Fifty years after the recording of the MC5’s first album Kick Out the Jams and the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Wayne Kramer talks about his new memoir, the formation of the MC5, playing at the protest outside the Chicago convention hall, John Sinclair and the White Panther Party, and becoming a dad
Wayne Kramer’s publicist texted me before our scheduled phone call. The interview had to be pushed back due to a conflict in Wayne’s schedule. But this wasn’t the case of a rock and roll prima donna sleeping off a wild night of debauchery or even a power trip of making the dreaded rock critic wait. No, the guitarist and co-founder of the legendary Detroit band, the MC5 wanted to attend a pre-school birthday party for his now five year-old son, Francis.
In the pantheon of critically acclaimed bands that never quite made it commercially during their time together (The Stooges, Big Star, The Replacements, etc.), the MC5 were arguably the most groundbreaking. Starting out in 1964 as high school kids from Lincoln Park, the working class suburb of Detroit, the band’s line-up consisted of guitarists Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith, Rob Tyner on lead vocals, Michael Davis on bass, and Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson on drums. They played anywhere they could – house parties, parks, and teen centers, quickly establishing themselves as a dynamic, high-energy rock-and-roll band. By the spring of 1967, the MC5 had landed the gig as the house band at Detroit’s famed Grande Ballroom, where their debut album, Kick Out The Jams would be recorded live over two nights at the end of October 1968.
And their politics! Imagine a band deemed too radical, too subversive, too unmanageable for the late 1960s! By the end of that tumultuous decade, the MC5 had lived through the Detroit rebellion of the summer of 1967, one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in American history; played at the Yippie-sponsored “Festival Of Life” gathering in Chicago’s Grant Park during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which erupted in violence at the hands the police; aligned themselves with the White Panther Party, who advocated the freeing of political prisoners as well as “rock ‘n roll, dope, sex in the streets and the abolishing of capitalism;” and drawn the attention of the FBI and local law enforcement around the country.
By 1973, after three albums, the MC5 broke up, their dreams shattered by low sales, poor promotion, infighting, and drug abuse.
Wayne Kramer was left shell-shocked and adrift at age 24, addicted to heroin and alcohol. Breaking and entering homes to support his habit brought him in close contact with the seamier side of the Detroit of the early 1970s, a pistol in his waistband and a steady stream of weed, coke, booze, and stolen merchandise to unload.
In 1975, he was arrested for trying to sell 11 ounces of cocaine to a federal agent and sentenced to a stint in federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky. Kramer sobered up for a couple years but when he got out in 1978, he went directly back to his bad habits. He moved back in with his junkie girlfriend in Ann Arbor – and formed the band “Gang War” with Johnny Thunders. He didn’t stand a chance.
After more than a decade of decadence and working construction in New York City, Key West, and Nashville, Kramer began his slow climb back: to music, sobriety, and real happiness. In the 1990s, he put out some solid solo albums and toured in support of them. Along the way, the years took the lives of bandmates Rob Tyner (1991), Fred “Sonic” Smith (1994) and Michael Davis (2012), but he and Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson continue to keep the music of the MC5 alive.
Kramer has remained politically active. He partnered with Billy Bragg to form Jail Guitar Doors USA, a non-profit organization that provides musical instruments and mentorship “to help rehabilitate prisoners through the transformative power of music.”
Earlier this year, Kramer formed MC50, a band consisting of members of Fugazi, Soundgarden, King’s X and Zen Guerrilla, formed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the recording of the MC5’s first album. MC50 begins a tour on September 5 in Fort Lauderdale, ending with two nights in Detroit on October 30 and 31st. A European tour quickly follows. His terrific memoir, The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, The MC5 & My Life Of Impossibilities was just published by Da Capo Press. I caught up with Wayne last month.
PKM: You don’t pull any punches in your memoir in terms of highlighting both your highs and lows – your talents and your shortcomings. Was it hard to revisit your past?
Wayne Kramer: At some points, yes, though some of it I’d been talking about since it happened. I’ve been telling the story of the MC5 for 50 years. Some of it, I can do and get out of it unscathed. But there were other things that I had to confront and go to the root of and try to piece together a coherent viewpoint. What did I really feel? How did this really affect me? What really happened to me? Some of that was tough but I wanted to do this book and I knew that a book that doesn’t have any blood and guts in it is not a very good book. A memoir that isn’t embarrassing at points isn’t a very good memoir. [Laughter]. I was going to have to show some resilience and have some backbone and go ahead and tell the story to the best of my abilities.
