MC5- Michael Davis interview
by Jason Gross
PSF: You met the rest of the band while you were in school?
They went to school together and I was kind of seperate from their growing up. I was about 22 when I met those guys so I was a little older.
PSF: Why'd you decide to work with them?
I met Rob by chance at Wayne University- his girlfriend lived in the same building as I was living in. He invited me to come down and see his band play at a little bar (late '65). I had just broken up with my wife so I was searching for another way to live. I went to this place and those guys were playing Stones covers, Chuck Berry, Kinks and other things. There were a really good, a hot little band.
PSF: So that was your type of music too?
I was not a musician at the time. I had an acoustic guitar and I used to sing folk music and Bob Dylan songs. I loved rock and roll though. I grew up with it in the '50's. I was DEEPLY into R&B and everything that was on the radio. I was deeply into music but I was not a musician at the time.
So I went out there and saw those guys place in Detroit at this small bar. After they finished their set, I went over to say hi to Rob and he introduced me to Wayne and Fred. I had made a radical purchase of some brown Beatle boots. Wayne was like 'Where did you get those boots! Who is this guy?'
Basically, I had been to art school at Wayne University and my whole direction in life was to be an artist and do drawings and paintings. Wayne and I got to talking and we hit it off pretty good. We became friends almost immediately. Like I said, I was a bit older than those guys and travelled around the country a little bit so I had some things to say about what was going on outside of Detriot. This was of enormous interest to them. I lived in New York, down on the Lower East Side. Anything I had to say about my travels was fascinating to them, particularly to Wayne.
We became pretty good friends and started hanging out. Within a short amount of time, Wayne and I both decided that it would be great if I was in the band. So I decided to start learning the parts to the different songs to see if I could pick it up. It was a short matter of time before the bass player that was in the band coincidentally quit so I was right there to step into the slot. I might have practiced for two weeks on my own. The first gig I played with them was at my alma mater, Wayne State University.
PSF: What kind of music was the band doing at the time? It probably wasn't like Kick Out the Jams just yet, right?
The MC5 was basically a cover band, playing the things that they learned how to play their instruments with and the things they admired. R&B stuff, James Brown, Chuck Berry, the Kinks, whole lotta Rolling Stones. I have to say that 90% of what we played was cover tunes. There was a couple of originals that raised some eyebrows and were prophesies of things to come.
Back at that time, we played the songs pretty much the way we heard them on the records. We streamlined them somewhat. We even had band uniforms that we wore and that was one of the first things I had to do. I went out to the department store and purchased black slacks and a black vest and a green corduroy blazer. That was sort of our official uniform at the time and we used that for a while.
PSF: So how did the band get from there to the music you hear on the first album?
More and more, we wrote things. The couple of original things that we had were jam kind of pieces. Fully extended instrumental stuff. When I first joined the band, my thinking was 'this is what I wanna do.' Being in a band was the perfect avenue of expression for a young guy. The Beatles and the first British wave proved that this was a viable way to use your time. It was not some kind of fantasy. Anybody could do it. The more we wrote, the more we got into this playing thing and the more experimental we got.
When I joined the band, being that I was going to take this up as a profession, I realized that there were no two finer guitar players in the world that I'd rather play with. I was pretty confident with who I was getting involved with. It wasn't just some rinky-dink bunch of guys who went out and played at parties. They really took their talent and possibilties as being as serious as it could get.
So it was a positive project right from the beginning. I didn't think I was wasting my time. I thought I was in the right company. Those guys were so good. The more we played, the more it became obvious that we had something special. No other band was... I didn't think any other band was capable of what we were doing.
PSF: And what was that? How would you describe it?
Just free form playing and taking these little rock and roll tunes and taking them to ferverish pitches and into territories that would just blow peoples' minds. It was more than just pop music.
PSF: What do you think the effect of John Sinclair and the White Panthers was on the band?
It changed us completely. We were like a bouncing ball. We didn't really have any direction or management. We were trying to be organized from within. We didn't have anyone saying 'keep going with this' or anyone that was out promoting us with any effect. We were doing it ourselves and we were not getting anywhere. Trying to make our own little singles and what else can you do? We didn't have any kind of patrons.
