The Revolution Lives

Punk godfather Wayne Kramer is keeping the legacy of the MC5 alive.

"I think we need radical change in politics," says Wayne Kramer, "and that can only come from young people with revolutionary ideas. Right now we're getting business as usual."
If that sounds like the brand of verbal throwdown most frequently associated with the protest movements of the late Sixties and early Seventies, it should. Kramer was the guitarist for the MC5, a Detroit combo whose 1969 manifesto, Kick Out the Jams, was both a signature document of its era, thanks to its blending of noisy rock carnality and demands for societal upheaval, and an aural harbinger. The album may not have been the first punk-rock platter; there are too many other candidates. But Kramer's riffing on Jams and the other MC5 discs clearly prefigures the Ramones and, by association, all the combos that came after them. As such, he is, for better or worse, one of the handful of visionaries upon whose backs modern rock is built.

But Kramer, who's just a couple of years shy of fifty, isn't content with the status of "influence": He's not dead, and he has no intention of acting as if he should be. His new album, Dangerous Madness, is his second recording since emerging from more than a decade of obscurity and self-abuse, and it marks Kramer as a man who's lost none of his zeal--or his anger. The recording is on Epitaph and features guest appearances by, among others, Bad Religion's Brett Gurewitz, but it's no attempt to suck up to today's proto-punkers. Instead, Madness is, quite simply, a rock-and-roll record in the MC5 tradition, shot through with lyrics that take America to task for all of its sins. "If I didn't care about things, I would make instrumental albums," Kramer notes. "But somebody's got to say something about what's going on, and it might as well be me."

As such, Kramer rejects the trendy alienation of so many current performers for rigorous involvement in the lives of ordinary people. The words on "Dead Movie Stars," about the emptiness of Hollywood, and "The Rats of Illusion," an attack on exploitation, may strike some as naive, and perhaps they are. But Kramer is willing to risk such slips in the name of a future unlike the one that seems to be looming on the horizon. As he puts it, "I'm a hopeful romantic. Though I don't much believe in faith or dogma and I certainly don't have any use for religion or those kind of blanket things, I still believe that there are people out there who can make a difference."

However, unlike those contemporary acts that are too uptight to leaven their political messages with other approaches to songwriting (e.g., Rage Against the Machine), Kramer recognizes that there's more to life than screeds. In fact, perhaps the single most moving track on Dangerous Madness is "A Dead Man's Vest," a jazz-accented biographical piece recounting Kramer's reunion with his late father, who had deserted the family many years earlier.

"My sister had been on this quest to find him," Kramer reveals. "I wasn't really that enthusiastic about digging him up, and I carried a lot of anger and bitterness--that sense of abandonment--into my adult life. But then one day she called me and said, 'Hey, I've got the phone number,' and I called him up. And he blew me away with his kindness and his graciousness. He was already dying of cancer, but he didn't complain. There was no whining about the way things had turned out for him. I'd always been led to believe that he'd been leading this desperate and lonely boxcars-and-warehouses existence, but actually he was a well-known tradesman in the Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, area and was politically active--he had served on some political-action committees and been involved in some environmental concerns.

"On that level, I guess we had something in common. But it was even deeper than that. He said, 'I understand you're some kind of musician. Well, I don't know where you got that from. Everything I know about music you could put on the head of a pin.' But when I went out there and met all his friends, they were like, 'Geez, I thought that was him coming down the street. You look so much alike.'" He starts crying softly, then stops long enough to regain his composure. "I'm just getting so I can talk about it now," he explains. "Really, this is the first time I've been able to."

Kramer has been expressing himself on other topics since his boyhood in Detroit. Early on, he saw the traps the city set for young people. "Playing music to me was a way out of going to work on the Ford assembly line, which was pretty much what stared everyone in the face when I was growing up," he says. "You could work at Ford, you could work at Chrysler, you could work at GM. See, you had all kinds of choices."

Rather than surrender to the gods of industry, Kramer hooked up with four Michiganites who shared his contempt for the status quo: vocalist Rob Tyner, guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson. Christening themselves the MC5 (short for "Motor City Five"), the performers quickly became the flashiest propaganda tools of John Sinclair, an activist who served as their manager. For instance, they participated in demonstrations at the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago; the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead were supposed to join the protest but backed out at the last minute. Halloween night of that same year, the musicians recorded Kick Out the Jams at Russ Gibb's Grande Ballroom in Detroit as their debut for the Elektra imprint. The disc hit stores the following year, precipitating protests from bluenoses who objected to a prominent phrase from the title song: "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!" The MC5 subsequently recorded a version of the song in which Tyner replaced the profanity with "brothers and sisters," but not before running advertisements in radical newspapers accusing their label of gutlessness. Such behavior did not endear them to Elektra, which dropped the band--and the subsequent arrest of Sinclair, who was tossed in the pokey on a marijuana-related beef, proved even more damaging to their long-term prospects.

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