Wayne Kramer and MC5 in Michigan, 1969. Photo: Leni Sinclair

An Interview With Wayne Kramer of Detroit’s Legendary MC5

Despite their short-lived career—disbanding just three years after their debut record—the MC5 remain one of the most influential rock bands of all time.

Politically outspoken, openly anti-establishment, unapologetically raw and especially loud, Detroit’s Motor City Five were known for their searing guitars, subversive lyrics and legendary live shows that ranged from unpredictable to downright riotous. Their amped-up instrumentation became a blueprint for hard rock and heavy metal while their attitude, energy and message helped pave the way for punk.

Detroit in the late 1960s was tougher than most places. During the ‘Summer of Love,’ San Francisco had an influx of flower children; Detroit had race riots. Social unrest and financial decay were rampant, and the MC5’s music reflected that. These weren’t the sad, pensive protest songs of the soon-to-be-famous folk singers that came to define the music of the time—this was revolutionary rock. Joining the White Panther Party and acting as their house band, there was a sense of immediacy and a sense of danger. You could hear it in the decibel-pushing guitar sound, and you could feel it at their shows.

While disagreements and drug abuse kept the MC5’s roster in constant rotation, guitarist and founder Wayne Kramer was the band’s de facto leader. When the MC5 dissolved in 1972, Kramer took to stealing and dealing to pay for his drug habit, until he was caught up in a cocaine sting in 1975, an incident famously referenced in the opening lines of the Clash’s ‘Jail Guitar Doors’.

Fast forward to 2018 and Kramer is 70, sober and busier than ever. Combining his love of music with his ex-con empathy, he helps with Billy Bragg’s non-profit initiative to donate musical instruments to prisoners (which, by the way, is named after that same Clash song). In August he released his intriguing, introspective memoir, The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities, and followed that up by playing 35 shows to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the MC5’s debut album, Kick Out the Jams.

I caught up with Wayne Kramer mid-tour as he performed with an all-star lineup he dubbed the MC50. Filling in the gaps of his fallen comrades are Kim Thayil (Soundgarden), Marcus Durant (Zen Guerrilla), Billy Gould (Faith No More) and Brendan Canty (Fugazi).

When you go into a live show nowadays, do you have the same mentality as when you were starting out? You still have the energy. Does it come from a different place?

Yeah, it comes from a different place, but it’s all inside of me. It’s not hard. I’m so enthusiastic about what I’m doing that its impossible not to bring the enthusiasm. When I was younger it had more to do with my ambition and my grandiosity, whereas now it’s more about the sheer joy of performance and the fact that I get to play with such wonderfully talented artists in my band. The very idea that I’m out here 50 years later is enough motivation for me.

How did you choose your touring band and what does each person bring to the stage? Are they all old friends of yours?

All of them except Marcus Durant. I met Marcus in the process of getting this band together. My view is that everyone in the band discovered the MC5 on a day in their own life, on their own journey, sometime in the past. What they heard meant something to them, and they incorporated that into what they developed and what they were trying to do; they embraced the fundamental message of the MC5. The fact that we’re all playing in the band now makes it more than just musicians on a job. I think everyone embraces the message wholeheartedly and that adds a kind of commitment to the work. There’s a sense of community with shared goals and a shared mission.

Some of these players are from bands typically considered ‘grunge.’ That’s a genre of music you don’t talk about much in the book. Do you see similarities between grunge and what the MC5 were doing back in the day?

I think there’s a clear connection between what is called ‘the grunge movement’ and the music of the MC5. This is all guitar-driven, very intense, visceral music. This is not music for the faint of heart. This stuff rocks HAAARD. Most of the Seattle players are highly accomplished. I see a direct connection and probably even more of a connection with the Seattle players than the original punk rock musicians. There seemed to be a lot of references to the MC5 in early punk bands that I could sort of hear, but not really. I could hear it much more in the Seattle bands.

I was going to bring that up. In the book, you say punk had begun when you were in prison, but you didn’t identify with it. You didn’t feel a shared ethos in politics or attitude?

