You don't think there's something hilarious about tripping your brains out and having the police kick in your door and getting your van firebombed by right-wing fanatics and having more sex than you could ever have dreamed of? Maybe it's gallows humor, but it was all incredibly funny at the time – 30 years ago.
We worked hard. After all, we were from Detroit and proud of it. Detroit, the Motor City, where we could build anything. Our parents had fought World War II with the great war machines they built right here in Detroit. B-24 bombers out at Willow Run. Tanks at Dodge Main, and trucks and jeeps, all the materiel the Allies needed. Home of the organized labor movement and good wages. Ford, Chrysler, GM and the MC5.
I still work in music – I have my own band and I play with others, like Pere Ubu, Was (Not Was) and Dodge Main – but back then my band was the MC5. We ruled in Detroit, and 1968 was probably the most dramatic year of the band's existence. It was the flashpoint of the anti-Vietnam War movement (regardless of what P.J. O'Rourke says) and every other social movement of the day. But what you never seem to get is a sense of how much fun it all was. We weren't all hiding out in downtown warehouses cleaning our weapons and planning the revolution. (At least not all the time.)
In October 1968, the MC5 – Rob Tyner, Fred Smith, Dennis Thompson, Michael Davis and myself – had just signed a recording contract with Elektra Records. This was a major cause for celebration in the Motor City. We had been championing Detroit music for years. “High Energy” is how we described it at the time – no holds barred, pedal to the metal. Combining the R&B we heard on WJLB and WCHB, the blues of Howlin' Wolf and John Lee, the new sounds coming in from the Rolling Stones and The Who and the Yardbirds, and the powerful force of the avant-garde “free-jazz movement,” we toiled away in small clubs all over the Midwest. Night after night, we worked at perfecting our sound and our stage show. The music was in our blood, and it dripped everywhere. It was very messy.
We rehearsed in a storefront studio in the Cass corridor (we called it the Warren/Forest then). It's on the corner where East Warren Avenue meets the John C. Lodge Expressway in the “inner city” of Detroit. The district was close to Wayne State University and was a little rundown. There were cheap rents and a general feeling of “live and let live.” Along the Lodge service drive there was a long block of apartments with a sandstone facade known as “the castle.” This was home to characters like the beatnik poets John Sinclair and Jerry Younkins (the first guy I ever met who had beautiful golden shoulder-length hair), jazz musicians Charles Moore and Joseph Jarman, a coterie of exotic slum goddesses and a revolving cast of ne'er-do-wells. North of this, on the corner, was a series of two-story commercial structures with storefronts below and what used to be a dentist's office above. The reefer smoke billowed out of these buildings. The storefronts housed the Detroit office of the Committee To End the War in Vietnam, the Fifth Estate (the underground newspaper), the Artists Workshop and, later, the MC5's rehearsal space. The upstairs became the band's communal home. From there I watched the city of Detroit go to war in the riots of the long hot summer of 1967. I watched tanks and armored personnel carriers from my bedroom window. Tanks rolling across Warren Avenue. I was arrested by the Army just up the street for being a suspected sniper – I had a telescope in my window. A hot time in the old town tonight. Yikes!
That corner in Detroit was, for me at least, the center of the known universe. Late nights were spent tripping on acid, smoking the best Mexican herb to be found, listening to Sun Ra, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, and plotting the future. Our political idols were the Black Panther Party and crazed poets like Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson and Ed Sanders. These guys were talking in terms we could relate to: “It's time to move, brothers.” Man, did we plot. Pot plotting? Plot potting? Anyhow, we sure did have the whole thing figured out. We were convinced, committed. We sure were. I was. “Pure and Accurate,” we called ourselves – all with a wink and a laugh and great camaraderie.
The epicenter of the music scene was the Grande Ballroom. It's still there at Grand River and Beverly, a block south of Joy Road. The Grande (“Grand-ee”) was built in the 1930s, the era of the big bands, and it was magnificent. The ballroom itself was on the second floor, up a huge, wide, red-carpeted staircase. The dance floor was large enough to accommodate 1,500 patrons and still not be shoulder-to-shoulder. The ceilings were so high you felt like you were outdoors. Surrounding the great wooden floor (perfect for gliding, dancing feet) was a breezeway with Moroccan arches, good for watching the action, strolling the perimeter and chatting. The Grande was so big it covered an entire city block. There were light shows in the style of San Francisco's Fillmore. The Magic Veil Light Company created an otherworldly psychedelic atmosphere in the cavernous dancehall.
