Wayne Kramer, Rock Legend And Failed Outlaw, Assembles A Supergroup In The Rearview
One Monday morning in early June, the guitarist Wayne Kramer, 70, sinks into a couch in a black-box rehearsal space in Hollywood. He and his backing musicians have spent the last few days here, getting ready to perform the entirety of Kick Out the Jams — the debut album by Kramer's infamous first band, The MC5, recorded live on Devil's Night and Halloween at Detroit's Grande Ballroom 50 years ago this October — on a string of European festival dates leading up to a U.S. tour in September.
After Jams — an album that generations of loud, fast bands from The Clash to The Hives and beyond would go on to crib from — the MC5 made two uneven studio follow-ups and packed a lot of hard living into the three years before their unceremonious 1972 breakup. Only two founding members of the MC5 are still alive — Kramer, and original drummer Dennis Thompson, who'll join MC50 at a few of the upcoming shows. To fill out the rest of the lineup, Kramer has assembled a group of A-list ringers who'll rotate in and out as their schedules permit. Today he's practicing with guitarist Kim Thayil and drummer Matt Cameron, both of Soundgarden fame, towering Zen Guerrilla vocalist Marcus Durant, and Don Was, the record producer, on bass.
Thayil's wearing a fedora and a black Sunn O))) t-shirt and sports a wizardly gray beard. Don Was — who's in the hallway, finishing up a phone call — is dressed entirely in black, from the sandals he kicks off on the studio carpet to the dreads crammed under his broad-brimmed hat. Kramer, who turned 70 this past April, is wearing a short-sleeved plaid button-down. He looks less like a rock star than nearly anyone else in the room — except maybe Cameron, who's wearing a Greg Norman golf polo — and more like he teaches math and driver's ed at a high school.
This is something of a false cue, as Kramer is also the only person in the room who's served time in federal prison — in Lexington, Kentucky, from 1975 through 1978, after selling what he characterizes as "a big pile of cocaine" to some acquaintances who turned out to be federal law-enforcement officials working undercover. By the time he turned 30, Kramer had been the lead guitarist in a legendary but star-crossed rock band, a playacting Detroit gangster, and a guest of the American carceral system. All this living is covered in his new memoir The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5 and My Life of Impossibilities, along with Kramer's roundabout path to the life he leads today — a solo career, sobriety, a functioning marriage, a mortgage-paying job composing TV and film music, and a fulfilling sideline as a prison-reform advocate.
Today Kramer has a cold. He's a little tired.
"We worked you hard yesterday," Cameron says.
"It's not that bad," Kramer replies. "It's not hot-tar roofing in Brooklyn in the winter."
Kramer did that job, in the '80s, after the MC5 split and drugs derailed his music career. Sweating in the cold, with stinking tar on his boots. He wasn't quite sober yet, but he had epiphanies, up there on those roofs. He realized he'd been an artist, that he'd liked being an artist, that even being in an ill-fated band beat roofing. So he can't complain.
Thayil ponders the weirdness of it all.
"Soundgarden formed in '84," he says. "We used to jam on 'Kick Out the Jams,' probably wondering, 'What's [Wayne Kramer] doing now?'"
After a while everyone makes their way to the stage at the back of the room. Kramer straps on his American-flag-patterned Stratocaster and politely asks the band to keep the breaks between songs as short as possible. They start running through Kick Out the Jams at jet-engine volume. It takes the players a minute to find each other's wavelength. They're rehearsing the songs, but also practicing the act of being in a band together. Kramer's solos are blistering signatures scrawled across the noise, but it may be impossible to cover a beyond-archetypal garage-rock song like "Kick Out the Jams" unironically in 2018, even if you co-wrote it. You can't quite hear what the band is chasing until they get to "Rocket Reducer #62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa)," locking in like they're all swinging one big two-handed sword. It's an extraordinary thing to witness as part of an audience of three people.
