A Visit to Wayne Kramer’s America
Fifty years after the MC5 played the Democratic National Convention, hoping to jumpstart a new era, things don’t look much different in the USA. But Wayne Kramer knows that it’s still on us—and him—to change.
Fifty years ago the MC5 took the stage at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom. Over the course of two nights in October 1968, Devil’s Night and Halloween, the Motor City Five recorded the contents of its savage debut, Kick Out the Jams. Released in early 1969 by Elektra Records, the LP served as a portent of things to come. In its fuzz-caked rave-ups, which delivered free jazz–inflected R&B with an absurdist Pentecostal fervor, one can hear sounds of the future: punk, post-punk, noise rock, psychedelia—all unafraid of ecstatic brutality.
Today, at age seventy, MC5 cofounder Wayne Kramer finds himself looking back on the trail he blazed. In August, he released his memoir, The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities, documenting his youth, musical life, crimes, subsequent stint in prison, and rebirth as a late-in-life family man. And to mark the occasion of Kick Out the Jams’ anniversary, Kramer’s hit the road with MC50, a supergroup featuring Zen Guerrilla singer Marcus Durant, bassist Billy Gould of Faith No More, Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, and Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil.
Though Kramer’s most recent solo outing, 2014’s Lexington, explored jazz, sounding something like Sonny Sharrock meets Dick Dale, the return to rock and roll has been a welcome one. Walking around pre-show at the Marquee Theatre in Tempe, Arizona, Kramer appears fit, sharp, and focused. Dressed in a dark button-down and selvedge denim, he makes sure the sound man has a memory card to record tonight’s performance before doing a soundcheck with Thayil, a fuzzy presence lumbering about the stage with a Gibson SG. Settling into a couch with a bottle of water backstage, Kramer’s feeling lucky, not only to have escaped the nearly ruinous circumstances documented extensively in his book, but to have another chance to share the firebrand music of his youth.
The MC5 was the musical arm of the White Panther Party, a funny and irreverent counterculture movement you helped found. How much of the presentation of these radical ideas was planned on your part?
I’d say it was more intuitive than it was calculated. You had a bunch of really smarty-pants guys—Rob Tyner, John Sinclair, Fred Smith… These are sharp fellows. So the level of conversation was pretty refined in its own way. But we’re nineteen, twenty years old—it’s all about the laughs. Yes, it was a serious vehicle for us to express our frustration with the slow pace of change, but we were not guys in a warehouse on the west side of Detroit cleaning our shotguns, reading The Red Book, desperately planning how to overthrow the power structure. We were musicians and hipsters smoking weed, laughing our asses off at the world around us.
The MC5 played the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Did it feel like the country was essentially coming apart in those days?
Absolutely, right down the dinner table. In my youthful naïvety, I thought it was evolutionary: We’re leaving the death culture and we’re reinventing a new life culture.
It didn’t happen, but it feels like all the ingredients were there. Do you suppose they still are?
They always are. We can call it “utopian,” but what we’re looking for is a world where there’s genuine equality, justice, education, healthcare, mobility, and possibilities for everyone.
How do you fight off the sense of pessimism when you reflect on how little has changed in the years since?
We can exchange “pessimism” for “meaninglessness.” I certainly suffer from existential dread, that the sun’s gonna burn out in 900 million years and we’re gonna be a ball of ice floating in space and none of this will matter [laughs]. The only way I can militantly oppose that nihilism is through taking ethical action in my life. Go do something that moves in the direction of human happiness and away from the direction of human suffering. A lot of the work I do in the prisons, with Jail Guitar Doors [a 501(c)3 Kramer founded with Billy Bragg to provide musical instruments and mentorship to the incarcerated], at its core, is a temporary distraction from my own meaninglessness. The enemy is not the capitalists, or the Republicans, or even Donald Trump. The enemy is my own cynicism. My own apathy. My own laziness. That’s the enemy.
You ended up locked up for distribution of cocaine after the dissolution of the MC5. When you got out, the punk scene was in full swing, clearly sonically indebted to what you’d been doing. What were your first thoughts observing this scene you’d helped inspire?
“The enemy is not the capitalists, or the Republicans, or even Donald Trump. The enemy is my own cynicism. My own apathy. My own laziness. That’s the enemy.”
The word “punk” meant something else in prison. But when I got out, I started catching up. What I was hearing sounded to me like skimming the cream off the top of the MC5, and not really getting any of the protein down below. I got the nihilistic politics and “no future” and all that, but musically I wasn’t hearing it. I’d just come from a world where I studied jazz with one of the greatest living musicians of our time [trumpeter Red Rodney], so I was deeply immersed in music theory, complex chord structures, and harmonies. I was hearing the same three chords I started off with. It took me until I heard The Clash [to get punk]. The Clash had big ears. They were not afraid to be influenced by reggae and dancehall, they came to New York and discovered hip-hop, beatboxes, and drum machines. There’s a value to that primal, “you don’t need to know how to play” idea. Raw, folk art kind of approach: just get your friends together and bash your songs out. But my personal interest has always been to take this to a refined level.
In the mid-’90s, you signed to Epitaph Records. Did artists like Bad Religion and The Offspring sound more refined to you?
I started to hear in some of the Epitaph bands that there was a way to do this and be creative. The first couple albums I made there I felt right at home. Up-tempo, aggressive guitar rock—I’m pretty good with that stuff. But the difference between me and the general Epitaph zeitgeist [was that] I made two albums that did that, and then I wanted to make an album that did some other things. They encouraged me to follow my muse, but they didn’t know what to do with it. They could sell punk rock records, but Citizen Wayne wasn’t so punk-rocky. It had horns, loops, some crazy shit, experimental spoken-word beatnik poetry. The company was going through some changes; they hadn’t quite developed the new [sister] label, ANTI-.
You would have fit in there perfectly with Tom Waits, someone resisting easy categorization.
They told me later that “Wayne was our snow plow. We made all our mistakes with Wayne, then we figured out how to do it.” ANTI- is a fantastic label. I have no resentment toward anyone at Epitaph; I adore all those people. I was happy our forces aligned when they did.
The first record you recorded for them, 1995’s The Hard Stuff, introduced you to a younger audience.
It was very exciting. When I first got with Epitaph, The Offspring hadn’t exploded yet. Brett [Gurewitz] would tell me, “You know, Wayne, in punk rock, 30,000 albums is considered a platinum album.” The next day, they got an order for 50,000 on The Offspring’s album, and it was like, “Holy cow, this shit’s exploding.”
Recently, you’ve made jazz records like Lexington and composed for films like Step Brothers and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. How has it felt to return to the rock and roll of the MC5 for the MC50 tour?
In a lot of ways, it’s like returning home. It’s a gift I didn’t ask for, and probably didn’t deserve, but I accept. I accept the gift and I’m enjoying it immensely. FL