‘A brief but
power-packed run’

An inspiration for punk and under surveillance by the FBI, MC5 were the real deal rock rebels. Founder member Wayne Kramer looks back at the highs and lows

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Your typical rock ’n’ roller doesn’t open their memoir with a quote from Nobel Prize-nominated Greek polymath Nikos Kazantzakis, as Wayne Kramer chooses to. But Kramer isn’t your typical rock ’n’ roller. And while “Woe to whoever commences his life without lunacy” is unquestionably pertinent to a portion of Kramer’s existence, the musician, activist, artist, composer and producer born Wayne Stanley Kambes is far more than your stereotypical, guitar-slinging harbinger of mayhem.

“Drink and drugs weren’t the problem but the solution – but of course a solution with side-effects.”

Detroit native Kramer’s high times as guitarist with proto-punk wild men the MC5 have become the stuff of legend. The band were deep in the vortex of civil disobedience that swathed the Motor City during the late 1960s. Their manager  John Sinclair formed the White Panthers, a radical far-left political collective committed to racial and social equality, with Kramer and co also flying the flag high for promiscuity and drug use. Along the way they developed a mantra promoting “dope, guns and fucking in the streets”, while the band and associates – including Iggy Pop’s Stooges – became viewed by the authorities as a genuine threat to law and order.

The FBI tapped their phones, the police intimidated them and cohorts were incarcerated. And although now claiming he was simply a “romantic anarchist’, Kramer’s personal politics and battles with The Man ultimately led to his demise as he, and the band he began, collapsed into a chaotic void during 1972. They left behind only three albums, none of which went near capturing the truly permissive blend of hard-charging, super-loud guitars and free jazz their gigs showcased. A “brief but power-packed run” is how he describes the MC5’s time burning the rock ‘n’ roll trail, on which the best known landmark was the searing Kick Out The Jams.

Kramer in conversation – just as in memoir The Hard Stuff – is thoughtful, philosophical, honest, entertaining and forthright. Giving the impression of having all the time in the world to explain his motivation, deconstruct that incendiary personal history and recount oft-told tales, he’s content and also a fantastic raconteur. Yet immediately post-MC5 he found himself in a far, far darker place.

“The transition from being the kid with the hot hands, the next big thing, to being just nothing takes a toll on a person’s psyche,” he explains from his Los Angeles home. “And that transition was probably a sub-conscious factor to my discovering the painkilling properties of Jack Daniel’s and heroin.”

When Kramer fell he fell far. As a 14-year-old guitar novice his mother Mable had warned him: “Musicians are around drinking and drugs, and loose women. It’s a hard life.” Just how hard he was to find out.

Deep into narcotic and alcohol dependency, Kramer headed into the mid-1970s as a criminal without a functioning band, soon arrested for burglary before finally finding himself sentenced to four years in jail for his part in a drug dealing sting.

He says: “Lots of things around that time fed my resentment which, in turn, fed my addiction. Everything bothered me and the only time I got relief was when I got high. In a sense, drink and drugs weren’t the problem but the solution, but of course a solution with side-effects. The real problem was I couldn’t get along with the world. Everything upset me.”

MC5 – Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson, Wayne Kramer, Fred “Sonic” Smith and Rob Tyner – perform live in Michigan in 1969. Photo: Leni Sinclair/Getty Images

Harsh as he found jail, Kramer undertook educational courses, played music and learned valuable life lessons while incarcerated, yet upon leaving Federal Correctional Institution Lexington in 1978 his battles with addiction were far from over. This considered, was inviting ex-New York Dolls guitarist and career heroin user Johnny Thunders to co-found new musical outfit Gang War a terribly good idea?

“That was not my wisest decision,” Kramer recalls with a laugh. “I was trying to stop using but joining a band with an active addict, I didn’t have a chance. You know, addiction is a primary activity and everything else becomes secondary to maintaining your addiction so it’s impossible to build anything constructive. We lasted about six months.”

That brief tenure terminated shortly after the pair moved from Detroit to New York City. “There were not many good memories from that time,” Kramer says, ever the master of understatement. The one-time “kid with the hot hands” found himself, rather bizarrely, living the 9-5 life as a cabinet maker.

“That started as just a day job and turned into me building beautiful furniture for very rich people during the day and drinking myself into oblivion every night. I knew deep down that I wasn’t really a cabinet maker – I was really an artist and a songwriter and a guitar player and a band leader.”

Around this time MTV hit screens across America, which only added to Kramer’s woes. “I was deep in my cups and watching all those heavy guitar bands on television earning small and not so small fortunes – ones without the rigour or depth or creative ambition of the MC5 – and that further fed my resentment toward the world. Maybe my problem was I always had the wrong idols – beatnik poets and avant-garde musicians rather than wealthy financial experts.”