When the song is over, Thayil asks for more of Wayne's guitar in his monitor. Kramer cracks a devilish smile and says, "I'll turn up a little."
He's 10 when he gets his first guitar and loses his virginity to a 16-year-old neighbor. He suffers sexual abuse at the hands of his stepfather. During the Cuban missile crisis he dreams Detroit is burning. He makes friends with a kid named Fred Smith. Fred's also a survivor of abuse. They share a belligerent teenage cynicism about every institution and authority figure under heaven and sometimes they wrestle each other to exhaustion on Kramer's lawn. Fred will eventually take up guitar, but he's on bongos when he and Kramer start playing music together. They become the nucleus of a band. They're a four-piece, but they call themselves the MC5, because it sounds like a hot car part: Give me one of those four-barrel carbs, a 4-56 rear end, four shock absorbers and an MC5. They discover feedback. They play "avant rock" at high-school sock hops. They cut a single called "One of the Guys." (The B-side is a cover of Them & Van Morrison's "I Can Only Give You Everything," only because The Shadows of Knight got to "Gloria" first). Eventually they hook up with the activist, poet, critic and underground journalist John Sinclair, who connects a lot of dots for them.
"In the beginning he mocked us," Kramer says. "He didn't like the MC5, because he thought we were jive white punks."
Their live show changed his mind. Sinclair became their manager, stoked their interest in the freer side of jazz, helped them see how they could use the garage-rock format to chase the vapor trails of Albert Tyler, Archie Shepp, Sun Ra and John Coltrane.
"John was older than us, and better educated than us, and had the ability to articulate on a granular level how and why things are the way they are," Kramer says. "He could explain things that I only felt intuitively...And he's a natural teacher. Everything that emanated from him was a lesson."
Detroit in the '60s is a hard place to be a "head" — Sinclair has already been in and out of jail on penny-ante pot charges. But it's an even tougher place and time to be African-American. The tension between the city's mostly-white police force and its black population explodes in July of 1967, after the cops raid a speakeasy on the city's near west side and cart more than 80 after-hours revelers off to jail. Eight straight days of conflict ensue, during which 43 people are killed, 467 are injured and 7200 are arrested. Looting is rampant and arson fires rage; eventually George Romney sends in the National Guard and Lyndon Johnson dispatches the 82nd and 101st Airborne to put the insurrection down. Army tanks roll along Woodward Avenue, the same street General Motors guys with houses in Bloomfield Hills drive to work on. For much of this, Kramer's in the streets, breathing smoke, watching the cops swing on the citizenry. But when he's arrested, he's at home; the police notice a telescope in his window and accuse him of spotting for snipers.
"It certainly was a radicalizing experience," Kramer says. "I had misgivings about the older generation and the establishment before the rebellion of '67, but that just pushed me into militancy, in terms of my frustration, and my anger with the way adults were running the country."
"It opened the door," he says with a smile, "for some of my most radical anti-social instincts and activities."
Wayne Kramer's studio, his record label Industrial Amusements, and the U.S. offices of Jail Guitar Doors — the nonprofit Kramer and his wife and manager Margaret Saadi Kramer founded with British roots-punk Billy Bragg about a decade ago, which donates guitars to prison inmates as part of a broader prison-reform agenda — are all housed in a single second-floor suite in an unassuming office complex just down the street from the Fairfax Oki Dog stand (the lesser of L.A.'s two Oki locations). MC5 gig posters and other framed Kramericana adorn the walls. Kramer's studio is just down the hall from a plaque commemorating platinum sales of Blue Oyster Cult's 1978 live album Some Enchanted Evening, which featured a cover of "Kick Out the Jams."
Kramer hasn't made a studio album since the wild instrumental jazz-rock excursion Lexington, released in 2014, but he stays busy composing scores and musical cues for movies like Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and TV shows like Eastbound and Down. He's just finished the music for a documentary about the Russian Five, the Soviet hockey players who led the Detroit Red Wings to back-to-back Stanley Cups in the mid-'90s. He does much of that work right here in this room. The walls are lined with guitars hung by the neck; a palm tree casts a shadow through a skylight. Kramer's at the computer when I walk in.
