MC5: Ready to Testify

Originally published in Unbelievably Bad #2, 2005


“We are a lonely desperate people, pulled apart by the killer forces of capitalism and competition,” MC5 manager John Sinclair had written on the inner-gatefold to the MC5’s empyreal 1968 live debut, Kick Out The Jams. “And we need the music to hold us together. Separation is doom.”
Just a few years later, however, The MC5 were doomed. Killer forces had divided and destroyed the most inspired rock ’n’ roll band the world had ever known, and the devastation would resonate for years to come.
By the time of the split, Wayne Kramer was already well on his way off the rails. The group’s final concert on New Year’s Eve 1972 signified the end of what had been a mostly frustrating trip for all concerned. Crippling debt, bad press, drug use, rampant egomania and the pressure of being politically outspoken at the time of the underhanded Nixon administration had all contributed to the disintegration of the band. What had once burned white hot was now completely burnt out. The ’5’s legacy lives on today in the three monumental albums they left behind (not to mention the countless bands they have either directly or indirectly influenced), but in 1972 you could not find five less triumphant musicians.
“We are free men,” Sinclair’s Kick Out The Jams rant read. “And we demand a free music; a free high energy source that will drive us wild into the streets of America yelling and screaming and tearing down everything that would keep people slaves.”
Sadly, though, Kramer would become enslaved. The fiery guitarist’s involvement with drugs led to a bust in ’75 that landed him in prison for two and a half years for dealing cocaine. Twenty-four-years old at the time, his incarceration was merely the next logical stop on a path of personal destruction that had continued since the break up of the band.
But Brother Wayne found a way back. He got out of prison and started to make records again (including the autobiographical “Cocaine Blues”), though it was many years before he would start to reconnect himself with the legacy he had been a part of in The MC5.
The deaths of MC5 singer Rob Tyner in 1991 and guitarist Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith in 1994 had a massive effect on his emotional rehabilitation. But it wasn’t until the DKT/MC5 revival tour – reuniting him with surviving MC5 brothers Michael Davis (bass) and Dennis Thompson (drums) – last year that Kramer finally arrived full circle.
When the DKT/MC5 Sonic Revolution World Tour hit Australia in July 2004, Kramer looked like a man who had left his demons long in his wake. Maybe the paycheck just really was that good, but he could barely keep the smile off his face. Stirred up with the emotion of old memories, and elated by the fact that DKT/MC5 had created so many precious new ones, Brother Wayne Kramer was testifying his arse off…


What was a typical show like for The MC5?
We would play anywhere, anytime – anytime anyone gave us the opportunity to play we’d take it. Like any young band would. You’re young, you’re enthusiastic about what you’re doing, and you want people to hear what it is you have to say.

There were also certain United States government agencies that were interested in what The MC5 had to say, right?
I’m proud that the government has a file on me. I’m happy that they thought we were so dangerous – a rock band; a bunch of guys with nothing more powerful than electric guitars and big mouths. They had to tap our phones; they had to follow us around because we were such a threat to the established order. All because they didn’t want to admit that they were wrong. All we said from the beginning was, “You’re wrong, we just want people to listen to us.” But people didn’t listen to us and they are still not listening, even today. They won’t listen until it’s too late.


Did the band let the victimisation get to you?
Oh yeah. It’s not a fun life to be followed and harassed and oppressed methodically. Fighting in the courts, fighting in the streets – that’s not fun, it’s stressful.

Making a live album as your debut [Kick Out The Jams] was gutsy, why did you decide on that?
Playing live was what we did best. We worked hard on our live show. And with the benefit of thirty years to look back on it, I also know it was cheaper for the record company. We did it consciously, but I think they [Elektra] knew it would work out cheaper.

So why did Elektra fire the band, just because of the “Kick Out The Jams, motherfuckers” thing?
They fired us because we were the people we represented ourselves to be. We told them who we were, we told them what we were all about, then when we went and did what we said we would, they said, “Oh, you can’t do that.” We said, “But we told you this was what we were going to do!” We said we were totally committed, we were maniacs – we told them we were maniacs. I’ve wondered sometimes if somebody got to them, somebody from the FBI or the White House. Did somebody say, “You need to distance yourself from these people?” I don’t know that, it’s just an amusing thought. I’m not a conspiracy theorist but we know today what was going on back then, dirty tricks, harassment, agent provocateurs.

Tell me about the hardcore MC5 fans, the Motherfuckers as they were called…
You mean back in the day? That was a different time, there were a lot of very angry people around and they were willing to use violence. As I look back on it I realise it was a mistake. Noam Chomsky says, “The best way to fight terrorism is don’t participate in it.” We used the language of violence, we used the image of the gun and we didn’t think these things through. We made some mistakes. What it got the MC5 was arrested, jailed, and thrown out of the music business. What it got the Black Panthers was death squads. Y’know, this is not a joke. We used the image of the gun – that’s not a joke. We made a lot of mistakes.

Gun culture is a fairly popular subject still in hip-hop music, is that a bad thing?
That stuff doesn’t concern me. There’s been violence in literature since there has been literature, endorsing violence as a way of life and a methodology. I understand violent thinking. I understand how a young Palestinian kid who has always known Israeli troops in his neighbourhood and he sees his neighbours’ houses being blown up, I understand how that kid would see violence as a reasonable thing. There are degrees of fuzzy logic, it’s not that one is right or one is wrong. But in my life and the things that I do and the things that I represent, I make a decision, I pick a side, and that side is that I don’t endorse violence. I don’t think it’s an answer.


The MC5’s message seemed an intoxicating mixture of love and violence.
Well, we were caught up in the romance of the rhetoric. We idolised the Black Panthers and we grew up watching television with cowboys and cops & robbers, which gives you an aberrated sense of what violence really means. To get away from the TV violence and to the real violence, the world of crime and prison and what guns really do to people, this is not good stuff; this is not stuff that I want to promote.

But the message was aspirational, without all the nihilism that came later.
Lots of times the art reflects the culture and the culture became very self-centred. Today it’s all about where’s mine and what’s in it for me?

The MC5 would probably never get signed to a major label today.
No, I don’t think so. But Rage Against The Machine did. Or, what’s our boys from Sweden called, the (International) Noise Conspiracy, they’re an overtly political band. It’s not necessary that everybody takes a progressive political stance, but for me it’s important to stay connected. Everybody doesn’t have to do it, they can do whatever they want, I don’t give a damn, but I have to do it. I’m the only thing I can do anything about. The only person I have any influence over is Wayne Kramer, and even that’s limited.


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