The Hard Stuff (Epitaph)
by Mick Cusimano
The old airplane hangar called Gilligans in Buffalo is rocking with excitement in 1969. The crowd of 2000 people is stamping their feet as the band charges out on the stage. The long-hair musicians have bullet holsters thrown over their shoulders. They look like they just stepped out of a war.
The Motor City Five jump right into their controversial song, “Kick out the Jams.” The guitar players and drummer are going wild. The lead singer, Rob Tyner, is screaming out the lyrics as if his heart is on fire. By the end of the first song, the band is sweating profusely. This is pure unbridled fanaticism; the band is putting everything they have into the show. This isn’t entertainment; these guys are on a mission. They play with reckless abandon as if their lives depend on it.
The band plays an hour and a half nonstop, doing their explosive songs: “Ramblin’ Rose” and John Lee Hooker’s “Motor City is Burning.” During the show, no one ignores the band or wanders off to converse in the corner. The crowd stands spellbound during the entire concert. Somehow people realize that they are in the presence of something extraordinary. There were many bands with more complex music, but this is something else. Having seen The Stones, The Who, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and J. Geils, I can say that those bands were nowhere near as intense and driven as these guys. The MC5 return for an encore and dozens of people dance on stage with the band. It’s the wildest thing I have ever seen. But who are these guys anyway?
Trying to find out about this band is like an archaeologist attempting to reconstruct a civilization’s history from a few fragments of broken pottery. Over the years, I’ve found few magazine articles about them. The bits and pieces I’ve discovered sound like the script to an Oliver Stone movie. In some ways, it’s an unbelievable, almost frightening story.
The MC5 started out as just another band in Ann Arbor, Michigan. What transformed them was what also led to their demise: the marriage of rock and roll and politics. Manager John Sinclair, of the radical White Panther Party, adopted the band as the leaders of his rock ‘n’ roll army. After an electrifying concert at the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, the MC5 were signed to Elektra Records. Elektra felt it had the two best rock and roll bands in America on the label: The MC5 and The Doors.
Guitarist Wayne Kramer was compared to Jimi Hendrix. The band’s dynamic stage show was a sensation and was compared to shows by The Who. Singer Rob Tyner said the band was trying to reclaim the unrestrained energy and optimism found among kids running around freely on a playground. Sinclair, however, saw the MC5 as being more than a rock band.
Sinclair envisioned the MC5 leading the young people in America to throw off the oppression of the corrupt military-industrial establishment that spawned the Vietnam War. In Sinclair’s Utopian vision, this rock ‘n’ roll army would overturn the corrupt system, and the young men and women of the revolution would celebrate by having sex in the streets.
Before anyone could finish rolling over laughing at this seemingly naïve rhetoric, something crazy was happening. Sinclair’s dream of his rock ‘n’ roll revolution seemed to be coming true. Whenever the MC5 played in Detroit, their concerts turned into full-scale riots. Riots also broke out at many Stones, Jefferson Airplane, and Doors concerts. Some young people saw the world in simple black and white: The freaks against the establishment. The MC5 were a turbulent band in this turbulent era.
Manager John Sinclair was arrested and given a ten year sentence for possessing two marijuana cigarettes, and John Lennon flew to Ann Arbor to do a benefit concert for Sinclair. Abbie Hoffman decided to jump up on stage at Woodstock and make an impassioned plea about Sinclair’s plight. His timing could not have been worse. The Who, an angry, frazzled British band, had been up all night waiting for their turn to play. When Pete Townsend saw this fanatic figure jump out of the audience and grab the microphone, he whacked Hoffman with his guitar, sending him flying off stage.
Without Sinclair, the MC5 put out an album, Back in the U.S.A., but then broke up in 1972. Fred (Sonic) Smith joined a band in the ’80s called Television. He later married Patti Smith, who wrote the song “Frederick” about him. Smith died recently at age 44; Rob Tyner died in 1991. John Sinclair is currently performing poetry and working in radio.
The MC5 and The New York Dolls were considered to be the first real punk bands in the late ’60s. While visiting New York City in 1980, I saw Wayne Kramer and Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls play together in a concert at the Ritz. They did “Ramblin’ Rose” and other rock and roll tunes. This band only played together a few times, as far as I could tell.
After more than twenty years, Wayne Kramer has come out with a new CD, The Hard Stuff (Epitaph), with an intro by Henry Rollins. The imagery is full of terror and the desperation of the urban landscape. The song, “The Edge of the Switchblade,” describes the brief dynamic career of the MC5. The songs of survival on this CD get heavier than a suitcase full of anvils. The last song, however, ends with an amusing touch. Kramer dreams of owning a sharkskin suit, just like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and the Ratpack in Oceans Eleven. His secret dream is to achieve the ultimate cool wearing “The Cadillac of Suits.”
The politics of the ’60s may seem anachronistic today, but the sheer raw explosiveness of the MC5’s music still holds up after all these years. Atlantic, Warner-Elektra, and Receiver Records from London have reissued the music of the MC5 on CD. Their live album, Kick Out the Jams, taped at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit, probably best captures the excitement of their music. Henry Rollins thinks it may be the best live recording of all time. Posters in the ’60s describing the band slightly altered Albert Einstein’s famous quotation: E=MC5.