When the garage-rock political revolutionaries of MC5 recorded their live album Kick Out the Jams at Detroit's Grande Ballroom in 1968, it became an instant classic. But guitarist Wayne Kramer still has an uneasy feeling about that concert. "It was a monumental night, but the pressure was too much. My low-E string went out of tune, and I never got the guitar sounding right. I was used to playing and performing, but the idea this concert would be the record threw me. The label told me if I didn't like it, we could record another one, but everyone stuck with it."
The raw sound of the recording became a touchstone for two generations of punk and indie rockers. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the monumental recording, Kramer is touring with an all-star lineup including members of Soundgarden, Faith No More, and Fugazi as MC50. They'll start the tour September 5 at Revolution Live. "We're going to play the whole album top to bottom, along with a couple songs from the other albums," Kramer says. "This isn't the MC5. They all died. My job as curator of our legacy is to continue with the message of MC5." That message, he says, is that all things are possible. "If you put in the work, you can change the world."
When Kramer started MC5 as a Michigan teenager, he was influenced by Chuck Berry and Little Richard. But the band quickly gained notoriety by embodying the political counterculture of the '60s. They played the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago that turned into a bloody police riot, and their manager John Sinclair founded the White Panthers, a bloc for Caucasian allies of the Black Panthers. Kramer relives those glory days in his new memoir, The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities. These 320 pages recount his good times with the bad.
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"The camaraderie of sharing the experience of writing, recording, and performing was so meaningful," Kramer says. "To remember those nights where everything went perfect: You sound spectacular; the audience was right. I knew even then it would never get better than this. It was like being kissed by joy." Other times in his life were much harder to write about — such as the two-year stint in federal prison for selling cocaine to an undercover officer. "When MC5 broke up, I began a tailspin trip to the gutter. Got involved with bad people and did bad things and served a federal prison term. I was confronted with alcoholism and drug addiction. I wasn't sober until I was 50. Now I'm 70, and the last 20 years have been my most productive since my teenage years starting MC5."
Kramer is grateful for all the collaborators who are keeping the spirit of MC5 alive half a century later. He's hoping each leg of the tour will have special guests join him onstage, including surviving original MC5 member drummer Dennis Thompson. For the Fort Lauderdale date he's hoping to bring out a fellow Detroit garage-rock legend who now calls South Florida home. "I'm going to try to get Iggy Pop to play with us when we're down there."