The MC5 played just about every Friday and Saturday night for almost three years. We were “the house band.” It was the realization of my greatest dream – I was a professional musician. We were paid $125 a night (in the beginning). That was enough for me to not only live on, but thrive on. We played there so often that we developed a real feel for the room and how to play the echo and make it all work for us. The Grande was designed for acoustic bands with horn sections, a piano, upright bass, maybe a single microphone for the vocalist, but nothing like what we brought to the stage. We were the first band in Detroit to own the new Vox 100-watt “Super Beatle” amplifiers from England, and they were loud. Louder than any other bands around. We were the Kings of Loud. We got grief from club owners all over the Midwest because of those amps, and we played them loud and proud. The Grande could handle all that volume and more. It was perfect there.
Halloween night, 1968. The Grande Ballroom.
As the poster art reads, the “Live Recording Concerts” are about to begin. These sets are going to propel the MC5 and the entire Detroit rock scene into the national and international consciousness. After all, Norman Mailer says the MC5 are the “electro-mechanical climax of the age,” and Norman wouldn't lie about something so important. The place is packed full of beautiful girls and boys, city kids and suburban kids, freaks of all colors, and even a few straight folks.
Me and the fellows are hanging out in the dressing room. People coming in and out in a steady stream. Our pals dropping plenty of White Panther bops and re-bops and fist-touch secret handshakes. Brother J.C. Crawford – the colorful originator of much of our secret slang and the Oracle Remus of the Church of Zenta – enters in his black leather motorcycle jacket. He greets us all and fires up a joint. We all toke up, and he starts winding us up with his Southern-style Lenny Bruce-meets-Eldridge Cleaver-on-acid doublespeak. We're all laughing our asses off. J.C. is our master of ceremonies and does the James Brown Live at the Apollo-inspired intros for the band. He's pumping up the energy with some classic lines, like “It's time for a little revolution, brothers. Are you ready to get down with it, my brothers?” And we're all answering back in our evangelical way. Danny Fields, the Elektra Records scout who signed us, is backstage too. He has a couple of joints of the superbomb – African ganja for the gentlemen of the orchestra. Danny's looking cool as a cucumber in his dark-brown leather field jacket, the one with the epaulets. Dark glasses and great hair. He's ready for the gig of gigs to begin. We're all ready.
Fred, Michael and I tune our guitars on a small backstage amp. Rob Tyner, dressed in one of his original-design yellow-and-pink outfits, blows a C harmonica to give us the correct pitch of G to tune to. (This is back before anyone had invented those handy little digital tuners we all use today.) Now it's time to go out and do what we came here to do. The ganja has put us in just the right frame of mind to hit that mutherfucking stage and destroy this house. The crowd starts stomping out a beat that it spontaneously invented over the last year, and the pressure kicks up a notch. We all take the stage together.
Brother J.C. Crawford begins one of the most dynamic introductions in the history of rock: “Brothers and sisters, I want to see a sea of hands out there. I want to see a sea of hands.” And with that, the whole crowd throws its arms in the air, waving and saluting with the peace sign and the “power to the people” fist. “I want to see a little revolution out there. Time has come, brothers. Time for you to choose. It takes five seconds to decide.” We're all joining in the spirit – “That's right. Right on, right on” – as J.C. continues, “Five seconds for you to decide your purpose here on the planet. Five seconds to decide if you are gonna be part of the problem, or if you are gonna be part of the solution. You must choose. I want to know if you're ready to get down with it. I want to know if you're ready to testify. I give you a testimonial – the MC5!” It's a moment that is sanctified and celebrated. The crowd is screaming in unison. I leap as high in the air as I can, spin and land stage front for the guitar intro of “Ramblin' Rose.”
I'm flying on pure adrenaline now, and I'm dancing my best James Brown through the first eight bars of the tune. Trouble strikes almost immediately. My low E string has slipped out of its saddle on the bridge, and it's about nine steps out of tune. But there's not a damn thing I can do about it now. I finish singing the first two verses and tear into the solo. Everyone in the band is looking great. We're all dancing, grooving, and – except for the tuning problem – it's all just perfect. We finish the song with a big fanfare and perfectly timed leaps, landing on the final chord. The fans are crazed, jumping up and down. They're yelling out political slogans, song titles, rhetoric and good old-fashioned whoops and hollers.
