MC5: Five for Fighting
Jaan Uhelszki, Harp, September 2004
EVERYONE knows the old saw about the Eskimos having over 400 words for snow and the Parisians' two-dozen fevered phrases for passion.
And while it's a little known fact that Detroiters possess over 200 ways to say "Fuck You," including the attendant rude gestures – just ask Kid Rock and Eminem – not one of them is quite as effective or as long-lived as "Kick out the jams, motherfucker!"
It can safely be called the "F" word that was heard around the world since what people know about the MC5 is contained in those five little words. The first four have become a permanent part of the culture, a catchphrase that now almost completely overshadows the men who created it. That fifth word can still get you in as much trouble as it did the MC5 back in 1968, but trouble was also what this band was known for.
Maybe you associate them as the rabble-rousing musical arm of the radical White Panther Party, the scourge of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and other defenders of public decency. Police raided MC5 shows, record stores were busted for selling their albums, and the group was unceremoniously dumped by its record company even as its music was storming up the charts. All this transpired before the Sex Pistols were even a glint in Malcolm McLaren's beady eyes.
What has been lost in the building of the band's mythic stature as the godfathers of proto-punk is the MC5 itself. Although they never seemed to get the hang of making records or even attaining any measure of artistic consistency, once turned loose on a bare stage, the Five were among the most feral and awe-inspiring perpetrators of sheer bombast and rock 'n' roll brinkmanship that has ever been produced anywhere.
It was even clear the first time the MC5 swaggered onto a stage during the rather mild winter of 1965 at the Lincoln Park Band Shell, just down the road from the belching smoke of the Ford Motor Rouge plant that something extraordinary was about to happen.
While the weather may have been balmy for November, there was absolutely nothing temperate about this soon-to-be-notorious outfit that took the stage on that propitious night. Even when the venue was wrong, the sound system dicey, or the room less than engaged, what you always got from an MC5 show was pure, total passion. They hit the stage at a full bolt and didn't give up until the last encore.
Rob Tyner in front, his barrel chest perched on impossibly skinny legs, knees often locked as he bent his body forward leaning into the crowd to put a song across. Wayne Kramer, small and wiry like a human terrier, always with a knowing smirk on his rubbery face, owning the stage as he took his (even then) trademark mincing steps, tearing off angry notes from his Fender guitar and flinging them into the audience like insults.
Fred Smith was quite a different beast than the rest of his band. He elevated the rhythm guitar to a primary instrument, razing the strings and holding his guitar rigidly perpendicular to the floor as he filled the sonic space that Kramer missed. And that wasn't much.
Dennis Thompson took his name off the nameplate of a Thompson machine gun. But in those early days, he was more scattergun than machine, pounding out beats where he thought they needed to go and creating his own idiosyncratic style of seamless playing.
Michael Davis earliest talents weren't musical. He learned the bass to play in the band. They hired the incredibly talented graphic artist because he was impossibly cool, and they thought he would look good onstage. But according to Davis he was much more than that – he was the glue that held all the disparate personalities together – the peacekeeper in this very pugnacious band.
Despite their not always obvious talents, it wasn't at the teen clubs, the regional Battles of the Bands where they regularly trounced all other contenders, or even on the hard astro-turfed dirt floor at the Michigan State Fairgrounds, opening up for art deconstructionists the Velvet Underground, where the band would find their ascendancy.
Instead their myth only began to gather steam once the Five bombarded the stage of Detroit's legendary Grande Ballroom, the first psychedelic ballroom outside of San Francisco. This band with the unstoppable drive and ambition had somehow convinced Russ Gibb, the fifth-grade teacher who moonlighted as the proprietor of this former dance hall, to hire them to play there every week, initially paying them nothing for the privilege of opening for such nationally known groups as The Troggs, The James Cotton Blues Band, The Yardbirds and the Jefferson Airplane.
But very soon, sooner than anyone anticipated, it became clear that the Five was more often than not overshadowing the big-name talent that swooped down to Detroit's inner city to play for the largely underage audiences who flocked to this nexus of the burgeoning counterculture movement, blowing lesser talents off the stage – those big names who were big on pose but short on actual talent.
In fact, the reason the band dubbed their debut album Kick Out the Jams was after a rather prickly phrase that they used to heckle the night's star attraction, if they thought that the headliner was turning in a less than stellar performance.
