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Remembering guitarist Wayne Kramer, founder of the MC5

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KICK OUT THE JAMS")

MC5: Kick out the jams, mother******. Yeah. I, I, I, I, I'm going to, I'm going to kick them out. Yeah.

BIANCULLI: That's the Detroit-based band the MC5, one of the most radical of all the rock bands from the late '60s. The band's founder, singer and one of its guitarists, Wayne Kramer, died last week at the age of 75. The group MC5, which stood for Motor City Five, was loud and often dissonant. Some lyrics had expletives you couldn't play on the radio, and the band's politics were far to the left.

In their early days, they were managed by John Sinclair, head of the White Panther Party, who used to preach revolution at the MC5 concerts. They played at many demonstrations and were the only band to play at the protest outside the infamous Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968. The MC5 broke up in 1972 and now is considered a forerunner of punk rock. Wayne Kramer struggled with drinking and drugs and was arrested on drug charges and sent to prison for two years. We're going to listen to Terry's 2002 interview with Wayne Kramer. At the time, he had released a solo album called "Adult World."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Let's go back to the beginning, more or less, of your story. You grew up in Detroit. Did your father work in the auto industry?

WAYNE KRAMER: Yeah, well, in a satellite sense. You know, he was an electrician and later was in the building trades.

GROSS: Did you...

KRAMER: And then I had a stepfather later on who also worked in the - he actually worked in an oil refinery there in Detroit.

GROSS: Did you figure that when you grew up, your job would somehow be connected to the auto industry?

MC5: Well, that was my fear, you know? That's the birthright if you're born in the industrial Midwest, you know, that you're going to end up a shop rat.

GROSS: How was the MC5 first created? And let's place it. It was - what? - 1968, '67?

KRAMER: Well, that's when we kind of broke out of regional popularity into the national consciousness. But we really started about '64, '65, in a neighborhood kind of way. You know, I looked around for guys in the neighborhood that wanted to be in a band and collected a bunch of ne'er-do-wells, just like me. I mean, this is, you know, the boom time after World War II. Everybody has good jobs, and you can buy an electric guitar on credit from Sears. And they were everywhere. I mean, everybody, you know - somebody - everybody had an electric guitar. Everybody was in a band. I mean, it was really a popular activity.

But, you know, we kind of coagulated as the MC5 at a point - me, Rob Tyner, Fred Smith, Michael Davis and Dennis Thompson. And really - you know, we really worked hard on what we were trying to do. We really worked hard on trying to be the best band we could possibly be, you know, be better than everybody else because for us, it was - we looked at it as a way out of the factory, as a way - as an alternative to the lifestyle that we were guaranteed to have to fulfill. It just didn't - it just wasn't all that appealing, you know?

GROSS: Well, the MC5 became, you know, a self-styled revolutionary group. What politicized you? What got you thinking more about revolution than Chuck Berry?

KRAMER: Well, Chuck Berry was revolutionary. But, you know, it was the day - we were very much a part of the time we lived in. And this was a time in the '60s. And I know it's hard for people to have a feel for it today. But the country was fractured down the middle. And this - the war in Vietnam had created such a division in the generations between the older World War II generation and our generation that we really thought the whole thing could just blow up at any time.

And, we just were frustrated with the slow pace of change. We were anxious about the future, and we felt like we had to take action. And the action we took was in endorsing our idols, which were the Black Panther Party and Malcolm X and our - you know, our spiritual leaders, which we viewed as John Coltrane and - you know, and Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Archie Shepp. And we tried to bring all these ideas together in a message that our band could represent, the idea that, you know, you didn't have to go along with the program, that there was a better way that we could do things.

GROSS: The band hooked up with John Sinclair, who was the head of the White Panther Party. What was the philosophy of the party?

KRAMER: Well, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton put out the call for there to be a group in the white community and the hippie community to take up parallel work with the Black Panther Party. And we were ready. I mean, we just said, yeah, that's us, you know? And it was romantic, and it was dangerous. And - but I don't want it to - I don't want you to think that - you know, that we were sitting in a warehouse on the west side of Detroit, desperately cleaning our shotguns, waiting for the revolution. I mean, we sat around a table and smoked tons of marijuana and laughed our asses off at what was going on, and this all just seemed to make perfect sense to us, you know?

