The Hard Stuff

The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, The MC5 & My Life of Impossibilities
By Wayne Kramer
[Da Capo Press]

From its inception, rock ’n’ roll has always been an outsider art form. So of course, there has never been any shortage of rowdy, rough and ready rockers pushing the proverbial envelopes. Rock ’n’ roll is (or at least was) supposed to be wild, right?

Roughly 10 years into the genre, a certain variant of rock ’n’ roll came into being in Detroit, a loud, dirty, chaotic city that produced the loud, dirty, chaotic music that would set the template for both heavy metal and for the punk movement to come a decade hence. This point of rupture might be viewed as a revelation – or perhaps as a new low –depending on your perspective.

Anyway, there were really two Detroit bands in the late ’60s that shaped the ethos of what would become punk: The Stooges and The MC5. These bands had huge amps, tight pants, long, greasy hair, bad attitudes and the will to kill – at least Sonicly (sic) Speaking, that is.

And we all know how history played out after that, right? Both of the bands raised holy hell for a couple of years. And both of the bands then crashed and burned in drug induced hazes of self-destruction. And both bands would become hugely influential, receiving heaps of posthumous deification – and not a damned penny to show for it for decades to come.

These days, The Stooges are a lot more well-known than The MC5. I mean, this all makes sense, I guess, because The Stooges were the wilder and more abrasive band – and they had that singer, Iggy, the streetwalkin’ cheetah with a heart full of napalm. But in late ’60s Detroit, The MC5 were actually the top band. Both bands were signed by Elektra Records’ Danny Fields in one fell swoop in 1968. The MC5 received a $15K advance while The Stooges (gladly and without question) received a comparatively paltry $5K. And the numbers don’t lie. In Detroit circa ‘68, The MC5 were the top dogs and The Stooges were the coattail riders.

The ensuing 50 years, however, have been kinder to The Stooges than to The MC5. By 2003, The Stooges, who, with the exception of bassist Dave Alexander, were, remarkably, all still alive at the time, kissed and made up – and then played an unlikely version of the Reunion Rhumba to large crowds for a bundle of lucrative years. And The Stooges’ music has been exceptionally well marketed for commercial tie-ins, movie soundtracks and the like. So Iggy and Co., some 40 years later, were able to reap a heap of the spoils and the bulk of the godhead status.

The MC5 weren’t so lucky. In the early ’70s, guitarist Wayne Kramer and bassist Michael Davis both did hard time for drug charges. Singer Rob Tyner and guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith didn’t survive the 20th century. So when it came time for The Five to do the early 2000s Reunion Rhumba, well, their conditions of possibility were severely compromised. Over the last decade, Kramer has led various and sundry MC5-related groups that have been, really, more oldies revues than proper bands. I mean, the last time Kramer played here, it was at 529, which is perhaps Atlanta’s smallest rock venue.

So, where am I going with all this? That’s right, it’s contrast time! You, the reader, will be rewarded for your tenacity reading through the above longwinded preface similarly to the way that The MC5’s Wayne Kramer is, finally, deservedly being rewarded for his tenacity as a pioneering veteran of the rock ’n’ roll wars. That’s right, it’s payback time.

Wayne Kramer is finally, finally reaping his due. Now a sprightly 70 years old, the guitarist has assembled a new, all-star band, MC50, and is touring larger venues to celebrate the anniversary of The Five’s debut album, Kick Out The Jams. And Kramer just released an autobiography, The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, The MC5 & My Life of Impossibilities. And for once, paybacks aren’t exactly hell.

The Hard Stuff is a remarkably adept and affecting retelling of The MC5’s glory days and Kramer’s subsequent jail term, struggles with addiction, and his rather misguided journey through the back alleys of music biz obscurity. The Hard Stuff might have also been titled The Ugly Truth. This is to say that Kramer bravely regales the reader with a sincere, honest portrayal that is anything but self-aggrandizing.

Of course, the first half of the book, the part about the ’60s iteration of The MC5, is chock full of accounts of rock ’n’ roll excess. But Kramer is not exactly bragging – he’s just revealing his truth. Also to his credit, Kramer avoids the pitfall of the congratulatory “sin and redemption” trope that beleaguers most rock bios and addiction memoirs.

Yeah, The MC5 were provocateurs. They were motherfuckers who kicked out the jams, motherfuckers. But they were also, in a way, dupes and sin-eaters for a generation. In an odd twist of fate, The MC5 were actually confronted by The Motherfuckers, a group of anarchist hippie types at a concert at New York’s Fillmore East in December of 1968. After a near-riot at the show, Kramer was later accosted as he was walking to a limo that Elektra Records had provided as a pleasant surprise for the band. And what a surprise it was.

Kramer’s retelling of the incident becomes a deft exemplification of the liminal space between the music business and counterculture where The MC5 existed in their all-too-brief career.

Kramer writes: What no one [from Elektra] realized was that the limo symbolized everything the Motherfuckers deplored. It was the perfect symbol of class war, parked at the curb, waiting for the “revolutionary” MC5. They [Elektra] should have sent a Volkswagen van or maybe an armored personnel carrier. For the hardline revolutionaries, this [the ensuing confrontation] was the embodiment of poor people vs. moneyed elites. Street people vs. show business posers. We were cast as part of the pig culture!

 Yeah, The Five were outsiders of society. And yet, for a time – at the same time – The Five were music biz insiders. So they were kinda/sorta “both/and” and/or “neither/nor,” if you will. They were exploited by their record company – and they were also exploited by their manager, wannabe Yippie Svengali John Sinclair, who foisted a bunch of “revolutionary” rhetoric on the band that was indeed fun and funny (“dope, guns, and fucking in the street”) – but it was also rhetoric that was somewhere betwixt being myopically idealistic at best, or a cynical attempt at media manipulation at worst. I mean, who could have taken the idea of forming a White Panther party seriously? Well, The MC5 did – for a while.

Anyway, The MC5’s brief flashpoint of ’60s fame/infamy seems a case of being at the right place (Detroit) at the right time (1968) and then doing all the wrong things (shock politics with a dash of narcotics on the side) with it. The end result was that a damned fine band with great songs and great players got caught up in a whirlwind of pseudo-revolutionary theater that got them into a lot of trouble and a one-way ticket on the express train to dissolution, dissipation and the scrapheap of music history in no time flat.

Thankfully, The Hard Stuff finally sets the record straight.

And better yet, the MC50 tour unites a great bunch of musicians to celebrate the music of The MC5 with the powerful performances and musical gravitas it deserves. At the September 7 show at the Variety Playhouse, Kramer leads an all-star band that includes Kim Thayil (Soundgarden) on guitar, Brendan Canty (Fugazi) on drums, Billy Gould (Faith No More) on bass and lead vocalist Marcus Durant (Zen Guerilla). The band is playing the entire Kick Out The Jams album in order and then, after a break, returning to the stage with a selection of songs from Back in the USA and High Time. It’ll be a high time (and a Hard Time) indeed, motherfuckers.