Interview: MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer talks book, 50 years of kicking out the jams
Wayne Kramer

Wayne Kramer rocked a star-spangled guitar in seminal Detroit proto-punk band MC5 in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

He also robbed houses, ran drugs, and almost blew away an innocent man with a shotgun.

Kramer’s life has been a raging roller-coaster of euphoric highs and bottom-feeder lows. The now-sober superstar talks about all of it—the student demonstrations, police riots, crazy concerts, drug-fueled debauchery, wiretapping, marriages and divorce, prison time, therapy, recovery, and redemption—in his new memoir, The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, The MC5 and My Life of Impossibilities (Da Capo Press).

Sure, we’ve been awed by other rock autobiographies…but we’ve never encountered a tale as turbulent and gritty as Kramer’s. The Hard Stuff is a brisk, brutal page-turner wherein the Motor City “white boy with the wah-wah” candidly chronicles the formation of one of rock’s most outrageous ensembles, reminisces about pals Rob Tyner, Fred “Sonic” Smith, Michael Davis, Dennis Thompson, and manager / poet John Sinclair, and comes clean on the band break-up and subsequent arrests, trials, jail stints, and reunions.

It’s a downright ugly affair at times (the Vietnam / Nixon era wasn’t pretty to begin with), but pinpricks of light flicker in the bleakness of Kramer’s teenage pugilism, his absentee father issues (and stepdad abuse), soured romances, dope-addled cons and street hustles, and his penitentiary purgatory. It is a survival story in which the antihero’s salvation hinges on his willingness to self-examine and surrender: The second act shines with Kramer’s resignation and acceptance of his fate—and his against-all-odds metamorphosis into a faithful husband, dutiful father, and mission-minded musician.

Kramer emerges from the bedlam a transformed, drastically improved man: He logs as many years of work in construction, cabinetry, scaffolding, prison publishing, and masonry as he does fraternize early on with felons, fiends, and assorted ne’er-do-wells. Readers will find themselves sucked into Kramer’s This Is Spinal Tap-meets-Goodfellas motif as the riff magician reconciles his inner demons in cash-strapped climes in Detroit, New York, Key West, and L.A.

But Kramer’s in a better place now—a station so holistic, in fact, that he’s ready to introduce the music of the MC5 to younger audiences. We rang the guitarist last week to discuss his book and the upcoming MC-50 anniversary tour, which will see him kicking out the jams again with an impressive all-star band.

AXS: Hello, Wayne! Thanks for speaking with us! We’re looking forward to seeing you on tour in Ohio.

WAYNE KRAMER: Good morning! I’m happy for the opportunity to connect with all my mainline mellows in the Cleveland area! All the hard rockers!

AXS: Well, Ohio’s a Rust Belt state just like Michigan. I imagine the socioeconomic conditions of ‘70s-‘80s Detroit you describe in your book closely mirrored Cleveland over the decades.

WK: I just wrote an op-ed on The Daily Beast on the Chicago riot where we played at the Democratic Convention in ’68. But yeah, the scene in Detroit in the ‘60s…the auto industry was still doing well. It was a booming industrial center, and the MC5 were all kids of that environment. We all honored hard labor. We thought there was dignity in working hard, and we applied that to our band. We were also part of a generation that seemed to feel our parents and our elected leaders had all lost their minds [laughs]! Things that were happening to us as a community—and as a nation—were going wrong, and we were determined to try to do the best to repair it.

AXS: It’s sad, but a lot of the problems from 1969 still exist in 2018. It’s like a Rorschach test, where the inkblot is the same when you fold it in half.

WK: Oh, more than that! It goes back to the founding of the nation. Race problems, the abuse of power, that’s all been with us since the beginning! We still haven’t faced it squarely. The things that got my generation up in arms, those conditions are ripe again. We have a leader in the White House who has utter contempt for the rule of law and for our moral and ethical norms and traditions. We have a military-industrial complex that has successfully waged perpetual war in the Middle East for seventeen years. We have police violence captured on peoples’ cell phone cameras in communities of color, daily! And we have corruption at the highest offices of Congress and the Presidency, all the way down to city councils. It’s staggering in its ubiquity.

AXS: On a lighter note, you could talk about some of your early musical influences?