When first hooked up, there wasn't any Panthers- just John and his band of hippies. He kind of took us in like we were orphans lost in Detroit. We saw the value of a merger with his group. John had a whole perspective on jazz music and all kinds of things that we were kind of simulating but we needed someone to bring us together and make us feel like we were important. The immediate effect was that we all had a place to live! (laughs) It wasn't like flopping out at somebody's apartment. So it gave us some kind of security, being with a bunch of people and everybody devoted to this project, the MC5. And the MC5 was doing what it could to support John's activities which weren't with the band.
PSF: What did you think of John's other activities then? Did you agree with his politics?
At the time, in 1967, the summer of love, that's what was happening in American under-culture. There was the movement on the West Coast and there was just a general consciousness that was coming about with all young people, unifying them- being against the war, being for the legalization of pot and the liberating of sexual taboos and restrictions and (against) ignorant points of view that we learned growing up and learned to hate. So it was like one big happy family. Not just with us and John's Trans-Love thing but there was feeling that was with all young people at the time. It was a love of rock and roll and of a whole new set of values that people could be happy with.
PSF: At the same time, you don't think the MC5 was your typical flower-power band, do you?
No, because we were rock and rollers. We never thought of ourselves as hippies. We thought that we were sorta like the army, the soldiers, the mercenaries of the hippies although we embraced the same values. We certainly didn't try to look, act or live like them. Life just took its natural course. We were just seeking to be satisfied and live a happy life, with no restrictions of society and the establishment.
PSF: How did you like the first album? Did that really capture the essence of the band at that time?
Not to me because I was on stage. (laughs) Nothing ever sounds quite the way it does when you're standing right in the middle of it. When I first heard the acetate, I didn't think it represented the way we sounded at all. I thought it wasn't hot, it didn't portray the intensity that the live show did. What we learned was that it's very difficult to portray a live show's intensity on a record. The condition of being there when music is being played is hard to duplicate in your living room. It's because the sound is bouncing off the walls or its because of the frenzy, the excitement of the crowd, the spontaneousness. It just doesn't come across on a record like the moment that you're there.
In a sense, it was disappointing. But thirty years has proved that it isn't that bad. (laughs)
PSF: How would you rate that show with the other ones that the band was doing at the time?
That particular show? I would rate it... about 85% or 90%. It was good but I don't think it was our greatest show. It's hard to say from one song to the next. For instance, "Motor City Is Burning" I think is 100%. But maybe some of the other songs I think are 90 or 95 percent.
Our most exaggerated and experimental piece, "Black To Comm", was not included on the record. Probably because it was generally 15 or 20 minutes long. At that time, before CD's, you only had a certain amount of time you could have on vinyl before you started losing the fidelty. So you couldn't go putting a half hour's worth of music on a piece of vinyl. It just wasn't feasible. We at least saved that one and unforutnately that never got on a record. That was our climatic piece of every show.
PSF: At the time, did you feel that any other bands were in line with what you were doing?
Sure, there were always brother bands. The first one that comes to mind is Blue Cheer. And the James Gang. There was an English band called the Pink Fairies. Canned Heat. These were guys that we knew, hung out with and partied with. And of course the Stooges.
PSF: There seems like there's a strong connection there between the 5 and the Stooges.
We were the 1-2 punch of the Grande Ballroom. There were our ultimate brother band. MC5/Stooges shows, that was it. That was what got us both signed. Danny Fields came out to see the MC5 and brought (Jac) Holzman out. At the same time, the Stooges were on the show. I think this was at the Fifth Dimension in Ann Arbor. Both bands got signed that night. Not that I'm saying they wouldn't have been signed at some other time but it had to do with helping each other along.
When we saw Iggy perform for the first time, we knew we had an animal on our hands. (laughs) We had to take him home and see what he really had to say. Just a very inspirational guy.
PSF: What's the story about you getting arrested for sunglasses?
(laughs) Oh, that... Yeah. I attempted to liberate some sunglasses from the corner drugstore. It wasn't a good idea. So they came charging out of there with ball-bats. I guess they thought I was a pretty vicious individual. We were on our way to a gig in Detroit and I got locked up. I think it was a gig with the Stooges so they got Ron Asheton to sit in with them and play bass.