It took me a minute to actually understand the concept of ‘punk’ because in prison ‘punk’ had a different meaning. It wasn’t something that I wanted to be associated with. In the 1970s, in prison, to be a punk meant you were washing other people’s socks or they would make you their girlfriend—and that’s not me. When I got out, I realised what they were really saying was, just like Beethoven or Picasso, each generation finds its own voice. They reject the earlier generation and they find their own sound and their own identity. In that sense, I’m a punk and the MC5 were punks… in that universal sense.

In the book, you say you had no doubt the MC5 would be famous. Still, aren’t you at all surprised at the legacy and staying power that the MC5 created in such a short time?

You know, I’m not surprised. I know that may sound egotistical, but we worked very hard to create music of hard substance that was not subject to the decay of time. We had a lot of arguments as a band as to what was a ‘fashionable idea’ and what was a ‘style idea’– fashion being temporary and style being eternal. Would the things we were talking about and the sounds we were using with the electric guitar last over time? I’m happy to report they’re lasting just fine.

Did you find writing your memoir cathartic, or did it conjure up feelings of regret?

Well, of course, some of it was painful. Any memoir that isn’t painful and embarrassing couldn’t be any good. [Laughs] You’re not digging very deep if you’re not getting embarrassed and ashamed of yourself. I wasn’t worried about that. The first principle is rigorous honesty and for a book to be useful. You have to tell the truth and take responsibility. I blew it a lot and I don’t mind talking about it. Part of the reason I wrote it was to figure out who the hell I am. How did I get this way? So, to put it all down in a book was illuminating.

So many musicians over the decades have cited the MC5 as an inspiration for their sound or even just picking up a guitar or fighting for a cause. What about the other side of things? Was there a backlash or were most people championing the MC5 they way they are today?

[Laughs] Oh, hell no. Hell no! We got shit from people all the time. I expected it from the police and parents and officials. I didn’t expect it from our comrades in the counterculture. That’s the stuff that hurt. People in our own community were unreasonably critical of us. They suspected our motives weren’t aligned and we weren’t revolutionary enough for the revolution. What the fuck, you know? It cost us our career. Is that credible enough for you?

Would you say you’re still as anti-establishment and government-wary as you were 50 years ago? Do you think today’s political climate is comparable to when you first became politically active?

More than ever. Having an awareness of the world around you and the forces at play and the personalities that are driving events is more crucial today than it ever was. With this wretched grifter in the White House… this guy is out to ruin everything democracy stands for. The framers were spot on when they called for eternal vigilance. We’re in a tough spot today. I mean, this guy—and I say this as a man who has served a prison term—he has no respect for the rule of law. I think we need the rule of law. It’s part of civilisation. What he’s about is the breakdown of civilisation. He’s corrupt and the corruption radiates out from him. He gives a free pass to Congress, down to the statehouse and the city council, down to the local dogcatcher. They all think it’s okay to steal because Donald Trump steals.

Tell me about Detroit. Do you still have emotional or physical ties there? Do you still get the same feeling when you go back?

I still have many ties to Detroit. I go there a few times a year. We just launched a Jail Guitar Doors songwriting workshop at the Detroit Reentry Center in the Michigan Department of Corrections. That took about five years to get it up and running, but I’m happy to report that JGD is thriving in Detroit. You know, they’re in a tough spot. The city is the recipient of the worst that capitalism can do. They’re struggling to survive. Unemployment for young African Americans is at 60%. Crime is at a very high level and it’s very dangerous in many neighbourhoods. But they’re resilient. People of Detroit have great pride for their city and they want to see good things happen in Detroit. And it may. It may one day become like Seattle.

Knowing the struggle firsthand, do you have any advice for people struggling with addiction and how to overcome it?

Sure. It’s the fundamental message that we carry as the MC50 and we carried as the MC5: There are endless possibilities, but you must put in the work. You can change yourself. You can change your job, your home, your neighbourhood. You can change your city. One person can make a difference. You can change your country, you can change the world, but you can’t do it unless you go at it wholeheartedly. It’s a message of self-determination and self-efficacy, and in terms of addiction and recovery, it’s the same thing. Help is available, but you need to make the commitment.

Thanks for that, Wayne.

Thanks for giving me the time to blab to Monster Children. I don’t take it for granted.

Sign up for the Monster Children Newsletter