PKM: How did you meet Fred Smith and Rob Tyner and what were the circumstances?
Wayne Kramer: I met Fred in high school. I was trying to start a band and I asked some other kids if they knew anyone who played music that might want to be in a band with me. Somebody recommended that I talk to this kid, Fred Smith. So I did and I liked him a great deal. We found that we got along well. I had been playing guitar for a few years at that point and was a little ahead of him, so I offered to show him everything I knew, which he absorbed like a sponge. He quickly became a competent guitar player himself and we were off to the races.
Rob Tyner, I knew from the neighborhood. I was friends with his younger brother, Ricky. We shared an appreciation for drag racing. I’d go over to his house to pick him up and he introduced me to his older brother. We struck up a conversation. He knew that I played music and he was into music; I could draw and he could draw; I read books and he read books. So, we started a friendship that way. It took a long time to convince Rob that being in a rock band was a good thing and was cool. He was kind of a snob. He was a beatnik and he said, “Naw, that’s passé teenage shit! You outta be listening to Cannonball Adderly and Miles Davis.”
PKM: When you were in the MC5, you all listened to Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and Sun Ra. How did the free jazz movement influence your music?
Wayne Kramer: I was looking for a sign, a signal, a direction that would help me propel my electric guitar playing into something new. By the time I was 17, I could play Chuck Berry pretty well, I could play what the British guitar players were playing. I could play what Keith Richards was playing or George Harrison. I could play what Jeff Beck was playing…pretty much. I still can’t play what Jeff Beck plays. I’ll never catch up to him and I’m ok with that.
When I heard the free jazz movement and what the saxophonists were doing, what Don Cherry was doing on trumpet and Pharaoh Sanders and Archie Shepp…all of a sudden, I understood where the next step to take the electric guitar was, which was beyond the beat and the key.
We’d all sit around and smoke copious amounts of marijuana and listen to John Coltrane, listen to all that skronking and squawking and squeaking and honking. We loved it.
PKM: In the mid-to-late 1960s, there were a lot of very good bands coming out of the Detroit/Ann Arbor area (The Rationales, The Up, The Amboy Dukes, The Prime Movers, Bob Seger System). How did the early version of the MC5 stand out in such a crowd?
Wayne Kramer: All those bands brought a workman-like attitude to the table. Everybody worked hard on their music, rehearsed a lot. But once we started to be exposed to free jazz, we had a source of inspiration that none of those other bands had. We were able to take the influence of the Artists Workshop in Detroit – beatnik poetry and free verse – and apply that and start to develop the idea of sound collages and music that was more kinetic and less linear. I don’t think any of those other bands picked up on the idea of playing free. Everyone kind of suck within the 4/4 tempo, 12-note harmonic structures of traditional Western music.
And of course we were absolutely upfront with our political ideas. We had an ideology and we had a message and a direction that was one of self-empowerment, self-efficacy and of agency – that the MC5 spoke for themselves and we spoke for our audience. My concerns were their concerns. We spoke to it directly, so when a kid stood out in the audience and put his hand up in the air with the peace sign and we did the same thing from the stage, we made a connection that none of those other bands made, none of our contemporaries made. Not only Detroit bands, but of the rest of the bands around the world of that era.
PKM: You also had a total stage show with dance moves!
Wayne Kramer: Yeah, that’s true. It was important to me to put on a show. I was profoundly influenced by James Brown and to a lesser degree, the Motown aesthetic of dancing and dressing. It seemed to me the more energy you put into it, the better response you got from the audience.
PKM: Let’s talk a bit about the band’s politics. When did you, yourself develop your political views?
Wayne Kramer: Not until around 1971. I pretty much embraced our manager John Sinclair’s analysis, which was kind of a cultural revolutionary/Marxist perspective, a lot of which we picked up from the Black Panther Party and filtered through our psychedelic, marijuana haze humor. There was a point, though, where I had to make a distinction between what I was talking about and what those around me were talking about. I’d probably put it around 1970 or ‘71 when I realized that the violence and the political strategy was not going to work. There was no upside to it. You can’t control the outcome and the outcome will probably be negative. For the MC5, it got us kicked out of the music business and for the Black Panthers, it got FBI death squads.
PKM: In August 1968 – fifty years ago last month – the Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago. A huge protest was planned in Grant Park, complete with bands scheduled to play.
