Kramer vs. Kramer
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.
"Against our wishes," Kramer points out. "I have no way of knowing [how many copies escaped with the mother-enabling word]. If there are 100,000 out there, they choked real quick, once the record sellers started to get arrested for selling the record."
Even after Elektra washed the MC5's collective mouth out with soft soap, Hudson's, one of Detroit's largest retailers, still refused to stock the Kick Out the Jams album. This galvanized the band into taking out a "Fuck Hudson's" ad, and putting Elektra's logo at the bottom without the label's permission. And then these hooligans sent Elektra the bill for the ad! That's balls-a-rama. Makes you wonder why folks lionized Jim Morrison for allegedly pulling out his dick onstage, when his Elektra labelmates in the MC5 were constantly laying their dicks on the line and having them run over.
Of course, that little ploy got the band dropped from Elektra. By then, the band was already having serious quality-control concerns. Elektra acquiesced to the band's wishes that its first album be recorded live, but reneged on a promise that it could be rerecorded if the performance was not to the band's satisfaction.
"No one in the band approved the record," Kramer says. "It's too raggedy. We were too intimidated by the fact of 'This is it, we're making our record, it's live tonight! Play it right!' The MC5 was a band that could rise to cosmic heights on a good night but the band was also inconsistent. On a bad night we could be pretty fucking annoying, and I didn't think that was a good enough night to put on a record. And Elektra took the tapes back to New York and put it out anyway.
"In the end, what they did let us do, they changed anyway. They took John Sinclair's liner notes off the record. John had a great Chairman Mao-for-the-hippies message there. He was appropriately incendiary."
In one of rock's more painfully obvious splices, Elektra substituted the fabled "motherfucker" with "brothers and sisters" from another part of the record. Even this co-option didn't result in any additional airplay. Neither did the recording quality, which often sounds as if someone is sharpening a pencil in your ear. The live mistakes also left some to question the band's musicianship.
"We had been criticized for not being able to play our instruments, and we knew that beyond all the hype, we were a great rock band. We could tear the place up. Jon Landau fit into our quest to make the perfect rock record."
With the band's figurehead Sinclair in prison, rock critic (and future Bruce Springsteen manager) Jon Landau entered the picture and got the band signed to Atlantic.
Landau saw his rock 'n' roll future and imposed it on a shaken MC5 for Back in the USA. As he would do with Bruce, Landau streamlined all the excesses. Gone was any White Panther rhetoric, gone were Brother J.C. Crawford's James Brown-inspired revolutionary raps at the MC5 live gigs, gone were any recorded instrumental breaks longer than 15 seconds, and forget any tips of the hat to Sun Ra. So long, Ra; hello, rah rah rah sis boom bah!
With songs like "Teenage Lust" and "High School" filling out Back in the USA, the MC5 may as well have taken out a "Fuck you" ad for all its old fans. Few could comprehend coming on like Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels three years too late, or like a better version of The Flamin' Groovies six years too early. Even mini-manifestoes like "The American Ruse" and "The Human Being Lawnmower" (which invents punk within 2:22 minutes of nihilistic fervor) were received with distrust when surrounded with "Tutti Frutti" and Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA." Not to mention originals complete with "rah rah rah sis boom bahs!"
Perhaps producer/dictator Landau studied Chuck Berry records too carefully, because he mixed the record with less bass presence than most air conditioners give out. Whether this influenced the Stooges' Raw Power is anyone's guess. Today it's revered as a punk-rock milestone that clocks in under 28 minutes, a welcome plea for brevity in a music scene being killed by 20-minute drum solos.
"There are the pundits now that say this one was better than that one at this point, it's so long ago," Kramer says. "I'm proud of all three records. High Time is my personal favorite. It's the one where we had learned enough about how to work in a recording studio to be true to the spirit of the band and still be creative and make records. High Time pointed the direction to the future for a band that had no future."
Imagine the Live at Leeds-era Who, playing at their speed-gulping Mod-era best, then graft on the twin lead-guitar attack of Kramer and Fred "Sonic" Smith, the kind of interplay the Stones and the Yardbirds had for a short while, but never could maintain. Then you have Rob Tyner's incomparable vocals, always singing at the top of his range and making similarly timbred Roger Daltrey sound like he's faking an orgasm.
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."
If that's not enough to raise the specter of the MC5, there's an upcoming documentary on the MC5 in the works and an MC5 book by Ben Edmonds. In addition, Kramer's descent into drugs will be preserved on celluloid in the upcoming movie of the Clinton Heylin book Please Kill Me, for which Kramer will do the music. For those of you who haven't read it, it chronicles the rise and fall of punk and reads like a bad whodunit where every rock 'n' roll junkie dies at the end.
"Everybody except me and Dee Dee," laughs Kramer.
Wayne Kramer is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, March 17, at Hollywood Alley in Mesa, with the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs, and the Sonic Thrills. Showtime is 8 p.m.
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