Wayne Kramer Is Still Kicking Out the Jams
The MC5 frontman talks about 'The Hard Stuff,' his new memoir chronicling the turbulent, debaucherous rise of his pioneering Detroit band.
Photo by Chris McKay / Getty Images
Rob Tyner is gone. So are Fred “Sonic” Smith, Michael Davis, Abbie Hoffman, and Richard Nixon. That leaves Wayne Kramer, the wild man wielding the American flag Strat, to tell the full and true story of his iconic leftist, proto-punk group the MC5. At 70 years old, the onetime leader of one of the most polarizing rock bands in existence settled into the role of author over the last few years, and on August 14 will finally unveil his new, memoir The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, The MC5 & My Life Of Impossibilities.
“There's always a possibility of death at any time so, I wanted to get this story told from the center of the storm, not from the peripheral of the storm,” he explains. “A great many words have been written about the MC5 and all the things that have happened and I just wanted to get it down from the inside perspective, so people knew what it was like at the core of the experience.”
The Hard Stuff is a raw account of Kramer’s life growing up in the increasingly mean streets of post-World War II Detroit, the glorious rise and precipitous fall of the MC5, and his decades-long addiction to drugs that led to his two-year bid in a federal penitentiary. While he has a good amount of powder to spread around—those who draw either his ire or frustration at different points through the book include other members of the band, numerous record executives, the police in general, the federal government at large, and the especially hardcore members of the 60s counterculture like a group called The Motherfuckers who kicked off a riot after an MC5 show at the Fillmore East in 1969—he saves the harshest judgements for himself.
In addition to his new memoir, Kramer is preparing to hit the road once again in September to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the MC5’s seminal album Kick Out The Jams, and he’s bringing along a true all-star collection of musical talent to make it happen. Kim Thayil of Soundgarden is on second lead guitar, Brendan Canty of Fugazi is on drums, Billy Gould of Faith No More is on bass, and Marcus Durant of Zen Guerrilla will step in on lead vocals. Some shows will also have special guest appearances by Matt Cameron of Pearl Jam and Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs.
I recently had the chance to talk to Kramer to ask him about the finer details of his incredible life and get his first impressions about how the MC50 tour has been going.
Noisey: Why did you decide now was a good time to write down your life story?
Wayne Kramer: Well, I could die anytime, and if I didn't write it down I would have missed my chance.
What are some misconceptions about you and the MC5 that you wanted to really straighten out with this book?
I don't think anyone outside of the group had an appreciation for how much pressure the band was under. It wasn't like we were just five kids who decided to start a rock band and then we broke up. The idea that we took a stand that you drew a line in the sand and said what side of the line we were on. That we sided with young people. We sided with positive change. We sided with the anti-war movement. We sided with poor people and people of color, for civil rights. We took an anti-imperialist stance and an anti-establishment stance, that the status quo would not be allowed to continue to perpetrate crimes on humanity. That destroying the planet was a serious issue. That pollution, political corruption was a serious issue. That injustice with the police was a serious issue. And to take these things on head-on and address them as our concerns created a bond between us and our audience that I think separated us from our contemporaries.
It’s crazy a lot of those same exact issues remain startlingly present up to this day.
There's a temptation to become cynical, and I struggle with this myself. My own apathy and my own sarcasm are really what I'm up against. I'm not against the Republicans. I'm up against my own apathy, my own laziness. There's this idea floating around that “Somehow I'll just take care of myself and me and my people will be alright, and I'll disengage from the world.” But that isn't how things work. The solution is engagement with the world, is in connection with each other. That's what I was trying to do with the book is to make some connections. I only know a little, but what little I know I'm happy to talk about.
Can I ask you, what’s the deal with Ted Nugent? I know you guys came up in the 60s in Detroit, and in the book, you say he's still a friend of yours. Is he an act or does he really mean the shit that he says?
