Folio Music

50 Years A Firebrand

MC5 co-founder Wayne Kramer sets the record straight about his legendary band and its lasting legacy

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Consider this a correction to the historical record: Wayne Kramer is officially the most interesting man in rock ’n’ roll. In 1964, he co-founded MC5, which many consider the first true punk band in history. Kramer was the first counterculture leftist to celebrate the American flag, painting one on the Fender Stratocaster he thrashed on within an inch of its life for eight years alongside Rob Tyner, Fred “Sonic” Smith, Michael Davis and Dennis Thompson.

Kramer and MC5 trafficked in garage rock as much as R&B and free jazz, citing Little Richard and Chuck Berry as initial influences before deviating into abstractions à la Albert Ayler, Sun Ra and John Coltrane. That experimental attitude was at the behest of their manager, Jerry Sinclair who, after expanding the MC5’s profile, joined Kramer in starting the White Panther Party.

Such a revolutionary political alignment came naturally to the MC5. During the devastating Detroit riots of 1967, Kramer was arrested, his bedroom telescope mistaken by police for a sniper-spotting device. In 1968, while the Democratic National Convention devolved into televised anarchy, MC5 played on, stealing electricity from a hot dog cart to power their equipment. But when Sinclair went to jail, the band fell apart, succumbing to hard drugs and heavy infighting. At just 24 years old, Kramer walked offstage during a hometown gig at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom and never looked back.

Calamities ensued, along with, eventually, recoveries. In the ’70s, Kramer became a small-time gangster, eventually serving a two-year stint in federal prison for selling cocaine. In the ’80s, struggling to get clean, he was a roofer in Brooklyn, a cabinetmaker in Nashville, and a drunk in Key West. By the turn of the century, Kramer finally got sober. Later, passionate about prison-reform advocacy, he started Jail Guitar Doors, a nonprofit that provided instruments to inmates, with English folk-punk icon Billy Bragg.

In the ’00s, Kramer started composing for movies (Talladega Nights) and TV shows (Eastbound and Down). He released a few far-out solo records. Finally, someone, somewhere convinced him (thank God) to tell his story, his way. This summer, that memoir—Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, The MC5 & My Life of Impossibilities—finally arrived. A few weeks later, Kramer set out across North America with a supercharged MC50 lineup—Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil, Fugazi’s Brendan Canty, Faith No More’s Billy Gould, Zen Guerrilla’s Marcus Durant and renowned record producer Don Was—to celebrate the 50th anniversary of MC’s acclaimed album Kick Out the Jams.

At age 70, Kramer is reenergized, his booming laugh and incisive language flicking like flames at the questions he’s asked. He makes it clear in an interview with Folio Weekly that this is finally his chance to set the record straight, so let’s allow him to do it.

Wayne on the conservative right’s co-opting of patriotism:
“This situation existed in the ’60s, which is exactly why I utilized the flag [on my guitar] as a symbol of my patriotism. I felt like everything we did as the MC5 was fundamentally patriotic. I saw the country going in the wrong direction. My understanding has always been that the American experiment in democracy is participatory—it’s something you do, not just a word or an idea. It’s an action. The Framers did a pretty good job coming up with a system that was the best anyone had come up with. It’s certainly imperfect, with a great many shortcomings, but I have no problem honoring the principles it represents.”

Wayne on his longtime friend Ted Nugent:
“I found a photograph of my friend Ted on stage with an American flag, an electric guitar and a machine gun, so I took a picture of me—flag, electric guitar and semiautomatic rifle—and sent it to him. I wanted to do an interview where we talked about these symbols and how the same symbols could mean two different things. Unfortunately, Ted didn’t grasp the irony of that. He said, ‘These are great pictures, Wayne!’ He missed the point completely.”

Wayne on Donald Trump:
“There are some things that Trump has done that I kind of like. He’s disrupted international trade and long-standing, status-quo agreements. He has an anarchist streak, even though he doesn’t know it. That’s not much, though, compared to the negativity. The guy is a wretched grifter with utter contempt for the rule of law. Speaking as a guy who served a federal prison term, I believe in the rule of law. Always have, actually.”

Wayne on the consequences of MC5’s political affiliations:
“As an artist, one of your strong suits is agit-prop. You can disrupt, generating eyes and ears for your art, by being provocative. That’s a tool in the arsenal—how are we going to carry a message? Often, there’s a price to be paid for that. Usually, you’re young enough that you can absorb it.”

Wayne on recruiting the MC50 lineup:
“It’s not like they got hired for a job—this is more like a mission. They all understand playing the MC5’s music represents a message of unlimited possibilities, of self-efficacy, and of self-determination—if you go all the way with it and commit completely. They get that. We asked everybody for a sentence or two for publicity purposes, and Marcus [Durant’s] response was that this is biblical for him. He feels like he was born for the role.”

Wayne on his bandmates’ skills:
“From time to time, I’m guiding them in learning how to play free. Let the beat go. Let the key go. Let preconceived ideas about music go. Let’s just play and see what happens. Don’t worry. [Laughs.] You gotta let go of old ideas. That idea has been fun to share. It clicks, man. These cats are such good players. Everybody’s at the peak of their game. I was so knocked out that it sounded so good and powerful.”

Wayne on the pressure of living up to MC5’s 50-year epoch:
“I didn’t really know if it was going to work. I suspected it was going to work. When we went out on stage for the very first European festival this year, my guess was that half the crowd had no idea who we were—and that half at least had heard of 'Kick Out the Jams.' But by the second song, I could see that they got it. They understood that this was balls-to-the-wall rock ’n’ roll. I’m thrilled that the music still connects the way it was designed to connect—and that it’s sustained for 50 years. Who’d a’ thunk?”

MC50 KICK OUT THE JAMS
50th Anniversary Tour with Waylon Thornton & The Heavy Hands, 9E: 7 p.m. Sept. 6, St. Augustine Amphitheatre Backyard Stage, staugamphitheatre.com, $35-$40

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