"Excuse me a minute," he says. "I'm writing to Ted Nugent."
They don't agree on anything, Wayne and Ted, but they go way back; in Detroit in the '60s, bands like Nugent's Amboy Dukes, Bob Seger's Bob Seger System and The Rationals were among the crosstown rivals the MC5 attempted to blow off every stage in the Detroit metro area. Although they're commonly cited — alongside bands like The Stooges, The Velvet Underground, and Blue Cheer — as progenitors of punk, Kramer's never been quite willing to accept that label, in part because he's still proud of how well the band played. But from the beginning, they were punk in spirit — "Kick Out the Jams" started out as the battle cry of an insubordinate opening act determined to upstage whatever flower-powered headliner they were opening for.
"When the San Francisco bands started showing up [in Detroit]," Kramer says, "we really wanted to put a hurt on them. We were snobs and elitists, but I thought their rhythm sections were terrible, and the guitar players all sounded like folk musicians who somebody'd bought them an electric guitar. The Dead — yeah, I hated them. I hated them all. I hated the Jefferson Airplane. Hated Big Brother and the Holding Company. The Youngbloods — I thought they were all f****** awful."
Kramer entered the music business with a chip on his shoulder. When he was eight, his father walked; it left Kramer with an anger he'd soon unleash on the straight world, as well as a deep sense of shame and emptiness.
"My mom did a great job of providing me love and direction and guidance and affection," Kramer says, "but she couldn't be a dad. That was just a hole. And I filled that hole with the electric guitar." But not just.
In a sense, The Hard Stuff is the autobiography of two Wayne Kramers, the musician and the small-time crook. One Wayne learns to shoplift and skim petty cash from his mother's beauty shop. The other Wayne hears Duane Eddy's "Rebel Rouser," Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" and Little Richard's "Ready Teddy" and feels his world crack open.
In the face of ongoing police harassment, right-wing intimidation and frequent robberies, Sinclair and the MC5 relocate to Ann Arbor in 1968, the year after the riots. With his wife Leni and a fellow activist, Lawrence "Pun" Plamondon, Sinclair founds the White Panther Party, an organization dedicated to advancing the causes championed by Bobby Seals and Huey Newton's Black Panthers. The MC5 have never been an apolitical group — from the beginning, they'd argue long and hard about the content of their songs and whether or not it's counterrevolutionary to cover The Rascals. But in '68, firmly ensconced in Sinclair's orbit, watching student uprisings grip Mexico City and the Sorbonne, living in a city that's just exposed the fragility of the social construct by tearing itself to pieces, the MC5 became the first White Panther rock band.
Kramer says he was convinced the world was on the verge of a global evolutionary shift. "I think the acid helped my cosmic-ness," he says, laughing. "Now from the perspective of today, being 70, I've concluded that things don't happen that fast, that radically. They happen over millennia, not weeks and months or even decades."
But that was exactly the allure of the Black Panthers, to a bunch of guitar-slinging Detroit hipsters — the notion that a less-gradual change might be necessary but also possible. Plus the Panthers, it must be said, were cool, with their leather blazers, their law books and guns. Kramer acknowledges that there was something teenage and macho and irresponsible about his circle's identification with the Black Panthers and expresses some regret about what the MC5's platform of "Dope, Rock n' Roll and F****** in the Streets" may have done to discredit the Panthers' movement.
"It was all agitprop theater in a sense," he says. "And it was silly. The last thing we were was a serious, revolutionary political organization. But our feelings were sincere. We were anti-establishment."
At that moment in American history, embracing the trappings of violent insurrection wasn't without risk, even for dopers of the MC5's complexion. Their understanding of revolutionary praxis may have been tongue-in-cheek; the response it met with from the authorities was anything but. Black Panthers radicalizing other blacks was one thing, but white rockers potentially radicalizing flower children was something else entirely. The White Panther Party was placed under FBI surveillance; Kramer says he developed a sharp eye for agents provocateurs looking to infiltrate the scene in Ann Arbor.
