Rock revolutionary Wayne Kramer looks back on the brilliant, broken legacy of the MC5

New memoir The Hard Stuff navigates drugs, violence, and the politics of loud guitars

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      Even as rock ’n’ roll turned up the volume and chaos in the late ’60s, the MC5 seemed loud and wild. High-revving twin guitars, precision-machined rhythms, a ferocious look—the band had the swagger, grease, and roar of the muscle cars built in its hometown of Detroit.

      This was only natural, according to guitarist and MC5 cofounder Wayne Kramer. His new memoir, The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5 & My Life of Impossibilities, creates a full, deeply personal depiction of the Motor City in its blue-collar heyday. As he explains to the Straight, the group he led couldn’t have come from anywhere else.

      “There’s a fundamental sense of Detroiters that hard work is what we’re all about, and the people that worked in the manufacturing, automobile, and related industries generally worked hard,” he says by phone from New York, a stop on his tour for the book. “It informed the MC5’s ethic in terms of the idea of high-energy music. The more we put into the band, the more sweat, the more physical energy, the better the audiences responded. And I think that was the key to us discovering this concept. The music that I loved, whether it was gut-bucket funk or Chuck Berry or Little Richard, all had that energy to it. There was a commitment coming out of the artist, a visceral intensity, that other musics didn’t have. I mean, Bobby Vinton didn’t have it. Neil Sedaka didn’t have it. James Brown had it. So I think it only could have happened in Detroit.”

      The day in September 1968 when the MC5 signed a contract with the major label Elektra, alongside an infamous band of Detroit protégés named the Stooges, has long been marked as the big bang that formed the musical universe we now call punk rock. But while that lineage is beyond dispute, it neglects essential parts of the MC5’s approach—especially, as The Hard Stuff makes clear, the love of free jazz and blistering improvisation shared by Kramer and MC5 vocalist Rob Tyner, guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, bassist Michael Davis, and drummer Dennis Thompson.

      “I always found it kind of a disappointment that the more experimental side of the MC5 often got overlooked by the punks,” Kramer says. “You know, they picked up on the three-chords, thrashing rock ’n’ roll part, but they missed the, you know, ‘Let’s go beyond the beat and key’ part—the kinetic part.”

      Driven by this sound and projecting an image of debauchery, sly humour, and revolutionary zeal that made the Rolling Stones look prim, the band rode up the face of a wave of youth counterculture and rebellion that was nationwide at the time. But Kramer’s own political imagination was, again, rooted in the place where he grew up, particularly in the “appreciation for unionism” that was widespread there. On top of this was “the idea that we were an interracial city,” he points out.

      “My mother opened the first interracial beauty salon in Detroit, and growing up with kids of colour was normal—that’s just how life was,” Kramer recalls of his childhood. “But [there was] also the fact that black people didn’t participate in the benefits of the auto industry and political advancement on the same scale that whites did. You know, blacks were completely shut out of Detroit politics, state politics. Blacks were the last hired and first fired. They always got the absolute worst jobs on the shop floor. They were roundly ignored in their grievances by mostly white shop foremen, and that caused the occasional outburst of violence on the shop floor. It wasn’t that unusual for somebody to just have enough and go off.…You know, just the constant abuse. So yeah, I was aware of both things: that it wasn’t fair for people of colour, and that people of colour were my neighbours.”

      In hindsight, certain moments in the MC5’s career as a group of self-fashioned radical insurgents (such as the photo session in which the band brandished rifles, only focusing the unwelcome attention of authorities) can look like youthful posturing. But there can be no doubt about the MC5’s willingness to wade into the middle of a blaze, as it did when it turned up to play for hours at an antiwar demonstration during the famously riot-filled 1968 Democratic national convention in Chicago, while other acts on the bill fled.

      This is doubly remarkable given that, only a year beforehand, Kramer had been offered a close look at the violence that police forces of the day were ready to inflict. As if establishing a keynote, The Hard Stuff opens with his description of the 1967 Belle Isle police riot in Detroit, when lines of officers swarmed concertgoers after an outdoor MC5 show and started swinging.

