Returning to the scene of the crime

Jun 7, 2006 at 12:00 am

It's like a bad sequel to a movie nobody liked the first time around. The United States is fighting an unpopular foreign war, the president seems to have a less-than-monogamous relationship with the truth, and at least one member of the MC5 worries that his phone might be tapped.

At one point during a recent telephone interview with MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, the line develops an echo. In mock paranoia, Kramer rowdily scolds U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, telling him: "Get off the phone, man, I'm working here!"

It's gallows humor — only funny because it's plausible in these days of NSA surveillance and warrantless wiretaps. The truism "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you" is one that Kramer knows all too well. After spending time as a revolutionary, a junkie drug dealer and a convicted felon, Kramer knows firsthand what it's like when Big Brother puts his TV Eye on you.

"They don't do much that surprises me," Kramer says.

After all these years, Kramer is still fighting some of the same battles — against a corrupt president, an unjust war and draconian drug laws. Unlike those heady days of rage in the late '60s, though, nobody's blowing up CIA offices in Ann Arbor this time. Instead, Kramer says he holds "a seasoned perspective" to fostering social change. That is to say, a more incremental approach than the White Panther Party's envisioned "total assault on the culture by any means necessary."

"You find the things that you can do," he says. "You can tell a story, you can write an article, you can sing a song, you can make a movie, you can make a DVD. I try to do the things I can do, knowing that we fight and we lose and we fight and we lose and we fight and we lose, then we win one. Then we fight and we lose and we fight and we lose, and that's just the nature of speaking truth to power. They're not going to go away. They're not going to just say, 'Well, I guess we had it for a while, but you guys are right. Here, go ahead.' That isn't going to happen."

That's been the rhythm of every battle for social justice in recent memory — from the fight against segregation to the Vietnam-era anti-war movement, Kramer says, adding: "It isn't glamorous, and it isn't sexy and it doesn't necessarily make good copy, and it doesn't build strong bodies 12 ways. It's the arduous task of civilization building."

For example, last September Kramer played at the Thievery Corporation-organized anti-war demonstration in Washington, D.C., called Operation Ceasefire that drew more than 100,000 people. The event was hosted by Jello Biafra and featured performances by Le Tigre, the Bellrays and Steve Earle, among others.

"It shows you, put a few people's energy together and you can make a statement," Kramer says. "That stuff all happened on the phone and on the fax and on the e-mail ... that's the unglamorous side of it. It's not in fashion, but there's no greater sense of accomplishment."

Though Kramer posted an essay on his official Web site bemoaning the lack of mainstream media coverage of Operation Ceasefire shortly after the event, it does seem that the anti-war message is getting out there. Last month, Neil Young released the stridently anti-Bush album Living With War, and pop-country superstars the Dixie Chicks debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart last week with their unrepentantly political album Taking the Long Way.

"I don't listen to the Dixie Chicks in my car. It's not the kind of music that I personally go out of my way to give it a listen. But I appreciate the fact that they're willing to put their career on the line," Kramer says. "They put that record out with big ovaries — big, steel ovaries. You've got to love them for that."

Kramer, who has been in the trenches for four decades, finds this growing anti-war sentiment heartening.

"It's hard for me to be cynical about people's participation," Kramer says. "If they participate, at least they're in it, at least they're in the game. If they're doing it just because it's a fashion trend this week, I'm not going to quibble with that."

The problem, though, is that fashion is by its nature ephemeral, and what's in style today will be replaced tomorrow.

"That's the problem, because in the end we're not talking about fashion, we're talking about social justice," Kramer says.

At 58, Kramer stays busy doing music for film and television from his Los Angeles home base. For the past few years, he has toured the world with his surviving MC5 bandmates in the locally controversial DKT-MC5. And he's revisiting his solo career — which has been on hold for the past couple years — with a Detroit show later this month.

One of the reasons Kramer moved to California in 1994 was to begin composing for film and television. He has done music for extreme sports shows on the Fox Sports Network. He wrote the score to the new Will Farrell vehicle Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, which opens in August. Fellow radical guitarist Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine) performed Kramer's score.

"It's subversive. It cuts right to the heart of the NASCAR, good-ol'-boy, Bible-Belt-but-gotta-get-paid American way," Kramer says. "It's a hilarious film. It's not going to cure cancer, it's just a funny movie."

And Kramer is using his art as a more overt tool of political change by scoring the new documentary Votergate. That film examines the allegations that Diebold Election Systems' voting machines are easily rigged. That company's former CEO, Walden O'Dell, was a top fund-raiser for George W. Bush's re-election campaign in 2004. He notoriously promised to deliver Ohio's electoral votes to Bush — a state that later proved to be the decisive one.

"It brings to mind something about hawks and chicken coops. It's right to the core of what we're up against — these guys are pernicious. I mean, they're criminal," Kramer says. "It's going to blow up, and I'm glad the timing of the film is such that it's going to come out right in time for the next election. Because Bush stole the election fair and square."

