Perfect Sound Forever

MC5- Wayne Kramer interview, Part 2

photo by Margaret Saadi

by Jason Gross
(November 1998)

PSF: So after the problems with the record companies and sales, there wasn't any way to muster the troops together and move on?

Just couldn't get it up anymore. It was a very difficult time. It was very hard to be young and see everything that you'd worked hard for fall apart. Some of us gave it a good effort. Fred tried real hard to keep the band together. I tried for a long time but it just seemed like it was never gonna work out. I don't know what Dennis and Michael said about the circumstances of their leaving the band but the cumulative effect was to pull the rug out from under everything. We had no support, both internally and externally.

And that's the way the music business is. The troublemakers go away. The band was too much trouble and we weren't going along with the program. We weren't good little soldiers. So, pull 'em out of there 'cause we got some other bands that are way less trouble. They don't get in the middle of all this shit. They just wanna be stars. They just wanna BOOGIE.

PSF: You started talking about the MC5's place in music history. How do you see this?

To be fair, VH-1 did include me in a recent 'Behind the Music' special about 1968. I appreciate the work that you and many of my other friends that are writers do to help tell the story. I think my job today, in part, is to continue to tell the story.

The MC5's story is important because it's five guys from Detroit who, against all prevailing wisdom, at a time when the music business really didn't wanna know, tried to make something happen. I think there's something to be said for that. Unequivocal commitment to trying to achieve. The sense of possibility. I'm 50 now so I know a lot of things don't work the way you plan when you're 20. But this fundamental truth keeps cutting through, which is 'what would you be if you didn't try?' You're dead for a long time and all you're left with is the work you did. You wanna try to make something. For what I did as a young man in the MC5, I can say 'yea, I did something. I had this band, we made some noise.' It's not that bad a thing.

PSF: Towards the end of the band, there was a lot of friction with Rob and I've heard that you were pretty hurt when he died. Do you think that a lot of that came back to you later on?

In day to day life, there's a tendency to put stuff off. 'That's a little painful, I don't wanna go there.' Or 'I'm busy, I don't wanna deal with it.' When Rob died, it told me that you put that off and now you don't get a chance. You blew it! (laughs) It's a hell of a lesson to me. A wake-up call. There's no going back. You can come to things as a grown-up and have a better perspective and a more mature outlook and more understanding. You can't go back and make anything better. You can't change the past. But you can make the effort to reach out. I did with the other cats. I tried with Fred and I didn't connect with Fred. I connected with Dennis, I connected with Michael. Me and John Sinclair have remained fast and furious since the '70's.

PSF: Why didn't you and Fred connect after the band broke up?

He was drunk. Every time I saw him or spoke to him, he was drunk. I could play junior psychologist and do the long-form answer but the short-form answer says enough. There was no talking to him.

PSF: That's a shame.

I don't know that it IS a shame. It just IS. It's a shame when people die before their time. We're all gonna die but there's a natural time when you're work is done. To see someone die in their forties, which is early... It's one thing to get hit by a bus. Rob Tyner died of a heart attack at the same age. To actively contribute to your own undoing... I tried to connect with Fred but that happens with old friends. Everybody tries to go on a different path. Whatever Fred's demons were, they went with him.

PSF: I know it's kind of a prickly subject but did you think the time you spent in jail changed the way you saw things?

Jail changes you. They give you time to think. (laughs) I had a lot of time to think! Ideally, that's what they want you to do but the truth is that they don't give a damn what you do there until they tell you that you can go. It's just a human warehouse system.

I had a lot of time to consider 'how did I end up in this position?' I felt like I waited all my life to fuck up this bad. This is what I've been working for. This is the ultimate pay-off. I didn't die but I did get to go to prison. Hip-hip-hooray for me. So I had a lot of time to think about the sequence of events that led up to that. I was thinking about all the decisions that I made that ultimately culminated in my imprisonment. Then I had to go back and think of what I was going to do to make sure that this never happens again. It happens to most people again.

One day, we were in the (jail) gym and we were talking about recidivism with five other guys. Two of them had been in prison three times before and the other two had been in prison two times before. I was the only one who had been in prison for the first time. So most people go back. It's a real vicious cycle and it was one that I was determined not to be part of. I knew I had a career such as it is. I knew I had goals and things I wanted to accomplish. I just didn't want to be part of this system anymore. It wasn't the way that I saw myself: Wayne Kramer- 00180190. Somehow when I look in the mirror, I don't wanna set that. They made a believer out of me. I will never deal narcotic drugs to anyone again in life!