"In the early days at the Grande Ballroom, when the MC5 were the house band, touring bands would come to Detroit and the MC5 would open for them," remembers guitarist Wayne Kramer. "And more often than not, the bands were really tired. I mean they were wimpy, they had no passion about what they were doing, they were posers; we were young and aggressive fellows and so we used to harass them. We'd scream at them from the wings at the Grande, 'Kick out the jams or get off the stage'."
The MC5 were offering up a gritty, cacophonous rock 'n' roll show, complete with all the frills: Tyner with hair teased out to there, satin and silk suits, Cuban heels, and a bona fide light show. At the time of their debut, the band was single-mindedly trying to hone its live show.
"All our efforts were concentrated on the live performance," Kramer remembers. "We really worked hard at perfecting a performance that on a bad night would be great and on a good night would be unbelievable."
At first there was little to distinguish these five from the multitudes of American teenagers who picked up guitars in the wake of the Beatles – except that they all hailed from Detroit's more dangerous suburbs. They were blue-collar kids who knew their way around the mean Motor City streets, the same streets that spawned the black angry buzz of bebop, the heaving testimonies of gospel, and the passive-aggressive anger of Motown.
Somehow these rather extraordinary components recombined in the fertile minds of the nascent band to create a new entity – a bellicose, hard noise that could echo the earsplitting din of the automobile assembly lines that created the daily soundscape in this factory town perched on the butt end the Canadian border. Noise that would drown out the massive pain of trying to survive in a city with low expectations and a huge metaphoric chip on it's heaving shoulders.
Still two years away from hooking up with radical poet John Sinclair's utopian politics, this band of toughs already had a certain something – a fire, a magic and an outrageously combative stage persona for what was essentially a cover band – tearing through the stuff they heard on the radio with a fierce intensity that belied the original artists' intent.
Tunes by James Brown, Chuck Berry, the Kinks and the Rolling Stones vibrated at a higher frequency when the Five – as the cognoscenti called them – tackled them, forcing the time-worn songs into rude musical shapes that made them uniquely their own.
Although sedately dressed in matching outfits – black slacks, black vests and green corduroy blazers – and sporting rather conservative haircuts, the band was anything but conservative. All it took was a single quick glance behind singer Rob Tyner's owlish glasses to discern a sharp, dangerous intelligence at work.
At barely 17, Tyner had appropriated his surname from McCoy Tyner, John Coltrane's fabled pianist, bolstering his idea that his band should be an electric fusion of free jazz and bare bones rock 'n' roll, a creation he called he dubbed "avant-rock." But the danger didn't stop there. Beyond the staid band uniforms and preppy hair – de rigueur for those early post-Beatles days – lurked a fierce commitment to change the world far in advance of the hippie polemics that would take root and flower a year later during what was then dubbed the Peace Love Movement.
Other bands may have peddled peace and love, but not the Five. They played the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, their amps plugged into a mere hot dog cart, pushing their deafening white noise out into a crowd pummeled by tear gas and bruised and beaten bloody by police night sticks.
"We were never ever hippies, we were rock 'n' rollers," Kramer says, running a restless hand through his short brutish hair, a fair cry from the unruly thatch of curls that used to crown his bullet shaped head. "The Summer of Love never quite made it to Detroit."
"We never thought of ourselves as hippies," echoes Davis emphatically. "We thought that we were sorta like the army, the soldiers, the mercenaries of the hippies although we embraced the same values. We certainly didn't try to look, act or live like them. We were just seeking to be satisfied and live a happy life, with no restrictions of society and the establishment."
But long before that, Davis, who at 61 has retained most of his natural grace if not all of his hearing, had a premonition that he would live a auspicious life.
"When I was really young, probably around thirteen or so, I started to believe that I was created for a special purpose," he says. "I wasn't sure what it was, but I had this feeling that I was here to do something, and it involved everyone, the whole human race, in some way.
"I'm really damaged goods," he says with a rueful bark of a laugh, not meaning one word of it, before continuing his story. "When I met Rob and Fred and Wayne and Dennis, I found four other people that had a special purpose too. And when we formed the entity known as the MC5, I thought we definitely had a mission of some kind – a message for humanity at large."
