September 11, 2018 | by Andrew K. Lau
Wayne Kramer is busy.
“I’m gonna get a sandwich board and walk up and down Santa Monica Boulevard saying: ‘I’ve got books, I’ve got records! Come and get ‘em, two for one today!’”
He’s in the middle of a seemingly never-ending promotional campaign bringing awareness to his newly released memoir, The Hard Stuff [Da Capo Press], detailing his years in the legendary Detroit band, MC5, an eventual decline into the criminal underworld, prison, the slow climb back out and the arrival of a child into his life. Then there’s the current tour celebrating his old band’s debut album, which was recorded 50 years ago this October. Joining him on stage for the three-month swing through the U.S. and Europe are Brendan Canty, Marcus Durant, Dough Pinnack and Kim Thayil, all quiet luminaries themselves.
For months now, Kramer has been doing interviews, readings, signings and rehearsals; it’s the type of hard, not-always-creative work that drives some people to question why they even bothered in the first place. Not Kramer, though; this extended promotional trudge hasn’t diminished his jovial spirit one bit.
“I’m out there flogging my product,” he says with that hearty and distinctive laugh that exemplifies the man’s charm. There’s always been something magnetic about this guy; be it his fierce guitar playing, his spindly on-stage dance moves of yore, his run of solo records or his activism. Obviously, he’s a great interview; the passion for whatever he’s talking about (anything from rock ‘n’ roll to prison reform) is affective: smart, funny, honest and humble.
His on camera interviews in the still unreleased MC5 documentary, A True Testimonial, are proof: His bright-eyed, almost jubilant reenactment of a debate in nighttime café between pre-fame band members, which dissolved into a clumsy fistfight outside, sits on one side of the spectrum. On the other is his choked-up, furrowed-brow, eyes-cast-downward, bitter remembrance of the band’s heartbreaking last show. Kramer has a presence and, more importantly, he has heart.
So it comes as no surprise when the both of us are laughing within minutes of our conversation as we instantly begin trading stories of being a parent. (The original time for our interview had to be pushed back due to his son’s birthday party.) It would appear as though we could talk about raising kids for a few hours, but there are other pressing matters at hand. His book, for example, which is strong-voiced, concise and, at times, uncomfortably sincere. As with his guitar-slinging contemporary, Jorma Kaukonen, who also published a memoir last month, Kramer spends little time dissecting the finite details of his storied former band and, instead, focuses on the internal goings-on within his head and life.
The importance of the MC5 cannot be overestimated and, because of this, Kramer and his bandmates have spent the rest of their lives in their own legacy’s shadow, forever cast as the rough ‘n’ ready macho, joking, rocking, arrogant, righteous, sweating, angry but smiling young men in photos and film. But the band existed for only eight years. They’re not kids anymore, some aren’t even alive at this point. With each turn of the page, The Hard Stuff peels away his well-known brash facade, revealing an intelligent and damaged man looking for some kind of redemption.
Along with the small but important revelations scattered throughout, Kramer is brutally honesty about… well, everything, which is the main ingredient to a good memoir. As we talked, Kramer’s worldview was typically lighthearted, even when discussing more serious matters. In the end, though, everything revolves around his role as a parent, something which his 20-year-old self might find most perplexing.
NO RECESS!: Should we be calling you “Father Wayne Kramer” instead of “Brother Wayne Kramer”?
Wayne Kramer: [laughs] That has a whole different ring to it.
NR!: A new career choice.
Kramer: Right. And I would have to say [being a parent is] the coolest thing and most important thing I’ve ever done. The most meaningful thing.
NR!: Yeah. I thought being in a band was hard because you’re working really hard and essentially giving everything away. Then I had kids…
Kramer: [laughs] I feel you, brother.
NR!: The one theme in the book I noticed was “safety.” You were feeling secure with your mother as a young boy, but that didn’t last long and, for the rest of the book, you’re constantly searching for that safety again.
Kramer: Yeah, I think you may’ve hit on a perennial undercurrent. In fact, there’s a guy who runs a program on self-protection, so I downloaded a bunch of his videos and, for some reason, I’m so attracted to it — the idea that I could protect myself in the worst possible situation, like a death situation. I have a recurring nightmare that somebody is coming into my house and I don’t know who it is or what their intentions are… I guess it’s become an issue where I want my son to know he’s safe, that his mother and father are here to guarantee his safety as long as we can.
