All About the Groove

Punk Jesus Wayne Kramer explains it all for you

Wayne Kramer has a migraine, or he looks like he does, anyway. One of punk rock's original uncaused causes—the Jesus of punk! The Buddha of punk!—is hunkered-down behind a recording-studio console in Hollywood, tightly pinching his brow while he listens to a playback of a song from the Brian James album he's producing. Several guest players drift in and out of the room—Blondie's Clem Burke, Duff McKagan from Guns N' Roses—while the track slowly unspools. Then James—a name in his own right from his days in the Damned and Lords of the New Church—slithers up to the board to confer with Kramer. A little blah-bluh here, a little mmm-hmmm there, and Kramer eventually lets James know exactly what sound, what feeling, he's looking to nail down—"more groove-oriented," he tells him.

Another take, please. Or two. Or five. Kramer has always been about the Quest for the Golden Groove, though, about Kicking out the Jams, about Dangerous Madness, about the Rama Lama and the Fa Fa Fa. As one of two guitarists for fabled late-'60s Detroit band the MC5, Kramer helped sculpt a turbulent, churning, anarchistic and ultragroove-oriented sound years before anyone coined the term "heavy metal" and a good decade before John Lydon's first sneer. The MC5 were the bridge between the frazzled chaos of '60s garage bands and well, everything that's come along since, for better or worse. A band that was revolutionary not just in the sonic sense but in a mental one as well, the MC5 were one of the first to merge hard rock & roll with politics—and not easy, save-the-rainforest politics, either. With their spiritual guru John Sinclair, they championed the philosophy of the Black Panthers and urged fans to overthrow the corrupt military-industrial establishment that spawned the Vietnam War. They were unashamed, blue-collar-raised Leftie radicals.

Which may explain why whenever the MC5 played their hometown, their shows turned into riots. They played amid tear-gas clouds in Lincoln Park during the police riots of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and were watched closely by the FBI. They adopted a creative, memorable (if ridiculously naive) three-point platform for the advancement of youth culture: "Dope, guns and fucking in the streets."

On their first album, 1968's live Kick out the Jams, singer Rob Tyner punctuated that title with a "motherfucker!" battle cry, but when Hudson's, a large department-store chain, yanked the album because of the expletive, the MC5 responded in kind by taking out full-page ads in the underground press with the proclamation "Fuck Hudson's!"—an act that got them promptly dropped from their label. And all this while they were barely out of high school.

After only three albums, the MC5 splintered. Kramer got popped on a cocaine rap and did two years. After getting sprung, he kicked around with bands in New York and Florida, eventually settling in LA in the early '90s, where he auditioned for the Red Hot Chili Peppers' guitar slot (along with seemingly half the planet), kept busy with session work, and made friends with slobbering MC5 fan Brett Gurewitz (then of Bad Religion), who signed him to his Epitaph label. Kramer put out four albums in four years on Epitaph—The Hard Stuff, Dangerous Madness, Citizen Wayne and last year's LLMF (which, unsurprisingly, stands for Live Like a Motherfucker)—each one an incendiary collection of guitar-seared songs and blunt, up-yours lyrics about real stuff: labor unions, CIA drug running, limousine liberals ("We'll write a manifesto/Just after chips and pesto") and the Broken Promised Land. You can't get more pointed than lines like "So where's Lee Oswald now that we need him?/I've seen all the lone gunmen I can stand/There's a self-improvement tape called Getting Used to Poverty/Something broken in the promised land."

Having fulfilled his Epitaph deal, Kramer is now focusing on songwriting, collaborating, producing, maybe starting up his own label, and playing the occasional gig (he's at Club Mesa on Friday). But the legend of the MC5 will not die, kept alive for most of the past 30 years by rock critics and musicians who recognize the cultural import of Kramer's old band.

"I feel a lot of gratitude to the intelligentsia who've really discovered the story of the MC5," Kramer tells me on a break from recording the James album. "It's generally a story that has been passed around from band to band, and musicians have always given the MC5 mad props. I'm gratified that it still gets told, and it's always nice to be recognized for your work, but that work was a long time ago. I'm not closing the door on it, and I certainly have no regrets, but I have to kind of leave the past in the past."

Kramer may have a hard time doing that. He's a willing participant in an MC5 documentary feature that's expected to hit screens sometime in 2000. At a panel on the rise and fall of the MC5 at this year's South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, the room was overflowing, and when a preview trailer of the film was screened, the crowd pretty much went apeshit.

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