It's good to run across a legend who refuses to rest on his laurels. Many of the artists from the 1960s -- men and women who translated social upheaval into innovative musical statements -- have been content to continually repackage what was on their mind 30 years ago as though they hadn't had an original thought since. Not so with Wayne Kramer, guitarist with Detroit's loud, angry and influential MC5.
Kramer's reputation as one of the founding fathers of punk might have led down the weary "let's-go-see-this-guy-because-he-used-to-be-cool" route. But instead of imitating himself, Kramer has evolved from a loud and angry young man into a loud and thoughtful authentic American voice. His The Hard Stuff CD flaunts Kramer as a songwriter whose lyrics are as bold and hard to ignore as a facial tattoo. And the broadsword style of his guitar playing -- admired and imitated throughout the punk universe -- has been honed and sharpened into one of the tightest attacks in rock.
The MC5 were as much a statement as they were a band -- there was a revolution going on, and a mad-as-hell band from Detroit kicked out the jams while the battle raged. Then the revolution ended, with nobody sure which side, if any, had won, and in 1972 the MC5 split up. The MC5's political agenda had led to an emotional bond far stronger than in most creative collaborations, and as a result the band's demise devastated Kramer. He drifted into drug addiction and ultimately a federal drug hospital/prison.
In Kramer's case, prison was a rehabilitating education. One of his fellow prisoners was trumpeter Red Rodney, who'd spent years with jazz legend Charlie Parker. Rodney became a mentor to Kramer, who took advantage of his downtime to polish his craft and absorb Rodney's knowledge. Meanwhile, the loud, minimalist chords and shouted, angry vocals that had defined the MC5 were being explored by punk. The Ramones, the Sex Pistols, Black Flag and the full pantheon of the Seattle scene all learned from Kramer; Henry Rollins' paean-disguised-as-liner-notes on The Hard Stuff describes Kramer as "one of the guys who invented this racket in the first place." In any other genre, The Hard Stuff -- featuring Kramer alongside members of the Melvins, Pennywise, the Circle Jerks, Suicidal Tendencies, The Muffs and Rancid -- would have been one of those twilight-of-the-career sympathy tributes to a master who was long overtaken by his disciples. In punk, though, there's room for the irony of a transgenerational collaboration that both puts the young upstarts in their place and serves as the master's solo debut.
It's a rare teacher who continually stays ahead of his students. Kramer is that rare teacher, a genre-founder who refuses to be bound by the constraints of his own creation. Whether he's shouting autobiographical rage and joy with "The Edge of the Switchblade" or sardonically reporting on a personal experience with workplace violence on the spoken word "Incident on Stock Island," Kramer's statement is that the energy of punk is in no way diminished by complexity or professionalism. His powerful, bleeding lyrics are delivered almost noncommittally in a voice that seems to say, in the great punk tradition, "Shit happens, no big deal," while his guitar screams the real pain hidden behind the mask of nonchalance.
Kramer's tale is both Nietzschean and quintessentially American. He's survived so many body-strewn battlefields that it's a miracle he's still alive, and every close call became an element incorporated into his music. I can't think of a more honest and authentic voice in rock, and I suspect that the influence Kramer has had on American music over the last 28 years is just the opening statement.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
-- Jim Sherman
Wayne Kramer plays at 10 p.m. on Thursday, May 25 at the Abyss, 5913 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $6. For info call 863-7173.
Trout Fishing in America -- This is one act that really begs to be seen live. On CD, Trout Fishing in America can seem as painfully overcute as its Richard Brautigan-inspired name. But on-stage, tall, longhaired guitarist Ezra Idlet and short, curly haired bassist Keith Grimwood transform their material into something terrifically entertaining. A lot of this has to do with the interplay between the partners, who shift easily between being funny and tearjerking. And a lot of this has to do with the simple fact that folkish pop tends to work better in a face-to-face situation. Whatever the reason, Trout Fishing in America has built up a fairly substantial cult following, and this particular cult is on the right track. It doesn't hurt that the guys developed their craft in Houston, starting in the mid-'70s in the band St. Elmo's Fire and then going on to create the duo. At Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue, Friday, May 26. 869-8427. (Mitchell J. Shields)
Roy Ayers -- America doesn't always treat its geniuses well. Case in point is Roy Ayers -- one of the founders of acid jazz and the centerpiece of Roy Ayers and Ubiquity -- who's now well into his fourth decade of producing memorable music and yet has, for the last ten years, had no major label releases to his name. That oversight will be taken care of on June 12, when Naste hits the stores, and this week Houston's jazz aficionados will have an unusual chance to see Ayers in person. He's doing a handful of dates in the States before heading to Europe, where he's always been big business, Then in late summer he'll be back in the U.S. to start a major push for his CD. Houston, though, is one of the few places where you can catch an early glimpse of what a major musical innovator's up to. You'll have four opportunities over two nights. So you have no excuses for missing him. At Utopia, 14087 South Main, Saturday, May 27, and Sunday, May 28. 723-4901. (