Under the guiding hand of poet and politico John Sinclair, the MC5 created the soundtrack for the nascent White Panther Party, promulgating an incendiary ethos of "rock 'n' roll, dope and fucking in the streets" a full decade before Ian Dury watered down the raunchy rhetoric and turned his version into a British hit single.
In fact it's not a stretch to posit that both Kick Out the Jamsand the Five's version of John Lee Hooker's 'Motor City Is Burning' are the spiritual forebears of the Sex Pistols' 'Anarchy in the U.K.'. Over the years the innocent leftist politics may have become a little quaint, but Kick Out the Jams remains one of the finest blasts of serrated rock rage and Sun Ra riffs ever melded together, deserving of its seminal place in the canons of hard rock.
But despite the fact that the Five were smarter, louder, dirtier and more dangerous than any other band they never made much money.
"We were supporting 50, 60 people at any given moment in Ann Arbor," remembers Thompson, ironically picking at the wrapper of a Payday candy bar – a payday that never came – that lies uneaten on a coffee table in his New York hotel room. "We were supporting the White Panther Party with roadies, dressmakers. Dressmakers! You should have seen them when they were walking around their house in Ann Arbor, they all had these really beautiful summer flower print dresses. We had two or three girls that were making us costumes."
But it wasn't the lack of money that took them down or even the drugs.
"The dream died because it stopped being fun," Davis says with a soft voice, as if it still pains him to remember. "The hell with the other stuff. Fucking Panthers and the Republican Party or anybody else that's trying to take your attention out from what you love."
"One other thing that happened to us was the bad management," says Thompson. "Not having a good booking agent. Harassment by police from the local city level to the county level to the state level to the federal level to the CIA. Constant harassment there. Being dropped from Atlantic Records. No promotion. No tour support. The list goes on. And you throw all that together; you can't say it was all because we did drugs. Drugs seem to be more symptomatic of what else was going on instead of the cause. The drugs just killed the pain."
But nothing could deaden the pain of the band's final show, on New Years Eve, 1972. "That was a very tragic night for all of us," Thompson says. "That's where Wayne walked off the stage and said, 'I can't do this shit anymore.' And he just stomped off. There was the time when there'd be 1500 people butt to butt at the Grande when we played but at this last show there was maybe 300 people out there and we sucked."
The drummer wanted to get the band together a month later, but that initial effort petered out when Rob Tyner refused to join and Kramer was already deep into his own heroin addiction. Tyner died in 1991 from a heart attack and was followed by Smith three years later, from the same ailment and a surfeit of alcohol. Of the surviving members, Kramer is the only one of the Five who has steadily worked as a musician since the demise of the band – even forming a band while incarcerated for drugs for 20 months in Lexington, KY.
So why have the MC5 returned, after three decades? Did the restless ghosts of Fred "Sonic" Smith and Rob Tyner demand action, when it became clear the world was in an uncannily similar place to when they plugged their instruments into that hot dog cart? Rob Tyner told former Creem editor Ben Edmonds in 1989, "It's a tough life. It can be an awful life. But, look, you're only given this time and place, and if people try to restrict you from doing things, you gotta fight. If only to set an example for the next generation of fighters."
Wayne Kramer is a little more prosaic about the band's resurrection. "Why are we doing it now? Because the opportunity presented itself."
The opportunity Kramer is talking is about was a free concert in London last summer at the infamous 100 Club, which Levi's financed. The blue jeans monolith had licensed the MC5's logo to promote a line of vintage clothing from former MC5 artist Gary Grimshaw – rights that according to Kramer he did not legally possess.
"The sequence of events is Rob Tyner's widow, Rebecca Derminer, Gary Grimshaw, and [John Sinclair's ex-wife] Leni Sinclair licensed the MC5 trademark to Levi's and they didn't have a right to do that. And they sold out the MC5. Cheap. We naturally called Levi's, and they realized they had made a terrible mistake. And they knew that they couldn't promote the vintage clothing line without the band's permission, and let us know that the money they had given to Gary Grimshaw, they would have to take that money back from him.
And we never wanted to do any harm to Gary, or anybody. And so we said, 'Let us make you a counter-proposal. We think we have an idea that could turn a lemon into lemonade.' We'll get the surviving members back together; we'll throw a special gig to make it a real event. We'll do it in a small club in London. And it'll be a free show – in the true spirit of the MC5. It won't be a big music business event. It'll be word of mouth. Let's record it, and let's film it, and you can pay for it. They said, 'We think that's a great idea'."
