Plenty of laurels, no rest : ROCK

The MC5's guitarist is back with a fine new album. He talks to Nicholas Barber
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The Independent Culture
IT'S best to agree with Henry Rollins. Get him in a bad mood and the Incredible Hulk of hardcore rock is likely to rip your arms off and eat them. But sometimes, concurring with Rollins is a pleasure as well as an act of self-preservation. To wit, his sleeve notes to The Hard Stuff, the new album by Wayne Kramer, formerly of the legendary proto-punk band, the MC5: "This is the real article. People don't play guitars like this anymore, he's trying to wreck the place. One of the purveyors of the real thing still delivers."

Henry, you're right. The Hard Stuff is an uncompromising blast of musical expertise and experimentation paired with clear-sighted lyrics that dissect the state of America. It is Lou Reed's New York album on steroids. "There are plenty of people that write beautiful, sensitive love songs," says Kramer, on the phone from Los Angeles. "I'm not one of them. At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, I kind of look at my record-making as dispatches from the front line."

On "The Edge of the Switchblade", he mythologises his own past: "London called, come on over/Bring your message across the sea/ We took our slams, kicked out the jams/Set some young minds free." Does he feel like a legend? "No," he says, "sometimes I try to convince my wife I'm a legend, but she doesn't buy it either. It's just that I was part of one of the greatest rock bands of all time."

Why be falsely modest when the MC5 have been cited as an influence by every underground band since they formed in 1964? Revolutionary in both their performance and their politics, they created an explosive, abrasive, loud sound which roars out of the seminal live set Kick Out the Jams, on which the band can be heard exhorting the crowd to riot: "I wanna hear some revolution out there . . . the time has come for you to decide whether you are gonna be the problem or the solution." Their history, says Kramer, is "one of the last great untold stories of the Sixties". Hearing his first-hand account, you get the feeling that when Oliver Stone wanted to make a film about a controversial Sixties rock group, he should have pointed his camera not at Los Angeles, but at the Motor City, home of the Motor City Five.

"The MC5 was very much a product of its time. We had a gut feeling that something was wrong with our country. All our friends were going off to this war that we couldn't justify, and coming back in body-bags or insane. We were determined to make a change and we rocked as hard as a band could rock.

"We never really fitted in anywhere. We went to California and they were all hippies. We came out playing Little Richard tunes with Marshall amps on full blast, and moving like James Brown, so we didn't fit in with them. Believe me, we weren't trying to fit in, we were trying to blow it all away."

This is how Kramer speaks. "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows," he'll say, or "We talked the talk and we walked the walk." Yet even as he produces these slogans, he sounds intelligent and mild. This is no posturing pop star, just an honest one. Today, even the most rebellious band has its videos on nice, safe MTV. Thirty years ago, it was possible to avoid the mainstream.

"There was an incredible police pressure to stop the MC5. They couldn't have a band like us telling people to stop the war and telling girls to burn their bras. When we said we were corrupting the youth of America with this thing called rock'n'roll, the establishment took us seriously. We were searched, our telephones were tapped. They used everything they could except death squads, and they used those on the Black Panthers, who we allied ourselves with. Ultimately they imprisoned our manager, John Sinclair. They gave him nine-and-a- half to 10 years for possession of two joints. John was the one person we trusted to deal with the business end of it, and without him we were rudderless. He served two years and then won it on appeal that the sentence was cruel and unusual punishment. But they had done their damage. They had broken the back of the MC5."

Kramer was a "typically snot-nosed rebellious kid" who grew up in a working- class suburb of Detroit. His parents worked in the auto industry. Everyone's parents worked in the auto industry. "You had three choices. You could go to jail right away, you could go to the army, or you could go to the factory. I saw being a musician as a way out of that trap." He joined the MC5 as a teenager. When they broke up in 1972, he was stripped of his identity. "I was only 24. My life was poured into that band and the day it ended we all walked away from each other. That was the worst thing that could have happened, far worse than not selling records or anything like that. I mean, I lost my brothers and we'd been through the fire together. It was a pain that I killed with drugs and alcohol, and I ended up having to go to jail and all that shit."

Kramer's "illegitimate capitalism" is commemorated in "Jail Guitar Doors", a track by MC5 fans The Clash: "Let me tell you about Wayne and his deals of cocaine/A little more every day/Hold for a friend till the band do well/ The DFA locked him away."

Since then, Kramer has produced records for several bands, and played guitar in several more, including Was (Not Was), and Gang War with Johnny Thunders. Two of the MC5, Rob Tyner and Fred "Sonic" Smith, died recently of heart failure. The three surv-iving members - and John Sinclair - are closer than they have been since the group broke up. Kramer has "made peace with the MC5".

"It was a long process for me to grieve over the loss of my band and accept that that part of my life had ended. If there was anything to be learnt from it, it was that this whole rock'n'roll myth of Live Fast, Die Young is a terrific lie. Your time is the most valuable thing you have. The key is to live strong and to live long and to stay creative. The history of the MC5 is not gonna get me through. What's gonna get me through is the work I'm doing today. It's a great legend, and I would never deny the MC5, but it was a long time ago."

Did the revolution ever happen? "The part of the revolution we were promoting about destroying the government - that didn't work out. They had more guns than we had. But the other part, the revolution of the mind, that worked out brilliantly. A lot of my generation are living out the lyrics of Dylan and Stones songs. What we tried to represent in the MC5, and what I still try to represent in my work, is that there are possibilities. If I can create this kind of music, then imagine what you can do. You can change the world."

Kramer, still only 46, is now signed to Epitaph, America's fashionable punk label. He is joined on The Hard Stuff by musicians from the new generation: The Melvins, Bad Religion, Suicidal Tendencies. "It's been an absolute blast," he says. "It's like we all learnt by listening to the MC5 - I just had a more direct route."

He "couldn't be happier", but has no plans to relax. "I still have to pay my rent. The legend doesn't pay all that well. I'd like to do an album a year for the next 10 years. Then I'll see how I feel about taking a break. But for now I'm fit, I'm sober, I'm drug-free. It's time to take the message to the people."

! `The Hard Stuff' (Epitaph) is available now. Wayne Kramer appears at the Garage, London N1 (071-344 0044), on 2 March.