In August 1968, only one
rock band dared to perform against the first Mayor Daley's wishes at the
protests outside the Democratic National Convention. When the police moved
in, the tear gas rained down, the billy clubs swung and the band paid the
price for its convictions, taking its lumps and losing all of its equipment.
The MC5 never did anything the easy way: This was, after all, the group
that advocated a revolutionary political agenda -- that of John Sinclair's
White Panther Party, which modeled itself on the Black Panthers -- the
cornerstone of which was a call for "total assault on the culture by any
means necessary, including rock 'n' roll, dope and ----ing in the streets."
Now, more than 35 years after the Motor City Five recorded its debut
album "Kick Out the Jams" live at Detroit's Grande Ballroom, three of its
key members -- guitarist Wayne Kramer, bassist Michael Davis and drummer
Dennis Thompson -- have reunited as the DKT/MC5 and are returning to Chicago
to perform under considerably more friendly circumstances tonight at Metro.
WITH GUEST VOCALISTS MARK ARM, MARSHALL CRENSHAW AND EVAN DANDO
Metro, 3730 N. Clark
Tickets, $20 (18-over show)
The band's inimitable singer, Rob Tyner, died in 1991, and its second
guitarist, Fred "Sonic" Smith, died in 1994. In their place, younger
acolytes Mark Arm of Mudhoney and Evan Dando of the Lemonheads will fill in
on vocals while Detroit native Marshall Crenshaw lends second guitar. But
the group has some other surprises in store for fans in Chicago, including
its opening act -- none other than Sinclair -- and a guest appearance by the
Chicago Horns during what Kramer promises will be a "mind-blowing" rendition
of Sun Ra's "Starship," which the group covered on its debut.
I spoke to Kramer last week just before the start of the American tour,
the day after he returned from Germany, where he performed with the Chicago
musicians at a jazz festival.
Q. I guess the big question fans have is, "Why now? What has
brought three members of the MC5 back together playing this music at this
point in time?"
A. I don't know if "miracle" is the right word. What's a word that
describes something completely unprepared for and unplanned? "Serendipity"
is another good word. I had no grand vision or scheme or plot, and none of
us did. It was a sequence of events that started off as something that could
have been a problem, and it has just grown into a really exciting
Q. By problem, do you mean the fight with Chicago filmmakers
Dave Thomas and Laurel Legler over the movie, "MC5: A True Testimonial"?
A. No, there was a problem with Levi's, which had inadvertently
licensed the MC5 logo [for designer T-shirts], and what could have been a
problem -- a small but messy problem -- we found a way to turn lemons into
lemonade. They were very open-minded about the idea of, "Let's do a whole
show and celebrate the music of the MC5," and that seemed to go amazingly
well. They paid for it.
Q. It's ironic that when the band was almost destroyed the
first time by corporate America -- I'm thinking of the MC5's infamous battle
with the Dayton Hudson department-store chain -- that this time, it was
brought together by the same forces!
A. The corporate world has caught up to rock 'n' roll, and rock
'n' roll has now been around for a while. We've all grown up with it, and it
has taken a place in the culture of legitimacy. So we were able to parlay
that into a performance and a concert DVD, and then we thought, "Well, that
went kind of well; maybe we could do three gigs." Realistically, that's what
I thought. I was pretty sure we could get a job in Detroit; we might be able
to get a job in Chicago, and maybe in New York. When we asked an agent to
see about the possibilities, he came back with a flood of requests, an
avalanche of people that want to hear the music of the MC5 played live by
the surviving guys and some of our friends that also have a connection to
Q. It's an impressive cast of characters who are lending a
A. It's a ball. The whole thing is a great kick in the pants. It
seems to be an enduring influence: If you look at how many bands have come
and gone in the last 30 years, the message of the MC5 -- what the MC5
represents -- remains current. In today's climate, it's really appropriate.
Q. Wayne, we've talked many times over the years, and one of
the most encouraging things for me about your career is that you've refused
to live in the past -- you keep moving forward musically. Is it weird now to
go back to the '60s? Does it feel nostalgic?
