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Wayne Kramer Looks Back on 50 Years of the MC5 and His Prison Experience
Detroit’s legendary MC5 were probably the first punk rock band — but try to tell the band’s guitarist, Wayne Kramer, that.
“I get that. I get the value of that. But that was never what the MC5 was,” Kramer insists when we catch up by phone during rehearsals for the MC50 tour. “We thought it was important to play well, so I was always a little confused by the connection, especially since the punk rockers never picked up on any of the more stretched out ideas that the MC5 was trying to champion.”
In fact, Kramer doesn’t pull any punches when I ask him about where he stood on his contemporaries, like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, who visited Detroit from San Francisco, just as the MC5 were starting to take flight.
“They were basically folk guys who had plugged in,” Kramer insists firmly. “And the rhythm sections were just terrible. We took great pride in what we were doing. I just did not see the same thing in any of those bands. But, of course, nobody believed anything cool could come from Detroit, so those guys, and San Francisco, got all the attention.”
Opinionated? Sure. But a quick listen to the new MC5 box set, Total Assault: 50 Anniversary Collection, and most especially the band’s fantastic, oft-overlooked third album, not to mention Kramer’s astonishing book, Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities, out now, which is essentially the memoir of a criminal who moonlighted as a rock star, and you’ll realize he’s the rock and roll pirate that you need in your life more than ever.
When we catch up, Kramer is readying a group of A-list players to perform the entirety of the MC5s groundbreaking debut album, Kick Out the Jams, recorded live on Devil’s Night and Halloween at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom 50 years ago this October. They’ve just come off a string of European festival dates, and they’re about to embark on a U.S. tour. With only Kramer and drummer Dennis Thompson, who’ll join MC50 at a few of the upcoming shows, from the original lineup of the band, Kramer is using players who will rotate in and out as their schedules permit.
Kim Thayil and drummer Matt Cameron, both of Soundgarden, Zen Guerrilla vocalist Marcus Durant, and producer Don Was, on bass, have been rehearsing “at a volume not for the faint of heart,” Kramer tells me.
But as significant as the MC5 have come to be seen in recent years the history of rock and roll, inspiring everyone from Iggy Pop and Motorhead to The Clash, theirs was a brief, star-crossed existence. And that’s probably what makes Kramer’s memoir so fascinating: It’s mostly about his life outside the MC5. And what a life he’s had.
Not only was he an addict, Kramer spent more than two years in prison for dealing cocaine, before finding sobriety and, eventually, life as a family man. It’s an amazing tale, from one of the sharpest guys in rock.
Rock Cellar Magazine: A couple of years ago, I did a long interview with Steve Jones. I’d loved his book, because it was the real deal. He pulled no punches. He told it the way he believed it happened, and it was unlike, say, Keith Richards’ book, which is held up as the perfect rock star memoir. You know, Jonesy is the real deal, and I got the same sense reading your book. When you sat down to write this, what did you have in the back of your mind? Did you have a model in mind, or did you just kind of start riffing? What was the process for you to tell your story?
Wayne Kramer: Well, it’s interesting you should draw the comparison between Jones’s and Richards’s books. I’ve read both, and I agree with your take on them. I think Keith is probably a world-class raconteur, and has told these tales thousands of times, and then told them to a writer, and a writer organized them in a chronological order, and they made a book out of them that they sold bushel baskets full of. And Jonesy’s book, you’re right, there’s a brutal honesty to it that makes it a good read. And I’ve read a lot of memoirs and biographies and autobiographies. And oftentimes I’d notice that the writer, the artist, was never the one to mess anything up. They were always the one that had the good ideas, and it was the manager’s fault, or it was the bass player’s fault, or it was the label’s fault that everything went sideways. And I didn’t wanna do that.
Listen, any memoir that isn’t embarrassing is not a very good read.
Rock Cellar: There’s another thing that I noticed, right off the bat, which I thought was key to the story. You are, by my read of the book, a guy in search of collaborators. You’re better with collaborators. And so when, early on, you meet Fred (“Sonic” Smith), became almost like — I’m gonna use the word “punk rock” — sort of a punk rock John Lennon and Paul McCartney. You come together, you both have abuse in your backgrounds, you bond, and your talents blossom by working together. Do you see it similarly or do you feel as though you were destined on this trajectory no matter what, because you were so headstrong?