I suspect he does believe the shit that he says. Most of us believe the shit we say. I don't know, he's a complicated guy. I think that he found, in right-wing extreme political positions, a voice that he was shut out of in rock and roll. He could only go so far being the Motor City Madman. But becoming the right-wing zealot gave him a whole new lease on life. Gave him a whole new way to express his considerable frustration with the world. I can identify with his frustration, that's what we did with the White Panther Party. The White Panther Party was a vehicle to express my frustration with the slow pace of change. I wanted America to be a better place right now.
I was actually going to ask you about your involvement with the White Panther Party. One of the things that was really interesting to me about the book was how fractious the counterculture movement was. The riot you describe outside of the Fillmore East in 1968 with the East Village Motherfuckers was pretty eye-opening.
It's the trouble with the left, you know, it's a circular firing squad. The first thing the revolution does is kill all their enemies. Yeah, and the pressure. I hope that I could convey some of that in some of those stories that I told because we were getting it. We knew we'd get it from the police, and we knew we'd get it from parents and teachers and the establishment, but geez, we didn't know we were gonna get it from guys on our own team, the lefties and the revolutionaries. They were harder on us than the police were.
The falling out with John Sinclair was illuminating as well.
Yeah, it cut right to the core of human relationships. You start to question what a friendship is and what do these things really mean? How do they show up in my life, how are they expressed? It wasn't a walk in the park.
I’ve only been to Detroit once before, but while I was in town, I had to visit the Grande Ballroom. It’s certainly not in great shape these days, but what was it like around the time when the MC5 were the house band?
Grande Ballroom stood as a temple of hedonistic art and culture and expression and defiance that had never been seen before in a place like Detroit. I mean, Detroit was a working-class industrial city, a manufacturing center. And all of a sudden, here's this beautiful 1930s structure with its Moroccan architecture and the floating wooden dance floor that could hold 3,000 people. And a proscenium stage and walk areas, luxurious Rococo architecture and detail. And then here it is, it's taken over by all these hippies and we're all smoking marijuana furiously and taking LSD and dancing to these bands that were bringing Sun Ra into play. People had sex anywhere there was a space in that building.
It was a den of debauchery. Non-stop.
I wish I could have been there.
Yeah, it was great. You missed a good one. It was great, you never knew what might happen that night. It was just, all things were possible.
How many times do you think you played that venue?
Hundreds. We were the house band, we played every weekend for almost three years. So probably played there 350 times. Something like that, I don't know.
The Grande is obviously where the MC5 recorded the album Kick Out The Jams. I was surprised to learn that you didn’t really care for your own performance. What happened?
Well, again, it was just this issue of pressure, of being able to stand up under pressure. We were in agreement that doing the album live could be great—if we could get a great live recording that this would be a really optimal way to introduce the band to the world. But I just didn't think that was the night, you know? I thought I played much better on other nights. The label had assured me that if I didn't like it, we could record it over again. So, I thought that's what we'll do, we'll just record it again until we get that perfect, cosmic, that magical performance, we'll pitch one. Because we could produce it pretty consistently—our trouble was we were inconsistent—so we couldn't do it six nights a week. But we could do it four nights a week.
Are you shocked by the staying power of that record in particular?
It has been interesting to clock over the years. I ascribe it to the MC5's roots being firmly embedded in the core rock and roll music of Chuck Berry and Little Richard. That driving percussive rhythm guitar playing and driving tempos that were on those early Chuck Berry records, Earl Palmer's drumming on the Little Richards. That's the core of rock and roll, that's the roots of it. And the fact that the MC5’s feet were firmly planted in that ground allows the music to transcend generations. There's a basic fundamental principle that we adhere to, the driving tempo, the simple chord structure. The pissy, cynical lyric. The smart-ass response. It's the stuff that rock is made of.
As you read the book, it’s obvious that there was a special bond between you and Fred “Sonic” Smith. Can you elaborate more on your relationship and artistic partnership with him?
