Panther, Panther Burning Bright

MC5: Gun-toting revolutionaries say the darndest things

In the case of MC Brother J.C. Crawford, it was a legendary 1968 Halloween night call to arms at Detroit's Grande Ballroom that launched both his and one particular garage band's meteoric rise to cult stardom.

"Brothers and sisters!" Crawford extolled, his invocation already set to a fevered pitch. "I wanna see a sea of hands out there! Lemme see a sea of hands! I want everyone to kick up some noise! I want to hear some revolution out there, brothers! I wanna hear a little revolution! Brothers and sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are gonna be the problem or whether you are gonna be the solution! You must choose, brothers! You must choose! It takes five seconds! Five seconds of decision! Five seconds to realize your purpose here on the planet! It takes five seconds to realize that it's time to move! It's time to get down with it! Brothers ... it's time to testify and I want to know: Are you ready to testify? Are you ready? I give you a testimonial! The MC5!"

The recording of Crawford's introduction and the fabled show that followed became an instant slice of history that Elektra records immediately packaged as the MC5's debut, Kick Out the Jams. It briefly galvanized the Motor City's working-class-flavor counterculture. It pissed off cops and patriots. It thrilled the hairy proletariat. It gave the newly founded White Panther Party something to do. And for one shining moment, it even toyed with redefining one's civic duty (all carefully specified in the Panthers' ten-point platform) as joining together for a "total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock and roll, dope, and fucking in the streets."

Re-examining the cultural legacy of the MC5: Gun-toting revolutionaries say the darndest things
photo courtesy of Showtime Archives (Toronto)
Re-examining the cultural legacy of the MC5: Gun-toting revolutionaries say the darndest things

"There's no question that we were phenomenally naive," recalls MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer. Now living in Hollywood, California, the 51-year-old graying revolutionary finds himself rather consumed with the legacy of his former band, the experimental and raucous Anglo-metal outfit that included the late vocalist Rob Tyner and guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith (the latter was married to punk priestess Patti Smith; both men suffered fatal heart attacks in the early Nineties), bassist Michael Davis, and drummer Dennis Thompson. "Idealistically all the [White Panther] points were valid," Kramer affirms. "The end of oppression is a good principle. The end of an economic system that puts profit ahead of people is valid. The end of political imprisonment is valid. Those are all fundamental principles that deserve to be considered."

And despite a laughable premise here and there (a psychedelic economic system called "anarchical syndicatism" that calls for the freedom of time and space for all humans, man) the MC5 distinguished itself from the era's pervasive flower-power constituency like refreshingly rabid Dobermans. "We had a mandate to act in a way that we considered to be patriotic," Kramer notes. "But we were certainly naive in attaching ourselves to rhetoric that was going to cause more problems than solutions. That's what ended up really hurting us."

Armed with guitars and a manifesto that called for hedonism as a means to ending oppression, Michigan's beloved cave dwellers of yore do deserve at least one big-time honorary distinction: They're the only band that had the cojones to perform in Grant Park during Chicago's notorious 1968 Democratic Convention. (Kiddies, take note: Between August 26 and 29, 1968, some 10,000 demonstrators gathered before then-Mayor Richard Daley's police force to protest the ongoing atrocities in Vietnam and the Democratic Party's complicity in the war effort. Shouting "Dump the Hump" to Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey -- who refused to call for a removal of American troops from Vietnam -- the angry protesters got their collective skull caved in.)

"The Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane -- they all said they were gonna come and didn't," Kramer recalls. "Everybody knew this was gonna go bad. It was normal for us. We played at a lot of riots. We completely expected the Chicago Police Department to go mad, and they did." Despite the soothing touch of billy clubs and tear-gas canisters, Kramer and company remained levelheaded during those rageful days. "We've been in enough riots to know to get out while the getting's good," he points out.

Kramer also acknowledges the cool of Tyner during those turbulent times, the singer's sense of commitment and his ability to remain in the moment. "He was the ultimate performance artist," Kramer opines. "He understood rock and roll way deeper than many of his contemporaries. He loved language and he loved art. He was a tremendously gifted cartoonist and could play just about any instrument. He was fascinated by everything. He read the dictionary. He was just into so much stuff, and he was absolutely fearless onstage."

Tyner and the rest of the MC5 indeed paid dearly for their high-profile militancy, through routine strip-searches at shows, tapped phone lines, and overzealous visits from J. Edgar Hoover's heavies (who were convinced they were out to destroy America). Even Jac Holzman and Bruce Botnick, the band's producers at Elektra (who released only one MC5 album -- Kick Out the Jams -- before severing its relationship with the band), turned on them. After pushing to include the word motherfucker on Jams, the label distanced itself when record stores banned the release for being obscene. (Botnick would later claim in Holzman's book, Follow the Music, that the MC5 defecated onstage, a charge the band denies.) Meanwhile John Sinclair, the group's manager and a leading figure within the White Panther Party, was sentenced to ten years for selling two measly joints. (He served three.)

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