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From Rock Pioneer to Prison: Hear the Story of MC5’s Wayne Kramer

Wayne Kramer, guitarist for the MC5, shares his wild life story on the Rolling Stone Music Now podcast

Musician Wayne Kramer of MC5 performs onstage during the second annual Rock for Recovery benefit concert at The Fonda Theatre on September 16, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.

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In his new book, The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities, MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer has some wild stories to tell: His Detroit band’s improbable journey from polite covers act to noisy rock insurrectionists; his own descent into crime and imprisonment; and his comeback as a solo artist. Kramer, who is currently on tour celebrating the 50th anniversary of the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams, called into the Rolling Stone Music Now podcast to talk about it all.

To hear the entire discussion, press play below or download and subscribe on iTunes or Spotify.

The 1967 Detroit Riots
“The air was full of smoke and sirens and gunfire. It was like a World War II army movie where you’re hearing all this in the background except it was real. These were streets that I grew up on and was raised and went to school, and these neighborhoods I knew all my life and now the entire order of daily life was turned upside down. It was thrilling and terrifying at the same time.”

The birth of the MC5
Well, I’d say it took major turns at a few different points. The decision to not be a cover band exclusively was a turning point for us. We were encouraged to learn songs that were played on the radio so that we could get steady employment in bars. But we didn’t want to do that. I wanted to write my own songs and play concerts like my idols, like the Who and the Rolling Stones. And then the influence of the counterculture and marijuana and LSD was considerable and kind of opened my mind up to different ways of approaching music and then ultimately exposed me to the free jazz movement. The music of John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins, Albert Ayler, and then trying to make a connection between what I was trying to do with the electric guitar coming from Chuck Berry to move forward to what Albert Ayler was doing with the saxophone seemed like the logical next step.”

Embracing distortion
“It just evolved. We used to play ‘Wild Thing,’ and then Hendrix came out with his version of it, so we thought, ‘Well, let’s move over and pick another one of their songs,’ because we liked the stuff they were doing. I think that heaviness just grew out of trying to put more energy into the same three chords — where do you go once you’re playing everything as fast as you possibly can? We started to find that you could leave the beat and the key behind and go into a pure sonic dimension.”

How their debut, Kick Out the Jams, became a live album rather than a studio release
“It was a consensus idea between the band and [producer John Sinclair] and Elektra Records because all of our effort was put into performing live and we had very little studio experience at that point. We just made a handful of 45 RPM singles where you go in and you cut the song in three hours and mix it and you’re done. I think the idea that getting this band in a studio to record an album could be costly and labor intensive, whereas we were a fantastic live performing unit. And if we could capture the excitement of the live concert event on record, it could be a revolutionary way to introduce the band to the world. I think that worked pretty well.”

Playing Outside the 1968 Democratic Convention
“It was not unlike a lot of days for the MC5, because we would play anywhere anyone would let us. To play a free concert in a park for community groups was something we did as a matter of course. And so when Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman invited us to Chicago to perform at the Festival of Life to oppose the festival of death, which is the way they saw the Democrats’ convention, we jumped at the chance. Sure, they said all the California bands were coming and bands were coming from all over the world it was going to be a big rock festival. We drove out there and got there. There was no stage, there was no electricity, there’s no flatbed truck. There was nothing. We set up on the ground and we had to borrow electrical power from a hot dog stand to run our back line. We perform the set, and the minute we finished, and I’d seen this before, when as long as the band is playing or the crowd has something positive to focus on, everything is fairly peaceful. But once you take that away, the mob mentality takes over. And of course the Chicago police were provoking the kids with really rough tactics; beating kids and pushing kids around and riding their motorcycles through the crowd. Of course, the kids responded in kind and we all, we got in our van and headed back to Detroit where we’d be safe and then we all watched on television.”

Download and subscribe to Rolling Stone Music Now, hosted by Brian Hiatt, on iTunes or Spotify, and tune in Fridays at 1 p.m. ET to hear the show broadcast live on Sirius XM’s Volume, channel 106.

In This Article: MC5, Wayne Kramer

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