"I didn't think it through," Kramer says today. "After a while it started to become clear that once you use the symbol of the gun, if you embrace violence, the authorities will use everything they have against you. And they have way more guns."
For a time, the MC5 had managed to balance their musical and political aims. When a planned concert outside the chaotic '68 Democratic National Convention in Chicago falls apart at the last minute, they play anyway, borrowing electricity from a nearby hot dog stand to power their amps; they still manage to melt the face of Norman Mailer, who wonders "Had the horns of the Huns ever had noise to compare?" in 1968's Miami and the Siege of Chicago. But when they travel to New York the following year to play the Fillmore East, simmering tensions between the venue and the East Village anarchist group known as Up Against the Wall Motherf***** boil over into violence, and one of the motherf****** breaks Bill Graham's nose with a chain.
The turning point really comes in July of 1969, when Sinclair was sentenced to ten years in prison for the possession of two joints. The MC5 went on to record their first studio album, Back in the U.S.A., with rock critic and future Bruce Springsteen producer Jon Landau, who pushed for shorter songs and a classic American hard-rock sound. (The results are professional but dry-- not until 1971's High Time would the MC5 manage to make a studio LP worthy of their live reputation.)
"They wanted to be bigger than the Beatles," Sinclair would later lament, "but I wanted them to be bigger than Chairman Mao."
"He thought we were trying to cross him out," Kramer says. "That somehow we'd want him to go away so we could go off and be rock and roll stars. That was never what was actually happening. But he was angry, and discounted us, and discounted me."
In December 1971, at a Free John Sinclair rally at Ann Arbor's Crisler Arena, John Lennon performed live in the U.S. for the first time since the Beatles disbanded. The bill also included Phil Ochs, Bob Seger, Archie Shepp, and an unannounced set by Stevie Wonder; the MC5 were not invited to appear.
By then, the band was imploding. They'd bounced from Elektra to Atlantic Records without much success; they'd watched other bands eclipse them. They drank heavily on tour; off the road, they'd started dabbling in hard drugs. Kramer puts a lot of that down to the loss of Sinclair, the man who'd been their "intellectual backstop" in the early years.
"There was a vacuum there," he says. "His personal charisma and his enthusiasm really buoyed us up a lot. The idea that we were all part of something bigger. And then there was a hole, and it's around this time that the real painkilling properties of Jack Daniels and heroin entered the picture."
"I can really only speak on my own experience, but for me, dealing with all this tension and disappointment, and then I could get high, and it didn't bother me. So pretty soon, I only had one problem, which was how to stay high. And all those other problems kind of went away. As if by magic."
They effectively disbanded in 1972, when Kramer walks offstage during a $500 gig at the Grande. "I was so disheartened," he says, "and I'd already been paid. I had the money in my pocket. The quicker I got off the stage, the quicker I'd get to the dope house."
Kramer was 24 years old and washed up. At this point The Hard Stuff becomes a crime story. Kramer starts dealing dope and pulling burglaries, although he always raids the liquor cabinet first. He watches the Watergate hearings on TV in the summer while smoking, snorting and shooting with "a parade of thieves, hustlers, go-go girls, junkies and musicians" who still flock to his house. But soon enough, it's just him and a bunch of other wannabe gangsters.
"I saw myself being a star in the criminal world," Kramer says. "It was like a new way to be a star. The other way wasn't available to me anymore. Detroit was in a real ebb — the Grande days were over, and I was in a paradoxical situation. I was Wayne Kramer, the architect of the MC5, and I'm out here competing with bar bands. That was painful. And, y'know, nobody stopped me from doing B-and-Es or setting up a ripoff or selling some guns or some TVs. Everyone was happy to see me then, you know? Yeah, Wayne, you got that thing? Got the money? Yeah, excellent, cool, let's get high.
