All About the Groove
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.
"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."
Kramer has been pent-up about stuff like this all his life, and opinions like these helped fuel the MC5. That's something you almost never see among bands today who are of roughly the same ages as the MC5 were in their time. Can you imagine Eve 6 or Blink 182 preaching all-out revolution? Could you see them take a meaningful stand on anything?
For Kramer, rock & roll is too important to be left to marketers and publicists. "There's too much selfish, self-centered shit going on in American music right now," he says. "We're smack-dab in the heart of the Me Generation. To have your own thought, your own opinion, perspective and voice, to stick your neck out and take a stand on something—even if you're wrong, you'll know later. Could be good, could be bad, I don't know, we'll find out. Those are the things that are important to me.
"But in the rest of the world, there's some exciting things happening," he continues. "There's an Algerian artist named Cheb Khaled who sings in Arabic. I played a festival with him in France, and it was really exciting to see the audience's passion for what he was doing. He sings about politics, sex, his love of intoxication, his love of freedom and heartbreak. Algeria is a Muslim country, so you're not supposed to sing about these things. He sings under a death threat. He's under execution orders by Islamic fundamentalists, so for him to be singing these songs represents to his fans something way bigger than pop music—it represents coming out of the fucking Middle Ages, the Dark Ages, and into a modern, more enlightened world. It was exciting to be in the middle of that.
"But there are a few people out there, like Rage, who are willing to take stands like that, and that's to be encouraged. The trick with all this stuff, though, is that it has to be fun because you can become too theoretical, didactic and righteous. There's a great danger in that, and it also turns people off. Even Chairman Mao said that bad art is bad for the revolution. So you gotta put these ideas in a framework that people will enjoy."
Enjoy Wayne Kramer's framework with Doom Kounty Electric Chair and Cell Block 5 at Club Mesa, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-6634. Fri., 9 p.m. $6. 21+.
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