Kramer’s creative re-emergence really began after signing with legendary Californian punk label Epitaph during 1994, a partnership that led to a trio of brilliant solo albums. But this coincided with the deaths of former MC5 bandmates Rob Tyner and Fred “Sonic” Smith. The passing of the two legends hit Kramer hard.

“We all have two deaths: the death of our bodies, which we all eventually experience, and the death of our youth. When Rob and Fred died that was the end of my youth, the end of the dream that some day we’d get the band back together and that things would turn out the way I always thought they would. I didn’t get the chance to go back and right all the wrongs and life was turning out far more complicated than I thought it would.”

Kramer, who turned 70 in April, began work on the book eight years ago with note taking and the piecing together of anecdotes. Never a keeper of diaries, Kramer says only the “most impactful” recollections made the final cut, before quoting the doctrine that a memoir is stories from a life, not stories of a life. Still, he struggled to find the right place to draw the book to a close. “Then my son Francis arrived five years ago and that became my ending: And here we are.”

And it’s a truly fascinating book, Kramer taking the reader on a high-octane blast through childhood in a broken home, rock hedonism and on into the sheer drudgery of addiction and self-loathing. Peppered with hope and despair in equal measures, the book concludes with the story behind Francis’s adoption and the fantastic place Kramer now finds himself in with his son and Margaret, his wife.

Of course, The Hard Stuff timeline concludes prior to the rise of America’s latest right-wing bogeyman, Donald Trump, and his victory in the presidential election of 2017. When Trump was initially presented as the Republican candidate, Kramer admits to being amused that “this PT Barnum out-played the professionals”. Those feelings turned to deep disappointment, however, when Trump was actually elected.

And, politically, what trajectory does Kramer see his nation now taking? “That’s a tough call. The Democrats need a unified platform that reaches people where they live. I hope people of good conscience have had their fill of the current administration and long for leadership on the highest level. I know I am suffering Trump fatigue. It’s the way guys like him work: they just wear you down.”

On a more personal level, where is Kramer heading next? There’s a long silence followed by: “Who knows? My health’s pretty good, I exercise, I eat well, I’m doing everything a guy my age can do to hang around. Every day I try to figure out how I can make a contribution to the world and ask: “Can I leave the place a little nicer than I found it?’.”

The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, The MC5 and My Life of Impossibilities is out now (£14.99 Faber & Faber). Wayne Kramer’s MC50 UK tour includes Albert Hall, Manchester, 11 Nov

Jail Guitar Doors open

Recently Wayne Kramer has returned to prison, this time through choice.

A long-time critic of the American penal system, his recent work with the Jail Guitar Doors charity – named after a song The Clash wrote about Kramer’s chequered past – has given him insight into the woeful state of his nation’s prisons.

“I always believed that one person can make a difference, and always enjoyed the times in prison when people came in from the community, so I started to go back to facilities to play concerts,” he says.

“For one of these I brought Billy Bragg with me and he told me about this initiative he’d started in Britain to provide guitars for prisoner rehabilitation and I became involved.

“We provide instruments first and now have our guitars in 180 American prisons. We also operate songwriting workshop programmes in about 40 male, female and youth facilities and with these we work through a curriculum that addresses many of the core issues prisoners face – things like childhood trauma, violent subjugation, accountability and forgiveness to both yourself and the system that put you in prison.

“We’ve had great success and the programme is met with open arms by prison officials across the country. It’s a good way to connect musicians outside with the musicians inside and it’s very rewarding.

“My personal conclusion drawn during the decade I’ve been visiting prisons is that maybe 10 per cent of the jail population need to be there – people who are just so broken and damaged that they need to be protected from themselves and we from them. But that means 90 per cent could be held accountable in their own communities and we do have the manpower and technology to do that.

“I do believe in the rule of law. I want safe communities with people feeling secure in their homes and having enforced guidelines but also that the punishment should fit the crime. Serious crimes like hedge fund and bank fraud – white-collar theft – deserve serious punishment, but if your problem is based on medical or psychological factors then that’s between you and the doctor, not you and the police or court.

“Prison is usually a misguided and medieval approach to the problem of breaking the social contract, but while there’s a lot of talk claiming the American justice system is broken, for a lot of people it’s not – it’s a huge hit. There’s so much money involved in locking people up it’s a $90 billion dollar a year industry and a lot of people are getting rich. Solving the prison problem is a cultural, political, economic and very, very human challenge.”

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