photo by Leni Sinclair
A Four Part TributeWho was the person who was the voice of the MC5? We wondered this ourselves so we got the word from Tyner's bandmates, friends, fans about who this PERSON really was other than what we've heard on the records. Not surprisingly, he was a pretty complex, interesting, creative person and someone who's to be missed- a unique singer, a gifted graphics artist, an activist and one of the earliest supporters of punk. Mighty impressive.
Interrogations conducted by Jason Gross
My relationship with Rob was kind of orginally defined by the fact that I didn't have a father. He was kind of a mentor for me. I was a kid in the neighborhood that played electric guitar in rock bands. I hung out with his younger brother, Rick. We had a common love for drag racing. He told me about his older brother Rob, who was a beatnik. I was fascinating with this idea. When you're 13 or 14, someone who's 17 or 18 is a LOT older. He was like an older guy to me then. We was into Zen Buddhism, jazz, painting and Esperanto. He was a real non-conformist- he wasn't part of the rest of the world. He had his own agenda. I was just in love with him, fascinated by him. I tried to turn him on into how much fun it was being in a band- electric guitars, lights, sweat, noise, energy. He would tell me that none of that was hip, it was all passe. 'Jazz is really was where it was at. You need to listen to Gene Ammons, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane.'
But we had this thing we shared and we got along really well. Years later, I ran into him. I had a motorcycle and I pulled into a White Castle and there was Rob. But he had grown his hair out. He had this nappy hair, like a black man. All of a sudden, his hair was long and he was drunk as a skunk, playing the harmonica. He was all rock and rolled out. He said 'have you heard about this band, the Rolling Stones?' I said 'Of course I know them.' 'Ah man, they play like Jimmy Reed and really good stuff. You still playing the guitar? Let's get together and talka about this.' So Rob, Fred and I the next day started this conspiracy to take over the world of rock and roll. So in the beginning, it was like a student-mentor relationship and we quickly became peers. We each brought something to the relationship.
Rob was one of the first guys I could go to with spiritual questions. I was on a quest from the age of 7 or 8 to know the meaning of it all. I wasn't finding it in the Catholic religion. I was still thinking about putting my penis in girls' vaginas and I was thinking this was a sin, I wasn't supposed to be thinking about this. So I went to talk to Rob about life and death and he turned me onto Zen. It was the first thing that made any sense to me- the Eastern philosophies of religion. It made a real bond between me and Rob.
As a person, Rob was an explorer really. He had a curiousity that was limitless. He wanted to know about EVERYTHING. He wanted know the math for why bees could fly, what was bluer than blue. When he started to get into music as a performer and lyric writer, he really found a voice. But he really wasn't just one of the greatest lyricists of our time. He could do any number of things really well. He was an exceedingly talented cartoonist- his cartoons were UNCANNY. His stuff was just hilarious and brilliant. He designed his own clothes and invented his own persona of Rob Tyner, taking the last name from McCoy Tyner.
Rob in fact invented Wayne Kramer. I was born into this world as Wayne Kambes. When we were all reinventing ourselves, he said 'your name should be Wayne Kramer.' It sounded good, like an American product, like Kramer Brand American Cheese. He invented Fred 'Sonic' Smith, Dennis 'Machine Gun' Thompson. These were all products of Rob's fertile imagination.
He was a kind man, a loving brother, husband and father but he was also a pressurized man. It was like he was always about to burst at any given time. He would sit at a table and his leg would be going 'bam, bam, bam, boom, boom, boom' under the table. He was kind of a jealous man and a protective man. He was capable of closing things off to protect things. All these things to go together to make a human man. He wasn't saint-like, as are none of us. What he was really about was exploring and creating.
He had a tremendous sense of humor. He was a world-class free associator. We used to get him wired up sometimes, driving to gigs. 'C'mon Rob!' At the top of his lungs, he could do this non-stop. When we were teenagers, Rob had a blue '59 Chevy and we used to ride around with Fred 'cause we didn't want to be at our parents' house and we weren't old enough for bars or have other friends to hang out with. Rob would start to free associate like jazz, on a tangent to the point that me and Fred would be on the floor, with our sides aching. He could just GO. He would get into a character and it would never stop. He had one riff that went 'Warren G. Harding, he was a hard man, hardly a man...' and go on and on. He was just tremendous. A funny motherfucker.
By the time things started going wrong with the band, with our grand design for taking over was getting more complicated, he felt increasing uncomfortable being the singer in the MC5. Him and I started to have some conflicts. We were all under a tremendous amount of pressure. There's a need to find a scapegoat then. I got to be the one. But he suffered from the stress and strain that we all did. He tried to retire from the band two or three times. We would have these marathon group therapy sessions where we would all fish-bowl Rob. After a couple of experiences of that, I made a decision not to participate. I thought that if Rob wasn't happy being in the band, he should be free to do what he wanted to do. In the end, the band didn't survive. (laughs)
I think he missed the band once it broke up. He started a new band called the MC5! I think that there was so much left unsaid and so many hurt feelings, we had such hopes for the future and it turned to such bitterness. It was really horrific and heartbreaking, full of accusations and recriminations. We never really got to sort any of that out. One of the great sadnesses of my life is that I never got to know Rob Tyner as a grown-up.