NR!: That’s one of the hardest parts of being a parent... ensuring safety when you’re not there.
Kramer: As much as I’d like to protect him from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and the scraped knees, bumped elbows, clunked heads, I can’t. He’s gotta go through that stuff. He’s gotta take his lumps, and I need to be there for him as long as I can and let him know everything’s going to be alright.
NR!: Your account of being sexually abused by your stepfather is harrowingly stark, but it’s never mentioned again. The same thing happened in former Guns ‘N Roses drummer, Steven Adler’s book where he recounts his absolutely horrific abuse but never goes back to it as a point of reference. I’m wondering how to you see the long-lasting effects of such abuse.
Kramer: I’m not sure you ever get past it; it’s a scar that we live with. You know, I have come to the conclusion, and this is [me] playing at self-psychoanalysis, that my own promiscuity as a young musician was rooted in early abuse. A 10-year-old boy having sex with a 15-year-old babysitter: that’s child abuse. Having a grown man fiddle with your penis when you’re an adolescent: that’s abuse. Those two things surface in my anger — I was an angry boy and I was an angry young man. Why else would someone want to pick up a gun and join militant revolutionaries?
The sexual abuse I perpetrated upon young women that made themselves available in the rock ‘n’ roll world, that’s an aberration, average people don’t do that. People that have relatively healthy psyches would be incapable having casual sex in that quantity. What happens to children matters and those things came back to haunt me in my young adult life, to my own detriment… [sigh] … and it caused me to harm other people. As we say in prison: ‘Hurt people hurt people.’
NR!: You’re so forward with it.
Kramer: Well, part of my goal in writing the book was a chance to turn straw into gold. Maybe there’s something I went through that, if I could be honest enough and have a well thought-out perspective, it might help somebody else.
NR!: The book as a learning device.
Kramer: I aspire to that. I may or may not’ve met it to varying degrees, but that was an ambition of mine. It’s what I learned confronting my addiction: I can’t succeed at this by myself, I need help. If I could succeed at this by myself, I never would’ve gotten into trouble. [laughs] In the end, my most painful experiences become my greatest gifts. I can say to another guy or girl in the same position: ‘I know how you feel, ‘cuz I did that too.’
NR!: One of the appeals of the MC5, to me at least, was the anger involved, which was turned into such powerful music. Taken at face value, you guys were an extremely good rock band. But after reading your book, there’s something behind that anger and it gives insight into what propels music of that magnitude… I don’t know if that makes sense.
Kramer: It does make sense; anger has to come from somewhere. Nothing in nature exists in a vacuum. You combine those childhood traumas and cast those in a generational trauma, young people in the ‘60s , the war in Vietnam, civil rights, what we viewed as outdated sexual mores, repressive religious thinking… it could radicalize one! [laughs]
[photo by Leni Sinclair]
NR!: I read an amazing interview with you in Flipside back in 1995 where you talked about how gun imagery, the “bad boy” image, can be dangerous, a belief which runs opposite with your brief but legendary involvement with The White Panther Party. The photos of you holding a guitar and a gun are iconic; it was a fascinating example of facing your past. Anyway, my question is: How do you view our culture’s fascination with guns today?
Kramer: Hmmmm… well, there’s the symbolic meaning and there’s the actual, physical real-world reality. All these weapons are ubiquitous, we’re the most armed people in the history of the world and the trouble with that is: When there’s guns around, people tend to get shot. [chuckles] I’m not a genius, but I know this.
Kramer: [laughs] In my experience in the political militancy of the ‘60s, and then later in my life in the criminal world, associating with people who carried guns and guns being used for tools for violence, they are stunningly dangerous to have for untrained people. In Detroit, before the rebellion of 1967, if two neighbors got into a heated argument over where the garbage cans should go, worst thing that would happen is that they’d have a fistfight. After the rebellion, when all the white people went out and bought guns, somebody got killed.
