Among the immortal rallying cries of Rock & Roll — a list that includes “You gotta fight for your right to party,” “Sex and drugs and Rock & Roll” and “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” — the most raucously confrontational yet ecstatically celebratory is MC5’s “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!”
It’s the in-your-face opening exhortation to the title song from the Detroit band’s first album, 1969’s Kick Out the Jams. It made the group — which was into countercultural rebellion, Pre-Punk Rock, Free Jazz and sweaty dancing — revered by those who identified with them (especially in a pre-Rust Belt Midwest). It also made them the enemy of authorities — their politically-charged stance, fueled by manager John Sinclair’s leftist White Panther Party, was not appreciated in a tough city still recovering from a rebellion against segregation by African-American residents in 1967.
But the quintet’s messily high-energy Rock never really translated to a wider youth audience.
Two more MC5 albums followed, both showing growing ambition in the writing and performance, but the moment and momentum was gone and the band quit in 1972.
MC5’s reputation has only grown, however, as new artists have come to revere the group’s hip, gritty street credibility. But the kids of MC5 did not have an easy time of adulthood. Three have died — guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith and singer Rob Tyner, both at 46, and bassist Michael Davis at 68.
And while guitarist Wayne Kramer is still with us (as is drummer Dennis Thompson), his road to being here has not been easy: off-and-on work as a journeyman musician; struggles with drugs and alcohol; even a prison term in the mid-1970s at Lexington, Ky.’s Federal Correctional Institution, famous as the nation’s “Narcotic Farm,” for housing junkies and other drug users. Yet, as Kramer’s new and thoroughly engrossingmemoir The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5 and My Life of Impossibilities reveals, since the mid-1990s he has slowly emerged not just to reclaim some of MC5’s heritage, but to shape a principled and inspiring Rock & Roll life that includes marriage and parenthood.
In the biggest step yet in his long, slow comeback, Kramer is currently touring with a group of MC5-influenced musicians — Faith No More bassist Billy Gould, Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil, Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty and singer Marcus Durant of Zen Guerrilla — dubbed “MC50.” The tour celebrates the 50th anniversary of the original live recording of Kick Out the Jams at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom on Halloween of 1968. The album will be performed in its entirety, with space allowed for improvisation.
“I’m happy to report that Kick Out the Jams is holding up very well 50 years down the road,” says Kramer, who recently found out MC5 has been nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the fourth time.
The audiences have been shouting along on the title song’s defiant opening chant.
“Usually, a fairly large contingent of the crowd will scream that back at us exactly like we do that,” Kramer says. “Those are people in their 40s and 50s, and some younger people. There aren’t many people who are my age — I’m 70, and 70-year-olds aren’t going out to Rock shows much. But I get a few every night who tell me, ‘I saw MC5 in ’68.’ ”
When Kick Out the Jams first was released in 1969, it drew complaints from reviewers that it sounded messy. But what those early critics missed, and what seems ever more important now, was the influence of avant-garde Free Jazz, which had been introduced to the band members by Sinclair. Kramer has worked hard with his MC50 members to achieve that kind of playing now. It’s where the original MC5 wanted to ascend to in 1968.
“Our music was rooted in the fundamental Rock & Roll of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the early instrumental Rock bands,” Kramer says. “But we reached for the future, and the planets, with Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor. We were striving to move forward. I could play what popular guitar players were playing, but my question was, ‘Where does music go next, and where could I take it?’
“The Free Jazz movement showed me, and that’s where I wanted to go — to leave Western thoughts of music behind and enter into a more pure sonic dimension, more visceral, more human, more expressive than scales and modes and chords would allow.”
So Kramer found himself practicing for hours to play guitar in a style influenced by the great Freesaxophonists John Coltrane and Albert Ayler — to “move from scales and modes and notes into pure sound.”
With MC5’s demise, Kramer started dealing drugs and was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Agency and eventually sent to Lexington. The Narcotic Farm had a history of housing musicians as inmates, and one day the great Jazz trumpeter Red Rodney — who struggled with heroin addiction for much of his life — arrived. He and Kramer bonded, and began leading Sunday afternoon jam sessions for inmates.
“I was much younger, coming from the world of Rock, and we met in the music, itself,” Kramer says. “He discovered I could actually play some of the material he was used to playing, and he liked me and was a very generous man. And he became my teacher and mentor. We also had drugs in common from two different perspectives. We became very close for those couple years we were together.” (Rodney died in 1994, at age 66.)
Remembering how making music helped get him through his prison stint, Kramer in 2007 co-founded the nonprofit organization Jail Guitar Doors USA with British troubadour Billy Bragg, who earlier had started the organization in the U.K. (The name comes from a song by The Clash that mentions Kramer’s time in prison.) To date, the organization has placed guitars in over 120 U.S. prisons.
“I see music as serving an important and fundamental purpose,” Kramer says. “It’s a way to express yourself, tell your story, contribute something to the world of beauty. Most people in prison never have that opportunity, and if we don’t do something to help people change for the better while they’re in our custody, they’ll most certainly change for worse.”
MC50 performs Thursday, Oct. 25 at Bogart’s. Tickets/more show info: bogarts.com.