The Revolution Lives
"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.
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."
Of course, the anger that right-wing beliefs like these spur within Kramer result in some of the best moments on Dangerous Madness, including the title song ("Guy next door voted Republican/Said he was burned out on paying for welfare") and "Back to Detroit" ("Kid could ride his bike through any neighborhood in town/No fear of getting jacked for his sneakers"). Kramer knows that by speaking out against this mindset, he won't change the world. But perhaps he'll change some minds.
"What I'm hoping is that my work can do what great art has done for me--which is, at a time when I needed it, it reached out and kind of put a hand on my shoulder and said, 'You are not alone. It's all right.' Bukowski did that for me, and James Brown, and John Coltrane. I don't know that I achieve it, but that's what I'm striving for."
Wayne Kramer. 9:30 p.m. Saturday, June 15, Seven South, 7 South Broadway, $8, 830-2525 or 800-444-
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