New Power Generation
Wayne Kramer is sitting in the kitchen of his West Hollywood pad, talking about lies. Were a society suffocating from an overabundance of horseshit, he says, his impatience flashing like one of those stinging thunderbolts he rings from his guitar. Kramers dissatisfaction with the status quo and his distaste for the greedy are constant threads in what continues to be an amazing life.
I was a teenager when the Stones and the Who came to America, and many people of my age group have grown up with rock music, too. But theyve become disenfranchised with it because of the juvenile nature of whats shoved down their throats. The business interests are pushing teenage music. Theyre kinda like the Jesuits: Get em young, keep em for life.
The perniciousness of it is that young artists can be hoodwinked. They sell a dream that if you have a hit record and you make a lot of money, its gonna fix you. So whatever that terrible hole in you is, if you have success, itll fix you. Its a lie and very damaging. It not only doesnt fix you, it makes you worse.
In 1969, Kramer had his taste of rock stardom as a founding member of the legendary MC5, the Detroit group that rocked harder than any from that era. (Theyve just been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.) The 5 were also the house band for the White Panthers, hippie revolutionaries whose message of dope, rock & roll and fucking in the streets outraged the power structure of this country all the way up to the Nixon White House. When Kramer and company werent being shafted by record companies or hounded by law enforcement, they were chemically self-destructing. A documentary called MC5: A True Testimonial recently premiered in Chicago, much to Kramers relief.
Im grateful to have been a member, but I cant help wonder if my tombstone will read, HERE LIES WAYNE KRAMER. HE USED TO BE IN THE MC5, he laughs. Im glad the movies coming out, because itll tell the story once and for all. Im tired of talking about it.
The last decade, although not without tumbles into his own terrible hole, has been Kramers most productive. Hes just released Adult World, his sixth solo album since 1995 (amid several side projects) on his own MuscleTone Records. Like 1997s Citizen Wayne, its a masterpiece of literate nuance and musical sophistication that nonetheless continues to kick out the jams as only Wayne Kramer can. For those whose first love is non-hyphenated capital-R Rock, theres been a paucity of first-rate stuff for almost 30 years. Its not mere nostalgia thats sustained so-called classic rock radio but a longing for catchy, ballsy, guitarcentric music. In a sense, Kramers making classic rock now.
The MC5 are oft credited as primary progenitors of punk rock, heavy metal and grunge. But Adult World is proof yet again that Kramer is more in a league with rock mavericks such as Steve Earle, Tom Waits and Ani DiFranco, artists who sound like no one but themselves, whose songs are short stories with memorable melodies, whose audiences generally are not Clearasil consumers. Because of the MC5, his longtime association with Epitaph Records and his natural inclination toward sonic energy, Kramers been crowned a punk forefather; while accurate, the honorific is also a simplification. Punk rock is a very conservative world. Punks rage about freedom, expression and being different but are often really narrow. Im not a punk, Ive never been a punk, Ill never be a punk.
Amazingly, considering Adult Worlds big sound, three-quarters of it was recorded -- and all of it mixed -- in Kramers home studio using Pro Tools on a Macintosh computer. Records cost too much. Theyre charging sometimes $18 for a record. Its too much fuckin money for a guy that works and wants to go to the record store and pick up a couple of things on Friday, some new bands -- two or three records, thats his electric bill. We need to make better, cheaper records. Ten songs for 10 bucks. Thats what I might call my next album.
Kramer went to business school and received a small-business loan from the feds to start his label -- the same federal government that warehoused him in the 70s after a coke bust. The idea behind the record company is to put out new music for grown-ups. MuscleTone is also reissuing his Epitaph titles with bonus tracks, as well as releasing a super-session CD by Kramer, Brian James, Duff McKagan, Clem Burke and Stewart Copeland called Mad for the Racket and an album by Mother Superior (known as the Rollins Band when Henrys with em).
Kramers DIY ownership of the means of production is an evolutionary extension of his youthful anarcho-syndicalist values. And just as hes come to terms with the business of music, much of Adult World deals with Kramers attempts to make sense of his personal life, particularly after four years of sobriety. The album kicks off with Brought a Knife to the Gunfight, a slow burner with backward guitar a la Rain in which The character is always just outside the circle. Did I mine that out of my own life? Certainly.
Great Big Amp stemmed from a TV interview with a hair-band vet reminiscing about how he had it all, we had the lights, we had the chicks, we had the great big amps, and I thought, How precious that this was the mark of his success. The idea started germinating, you know, What does that say about me? Believe me, Ive had to take a look at how sick I am. What is it that makes a guy go through this, to stand in front of a thousand people and demand that they love me? Pretty sick. Something in me says I need that.
The album contains collaborations with Swedish rockers the Hellacopters, singer Syd Straw and saxophonist Mars Williams of Liquid Soul. With Williams, Kramer performs the most out cut, Nelson Algren Stopped By, a spoken-word fantasy in which the late famed author from Chicago makes a ghostly visit. The track begins with a Peter Gunn--like riff and builds into a free-jazz wail; its Elmer Bernstein meets Coltrane, and a reminder that avant-garde jazz was a huge influence on Kramer and the MC5.
Theres also Sundays in Saigon, a look at postwar Vietnam through a Desolation Row lens, and Love Fidel, a gorgeous love song based on a pre-Revolution clandestine romance of Castro. The Red Arrow is a tribute to jazz trumpeter and Charlie Parker sideman Red Rodney, with whom Kramer was in the joint. He avoids the obvious tack of writing a pure jazz track, opting instead for a hard rocker with rapid-fire guitar breaks that serve as homage to the bebop pioneer in spirit. Two nephews of Rodney recently came to see Kramer play in New Jersey. Coincidentally, they were MC5 fans and didnt know of the familial connection until they read an interview on the Web.
Kramers fleet-fingered solos are a rarity. Hes still the king of less-is-more rock guitar, though he can wipe out any showboater if he chooses. The great soloists are creating music with certain tools. As time goes on, Ive become more and more in love with melody. If I play one note, whats the next note thats gonna lead me to a melody, thats gonna say something, thats gonna have a complete feeling to it?
Adult World is Kramers first album in which he wrote all of the lyrics himself, and his literary chops have developed considerably. Hes honed the writers trick of telling parts of a story yet leaving enough mystery to draw the listener in. Hes brutally honest about his own shortcomings and the endless -- sometimes blind -- grope through life we all experience attempting to dodge curve balls and survive bad choices.
Chances are, others have these feelings too, so if I can be honest about who I am and put it in a song that appeals to people, then Ive fulfilled my mandate as an artist. Then Ive done what great art has always done for me, which is tell me that Im not alone.
Wayne Kramer plays at the Baked Potato, Studio City, every Tuesday in October.
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