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Wayne Kramer Still Kicking Out The Jams

Wayne Kramer photo
Jim Newberry
Wayne Kramer has written an autobiography called "The Hard Stuff." His new band MC50 has three Michigan concerts in coming weeks.

The leader of one of Detroit’s most influential rock bands has written an autobiography. Wayne Kramer led the MC5, a group that helped take hard rock music to the mainstream. Fifty years later, to promote his book “The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, The MC5 and My Life of Impossibilities,” he’s hitting the road with a band he’s calling MC50.

The MC5 exploded onto the Detroit music scene as the house band at the iconic Grande Ballroom. The soul music coming from Motown Records meant Detroit to listeners everywhere, but the city’s hard rock was emerging at the same time.

The MC5 quickly became known for their radical politics, their intense energy and their loud volume. In 1968, the band audaciously recorded its first album live at the Grande.

Up front was guitarist Wayne Kramer, who’s remembered by native Detroiter Mike Mihalus. He saw the MC5 numerous times in those days. "They were very energetic," Mihalus says, "especially Wayne Kramer, who did a lot of shaking and dancing in addition to his playing. There was showmanship in the band."

It’s been fifty years now since that first MC5 album was recorded, and Kramer has assembled a new group of rock music veterans from bands like Soundgarden, Faith No More and Fugazi for this current MC50 tour, and they’re playing the “Kick Out The Jams” album from start to finish. The sound hasn’t changed much.

The MC5 is often mentioned along with another band from Michigan, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, as having been influential on generations of hard rock and punk musicians. Wayne Kramer explains that at his age, he has had to get in shape for the rigors of the road. He says he’s training religiously. “Performing, for me, is a physical business,” Kramer states. “It’s as much about the dance and the clowning and the jumping around as it is playing the guitar well.”

Kramer says he wrote “The Hard Stuff” because he wanted the story told from his perspective as the guy who started the MC5. It’s his blunt story of not just the rock and roll, but the excesses of drug addiction, crime and prison. He hopes it will be useful to anyone who has faced the same challenges. “If someone else found themselves in trouble with drugs or alcohol or the police or any of the other challenges that I’ve gone through, that maybe they could see that there is a way out of these challenges,” Kramer continues, “and that it’s always possible to change for the better.”

Having spent time in federal prison himself, Kramer launched an opertation called Jail Guitar Doors USA. Started in the U.K. by musician Billy Bragg, Jail Guitar Doors is named for a Clash B-side song written about Wayne Kramer. About ten years old now, Jail Guitar Doors USA provides musical instruments to prisons and jails. Kramer says so far 120 American prisons have been reached. “What we do is simple. We find people that work in corrections that are willing to use music as a tool for violence prevention and prisoner rehabilitation, and to help re-entry skills,” Kramer concludes. “We all have a story, and people in prison have a story, too. Sometimes if they can tell their story in a positive way, it’s the first step at taking responsibility and changing for the better.”

Wayne Kramer’s MC50 plans three Michigan concerts on this tour. They’ll be at 20 Monroe Live in Grand Rapids Saturday night, and next month they’ll play two Detroit shows: St. Andrew’s Hall on October 26th and The Fillmore Detroit on October 27th. That’s three chances to join Wayne Kramer in kicking out the jams.

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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