It’s been 50 years since The MC5 burst onto the Detroit rock scene with their groundbreaking sense of rebellion and their loud- and at that point, unheard of stage presence. The Motor City quintet’s music has gone on to influence countless punk, rock and metal musicians over the last half century, and guitarist Wayne Kramer is taking the opportunity to celebrate the feat in grand style — because, quite frankly, he didn’t expect to be here for it.
The MC50 Tour, which visits Boston’s Paradise Rock Club on September 13, will celebrate the longevity and legacy of the band’s insatiable appetite to inspire people to action, while breathing new life into the messages found in the music that have, much to Kramer’s vexation, remained relevant after all these years. He is excited to include Boston in the golden anniversary celebration, saying that the Hub has been an exciting rock and roll city since he started playing here nearly half a century ago, but in the long run, Kramer was kind of hoping he didn’t have to, for all the right reasons.
“We used to talk amongst ourselves [in the band] about whether or not the music we were creating would have any historical validity, and we tried to filter our work through that litmus test, and I’m happy to observe that it has held up over time,” Kramer told Spare Change News in a recent interview. “But in a way, I wish it hadn’t. I wish we had gone on to create a beautiful existence that was egalitarian, and we had found justice and taken care of hunger and disease, and hatred and had a utopian planet. But, we don’t — yet. So a lot of the consciousness that The MC5 revealed back then is still very important today.”
To help bring the energy and messages of their old songs back to the forefront, Kramer has enlisted a cast of artists who are not only friends of his, but also students of the MC5 way, including Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil; Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty; Dug Pinnick of King’s X on bass; and Zen Guerrilla’s Marcus Durant as frontman.
Kramer is excited to play alongside this lineup he has curated for the international trek, which stretches into December. In order to achieve the level of intensity he was looking for, Kramer handpicked the lineup himself, with a few unwavering guidelines to help aid his search.
He wanted to work with friends, “good brothers” as he calls them, who not only knew how to endure the extensive touring schedule, but were also heavily influenced by the band’s music, and weren’t dependent on drugs and alcohol.
“I wanted to work with people who had a personal connection to the music of The MC5, aside from their personal relationship with me. What I got was exactly that,” Kramer said. “They have their own reasons for playing this music together with me, separate and apart from the fact that we’re all friends. That’s a very important aspect for me, because in many ways, I feel that The MC5 is more than just a rock band. There’s a fundamental message, this idea that all things are possible, and that if you do things full measure, you might make a difference.”
Another way Kramer is attempting to make a difference comes in the form of his long-suggested autobiography, The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, The MC5 & My Life Of Impossibilities. Kramer admits there were parts of the his rocky past he had a hard time facing again in order to write the book, which not only chronicles his upbringing in suburban Detroit and the rise of the MC5 — a band that exploded onto the scene and seemed to fall apart just as suddenly— but he also attempts to provide a cautionary tale of sorts, detailing his struggles with addiction and his time in prison resulting from an arrest for selling cocaine to an undercover officer in 1975.
“The book is a historical record, but I also hope I was honest enough to point out the serious lapses in judgement and unwise decisions I made,” Kramer said.“Hopefully, those stories are useful to someone else who finds themself in the same kind of situation.”
In addition to an illustrious music career that includes 10 solo records alongside MC5’s stunted but powerful three-album catalog, Kramer has been intensely active in social and political causes throughout the course of his career. These include the White Panther Party (which he helped found in 1968), joining Rage Against The Machine in Denver to protest the 2008 Democratic National Convention, singing alongside Tom Morello in Wisconsin during the pro-union rallies in 2011, and Jail Guitar Doors, a program he helped form with folk activist Billy Bragg that helps rehabilitate prison inmates by teaching them to play and express themselves through musical instruments. The program’s name refers to the song The Clash wrote about Kramer following his three-year stint in prison,
In addition to sending instruments to over 120 prisons throughout the United States, JGD is currently active in eight youth offender facilities throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Having been behind bars, Kramer understands what prison does to people, and has worked hard over the last 10 years, with the power of musical creativity, to remedy the negative psychological effects that incarceration has on the human condition.
“With JGD, we’re trying to mitigate the damage being done to the human beings that go through our criminal justice system. Life in these institutions is traumatic, and out of the two and a half million of our fellow citizens that are under lock and key, I’d say 95 percent will be coming home some day, and if we don’t do something to help them change for the better, they most certainly change for the worse,” Kramer said. “We ignore this fact at our own peril, while we could use the power of these tools of creativity to help people work through what brought them there in the first place, and help them work on ways to ensure that they don’t go back again.”
Aside from the MC5 anniversary, 2018 holds another important milestone for Kramer, as he nears 20 years of sobriety in 2019. While he does have a passion for helping his fellow man, Kramer admits that his efforts are not completely altruistic, and that helping others better their lives also helps him recover from what he calls “the profound mental disorder of addiction and alcoholism” every day.
“I need to be of service to my fellows. I have to think about other people for a change, and not focus on Wayne Kramer all the time. When I do that, and I take action for the benefit of another person, it helps me rebuild my own self-respect and self-dignity, which I lost on my own trip to the sewer.”
Over the years, Kramer, who now lives in Los Angeles, has been able to see the “worst displays of greed and inhumanity” as he put it. He acknowledges the major wealth gap present in L.A., as tens of thousands of people are living on the streets every day in the city of Angels.
Kramer also witnessed firsthand the lasting effects that racism has had on his hometown of Detroit,, as well as nearby cities like Flint, and what has really been the root cause of the rampant poverty in the area.
“People of color did not share in the prosperity of the auto industry, or the political power, or the emergence of Detroit as a leading manufacturing power,” Kramer said. “Black people were always the last hired and first fired, they always got the worst jobs on the factory floor, and of course, when times changed and the auto industry fumbled the ball by not being to keep up with the Koreans or the Germans, or the Japanese, [executives] took their money home and they left. They went home, and left cities full of workers, like Flint and Detroit, with no work. And with corrupt political leadership that picked the last meat off the bones, what we’ve watched in Detroit and Flint is a vivid and tragic example of the worst that capitalism produces.”
At the end of the day, Wayne Kramer will always be one of the most important figures in music, as well as social activism. But as he continues through a year of milestones, there’s one thing that is set above the rest as the most important thing he’s ever done.
“The most important thing I do is being a father, and helping to guide my son find his inner resources to be able to participate in the world, and have a meaningful existence in the world. Everything else, my job and everything else I do, pales in comparison to the responsibilities of fatherhood. It’s definitely the coolest thing I’ve ever done, and I think it’s the most important thing I’ve ever done, to raise this little boy and give him a clear understanding of how the world around him works.”