"WASHINGTON SEEMED to be really interested in us, but we never got the opportunity to go there and play," says Wayne Kramer, guitarist and co-founder of the MC5, the Detroit band that provided a bracing soundtrack to the countercultural revolution of the late '60s.
"Most of our interest came from the White House and the FBI," Kramer adds wryly, "but they weren't booking any acts."
Indeed, a fascinating element in two new documentaries about the MC5 is U.S. Army surveillance footage of the MC5's performance at the Yippie-organized rally in Lincoln Park outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. That was the one that turned into a televised police riot (as protesters chanted "The whole world is watching!"). The MC5 had been the only band to show up, and the first phalanx of motorcycle cops started pushing in on the crowd as soon as the group stopped playing in late afternoon, though the violent attack on protesters didn't explode until several hours later.
"This happened a lot when we played at big, highly charged public events," recalls Kramer, noting the notorious Belle Isle police riot of April 30, 1967, a free concert that Detroit media cast as "Love-In Turns to Hate" (four months later, the Detroit race riots would claim 43 lives).
"When the crowd didn't have anything to focus on anymore, that's when the riot would start," Kramer says.
With its bracing blend of proto-punk rock, hard blues, free-jazz-rooted improvisation and radical politics, the MC5 was the perfect band for that turbulent era of antiwar demonstrations, urban riots and student protests.
"There were really exciting highs and terribly paralyzing, fearful lows," Kramer says.
Which could serve as the epitaph of the MC5, whose recording career lasted just four controversy-filled years and earned the members recognition as forefathers of punk and grunge, though they are often little more than a footnote in most rock histories. The group never had a hit and its music is seldom heard, but its first album, recorded live to capture the excitement of the MC5's shambolic performances, did contribute a seminal slogan, "Kick out the jams, mother [expletive]!" The last part was in the song that gave the album its title, and with it the band managed to offend just about everybody, including its record label, Elektra, which dropped the group after retailers refused to carry it.
The MC5 eventually helped form the White Panthers, whose 10-point manifesto promised "a total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock & roll, dope, and [expletive] in the streets." This, of course, is what captured Washington's attention, though the Detroit police did the dirty work. But two studio albums on Atlantic sold minimally, and the group, already succumbing to hard drug habits and internal conflicts, collapsed after its rabble-rousing manager and provocateur, John Sinclair, received a 10-year prison sentence for marijuana possession.
Now, the MC5's three surviving members -- Kramer, drummer Dennis "Machine Gun" Thompson and bassist Michael Davis -- are touring together for the first time in more than 30 years, appearing as MC5/DKT. Lead singer Rob Tyner died of a heart attack in 1991, and guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith (who later married poet-musician Patti Smith) died of heart problems in 1994.
How all this came about is somewhat ironic, Kramer admits. Last year, Levi's licensed the famous MC5/White Panther Party flag logo (omitting the marijuana leaf) for a limited-edition vintage T-shirt line, which got some high-profile exposure via Jennifer Aniston on a "Friends" episode and Justin Timberlake on the February 2003 cover of Vibe. But Levi's had inadvertently dealt with Detroit poster artist Gary Grimshaw, not the band, which owned the rights. Rather than haggling in court, "we found a way to turn a lemon into lemonade," Kramer says, shrugging off criticism that the once-revolutionary anti-corporate band had sold out. "Levi's were fans of the MC5 and they were willing to make something happen."
That something was a one-off London concert last year, when the surviving band members were joined by Lemmy of Motorhead, the Damned's Dave Vanian, the Cult's Ian Astbury and Nicke Royale of the Hellacopters, revisiting such MC5 standards as "Gotta Keep Movin', " "Rocket Reducer No. 62," "Rambling Rose" and, of course, "Kick Out the Jams."
Kramer made it clear that the show was not a reunion, telling the English media, "We are not the MC5. This is not an MC5 show. This is not an MC5 reunion. That would be impossible. It's a celebration of the music of the MC5."
Which was smart, given the furiously improvisational live concerts the band was known for.
"I had no preconceptions, I just thought it could be fun and let's see if we can do this," Kramer says now. "Going back to the material, I found it surprisingly sophisticated for 19-year-old punks from Detroit on a meth power trip." The concert, filmed for television, will be released July 6 as a DVD titled "Sonic Revolution: A Celebration of the MC5."
