I Done Kicked ’Em Out: Wayne Kramer on the MC5’s Early Days, 50 Years Later

Half a century after the MC5 recorded Kick Out the Jams live at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit, guitarist Wayne Kramer is still going strong. He’s marking the anniversary — and celebrating the spirit of the Motor City Five — in many ways.

Throughout the fall, he’ll head up the MC50 tour, featuring an all-star cast with members of Soundgarden, Fugazi, Faith No More, and Zen Guerilla. The supergroup will play Kick Out the Jams in its entirely across the world.

On Sept. 21, the band’s LPs will be reissued as the Total Assault: 50th Anniversary Collection. The box set features Kick Out the Jams, Back in the USA, and High Time on red, white, and blue vinyl, respectively.

There’s also the uncompromising memoir that came out earlier this month, The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities. In the book, Kramer recounts his journey through addiction, prison, and rock music in an unflinching fashion. In honor of the 50th anniversary festivities, here’s an excerpt from The Hard Stuff courtesy of Da Capo Press, which finds Brother Wayne Kramer talking about the band’s early days.

After the insurgency, I rented a larger apartment five blocks away in the same building on Canfield Street that Tyner lived in. Fred and Mike didn’t have a place to live, so they moved in with me, along with my pal Frank Bach and my girlfriend Eve.

Having Fred and Michael living in my apartment, and Tyner living downstairs, had some advantages. Getting the MC5 together to rehearse was always a major challenge. Fred refined passive-aggressiveness to a high art that made getting him to rehearsal on time way harder than it should have been. None of us had any money or owned cars, so living in the same apartment building eliminated one huge step in the process.

On January 24, 1967, Detroit police arrested 54 people, including John Sinclair, in a raid of the Artists Workshop. This was John’s third arrest for possession of marijuana. The same narcotics detective, Warner Stringfellow, had engineered John’s arrests. He held a vendetta against John because John had written a scathing poem about him after the first bust. I knew this latest bust was trouble, but I tried not to think about it too much.

I came up with a plan for creating a management team for the band. I was very impressed with Barry Kramer (no relation), a hip entrepreneur in the neighborhood who owned a record store over on Cass Avenue called Mixed Media. He seemed to know the business side of pop culture. Russ Gibb, who was running the Grande Ballroom, was also very sharp, and had the best place to play in town. And most importantly, the deepest thinker and visionary I knew, John Sinclair.

My idea was to get all three of them together in a three-way partnership to manage the MC5. Not too grandiose, huh? Of course, there was no way in hell these very different people could work together to make my plan real. I was shooting for the moon and beyond. Barry would go on to found Creem magazine, and Russ remained the Grande’s promoter while continuing his career in education. But John agreed to manage the band, and I couldn’t have been happier.

John told me he was friendly with Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully. When John confided that he didn’t actually know anything about managing a rock band, Scully revealed that he didn’t know anything, either. But these record company suits were throwing money at the San Francisco bands, and Scully wanted the Dead to get some. He was making it up as they went along. I guess that was good enough for John, and he started in on the business of managing the MC5.

John, Leni, Grimshaw, Tyner, Emil Bacilla, and a bunch of other musicians, poets, and general freaks had joined together in an anarcho- syndicated concept that they christened Trans-Love Energies. It was a sort of movable feast of media resources, technology, and multipurpose facilitators. This was the entity that would manage the band. It was a utopian concept of communal efforts for the good of all. All I knew was that I needed help running things, and now the MC5 had management. From the jump, I had been doing everything that needed doing, and I’d maxed out my limited power. I was very happy to have John as a partner.

John and I would stay up all night talking about everything and everybody. I admired his vision and analysis of how the world worked. We talked endlessly about how things got to be the way they were. John had the ability to articulate feelings that I only knew on a gut level. I knew that life was unjust and unfair, but he could explain in granular detail how and why. We talked about music and culture, too, and I was the beneficiary of his vast detailed knowledge of jazz and the musicians that created this greatest of all American art forms.

One of the first things we did was move everyone in together at the former Artists Workshop building at Warren and John C. Lodge. John and his Trans-Love crew found another building in the neighborhood, and they all moved over there, freeing both the residence and the workshop space downstairs to be converted into the MC5’s rehearsal studio. I worked like a dog, stapling egg crates on the walls to soundproof the huge space. I got blisters from that fucking staple gun. The band was predictably absent for most of the drudgery; nothing new there.

This setup was perfect; all we had to do was go downstairs to rehearse.

We had a bunch of bolts of cloth that had been liberated during the July 1967 rebellion, and I used some of it to completely seal out any light from my bedroom window. I didn’t want to know if it was day or night. I wanted to sleep when I wanted to, and play music, get high, and have sex the rest of the time.

I had been reading about a new artist on the scene, guitarist Jimi Hendrix. I bought Are You Experienced, and Tyner and I were both deeply impressed. This new guy was doing something close to what we were doing and he was doing it very well. We loved him. He confirmed that we were on the right track.

The time in the rehearsal room at our new headquarters on John C. Lodge started to pay off. We could stay in there, smoke reefer, talk, plot, and scheme. We started coming up with new song ideas and production concepts. We were listening to a lot of free jazz, and we’d experiment with the concept night after night. We freaked people who came by to jam out because we didn’t play in a key or tempo. It was just far-out, and further out. I wanted to know what Albert and Archie, Sun Ra, and Coltrane were hearing out there. Physical endurance wasn’t a problem; we were young, and loved playing music together for hours on end.

I was the only guy in the band who had taken any formal music lessons, and I could get my ideas across by saying, “Do this part eight times, then do the other part four times.” We all knew verse, chorus, and bridge construction, and that was fine for our purposes. Discussing free and experimental music was an exercise in metaphor and cosmic double-speak. Tyner was very articulate when he had an idea to communicate. And it was in this period that Fred Smith really blossomed as a guitarist.

Up until now, Fred was the world’s greatest rhythm guitarist. He took great pride in his rhythm playing. Back in Lincoln Park, we had both mastered the painful technique of Chuck Berry rhythm playing, and Fred applied that same persistence to everything he did. But something changed. One day he came into the rehearsal room and started playing like Eric Clapton. I was amazed. Seemingly overnight, he had learned the modern blues style that all the English guitarists were employing. He was just playing his ass off. He must have been woodshedding on his own. All I know is, one day he was a bona fide soloist, whereas the day before he wasn’t.

Our friendship and musical partnership reached a new level during this period. We played guitars together so much that we could reach a state of ego-loss where we played simultaneously, without regard to who played what role. Playing dual rhythms and dual solos, we were able to improvise together endlessly and effortlessly. We had musical conversations with our guitars. No other current two-guitar groups could do this at the energy level that we could.

This time period, from fall of 1967 through the winter of 1968, was the most idyllic time for the MC5.

Everything that I had worked for since I was 14 years old was coming together better than I’d planned. Finally, we were all living together. Hanging out together. Getting stoned together. These were the people I most wanted to be with, and I was with them 24–7. I would go over to Rob’s room and see if he wanted to write some tunes. We would set up a little amp in the kitchen, I would play guitar riffs, and he would come up with lyrics. Rob and I wrote Kick Out the Jams in the kitchen, smoking a joint. I had been working on some guitar figures, and I played them for him. He heard something he liked and said, “Whoa, play that again.” This was how we learned how to write songs together.

This excerpt from The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities appears courtesy of Da Capo Press.

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