MC5 legend Wayne Kramer looks back—and then forward—with MC50

Wayne Kramer
Jenny Risher
Annie Zaleski

MC50 (with K. Kilfeather) October 2, 7 p.m., $35-$55, Brooklyn Bowl, 702-862-2695.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the MC5’s influential debut, Kick Out The Jams, legendary rabble-rouser Wayne Kramer has enlisted a formidable band—Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil, Faith No More bassist Billy Gould, Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty and Zen Guerrilla frontman Marcus Durant—to blaze a trail on the road as MC50.

Kramer checked in from the road to talk about the MC5’s legacy, his current bandmates, his new memoir and staying positive in today’s political climate.

What’s been the most surprising and gratifying thing about the MC50 shows that you’ve done so far? That the music is absolutely contemporary and relevant and part of our culture today.

I noticed that, just watching some of the videos that have been posted so far. It’s incendiary. It absolutely feels relevant, raw nerve and everything that rock ‘n’ roll should be. Well, we built that into the music. It was a subject of a lot of discussion when we were creating this music 50 years ago, that it would have [historic] validity. That it wasn’t just the fashion of the moment, but that it was rooted in the core of rock ‘n’ roll, Chuck Berry and Little Richard’s music. It started there, and it reached outer space with Sun Ra. It was important for us to make sure these ideas had substance.

Many young musicians wouldn’t be in that mindset to be making that record, or put themselves in that perspective. I think that says both a lot about your talents as a musician and also being in Detroit, which was such an amazing musical city, too. Well, it was very tough to be recognized for our work. London, New York and San Francisco were the cultural centers, and everyone kind of laughed at us. “You’re from Detroit—don’t they make cars there?” As if we couldn’t make valid art there. But we knew that our music was as good as anybody else’s out there, if not better, and that our ideas were more stretched out than any other bands that we were aware of. We fought back twice as hard.

I’m from Cleveland, and I grew up in Cleveland, so I completely understand that mindset, with everything that went on here in the ’70s. The industrial Midwest was a laughingstock as far as art went.

And we had the last laugh. Yes, we do. [Laughs.]

The particular mix of musicians you’re playing with now—how did you assemble the lineup and what makes them such a good combination? What makes them such a good combination is they are all good brothers. They are all good people. They are all fundamentally, psychologically intact, and don’t have any glaring mental health issues. [Laughs.] It was important to me to have people around who knew how to get along, and were genial and collegial and intellectually curious.

Because touring looks like a ball when you come to the show and you see the band and the lights and the performance and the sound. But for us, the people that are doing this work, most of it’s tough. You live on a bus, and food isn’t always great, and you never get enough sleep, and everything’s done in constant motion. It was important to have good people—and once I knew that they were solid human beings, then the fact that they were great musicians on top seals the deal.

What I like about them, too, is that everyone comes from a different background and has so many different musical inspirations, too. It’s a melting pot, and I think that really helps too, because I think that dovetails nicely with what the MC5 always was, too. Yeah, and each of them have their own personal connection to the music of MC5, apart from their friendship with me.

What’s the most interesting connection? What have they shared? They all just covered the MC5 at a certain point in their own musical evolution, and it has a value of its own. I think they all embrace the message of the MC5, which is, of course, self-determination, self-efficacy and [that idea that] with total commitment, one person can make a difference. The possibilities are endless if you make a total commitment. I think we need that today. I think that’s a good message to carry.

I completely agree. Because when one person can make a difference, and then you find other people that are also determined, it starts a wave. You find the community and can band together and try to make a difference. Right. I mean, politically, it’s the equivalent of knocking on doors.

Which is still effective. Getting in front of someone and knocking on their door and having a face-to-face interaction is still so powerful and influential. Yup. It’s old-school Organizing 101.

You have a memoir, The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities, that was just released. What insights did you find out about yourself writing the book? That I’ve made some of the most colossally stupid decisions in the history of human beings. [Laughs.]

But you’re still here. That’s the good point. Well, I never wanted to destroy myself. And I’ve also been very lucky.

A lot of people haven’t. That’s right. There’s a high attrition rate in this game. We’re in a very dangerous predicament. [Laughs.] Life and death, you know?

And the lifestyle, too, you mentioned. It’s such a non-glamorous lifestyle and there are always temptations around. It’s easy to fall into different traps. Even if you aren’t in that lifestyle, it’s a dangerous predicament. [Laughs.] Death waits for no one.

What was the most challenging thing for you writing the book? Was there anything in particular? Getting the order correct. I think memory is random access, so figuring out what happened in what year and putting everything in the correct sequence was a continuing challenge. A memoir that isn’t embarrassing can’t be any good. A memoir that isn’t inner troubling can’t be any good. So I knew I was going to have to talk about things that I thought I would take to my grave with me. And I had a great editor, and she was able to call me on certain aspects of the story and say, “Wayne, you have to go deeper in this. You have to talk more about this.” Which is good.

That is good. And you’re right, I read a lot of music memoirs. You read some and you’re like, “I don’t actually know this person.” [Laughs.]

