For MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, the phrase “Kick out the jams” means the same these days as it did five decades ago, when the proto-punk band recorded its muscular live debut album, Kick Out the Jams, in its home town of Detroit in 1968.
“It really means that there are endless possibilities available to you, but you have to put in maximum effort,” Kramer says during a stop in Pittsburgh with MC50, the band he assembled to celebrated the album’s fiftieth anniversary. “You can’t half-step. You could change your job, your career, your life, your city, your community, your country, your planet. One person can make a difference. But you have to go for it all the way. It’s the same message that the MC5 championed fifty years ago as we will tomorrow night when we perform here in Pittsburgh: This is a message of self-efficacy and self-determination.”
Kramer says that the MC5, which also included singer Rob Tyner, guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson, was very much a product of their time.
“Even though there are some parallels between where we are socially and politically today with 1968, the main difference is that in 1968 there was an agreement among all young people that the way the older generation was handling things was disastrous,” Kramer says. “And that civil rights was woefully inadequate, that people of color were not sharing in the prosperity that America was enjoying, that the war in Vietnam was illegal and immoral, that marijuana laws were outdated and harsh and incredibly cruel and the sexual mores of the day were outdated, and that the planet was important and the way we treated it was going to matter.
“That agreement, that unity that all young people felt meant that I was part of that. My concerns were the same concerns as our fans’ concerns, and we addressed them directly. I think that’s what set us apart from our contemporaries.”
Since early September, Kramer has been touring the States and playing Kick Out the Jams in its entirety (as well as other MC5 material) with Faith No More bassist Billy Gould, Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, Zen Guerrilla singer Marcus Durant, and Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil, who told Billboard last month that this tour helped him “come out of the fetal position” following the death of Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell’s death last year.
“Those kinds of losses are very tough,” Kramer says. “I suffered them myself with the deaths of Rob Tyner, Fred Smith and Michael Davis. Especially for Kim, they were out on the road playing. At least I had some distance between the closeness of the band years and the later years when the fellows all left. But still it’s hard, because you go through so much when you’re in a band with each other. These losses… this is real life and real death, and these things are tough on everybody.”
While Kramer endured the deaths of his bandmates, he also dealt with a number of other struggles, which he documents in his new autobiography, The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities, which was released last August. In 1975, three years after the MC5 broke up, Kramer was busted for selling cocaine to undercover federal agents and ended up in Lexington Federal Prison in Lexington, Kentucky, where he met famed jazz trumpeter Red Rodney (born Robert Roland Chudnick), who had been a member of Charlie Parker’s quintet two decades earlier.
During their time in prison, Rodney schooled Kramer on musical theory, something the guitarist knew just a little bit about. Kramer had come up a rock player, learning Chuck Berry solos note for note and listening to what Pete Townshend and Jeff Beck were doing at the time. But it was the free-jazz movement of the late ’60s that encouraged me to move “into another dimension of music, the music could move into more pure sonic space, like a more human, more visceral, more direct expression,” Kramer says.
“Red was not a free-jazz fan,” Kramer says. “I never debated it with him because he was such a master musician, and he played with a vividness and imagination that you just couldn’t argue with. He was just such a badass that you have to defer to him. So with him it was mostly about learning the rules of the road. I mean, you have to know the rules; then you can break them. There’s kind of a pre-conventional, conventional, then you can be post-conventional. And Red wanted me to know how to spell chords and how to hear changes and what the modes and the scales and what it all meant and how it all worked together.”
Time goes slow in prison, but Kramer says that when he played music, it felt like he wasn't locked up anymore, which is one of the reasons he would go on to partner with Billy Bragg, who launched Jail Guitar Doors in Britain in 2007, to start Jail Guitar Doors in the United States. Named after the Clash song of the same name that mentions Kramer’s drug bust in the first verse, Jail Guitar Doors provides instruments and songwriting workshops to men, women and children in America’s prisons.
“The two hours that we’re with them in our songwriting workshops, we’re not in prison anymore,” Kramer says. “We’re in the world of creativity, and it’s a great escape from prison. It helped me maintain my emotional equilibrium, and I know what the guys we worked with — it’s the high point of their week for many of them. They live workshop, waiting for the next week when can all get together again and write some more songs.”
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