A. I have been more than a casual observer of people who were in
bands that achieved something at a point in the past and then didn't ride
off into the sunset. You find that you spent the first part of your life
learning how to do something, and you want to continue to practice that
skill, that craft, that art, that science. The validation of it comes when
people want to hear the music -- especially people that are my age, 35 to
55, they still want to rock, but there just isn't much coming down the
pipeline for them. The music that's mass-marketed is aimed at adolescents.
The other day at rehearsal, we were playing one of the tunes, I forget
which one, and I've played a lot of music over the last 30 years, but all of
the sudden I said, "Man, this s--- sounds ----ing great!" It was like real
guitar rock; you couldn't deny that this was like pure kryptonite. You hit
those moments. If you're lucky and if you work hard, you get those peak
Q. When you came into Chicago and played in Grant Park in 1968,
you were public enemy No. 1, and you left with bruises and welts and all of
your gear trashed. When you come into Chicago in 2004, you have the
endorsement of corporate America, the media cheering, and people greeting
you as heroes. Is something missing without that element of danger? I mean,
the MC5 used to be scary. Now you guys are just cool.
A. Hmmm ... well, you're almost there. This band is not the MC5;
we've gone to great lengths and had extended difficulties with promoters who
insist on promoting this as the MC5, but this is DKT/MC5. It can't be the
MC5 because there's no Rob Tyner and no Fred Smith today; they've both died,
and it's an insult to the fans and it's certainly an insult to their memory
to attempt to sell it as the MC5. But you know, it is Davis, Kramer and
Thompson, and this is as close as you're gonna get to the MC5, and it's a
celebration of the songs. In the end, all of these bands are about the
songs. We're approaching this as like a repertory company, using the songs
as the template, and participating in the spirit of the MC5 in the art of
performance. We're gonna play some real music, no click tracks, no
auto-tuning, and we're not doing this with the support of a record company.
We don't have a big publicity campaign behind us, or the blessing of MTV.
This is simply a band and some music playing for people that care about this
music. So in a way, it's still subversive.
Can a rock band matter today like rock music mattered in the '60s? I
don't know. Has my sense of fighting for justice over injustice changed? Not
one iota; it's stronger than ever. And to sing a song about the American
ruse today resonates as powerfully as it did 30 years ago. We're in another
way led by another complete idiot and we're going into an election year;
democracy demands participation, and it demands that if you care, you have
to say, "Not in my name!"
Squabble has release
of MC5 film on hold
Chicago filmmakers Dave Thomas and Laurel Legler spent seven years
working on their labor of love, the vibrant and compelling documentary/ love
letter "MC5: A True Testimonial." But a much-publicized battle with
guitarist Wayne Kramer has blocked the film from national release, and
unless things are resolved, it stands poised to join Robert Franks' infamous
Rolling Stones film "----sucker Blues" as one of the best rock movies that
no one's ever seen.
The arguments on both sides are complex and passionate, but the shorthand
synopsis is that director Thomas and producer Legler made a huge mistake at
the start of the project by agreeing to make Kramer a business partner (a
foolish move for any documentarian, since it flies in the face of
journalistic standards), and Kramer doesn't like the way they've done
Kramer says the filmmakers are trying to rip him off; the filmmakers say
Kramer is trying to shake them down. Right now, without Kramer giving the OK
to the band's publishing company, Thomas and Legler can't get the rights to
the MC5's music. There is no movie without the music, and things seem to be
at a stalemate.
"It's not up to me to fix it," says Kramer (who maintains that he loves
the film itself). "It's not an 'M.P.' -- my problem -- it's a 'T.P.' --
"They made a deal, and then they went back on their word. I have a
hundred options of ways that it could be fixed, but it's not for me to fix,
it's for them to fix."
Says Thomas: "People will get to see this movie eventually; we didn't
spend seven years to roll over because there were some legal problems. I
don't really think that it's Wayne that we have to work it out with, it's
actually Warner Music [the MC5's former record company] and Warner-Chappell
[its publishing company].
"Warner-Chappell is where the blockage is, and it still hasn't been
determined if Wayne even has any rights to the music."