Slippin’ & Slidin’

 

Citizen Wayne Kramer Does The Work

By Sandy Carter

 

During the late 1960s, Detroit’s legendary MC5 played loud, raging rock and roll laced with bold, incendiary rants against the established order. Although far too abrasive for mainstream success, the band’s frenzied energy and raw, feedback-drenched guitar sound laid out an influential blueprint for punk and hard rock of the future. Driven by a belief in the power of music to change the world, the MC5 set a lasting standard for rock idealism. Twenty-six years since the demise of the group, Wayne Kramer, founder and guitarist of the MC5, is still pushing for a radical break with the powers that be.

“The thing that sustains me is just being pissed-off,” explains Kramer during a September phone interview prior to the release of his live solo album, LLMF (Epitaph). “I mean you just can’t help being pissed-off with the unfairness of things—the government and big business, the drug war, jobs, education, the environment, you name it. We’re going to hell in a handbasket. That motivates me. Maybe the music I make can inspire people to put a few ideas together and get involved in political action.”

“But I have to say,” he continues, “on a very personal level, I have a fear and terror of starving to death. This is a very strong motivation for me to work—to make a living. And beyond that, I’m like anyone else. I’ve got some skills and a craft and I want to do meaningful work. I want to do something of value and feel I’m part of something. I want to make the most of the time I’ve got left.”

Reflecting this sense of urgency and commitment, Kramer has recorded four solo albums (all on Epitaph) in the last four years, each one an uncompromising hard-edged fusion of candid autobiography and radical social critique. The Hard Stuff (1995) is a bruising gem detailing Kramer’s post-MC5 “lost years” to drug abuse and a stretch of prison time. Dangerous Madness (1996) followed mixing poignant personal revelations with an unrelenting indictment of urban decay. On Citizen Wayne (1997), Kramer moved in an experimental direction, blending computer sounds, samples, and tape loops with Chuck Berry-style rock and roll, funk, and free jazz on a set of songs about working class life and his glory days in the 1960s and 1970s. The just released LLMF, is an explosive, no-holds-barred live recording covering recent solo material and a riotous make-over of the MC5 anthem “Kick Out The Jams.”

“In the years between the break-up of MC5 (1972) and my signing with Epitaph (1994),” says Kramer as he elaborates on his work ethic, “I lost years to drugs and prison. When the MC5 broke up, I dealt with the pain by getting high. I had lost my band, the music and political scenes were changing and I couldn’t get gigs. So I turned to hustling, stolen goods, and drugs, and in 1975, I’m in federal prison for selling coke to undercover agents. So to come back from that and be able to play music and make albums...it’s not something I take for granted.”

Kramer’s “comeback” began during his two-year prison sentence. It was in the federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky that he rekindled his interest in music through a relationship with bebop trumpeter and former Charlie Parker bandmate Red Rodney. “Meeting Red was the best thing in a dismal situation,” says Kramer. “We played together in the prison band for the Sunday concerts in the big yard. He was just a prince of a man, a musical father, wise and hip to the ways of life.”

Around the late 1970s, Kramer also started hearing that, although the MC5’s three albums had been largely ignored in the marketplace, new groups such as the Ramones and the Sex Pistols were carrying forward the sound of his old band. “Like the MC5, these new bands, this thing being called punk, was an aggressive, guitar-based sound,” recalls Kramer. “But the word punk, you know that means something different in jail, so I didn’t know if I wanted to be associated with it.”

Moving to New York City after his release from prison, Kramer did, however, resume his musical career. With ex-New York Doll Johnny Thunders, he briefly played in a group called Gang War, while also producing several Lower East Side anarchist bands. Later in the early 1980s, he served as the guitarist on the first two albums of Detroit’s eccentric funksters, Was (Not Was). Most importantly, in the late 1980s, Kramer finally kicked his methadone habit and with the help of his future wife, Marjorie, began to let go of his bitterness and hurt around the break-up of the MC5.

“The guys in that band (vocalist Rob Tyner, guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, bassist Michael Davis, drummer Dennis Thompson) were my four brothers,” Kramer explains, “and I’m proud of what we accomplished. Back then, all these folk-rock bands, they didn’t really know how to get that hard, distorted sound. They didn’t know about energy and feedback.”

Formed in 1967 by Kramer and Smith, the quintet known as the MC5 (for Motor City Five) derived from working class families striving to live out the post-World War II American Dream. “But,” says Kramer, “the war in Vietnam started us asking questions about who’s in charge here and why is this going down. This led step-by-step-by-step to becoming enamored by visions of revolutionary change—Mao, Che, the Black Panthers.”

As the “house band” for John Sinclair’s White Panther Party, the MC5 rose to local prominence on the strength of Rob Tyner’s gravel voiced belting, Smith and Kramer’s mad slashing guitar attack, and provocative live shows featuring boisterous radical sloganeering, profanity, and band members decked out in American flags. In 1968, traveling with Sinclair to the Democratic Convention in Chicago, the group added to their reputation by playing a protest concert amid the riots. Later that year, the band recorded its album debut, Kick Out The Jams (Elektra), a live, raw document of leftist counterculture mayhem that stirred almost immediate controversy with the title tune’s screaming provocation “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” Faced with store boycotts and an unruly, vehemently anti-establishment rock act, Elektra Records quickly severed ties with the MC5.