GROSS: Let me read part of the 10-point program of the White Panther Party. (Reading) We want justice. We want a free world economy. We want a clean planet. We want a free educational system. We want to free all structures from corporate rule. We want free access to all information, media and technology. We want the freedom of all people who are being held against their will in the conscripted armies of the oppressor throughout the world. We want the freedom of all political prisoners of war. We want a free planet. We want free land, free food, free shelter, free clothing, free music, free culture, free media, free technology, free education, free health care, free bodies, free people, free time and space, everything free.

KRAMER: (Laughter).

GROSS: Bring back memories?

KRAMER: Love it. Boy, that sounds great (laughter).

GROSS: Did you charge for concerts, or were they always free?

KRAMER: We charged as much as we could. Unfortunately, many times they were free.

BIANCULLI: Wayne Kramer, founder and group member of the MC5, speaking to Terry Gross in 2002. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MC5 SONG, "ROCKET REDUCER NO. 62 (RAMA LAMA FA FA FA)")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2002 interview with MC5 founder Wayne Kramer, who was a singer and guitarist with the hard-driving, politically controversial '60s rock band. Kramer died last week at age 75.

GROSS: So you got a record company contract.

KRAMER: We did, indeed.

GROSS: And then you went around recording things like "Kick Out The Jams Mother******" - expletive deleted, which couldn't very well be played on the radio. And I'm sure the record company wasn't really thrilled that the lyrics to your song had an expletive, like, the king of expletives on it.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So what were you thinking...

KRAMER: Or the queen of expletives.

GROSS: What were you thinking when you got this good album contract, this good record deal, and then, you know, recorded a song on it that - couldn't possibly play it and that you had to know would be considered a real liability to the record company?

KRAMER: Well, you know, the song had this introduction, you know, where we came out and we screamed at the top of our lungs, kick out the jams, MF (laughter). But, you know, we weren't complete idiots about it, you know, we knew that that would never be played on the radio. So we recorded an alternative intro, which was kick out the jams, brothers and sisters. And, you know, it might be an interesting footnote to look at it because what happened was we had agreed - we knew that, I mean, kick out the jams MF was not going to be a hit single. So we did this other version. And what we told Elektra Records was that we knew when the album version, the real version hit the stands that the stuff was going to hit the fan. But let the single get as firmly established in the charts as it can. Wait till it starts coming back down the charts before you put the album out, because then they won't be able to stop us, you know, because then we'll be a bona fide hit band. And then the controversy will work in our favor, you know, because we're telling the truth here. And the record company, in all their shortsighted lack of wisdom, when the single started going up the charts, they rushed the album out. And when they rushed the album out, of course, the stuff did hit the fan and the - and people started to be arrested for selling the album. Kids in record stores or clerks were being arrested for selling this obscene record. And this is hard to understand in today's climate of, you know, hip-hop and hardcore rap, you know, where MF is every third expression. But in those days, this was a major crisis. And of course, the music industry wanted nothing to do with it and, in fact, banned the MC5 from then on, really (laughter). That was really, you know, the straw that broke the camel's back, you know, because nobody wanted anything to do with the MC5. We were way too much trouble, way too much bother.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "Kick Out the Jams"? We'll hear the original version with the expletive in it. We will conveniently bleep the expletive, but still, you'll get the point of the recording. So here it is, the MC5.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KICK OUT THE JAMS")

MC5: Kick out the jams, mother******. Yeah, I'm going to, I'm going to kick them out, yeah. (Singing) Well, I feel pretty good, and I guess that I could get crazy now, baby, 'cause we all got in tune when the dressing room got hazy now, baby. I know how you want it, child, hot, quick and tight. The girls can't stand it when you're doing it right. Let me up on the stand and let me kick out the jams. Yes, kick out the jams. I have to kick them out.

GROSS: That's "Kick Out The Jams," expletive deleted. And my guest is one of the founders of the MC5, Wayne Kramer. On one of the MC5 recordings, "Ramblin' Rose," there's a live introduction by Jesse Crawford, who was the White Panther minister of information. Was this a kind of standard thing in concerts that one of the White Panthers would come up and give their rap before a performance?

KRAMER: Well, you know, we were all ministers of something or another. We...

GROSS: (Laughter).

