Wednesday, January 25, 2017
Besides being the party who propelled the MC5 (and New Order, and New Race, and The Motor City Bad Boys, and...) into the stratosphere with his percussive power, Dennis "Machine Gun" Thompson [pictured above, with the MC5] is also undoubtedly the greatest living high-energy conversationalist on the planet. He talks the same way he plays the drums -- energetically, assertively, aggressively, thoughts spilling over each other two or three at a time, punctuated by explosions of laughter.
This interview took place in two parts, beginning on March 24 and winding up on March 28, 1998. We started out talking about his recent activities.
Ken: What have you been up to lately?
Dennis: Well, lately I've been trying to become a priest, but they won't let me. I've got a CD coming out called Phantom Patriots, Volume One. I'm shopping a label. There are two or three labels that I'm courting; I'm looking for the best distribution deal, and I want accountability for sales. When you work with independent labels, you don't get that.
Ken: Who are some of the people involved?
Dennis: Well, the first round are local people. That's Joey Gados, who played with one of Rob Tyner's MC5 bands; Pete Bankert, who plays with Dark Carnival, has played with, oh Christ, 15 bands, he owns a studio; and Tommy Ingram, who is a young singer, but...he's done the Detroit thing. It's a very powerful unit.
I just talked to Deniz Tek, I'm going to do a version of "Kick Out the Jams" for this, I believe. I'm either gonna have Deniz do the "Kick Out the Jams" instrumental or the theme song, "(We Are) The Phantom Patriots." And Deniz has agreed to do a solo for me. Once I get the DAT version of that finished, I'll send it off to him in Montana, and we already spoke about it and he said he'd love to, 'cause we haven't played together in awhile, and so I'll have Deniz Tek as another Phantom Patriot.
The concept of the Patriots is an ongoing concept. The idea is that every succeeding volume, I'll search to find new people, new players who want to donate their time and their energy to play the music; they won't care about the recognition, they won't care about fame, and they won't care about fortune. They will care about being able to play in a context that is completely, totally free. They're all gonna sign off as...whatever happens, "Dennis, if you can bring me 500 bucks for your initial deposit from sales, or if you can give me a royalty," I'll give them a royalty; I'll make sure they get some money.
There's 50 people that are lined up to do this concept, and the bottom line is, the Phantom Patriots is exactly what it means. We're phantoms, that means invisible; we're spectres, we're ghosts, whatever, shadows, and we are patriots; we love our country, we do the right things. And no one's gonna know who's in the band. Except me. I have to use my name as the hook to work the media. Once I get to the media, I start explaining the concept and they'll get the drift...like a benefit for the masses, y'know? (Laughs)
On Volume One, I bring in these musicians, and there's a synchronicity in the air. I'm bringing the players in to play. What I've tried to do is to get as many of my creative friends as possible to do the computer artwork, to do the marketing, friends that are DJs at radio stations, musicians that wanna just really play, etc., etc., etc.
Ken: Can you describe the music?
Dennis: Well, the first CD is straight-ahead rock and roll. It's bad-ass rock and roll; the songs sound like MC5, the Stooges, Metallica, Pearl Jam, Nirvana; we cover the spectrum.
Dennis: What it was, was a spoken invocation to "Kick Out the Jams," and this was at the Heidelberg in Ann Arbor, three weeks before he died. He was just preaching the Gospel for four minutes. So while I'm wrapping up this Phantom Patriots CD, Pete and the guys shut off all the lights in the studio and said, "Hey, Dennis, why don't you just go crazy, and be you, okay, just go!" So I did, I created a piece. I constructed an actual piece of artwork and I dedicated it to Rob and Fred. I cried a little bit, and I played. I played for four minutes.
Little did I know that Pete Bankert had thought about this, but didn't tell me about it, and he had this dialogue, because back in '91 at the Heidelberg, Pete Bankert was playing bass in Rob's band, so he knew, he knew. So anyway, I come into the studio two days later, and he put the two of them together. It was like, "What the...this is...excuse me." It's really good; talk about your spoken word or your performance art, this is crazy, 'cause I've got a person who's been dead for seven years playing a piece with me, and we're in perfect sync. I played well...Billy Cobham would be proud. Elvin Jones would be proud. Keith Moon, he'd be proud, too. Cool?
Rob died in '91, and Fred died in '94. They were both 46 when they died, and they both died of heart problems. So when I finally hit 47, that day, I swung from the chandeliers. Because I passed that 46-year-old year old curse of the Five, right? (Laughs)
Ken: How old are Wayne [Kramer] and Mike Davis now?