Wayne Kramer: Yeah, other bands were scheduled to play, but we were the only band that showed up! We were able to perform a full set, a 50-minute performance. We knew what we were gonna do and we completed our mission. When we stopped playing, the crowd didn’t have anything to focus on. The Chicago police and their heavy-handed tactics started to generate a violent response from the young people.
PKM: And it was after the MC5’s set that things in Grant Park and on nearby streets went to hell?
Wayne Kramer: Yeah.
PKM: I’d like to talk a bit about John Sinclair – not the typical person to manage a rock band. What do you think worked with him as your manager and what didn’t work?
Wayne Kramer: Well, we respected him. His vision and his analysis of the world around us made sense to all of us. And it certainly made more sense to me than anything I heard from these small-time music business types that had been courting us, to manage us. John was a little older, a little better educated, and had a sense of how to organize and move people and materials and ideas around. He was a terrific manager, but he had challenges that were bigger than managing a rock band, in the form of a third conviction for possession of marijuana, which in those days carried a mandatory 9 ½-year to 10-year sentence in prison, of which he was ultimately sentenced. He was only released when the Michigan Supreme Court agreed with us that 9½ year to 10 years for two joints was cruel and unusual punishment and violated the United States Constitution.
PKM: Were all of the MC5 members true believers in terms of the politics of Sinclair and the White Panther Party or were some of you more into it than others?
Wayne Kramer: In hindsight as I look back on it, at the time, everybody was on board. But over time, I’ve read reports where Tyner, later in his life, denied his political interests and motivation, which was always troubling to me. I stood on the stage with him hundreds of nights and listened to him harangue the audience to take action and to get involved and participate – not just in the rock and roll event, but in the larger political arena. I’ve also read interviews with my other fellows in the band who likewise expressed a counter-position that they weren’t really into it. It’s always troubled me. I always found it, like “Wow, none of you guys were really into this, but you were all gung-ho when it was happening. But in retrospect, everybody wants to say, “I wasn’t really down with all that.” It always struck me as strange. I mean I believe them. I don’t have reason to disbelieve them. They may have not been into it, but it feels like revisionism to me.
“To ‘Kick Out The Jams’ means in a sense to do what you’re doing full measure. Go for it all the way. Get in it. Experience your life completely to the fullest.”
PKM: The MC5’s first album, Kick Out The Jams, was recorded live at the Grande Ballroom in October 1968. What was the thinking behind having the band’s first album be a live recording?
Wayne Kramer: It was a consensus decision. We weren’t experienced in the studio, so there was some reservation about being able to capture the excitement of the band on a studio recording. No one else had launched a band with a live album. What we did best was play live. We also thought it would be an imaginative way to present the band to the world. Most bands did two or three studio albums before doing a live album. We thought it would be cool to come out with a live album first.
PKM: Early on, you were the house band at The Grande Ballroom in Detroit. What was so special about the Grande Ballroom? I’ve heard stories about it as this incredible space. Was it the acoustics, the energy of the place?
Wayne Kramer: Well, it was a gorgeous structure to begin with. It was built in the 1930s when ballroom dancing was the rage in America. Before radio and television, people used to go out every night and go dancing and socialize. Detroit had a number of these beautiful, floating wooden dance floor structures with gorgeous, natural acoustics to amplify the dance bands of the day, the big bands that toured the country. With the end of the Big Band era, it was shut down. Then in the Sixties, when Russ Gibb went out to California and saw what was happening at the Fillmore, he thought maybe that would work in Detroit. He found the Grande and rented it and hired the MC5 as the house band. All that gorgeous architecture and space became available to a whole new generation of music fans. Since this was a new culture, a different time, people felt safe at the Grande. You could wear what you wanted. They didn’t serve alcohol, so there was no fighting, there was no violence. You could smoke a joint at the Grande and no one gave a damn. People danced, people were allowed to express themselves. All kinds of people came – white people, black people, brown people, neighborhood people, kids from the suburbs. Everybody could go there and feel good about being there.
The sound was spectacular; the sightlines were great and it was a great sense of community that hadn’t existed before, certainly in Detroit. Everyone could go out every weekend and hear great live music and hang out with their friends. It was really the social center of life for young people in the Midwest, from about 1967-1971. There were great concerts every weekend. It was just fabulous!
PKM: When the MC5 broke up in 1973, how would you describe your mental condition?
