The Revolution Lives

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

Not that the quintet simply went away. In 1970 Atlantic was brave enough to issue Back in the USA, an entertaining and powerful studio offering produced by journalist Jon Landau, who went on to become Bruce Springsteen's overseer. In some ways, the disc was a retreat from the in-your-face attitude of Jams; the act covered "Tutti-Frutti" and the Chuck Berry-penned title cut--hardly the most anarchic ditties in the pop-music canon--and presented originals with names like "Teenage Lust." But the brevity of slammers such as "Looking at You" anticipated the three-chords-and-a-cloud-of-dust methodology of Seventies punk even as they maintained ties with rock's past. Heard with today's ears, USA at times seems almost quaint, but only because it paved the way for rougher rants to come.

Unfortunately, this opus also went south commercially, and High Time, a 1971 followup, followed suit. By 1972, the MC5 was defunct, and Kramer was at loose ends. Returning to Detroit, he drifted into crime, supporting himself through petty thievery and drug peddling. He was eventually arrested for selling cocaine and spent a considerable stretch in jail. But his release didn't solve his problems. He kept active musically, most notably in Gang War, in which he shared top billing with doomed former New York Dolls member Johnny Thunders, but he was left with little to show for it. By the late Eighties, he was a methadone addict. (He was luckier than two of his MC5 cohorts. Tyner died of a heart attack in 1991; Smith, who'd married singer Patti Smith, died in 1994.)

Five years of recovery later, Kramer signed an agreement with Epitaph, a company that he boosts unashamedly. He calls the decision by the players in the Offspring to leave Epitaph for a multimillion-dollar contract with Columbia "probably the biggest mistake of their lives. I hope I'm wrong, but I know that band grew up in a protected environment, and now they're going to be out there with people who've got extra skin over their eyes, like sharks when they bite into something. From now on, everyone they deal with will have the shark eye about them." Epitaph, by contrast, is (in Kramer's words) "an artist-driven company" brave enough to put out important work simply because it's the right thing to do. Hence, 1995's The Hard Stuff, Kramer's Epitaph bow. The offering is as uncompromising as anything Kramer ever committed to vinyl--something that few other Sixties survivors can claim a quarter-century down the line. But Kramer insists that he doesn't feel betrayed by those who long ago gave up the good fight.

"There's a tremendous attrition rate in rock and roll, so that accounts for a lot of people not maintaining their passion for this work," he says. "But I come from a political band and a political time, and I've always found the root meaning of politics--'the interaction of people'--to be the most interesting thing happening. To me, I find the idea that the guy down the street owns a rocket-powered anti-tank weapon eminently more fascinating than anything I could make up.

"Right now, there's a great sense of people being disconnected. They don't have any sense of connection to their neighborhood or their family or their community--and when people get disconnected like that, it opens the door to all manner of terrible, terrible developments, like this tragic war-on-drugs idea. Over a million people are in prison in this country, and the vast majority of them are there for drug-related reasons. I know who those guys are: I am one of those guys, and I know how they got in that situation. After a while, that seems like a reasonable option to take. But because of these laws, we're creating a permanent underclass of people who are going to come back to the streets one day feeling less a part of their own communities. It's like a class war, really."

A mention of the recent riot at a punk-rock show at a Denver VFW hall (see Feedback, May 23) prompts Kramer to spout similar jargon. After learning about the details of the incident, he is simultaneously appalled and energized. "I think anytime you try to culturally oppress people like that, it will blow up in your face," he says. "But what the cops did by reacting that way was they just politicized and organized a whole crew that otherwise might have been nothing more than happy-go-lucky punk-rock fans. Now all of these kids have an agenda, and it will heighten their awareness. It will make them more aware of the fact that many police departments are run on the basis of 'We are the biggest gang in town.' Not everyone will react that way, but my guess is there's an intelligentsia in there that understands that they've got a right to their own culture, their own ideas and their own expressions, and they'll move on this. It's happened a lot in different eras--as we used to say in the MC5, 'Lotta kids are working to get rid of these blues. We've finally gotten hip to the American ruse.'"

Well, not everyone. "I recently did a phone interview with Ted Nugent, who I knew back in Detroit," Kramer reveals. "We got talking about politics, and I said my position is that people need to have a sense of possibility--the feeling that there is a job for them, and there is a career, and there is some place where they can build a sense of meaning and value through work in their lives. But Ted's attitude was, 'Most Americans believe that if you work hard, you should be rewarded, and if you don't, you should be punished.'" Kramer is aghast. "Punished? Poor people should be punished for being poor? Damn. That's just another example of knee-jerk fundamentalism."

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