Interview : Robert Cavuoto
Photo credit: Jim Newberry
Wayne Kramer, the founding guitarist and leader of Detroit’s hard rock band the MC5 will be releasing his memoir The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities on August 14th via Da Capo Press.
The book is an intimate portrait of Wayne’s life in and out of the MC5, which included a federal prison term, addiction struggles, reconnecting with his long-absent father, finding the path to sobriety, and being a first-time father at the age of 65. Channeling his revolutionary spirit into a life of public service, he has founded Jail Guitar Doors USA with British troubadour Billy Bragg, a charity that rehabilitates prison inmates by helping them to express themselves positively through music. A story of second chances.
Wayne will celebrate the 50th anniversary of MC5’s debut album Kick Out the Jams with a 35+ North American date tour supporting. The tour will start in early September and will include guitarist Kim Thayil (Soundgarden), drummer Brendan Canty (Fugazi), bassist Dug Pinnick (King’s X), and the afro’d secret weapon frontman, 6-foot-7-inch Marcus Durant (Zen Guerrilla).
I caught up with Wayne to talk about his amazing journey in the MC5, the road to sobriety, and how he is giving back to help others!
Robert Cavuoto: I really enjoyed the book; it was like the Goodfellas of Rock & Roll.
Wayne Kramer: Laughing, that is the first time I have heard that!
Robert Cavuoto: When did the MC5 have time to rehearse as a band with the drug use and debauchery?
Wayne Kramer: Clearly, we didn’t spend enough time rehearsing! Had we been rehearsing more and not involved in all that funky behavior we might have come out ahead of the game
Robert Cavuoto: Why is now the right time to put out your book?
Wayne Kramer: I’m 70 years old and confronting “finitude.” If I didn’t write it down somewhere in this era, I would lose the opportunity. Timing is everything! My friends have been asking me for years to write it down. I was stuck with how to end it as I’m nowhere near being finished with my work but with the coming of my son, I finally realized after being a single guy without children to having children enter your life; you then begin a new life. It was a good ending to finish on. Between my desires to tell my son the story of how his father ended up being his father, my desire to tell the MC5 story, as well as my story; this was the right time to get it done.
Robert Cavuoto: Was it cathartic to let it out?
Wayne Kramer: It was! It was illuminating especially when I had to review some of the unbelievably bad decisions I made over the course of my life. I look back and go, “Jesus Wayne, what were you thinking?” [Laughing]
Robert Cavuoto: That really brings to mind the part in the book, when you almost shot an innocent guy just for giving your then girlfriend a ride home after a night of hard partying because you thought he was someone more sinister.
Wayne Kramer: That situation happens all the time. People get high, drunk, emotionally overwrought, and involved in terrible drama then someone gets hurt, injured, or killed.
Robert Cavuoto: I couldn’t help notice the similarities of political unrest that occurred in the 60’s is now repeating itself. How do think the MC5 would address these times?
Wayne Kramer: We would be using the platform of rock & roll to reflect back the news of our day. It’s the same thing that troubadours did. Like tribal members that are good at telling stories, beating drums, and dancing. They tell the story of the last tribe, and then that story goes on to the next tribe and so on. This is an age-old process of preserving our own humanity. To tell the truth about the world and that you feel the way you do without being manipulated.
Robert Cavuoto: Do you think the MC5 helped the cause in the 60’s and 70’s and made a difference?
Wayne Kramer: I do, anytime you make a connection to confirm your existing is a good thing. What set the MC5 apart from our contemporaries was we addressed the audience’s concerns directly. If a kid in the audience stood up and put his arm in the air to give us the peace sign, I would shoot that peace sign back, and we connected. We both agree that we don’t like this war, think people of color should have equal justice, and smoking a joint shouldn’t be a prisonable offense. These things were markers of our identity, and we addressed them without disguising them as anything else. In that sense, people appreciated something we were doing. I also think that we were able to push the idea of rock music and how it could be played and what the possibility could be.
Robert Cavuoto: I think the MC5 was at the forefront of hard rock and heavy metal movement. Do you think if you didn’t peruse the political rebelliousness and were more mainstream the band would have been more successful?
Wayne Kramer: I don’t think it would have been possible to be the MC5 then. We had some extraordinarily smart people in that band. Rob Tyner was an intellectual; he was well read with big ideas and a broad understanding of history and how the world worked. Fred Smith was an intuitive genius and became a great storyteller and artist. That would be like stripping away the reality of the band. We weren’t going to write love songs; we were going to talk about the world around us and inspire people for the better.
Robert Cavuoto: Tell me about the history of the song “Jail Guitar Doors” and your charity of using music to help rehabilitate prisoners.
Wayne Kramer: “Jail Guitar Doors” was a song written by The Clash in 1975 or 1976 while I was serving a prison term. I didn’t know them, but it was a great show of solidarity from my brothers across the sea. They were fans of MC5 and a very conscious band. They were plugged into the world around them. I thought it was a nice gesture on their part and didn’t think much of it until after I had been out of prison for 25 or 30 years. I had watched prison population grown from 300,000 when I was in prison to 2.3 million today. I decided I had to do something to help mitigate the damage. Being a musician, I thought I could be a bridge between the musicians inside the wall and the musicians in the community. I ran into Billy Bragg who started an initiative called Jail Guitar Doors after that Clash b-side song. I knew Billy and wanted to do it in America. He said, “I was the only one that can do it!” Ten years ago we launched JGD USA, and today our guitars are in over 120 American prisons. We have songwriting workshops across the country in Riker’s Island and the Detroit Reentry Center. We worked in woman prison and youth authority facilities. The programs are prisoner rehabilitation and violence prevention programs using the creative process of songwriting to promote positive change. Most people in prison don’t like being there, and if they can figure out a way not come back, they would do that. We try to provide the tools and the curriculum to work through the process and address their question of, “how I got here and what do I have to do so I don’t come back.”
Robert Cavuoto: Have you seen that it is working?
Wayne Kramer: Yes, we have participated in many longitudinal studies that track the data. The prisoners that participate in our programs have a lower rate of returning to prison than those who do not. It’s a very successful technique for reducing prison violence, improving prisoners/staff relations, and improving outcomes when they are released.
Robert Cavuoto: It seems like a no-brainer, why aren’t there more federally funded programs like this?
Wayne Kramer: It seems like a no-brainer, and we are working against a mentality that thinks they are subhuman. There is a component in the America psyche that thinks if you end up in prison that you are not as worthy as someone else. It’s not true; they are the same as people on the street with the same ambitions as us. We are them, and they are us. If we don’t help them change for the better while they are in custody; the prison environment will change them for the worse. We do it at our own peril.
Robert Cavuoto: You will be heading out on tour in September; will you bring that rebellious spirit of MC5 out for your fans?
Wayne Kramer: Can’t stop, won’t stop! It’s not hard to incorporate the current political climate into the vibe of our show. [laughing]. Fifty years ago I thought if we could make it through the next 20 or 30 years to go on to this beautiful, creative existence. I wasn’t sure we would make it that long because a nuclear disaster was pretty good. Fifty years later we have this bumbling low-level con man in the white house. He is shrewd and cunning but has no wisdom. He is doing a great disservice to our country. So much of what the MC5 talked about 50 years ago is relevant today, and it’s not a stretch to sing “The American Ruse” or “Kick out the Jams” and sing it with the same fervor it had so long ago.