Wayne Kramer: I was destroyed. I was so destroyed I didn’t even know how destroyed I was. I thought I was handling everything fine. But the last thing I was doing was handling everything fine. I was so messed up. I didn’t know my ass from a hole in the ground. I’d lost my standing in the community. I lost my best friends. I lost my way to earn a living. I was devastated. It was like I was stripped down to my bones and had to figure my whole life out differently. I had made no preparations for the day when the MC5 would go away. It left me in the lurch. I was vulnerable. I was full of a kind of hidden self-pity. “Whoa is me,” you know, and a great grieving, though I didn’t grieve at the time. It took me years to grieve over the loss of the band. And it was a loss, just like people experience traumatic losses in their lives. It was a traumatic loss for me and I think it was a traumatic loss for everybody else in the band, too. I was there with them; they were there with me. We all felt the same things. We’re all human.
PKM: And these were the guys you grew up with – and you were only 24 when the band broke up, right?
Wayne Kramer: Yeah. I’d known Fred Smith since we were 14 years old! We’d been in a band. We’d been through the fire, through everything together!
PKM: Why didn’t you and the other members of the MC5 stay in better touch in those years after the break-up? Too much bitterness? Complacency?
Wayne Kramer: Bitterness is the right word. The recriminations of our “whose fault” it was, flew in every direction. What did we know, we were 24 and 25 year old guys? We’d already been through so much: violence, the police, the politics, the FBI, drugs, sex, international travel. Sure, most bands eventually break up, but then again, most bands don’t have to deal with the FBI tapping their phones or the police department searching them every time they walked out of the house. Most bands don’t have to deal with armed militancy against a political structure that you felt like you were almost at war with. The MC5 had to deal with the rejection from the music industry, the rejection of our own contemporaries, even our own revolutionary comrades turned on us. The end result was that it was extra devastating.
PKM: I have a couple questions about your time in Lexington Federal Prison. You met Red Rodney, Charlie Parker’s trumpet player, there. What role did he play in your life while you were incarcerated and after?
Wayne Kramer: He opened up the world of the dope fiend/jazz musician to me, on an intimate level. We lived together in prison. We served time together. We spent thousands of hours walking the yard, talking together. Here was a guy who I admired to my core. He was my idol and he was back in prison in his 50s and it was just complex. I was so much like him on one level. We were both defiant and we were both grandiose, impatient, and we were both artists and musicians. We were both opioid abusers. I didn’t want to come back to prison at 50. And listen, he didn’t want to be there at 50, either, but circumstances were beyond his control.
He was also a giant in music. His understanding, his skills in music were on a level that most musicians today still haven’t achieved. He played at a level that very few trumpeters can accomplish in a lifetime. His music was so vivid and so alive with the cultural history of America, that sometimes it was breathtaking. So for him to take an interest in me and become my mentor and my teacher was an unexpected gift that I never in a million years thought would happen to me while I was serving a four-year federal prison term.
He remained my mentor even after we were both released. Eventually, he went back to his life in jazz and I went back to my life in rock. He left us in 1994, I think it was. My time with him is one of my most precious gifts.
PKM: So you were able to really grow as an artist and a musician during the time you were incarcerated.
Wayne Kramer: True. I went in as a pretty adventurous rock guitar player and I came out a competent musician. I gained an understanding of harmony, music theory. Red taught me my Theory 101 course, taught me the numerical system, how to harmonize a melody and how to improvise through chord changes. He imparted some great gifts to me.
PKM: The MC5’s bass player, Michael Davis, was also incarcerated in Lexington. How complicated was your relationship with him there?
Wayne Kramer: Michael and I were estranged at that point. We were civil and friendly, but everyone was still bruised from our time together in the MC5. And I had to be the one to fire Michael. I was the bandleader, so I got the hard jobs. I’m sure he resented me for that. He’s got a right to his feelings.
Michael did not play music at Lexington. My co-defendant was a wonderful Detroit bass player named Tim Shafe who was also locked up with us at Lexington. Anytime we did music, he played bass.
“…most bands don’t have to deal with the FBI tapping their phones or the police department searching them every time they walked out of the house. Most bands don’t have to deal with armed militancy against a political structure that you felt like you were almost at war with.”
PKM: The time between your release date in 1978 and the early 1990s was not an easy time for you. How do you see that time now, after some distance?