I get the guitar tuned back up before anyone's the wiser, and we segue right into “Right now it's time to . . .” Everyone knows what's coming. “Right now it's time to . . .!” And when Rob Tyner screams “KICK OUT THE JAMS, MUTHERFUCKERS!” the whole place explodes. This is it. We are doing what we do best right now. I look over to my left and see Fred “Sonic” Smith, in his custom-made lime-green suit, arms flailing, jaw set in mad-dog-from-hell fury. Back at the drums, Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson is steaming with the demon behind his double kit like a mutation of Elvin Jones and Keith Moon in hyperdrive. On bass, Michael Davis – in a sequined “Uncle Sam” red-white-and-blue matching vest, shirt and trousers – stands solid, legs spread for balance. Out in front, Rob Tyner, the singularly most compelling lead singer in the world of rock, is working it. There never was a singer like Rob Tyner, and there never will be. He is sweating, screaming, dancing like a man possessed by forces you don't even want to know about. I'm watching all this and I realize, at that moment, that I'm a part of the best band in the world.
I look out into the Grande and see the outline of the crowd against the lights shining on us. The stage is all cluttered with the extra cables and microphones from Wally Hider's mobile recording truck that's down in the alley behind the ballroom. This is causing a lot of tripping and fancy footwork up on the stage. The lights are brighter than I ever remember them being, and the heat up onstage feels like August, not October. We truly are kicking out the jams now. We play the song with a zeal that lifts the crowd to a new level. “Jams” dovetails into “Come Together,” the third song in the set. We build through the tune, but there's a snag at the end and we hit a few clams on the final chords. We ignore that and work through to “Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa),” which has a great coda where Fred and I get to stretch out on our guitars. Then it's “Borderline,” “Motor City Is Burning” and “I Want You Right Now.” We're so full of the raw energy of the moment that we have plenty of reserve power to propel us through to the piece de resistance: “Starship.”
The hometown fans know this part of our ritual noise fest. They know that, at the end of an MC5 concert, some truly strange music will be played, and they love it. Rob leads the piece with his exhortation, “A song called 'Starship' . . . A song called 'Starship' . . .,” and Dennis begins the drumbeat. Now we take what otherwise has been a perfectly fine rock concert and launch the whole goddamn crowd out of Earth's atmosphere.
Rob spits out the lyrics and sets the pace, the countdown to liftoff. The guitars start winding up like a giant vacuum cleaner, and the rhythm section abandons any semblance of time. We're going beyond the pull of gravity, way beyond beats, or keys, out, out, into space. Way past the trials and troubles of this world. To a new place. To the universe of one of our great teachers and mentors, Sun Ra. Like he showed us. The light show is peaking. They've pulled out all the stops, and the ballroom is awash in bright colors. Rob is singing a tone poem of space and the vistas of vistas. The bass and drums are powering the starship, and the tools formerly known as electric guitars are signaling and probing other planets and star systems. And we're all navigating through the nothingness. We've reached the purity of a new sonic dimension, and the whole crowd is right there with us.
Then it's re-entry. Building speed slowly at first, then accelerating, and then unifying into a single force that returns us to the atmosphere. Then to the surface of the planet, and down to this beautiful old ballroom in the city of Detroit on Halloween night, 1968, to the Grande stage and the recording concert. The fans are all cheering and the amplifiers are droning out into the cosmos and the feedback cycles out into the void and the voyage comes to an exhausted but fulfilled ending. Everyone is drenched in sweat. We all leave the stage and fall, gasping, down the three stairs into the dressing room with a delicious sense of accomplishment. Yeah, we bad. We super bad. Out in the ballroom, the crowd is berserk. They won't stop cheering, but tonight, the MC5's performance has ended. There are no encores. How would we top that?
Backstage it's like we won the World Series, the Super Bowl and the lottery, but better. All our friends, wives, girlfriends, the whole extended family flood the room. It's pure and sweet. This is our world and we made it happen, and we are loved and appreciated by all. We are doing righteous work and we cannot be stopped.
That night, the MC5 were the standard-bearers for a generation of alienated youth. We took it to the stage, live. Right there. Right then. With total power, and in total control. It couldn't get any better. And it didn't. But on that night – 30 years ago this Halloween – the future was blindingly bright, and everyone who was anyone was part of it. The view from the stage was a moment frozen in time forever for me, an instant when all the dreams of my youth and my generation were real.
Wayne Kramer appears at the Mint on Friday, November 6.
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