It was a long, long time ago now- it was in the seventies. Now it's a whole different thing. I'm really anti-drug war and the more I follow what happens, the angrier it makes me. The drug war is a war on our own people It's cowardly and it's creating a whole new under class of people who will never see their way out. $16 Billion dollars! Wasted to save the middle class from the junkies. I see that it wasn't working in the seventies when I went to prison, and it sure as hell ain't working today.

Today there's over a million people in prison and over 60% of them are there for drug related offenses. It'll never work. It doesn't work. It's all about treatment and options. You cannot legislate morality and desire. You have to look deeper into the reasons why folks turn to drugs and the culture of getting high. It's existed since the beginning of time.

At this point, it's turned into an entire self-sufficient cultural organism. Whole communities are defined by it. Whether you want to be part of it or not, you ARE a part of it. Everybody has to deal with it. It chews most people up and spits them out the other side. The knee-jerk, fundamentalist, Republican, silent moral majority created this. They've created entire neighborhoods in inner city America where the whole culture is a drug dealing culture. You see it in statistics and the amount of people locked up, the color of the people locked up and the offenses that they're locked up for.

This has all been created. This is a huge industry. Prison building in California is the biggest growth industry in the State. You can get more drugs cheaper today in any city in America than you could in the seventies. You can get cocaine for 50 dollars a gram. From what I understand, heroin is 60% purer out in New York right now. They've done all this and it's gotten worse. It would be funny if it wasn't so tragic. The legislators in their superstitious ignorance have created all this.

PSF: In the mid and late '70's when the punk bands were starting up, did you think that they were picking up part of what you and the MC5 were doing before?

(pauses) I didn't see the connection at first because of the derision between the bands and their fans. It's not the school that I'm from. I'm almost glad that I was in prison during the gobbing era. I don't think I could've hung with that. To me, that's not a sign that somebody likes me. (laughs)

Musically, they didn't show me anything. I appreciate the fact that they're building something from nothing. This whole idea that you don't need to know how to play and anybody can do it. I find all that honorable and worthwhile but it wasn't doing anything for me musically. I found in the late seventies, I was more influenced by what I learned in prison from Red Rodney with bebop and the more sophisticated chord changes than I was with what I heard the Ramones doing or Blondie. To me, this is just more of the same.

I still felt that I was part of it but I found more stuff that intrigued me in what Gamble and Huff (Philadelphia International Records) were doing and STILL with the original Motown stuff. I'm a guitar-rock guy. I love loud guitars and that's the way I still play. But I'm more intrigued with... I wanna hear something new, some changes together in a different way.

Part of this is just because we're in such a crappy period right now. We're in the time of ghetto-ized music. Everyone and every style being separated from every other style and retro-ed to death. I've heard enough jangly guitars to last me now and enough guitar pop. I see it all through the eyes of somebody that's seen bands come and go and come and go and how the music biz handles it all. I live in West Hollywood, the epicenter of youth culture- the Gap, Doc Marten, the movie business. I know what they're doing. They codify and market youth, and sell it back to the youth and rake off the profit. All those studio executives and record executives have 401K plans and huge salaries and health insurance. And what do the kids get? Matchbox 20. Mariah Carey. Madonna. I mean, I like the industry of Madonna but the girl can't sing. But then, neither could Janis Joplin though she did have a lot of heart.

PSF: When you came with The Hard Stuff in '95, was that your first solo release?

That was my first PROPER solo record. A couple of years before that for a small label in Toronto, there was a collaboration between me and Mick Farren and John Collins. It was an experiment. We had a friend who had a drum machine and we said 'This is great! We don't need to fuck around with drummers anymore! It doesn't cost us anything and it doesn't cause trouble and it keeps TIME!' But it doesn't wear well. The Hard Stuff was the my first record that was recorded properly and promoted and distributed properly.

PSF: There was a big gap of time between the MC5 breaking up and the release of that. Did you see that as a big step for you?

Certainly, a step. I guess in the world's perception of Wayne Kramer, it was a big step since no one had heard anything from me or of me. Last thing they heard, I went off to prison and then by the time I came out with a new record, it was a new generation. In my perception of me, it was just another step in... I think you spend a lot of your 20's and your 30's rehearsing who you're gonna be. Or how to be who you're gonna be. By the time I made The Hard Stuff, I had a pretty clear idea of who I was and I was less uncomfortable with being Wayne Kramer than perhaps I had been earlier.