Wayne Kramer: I think between us we made one whole personality. You know, I could fill in his shortcomings and he could overcome my character defects. It was synergistic. We were a good team and we had the right proportion of affection, respect, and competitiveness that made for a healthy relationship for a long, long time.
Rock Cellar: You talk pretty early in the book about playing sock hops. It’s hard to imagine. What was the reaction like?
Wayne Kramer: Well, we were the typical band for a long time. I mean, all bands go through exactly the same process of acquiring an instrument and learning how to play it and finding other kids to play with and then trying to learn some songs and then playing at your friend’s parties … And then, finally you work up to a school dance at a local teen center and a street fair. So we were the completely archetypal band. You read anybody’s book, you know, Springsteen’s book, they’re all interchangeable. So, during those points, were just the kids who could play music.
It wasn’t until we discovered marijuana and free jazz that things started to go crazy for us. And we started pushing the boundaries of what people thought of as rock and roll music. We started experimenting with feedback and (Rob) Tyner’s ability to improvise in seeming-foreign languages … He would carry on with something that sounded like Arabic, you know. Imagine how that upset teenage audiences.
Rock Cellar: But again, you did find an audience for it. I’ve interviewed Iggy Pop and we’ve talked some about Detroit, and what kind of a fertile stomping-ground it was in those days. What’s your perspective on what Detroit, and the kind of creative cauldron it was, gave you guys?
Wayne Kramer: Well, the main thing was that everybody had jobs. So jobs are the glue that hold families and communities together. And it allows disparate groups to kind of meld. And it allowed parents to be able to afford electric guitars for their juvenile delinquent kids.
Keep them out of trouble. And music was ubiquitous growing up in Detroit in my day. Radio was hugely popular, and competitive, with specialized audiences. There were country music radio stations, gritty soul music radio stations, jazz radio stations, pop radio stations, classical radio stations, talk radio stations … So anything you wanted to find, you could find.
And the influx of workers from the south that immigrated to Detroit, for those good, union, auto-industry jobs, brought their culture with them. Black people from the south brought the blues, and white people brought country music and bluegrass, and rock and roll was thriving and exploding all over the place, with people like Little Richard and Chuck Berry getting played on local radio. And, of course, this white guy from Memphis, Tennessee with the funny name, Elvis Presley, took the nation by storm. Detroit was a perfect cauldron for all this gumbo to mix up and produce a band like the MC5.
Rock Cellar: You’re often seen as sort of the progenitors of punk rock, and yet you guys were pretty great players in your own right, and certainly collectively. I guess you’ve always blanched at the label, of being godfathers to that scene, but talk to me a little bit about the band as players, because that’s the thing that attracted me to you guys. The songs and the playing.
Wayne Kramer: Well, it’s always been important to me to be a good player. And I still believe to this day that the best music is played by the best musicians, the musicians with the best training and the best experiences and the most vivid imaginations. And there was an aspect to punk rock, when it emerged, that was kind of anti-technique and anti-intellectual and just kind of like “get your friends together and you get a case of beer and you just bang out some songs.” Whereas the MC5 were into real musical ideas: Of playing outside of the beat, or outside of the key. The things that we learned from the free jazz guys.
Or our sense of theatrics on stage, and the kind of agitprop theater that we dabbled in. It just wasn’t punk rock, in the way people think of it.
Rock Cellar: Every band that reaches some level of fame has help or a guiding light along the way. Andrew Loog Oldham with the Stones; Brian Epstein with The Beatles, Peter Grant with Led Zeppelin, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp with The Who. You guys run into John Sinclair, who was older, more educated, had kind of a refined intellect, and really helped define the band. To me, as a kid, what I read John saying about the band was what I took as gospel. Whether that was what you meant it to be or not, that was what I understood you to be.
Wayne Kramer: Well, it affected me in the same way. A lot of things that I knew from a gut level, you know, that life is unfair, that the police aren’t who they claim to be, that civil rights isn’t what they say it is, that the war in Vietnam was unjustifiable and illegal, that the ’50s era sexuality was ludicrous and out of step with modern times. But I couldn’t get much further than that. John was able to articulate how these conditions emerged, through what influences, on a granular level. I mean, he was able to break it down where I could understand how politics had something to do with it, how culture had something to do with it, how class and race had something to do with it, and how drugs fit into the picture. He spoke of it as a revolutionary struggle, within the dynamics of change, and of capitalism.
