Wayne Kramer & dkt/MC5 at NXNE
dkt/mc5 performing as part of North By Northeast 2004 with C'Mon , RAVing Mojos and LAika & the Cosmonauts at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), Wednesday (June 9), 8 pm. $22.50. 416-323-1251, 416-870-8000.
dkt/mc5 hold an in-store autograph session at SAM THE RECORD MAn (347 Yonge), Wednesday (June 9), 1-2 pm. Wayne Kramer participates in nxne 's CELEBRITY INTERVEW with musicologist Rob Bowman at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Thursday (June 10). 2 pm. $20 door, free with NXNE wristband. www.nxne.com Rating: NNNNN
Reckless, raging and revolutionary, the rama-lama-fa-fa-fabulous MC5 stand as one of the most exciting rock 'n' roll bands ever to overdrive a Marshall stack. The five uncompromising suburban Detroit delinquents - Wayne Kramer, Fred "Sonic" Smith, Rob Tyner, Michael Davis and Dennis "Machine Gun" Thompson - took the free-form rave-up attack of the Yardbirds and the explosive flash of the Who as a throwdown and raised them both one louder. The MC5's battle cry of Kick Out The Jams helped redefine the Sound of Young America for those who watched the Motor City burn with racial hatred, while their rabble-rousing American Ruse boldly assailed the government's manufactured consent for an unjust war. Sound familiar?
Of course, the world has changed dramatically in the three decades since the MC5 dissolved, but their music remains as vital and relevant as ever and continues to inspire new generations of rebel rockers from Seattle to Sydney and all across Scandinavia.
"As I started playing through American Ruse again recently," says Kramer from his Los Angeles home, "it struck me how uncanny it is that we're now exactly where we were when that song was written. I guess the only difference is there aren't as many young Americans coming home in body bags - yet."
While the MC5 are praised by contemporary artists they've inspired - namely Jack White, the Hellacopters, Dollhouse and the Bell Rays - their legacy has been largely ignored or forgotten by the general public.
It was that shocking lack of appreciation for the MC5 that turned Chicago-based fans David C. Thomas and Laurel Legler into filmmakers. For seven years they conducted interviews and tracked down rarely seen footage of the MC5's supercharged performances to tell the group's incredible story in their critically acclaimed documentary MC5 * A True Testimonial.
"I knew about the MC5's reputation for incredibly exciting shows, but over the years I'd never seen any film clips," says Thomas, of Future/Now Films, from Chicago. "So in 95, when my partner, Laurel, asked, 'What do you think about doing a film about the MC5?' I remember saying, 'Great! Only first of all, I don't know if there's any footage, and second, that's a gnarly can of worms to open up.' I knew enough about the band to realize there could be pitfalls.
"Around that time we took a trip to Detroit and quite by accident came across a city street crew eradicating public artworks. So we stood and watched as they painted over this huge mural of the MC5 on the side of a building that turned out to be the abandoned Hudson's department store. It was a perfect metaphor for the whole idea that unless you were in the right place at the right time, you'd miss the story."
Hudson's was the Detroit department store chain that refused to stock the initial pressing of the MC5's Kick Out The Jams debut album for Elektra because of the use of the word "motherfuckers." The MC5 responded by taking out an ad in a local underground newspaper that simply read, "Fuck Hudson's!"
When Elektra boss Jac Holzman found out Hudson's was retaliating by boycotting all the label's product, he was ready to drop the MC5 from the roster. Getting sent the bill for the MC5's creative ad work sealed it.
The irony of Thomas's point of entry into the world of the MC5 being the old Hudson's store isn't lost on the filmmaker, who is now trying to figure out how to get his documentary out of legal limbo and into theatres since Kramer is refusing to sign off on the sync rights to the music.
According to Kramer, it's the filmmakers who created the problem, and it's their job to solve it.
"I love the film," insists Kramer. "It's the ethics of the filmmakers that's a disappointment. They made a deal that I would work with them as the music producer for the film, and they reneged on it. The sync licence they need to secure from the publisher, Warner Chappell, must first be approved by the songwriters, and I refused to sign."
Thomas denies there was any such agreement with Kramer.
"We did everything we could to try to satisfy Wayne," says Thomas. "This whole idea of his being the music producer for the film was never discussed explicitly in those terms.
"What we talked about was that if there was a soundtrack album, Wayne wanted to produce it, and we thought that was great. But the idea that he would become the music producer is just crazy, because all that music was produced 30 years ago."
While it's clear there's been some miscommunication, Kramer seems optimistic that they'll find a way around the apparent impasse. He's waiting for suggestions.
"There's always a way to resolve these things. I'm not an unreasonable man. But by trying to force me to sign over the sync rights by taking me to court, they've turned an advocate into an adversary."
Over the past few months, the controversy surrounding the delayed release of MC5 * A True Testimonial has been a hot topic of online discussion. Accusations, recriminations and childish insults have been fired back and forth between the key players and their spouses, filling up fan Web sites and bulletin boards.
