Bongs, songs & the truth

Sep 24, 2003 at 12:00 am

When you’re young, you’re cocksure, you know everything, and you will live forever. But this is a front. Underneath this bravado, you’re not convinced about anything, certainly not your own abilities or your place in the world. Personally, I spent an inordinate amount of time convincing the world and myself that I was the person I represented myself to be.

At the peak of my insecurity, I met a writer named Lester Bangs. Lester had a significant role in the direction my life took. Lester was a touchstone. In the early days of the MC5 everything we did was cause and effect. We would play for people and they would be influenced, usually in a positive way. People really liked what we did. We worked hard to make them like us.

There were no other bands on the scene like us. We had a range of power that exceeded our contemporaries. We were into some stretched-out shit, and we knew it. So, when stories started appearing in the press about the MC5, they were almost always full of praise, extolling our innovations and our high-energy performances. If we received any criticism, it usually was from the parents, teachers, politicians or police who took issue with our unconventional lifestyle. This criticism didn’t faze me in the least. Rather, it reinforced me. I took it as a sign that we were getting under the skin of the establishment and it bolstered my omnipotence.

When the MC5 signed to Elektra Records and professional rock journalists started coming out to Detroit to cover the “phenomenon,” I didn’t know the dynamic of the publicity business. “Big-time” writers would file stories talking about our real rock-and-roll attitude, our rough-and-ready spirit, and that we were messengers of musical genius never before seen on the face of the earth. They said we were sexy as hell too.

I believed every single word of it. This was the real me. They had captured me perfectly. We were the sho’ nuff second coming of rock and roll. I was being recognized for who I believed I was: a legend in my own mind. Clearly, I had a distorted view of my own importance. This was a dangerous spot to be in, 20 years old and on top of the world. We made Kick Out The Jams and were poised for international fame and fortune.

Rolling Stone was an entirely different publication back in the late ’60s than it is today. It had weight and depth. Everyone took it to be the gospel of our culture. It set the bar with hard-hitting investigative journalism and record reviews that really mattered. What I didn’t know was that all that praise I was bathing myself in was encouraged by Elektra’s publicity department paying the bills. Sure, there were some truly held observations about the MC5, but like all show business publicity, it was strictly business.

We really looked forward to the next issue of Rolling Stone, so you cannot imagine the feeling that came over me when Lester’s review of Kick Out the Jams reached us. The review, published in April 1969, was Lester’s very first for the magazine. To put it mildly, it was hardly a record company blow job. Lester knew the work of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders and didn’t see the connection we treasured so much. Lester was merciless in dismantling the MC5 braggadocio.

There was also a “new gunslinger in town” element in play, as he was trying to make a name for himself as a writer, taking on the baddest dude in town and dropping him in his tracks.

This he did in aces. The effect on me was devastating and immediate. I was tripping my brains out on LSD when someone stuck the review in my hands. In that instant, my entire ego collapsed. All my greatest fears were realized. I remember thinking, “Oh, my God — if people believe this, we are sunk.” I was humiliated.

Therein lies the problem with giving credence to your exalted reviews. You puff yourself up and feel greater than great, but your heart is broken when they criticize you. There was more than a germ of truth in what Lester wrote, and that made it powerful. He had exposed our Achilles tendon and severed it with a meat cleaver.

After coming down from the acid, I tried to put it out of my mind. That, of course, was impossible. The effect Lester’s piece had on me and the direction of the MC5 steadily boiled to the surface.

In the meantime, Lester had moved to Detroit and we met. Under normal circumstances, he would have earned himself a good old Detroit-style ass-whipping. At least that was our usual attitude, but he was so disarming in his apologies to us, and his utter repudiation of his review was so sincere, that I grew to like him simply for his ability to admit he was wrong. He moved into the Creem magazine house and threw himself into the Detroit zeitgeist. He became a true believer. He endorsed the MC5, the White Panther Party, and the whole dope, rock ’n’ roll and fucking-in-the-streets ideology.

In my humble opinion, Lester was searching for an intellectual and moral core and he found it in Detroit. The unhip, working-class environment felt right to him. He found a home. His work began to flow then. His output was fierce. Still, the aftereffect of the truth he articulated in his review had set new wheels in motion.

The MC5 started preparing material for our second album and we had a new agenda. Lester had forced us to confront our weaknesses. We had to prove what we were made of. The only way we could do that was to make a better record. We were subconsciously driven to change our character as a group. We had to prove we could play in tune and in time; that we could write coherent songs with imaginative arrangements and structure; that we were, in fact, the band we represented ourselves to be. This was a tall order for a crew of undisciplined maniacs like us.

The pressure on us was unbearable then. John Sinclair, our manager and mentor, was being sent to prison, facing 10 years for possessing two joints. We were broke, had been dropped from Elektra and had signed with Atlantic — and were desperate to hang on to the excitement that we came out of the chute with. It was all slipping through our fingers and we were not sure if anything could be done to prevent it. We know now that nothing could have been done and the end of the MC5 was at hand.

Lester and I remained in touch, and when I returned from federal prison [from a drug conviction] in 1979, we spent some time together in New York. I was traveling back and forth to England and we would hang out in the city. He was excited about his own venture into being in a band, Birdland. I thought they were a mess, but, by that time, I was no longer convinced I knew everything there was to know about music, or life, for that matter. He seemed to get a charge out of being on stage and I encouraged him to go for it.

In 1982, I was living in NYC and was out on tour when I called my girlfriend. She was in tears with the news of Lester’s death. I admit, I was shocked myself. He wasn’t a hard-core druggie like me or so many in our circle. Mostly, he was just a boozer. I also did not know back then that it’s all the same, and once you cross the invisible line into alcoholism and drug addiction, it is a progressive and, if untreated, fatal disease. Not many of us knew that back then and many have died.

What Lester did best was tell the truth, and he did it with colossal passion. If you do that, even if you are wrong, or you change your mind, you will still be all right.

Call it like you see it, just don’t half-step. Lester never did.


Read the review of a new anthology of Lester Bangs' work. Wayne Kramer played guitar for the MC5. E-mail [email protected]