"I had seen The Godfather one too many times. I'm driving around, carrying a pistol, eating in restaurants to talk about business. I gotta see some guys about some business. I was completely delusional. I was in a fantasy land about that world and the people that populate it. Because to succeed in that world, you have be capable of really hurting people, and I had no idea what I was doing."
He's 25 and on probation for burglary when the coke bust happens. He lands in FCI Lexington, formerly the United States Narcotic Farm, an institution whose status as a prison hospital for drug offenders makes it a de facto artists' colony within the U.S. carceral system. William Burroughs did time there, as did jazz greats like Sonny Rollins, Elvin Jones, Lee Morgan and Chet Baker. In his book, Kramer spots chord changes pencilled on the wall near the prison's auditorium and wonders if some jazz legend scratched them there.
In 1975, when Kramer entered the system, a comparatively progressive moment in prison administration and the treatment of narcotics offenders was giving way to policies that prefigured the War on Drugs. By the time Kramer was released in '78, the population of the prison had more than doubled, and an institutional philosophy centered on rehabilitation — which included prison bands as well as farm labor — was replaced by an emphasis on accountability.
So Kramer the crook falls back into Kramer the artist's Detroit, after two and a half years down, with $200 to his name. He's a ghost in his own life. In the book he describes sitting at a bar one day, dressed like a pimp, with blowdried hair and a mustache, drinking a Lambrusco, listening to people a few stools away talking obliviously about how Wayne from the MC5 just got out of jail.
By this point punk is starting to happen. Eventually Kramer will make it to England and see Billy Bragg, The Damned, Nick Lowe and the Sex Pistols. He'll get why the rock critics draw lines between these bands and his. But that's about it — there's nothing wrong with punk, but it feels a little small. "I was disappointed," Kramer says, "that none of them grasped the adventurous part of the MC5, the experimental part, the free jazz part. It was about playing in the beat and in the key and in the chord."
He's not using when he gets out. His willpower is enough to sustain that, up until he moves to New York to live on the Lower East Side — back when Avenue D is so awash in heroin they call it the Golden Triangle — to work with former New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders in Gang War, a band that proves exactly as pathologically incapable of getting out of its own way as you might imagine.
"I was fresh out of prison and desperate to get my toe in the door of the amusement industry again," he says. "And of course I paid the price for it. It was a terrible experience and things went from bad to worse."
He has a rough '80s. He roofs. He builds cabinets in Nashville. He gets married, settles down in Key West for a while, keeps on drinking and doing coke. Sometimes he watches MTV and fumes at the success of bands manifestly unfit to shine the MC5's boots. He holds on to the dream of getting the band back together up until 1991, when lead singer Rob Tyner suffers a heart attack in his car at 47. Fred Smith dies of heart failure in 1994, after raising a son and daughter with singer-songwriter Patti Smith. Kramer begins the process of facing his s***.
It's not a short process.
By the mid-'90s he's signed a deal with the upstart SoCal punk label Epitaph and starts going to 12-step meetings, but making critically acclaimed solo albums for the Offspring's label doesn't fix what's up with him, and neither does the program.
"I hadn't embraced it," Kramer says. "I lied to everybody. I wasn't lying to myself — I knew I wasn't sober. I was telling myself, You're a rotten motherf*****, man. You go in and you lie to these men to their face and tell them how sober you are, and then you get in the car, and you stop off and you get a pint of vodka and drink it on the way home. But I needed a connection. I needed to be part of something. Intimacy with other human beings, y'know? Brotherly and harmonious action. Which I had none of. I didn't have it with my bands, I didn't have it with the record company, at Epitaph. I didn't have it with my wife. I had been spinning for years."
He detoxes in 1999, at 51, lives a few years as a sober ass**** — "I'm continually fault-finding — I have a fault-finding mind" — and gradually begins doing the real work, which starts with him thinking about how to be of service. He starts driving his elderly neighbor to the local community center.