With their manager, Sinclair, busted and jailed on a marijuana charge, the MC5 signed a contract with Atlantic Records and went into the recording studio with rock critic Jon Landau (later Bruce Springsteen’s manager) acting as producer. Back In The USA (Atlantic), released in 1970, was acclaimed as one of the greatest rock albums of all time, but record sales were slim. Atlantic cut the band from its roster. Another album, High Time (1971), followed, but after a brief tour in England, the MC5 disbanded.

In 1991, following the death of Rob Tyner from a heart attack, the band’s remaining members came together to play a benefit concert. A few years later, in 1994, Fred “Sonic” Smith (husband of Patti Smith) also died. “The loss of those guys, especially Fred, hit hard,” Kramer reflects. “It reinforces how short your time is and how you better make it count.”

Shopping for a record label that would allow the freedom to make music that counts, Kramer made what would prove to be a vital connection with the LA-based leftie punk label, Epitaph Records. “I had heard that they were a premier indie label with integrity, good market distribution, and they paid in a timely fashion,” remembers Kramer.

“So I called up Brett Gurewitz (former Bad Religion guitarist and Epitaph founder) and told him what I wanted to do, and he said, ‘fine, if it rocks, we’ll do it.’ He connected me to some LA punk guys and out of that came The Hard Stuff.”

Described by Gurewitz as a “protopunk guitar god,” Kramer showed on the The Hard Stuff that he could still unleash brilliant firestorms from his guitar. But his tough-minded socio-personal storytelling proved every bit as gripping. Railing against the pervasive violence of American life (“Crack In The Universe” and “Pillar Of Fire”), criminal justice insanity (“Bad Seed”), the mythology of rock and drugs (“Junkie Romance”), environmental degradation (“Hope For Sale”), and any number of other societal evils, Kramer powerfully merged his particular pain and losses with the everyday concerns of working class adults.

“It’s fine if teenagers or young people like what I do and come to the shows, but I’m trying to make music for adults,” he says. “This is music for people who work and have kids and worry about the bills. And the response is pretty consistent. The people coming to hear me are mostly from their late 20s to their late 40s.”

This does not mean that Kramer has in any way mellowed. The radical politics remain. His guitarwork is hard as nails, full of fury, and technically awesome. He sings with soulful, throat-ripping abandon. He still adheres to a skewed, menacing musical vision rooted in avant feedback, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Coltrane, and Albert Ayler. Add a little 1990s electronica and you’ve got a grown-up still charged to kick out the jams.

Speaking of his rejuvenated career, Kramer explains: “It’s all an on-going exploration. The first two albums, The Hard Stuff and Dangerous Madness, affirmed what I’m about and let people know I’m still around. But I don’t want to make the same records over and over. So on Citizen Wayne I worked with David Was, who shares my musical world view, and made the studio an instrument instead of just a place to make a record. It had all my musical roots, but also samples and technology of today. Now I’m back with a live album. After three studio albums, it’s time for a change. And basically, I’m a live performer and the live experience is the central rock and roll experience.”

Recorded at his Tuesday night “residency” gigs at The Mint in Los Angeles, LLMF captures all the thunderous electricity of Wayne Kramer live. Producer David Was and Cypress Hill engineer Jason Roberts deliver Kramer’s voice and Marx meets Charles Bukowski reportage upfront with crackling clarity. And his fully stoked guitar is rendered with bone rattling explosiveness. As Kramer describes it: “It’s the live show and live sound intact.”

As to his status as an admired activist rock elder, he harbors no rock star or revolution around the corner illusions. He looks back in time with humor, pride, and self-criticism. In autobiographical tunes, he’s reverberated his heady revolutionary adventurism during the 1960s and 1970s (“Revolution In Apartment 29” and “Down On The Ground”), drugs and prison (“Count Time”), rock and roll disillusion (“Snatched Defeat”), and the long road to recovery (“Doing The Work” and “Farewell to Whiskey”). “There’s nothing in that history, that legacy,” Kramer explains, “that’s going to pull me through. And there’s not a lot around me, in music or politics, that’s all that inspiring.”

“I do like Rage Against The Machine, Tom Waits, Pennywise, New Bomb Turks, and some others,” he continues. “But there’s not many out there in the rock world willing to take a stand on anything. The state of rock and roll is pretty bad. The music industry doesn’t really encourage creativity, it’s more about conformity. So you end up with something like 25 angry but sensitive female rock bands, 25 angry but sensitive boy bands, 25 pop acts, 13 ska and swing groups, 3 quirky art bands and lots of played out, recycled rap. The artists go along with all this because they think this is the way to make some money and get laid. The record companies, they’re just trying to play it safe, and in the end, they take the money.

“As for politics, there doesn’t seem to be any clear issues or energy to galvanize people like in the 1960s. The right is well organized, well financed. Voices from the left are few and not heard. So for the mainstream it’s all about consumption—jeans and shoes. There’s not much thought about what’s happening.”