It wasn't that big a thing for me to have a record out. But it was a big thing in terms of how people perceived me because they hadn't heard anything of me. It was just the next logical thing to do 'cause I had to clear out all the wreckage from the MC5. Going to prison and all that shit and reconciling the loss of the MC5, grieving over that and accepting it. Then being free from the bitterness that I carried with me for years. That's why nobody heard from me 'cause I was too busy being pissed off to be doing any work! (laughs) Getting drunk and killing the pain and chasing a bag of heroin around the lower East side. All those are time-consuming activities. That's why nobody heard of me because I was too busy being angry 'cause of losing my band: 'Nobody ever credits the MC5!' and 'We never get our props!' It wasn't really until the loss of Rob Tyner and that I really had to face all that stuff, to REALLY accept. That freed me up. To make that record was the only thing I COULD do. Then it was time to go back to work.

You start looking at it that you're only going to have, if you're lucky, 60 years or 70 years. I was already at the time in my mid 40's thinking 'how much shelf life do I got here? Let's take this shit seriously. you ain't gonna be around forever. You better get on it.'

PSF: That record and the next one Dangerous Madness had real political edges to them, talking about society's breakdown.

Those have always been my concerns. If I see something that I think needs to have the sheet pulled off it and the spotlight put on it or something annoys me, something interests me, then I find that good subject matter for a rock and roll song.

PSF: Do you think that your political viewpoint's changed or evolved since the time of the MC5?

I don't think it's changed all that much. I think it's the same consciousness. Those were the years that defined me. Living and working with Rob Tyner, John Sinclair and the years that I was in my twenties. The '60's, that's what formed my thinking. I still see the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer and big business makes more money every year. So these are just continuations of the way I view the world. I don't think I'm going out on a limb here. (laughs)

PSF: On Citizen Wayne, you had songs about dope, guns and fucking while at the same time, you deal with present and how you kicked your drug and alcohol problems. Is this you looking back and forward in your life?

No, that might be a little grandiose. I call the record 'auto-mythological'. I'm trying to tell my story. I don't want to be... reverential here. I'm writing pop songs for money. I'm not curing cancer or anything. I try to write songs that have meaning. But I don't want to try to be deep.

PSF: Before you were talking about carrying on the legacy of the MC5. Is that kind of a mission for you, to make sure people know this?

I guess it's something of a mission. I want to keep it in perspective because... did Louis Armstrong make it a mission going through his life, talking about when he played in the Hot 5? No. But he did tell the story and he was proud of the work he did. So, I tell the story. I think in the final analysis, it's a great legend but the legend business don't pay that well. Doesn't matter that much. What matters now is the next record I make. My favorite record is my next one.

PSF: You had a rapprochement with Sinclair after the group broke up. What kind of common bond do you see the two of you having now?

We're both militant libertarians. (laughs) We're the only two people in the world that understands what each other is talking about. We're amongst a very small circle of people that understands what we're saying. He remains one of my dearest friends and kind of a touchstone for me, remains a mentor, a sounding board. We conspire, we exchange ideas. We work together What I get from John a lot is his resiliency. We all have it hard, nobody has it easy, and sometimes John has it even harder than some. His spirit is indefatigable. And like I've said, we've been cool since the seventies.

PSF: What are you planning in the future?

Right now, I just signed on with Pere Ubu and I'll be doing a tour with them through October and November. Ubu came up behind the MC5. David Thomas told me that all he knows about rock and roll music, he learned from listening to the MC5. He could just be buttering me up a little bit but there might be some truth to it too. He was part of that whole Rust Belt movement that was happening, making something from nothing.

I'm now working with Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain on the music for the feature film of their book, PLEASE KILL ME. (I'm) Writing material for my new record and planning a tour to go behind the record that'll come out next month (LLMF) and a European tour in the new year. I just finished working with Henry Rollins on his solo album. Did a track for the new Hempiliation 2 record, for Steve Bloom and his maniac colleagues at High Times, a cover of Fats Wallers' "If You're A Viper" that came out nice. I'm going to be on the new Was(Not Was) record. I'm really looking forward to that. They've made up and buried the hatch but not in each others' backs. It's all about the work now.

PSF: Any long term plans?

We're working on a Wayne book. Probably ending world hunger, stamping out illiteracy, curing cancer and becoming God-like. (laughs) Gotta keep it real, right?

I'm just trying to pay my rent every month and keep my phone on the air. This rock and roll business is not what everybody thinks it is. It's hard to sustain a career. This is the kind of work where you have to dig inside yourself to come up with the motivation. You invent it all yourself. It all starts with the artist. It's difficult sometimes. It's hard.

Long range... my goal is to do an album a year for the next ten years. I'm four years into it now and I've got six albums so I'm ahead of schedule. I can take a year off! (laughs)

PSF: Yeah, take a vacation.

No vacations. I'm not interested in vacating anything. I'm interested in working. Vacation means that I don't get paid. 'Cause I love my work. There's nothing I'd rather be doing.

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