I met him later during my criminal years in Detroit. I asked him about writing some songs (together) and he told me that it was cash and carry nowadays. I had to pay him if I wanted to write any songs with him. I wrote him from jail, demanding that he stop using the name MC5. It was a very rough time. After I came back from prison, I left town and rarely got back to Detroit. When I did, I never got the occasion to hook up with him. I felt that one of these days we'd sort it out. He called me in New York around '82 'cause some guy offered to put up some money for a reunion tour but at the time, I just didn't feel too good about it. It was a good legend, let it be! (laughs) Who knows what might have happened? He kept doing things, producing things, keeping the Rob Tyner and the New MC5 idea going.
The things I miss the most are his humor and his creativity. There never was a singer like Rob Tyner and there never will be another singer like Rob Tyner. Everything in the world you would want to be the singer in your band looked like Rob Tyner. He was completely unique. Every cell of his make-up was original. He had his own look and his influences were impeccible- James Brown, the blues, free jazz, Percy Sledge, Marvin Gaye. And Rob could really SING. He was a singing motherfucker. He sang with great passion and great soul. He was just a DYNAMIC live performer- there was nobody like him. He was really was the hardest working singer in show business. A lot of the MC5's energy came from his approach to his job- this is about sweat and energy. He's the archetype rock singer in his moves, his demeanor, his expression. Who knows where that might have gone if there was a different reality and a good following? Coltrane's birthday would be a national holiday and Sun Ra's picture would be on a postage stamp.
I know where his sense of spirituality was and what he believed. I took acid with him and was with him in the fire. I know what he was about. We fought with guys together. He was a courageous guy, he would FIGHT. When he made the transition, I know he was cool with it.
He was a rock and roll intellectual. When he was in high school, he was the school beatnik, weirdo. He was a teenage who took the name of Coltrane's piano player as a stage name- that should give you some idea of the kind of guy he was.
He was such a brilliant guy, interested in all kinds of music, poetry and art. He was interested also in making an expression for himself by singing with this band. Creating a band that wasn't like any band that had been there before.
He gave the MC5 direction. He was the intellectual leader of the band, writing the words and shaping the songs with Wayne into what they thought it should be. He grew all the time as an artist and a performer, just as the band did. He was a guy who had a lot of great ideas and put 'em into action.
The sum of the parts of the MC5 were greater than the individuals- Tyner never really captured the intensity of the MC5 in the groups he was in afterwards. As time went on, I thought he became kind of bitter and didn't realize his full potential, not having a career in music apart from being a local curiousity.
DAVID KOEPP (MC5 fanatic)
I had met Rob a couple of times during the shows that I saw. Breaking the band down, I'd say that Rob was James Brown, Wayne was Little Richard, Fred was Chuck Berry. Being James Brown would have been Rob's dream come true. The other guys were less in jazz than Rob- they were more into R&B.
He had aggressive vocal power that nobody else had. If Jagger auditioned for the MC5, he wouldn't have lasted 10 minutes. Nobody else would have had the physical energy or the attitude to do it. At the time, the Stones don't even come close to what the MC5 were doing on an energy level. Rob was amazing because he was able to project his voice through all that music and all that noise with an equal amount of energy. He could match with his vocals all the other instruments. I don't think there was anyone else performing who could do that.
JOE KAROLY (Drummer, House of Commons, who toured with the MC5)
Rob really seemed to be the most private of the guys. He wasn't aloof- I'd always talk to him at shows. But he wasn't as out-going as the others. He really saved it for the stage. It was so much about his performances. In some respects, he did for the 5, what Daltrey did for the Who. The band was such a sonic onslaught that there weren't too many singers who could front those types of bands. Neither one of those bands needed a traditional singer, doing melodic lines and great vocal skills.
But Rob was a tremendous performer. The whole band was and that's unfortunately why they didn't translate into the studio very well. Rob just had huge power to hold his own off the sound levels that were coming off the stage. In that sense, not only was his voice as raw and powerful as the guitar lines but he just exuded energy. He wasn't like that at all offstage. Offstage, he was reserved and quiet, wearing his glasses (which he didn't onstage). He was a completely different person, bookish in a strange way. He read a lot and was interested in art and a little more thoughtful about his personal life than the other guys. He wasn't all that concerned about being a rock star- he would have loved to be an R&B singer but he was in the wrong band. His clothes, which were outlandish, was a big part of it too- not looking like anyone in the audience when you were up there. I went up to him after a show and wanted to talk to him. From the way I saw him onstage, I thought he was barely under control. He just EXUDED energy. It wasn't like Iggy, he just had such a dynamic stage presence. When he was onstage, he was just completely focused. I was completed surprised that he was a nice, soft-spoken guy otherwise. He would be like 'gee, that's really nice, you like the band?' You kind of expect who knows what. You just didn't think he was going to be approachable. He was a fairly warm person who liked people. He was certainly appreciative when people told him that they liked his work.
The other guys in the band acted like rock and roll maniacs and he just didn't do that. He was always meditative between sets. Wayne and Fred would drink beer and play pool- they were offstage the way they were onstage. With Rob, he was doing his bit when he was onstage.
Though he was interested in the all kinds of arts, Rob was not interested in the political stuff. I NEVER heard Rob say anything political at all.
See Part Two of our Rob Tyner tribute
Also see notes from Rob Tyner's memorial
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