By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
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"I was as surprised as anyone else to see that big of a crowd there," Kramer remembers. "I figured there'd only be three guys from bands and two fanzine writers." It was a mostly youngish audience, too, many who hadn't even been born in the '60s, much less lived during them. Clearly, the MC5 are just as arousing as they ever were—not bad for a 30-year-old band that got zero radio play, that people still usually only find out about through word-of-mouth.
Kramer isn't about to define the MC5's legacy. "That's not for me to say," he says. "For being five guys from Detroit who stood up at a time when people said, 'You can't do that' and, 'Who the hell do you think you are?' and actually tried to make a change, and in doing so spread a message of self-efficacy and of peace and freedom—that's what the band was really talking about. How you didn't have to go along with the program, that if something was wrong, you could change it, that you have the power to make a change. As we sang, 'Lotsa kids are gettin' hip to the American ruse.' We weren't the only ones protesting for civil rights and against the war and police oppression. There were a lot of people who took that stand."
The talk turns to a compare-and-contrast on the music of two generations. Kramer is 51, though he looks much younger, like in his late-30s. Maybe it's the ornery tuneage he plays that keeps him so well-preserved, or the freshly scrubbed LA indie bands he's befriended, like the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs (whom Kramer has employed as his backing band on several occasions and were supposed to be on the Club Mesa bill until an injury forced them to cancel) and the fabulous BellRays, who are like the MC5 fronted by Aretha Franklin and can pack as strong a wallop as you'd imagine. He also inexplicably likes Kid Rock ("because he's my homey") but quite naturally has a hard-on for the politics of Rage Against the Machine ("Rage are great. I consider Rage the MC5 for today. Tom [Morello] and Zack [de la Rocha] are pretty aware guys; they're not idiots. They read.") and tries to get out to the clubs to soak up as much music as he can. He has a strong sensitivity to aural crap, though, and says there's a lot of it out there now, a problem he lays at the feet of the record business. "Because they don't know anything about being creative," he says. "They know about marketing and manufacturing, repeating what's worked before. Don't change your sound; if you have a hit with one thing, make more of those. When the Beatles and the Stones broke out, every record was different. You knew they were gonna play some shit that you had never heard before, that it was gonna be cool, creative, wonderful shit. At least you were hoping that. There doesn't seem to be much of a premium on creativity nowadays, or on good songwriting. It's just more of the same fast food. You listen to it once, and you don't want to listen to it again because you've heard it all. You know what to expect. In a perfect world, it would be an artist-driven industry. But as long as the artists don't give a shit and are only interested in being on MTV and getting paid and laid, then that's what we'll get—bullshit."
Kramer has seen such bands come and go and knows something about karmic justice. "You see a lot of that now with new bands, that top-of-the-world-ism, big-shot-ism," he says. "And then they're gone next week because they got all new ones coming up. And I know what that does to a young person's spirit, to think that they've got all this shit going on. You can almost predict it after a while, though. You can see who we're reserving rooms in rehab for."
But Kramer is no dour old fart who enjoys sitting around yapping about these damn kids today. Instead, he's consistently excited by new music. "There are some rap producers that are really on the cutting edge," he says. "They're coming out with new sounds, grabbing and borrowing from different sources and putting the shit together in a new way. That's why techno and rave are so popular—because these sounds are new to the listening audience. They've never heard these kinds of sounds put together this way, people like the Chemical Brothers and Beck who are doing things with loops and samplers. In my work, I'm striving to play something I didn't play before, to find some new way of framing my message. There's a great danger in the safety of preaching to the converted, though—if I make the same record every year, then I'm saying the same thing over and over. I can't live like that—I need new ideas like I need to breathe air. I need something that's gonna make my heart sing."
The anti-authoritarian anger that fueled Kramer's music during and since his MC5 days is rooted in his working-class, union-card-carrying Michigan upbringing. Casually ask him what's pissing him off these days, and you'll get an earful. A good earful, though, to the point where you're ready to vote for the guy. "Personally, I couldn't care less about the whales, the poor abused animals, the trees, the Tibetans—I couldn't care; I really couldn't care," he says. "It pisses me off that all the attention is put on all this other bullshit when in this country, this city, probably in this neighborhood, kids ain't getting an education, people go without eating well, people don't have jobs, people can't get their health cared for. I don't give a fuck what Alan Greenspan and all the government economists say about how great everything is in this country because I travel this country numerous times a year, and I see neighborhoods everywhere that are devastated, where people don't have a sense of options or possibilities. We're not talking about the working poor, we're talking about the hopeless, the dreamless, the sense that there's no future, that there's no point of getting an education. For what—to work at McDonald's? Why would a guy do that when he could make $300 per day selling crack on the corner? That's fucked-up. And I put it at the door of government. They're entrusted to serve the people, and they don't. They serve their own self-interests like they always have, and the people suffer."