Wayne Kramer: It was really ruled by my addiction. My addictions stopped me at every turn from accomplishing anything of merit. I was still dealing with not only the pain of the loss of the band, but then I’m dealing with being an ex-convict and having a life that was unmanageable. Drugs and alcohol made sense to me. They weren’t my problem; they were my solution. The problem was I couldn’t get along in the world. The world wouldn’t do what I wanted it to do. So I treated my dissatisfaction, my anger, my shame, my fear, with heroin and whiskey. And that really, as I look at it in hindsight, that continued to be my chief problem, the key to all the continued hurt and pain that I was gonna go through for the next couple decades.
PKM: How did you come to your decision to finally get sober?
Wayne Kramer: I “aged out,” you know. There is something that happens with men in prison when they hit around age 50. We call it “aging out.” They get tired of being a tough guy. They get tired of being a gangster. They get tired of being a hustler. They just want to get out of prison and have a wife and a little house and have a job and just have a life – and be like a person in the world. I think for me, it might have been partially developmental. I’d been doing the same behavior for decades. If you can say one thing about this complex, mental disorder that we call addiction is that it’s predictable. I just got tired of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting things to turn out different. Then I met a few people who were like me, who had been to the penitentiary, who had hurt people and who had been hurt and today they were different. They had changed. I was intrigued with how did they do that? The more I got into it, the more I discovered that, if they could do it, then I could do it to. And I did. I followed their direction.
PKM: Your father left when you were a young boy – but you reconnected with him decades later, before he passed away. What effect do you think that had on you?
Wayne Kramer: Reconnecting was a – I don’t want to say academic – but maybe it was cerebral and intellectual, but not very emotional. There’s no way to go back and recapture a childhood and fatherhood at 40. The relationship between a father and son is built over those moments when the son needs the father. Or the father needs the son, but those moments…when the kid falls down and he needs someone to put a band aid on his knee; or when he does good in sports and he looks around for that thumbs up of approval that you did a good thing – that’s how it’s built, over days and months and years of being there. There’s no way to go back and get that again.
But I was interested in who he was and what his life had turned out to be. I had built an entire scenario in my mind of who he was and I was completely wrong. It turns out he was a disabled war veteran, a combat Marine with terrible PTSD from the battles he’d gone through, that he treated with alcohol because nobody knew what they were doing back in those days. The bitterness between he and my mother from their divorce and his alcoholism, it settled in me in the form of deep resentment that made me an angry kid and then, later an angry young man. Meeting him made me realize he was just a human being that was put through unbelievable situation and he did the best he could. He had a wife and he had friends and he was an activist in the community and he was well respected and well loved by so many. It was a startling revelation for me. I grew to appreciate him a great deal.
“Drugs and alcohol made sense to me. They weren’t my problem; they were my solution.”
PKM: What’s it like to be a father to your son Francis at the age of 70?
Wayne Kramer: Being a father is the coolest thing I ever did and the most important job I’ve ever had. It’s the most challenging and meaningful experience of my life. I don’t think I could overestimate how meaningful it is to me. I’m head over heels in love with my son and I cherish every moment with him. He turns 5 in August. That’s why I haven’t toured for 5 years because these years are the most important! Mama and Papa need to be there. Now who he is is starting to emerge and now, he can handle me being away for a couple of months. We’ll see!
PKM: MC50 – Do you feel the need to keep the music alive and to honor your band mates?
Wayne Kramer: I don’t think there’s a nostalgic component to it. We played these festivals in Europe this summer. My guess is maybe half of the crowd knew something about the MC5 or had heard the expression, “Kick Out The Jams!,” but the other half had no idea who we were. What they heard and experienced was a band coming out and rocking as hard as they’d ever heard, balls to the wall, head banging, slammin’ guitar rock! And they dug it! Every gig we did, by the time we finished playing, the crowd was bigger than when we started. Which I think speaks to the place that hard rock has for music fans. It’s alive and well! To go out and play this stuff today, it’s in tribute to the originators who helped create this music and also to the message of the band from the beginning, which has been: You have unlimited possibilities at your fingertips. The only thing that’s stopping you is your own reservations, the idea that you… To Kick Out The Jams means in a sense to do what you’re doing full measure. Go for it all the way. Get in it. Experience your life completely to the fullest. If you do that, even if you make a mistake, you’ll come out of it better! Even if you’re wrong, you’ll come out of it better, because you’ll have a clear idea of what happened!