PSF: A lot changed for the band between the first two albums- leaving Sinclair and Elektra records for instance. Back in the USA sounded a lot different from Jams too. Other than having a new producer and record company, what was the band at that time trying to do with their music?
I think everybody was trying to do the right thing but we were in the most confusing situation that a group of humans needs to deal with. We had all this kind of freedom and 'get out of your head' kind of stuff and at the same time, we were trying to establish ourselves in the business. These two things are really difficult to bring together.
Elektra fired us for being radical and doing anti-establishment sloganeering and they tried to use the word 'motherfucker' as a reason for this. But I don't think they understood the political ramifications that this was gonna cause them. They made a decision that they had better bail out. When they did, they opened the door for us to go to a bigger label.
We went on Atlantic and they said 'OK boys, no problem. Go back home and do what you do and we'll make sure everything is taken care of properly.' They sent out a guy to produce us (Jon Landau) that had never produced before. He was groping his way through, trying to control a bunch of lunatics. We never played anything the same way twice. When we started playing band tracks, he'd say 'well, I don't know about that one, let's do it again.' This time or that time, it was a couple of minutes longer. So he'd stop us and say 'wait a minute- what was that?' We just did it different that time and he'd say 'nah, we don't do it that way.' He put us in cuffs right away.
I remember John Sinclair coming into the little studio we were working in and he heard us play a really passionate soul ballad. We were trying to play it precise, with everything in exact fashion. Sinclair was in the control room and I just heard him say 'IT SUCKS!' (laughs) That was really inspiring, really a vote of dis-confidence. But he was on his way out.
We had all these things to deal with- houses full of people and John going to jail, guys from New York saying 'don't worry about anything.' So it was really confusing. I believe that we were in kind of a panic at the time. We made the record and it's... alright. There's a lot of good tracks on there, I gotta say. There you have the Jekyll and Hyde of the MC5. It took away a lot of the wrecklessness that we liked to play with and wrecklessness is what contributed to the magic that would happen during performances. When we couldn't put that magic down on record, we had to settle for correctness. That kind of took the wind out of our sails a bit.
It was so disorientating from the way that we thought of ourselves that I don't think the band ever really recovered... We could have hung in and kept bashing away for a few years and said 'fuck it- it's just one record, that's what happens,' but ultimately things got more and more seperate between the members. Eventually everybody went into their own direciton. In a way, it was kind of a death blow to the band, unfortunately.
PSF: What about the last album, High Time? Do you think that without having Sinclair or Landau around to run things that the band was moving in its own direction?
Yes, I think so. We had one very authorative guy (Landau) telling five bull-headed wildmen what they had to do to be successful. Eventually, his concepts won out. Sinclair just kind of guided us... into the closet and smoked some dope. (laughs) Then we would go out and make a record. But with Landau, it was like he was teaching us how to be studio musicians. That isn't what we made our claim to being made recognized on.
For the last album, we had Geoff Haslam. He was very relaxed, very liberal and very easy to work with. He was the person who should have been there when we went to make our first studio record. High Time was not an excruciating ordeal, it was fun. There was lots of people on it and we were just starting to feel really comfortable in the studio. We got to do whatever we wanted and made a great record. That was the right kind of producer for us.
But by the third record, if you're not gonna sell a lot of them, you have to go shopping for a new label. We did and there were some offers from some labels overseas but we were in such disarray personally that those things didn't happen.
PSF: Why did the group fall apart?
We just kind of lost our spiritual togetherness and the confidence that we had each other. There was some things going on that seperated band members more than just musically. We didn't live together any more. It was just like breaking up. It wasn't pretty. Everything just kind of fell apart and we just lost our communication with each other.
PSF: What's the real story with you leaving the group though? Were you asked to leave?
Yeah, that's right. Things got so seperated between us that I had developed my own... lifestyle which was non-attached to the MC5. I lost interest and I was into a heavy drug scene at the time. I showed up in England a couple of days late on my own and I missed an important gig. I guess the guys felt that I wasn't into it and that they'd prefer to go on with a replacement. Right in the middle of that trip, we ended our association (around '71).
