Wayne Kramer, who died Feb. 2 at the age of 75, lived a truly rock n’ roll life, from his gloriously unhinged guitar playing with influential proto-punk revolutionaries MC5 to a prison term, years of addiction, and a musical comeback in the Nineties. In this 2018 interview, previously available only in audio form on our Rolling Stone Music Now podcast, he looked back at all of it. (To hear the full episode, go here for the podcast provider of your choice, listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or just press play below.)
You wrote in your book, The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities, that as a kid, when you heard Little Richard and Chuck Berry, it seemed to hit you more intensely than anyone around you.
It spoke to me in a secret, coded language that no one else seemed to pick up on, but I was hearing loud and clear.
The Detroit riots of 1967 were a transformative event for your band and your city. Tell me about driving through the city that day.
It all exploded as most of America did that summer, with people just saying, listen, we’ve had enough of this and turning on their slumlords and the shopkeepers and even burning their own neighborhoods in just a rage that you could feel when you drove across the city. You could smell it, the air was full of smoke and sirens and gunfire. It was like a World War II army movie, where you’re hearing all this in the background, except it was real and these were streets that I grew up on and was raised and went to school and these neighborhoods I knew all my life and now the entire order of daily life was turned upside down. It was thrilling and terrifying at the same time.
Your band, the MC5, was already around at that time, but in a much tamer version. And it does seem like those events helped change the band into the version that the world ended up knowing.
I think your analysis is not inaccurate. Having to face that kind of naked, aggressive power on the part of the police and of government agencies radicalizes one. It certainly polarizes the situation that was already volatile with the civil rights movement, with the anti-war in Vietnam movement, with oppressive Fifties-era sexuality and anti-marijuana laws. Young people in general felt unified in resisting the efforts of the older generation. We thought they were messing it up and it was our duty as patriots to try and straighten this business out and the MC5, we took it personally, in as much as this is my neighborhood. These are my neighbors. This is my family and we’re allon the receiving end of a blunt stick coming down on our heads.
How did the band develop on a musical level to what we hear on Kick Out the Jams? What were the steps that led from the version of the band that could play at house parties to this monumental thing you became?
I’d say it took major turns at a few different points, the decision to not be a cover band exclusively was a turning point for us. We were encouraged to learn songs that were played on the radio so that we could get steady employment in bars, but we didn’t want to do that. I wanted to write my own songs and play concerts like my idols, like the Who and the Rolling Stones. And then the influence of the counterculture and marijuana and LSD was considerable. And it opened my mind up to different ways of approaching music. I was exposed to the free jazz movement, the music of John Coltrane and Sun Ra and Albert Ayler, and tried to make a connection between what I was trying to do with the electric guitar, coming from Chuck Berry, and what Albert Ayler was doing with the saxophone. So at each step of the way, our sound evolved and we escalated. We could play better. We had better equipment. And ultimately we put all our energy into becoming the most powerful live-performing band the world had ever seen. At least that was our goal. the heaviness was pretty fresh at that period of time.
The amount of distortion you were using on Kick Out the Jams, the heaviness, was relatively novel in 1969. Where did that come from?
We used to play “Wild Thing,” and then Hendrix came out with his version of it. So we thought, let’s move over and pick another one of their songs cause we liked the stuff they were doing. I think that heaviness just grew out of trying to put more energy into the same three chords. Where do you go once you’re playing everything as fast as you possibly can? And we started to find that you could leave the beat and the key behind and go into a pure sonic dimension.
And how did the idea to make Kick Out of the Jams a live album, to make a live album your debut, come about?
It was a consensus idea between the band and [band associate] John Sinclair and Elektra Records because all of our effort was put into performing live. We had very little studio experience at that point. The idea was that getting this band in a studio to record an album could be costly and labor intensive, whereas we were a fantastic live performing unit. And if we could capture the excitement of the live concert on record, it could be a revolutionary way to introduce the band to the world. And I think that worked
Your friend John Sinclair had formed a sort of sister group to the Black Panthers called the White Panthers, and the official ethos was “rock and roll, dope, and fucking the streets was the platform.” Did you guys consider yourself White Panthers as well?
Absolutely. We were founding members of the party. I was a minister of culture in the streets, was my title. And it was in the beginning it was a semi-serious way to express solidarity with the Black Panther Party. And to express our frustration with the slow pace of change. We saw the great injustices in the world around us. Being young and being extremely idealistic, we wanted to do something about it. We wanted to make a difference. And I think one person can make a difference. I think five people can make an incredible difference. I think a dozen people could do phenomenal things if they’re organized and focused. And so the White Panthers became a delivery system to send a message to America that we wanted things to change.
Obviously you guys played outside the 1968 Democratic Convention. What was that day like?
It was not unlike a lot of days for the MC5 because we would play anywhere anyone would let us. And to play a free concert in a park for community groups was something we did as a matter of course. And so when Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman invited us to Chicago to perform at the Festival of Life to oppose the Festival of Death — which is the way they saw the Democratic Convention — we jumped at the chance. We drove out there, and when we got there, there was no stage. There was no electricity. There was no flatbed truck. So we set up on the ground and we had to borrow electrical power from a hot-dog stand to run our back line. And we performed a set and the minute we finished — and I’d seen this before — as long as the band is playing or the crowd has something positive to focus on, everything is fairly peaceful. But once you take that away, the mob mentality takes over. And of course the Chicago police were provoking the kids with really rough tactics, beating kids and pushing kids around and riding their motorcycles through the crowd. And of course, the kids responded in kind and we got in our van and headed back to Detroit where we’d be safe. And then we all watched as the Chicago police went on a rampage and beat young people indiscriminately on national television. It was a stirring moment in America.
Pretty soon, the record business essentially turned its back on the MC5.
The record industry was growing exponentially every year with higher profits and more records being sold. All they cared about was commercial success. The MC5 was just a load of problems for them, between our problems with the police and the FBI and then problems in our own community with not being revolutionary enough for the revolution. These were ideas that were way too complex for record company guys to want to deal with, so they signed a bunch of new bands just wanted to be rock stars and that was the smart move for them. Unfortunately, it signaled the end of any business support for the MC5.
Things got rough for you after the end of the band. You were caught with a bunch of stolen goods in your apartment.
As a gangster I make a great guitar player. [laughs] I’m a complete failure. As a criminal, I had no idea what I was doing. But when I went to prison, they taught me how to do crime. I learned in prison how to deal with drugs and how to do robberies and how to do a lot of stuff that’s extremely antisocial. Prison’s good for that. Prison is crime school.
You spent time in the wilderness, you spent time dealing with addiction, but then in 1995 you hooked up with Epitaph and released The Hard Stuff, which is such a great album.
We’ve all heard there are no second acts in America, but I’ve had a second act, a third act, a fourth act. To have the backing of a great company like Epitaph and Brett Gurewitz and to be able to make records for his company and go out and promote them and play music for people around the world was a great turn of events for me. And to finally figure out how to, that there was a way to live where drugs and alcohol were not necessary every day. And that that I could have a productive and useful life and then ultimately, to found [the non-profit organization] Jail Guitar Doors and be able to go back to prison and help prisoners through the skills that I have in music. And I have a five-year-old son that I am absolutely in love with. I adore him, and I have a wonderful wife who supports my efforts. I’ve got very little to complain about at this stage of the game. I’m a fortunate man.