And, in a lot of ways, he was a mentor and a teacher for me. And he remained that. He’s still my mentor and teacher, as well as one of my best friends. I just saw him last week. We just played together last week. And you’re right, it was exactly what the band needed when it needed it. We needed an interlocutor between us and the outside world. And he was the perfect man for the job. We had tried to have music-business type managers, and it just never worked. We had no respect for them. We thought they were, you know, ludicrous.
Rock Cellar: Well the best managers are kind of like a Fifth Beatle, you know? They’re an extension. They’re a member of the gang. And I think that was what he was, like I said, a little older, a little wiser, but he was a member of the gang in so many ways. Wasn’t he?
Wayne Kramer: Yeah, yeah. Way more than a manager in the traditional sense.
Rock Cellar: Yeah, yeah. And yet, you guys are still a headstrong bunch of guys. Meanwhile, the Dead are coming through, the Airplane are coming through, Big Brother’s coming through. And you described them (before we started), and your feelings about all those bands, as being just awful.
Wayne Kramer: And I’m tickled you agreed with me.
Rock Cellar: Yeah. But that being said, not embracing what was a movement in music at that moment did set you apart in so many ways. It was like, you’re on Elektra and you’re struggling to be heard and you could have easily embraced what was going on. And yet, you didn’t. You stood your ground and wanted to stand apart. Was it just being kind of a headstrong, asshole sort of young guy thing or was it with something that came from core beliefs?
Wayne Kramer: Sure. It was really a response to the idea that nothing hip or sophisticated or cool could happen if you were from Detroit. You know, that the industrial Midwest was not where great art was made. It was where shock absorbers and transmissions were made. And we resented that. Because we knew the music we were playing was as good, if not better, than our contemporaries. We knew that our influences were far more stretched out than our contemporaries. And we knew that we had a direct connection with our audience; that we addressed their concerns directly in a way that nobody else was taking on. Everybody else kind of had it off to one side. They were really about the hair or the beads, or they were a blues band or something. And my position was, “Listen, I gotta face the draft too, just like you.”
Rock Cellar: I want to talk a little bit about how your book is really two books. It’s really almost a gangster memoir, as though you were a low-level gangster who happened to play some music. But talk to me a little bit about that day in your home, where you’re watching protests through a telescope and the cops bust in. You’ve just been observing what’s been going on for a few days, and suddenly you’re arrested. It really radicalizes you. By the following year — there’s a lot going on in the world — you clearly have to have an enormous amount of disdain for (Michigan Governor George) Romney and LBJ and all these people at this point. The White Panther party happens. You’re embracing the Black Panther ideal. Reflecting back, at 70 now, you’ve got to see your choices a lot more clearly now. Would you tell that kid to do anything differently, or do you see it just as an inevitable path?
Wayne Kramer: I wouldn’t do anything differently, and I’ll tell you why. The mistakes I made, the people I hurt and the hurt I felt, and I’ve done things that I’m not proud of, and I’ve been places that were very dark and very damaged. But today, the worst things I’ve done have become my greatest assets, because today I can say to another guy who finds himself in that same situation, that I know how you feel cause I did that too, and I found a way out. And if I can find a way out, you might be able to find a way out, too.
So it becomes the most valuable thing I have. Credibility. Credibility speaks volumes to other addicts and other people who are struggling. That is without a doubt in my experience as well.
Rock Cellar: Back in the USA, your second album, with Jon Landau producing, to me didn’t capture the band the way that first album did. But High Time, to me, I imagine, kind of captured a little bit more of the live feel of the MC5. Reflect on those two records, because people don’t know them as well and I think they’re worth talking a little bit about.
Wayne Kramer: Well, Kick Out the Jams was recorded live and it’s a raucous, balls to the wall, energy fest. Undisciplined. A deeply human, deeply flawed record of what happened that night when the MC5 performed. I got stung so badly by the criticism and was determined to prove that we were a great band and that we could play in tune and that we could write good songs and we could sing, on pitch, and that the tempos were gonna be accurate… And I went too far on the second album and, you know, it’s too clamped down. Although the political content, the lyrical, political content, that is actually more pointed and much sharper than it was on Kick Out the Jams. By the third album, we had enough experience in the studio that we knew how to be creative in the recording studio environment.
All bands have to learn how to do this. You know, you don’t just walk in and just make a great record. It takes some training. And by the time we made our third and final album, High Time, we had pretty much mastered the process of recording. And I think that High Time is my favorite MC5 album, because the recording quality is good, the performances are good, the songs are good. And it really pointed the direction to the future, unfortunately for a band that didn’t have a future.