It’s like a sanitized version. It takes a certain amount of bravery to be like, “I’m going to own up to this. I screwed up.” I read a lot of them, too, and it seems like in many of them, it’s always somebody else’s fault. It’s the manager’s fault or it’s the bass player’s fault. They came up with all the good ideas and everybody else sabotaged them. Real life doesn’t work that way.

Nope. Accountability to yourself. Yup.

You mentioned earlier that the album Kick Out the Jams does feel completely relevant more than ever, politically, socially and sonically. Is it gratifying to you still—or is it a little disconcerting as well—that we’re still going over a lot of things that were big concerns in 1968? Well, if I understand your question correctly, both. The fact that the music is relevant is a good thing, because with the coming of the digital age, any band that was a band is a band right now. Young people are discovering The Beatles and saying, “Oh, I’ve just heard about this new band!” So that’s good, that the music is accessible.

And the other aspect of it, the political side—yeah, I would have preferred that we had gone on to a beautiful, creative utopian existence, but that isn’t the way it played out. And now we have a whole new set of challenges. It’s up to the people to participate in the democratic process and vote and make their feelings known. When you see the percentages of the people who actually end up voting, it makes you say, “Really? Really?” It’s just unbelievable. It’s a national embarrassment.

It’s so disheartening. It really is. Yeah, it’s terrible. And you’ve got nothing to complain about if you don’t participate. If you are unhappy with the way the government policies are running, you’re required to say something about it. You’re required to take action. Democracy is participatory. It’s not just a concept or a document that sits on a wall. It’s something for every citizen to do.

And I’ve been trying to figure out how we got to this point, where so many people are apathetic, for lack of a better word, or just don’t vote. Obviously, there is voter disenfranchisement, but there is still is a large group of people who don’t feel the need to say that. And I don’t know how we got here. I can posit one theory: That for 20 years, the Republican party has made a concerted effort to thwart the democratic process in the Congress, and they have been aided by a well-financed strategy emanating from the Koch brothers and others on the hard right to move their personal agenda forward. This kind of free-market deregulation, “don’t bother us because we’re making a lot of money” sensibility. They’ve been very successful at it. They’ve been brilliant. They finance law educations for right-leaning students. They finance yearly seminars for judges who lean to the right with wonderful vacations in the Caribbean, golf courses, free meals for the families. And I’m not excusing the Dems on this; the Democrats have participated in their own corrupt practices.

This is a long way around to say we end up with a Congress that does not take care of the people’s business. And when the Congress doesn’t take care of the people’s business, the people get pissed off. One aspect of that anger shows up in apathy. Bernie Sanders captured their anger well, and if the Democrats hadn’t fumbled the ball, he could’ve won. The candidate that did win captured their anger. That’s one way we got here. There may be other factors, but I think that’s the fundamental analysis.

What are the solutions, then? If people are apathetic or angry, where do we go from here then? The solutions are participating in the democratic process and elections. This midterm that’s coming up, it’s going to be huge. If there’s a yearning and a desire to see the country get back on a level footing, this is the chance. There’s a bunch of other strategies. You can pressure legislators to listen to your complaints. You can organize media campaigns. But the ballot is the most powerful tool we have.

I read your recent Daily Beast essay on the Democratic National Convention riots in 1968, and it really impressed me that you ended on a note of optimism. I think that’s also helpful. You sign on online and everything seems terrible. But keeping that spark of hope alive is also so important, and I appreciated you saying that. Thanks. It’s my belief that hope is a great breakfast. It’s a lousy dinner. Hope has to be backed up with action. But you’re right—there’s always hope. And, listen, I make a conscious decision to be optimistic.

You’re right. You can so easily let yourself wallow in negativity and melancholy. Choosing to be like, “I’m going to keep on going,” is difficult sometimes, but it absolutely is a choice. Yeah, my enemy isn’t the capitalists or the Republicans. It’s my own apathy and my own cynicism.

Besides the MC50 tour, are you working on anything else at the moment? Well, I’m toying with the idea of another book. Just kind of chewing on it. Touring is an all-encompassing activity, and I’ve got a couple of film projects that are waiting for me back in Los Angeles after we finish, and then I’ll take a look at them once I get home and lick my wounds for a few weeks [and] recuperate.

This tour is really extensive, looking at the tour dates. It’s brutal. It’s boot camp. Yeah. [Laughs.] But it’s the only way you can do it. You can’t really space them out. All the guys in the band are all busy with other projects, so I had to cram everything into one window.

You’ve played Vegas before, right? Do you have any memorable Vegas moments? I’ve played it a few times over the years, and I’ve been there a few times. Like one time, my wife and I ... I finished a tour in the Midwest, and we rented an SUV and we just drove back across the country, taking our time and stopping to see things, and we stopped in Vegas. I enjoy the shows. I’m not much for gambling, but I enjoy the entertainment.

Is there one that sticks out that you enjoyed in particular? I saw Penn and Teller. They’re just fabulous. But I really enjoyed ... what’s the one with the pool and all the incredible athletes? It’s a combination of swimming and circus… Le Rêve? It’s actually stunning, the degree of professionalism and accomplishments. On every level—the production, the musicians. The performers themselves were all finely tuned athletes [whose] feats of daring were heart-stopping.

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