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March 23, 1995
The Prodigal Son comes home '' . 4
MC5's Wayne Kramer brings his fire back to Detroit g m
By Matt Carlson
Daily Arts Writer
The generation gap has been tra-
My dad saw the MC5 in the late
'60s, when the rock band made its
stand at the Union Ballroom, per-
forming for hundreds of kids and
students burdened with the pres-
sures of the Vietnam War, the mass
consumption of drugs and the
struggle to rise above the clamor of
the capitalist economic system.
Faced with the Freudian-night-
marish fact that my dad may have
been cooler than I am, I regress into
denial: No! The '60s youth culture
was a bunch of dopey hippies, and
they were hypocrites. Some burned
out in New Mexico communes while
contemplating Zen and gardening
lettuce, but most joined the system
that they fought so hard against, a
system that became even more cor-
rupt in the Watergate '70s and the
But I can deny no longer.
"I'm a very fortunate guy," said
"Brother" Wayne Kramer, guitarist
for the legendary Detroit combo, who
is bursting back into the public eye
with his new Epitaph Records solo
album "The Hard Stuff." "There are a
lot of guys from my generation who
arefucked-burned-out, fat and ugly.
I wouldn't say I'm necessarily good
looking, but I'm not fat and burned
Kramer is also not a hippie - the
MC5 spawned modern punk as they
ripped through a barbarian blend of
rootsy R&B and fuzzed-out hard rock.
Their third and final album, "High
Times," is perhaps one of the top rock
records of all time and unquestion-
ably one of the most underrated. It
dabbles in rock-jazz fusion, "striving
to get beyond the traditional forms of
music into a new sonic dimension,"
as Kramer related, and it pointed to
the future - a future the MC5 were
never around to discover.
Like most musicians in the '60s,
the MC5 deeply immersed themselves
in political and social issues (and
marijuana), but the band and their
manager, John Sinclair, didn't dig
peaceful demonstration. They
couldn't wait that long. They wanted
armed revolution NOW, and aligned
themselves with the Black Panther
Party and Malcolm X.
"In the '60s," said Kramer, "there
had to be a voice for those of us who
weren't black, but who were pissed
Where: St. Andrew's Hall
Tickets: $8.50 in advance
Doors open at 8 p.m.
18 and over; call (313) 961-MELT
for more information.
off, who demanded change and who
weren't afraid to get guns. Looking
back with the benefit of 20 years, I
can say that the armed part was a
tactical mistake. You can't use the
image of the gun to effect positive
The voice for the MC5's revolu-
tion was Sinclair's White Panther
Party which called for full endorse-
ment of the Black Panther Party as
well as the abolishment of money,
the freeing of all prisoners, and a
"total assault on the culture includ-
ing rock n' roll, dope and fucking in
the streets." But the militancy was
only part of the revolution, and the
complete inanity was only another
"The other half of our revolu-
tion," Kramer explained, "was the
revolution of ideas and possibili-
ties. And that part is alive today,
realized in a company like Epitaph.
If you think of the MC5 as the Big
Bang Theory, then, before the MC5,
bands didn't take a big political stand
on anything. It was like 'You're in
show business, then don't talk about
religion or politics.' But those are
the most interesting subjects.
"We need to use our brains to
play past the bullshit and get right
down to the truth of the matter. Our
creativity is what's going to get us
Unfortunately for the MC5, their
creativity didn't get them through
the '70s or create much of an impact
upon the supposed "free your mind"
'60s culture, as they combatted re-
sistance from politicians and an apa-
thetic record-buying audience (af-
ter their debut "Kick Out The Jams"
broke into the top 40, the next two,
"Back In The U.S.A." and "High
Times," did progressively worse).
"We came out to California with
Marshall amplifiers turned to 10,
sequined clothes, moves like James
Brown and doing Little Richard
songs with a whole militant anar-
chist political stance. And everyone
out there were all peace-love hip-
So, you can see the difficulty in
trying to reach their audience.