Dennis: Wayne'll be 50 in another month, end of April, I believe, and Michael will be 54 in June or July. And I'll be 50 on September 7th, 1998.
Ken: Can you expand a little on the concept behind the Phantom Patriots?
Dennis: The concept of the Phantom Patriots is a book I've been writing for ten years. Essentially it's a roman a clef of the experience of the MC5. The Phantom Patriots are everybody in this country who cares about improving the quality of life here. Raising the job standard level. Raising the educational level. Taking care of the children. All the things that need to be done. And the way to address this is, we'll be patriotic, but we'll be like spectres; we'll be invisible, we'll slowly change the people's attitude.
The idea is to try to remain invisible, try to get a lot of people working and having fun. We're not into it to make money, we're not into it to get laid, we're not into it to be rock and roll stars, we're into it for the love of the art of it all, and the philosophy of it all, and the politic of it all. I think it's gonna be a very, very beautiful ongoing thing. I see one CD per year. I'll be the one that's gonna be visible, and I'll use the MC5 name to market it. But each package is gonna be a creative package, which you don't get much, nowadays. You get standard art department kind of general puff. But I've got a guy who's very creative and artistic who spent three weeks on just the front cover so far. You know why? He doesn't make enough money at his day job and he needed something creative to do. That's sorta like the idea. READ FULL INTERVIEW ON 194 BAR
"You know what 'Black To Comm' means?
Okay. "Black To Comm" was when we were playing the Grande Ballroom, we used to let bands - a lot of bands would use our equipment, and we would say, "Fuck you, if you break it, we told ya... "black to comm." Quite simply, on the P.A. amp, "Comm" is commonly referred to as the negative ground, and the "Black" was the wire... clear from the power source, right?
And that's exactly what it was, it's like, "Okay, just be sure you put the black wire into the comm connection here," you know what I mean? "if we trip over it and knock it out again" - because there was all these wires strewn across the stage." Full Interview Here (Dennis Thompson interviewed by Ken Shimamoto)
Thursday, January 12, 2017
PSF: How did you first hear about the MC5?
In 1968, I was going to college in Ohio and heading back to Boston (my hometown) for the Christmas holiday. I stopped in New York to see some friends of mine who were signed to Elektra- Magic Terry and the Universe, they never recorded but they were kind of an aesthetically legendary band. They were the first band to put together poetry and rock and roll. This was the late '60's so there was no concept too grandiose or far out not to be tried. The idea of a poet screaming in front of a punk band wasn't out of the question. Danny Fields, the guy who bought the Stooges and the MC5 to Elektra, had signed them. All these bands quickly saw themselves as being part of the redefinition of the possibilities of rock and roll.
The first thing they said was 'you're going to school in the Midwest, tell us about the MC5.' I said 'what?' I had no idea what they were talking about. I got the whole MC5 spiel then and saw them do their first show in New York, a free show at the Fillmore run by a group of street people called the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers. These are the same people who three weeks later would disrupt the MC5's show at the Fillmore. On this night, they had just played the Boston Tea Party and it was their first time out of Detroit to play. I saw them and I thought that they were hands down the best rock and roll band I had ever seen in my life. It's an opinion that I hold to this day.
In terms of the context of the time, it was still pretty hippy-dippy peace-and-love with three-hour solos. They were like a throwback to what the New York Times called 'rock's disreputable roots' but at the same time, they were forward looking, into free jazz and metal and all of that. It was like getting the best of both worlds, a reminder of the crotch-level impact of rock while at the same time aspiring to take it to places it had never been before. That just completely blew me away. Also from a performing point of view, they were probably the best rock and roll band I'd ever seen- no one else even came close.
PSF: Did you think there really was a Midwest scene that they were a part of?
In terms of bands like MC5, the Stooges, they all saw themselves as being an alternative to the alternative music that was then popular, epitomized by San Francisco peace-and-love. This was darker, a much more street level kind of a movement. All those bands and the people around them saw this as the next step beyond what was fashionable.
PSF: What about the politics that the band adopted with John Sinclair and the White Panthers? Was that sincere?
