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Book Review: Two Dueling Narratives Pick Through the Wreckage of the MC5

Guitarist Wayne Kramer and bassist Michael Davis offer differing takes on a revolutionary band’s tragic story.

DETROIT - 1967:  The rock group MC5  (L-R Fred "Sonic" Smith, Dennis "Machine Gun" Thompson, Rob Tyner, Wayne Kramer and Michael Davis) pose for a photo in front of an American flag in 1967 in Detroit, Michigan.   (Photo by Leni Sinclair/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

The rock group MC5 (L-R Fred "Sonic" Smith, Dennis "Machine Gun" Thompson, Rob Tyner, Wayne Kramer and Michael Davis) pose for a photo in front of an American flag in 1967 in Detroit, Michigan.

Leni Sinclair/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty

In the fall of 1968, Wayne Kramer saw his dreams come true when Elektra Records came to Detroit and signed his band, the MC5. “This was the deal I was looking for,” he writes in his new memoir The Hard Stuff, “with a very hip label that had pockets deep enough to market the band properly.” With a strong creative and performing nucleus in vocalist Rob Tyner and the double guitar team of Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith, greatness seemed to be waiting. Instead, their embrace of radical politics put the MC5 in the untenable position of trying to negotiate a middle-ground between counter-cultural leftism and an increasingly commercial rock business. They were done and buried by 1972, with Kramer literally packing up his guitar and walking offstage in the middle of a New Year’s Eve show to pursue a new career as petty thief and junkie, “a complete failure at 24. I had gone from truly unbelievable highs to pathetic and inconceivable lows in just four short years.”

Few bands can match the legacy of the MC5 – or the tragedy. Their hi-energy music and anarchic attitude would make them an important touchstone for generations of punk and alternative rock, but such recognition came much too late for the band and most of its members. That sad story is recounted in dueling memoirs from Kramer and bassist Michael Davis. The questions posed by two these books are essentially the same: how did things go so wrong? and how do you chose to live after the death of a dream?

In seeking answers, Kramer has written one of rock’s most engaging and readable memoirs. He was certainly the one who wanted the MC5 the most, the one who, along with playing music and living the rock & roll life, was willing to put in the work to find gigs, learn something about the music business, and try to think strategically. And while it’s clear that he’s not anything more than the band’s titular leader – his respect for Fred Smith is evident — Wayne’s the one that’s scheming when the others are content to be dreaming. For him, the band’s failure is more than a bitter pill: without the locus of the MC5, Kramer’s life spun wildly out of control. Busted with 11 ounces of cocaine, he spent three years in the Federal prison at Lexington, Ky.

Back on the street he eventually cleaned up, paired with the likes of Johnny Thunders and Was (Not Was), and discovered that, as with the Stooges and the New York Dolls, the MC5 had become proto-punk icons, their influence and legacy far outstripping their career. Hooking up with LA’s Epitaph Records, Kramer cut a string of outstanding solo albums and fronted a driving live band. He even managed to engineer MC5 reunion tours of a sort featuring guest vocalists like Evan Dando and William DuVall with surviving bandmates drummer Dennis Thompson and bassist Michael Davis. For Kramer, playing for a new generation of appreciative fans around the world and scoring a windfall payday was a sweet if late victory; for Thompson and Davis, not so much. Kramer puzzles over this while making it obvious that he knows the answer: they feel like they’re working for him.

What Davis thought of the tour isn’t to be found in I Brought Down the MC5, which isn’t nearly as polished or satisfying as The Hard Stuff. Stopping abruptly somewhere around 2000 and slowed by too much attention to the not-very-notable band Destroy All Monsters and his years making deliveries for a florist in Arizona, the book seems to have been abandoned by Davis and dusted off and published by his widow, Angela.

What’s most valuable is to see how different Davis and Kramer’s recollections can be. Though Kramer was friends with Davis and instrumental in bringing him into the band – he was hipper and better looking than original bassist Pat Borders but nowhere near the player – he would later have second thoughts. “Michael’s playing and getting too high on the gig had been an ongoing irritation for Fred and me,” he writes. “I decided he needed to shape up or leave the band.” In Davis’s recollection, it’s a fait accompli without appeal: he’s canned at a band meeting, told by Wayne that they already have a replacement; he writes that he was happy to wash his hands of the experience. Perhaps most eye-opening is to read that Davis was incarcerated in Lexington on a drug beef at the same time Kramer was and that they even ran into each other – a revealing bit of information you won’t know if you only read Kramer’s book. He also recalls that Wayne even wrote to him for advice in advance of being sent there. Instead, Kramer writes about his prison friendship with Charlie Parker’s former trumpeter, Red Rodney.

What emerges out of these conflicting narratives is a real sense of the claustrophobic life inside a band, regardless of whether they’re playing high school dances or headlining Coachella: the power-plays, conflicting points of views, nursed grudges and never-to-be-forgotten sore points. Someone can always be counted on to ego-trip or refuse to do what has to be done; someone is always killing your dreams. In the story of the MC5, the legacy is huge and the records have endured. But from the inside, it reads less like rock & roll immortality than a kind of suffering.

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