Photo by Mark Dancey "Out in the streets," wrote reporter Michael Herr, "I couldn't tell the Vietnam veterans from the rock & roll veterans." Huh, so which MC5 show was that? The famous '68 DNC? The Golden Gate Park show at which 10,000 hippies, drunk on wine, leapt to their feet on Rob Tyner's "A-WOP-BOP-A-LOO-BOP!"? Or maybe the very last, on New Year's Eve 1972, with an MC5 already ground down to a wheezing MC4 (bassist Michael Davis was out after drug-related fuck-ups), at which guitarist Wayne Kramer unplugged midset, $100 in gig money flapping out his back pocket, and walked off to years of prison stints, anonymous carpentry jobs, and nursing a bad case of what-coulda-been? Because the MC5 were as spectacular in ruins as they ever were onstage, soaring from cocky cover band to spacebound free-yourself starship to mushroom cloud in just eight years, and smashing one of America's canonical rock & roll bands—without the panthers-and-politics shtick on final LP High Time, they went out with their biggest bang of all—into five of America's canonical rock & roll casualties. A lot of big broken promises and teenage lust for all the worst fixes stopped the MC5 too soon, but like Davis says below: maybe they should have been our Beatles. Instead, they blew to pieces.
OC Weekly: How did it feel that morning when you woke up and you knew you weren't in the MC5 anymore?
Wayne Kramer: There's this message sent out of Hollywood: "Go for your dream, kid! Never give up your dream! You can make it if you try!" And, uh, that's true—that's the fundamental message of the MC5, to go for your dream, to go for it wholeheartedly. But what happens when you get to the other side of that dream? It's a story that doesn't get talked about—what happens to bands who have their moment, and you're the man, and one day, you wake up, and you're not the man anymore?
Michael Davis: It's probably the hugest disappointment you could imagine, and it never gets better. I put myself on anesthetic—became my own anesthesiologist. And I went off to prison, was basically as confused and depressed as ever, and finally just had to close the door on that part of my life. I kind of feature it as my wandering in the wilderness—my 40 days and 40 nights turned out to be 15 years' worth.
So what were you looking for after the MC5? A replacement? A validation?
Kramer: What I was looking for was a lie. Looking for the lie that fame could fix me—that somehow if you work real hard and achieve this thing and have a hit movie, book or band, you'll be delivered and have the good life and won't have any problems—but not only will you not be better if you achieve success and you're looking for it to fix you, but you'll also be worse.
When you started the MC5, did you ever think about what would come afterward?
Kramer: No, no, we were too self-obsessed to think realistically. I think it's called immaturity.
Did you feel like the MC5 was special at the time?
Davis: That was actually part of the problem. I always kind of had a huge ego anyway, and when I was a kid, it was touted around that I was a talented artist, so I thought I had this great future, and I brought this whole thing to the band, and I met four other people who also thought they were pretty special—I thought there was a lot of power to have five people each with their own territory of specialness. That kind of contributes to the disappointment—everything drops out from under you, and you think, "I FUCKED IT UP!" or "I HAD MY CHANCE AND I DIDN'T COME THROUGH." That was my particular dilemma—that I didn't come through. I carried that weight on my shoulders for a long time.
I think a lot of kids who pick up guitars would be satisfied to have done everything the MC5 did—but maybe that's not true when it's actually happening to you?
Davis: We wanted to be as big as the Beatles. Here are four guys from basic working-class backgrounds who put out this great work that gave everyone pleasure, and I thought they set the standard. And anybody could do it, and if you had the guts and talent to go for it, your life would be wonderful. That's what I was trying for—I don't know about the other people; but that's what worked for me. I read Beatles biographies, and I'd compare where we were at our point in our career where they were when they were there, and I'd think, "We're still in the game; we're still in the game—we didn't blow it yet."
So where did the MC5 succeed?
Kramer: In the methodology to play music but also as a way of life. It's a philosophy and an action, a way to live that says you can make a difference—that you can change yourself and the world around you, but to do that, you have to take action—take wholehearted action, to give full measures, and if you do, you can add something to the world.
Do you think all the really great bands have to have that all-or-nothing ideal?