's work, including "Something's Broken in the Promise Land," which has Wayne remarking that his cat sings along to Neil Young records and asks, "Where's Lee Harvey when we really need him?"

In case you think that's an indictment of Bill Clinton, Kramer guesses that the song was written in the Bush era.

"Clinton's all right with me. He balanced the budget; I think he's cooled. Smoked a little herb, appreciates a good blowjob. Americans are a little more adult than these fuckin' Trent Lotts would like us to be. They treat us parochially. The Europeans have been laughing at us since the beginning."

When asked if he got into music for politics or the promise of cheap and easy sex, Kramer laughs. "If you go into the psychology of why would some people want to put themselves on stage in front of 500 people, and ask them to love them, it's going even deeper than sex. Music is good for meeting people."

Recently, Kramer has met a new band that he can put his seal of approval on, and he's taking it on a series of dates, including South by Southwest, to shake some industry action.

"I've just produced a band called the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs," he says. "They're very high energy. I'm kind of passing the torch along. The MC5 doesn't exist anymore, but the spirit does in Streetwalkin' Cheetahs."

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