Wayne Kramer: the man who survived drugs, jail and MC5

Detroit’s MC5 blazed a trail in the late 1960s with blistering proto-punk and radical politics. Time has mellowed Kramer, but it hasn’t diluted his passion

 

Personality crisis, left-wing radical politics, drug abuse, drug dealing, jail, rehabilitation, recovery, redemption: these are the ingredients of a life less ordinary but no less complicated. Thankfully, Wayne Kramer is still around to tell the tale.

Kramer, approaching his 67th year, is chatting from his Los Angeles office, where he is preparing his work sheet and making plans to return to Ireland over the May bank holiday for an appearance in the Drogheda Arts Festival, under the banner title of Grit, Noise and Revolution: MC5 and Other Tales.

Kramer is businesslike, but his demeanour is underpinned by a relaxed sensibility that makes the conversation smoothly weave from his early days as a teenage malcontent in Detroit to his current preoccupations. These fuse his music (latterly of the free jazz variety) with his work for Jail Guitar Doors USA, which Kramer co-founded with Billy Bragg and which provides musical equipment as a means of rehabilitation for prison inmates.

His life, he says, has been one of reaction. As a teenager in 1960s Detroit, he remembers feeling that the world around him was wrong.

“The hypocrisy was unbearable,” Kramer says with a chuckle that is part resigned, part resentful. “Older people said one thing, the church said one thing, the politicians said one thing, and then they all did another. Children are taught to obey, and there’s a kind of mindlessness to it that I just couldn’t go along with. Also, it didn’t seem fair or right that our country was in a war with people 30,000 miles away in Vietnam when there was no threat to us. It just seemed wrong to me, and it seemed wrong that people of colour were denied human rights, let alone civil rights in America; that poor people had to live the way they did.”

‘Ethical action’

Kramer engaged with all of these contradictions, and they provided him with incentives to try and change things. He was part of a generation, he recalls, that was in total agreement with each other that older people were screwing everything up.

“I had a duty, in that everything I had learned about how democracy functions tells me to not be quiet, to say something, to take ethical action. And that’s what I did.”

Cue the MC5. The proto-punk band formed in Lincoln Park, Detroit, in 1964, bringing a volatile counter-cultural aesthetic that was far removed from the good vibes of the US west coast hippie movement. The band also had far-left political connections: their non-traditional manager, John Sinclair, was active with the White Panther Party (a militant leftist organisation of white people working to assist the Black Panthers) and was the first music editor of underground newspaper Fifth Estate, which was founded in 1965 and is regarded as the longest-running anti-authoritarian publication in North America.

From the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, MC5 blazed a trail from coast to coast. As a support act, the band undercut headliners with belligerent energy; as headliners, they not only staged shows that were barely containable, they mentored other Detroit acts such as The Stooges. MC5 albums such as Kick Out the Jams (1968) and Back in The USA (1970) laid down bruised blueprints for punk. Rock music, says Kramer, was a good way to spread the anti-authoritarian news.

“Music has a role to play in our culture; it’s the messenger that tells what is going on in the next town, and I saw my role as being one of those messengers.”

While most of the US at that time was listening to the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas and Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters, MC5 chose not to take the soft-focus route. Was laid-back LA beaten to the punch by Detroit’s working-class agitation?

“Detroit in the late 1950s and through the 1960s was a hard-working, industrial centre, the manufacturing centre of the world,” he says. “The pride of working hard is deeply ingrained in everyone that grew up in that environment; the unions were very powerful and helped the workers, and we worked hard and played hard.

“I found inspiration in certain kinds of music that had more visceral commitment and physical expression, like the free jazz creations of musicians like Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, Sun Ra; the black gospel tradition, gutbucket blues. I also found it in the music of the Who, Them, and the Rolling Stones. There was a rawness to it that spoke to me.”

Improving with age

From proto-punk to free jazz, from jail sentence to Jail Guitar Doors, Kramer is of the opinion that art and action improve with age.

“Music is not really tied to being young. I know it’s marketed mostly to young people, but it’s an art form and an activity, a craft, that you can continue to develop through the years. You become more proficient, and your abilities can improve all the way to the end, just like the great jazz players who walk out on stage and don’t stop playing until they fall over. That sounds good to me.”

But it doesn’t always pan out that way, Kramer agrees, as he signs off to get down to real work.

“Maybe I made some bad decisions, and maybe some good ones, not unlike most people. If we stay around long enough, we get a glimpse of what wisdom might be, and maybe we can make better decisions. Thankfully, I realised that continued drinking and drug-taking would end my life before its natural expiration date, and so I was able to change. It seemed to me that was a step in the right direction.”

It’s all down to commitment. “There’s no doubt in my mind that if you’re committed, then your voice becomes sharper, your ideas become more focused, and you hear things better. When you’re young? Sometimes there’s just too much noise around you.”

  • Grit, Noise and Revolution: MC5 and other Tales – An Evening with Wayne Kramer is at Droichead Arts Centre, Drogheda, Co Louth, on Saturday, May 2nd, at 8.30pm, as part of Drogheda Arts Festival. droghedaartsfestival.ie

 

HAMMER OF THE ROCK GODS: KRAMER THE CARPENTER

“I’m still a carpenter. I was living in New York in the 1980s, and I had been supporting myself as a musician all of my life, but I just got tired of being poor between gigs. Every actor and musician I knew had a day gig – you know, kind of like a real job with real money? So I finally decided to get one of those. I was sick of being late with the rent, scuffling for money, and I met some guys who were not only cabinet makers, but who were music fans, and they hired me as their apprentice. I learned the trade of fine woodworking, and I enjoyed it for about 10 years. It was very rewarding to create something out of a pile of wood. I also learned how to build houses; I built three. But music was the job that I ultimately had to return to full-time.”

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