Spreading the Jams

There'll never be another MC5, but Wayne Kramer will settle for 3

When word of an MC5 reunion came down earlier this year, a gasp of disbelief rose up from the punk subculture, at least here in America. Europeans go apeshit for these graying get-togethers. Euro radio actually plays classic American punk, so cats like the MC5, Stooges and Ramones are big-deal stars over there, even if they never sold loads of records. Plus those wacky foreigners tend to believe old rockers might still like playing music, rather than instantly assuming they're doing it for the cash.

But this particular reunion must strain even them, as both the MC5's singer, Rob Tyner, and lead guitarist, Fred "Sonic" Smith, are long deceased. And seeing as how much of the band's legacy is built on the concepts of '60s radicalism and punk rock integrity, this idea of a reunion seems especially tawdry. So like the wide-eyed boy beaming up at Shoeless Joe, we approached guitarist Wayne Kramer with a "say it ain't so." And luckily, it ain't.

"To say it's a reunion would be wrong -- an insult to the memory of Rob and Fred, and an insult to the fans, as if we were selling this as the MC5," Kramer quickly points out. "But we can celebrate the music and pay tribute to Rob and Fred by performing this music live with musicians who have a connection with it." The whole idea is appropriately rechristened DTK/MC5. (That's D for bassist Michael Davis, T for drummer Dennis Thompson and K for Kramer -- the surviving three-fifths of the MC5.)

Secondhand Panthers: The surviving members of the 
Detroit legend hold their heads high.
Secondhand Panthers: The surviving members of the Detroit legend hold their heads high.

Fittingly, this all began with the prodding of a European promoter who floated the idea of getting the three remaining original members back together with some special guests, like Nicke Royale (Hellacopters), Dave Vanian (the Damned) and Lemmy (Motörhead), for a onetime event last March in London. The concert was a big success, with fans coming from as far as Japan. "It was amazing," says Kramer. "I never realized other people had a connection to this music as strong as mine. To see everyone in the house singing along word for word just blew me away. I've never experienced that before, certainly not back in the MC5's day. So it was sounding good, and we thought we'd do a couple more shows. But when we told our agent, the thing turned into a world tour almost overnight. It'll go until September." (For the Houston show, the special guests will include Mudhoney's Mark Arm, former Lemonheads front man Evan Dando and Marshall Crenshaw.)

Assuming it would be a one-timer, Kramer filmed the show for posterity, resulting in the DVD Sonic Revolution: A Celebration of the MC5, to be released July 7. It will also include rare archival footage, including U.S. government tape of the band taken at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. "It's another part of my ongoing effort to carry the message of the MC5 to a new generation. I've been telling this story my whole life. The idea of the MC5 is the idea of possibility, that you can create something out of nothing. We never planned to do this. But an opportunity presented itself, and you have to take them. There are two parts to a gift: One is the giving, the other is the receiving."

A heavy dose of 12-step speak flavors Kramer's conversation, and for good reason. His frequent attempts at self-promotion can be interpreted as either crass opportunism or the hard work of a man searching for meaning in his oft-troubled life. After the usual awful record contracts, the violent end of the '60s, and the drug addictions that decimated the MC5 in 1971, Kramer drifted, then eventually landed in prison on drug charges. He was still adrift psychologically when he got out of the joint in the late '70s. It took a while for him to figure things out.

"Hey, all bands break up, all record deals go into the toilet. It's the natural order of things -- the center never holds," Kramer says. "And the reason people in bands don't talk about this stuff is because it's so painful. They've suffered a great loss. Some write it off as a fun time, a rite of passage, and then they go get a life. But some don't. Some obsess on it and become very bitter. I became very angry and bitter because I didn't know what was wrong with me. I was blessed to get a lot of help with this. So when Rob and Fred died, around the early '90s at this point, I had to accept that that time of my life was over and make peace with the MC5. But I don't live in my yesterdays. My life is today. Tomorrow ain't here, and yesterday's gone."

But the past has a way of coming back to break that peace. Take A True Testimonial, the other MC5 documentary leaking into art houses around the country. Two aspiring filmmakers began the project in 1997 with full approval of the surviving members. Things were fairly rosy, even up to a showing of a bracing trailer for the film at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 1999. Then the cozy relationship between Kramer and the filmmakers went sour. "They asked me to help them make their movie. I agreed under the condition that I would have rights to the soundtrack and that I'd be the music producer of the film," Kramer claims. "They agreed, so I helped them make a pretty good movie. I secured some interviews and introduced them to everybody we know in the business. Then in the end they said they never agreed to anything. Their attempt to force me to give them a license by taking me to court failed. The judge said they were trying to use the court to get a movie deal. They continue to show the film, but they'll have a hard time getting it to DVD. They're stealing the music and images of the MC5. I remain a reasonable man, but they made me an adversary."

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