"There was a huge emotional payoff, which was to begin to rebuild the self-respect and dignity that I lost on my trip to the gutter. To actually do something for no other reason than it's the right thing to do. I tried to apply that principle as much as I could."
Service to one's fellows, they call it, in certain rooms. Kramer starts to think about who his fellows are. When he went to prison, there were 350,000 people incarcerated in this country — 50,000 federal inmates and 300,000 in state prisons nationwide. According to a study released this past March by the Prison Policy Initiative, there are now almost 2.3 million people in some form of detention in America. "I watched, year in, year out, as those numbers went up and up," Kramer says, "and nobody said anything about it and it got worse and worse and worse."
In 2008, Kramer played a show for prisoners at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in upstate New York, on a bill with Billy Bragg, Tom Morello, and Perry Farrell. He and Bragg got to talking about Jail Guitar Doors, a program Bragg had organized which provided guitars to inmates in Her Majesty's prison system. Bragg took the name from a Clash B-side whose opening lines — "Let me tell you about Wayne and his deals in cocaine" — were a reference to Kramer's early-'70s travails. Sometimes the universe nudges you, and sometimes it throws an elbow. Bragg, Wayne and Margaret Kramer founded Jail Guitar Doors as a U.S. organization in 2009; since then they've donated hundreds of guitars to prisoners in some 120 federal and state prisons, county jail and youth camps, as part of a broader program of prison-reform advocacy.
Kramer's led songwriting workshops in jail and seen amazing things happen. But he's realistic about what's possible. "I study Johnny Cash," he says. "Cash was really committed to helping prisoners, and my sense is he thought the power of his celebrity would make a difference. He could testify in Congress, he could play concerts in prisons, he could bring attention to the plight of prisoners. He even got a couple of guys out. He got this guy Glen Shirley out, and Glen was an incorrigible convict. Glen was a f***up, and Johnny extended himself to him and the guy f****d up left, right and center and then blew his own brains out. And I think in the end Cash was just discouraged that he couldn't make a difference."
"I'm kinda determined not to be that grandiose in what I think I can do. It's turning the Titanic, and it's gonna be very slow going. [The prison system] is a $90 billion a year industry, and there's so much invested in it, on so many levels, that I don't expect to see prison reform in my lifetime. It might take 20 years, or it might take a hundred. But this is an unbelievable juggernaut of destruction that's happening. What am I gonna do? I gotta do something."
During a break at the Hollywood rehearsals, I talk to Don Was in the hallway. Kramer played with Was and his brother David on the absurdly underrated debut album by Was (Not Was), on which the phrase "The woodwork creaks and out come the freaks" is both a catchy disco chant and an apt characterization of the personnel involved. Long before that, though, during the 1960s, the Detroit-born, Ann Arbor-educated Was caught many an MC5 show.
"In Detroit, in the '60s, there was functionally no difference between the 5 and the Beatles," he tells me. "And when Wayne cranked up in there [just now]? That's what it sounded like."
But that's one guy's opinion — the opinion of a Grammy-winning producer who drops Mick Jagger stories in conversation, but still. A few weeks later, at the tail end of our talk at his office, I realize I haven't asked Kramer why he decided to commemorate Kick Out the Jams' anniversary with this tour. (If you count one-offs like the weird Levi's-sponsored gig Kramer played in 2003 in London with Dennis Thompson and Michael Davis, this is the fourth MC5 "reunion" of the 21st century.) He tells me he's played the entirety of Kick Out the Jams live only once, in 2005, at Northsix in Brooklyn, with the modified MC5-plus-guests lineup known as DKT/MC5, and that it was a fun night, and he figured he'd try it again, with some guys he'd always wanted to work with. And that's it.
"It's turning out better than my expectations," Kramer tells me. "It's fun to play these tunes. And really?" He pauses a second. "To tell you the truth? The MC5 never sounded this good."