Kramer's dislike for the commander in chief is intense.

"It remains to be seen if the president of the United States will end up swinging from the neck until dead. It wouldn't be such a bad outcome in my opinion," Kramer says. "Or at least a nice cell in Guantanamo."

Kramer did the score for another politically tinged documentary called The Narcotics Farm. That film chronicles the federal prison in Lexington, Ky., that was set up to house drug offenders. Alumni of that venerable institution include such notable jazz musicians as Sonny Rollins and Zoot Sims, writer William S. Burroughs and his son, and Kramer himself. The film explores the premise that, from the 1930s to the 1970s, the feds experimented on prisoners.

"They used human beings to try to find Cold War spy drugs, truth serums, that they could slip in on the Russian spies so that they could find out their evil communist secrets," Kramer explains. "And one thing that they did is they experimented on American prisoners by trading them time off of their sentences or paid them off in drugs themselves, whatever your drug of choice might be. And it's a pretty sordid tale of the degree to which the government will stoop, and the offenses that they will perpetrate on human beings."

Kramer's score is inspired by the fact so many junked-up jazzbos did stretches in Lexington.

"This is a jazz story, because almost every great jazz American musician who was active in the '30s, '40s and '50s did a sentence at Lexington. And, of course, this is in the folklore of musicians — this is all well-known and part of our oral cultural history," Kramer says.

Given that background, Kramer enlisted some jazz help from fellow Detroiters Dr. Charles Moore and Buzzy Jones, as well as teenage keyboard prodigy Tigrin Hamasian. Hamasian will back Kramer up on this swing through Michigan, along with Kramer's longstanding rhythm section of bassist Doug Lunn and drummer Brock Avery.

"[Hamasian's] technique is formidable, but beyond technique, it's where he's hearing the music. To me, he's the logical extension from Sun Ra and Monk to Cecil Taylor and Keith Jarrett, up through the most advanced stuff that Herbie [Hancock] plays. But he's 19 and he's just bursting with creativity. So having him in the band has just really opened up the doors for us."

That a facility like the Narcotics Farm existed, Kramer says, is emblematic of the "insane irrationality of our drug policy."

"The story of Lexington and the Narcotics Farm is the story of a government, the United States government, that applied its best thinkers, its best scientists, its best analysts, to the problems of alcoholism and drug addiction, and in the end ignored their own scientists' recommendations and made it a police problem, not a social or medical problem, which by any reasonable definition it is," Kramer says. "If someone needs a pill or a potion to get through their day, that should be between them, their doctor and their therapist, not between them, a policeman, a judge, a jailer and a parole board."

Kramer served a stretch in Lexington from 1975 to 1978 for cocaine trafficking. He has been sober since the mid-1980s. Despite — or perhaps because of — Kramer's own struggles with addiction, he still finds America's drug laws a travesty.

"I think what we're looking for is reason," Kramer says. "If we apply a sense of reasonableness to the policies that we run our nation by, that we run our lives by, you have to conclude that the policies of the United States government since the 1920s, with regards to drugs and alcohol, have been so irrational as to almost defy a way to talk about it. It's so separate and distinct from anything that would have to do with the pursuit of human happiness and well-being that it's disturbing."

This is a political struggle for Kramer that has a very personal element. The day after he returns to his hometown to play at the Magic Stick, he'll head to a Narcotics Anonymous convention in outstate Michigan for two days. It's not merely a gig for Kramer. It's also an opportunity to give back to an organization that he has been an avowed member of for years.

"Part of what I do to continue to grow and change is to be of service," Kramer says. "It takes a thousand different forms, but the form it took in this case was could I come and play some music to entertain the conventioneers and could I also talk about the recovery program — both things I'm honored to be able to participate in."

Kramer says his participation in that conference is a continuing part of his own recovery. "It's not necessarily my fault that I'm a ... sober alcoholic or a sober drug addict, but my recovery is my responsibility," Kramer says.

The story of the MC5 — and its culmination in addiction and heartbreak — is well-known around these parts. It's one of the quintessential rock 'n' roll stories of energy and creativity, with a healthy dose of tragedy and unrealized potential. Kramer has been able to revisit the MC5's legacy over the past few years with bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis "Machine Gun" Thompson. Those three surviving members have toured the world as DKT-MC5, playing with a revolving cast of supporting players (including several dates with the Sun Ra Arkestra).

"It's been unexpected to travel around the world and play MC5 songs for 15,000 Japanese kids and they all know all the songs word for word — that was pretty exciting," Kramer says.

Kramer says DKT-MC5 will continue "as long as it continues to be fun and we enjoy the process," with a possible record in the band's future.

"It's an unasked-for gift. I mean, I certainly wasn't looking for a sideline as being in the MC5 at this stage in my life," Kramer says. "We're not trying to prove anything to anyone, and we're not trying to compete in the record business or any of that."