That great idea turned into A Sonic Revolution: A Celebration of the MC5, a DVD released in August. Not only does it capture the reunion in all of its subversive glory, with the 50-something rockers still swaggering around the stage with the same fearlessness and irreverence that they exhibited from the first, aided by celebrity Five fans like the Hellacopters, Nicke Royale, Ian Astbury, Lemmy and the Damned's Dave Vanian standing in for the fallen Rob Tyner and Fred "Sonic" Smith.
Following the reunion show, there was such a public outcry to extend the reunion that the band members decided to mount a small tour to promote this rather excellent document of their past, asking Mudhoney's Mark Arm, Evan Dando, and fellow Detroiter Marshall Crenshaw to help them pull it off.
"I was a little nervous to take this on," explains Arm, sitting on a battered blue couch in the New York hotel room he's sharing with the band's cinematographer on this low-budget reunion tour. "I told Wayne Kramer that Rob Tyner has some awfully big shoes to fill. But he said, 'You're not going to be filling those shoes. I don't want you to hop out there with an afro wig and do a Rob Tyner imitation.' That made it a little easier for me."
As a stand-in for Tyner on the band's current DKT/MC5 revival tour, there is no one better than Mark Arm, the 42-year-old front man from Mudhoney. A rather self-effacing, deeply quiet man off stage, Arm stood on the front lines of grunge when he formed Green River, with future Pearl Jam alums Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard – mixing the bombast of the Stooges with the sludgy indulgence of Black Sabbath with a dash of stadium rock hysterics.
But on stage in front of past and future MC5 fans, Arm is lit from within – not only the ghost of Tyner – but by a commitment to what is good and righteous about music that has the power to change and transform people's lives. Arm tackles the band's more provocative songs, like their nod to Sun Ra and a sci-fi future with 'Starship' and 'American Ruse', their all-too-current bash at U.S. politics penned back in1968.
"This is just as relevant today as it was 35 years ago when it was written." Arm says. "We're in another stupid ass war with a liar of a president and the sons of the men who were making shit loads of money in the Vietnam War are making shit loads of money now." And Arm puts his money where his mouth is. Back in Seattle, where he lives, he's one of the founders of No Vote Left Behind, a political action committee committed to unseating the current regime.
Evan Dando is a completely different animal. Taller than you'd ever imagine – like a pretty boy linebacker – the former Lemonhead undertakes the band's love songs and more frivolous tunes like 'Let Me Try' and 'Teenage Lust'. That is when he's not dousing himself with water, bashing his head with a tambourine, writhing on the floor like an autistic child, or getting in fistfights with audience members who hurl insults at him in almost every city the reconstituted band performs in.
He actually turns in a surprisingly credible performance if you can ignore the childish behavior. Sometimes it's rather sweet, when he wraps his massive forearm around Mark Arm's skinny neck and gives him a kiss smack on the side of his face after a particularly engaging rendition of 'Shakin' Street'. The duo toured the West Coast on the same bill 15 years ago and there's certainly a great deal of affection between these two very different performers.
"This is incredibly cathartic for me," mumbles Dando, hardly audible over the noise of the acoustic guitar he insists on strumming as he talks – as if the large wooden instrument will offer him some measure of protection. "This is the first time I've enjoyed music in my professional career. Well, I mean, like really, like first time I've been really been in a rock 'n' roll band.
Like it's not the MC5, really, but we are playing their songs but we're doing it a different way. Possibly inferior on our account, but I don't think they made a bad choice, myself, when they chose me to work with. There are some people saying that I'm a real bad choice, but I don't think I am. I just like the feeling of like not knowing if you're going to be kicked out of the band at the end of every show."
After a loutish performance during the first night of the reconstituted band's New York show at the Bowery Ballroom, Kramer does lay the law down, telling Dando's manager and DKT/MC5's road manager Kevin Overland that on no account can the singer have any water on stage with him.
"I don't need people walking around wiping up his spills with towels," glares Kramer who doesn't suffer fools gladly. "And while you're at it, I don't want him fucking around with the mics."
During the previous night's show, Dando took to bashing the side of his head with the mic, in an effort to make Arm laugh. While Dando is certainly a roguish performer – he's just not up to the kind of the MC5's standard of onstage danger. They always were more confrontational and plain scary when they wanted to be.