So I left and shortly after that, Dennis left and they were trying to replace guys and things get really weird then. It had to become something else. I think some time after 1969 or so, the band started to lose its light. But I'll tell you what, boy- on the way up, it was happening.
PSF: Years later, much more so than when the band was around, a lot of people have seen the MC5 as guiding lights. What's made the music last so long and still be so vital?
Well, I don't know. (laughs) "Kick Out the Jams" was a really intense song. There's some really intense cinematic music on the albums. I guess I'd like to hear somebody tell me that- why they admire the MC5 so much. It's still around and it's still selling records. Guys from all over the world, bands from Australia and Europe and everywhere, just seem to be effected by the MC5. Maybe it's just this kind of energy level or the sound. I'm not sure why it is though.
I've heard it said that the MC5 were in some way responsible for the foundation of hardcore music and if this is true, I'm happy about this and very proud of this. Hardcore punk is very conceptual and energized so I'm proud of that fact. The MC5 always played with reckless abandon and I think we were probably the first band that did that. We were always reaching into the unknown and I think that's it. No one else played that way before and that's really what hardcore punk was all about- playing with reckless abandon with no regard for the safe things that you know about. And that's it. We were BAD.
PSF: What were you doing after you left the group?
I got into a band with Ron Asheton that we called Destory All Monsters. Kind of a Warhol-esque drinking band. We spent a lot of time putting away alcohol and being rock stars. (laughs) We had a young lady named Niagra who did the vocals. She was a trip- the Nico of the '80's. She wasn't much for singing but she'd put on a show. Very pop-art and provocative- she knew how to make people pay attention to her (laughs) because basically she was on this wacko trip. Everybody wanted to check her out and see what she would come up with. She would do these insane things on stage. By today's standards, they'd be tame but mentally, she was challenging.
The music didn't sound like the Stooges and the MC5. It was maybe a mix of that. We did a lot of improvising and lot of high energy playing but I think the songs were a lot more simply constructed than what I did in the MC5. That was about seven years worth of playing with those guys. We went to England and I think our timing was off because they really wrote us off as being heavy metal. But it was before heavy metal was 'respectable'- before Def Leppard and Iron Maiden. So we were over there in the midst of ska and Madness and new wave and it didn't hit it. It was just bad timing. We did a lot of travelling but we didn't make a lot of records.
PSF: What were you doing after Destroy All Monsters?
I finally just went 'I don't wanna do this anymore.' I moved to Arizona. I spent a few years trying to put a couple of groups together. It would be six months rehearsal, we'd play one gig and then everybody leaves.
In 1996, I got together with Rich Hopkins out here. He'd already been in a couple of bands like the Sidewinders, which got signed to RCA. Rich had finished with that, which was moderately successful. I got together with him to do Lumarios. He had already made a couple of CD's with Luminarios with a flow of different musicians every time. When he asked me to come and do some studio work with him, I was familiar with his style. I thought it was going to work out good because I was bringing this Detroit power rock thing into his folky pop guitar stuff. I thought it would sound good and it does.
We have three CD's out now on a German label, Blue Rose- El Paso, Glorious Rose and 3000 Germans Can't Be Wrong. We're slowly but surely making headway in the European market. We're going back to do a German tour now including a jazz festival and some TV filming.
Beyond the Lumarios, I'm going to do a solo project in the next year. It's just going to be my songs, me singing and probably released on a European label. It's in progress now.
PSF: Since you're still playing after all these years, what do you think you've picked up from the MC5 that's still a part of you and your music?
I carry the MC5 with me forever. That's the style that I play. I don't consider myself a virtuoso bass player 'cause I'm more of a chemistry kind of guy. Whoever I'm in a band with, I put my chemistry with their chemistry and see what our chemistry could do together. Playing music is like the act of sex- it's passion, it's feeling and visions. I'm trying to create intensity whether it's in a tender moment or it's in a powerful moment. My job as the bass player is to bring the music to those levels where it comes out as a satisfying event.
PSF: Are you still in touch with Dennis and Wayne?
I talk to Dennis fairly often on the phone. I haven't talked to Wayne for over a year now. From time to time, we have words together.
PSF: Any interest in working with them again?
Sure, I'm always interested in that.
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