Surviving members of the MC5 begin a new chapter tomorrow night in Toronto as the remnants of the Detroit rockers who once urged "dope, guns and fucking in the streets!" begin their first tour in three decades. Billed as DKT/MC5, the tour reunites guitarist Wayne Kramer, bassist Mike Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson, who will perform with a rotating cast of guests filling in for the late Rob Tyner and guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith.
"All my life this is what I wanted to do," said Thompson. "The musical work of the MC5 was never finished."
The trio will be joined on most American dates by Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age), Mark Arm (Mudhoney), and Marshall Crenshaw. Evan Dando joins for two Australian dates, and Pelle Almquist of the Hives sits in for Japan. All will perform songs from the feverish protopunk MC5 songbook.
"We're not trying to replace Fred Smith or Rob Tyner," says Kramer. "We really want this to be a revolving cast of characters, kind of a work-in-progress, so it's always different and more like performance art. If we were going to try to replace people, that just wouldn't be cool."
A promoter's one-time offer to reunite the MC5 in the Eighties was aborted after Smith chose not to participate. After the Nineties deaths of Tyner and Smith, the idea of a reunion seemed "absolutely unthinkable," according to Davis, though there had been informal gatherings, usually in tribute to a fallen bandmate. "The things that happened before were at deceased members' funerals. You can't get too much commitment out of something like that."
That changed with a one-off show last year at the 100 Club in London, where the MC5 survivors were joined by Motorhead's Lemmy Kilmister and the Cult's Ian Astbury. "The place was packed and it was really exciting and fun," says Thompson. "I wanted more of it. It's very exciting and challenging to play this music in present-day context, because we've all changed, we've all grown. We're thirty years older. When you bring other players into this, it adds a different texture, a different flavor. It's still moving forward."
The MC5 survivors had not fully realized the lingering affection and impact the band has had on subsequent generations of rockers. "For a long time, the only people that really knew about the MC5 were other musicians," says Davis. "I thought the MC5 was a Detroit thing, a regional thing from the late Sixties. Then when I moved to Arizona, I started meeting people that were in awe of the fact that I'd played in the band. The mystique of the band is unique, and people just won't let it go. It's the kind of thing that continues to offer inspiration, no matter what year it is."
The London show was taped for an upcoming DVD release, Sonic Revolution: A Celebration of the MC5, due in July. At the same time, the acclaimed and long-in-the-works documentary MC5: A True Testimonial is trapped in limbo over a dispute between the band and the filmmakers. It's already an ugly, public fight, based on what Kramer describes as broken promises and rights to use the band's songs in the film.
"This is not the Rolling Stones or the Who -- there's not billions of dollars at stake here," Kramer says of the impasse. "This is an underground documentary about a cult band. It's not even the big time. It's just an ugly little squabble. I remain open-minded and reasonable. So far no one is talking to me yet. We have some ideas, but it's not up to me to solve their problems."
For now, the guitarist is focused on the tour ahead of him. "It should be fun, man," says Kramer. "It's going to be guitars a-go-go."