Rock Cellar: I want to talk about prison. You were in prison at a time that, well, the way prisons were run was very fluid. The way prisons changed after you got out, especially with the War on Drugs. You were part of the last class, so to speak, where there were people still trying to reach inmates, get them clean. Talk about what that time meant to you, because it’s really vivid in the book. But I think it changed you in many ways. And it took some time for you to figure that out.
Wayne Kramer: Yeah. Prison changes human beings. We’re not really cut out for that kind of an experience. You live in a world where you are never safe, with very dangerous people. And not dangerous people who claim to be dangerous. Dangerous people because they’ve done terrible things. And all those big, tough prison guards that you see on TV, they’re not there to protect you. They’re there to protect each other. And so that wears on you. You develop a kind of PTSD. I caught the tail end of the era of rehabilitation in American corrections, and they told me that, “We’re done with rehabilitation. From this point on, it’s going to be accountability.”
And I saw, in a prison I served my sentence in, the population go from 600 to 1,200 in the almost three years I was there. We used to have programs and we had game rooms with a pool table. If you weren’t working — everyone had to have a job — but if you weren’t working, you could go in there and you could read or you could watch TV and shoot pool. And by the time I left, those game rooms were filled up with cubicles with people living there. And then of course they ratcheted up of the War on Drugs, and mass, hyper incarceration in America. When I went to prison there were 350,000 people in prison in America; 50,000 in the federal system and 300,000 in all the state systems combined. Today there’s 2.3 million of our fellow citizens under lock and key. That’s a seven-fold increase.
Rock Cellar: And that became your real life’s work. You’re immortalized in a line of a Clash song. You get involved in sobriety and you do the show, and you meet Billy Bragg, and you learn about “Jail Guitar Doors,” the Clash song and the movement to help prisoners, and you get involved. You’ve really embraced it as a way that you can give back. I remember an interview with you where you talked about Johnny Cash, and how he really thought he was going to change things by getting involved in prison reform, and was really crushed that he couldn’t seem to get anywhere. But you’ve learned that change is step by step and incremental. It’s slow. And a lot of people you come across, you’ve realized, you just can’t help.
Talk about what “Jail Guitars” means to you and what the outreach you do within prisons gives you, as well as what you think it gives the prisoners.
Wayne Kramer: Well, my enemy is not the Republicans or the capitalists. It’s my own cynicism and my own apathy. So, how can I militantly oppose my own meaninglessness, you know? I’m given to the thought that in 900 million years, the sun will burn out and none of this will have meant anything. That’s where I go. I can go dark real quick. So, how do I militantly oppose that? And I can only do that by taking ethical action. It means, “Get up off the couch and go do something. Make something happen in the world.”
What could I do? Well, I’m a musician. I was a musician in prison; I’m a musician out of prison. I know prisons are full of musicians. Maybe I could be the bridge between these two communities. What we’ve been able to accomplish thus far is we have instruments in over 120 American prisons and jails, and we run songwriting workshop programs throughout the California prison system, at the Cook County jail in Chicago, on Rikers Island in New York, in Detroit at the Ryan Reentry Center, in the Massachusetts Youth Offenders system. And in the songwriting workshops, we provide people with the ability to express complex, uncomfortable feelings, emotions, in a positive way.
Everyone has a story and everyone needs their story to be told. And for the first time, in the context of writing a song, one can tell his story and be appreciated for it. That all of a sudden, you’re more than just that one, worst decision you ever made in your life, and that one day where you really blew it completely. You’re more than just a crime or a number or a bed space. You can be, for that moment, an artist. You can add something of beauty to the world.
And it’s the beginning of the process of positive change. It’s very hard to do, to change, but it’s possible. And given the incentive and the tools to do so, people can and do change for the better. And let me just finish with this last idea: Most of the prisoners in our prisons today are coming home. We release 600,000 prisoners every year. And they’re gonna stand in line next to you at the supermarket, and they’re gonna sit next to you at the movies. So who do we want sitting next to us? Someone who’s been inculcated in a world of violence, racism, bitterness and defeat? Or someone who’s been given the tools and the incentive to change for the better, figure out what went wrong and make sure that they don’t come back to these penitentiaries again? And if we don’t have them change for the better while they’re in custody, they will most certainly change for the worse.
And we ignore this at our own peril.
August 10, 2020
August 7, 2020