WK: Well, Chuck Berry, of course, was my main man. He played with such spirit that I was just attracted to it like a moth to a flame. Little Richard had visceral, almost sanctified performance quality about him—and that great drumming of Earl Palmer on those records! LikThey just rocked so hard that I was compelled to follow it. And the great instrumental bands of the era were important to me. The first bands that were all-electric guitar bands, like Duane Eddy or The Ventures, or any of those early ‘60s bands like Johnny and The Hurricanes, The Frogmen, or The Royal Teens. Or bands that just had one hit. Like The Surfaris [laughs]!

AXS: The first MC5 album—Kick Out the Jams—was recorded live. How’d you guys decide to go the live route for your debut instead of cutting a couple studio albums first?

WK: What we did best performed live. We had very little experience in the recording studio. It was paramount that we capture the excitement of the live performance. Usually, bands would do two or three studio albums and then do a live album. We thought it would be a revolutionary move to present the band first in our natural environment, playing live! I talked about it in the book. The label assured us that if I didn’t like the performance that we recorded, we could keep recording until we got what I felt was a good one. Then they said, “No, this one’s fine. We’ll go with this!” And I disagreed! On the first note of the first song, my E-string slipped so badly out of tune that it completely threw me out of my groove! To be fair, it was too much pressure on us, that this was the night and that this would be the record, and that we have to play perfect right now! We were 19, 20 years old. We were a little bit rattled!

AXS: It’s like asking lightning to strike in the same place over and over again for ninety minutes.

WK: On cue! Yeah. The MC5 was a mercurial band. We were capable of magnificence on some nights, and we’d be a terrific train wreck on other nights [laughs]. We were very human! But I think some of the greatest records in history are undeniably human. The tempos get sped up, and things go out of tune, or the singer loses his way. But the people in that room play something that is exquisite in that moment.

AXS: Who will you have on tour with you for the MC50 band?

WK: I’ve been so fortunate to assemble a band to play with me on this tour. All the best players in the world today! We have Kim Thayil, the great Soundgarden guitarist. Then there’s Billy Gould, the bassist best known for his work with Faith No More. Brendan Canty, the powerhouse drummer behind Fugazi. And our secret weapon is the beautiful Marcus Durant from Zen Guerilla. I look over and seem him onstage with his big afro and I think, “Wow! This is too much!” But yeah, we have a ball with it. The music sounds tremendous. It’s very exciting.

AXS: In the book, you talk about the philanthropic work you did with Tom Morello and Billy Bragg. Like the MC5, those guys are very good at expressing themselves in their music and encouraging activism off-stage. Are there any other groups out there who carry the torch, so to speak?

AXS: The Hard Stuff delves into your prison term in a way that gives readers a thorough vicarious experience. I’d imagine most of us build our impression of jail and prison from what we see on T.V. and at the movies. How accurate—or not—are those prison portrayals?

WK: The impression one could get from television and film is so inaccurate, it’s laughable! The two prisons I served time in, I never was in a situation where people glared at you when you’re the new guy as if you’re something good to eat! That’s a Hollywood fabrication. I don’t know anyone who’s served a prison term who experienced that. Prisoners are human beings just like us. In fact, they are us. They made a mistake, and now they’re being held accountable. They live inside a prison, but they’re exactly the same as you and I. They have the same fears, hopes, and ambitions. There are a few good books on life in prison. One that I would recommend is called Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars by Kenneth E. Hartman. Ken served 38 years in the California Department of Corrections and got out, and now he works with us today as a senior grant writer. He’s a fantastic man and a brilliant writer, author, parent, and activist. He tells the true story of his redemption, about how people can and do change, given the right tools and the right incentive.

AXS: You make a good point about how most of the prison population would benefit from recovery services rather than punitive measures or idle time.

WK: I believe that people who are so damaged that they need to be separated should be separated. But that’s a small percentage of the population. Even some violent offenders can be held accountable in their own communities. Incarceration is expensive, and it’s not very effective in helping people address the issues that got them into trouble in the first place.

AXS: Will you have your red, white, and blue guitar with you on the tour?

WK: Yes! I will. And for people who sign up for the Super Fan Experience, I’ll have the guitars out there with me. People can hold ‘em and see how they feel. I’m bringing a couple that they can look at and touch. And we’ll be able to talk, too!