"Also," Kramer continued, "there
was constant sentiment, from the
White House on down, about when
something was going to be done about
the MC5 because we weren't good
little rock stars who would stay over
in the corner minding our own busi-
ness. We fought back as hard as we
could, and we rocked as hard as any
band could ever rock, but ultimately
they jailed John Sinclair as a message
that said 'We're not going to allow
Sinclair's arrest on the possession
of two joints seemed as absurd then as
it does now, but the MC5 read it
within the context of the political pres-
sure to destroy the band and the mes-
"When we said we were going to
corrupt the youth of America with
this powerful tool called rock 'n' roll
and send them screaming into the
streets to tear down anything that
would stop them from being free,
they took us seriously. What it got the
Black Panther Party and Malcolm X
was death squads; what it got John
Sinclair was nine and a half to 10
years in prison; and what it got the
MC5 was being erased from the his-
tory of music."
Police pressure and minimal sales
did force the MC5 to disband in the
Even 25 years later and without Fred 'Sonic' Smith and Rob Tyner, Wayne Kramer indisputably rocks.
early '70s, and the breakup was brutal
for both the group and Kramer as an
individual musician who took years
to reconcile the loss.
The MC5 never liked the idea of a
reunion, and recently when singer
Rob Tyner and guitarist Fred "Sonic"
Smith passed away, leaving Kramer
to tell the tale of the group.
"The loss of them was a crushing
blow," Kramer said. "Fred and I grew
up together; we learned how to play
guitar together; we went through the
MC5 with the police problems and
the politics. Those guys were my
brothers, and we had gone through
the fire together. Part of my job now
is to tell the story of how we stood up
and fought back when people said
you can't do that.
"The MC5 were never accepted
by the music industry which was try-
ing to elevate rock to high art. Rock
had always been considered devil
music and teenage music, and all of a
sudden it was striving for a level of
legitimacy. But the MC5 was a blue-
collar band from a working class city,
and we were throwing a stink bomb in
their graduation ceremony."
Twenty years later, the shit still
"The Hard Stuff' falls somewhere
between triumphant return and blis-
tering audio assault with its brutally
harmonic metal-punk riffs and guitar
solos that aren't presented as the typi-
cal "this is where the solo goes" stan-
dard. Performed by guitar-master
Kramer, they emanate with subtlety
from within the songs until they're
hovering along the top of the rhyth-
mic outpouring in a cacophony of
Updated for the '90s, its mes-
sage is still as strong with themes
that range from the Los Angeles
riots (where Kramer currently re-
sides) on "Pillar of Fire" to the MC5
tribute on "The Edge of the
Switchblade." Kramer first demon-
strated his precise penchant for
metaphor and lyricism on the
group's "Poison," a tale of craftily
vicious politicians, which becomes
more searing on the new disc with
backup by the Melvins. Members of
Pennywise, Clawhammer, the Muffs
and Rancid also provide strong back-
"I wanted to work with street
level players," said Kramer. "I don't
want slick session players or rich
Hollywood rock stars on my record.
I wanted people who hump their
own gear to stinky rehearsal studios
and practice and go play in the cor-
ner of a bar for 50 of their friends
because they love doing it, not be-
cause they've got their BMW pay-
ment to make. The action is on the
street level, always has been and
always will be."
The street is also where the ac-
tion of heroin exists. On "Junkie
Romance," Kramer delves into the
glamorization of the dope-fiend rock
'n' roll star, a figure that's tragic as
well as stupid.
"A lot of times, you're dealing
with how the record industry works.
They'll sign five bands, hope that
one goes triple-platinum and the *
other four bands can eat shit and
die. They don't care about you, and
if you're in one of those other four
bands, and you're young, sensitive
and creative, then all of a sudden
your hopes and plans are being
crushed, then that opens the door to
discovering Jack Daniels and heroin
to kill the pain.
"The glamour of a dope fiend,
being like Charlie Parker or William
Burroughs, is really a big rock n' roll
lie. Playing music is how you plug
what you feel into what you're trying
to play, and you can't do that fucked
up. Heroin kills the emotional pain,
and ultimately it ends up turning your
life to shit and robbing you of your
most valuable thing, your time."
Although struggling through the
streets of LA recently, Kramer, whose
MC5 made the Detroit and Ann Arbor
kids roll in the '60s, is returning to
Detroit to kick out t'hejams in more of
a '90s fashion.
"I'm interested in playing the
music in the city that spawned it all,"
said Kramer. "It will be like the Prodi-
gal Son for me, and I'm looking for-
ward to stretching the audience out,
pushing the limits of rock and making
rock extend out from itself. Same
thing I try to do everywhere."
- = r"'.