Listen, prisons are full of convicted murderers who, in an instant of emotional overload, made the wrong decision with a gun. Had that gun not been available, they wouldn’t be living in San Quentin for 20 or 30 years. So, there’s that. The gun represents, for too many people, their identity and they’ve embraced this idea of their agency being based on high-powered weaponry. The much revered .357 Magnum is passé now; you gotta have a Glock that carries 22 rounds, or you gotta have an AR-15, if you’re a real man. They’re valuing themselves on that. [pause] There has been a skillful, well thought-out, well-financed campaign by the NRA and others to arm people to the teeth. It’s not too dissimilar from the well-financed, skillful camping to sell OxyContin.
This is my chief argument with capitalism — it puts profit ahead of people. It seems insoluble at the moment, because you’re not going to get people to give up their guns, they’re not going to turn them in; there’s so many of them, it would take 100 years. I did hear one creative solution from [author, psychoanalyst] Thom Hartman, who said the answer was in insurance actuaries, making gun insurance mandatory because, then, the premiums would go through the roof. You can have all the guns you want, you just gotta be insured!
NR!: Switching gears somewhat, I gotta say choosing Marcus Durant as vocalist for the MC50 tour is brilliant. I saw [Durant’s former band] Zen Guerilla about the same time I saw you on your first solo tour in ’95. The first thing I thought was: “Holy crap, he’s channeling [MC5 vocalist] Rob Tyner!”
Kramer: [laughs] I did not know Marcus or Zen Guerilla when I was putting the band together, but I started asking my friends, “Okay, who do you think can do this job?” And my agent gave me a list of names and one was Marcus Durant. So, I got on the internet, took a look and went, "Whaaaaat?!" I called him up and said, “Are you healthy, is everything okay?” He’s sober, intact, and an intellectually curious man, and I enjoy his company, so we both agreed this could work. He did an interview early on and he said, “Me getting this gig, it’s almost Biblical!” [laughs] He’s got a black father and a white British mother and he came up on The MC5; it’s pretty fascinating for me to be standing on stage and be rocking MC5 songs and look over and see his hair, and he’s such a powerful singer… who could’a thunk it? [Laughs]
NR!: He seems written for the part.
Kramer: Yeah, I consider him the band’s secret weapon. I think we’re just scratching the surface with him. He hasn’t been out singing for a while, so he’s kinda getting his sea legs, and I think he’ll discover the more he lets audiences in, the more they’ll love him. It’s an artist’s job to expose themselves. [laughs]. I get up there and act a fool, you know, I’m good with that, I’m putting on a show for the people. And I think he’s really going to blossom as we get more shows under our belts and he gets more comfortable.
NR!: I was surprised to read of the acrimony from your former bandmates during the MC5/DKT reunion tour in 2004.
Kramer: It’s only with the passage of time that I’ve learned of my bandmates rejection of much of our ideological base back in the day. Everyone was on board at the time, but I’ve read interviews with Rob Tyner where he’s disavowed his political activism. And I always found that troubling, because I’ve stood on stage next to him for a thousand nights where he harangued audiences to get up and get involved and participate, and not just in rock ‘n’ roll, but as the larger process that we were going through as young people in America. Then I read the other guys putting some distance from how they were then and how there are now… [quietly] I always found it a little disingenuous.
NR!: “What happened to my gang?”
Kramer: Yeah. I read [MC5 bassist] Michael Davis’ book and he would wonderfully articulate about his in-articulations. You know, there’s a reason why one guy is The Quiet Guy. There’s a reason why he doesn’t express himself in a band meeting. It’s because his family didn’t talk, talking was discouraged. To read his book and to hear he had all these ideas about everything, but would never say anything about it, it’s like, “Well, shit man, you should’a told me back then, we would’a done things differently! You were in it, I was there next to you, you were on board. You can change the story if you want, but I was there, motherfucker.” But, I find revisionism distasteful.
NR!: You guys were in such a hot seat [in the late ‘60s] and that shadow hangs over all of you.
Kramer: Those wounds were deep.
NR!: You’ve done so much work and activism since then, yet most people just want to focus on the MC5. How comfortable are you with that? It was only a short span of time.
Kramer: I’m fine with it. Listen, it’s always nice to be recognized for your work. You’re like a puppy: you’re patted on the head and then you go about your business.
Catch Kramer going about his current business as the MC50 tour crosses the states and Europe and, by all means, be sure to read The Hard Stuff, it’s another important testimonial.