We were boyhood chums. We were best friends. He lived about 15 blocks away from me. The summer that we became tight, I wanted to start a band. Someone told me about this kid Fred Smith and he could play guitar and he could play bongos. And I thought, well, either way I could use him. A man could use a bongo player. And then, as time went on and Fred became a better and better guitar player, he really found his calling and just exploded in a burst of self-discipline and control and practice. He just must have been rehearsing non-stop because his musicianship improved so radically over a maybe 18-month period that I was actually blown away by it. I felt like what we had between us, nobody else had. Nobody else could do what we did. Because we were able to solo simultaneously or play rhythms simultaneously and we could lock into each other. We would depend on each other and then we could improvise. It becomes synergistic, it becomes more than the sum of the parts. And I thought that was our real strength as a band. What Fred Smith and I could do as two guitar players together was heads and shoulders above what anybody else out there was doing.
I know he’s gone, but when you're writing new music or playing on stage, do you ever wonder what Fred might do here or there?
Sure. I've written songs and thought about, "Let's see, how would Fred approach this? Well, he'd probably play it something like this. Hmm, oh yeah. That's pretty good, I'll use that."
The word that you’ve brought up a couple times in our conversation is “pressure.” Was that ultimately what did the MC5 in? Rob Tyner was the first to leave, correct? Was it the pressure that got to him?
Yeah, but he had been leaving the band every year for the previous three years. He quit the band about once a year. But see, it was not only the pressure that failure brings. If you look at most bands that are able to survive, they had hit records right out of the box. Rolling Stones’ first records were hits. The Who’s first records, hits. So once hit record money is flowing, it's possible to keep a band together because money is coming in. The MC5 didn't have money coming in. We never pulled a golden horseshoe out of our ass. Never got the golden ring. Then, we had our political stance which generated enormous negative reaction from the police. It's hard for people to understand today that a rock band could be the object of such police pressure that orders would come from the White House to do something about that goddamn rock band.
I couldn't even imagine.
We've seen it with Ice-T and “Cop Killer” and N.W.A. They all saw part of it. The MC5 were the original, and bore the brunt of a concerted effort by the federal government, the United States Justice Department, to squash dissent amongst young people. To squash the anti-war movement, to squash the civil rights movement, to squash the marijuana culture, of everything that young people were interested in. They had a concerted effort to destroy and disrupt, and we know that now through our Freedom of Information requests and our federal court case that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
How do you, as an individual human being, comprehend the idea that the federal government would look at you, Wayne Kramer, and say, "You're the cause of the ills of society"?
It's ultimately infuriating. You can only keep a boot on someone’s neck for so long. And then they're gonna buck.
Can you talk to me about this new MC50 tour that you're embarking on? How did that whole thing come together?
Well, I like playing music for people. I like playing with other musicians, and so when we were closing in on the 50th anniversary, it occurred to me that this might be a viable hook to hang a tour on. I was lucky enough that Brendan Canty from Fugazi has his own relationship with the MC5's music. And Kim Thayil has his own relationship with the MC5's music. And Marcus Durant has his own whole relationship. And Billy Gould from Faith No More—who's going to be playing bass on the dates—he's got his take on the MC5. So everybody—Don Was, Matt Cameron—everybody's got their own connection to this music. So, we're all approaching it kind of head-on. And to tell you the truth, the MC5's never sounded this good.
What’s it been like to trade licks and solos with Kim Thayil?
It's been a ball. He's really a terrific musician. He takes his guitar playing seriously and he wants to get it right. And I think I'm exposing him to some musical ideas that are outside of his experience, like to learn how to play free. We're not just making noise up there. That there's a freedom, carries with it great responsibility. So to play freely you have to carry all that responsibility to leave the beat and the key behind and just play the music. Just see what happens. And I think he's really enjoying it. I think it might be stretching him out a little bit and that's always a good thing.
The tour is supposed to end in Detroit in the fall. Are you pretty excited for that gig in particular?
I can't imagine it. Because in a million years, if you had asked me, I never thought I'd be playing Kick Out The Jams live in Detroit 50 years after the night I recorded it. I just couldn't imagine such a thing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.