KRAMER: You know, ministers of culture in the streets, ministers of defense, ministers of, you know, I mean - you know, I hope it comes across that this stuff was done with a lot of humor. You know, we really weren't - you know, it didn't get heavy until much later. It was really done with a lot of fun in the early days. But that was J.C. Crawford's role. He was our MC, you know, our master of ceremonies. And see; we tried to build this show based on our heroes, and one of them was James Brown. And James Brown has an MC that would come out and say, you know, and now the hardest-working man in show business, here to sing such hits as "Try Me," da-da, "I'll Go Crazy," da-da. So we just - we took that spirit of what he was doing, and J.C. came up with his own text on it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KRAMER: And - because we wanted to make this a show, we wanted to make - we wanted to entertain people and take them someplace they hadn't been before, because the world, as far as we could see, I mean, there were some awful bands back in those days, you know? The California bands were terrible, you know, they could barely play. And they would come into Detroit, you know, with these huge reputations. And we'd say, God, you guys, man - kick out the jams or get off the stage, you know, because we were really - we were focused on this idea of high energy. We wanted to have energy in our performance because that was the thing that felt the best. And when I listen to music, if I listen to Black gospel music, there's a visceral commitment. There's a visceral energy to it. There's a spirit to it that reaches, that touches me. The music of James Brown, the music of Chuck Berry and the free jazz music, you know? I even heard it in, you know, the music of The Who or some early Rolling Stones tracks. It had that energy. So that was the thing we focused on. So having the MC was part of that, to create this entire spectacular event.

GROSS: So instead of having the James Brown MC talking about his hits, you had J.C. Crawford saying, if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem (laughter).

KRAMER: Exactly (laughter).

GROSS: Let's hear the introduction to "Ramblin' Rose" and hear some of "Ramblin' Rose" as well.

KRAMER: Great.

GROSS: You're singing lead on this.

KRAMER: That's me, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAMBLIN' ROSE")

JESSE CRAWFORD: Brothers and sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are going to be the problem or whether you are going to be the solution. You must choose, brothers, you must choose. It takes five seconds, five seconds of decision, five seconds to realize your purpose here on the planet. It takes five seconds to realize that it's time to move, it's time to get down with it. Brothers, it's time to testify, and I want to know. Are you ready to testify? Are you ready? I give you a testimonial, the MC5.

MC5: (Singing) Love is like a rambling rose. The more you feed it, the more it grows. Rambling rose, rambling rose, come on home. Hey.

GROSS: That's the MC5's recording "Ramblin' Rose," the lead vocal on that sung by my guest, Wayne Kramer. What kind of crowd reactions would you get? What were the best reactions? What were the most extreme reactions?

KRAMER: Well, the - probably the best reactions we got were in the Detroit area, you know, because we played there regularly for years, and we had a regular job at the Grand Ballroom. And we created that audience in Detroit and groomed them to be the best rock 'n' roll audience in the world. And, you know, we were able to transmit that to Chicago, to Cleveland, to New York. And ultimately we carried our message across the sea to England, but it never really translated on the West Coast (laughter). The hippies just didn't connect with the MC5. You know, we just had - we had too much macho energy. Our clothes were too shiny. Our amps were too big, and we did too much leaping, spinning, screaming, hollering, feedback. And, you know, California was all about, you know, put - wear some flowers in your hair. And we just - we were just out of sync with the West Coast.

GROSS: Now, because of the, like, revolutionary language that you used with the band and your association with John Sinclair, I think you were you were watched pretty closely. And I'm wondering if you ever got your Freedom of Information Act files and if you could see for sure what the FBI was doing regarding your band.

KRAMER: Today, I know a great deal about what the federal government's attitude about the MC5 was, and it's very scary. The white House viewed the MC5 as a threat. We have through the Freedom of Information documents that go all the way to the top that the COINTELPRO program targeted the MC5 and the White Panther Party. Our phones were tapped. We were followed. We were systematically harassed, arrested, jailed in an effort by the federal government, the state government and the the city of Detroit, the Detroit Police Department in particular, to squash the MC5 because the attitude was, you know, when is somebody going to do something about this band, you know, that we can't allow this rock band to say the things they're saying, to do the things they're doing and influence our children this way.

