Wayne Kramer interview6/1997

Being a legend doesn't pay that well. Just ask Wayne Kramer. As half of the MC5's guitar army in the late '60s and early '70s, Kramer laid the much of the groundwork for what turned into punk rock. The band wanted revolution, but it was the music industry that revolted — against the band.

“The MC5 were never accepted by the establishment music business,” Kramer said, calling from Philadelphia. “They despised us. And the whole California, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Bill Graham axis — they hated the MC5. We had a similar reaction on the East Coast with the Velvet Underground. From the Avant Garde through the commercial, none of them had any regard for the MC5 back in the day.”

History, however, has been kind. The MC5 is now viewed as an influential rock 'n' roll band “Today it's nice that the MC5 is held in some esteem. But the truth is that nobody wanted to know about this band of white-boy gangsters from Detroit with black leather jackets and M-1 carbines. They were just learning how to sell three days of peace, love and music.”

The MC5 disintegrated after three albums and Kramer went from life on the road to life on the street. He was a junkie, selling guns and stolen televisions to get by. In 1974 he sold some cocaine to an undercover DEA agent and did two years in a federal prison.

“The loss of the MC5 was a major blow,” Kramer said. “Those were my best friends; those were my brothers. That was not only my gang, but it was my way to make a living. It was all my hopes and dreams as a young guy, and one day it was all gone.”

The revolution wasn't looking too good. After serving his time, Kramer formed the doomed band Gang War with Johnny Thunders (New York Dolls, Heartbreakers) in the late '70s and played on the first two records by the group Was (Not Was) in the '80s. But he was pounding nails between gigs to pay the bills.

“I truly lost my way there for a while,” he said. “It was a long walk into the woods and a long walk back out. It was a process I had to go through in order to be able to do the work I do today.”

In 1995 Kramer came back with a solo album, “The Hard Stuff,” on Epitaph Records. Music mags and fanzines welcomed the guitar hero home. He was lauded again in 1996 with the release of “Dangerous Madness.” Now he's touring in support of his latest, “Citizen Wayne.”

It's rare that an artist can continue to do strong work after the muse of youth is used up. But Kramer's last three albums provide lessons on how to rock in the '90s without acting silly. They also serve as history lessons and a warning for the future.

“I'm not trying to be a kid about this,” Kramer says. “I think that you can do this work with meaning and passion and be vital on into your middle adult period and even later.

His idols, he says, are Pablo Picasso, Howlin' Wolf and Doc Cheatham; people whose best work continued into their later years.

Even though the rock music world prides itself on youth — they manufacture youth culture, sell it back to them and rake off the profits — this is still my idiom and I'm determined to do some work that has some meaning in it.

“It's all about doin' the work to me. It's the honor that can be found in doing meaningful work. If you combine work and love, that equals living.”

The revolution may not have turned out the way Kramer wanted it to, but he still lives the life, drug-free and happily married now, and he still thinks the system is screwed-up.

“A major problem I see is this cowardly and unwinnable war on drugs,” he says. “There's a million people in prison in this country [because of the war on drugs] and 60 percent of them have no business being there. Their problems should be between them and their therapist or them and their doctor but not between them and a policemen and a judge and a prison system.

“I know who those 600,000 people are,” Kramer continues, “I am one of those people.”

Today he wants to educate the rest of us. The song “Count Time” recounts the tedium of prison life. “Back When Dogs Could Talk” is a tribute to blue collar workers. “Down on the Ground” explains the time the MC5 played the 1968 Democratic Convention protests.

“Citizen Wayne” has more of a tribal vibe to it, thanks to producer David Was. But style never gets in the way of the message; there isn't a clunker in the bunch.

“At least part of the message that I'm trying to convey,” Kramer says, “is that all this business of 'Live Fast, Die Young, Leave a Good-Looking Corpse' is all a big rock'n'roll lie. There's really two ways to live: Long and strong. You've got to stay creative.

“The punk idea of do-it-yourself, that's one of the essential messages. I'm talking about self-efficacy. You can start your own band, you can start your own fanzine or make your own documentary film. Sometimes people don't even realize, 'Oh, I could do that.' If I represent anything in the work, it's that sense of possibilities.”

There is also the sense of a lack of possibilities.

“You know,” he says, “Alan Greenspan and the government economists are talking about how we're at the lowest unemployment rate in 15 years. I don't see it down here on the ground. I travel all over the country and every city I go into I see huge neighborhoods where there's no sense of possibilities, where people don't have options — where people don't have work. This is the big American dream, but the great American promise didn't turn out the way they said it was gonna turn out.”

At the sage age of 49, Kramer is still playing to make a difference but working harder than ever.

“It's kind of tough,” he says, “because we're in an era of kiddie culture. An era that honors 'Beavis & Butthead,' 'Melrose Place.' And here I am: An anarchist guitar player. I'm not stupid. I'm not 22 years old. And, you know, the question becomes, 'Will it compete with the Spice Girls?' There's always been bad, crappy pop music in the world. I'm here to present an alternative to alternative.”

By The Billy Keaggy | Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 1997i am keaggy.com