"They scared me," remembers Marshall Crenshaw, who is currently touring with the band in Fred "Sonic" Smith's spot. "The MC5 could hurt you."
"We could," Thompson concurs. "We could definitely damage your mind. We used to love to fuck with people's heads all the time, because we knew we were in a different place and it was fun, but it was sort of cruel. Sometimes."
They were undoubtedly deep thinkers – the advance guard of the revolution, the musical guard of the White Panther party, all the while playing kick ass rock'n'roll – but no one could overlook the sexual component.
The Five possessed the unstudied good looks of the young Yardbirds, the casual arrogance of the early Stones and insanity of James Brown. Each band member embodied a rock and roll archetype – and according to Davis that wasn't an accident. "We were like five method actors," he says. "We each occupied are own particular niche."
And every iniquitous thing you have heard about the MC5 is undoubtedly true. And then some.
"Our first album was the MC5 as the raging Viking pirates who will take over the world, dominate you, rape your women and steal your gold, you know?" Thompson says.
Still fit and trim at 56, the drummer has the same cool-as-an-oyster sense of provocative ennui as when he used to wear tighter-than-tight Levis and a motorcycle jacket, arms folded, his lean, mean frame propped up against a pillar of the Grande, watching the willing girls saunter past him.
The band's spiritual leader, Jesse Crawford, whose agitated call to revolution jumpstarted the band's first album, used to remark that no woman, no matter what shape, would leave the MC5's lair without being sexually satisfied. And he clearly wasn't exaggerating because at any given MC5 show you would find the most fetching females, all long legs and short short skirts, crowding the stage, an anomaly for a band that played such hard music.
In the liner notes to the reissue of Kick Out the Jams Tyner waxed nostalgic, advising fans to "Let yourself step back to a time when muscle cars ruled the Detroit streets and Motown battled psychedelia for the airwaves. It was a time when everything was everything. A time of girls without bras and sex without rules."
Even Janis Joplin wasn't immune to the band's charms. She had wild flirtations with both Kramer and Davis until their attentions caused her to bolt from their presence during their brief 1969 California tour.
"On our one and only West Coast swing, we played in San Bernardino with Janis Joplin," Davis recalls with a small smile. "We opened for her and she was backstage waiting to go on and I went over to talk to her and the sparks started to go a little bit, so I asked her if she wanted to hang out and party with us.
She was into it and after her set she waved goodbye to everybody and told her band she was going off with us. She jumped into the back of the car with Wayne and me and we drove to this party store. We went in and bought tons of alcohol and we made her pay for it. All of it. When we got her back in the car we just started acting like maniacs and stuff, and she got freaked out, basically. She said, 'I want no part of this,' then had whoever was driving take her back to her hotel."
"Nah, Michael's wrong," counters Kramer. "She liked me because I had manly thighs. 'You got some great thighs.' she says to me, 'Gee, would you like to come back to my hotel and shoot some shit with me?'"
But he says he demurred. "At that point my disease hadn't advanced to the point of injecting heroin and I said, 'No,' telling her, those are death drugs. What about doing some life drugs, like Stroh's beer?' She agreed and we went out to a liquor store. We didn't have any money so we ripped her off. Michael and I took her purse away from her and used it to buy beer with. She got mad. She stormed out, 'You took all my money!' and made us drive her back to her hotel."
"It was the purity of the spirit that endures," Kramer says. "Me plus four other men equals more than just five of us. The five of us plus our tribe around us – our family, the White Panthers, John Sinclair, all our friends and allies became something more powerful than any of us individually. And that power is concentrated in our first record in a way that you can't deny.Kick Out the Jams was a powerful statement of a time, a place and an idea that lives on."
"Songs were our organizing tools and they are now," Kramer continues. "They're vehicles which we can use to share our opinions and our attitudes and whatever we think is possible."
He's backstage after the band's second New York show, where they lived up to the massive expectations – both their own and many of their long time fans – many who have waited over 30 years to see the MC5 reignite the dream.
But as for those dreams of revolution, Kramer just doesn't know anymore. "I don't think I can still change the world," he says. "But I do know I can change me. I can do whatever it is I can do. Whatever I have to offer that day, I can do. In a way, that changes the world."
And that is no small thing.
© Jaan Uhelszki, 2004