And it wasn't a joke, you know? And it got more serious as time went on in - you know, in various court actions against us. And, you know, I read an interview with G. Gordon Liddy in Playboy magazine, and he said he read our propaganda and where we said we were willing to use any means necessary to destroy the system and start over. And he said, I took them seriously. And so we used everything we had against them.

GROSS: And so what did you think of what he said? How seriously should he have taken you? How should he have interpreted what you were saying?

KRAMER: I think he took it correctly (laughter). If we could have changed the world, we would have, you know?

GROSS: How did it affect the band when John Sinclair, who worked as your manager and mentor in a way - when he was arrested for caring two marijuana joints and sentenced to 10 years? What did that do to your band?

KRAMER: Kind of broke our back, really, you know, 'cause John was the interface between the band and the outside world. And even though, you know, he was as crazy as we were, he at least had the wherewithal to be able to talk, you know, and explain what we were trying to do in a manner that people could understand - people in the music business mostly, you know? And we never really found, you know, a champion after that. You know, we tried to work with a couple other managers, but it just never worked. You know, it was square pegs in a round hole. The MC5 really were unmanageable.

BIANCULLI: MC5 founder, singer and guitarist Wayne Kramer speaking to Terry Gross in 2002. He died last week at age 75. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. We'll also remember actor Carl Weathers, who played Apollo Creed in the early "Rocky" movies and who died last week at age 76. And film critic Justin Chang reviews "The Taste Of Things," a French film that just won the directing prize at the Cannes Film Festival. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE AMERICAN RUSE")

MC5: (Singing) They told you in school about freedom. But when you try to be free, they never let you. They said it's easy - nothing to it. And now the army's out to get you. '69 America in terminal stasis - the air's so thick, it's like drowning in molasses. I'm sick and tired of paying these dues, and I'm finally getting hip to the American ruse. I learned to say the Pledge of Allegiance before they beat me bloody down at the station. They haven't got a word out of me since I got a billion years probation. '69 America in terminal stasis - the air's so thick, it's like drowning in molasses. I'm sick and tired of paying these dues, and I'm sick to my guts of the American ruse. Phony stars - oh, no. Crummy cars - oh, no.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University. Today we're remembering Wayne Kramer, who died last week at age 75. He was the founder of Detroit's infamous '60s rock group the MC5 and also one of its singers and guitarists. The band was loud, aggressive and politically active and liberal. Their early manager was White Panther leader John Sinclair. And the MC5 was the only band to play outside at demonstrations in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. Terry Gross spoke with Wayne Kramer in 2002, when he had just released a solo album titled "Adult World."

GROSS: You know, we've been talking about, like, the revolutionary slant of the music of the MC5, but some of it was just really fun, and I thought I'd play one of the tracks, and this is "High School," and it sounds almost like a rough draft of - for the Ramones, for their "Rock 'N' Roll High School." I mean, do you think they listened to your "High School" before doing their own "Rock 'N' Roll High School"?

KRAMER: I know they did.

GROSS: Oh, yeah?

KRAMER: I mean, yeah. They're friends of mine, you know?

GROSS: Oh, OK.

KRAMER: They - I was friends with the Joey and Dee Dee, and I know Johnny a bit, you know? But, yeah. Listen. They - their manager was our publicist.

GROSS: Oh.

KRAMER: So the connections are, you know - I mean, the connections are there. Jon Landau, who produced "Back In The USA," went on to manage and produce Bruce Springsteen, you know? I can see how the - this is idea diffusion.

GROSS: Right. And "Back In The USA" is the album that this track is from.

KRAMER: Right.

GROSS: Let's hear it. This is the MC5, "High School."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGH SCHOOL")

MC5: (Singing) Well, come on. The kids want a little action. The kids want a little fun. The kids all have to get their kicks before the evening's done 'cause they're goin' to high school, rah-rah-rah, high school, sis-boom-bah, High school. Hey, hey, hey. You better let them have their way. They only wanna shake it up, baby, dance to the rockin' bands. They only want a little excitement. They like to get a little outta hand 'cause they're goin' to high school, rah-rah-rah, high school, sis-boom-bah, high school. Hey, hey, hey. You better let them have their way.