I think it was sincere. The situation with the White Panthers was basically that they started as a joke. You had all of them sitting around a big table in Ann Arbor smoking a lot of joints and saying 'wouldn't it be cool if there was something for white people like the Black Panthers?' They saw the Panthers as a group that gave black people pride and some sense to fight back against very real oppression that was coming down then. But the White Panthers started out as a joke really, almost an MC5 fan club. It wasn't until they announced the formation of the White Panther party and the 10 Point program that a lot of these ideas were made public. The reaction against it was so swift and powerful and frightening that a lot of these things that they had said tongue-in-cheek in the beginning suddenly came true. They then had to constantly defend themselves as a revolutionary party. It was a situation that started out one way and over the course of its lifetime, based on the political realities of the time, went a whole other way. I'm sure John Sinclair never saw himself winding up in jail.
You look at what they did with the politics. The Black Panthers did education programs and food programs. The White Panther party, as a political entity never really did much. It was just a name. As soon as you put a name to it, you also made it a target. It sort of pushed things in a radical direction that was pretty extreme.
A lot of the interest in the MC5 now is based on the perception of them being this political band. My interest in the MC5 is in terms of what they accomplished as a band and what they contributed musically. The rest of it is all part of the story. The White Panthers are a peripheral part of the MC5 story.
PSF: The band eventually broke with the Panthers and Sinclair. What's the story behind that?
You get a different story about that depending on whom you talk to. John is still very bitter about that and feels that the band sold him out. Wayne Kramer, who now has a close personal relationship with John, tends to be a little more philosophical about it. There are other people in the band who feel other things. You're talking about a situation where each individual has a completely individual take on each situation and they don't always tally up.
Personally, I see the break with Sinclair as being inevitable just because there was so little real organization in the White Panther party as a political situation. The way it came down and the time it came down and the way it looked was far from ideal. When John went to prison, there was no one else there who could take over the reins of the MC5 on a day-to-day basis. If they had had a stronger organization, I think that they probably could have survived all that stuff with the band's associations with Trans-Love Energies, which was what it was called originally. Incidentally, after they were called the Panthers, they were The Rainbow Peoples' Party and they actually did organized politically and did accomplish some real things.
PSF: You were talking about how they incorporated jazz into their music, even before Miles Davis was doing it.
A lot of that comes from Rob Tyner, in the beginning. He named himself after John Coltrane's piano player McCoy Tyner. John Sinclair is widely credited with pushing the band into the free jazz area because that was his main love. But in truth, the band had been exploring that even before they met Sinclair. He gave just gave them the confidence to go further down that road. Rob had been this suburban Detroit beatnik in the early '60s who thought that rock and roll was dead and corrupt. He was only into jazz and blues and was later brought back to rock and roll by the Rolling Stones. But those kind of ideas were there already, as John himself will tell you- they were already floating around in the band by the time that Sinclair found them. In fact, that was one of the things that appealed to him- here was this rock and roll band that had these out-there ideas about what they wanted to do with rock and roll music. John, who had been a jazz snob and rock and roll hater, had seen that here was a rock and roll band that was doing something interesting.
PSF: Compared to the fusion music that came later, how successful do you think the band was with this idea?
I don't think they were very successful with it. You go back and listen to their great jazz-rock epics and not many of them hold up these days. Compared to the very rigid stylized thing that it turned into as fusion, at least there was something fresh about the MC5's exploration of those areas. This was coming from kids who didn't initially aspire to become jazz musicians and didn't have the jazz chops. All those ideas had been filtered back through musicians whose prime inspiration had been Chuck Berry. It was a different thing from the slick thing that fusion would become. I suppose it was more like punk-fusion than anything else.
PSF: How well did their first album capture what you'd seen in their live shows?
To me it didn't really come close. The tragedy of that album was that it was recorded in October 1968. The band had been performing that particular set for the better part of the previous year. In my view, they played that set at that time once or twice too often. It was just kind of past its peak as the set goes. It's exciting, dynamic, crazy, wild and wonderful but compared to the MC5 shows that I saw (I never them prior to recording that album), it's somewhere in the middle. It's not even close to the MC5 but does it kind of get that glorious energy of the moment.
PSF: Why was there such a huge change in the band's sound by the time of the second album?
Because of the volume and because of the primitive quality of the music that they played, the MC5 tended to be dismissed by serious music people as just noise-mongers. It was a very definitive desire with the second album to prove to the rock and roll establishment that the MC5 were great musicians, which in fact they were. From my point of view, they cared far too much about that and the second album was as extreme in its way as Kick Out The Jam had been in its (way). They went to the opposite extreme. One's as bad as the other to me although somewhere in the middle is the ideal MC5, of my dreams anyway.