Generally, Kramer maintains a 12-step Zen coolness even when he's delivering fiery political rhetoric. But his philosophical calm gives way to frustration when he talks about departed MC5 bandmates Fred "Sonic" Smith and Rob Tyner. Smith died in 1994, Tyner in 1991.

"Listen, I make it a point every night to thank Fred Smith and Rob Tyner for the work they put in on the music too," Kramer says. "I have an allegiance to the truth and sometimes I take a lot of heat, a lot of criticism. That's OK, I don't have a problem with that, but the truth is, I'm not the one who broke up the MC5. I know I've told this story enough, of that last concert at the Grande Ballroom, but I ain't the one that quit the band. Rob Tyner quit the band before I did, and Rob Tyner quit the band every year for the three years before that. So just in the interest of fairness everybody wants to paint Wayne out as some kind of evil genius. Certainly I might be evil, but I ain't a genius, and I ain't the one that gave up on the band."

What set Kramer off was a question about Smith's post-MC5 supergroup Sonic's Rendezvous Band (about which this writer is penning liner notes for an upcoming box set). Quickly, years of hurt and confusion bubble to the surface.

"You know, Fred wasn't the hardest-working man in show business," Kramer says. "It's kind of like one of those roads I can't even start to think about because there's too many tangents — well, what happened with this and what happened with that and what happened with the other thing? It just seems to turn into a — I don't know, man — a mess. It all seems to devolve into something that there's no answer for, that there's no clarity about it. It's all like a shroud inside a mystery inside an enigma. Something's missing in the picture that nobody's talking about — something isn't right here. It's like, why did Tyner deny his political involvement? What happened there?"

Comments like that certainly won't make Kramer more popular with Smith's and Tyner's families — although it's hard to see how he could be less popular. Previously published unflattering comments by Kramer about Smith have upset that guitarist's widow, Patti Smith, and their two children, as well as Becky Derminer, Rob Tyner's widow, and their three children.

A bitter dispute between Kramer and filmmakers David C. Thomas and Laurel Legler scuttled that pair's completed (and acclaimed) documentary on the MC5, A True Testimonial. That dispute led to the reopening of Kramer's 1999 bankruptcy filing. Derminer later sued Kramer, Davis and Thompson for copyright and trademark infringement in U.S. District Court in 2004. That case was dismissed last year and has been appealed. Derminer has also filed a separate lawsuit in Michigan on MC5 accounting issues. In answering the suit, Kramer, Davis and Thompson have filed an accounting counterclaim against the Derminers.

Returning fire in March, Kramer sued Future/Now Films in his own copyright infringement and breach of contract case, which has a trial date of Oct. 3.

"I certainly didn't expect to be dragged through court," Kramer says. "Some of this stuff, it's almost unbelievable. The depths and the outrageousness of the accusations — we continue to trounce them soundly in every court hearing that they drag us through."

He continues: "They attacked me in bankruptcy court and we beat their asses there. They attacked me in the press, and I have explained myself as clearly as I need to in the press. They attacked us in District Court, we kicked their asses out of court. We just keep going on and on and on."

Becky Derminer referred questions about the litigation to her attorney, Norman Ankers of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn L.L.P. He explains that the federal case under appeal alleges that one joint owner of a trademark can't dilute it without the consent of the other owners — which he says is what DKT-MC5 has done.

"That is motivated by the desire on the Derminers' part to preserve the legacy of the MC5 and its music inviolate," Ankers says. "Once the MC5 disbanded, the MC5 was no more. Rob is gone, Fred 'Sonic' Smith is gone and there will be no other MC5."

He continues: "Secondly, the Derminers are seeking compensation for the use that has been made by Kramer et al. of those works in which Rob Tyner participated as a co-author."

Ankers says extensive settlement talks between the parties are ongoing and look promising, adding: "I don't want to make this sound like saber-rattling."

Kramer referred questions about his current lawsuit against Future/Now Films to his attorney (and his wife and manager Margaret's brother) Edward T. Saadi of Youngstown, Ohio.

"The short answer is that promises were made to Wayne, a contract was entered into verbally," Saadi says. "Over the course of years, Wayne and Margaret conducted their lives in accordance with that contract. When the time came to reduce those promises to concrete action, suddenly there was a claim made that those promises hadn't been made at all."

For Kramer, the only solace may be inside his own head. "That's the question that I have to ask myself — am I telling myself the truth? — because part of what's wrong with me is I have a mind that doesn't see things how they really are. It isn't whatever's going on that upsets me, it's my opinion of it that upsets me, what my mind tells me about it that upsets me."


Wayne Kramer performs Thursday, June 29, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700. Special guest is Porchsleeper with bassist Gary Rasmussen (The Up, Sonic's Rendezvous Band) in the lineup.

Brian J. Bowe is editor of Creem Magazine. Send comments to [email protected]