First Published in Lollipop Magazine
By the end of only the first song, the band is sweating profusely. They play with pure unbridled fanaticism. The band is putting everything they have into the show. This isn't entertainment: these guys are on a mission. They play their song "Ramblin' Rose" with reckless abandon as if their lives depend on it. During the hour-and-a-half show, no one ignores the band or wanders off to converse in the corner. The crowd stands spellbound during the entire concert. Somehow people realize that they are in the presence of something extraordinary. Having seen the Rolling Stones, The Who, Lynard Skynard, and J. Giels, I can say that none of these bands were as intense or as driven as the MC5. The band came back for an encore and dozens of people jumped up on-stage to dance with the band. It's the wildest thing I ever saw. But who are these guys anyway?
Trying to find out about this band is like an archaeologist attempting to reconstruct an entire civilization from a few fragments of pottery. The mentions in mainstream anthologies are almost nill.....with one exception: The MC5 were on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine in 1969. Over the years I have found a few obscure articles about the band. The bits and pieces I've found sound like the script of an Oliver Stone movie.
In some ways it's an unbelievable, almost frightening story. Evidently The MC5 were just another band from Ann Arbor, Michigan. What transformed them was what e ventually led to their demise: the marriage of rock-and-roll and politics. John Sinclair, founder of the radical White Panther Party, adopted the band as the chosen leaders of his vision of a rock and roll army. After an electrifying concert at the tumultuo us Chicago Convention of 1968, the MC5 were signed to Elektra records. Elektra felt they had the two premiere American rock bands on their label: The Doors and The MC5. The band's dynamic stage show was a sensation and they opened up several times for The Who and Jimi Hendrix. Singer Rob Tyner said that the band was trying to claim the unrestrained energy and optimism found among kids running freely around the playground. Sinclair, however, saw the MC5 as more than just a rock band.
Sinclair envisioned the MC5 leading the young people in America to throw off the oppression of the corrupt military-industial establishment that spawned the Vietnam war. In Sinclair's utopian vision this rock and roll army would overturn the corrupt system of hypocrisy and injustice, and the men and women of the revolution would celebrate by having sex in the streets. Before anyone could roll over laughing at this seemingly naive rhetoric something crazy was happening. Sinclair's dream of rock n' roll revolution was coming true. Whenever the MC5 played in Detroit, their concerts turned into full-scale riots. It wasn't just this band though. Riots erupted at other concerts by the Rolling Stones, The Doors, and The Jefferson Airplane. Some young people saw the world as a black-and-white divide between the young freaks and the establishment. The MC5 were a turbulent band in a turbulent era.
John Sinclair was arrested for possessing 2 marijuana cigarettes and given a ten-year sentence. Hearing of this, John Lennon and Yoko Ono flew to Ann Arbor to do a benefit concert for Sinclair. Abbie Hoffman decided to jump on-stage at Woodstock to make an impassioned plea on Sinclair's behalf. His timing couldn't have been worse. The Who, an angry and frazzled British band, supposed to go on at midnight, were kept up all night to play at dawn. Pete Townshend seeing a frantic figure jump up on stage and grab his microphone instinctively whacked Hoffman with his guitar, sending him flying off the stage.
Without Sinclair, the MC5 put out an album, "Back In The U.S.A." but broke up in 1972. Fred (Sonic) Smith formed The Sonic's Rendezvous Band and later married Patti Smith who wrote a song "Frederick" about him. He died in 1995. Rob Tyner died in 1991.
John Sinclair is currently performing with his own band and doing radio in New Orleans. The MC5 and The New York Dolls were considered the first real punk bands of the late 60's. While in NYC in 1980, I saw Wayne Kramer and Johnny Thunders play together at a concert at The Ritz. They performed "Ramblin Rose" and other tunes, but I don't believe that band played together very long.
After 20 years Wayne Kramer came out with a new CD in 1995 The Hard Stuff (Epitaph). The imagery is full of the terror, hopelessness, and desperation of the American urban landscape. The song "Edge of the Switchblade" describes the brief career of the MC5. These songs of survival get heavier than a suitcase of anvils. The last song is amusing as Kramer dreams of owning a sharkskin suit like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. from the ratpack days. His dream is to achieve the ultimate cool by wearing "The Cadillac of Suits."
The politics of the 60's may seem anachronistic today, but the sheer raw explosiveness of the MC5's music still holds up after all these years. Atlantic, Warner-Elektra, and Receiver Records have reissued the music of The MC5 on CD. Their live album, "Kick Out the Jams," taped at The Grande Ballroom in Detroit captures the excitement of their music. Henry Rollins thinks it may be the best live recording of all time. Posters advertising the band in the 60's described the band by altering Albert Einstein's famous mathematical formula: E=MC5
UPDATE Kramer/Sinclair reunion: June 19, 1997
Last night at the Old West Church in Boston John Sinclair got up and read his poetry about the sacred White Buffalo, John Coltrane, and Thelonius Monk to a small crowd. Included there were poets Richard Cambridge, John Wieners, and known rascal Vermin Supreme recounting his latest coup as a rabble-rousing guest on the Jerry Springer Show. Wayne Kramer stopped in during the last song and jammed but they left quickly because Wayne had a gig in Cambridge.
The bar in Cambridge is called T.T. the Bear's Place, and Wayne appeared with 2 other members of his band. They did old songs like Poison, Bad Seed, and songs from the newest CD "Citizen Wayne" and John Sinclair got up on-stage with Wayne, a rare occurence. He said, "You may not remember us from the first time around, but we're back!" Sinclair did a poem about the blues, "You can't learn the blues, there's no school for it, it's a talent, something spiritual....." Kramer and the band kicked in with music. It was quite a sight seeing the two of them together again, after all, they survived. Kramer came back to do "Kick Out The Jams" as the encore.
In October 1997, Future/Now Films finally released their film The MC5: A true testamonial about The MC5. It played at film festivals in Toronto, San Fransisco, Tribeca, Woodstock, and Melbourne. Last night 3-12-04 the movie finally came to Boston.
Their old mananger John Sinclair comes to Squawk Coffeehouse every fall and perfroms his poetry with a blues band. Below are a few photos from his October 2004 show.
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