Considering all the publicity subsequently generated, the surviving MC5 members seem to be benefiting more from not having the documentary released. Certainly, their mainstream profile has been given a boost, particularly since celebrity trend-setter Jennifer Aniston was seen by millions wearing an MC5 T-shirt on Friends and Justin Timberlake did the same on the February 2003 cover of Vibe.
The licencing of the MC5's White Panther Party to Levi's has infuriated long-time fans of the group, who consider it a sellout of their revolutionary ideals (see sidebar). Adding further fuel to the debate is the forthcoming Levi's-sponsored DVD release of Sonic Revolution - Celebration Of The MC5, which is due out July 6 on Kramer's MuscleTone imprint.
The rockumentary captures Kramer knocking out the MC5 faves with his old bandmates Michael Davis and Dennis Thompson as the DKT/MC5 at London's 100 Club last year, with special guests Lemmy, Ian Astbury and the Hellacopters' Nicke Royale.
As a bonus, the DVD includes vintage clips of the MC5 lip-synching Looking At You and American Ruse, a ripping live version of Black To Comm, silent surveillance footage of the MC5 shot by the U.S. Department of Defense at the riotous 68 Democratic National Convention, the Kick Out The Jams promotional film and home videos from the 67 Belle Isle Love-In with running commentary by Kramer and crew.
It might seem like Kramer is pulling an end run to get the Sonic Revolution DVD out while MC5 * A True Testimonial sits on the shelf, but he claims that was never the plan.
"The Sonic Revolution DVD was meant to work as a companion piece to MC5 * A True Testimonial," explains Kramer. "My model was what Al Slutsky did with Standing In The Shadows Of Motown: there's a historical documentary, then the follow-up release featuring the surviving members performing with special guests - and then go on tour and sell a truckload of both.
"But when we asked Future/Now Films to come to London to shoot the concert and be partners on this DVD, they told us to kiss their asses."
Kramer is going ahead with his tour plans, launching with a high-profile NXNE showcase at the Phoenix Wednesday (June 9). He promises a revolving cast of guest performers, including his long-time pals Marshall Crenshaw and Mudhoney's Mark Arm, along with - gulp - Evan Dando. You can't discount the value of comic relief on the road.
"Somehow Evan Dando got my phone number,"chuckles Kramer. "He called me up one night out of the blue and started singing MC5 songs to me. He did Let Me Try, Looking At You, and by the time he got through Sister Anne I was thinking, 'This guy wins on enthusiasm alone. '"
Kramer makes it clear that "this is not an MC5 reunion," noting that Tyner died in 91 and Smith in 94. Yet he feels that the constantly changing mix of musicians is in keeping with the anything-can-happen spirit of his legendary group.
"The MC5 was all about the art and science of performing live, in the moment, and that spontaneous interaction between the players is really where the music gets exciting. "What I hope people get from the MC5 is an unlimited sense of possibility. Real life is in session, and you need to participate with a passionate commitment to creativity. Hurl your whole being into whatever you do. You know, kick out the jams! "
Selling out or buying in?
I did a double take when I saw Jennifer Aniston wearing an MC5 T-shirt on an episode of Friends. No less shocking was the sight of squeaky-clean pop star Justin Timberlake flying the same MC5 colours on the February 2003 cover of Vibe.
This wasn't just any MC5 shirt - it was a Gary Grimshaw design incorporating a variation of the White Panther Party symbol that's currently being marketed by Levi's. So even if by some remote chance both taste-making celebrities were closet Detroit rock 'n' roll fans, it's unlikely that they'd want to be seen promoting the White Panthers' revolutionary politics advocating "total cultural assault by any means necessary, including rock 'n' roll, dope and fucking in the streets."
That the surviving MC5 members have formed a business alliance with Levi's - which besides marketing the MC5's White Panther logo shirts also sponsored the DKT/MC5 reunion show at London's 100 Club and DVD - has left many long-time fans crying sellout. There's nothing in Wayne Kramer's dealings that surprises David Thomas of Future/Now Films.
"That whole controversy has been around since the MC5 began," explains Thomas. When the MC5 - the band of the revolution - got a $50,000 advance for signing to Atlantic in 69, they immediately went out and bought sports cars.
"Wayne Kramer initially tried to block Levi's use of the MC5 logo. Then they made an agreement where the three surviving MC5 members would do a one-off gig in London sponsored by Levi's in exchange for giving Levi's permission to use the logo. That's the whole reason Jennifer Aniston is wearing the MC5 shirt on Friends and Justin Timberlake on the cover of Vibe. Levi's was just pushing its merchandise line."
As for Kramer, he makes no apologies for the mutually beneficial hook-up with Levi's that led to his reunion with his MC5 bandmates and the Sonic Revolution documentary DVD.
"At this point in my life, I try not to have preconceived ideas about things and keep an open mind. When the opportunity was presented to me to go to England and play a gig with Dennis and Michael and have some people sing with us, it sounded like it could be fun - and it was. In doing the show, I discovered a whole generation of people with a strong connection to the MC5 that I had no idea existed.
"There's a saying that goes, 'If you succeed, you'll win some false friends and some true enemies - succeed anyway.' I live by that."