After London, MC5/DKT did shows in Detroit, Chicago and New York, "and the response was overwhelming," Kramer says. "Now we're doing 30 cities in 35 days in America, and six weeks in Europe, Japan, Australia. Everybody wants to hear this music being performed live. We use a revolving cast of singers." For Friday's Black Cat show, the cast includes Evan Dando (Lemonheads), Mark Arm (Mudhoney) and Marshall Crenshaw. "What a wicked guitarist Crenshaw is," Kramer gushes. "He's from Detroit; he has a neighborhood connection to this music."
That the musical and cultural maelstrom of '60s Detroit forged the MC5 (and its baby brothers, the Stooges) is a given. The bellows was the Grande Ballroom, where the MC5 became the house band and, eventually, one of the great live acts of the era, its meld of crunch, distortion, feedback and yowling vocals often surpassing the stage power of visiting acts like the Who and Jimi Hendrix. The music met up with the politics when, after the riots of 1967, the MC5 allied themselves with activist Sinclair and formed the White Panthers and associated themselves with the Black Panther Party. "The possibility that black people and students and hippies and union workers would all form some sort of an alliance threatened the establishment on a level that they had to react the way they did," Kramer says, adding that he has voluminous FBI files on the group, collected though Freedom of Information Act requests.
The radical political stance "was heartfelt in the moment," says Kramer, quickly adding that "the things that unraveled the MC5 were things not directly related to the stance we took."
The MC5 never hid its ambitions to simply be a great and successful rock band and only a few of its songs ("Motor City Is Burning," "The American Ruse") are overtly political. But by 1970, they had devolved in a clash of personalities and succumbed to hard drugs (Kramer and Davis would both spend time in prison on drug charges). Sick of one another, they quit serially: Tyner refused to accompany the group on its final English tour in 1972, and Kramer walked off the stage halfway through the MC5's final concert at the Grande to score some heroin.
It's that very story that ends "MC5: A True Testimonial," a terrific seven-years-in-the-making documentary, in which Davis, Thompson and Kramer in particular serve as de facto narrators. Unfortunately, it's currently off the market as Kramer and filmmakers David Thomas and Laurel Legler battle over music licensing issues. Kramer, who says he loves "A True Testimonial," cooperated with the filmmakers but says they broke a verbal promise to make him the film's music producer. The filmmakers say they agreed only to let Kramer release an accompanying soundtrack on his label, Muscletone. The parties are communicating via lawyers and open letters posted on their various Web sites.
In the '80s, there had been talk about a reunion, but it never went past the talk stage. Sadly, the closest thing to a reunion came when the four surviving members played a tribute concert for Tyner.
"When Rob Tyner died in 1991," Kramer says, "it forced me to not only grieve for the loss of him as one of my dear friends and partners in the seminal time of my life, it also forced me to grieve over the loss of that time of my life, that that time of my life had ended and it was never coming back. It was something I'd denied all those years, but I didn't know it. I had denied that this thing that was so important to me, these people who were so important to me, these ideas that were so important to me -- I denied that they were over. So that made me really bitter, made me an angry guy, made me a drunk guy and a stoned guy, because I just couldn't live in the world that I lived in. I had to grieve and weep over the loss of not only Rob Tyner, but the loss of my youth."
In the end, Kramer adds, "you end up at a point of acceptance that this is the way it's supposed to go, this is the way it always goes, this is the way God intended. Everything in nature that's born and lives dies, as we all will and do." Three years later, he went through a similar experience with the passing of Smith.
"These were things that helped me grow up, and then I could start doing the work I did in the early '90s -- sign with Epitaph, make [a string of solo] records, celebrate my time in the MC5 and honor the work. I've written a lot of songs about the MC5, and I continue to tell the story. I've been telling the story of the MC5 for my entire life, and I can honor it today. Today I'm not mad about being in the MC5. I'm grateful that I was in the MC5. And I'm grateful anybody remembers what we did 35 years ago."
MC5/DKT -- Appearing Friday at the Black Cat. * To hear a free Sound Bite from the MC5, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8121. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)