      “Clearly, there was a rage building up in the Detroit police department, and they must have been rehearsing their tactics, because the level of force that they used to basically rid the park of a bunch of hippies and drunken factory workers was all out of proportion,” he tells the Straight. “I was stunned. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. To beat people mercilessly with nightsticks from horseback was like—you know…” He trails off for a moment. “When I was growing up, my mother said, ‘Wayne, if you’re ever in trouble, you can go to a policeman. He’s there to help you.’ Well, not those policemen.”

      The incident would be far from Kramer’s last brush with the law—indeed, a head-on collision was lining up. The Hard Stuff contrasts the brilliant arc of his band with the darkness that engulfed him in the years that followed the 1972 collapse of the MC5, run to ground by drugs and infighting. Disillusioned and wired to heroin, he entered a spiral of petty crime and dealing. Inexorably, as the quantities he handled grew larger and larger, his contacts reached farther and farther into the underworld. In 1975, an arrest on cocaine-trafficking charges sent him to federal prison for more than two years.

      There, he says, he witnessed the early effects of the war on drugs that still rages in America, a policy he refers to in the final pages of The Hard Stuff as a “catastrophic failure”. He illustrates this for the Straight by comparing the morass of drug-related incarceration in the prohibitionist U.S. to a contemporary Swiss program that set up a network of clinics where addicts could acquire legal heroin as the initial stage in resurfacing from the drug.

      “They come in with this terrible addiction, and the first thing they do is receive medically controlled doses of medication,” he says. “It’s treated just like any other prescription medication. And the first thing you can do is get a job, and then you can get a relationship, and then you start to have friends, and then you start to have ambitions, and then you start participating in the world, and pretty soon you’ve got a full life going on and going to the clinic every day is a big pain in the ass—so you let it go. Had that happened in this country, we’d be a different country today….It’s really been an international embarrassment and shockingly destructive, the number of lives that drug prohibition has taken.”

      Kramer’s own road out, mapped in considerable detail in The Hard Stuff, was much rockier and far more twisting.

      “Of course, you put yourself in great danger,” he says of the years it took him to find sobriety. “And I did over and over and over again. I look back at it over the course of writing the book and I’m shocked and dismayed at some of the unbelievably terrible decisions I made. I have to write it off as, you know, I wasn’t in my right mind. I was under the influence and I was not thinking straight—because anyone in their right mind wouldn’t have done the things that I did.”

      In The Hard Stuff, Wayne Kramer refers to the U.S. war on drugs as "a catastrophic failure".
      Jim Newberry

      There’s a pained laugh with that last remark. But Kramer long ago pulled himself from the cycle of addiction and re-established music as the centre of his life. He lives and works in Los Angeles, composing scores for film and TV, and leading causes like Jail Guitar Doors USA, a nonprofit organization he founded with British singer and activist Billy Bragg to help rehabilitate prisoners by providing them with instruments and musical mentorship.

      And he still wields his trademark star-spangled Stratocaster with pointed fury, most recently as leader of MC50, a group he’s assembled to mark the 50th anniversary of the old band—not to mention the alarming political parallels between the late ’60s and the present. It’s been making its way through a series of European festival dates and is heading to Vancouver in October.

      “In the rock realm, the average person doesn’t know the story of the MC5, and I’m going to guess that the average music fan today doesn’t know the story of the MC5,” he says. “It’s kind of an underground band—kind of a cult following. For example, with these concerts we’ve played this summer in Europe, my sense was that about half the crowd had no idea who we were. But we won them over because the music was so strong. They didn’t need to know.

      “I don’t want to be grandiose,” Kramer adds, “but I think that one of the reasons that interest in the MC5 has sustained all these years is that it was a bit more than a band. Yeah, we were a rock band and we played electric guitars, but we also addressed our audience’s concerns directly, and we tried to make sure that the music we created had a historical resonance that wasn’t a fashion, it was a style. And that it was something that would endure.”

      The Hard Stuff is out now. The MC50 tour plays the Commodore Ballroom on October 17. Info and a related contest are available here.