GROSS: That's the MC5. And by the way, the MC5 recordings are featured on a recent anthology on Rhino Records called "The Best Of The MC5." My guest, Wayne Kramer, is one of the founders of the group. It was very difficult for you when the MC5 broke up, and you went through a kind of long period of addiction to heroin, alcohol. You spent some time in prison in - I think it was the mid-'70s.

KRAMER: That's when I first started listening to All Things Considered.

GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, that's what they all say in prison.

KRAMER: A lot of people in prison listen to All Things Considered. It's a great show.

GROSS: Did they really?

KRAMER: Absolutely.

GROSS: That's really funny.

KRAMER: (Laughter).

GROSS: Good.

GROSS: So you were in prison for what? - selling drugs to an undercover agent?

KRAMER: To a federal agent, yeah.

GROSS: What was their cover?

KRAMER: That they were New York mafioso drug couriers. They - and they looked the part, and they talked the part, and they walked the part. And see; you know, when the band broke up, I really lost my connection to any spiritual principles, any principles at all, you know? And I was really kind of adrift there in a real negative time and a place, and doing wrong is a way of getting attention too, you know? And there's a whole hierarchy in the criminal underworld of, you know, being a ghetto star, you know, being a hustler, being an earner, being, you know, somebody that gets paid, someone that gets over. This is the kind of terminology that - you know, that was in my speech a lot. This is the way I thought a lot. And, you know, that all culminated with this huge narcotics conspiracy that I was involved in.

GROSS: When you were in prison - in a federal prison in Lexington, Ky., you met Red Rodney, the trumpeter who early in his career played with Charlie Parker's band. And you used to play together in prison. What kind of music would you play?

KRAMER: Yeah, when - probably the high point of being locked up, for 2 1/2 years was the time I spent with Red Rodney. He was - you know, like - you know, I grew up admiring jazz musicians and, you know, drug-addict jazz musicians and alcoholic writers. And I wanted to be like those people, you know? And finally - you know, being in prison with Red Rodney, you know, he really became like my musical father and actually taught me a course in - a Berklee music correspondence course in music theory. And we played bebop. It was - you know, I went in a pretty adventurous rock guitar player and came out, I'd like to think, a competent musician, you know? He was a wonderful man. And I love him dearly.

GROSS: You talked about how you really admired, artists who were alcoholics or drug addicts. What did you find interesting or admirable about that?

KRAMER: Well, it just seems so illicit and so romantic. But, you know, none of those things made me an alcoholic or a drug addict.

GROSS: What did?

KRAMER: It doesn't work that way. What makes me a drug addict and an alcoholic is I like the effect that those substances have on me when I put them in my body.

GROSS: How hard is it for you now to stay straight?

KRAMER: Well, hard. You know, it's not that it's hard because I know today that I don't have a drug and an alcohol problem. I have a living problem. And...

GROSS: What do you mean? What do you mean?

KRAMER: Well, see; drugs and alcohol make it possible for me to live in a world that I can't live in, you know, 'cause I've got so many resentments, you know, 'cause I'm angry about the MC5, 'cause I'm angry that, you know, my peers are all wealthy and I'm not. You know, I'm angry because I didn't get the girl I wanted. So I have all these - this baggage that I carry with me. And it makes the world a world I can't live in. So fortunately, I've been able to find a way to live where drinking isn't necessary and getting high isn't necessary, and that I can have a good life, a full life, and be grateful for every day that I have in this life.

BIANCULLI: MC5 founder, singer and guitarist Wayne Kramer speaking to Terry Gross in 2002. He died last week at age 75. Here's the song he wrote for trumpeter Red Rodney, whom he met in prison.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED ARROW")

KRAMER: (Singing) Was a note came out his horn - the street corners and fried foods, folks laughing in a nightclub, swinging in a mellow mood. Out the horn came city lights on 52nd Street - dope fiend under neon lights moving to the beat. Red arrow could play anything. The man could be flashing from Brahms to Beethoven, the latest Broadway hit. He carried himself with style and a fine-tuned hipster grace and a song inside his heart and a smile on his face. Red arrow wrote it hard and played it easy.

BIANCULLI: Coming up, we remember actor Carl Weathers, who died last week at age 76. He played Apollo Creed in the early "Rocky" movies and more recently had a prominent role in the "Star Wars" TV series "The Mandalorian." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RED RODNEY'S "BLUES FOR ALICE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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