The Real Motor City Madman
By its very nature, rock and roll is all about youth. Writing, performing and producing mostly for those to whom the terms "mortgage" and "cholesterol level" might as well be Martian concepts, the industry guarantees itself an entirely new audience every few years.
And that pisses Wayne Kramer off to no end.
"No rock music is being marketed at all to adults today. The industry sees them like the Jesuits -- get 'em young and keep 'em for life," says the 54-year-old Kramer from a cell phone in a van somewhere in the Midwest. "We've all grown up with rock and roll, and people my age still want to rock and still want to hear something that speaks to them today. I mean, I'm not the same guy I was at 20."
While some might write off such criticism as more of the hypocritical ramblings of a graying Woodstock generation, Kramer speaks with more authority than that. At age 20 he was already the co-founder and lead guitarist of the MC5, the seminal Detroit band whose loud, raw and politically confrontational music was a direct influence on punk and hard rock. Rock critics and musicians genuflect at the very mention of the band's name and brief but intense career. A mere three MC5 studio albums have spawned no fewer than 17 subsequent rarities and greatest-hits compilations.
"That was so long ago, but I don't close the door on it. I'm proud to have been a member of one of the greatest rock bands of all time," Kramer says. "But I don't live in my yesterdays. My life is happening right now, riding in this van. And I have to pay my rent this month, based on what I do this month."
What he's doing is touring in support of his new record, Adult World. Not surprisingly, the eclectic, fine release -- on Kramer's own label, MuscleTone Records -- addresses a number of adult themes and characters, like the middle-aged man with self-esteem issues in "Brought a Knife to the Gunfight." But other songs, such as "Great Big Amp" and "The Slime that Ate Cleveland" (in which the city is saved by the O'Jays belting a chorus of "Love Train"), have a wry and raucous sense of abandon.
While Kramer's flat, monotone voice has limitations, it suits the often deadpan material. And the freewheeling guitar of more than a generation ago has been replaced by a more controlled -- though much more inventive -- direction.
But it's the album's collaborations with other niche artists that really stand out. "Talkin' Outta School," recorded with Sweden's Hellacopters, is the best track -- a tough, fist-pumping number. "What About Laura?" a duet with Syd Straw, wraps the tale of an unglamorous junkie in a catchy pop chorus. And the extended Spalding Grayish talk prose piece, "Nelson Algren Stopped By" (with Chicago free-jazz ensemble X-Mars-X) spins a hallucinatory tale of a meeting with the late cult writer best known for penning the junkie novel The Man with the Golden Arm.
Kramer cites Algren and drunken letch poet Charles Bukowski as his literary heroes, choices that are more interesting knowing that Kramer has walked the walk. After the breakup of the MC5, Kramer spent more than two decades in a blur of drug and booze addiction and flophouse life; he even served time in a federal prison for dealing coke. And though he made an important friend behind bars in Red Rodney, a bebop trumpeter and former Charlie Parker sideman who taught him musical theory (and is the subject of the track "The Red Arrow"), his band's fate and subsequent lack of recognition continued to fuel his resentment.
"It doesn't irk me as much anymore," he says. "It was the musicians that mostly gave the MC5 props, and it's their opinions that I care about the most." He also notes that a feature documentary on the group is ready for a fall release and predicts it will go a long way toward putting the band in its proper place and continuing the success of Rhino's recent excellent compilation The Big Bang! Best of the MC5.
Formed in 1966 by Kramer, guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith and vocalist Rob Tyner, the MC5 quickly gained a reputation around Detroit clubs for their loud music and acrobatic stage shows modeled upon musical heroes Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson later joined and, under the tutelage of mentor/producer/ political revolutionary John Sinclair of the White Panther Party, brought a sharp political edge to their lyrics and stage raps that was at odds with the peace-and-love vibe of the era.
A raucous outdoor set at the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention first brought the group into the national eye, and their 1969 debut, Kick Out the Jams, kept them there. The live record, whose title track became the group's signature song, was nonetheless banned from the airwaves for the band's exhortation to "kick out the jams, motherfuckers!"
"We believed with our entire hearts and souls that we could influence the youth of the world with these new thoughts about music and this new way of living and this new kind of politics," Kramer told an interviewer recently.
Sinclair's subsequent pot bust (immortalized in John Lennon's song "John Sinclair"), plus the band's desire to find some commercial success, contributed to 1970's more polished and radio-friendly Back in the U.S.A. (produced by rock critic and future Springsteen manager Jon Landau). It failed commercially, and one last effort the next year, High Time, didn't do any better. Drug and personnel problems, those old standbys, as well as official harassment that Kramer insists came all the way down from Nixon's White House and J. Edgar Hoover, drove the MC5 into the ground by 1972.
Jolted out of his fog by the 1991 death of Tyner (at whose memorial concert the surviving four performed in the closest thing to a reunion the band will ever know) and the 1994 passing of Smith -- both of heart failure -- Kramer resolved to give music his full attention. After releasing The Hard Stuff in 1995, Kramer has averaged a record a year.
The decision to start his own label sent Kramer back to school to a class for prospective entrepreneurs sponsored by the U.S. Small Business Administration. "The reason to run a business is not because you're good at something. The reason is to turn a profit," he declares. "And I always thought that people bought things based on price, and it's not true. Otherwise, we'd all be driving a Yugo and eating at Taco Bell."
Still, Kramer says CD prices are too high to encourage listener experimentation. Citing the runaway success of Norah Jones's Come Away with Me, Kramer believes that the $10 CD is the wave of the future. Plus, it will encourage old fans to try out a veteran artist's new efforts rather than just buy a compilation or a favorite early record.
In addition to running MuscleTone, producing new bands, occasionally gigging with the International Noise Conspiracy and the Hives, and working on his own new music, Kramer also actively pursues agendas related to his radical political and social beliefs. And just like that 20-year-old from his past, Wayne Kramer still believes that music can make a difference -- at least as a catalyst.
"Music has a role to play in political change. The songs themselves can be a place where the writer and the listener can agree on ideas and our hopes for the future, but that alone doesn't affect political change," he sums up. "Political change comes from political action -- and that's not sitting around listening to records."
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