by Mudhoney's Mark ArmDKT/MC5
w/guest musicians Mark Arm and Evan Dando, special guests
Sat July 3, Neumo's, 6:30 pm, $20 adv/$22 DOS.
For a band that only released three LPs in eight years, the MC5 stirred up a lot of shit. The seminal '60s rock act managed to set down the roots for the future of punk, garage, and hard rock, align themselves with the radical White Panther Party (and leader John Sinclair), fall under FBI surveillance, get firebombed by the authorities, incite riots in Chicago and New York, get signed and dropped from a major label, fall prey to drug addiction, and, most importantly, become one of the most influential rock 'n' roll bands of their time. They were embroiled in the debauchery and democracy of their era, but listen to Kick Out the Jams or Back in the USA and you can also hear the future.
Sadly, the MC5's lifespan was cut short, as were the lives of frontman Rob Tyner and guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, both of whom died in the '90s. But at a time when the band's influence is as strong as ever, the surviving members--guitarist Wayne Kramer, bassist Michael Davis, and drummer Dennis Thompson--are touring as a "celebration of the MC5's music" called DKT/MC5 (the DKT stands for Davis-Kramer-Thompson). Filling in on the North American run are singers Mark Arm and--oddly enough--Evan Dando, with talk of Soundgarden's Kim Thayil and Presidents of the United States of America's Chris Ballew sitting in on some songs for the Seattle date.
Below is a conversation between Arm and the members of DKT/MC5 about the good (and bad) old days of the legendary band. [A longer transcript is available online at www.thestranger.com/specials/mc5.html .]--Jennifer Maerz
In [your] early stuff [you] have "One of the Guys," which was a pretty well-arranged, well-crafted number, and then you have "I Just Don't Know," which is basically a one-chord riff, and you have "Looking at You," which is a two-chord riff. How did you stumble on that? 'Cause you knew how to write a well-crafted, arranged song and that shows on "Kick Out the Jams," but what drew you to that simple, driving...
Michael: This is the Bob Gaspar story, the introduction to how "Black to Comm" started. [Original drummer] Bob Gaspar hated freeform music. We'd been fooling around in the practice room and [guitarist] Fred Smith played this little riff and Gaspar was like, "That's not a song. Now what am I supposed to know what to play?" [Laughs.] We played one of these little teen clubs and Fred starts to [riff] out of the blue. Gaspar was just sitting back there like, "What the fuck are you doing?" And the rest of us just jumped on it and we all started to play.
Wayne: The band has always had an experimental edge. I think it gets lost sometimes in the telling of the tale about the MC5 politics and the [White] Panthers and music business problems and all that crap, and really what we were really about was the music and trying to experiment in the music and find our own sound.
When did you start listening to free jazz?
Wayne: Pretty early. [Frontman Rob] Tyner was into it. [Manager John] Sinclair [also] really exposed us to a great deal of what happened in the free jazz movement--Albert Ayler, Sunny Murray, Cecil Taylor.
Dennis Thompson: John [and his leftist organization Trans-Love Energies] had his record collection in the basement and that's when I started listening to free jazz. I got exposed to all of it, the whole wall was just loaded with albums, they had Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, and Sun Ra, and they just kept putting them on their turntable.
Michael: We were always [also] conscious of writing a certain kind of song with the description of "you could play it on the radio." It'd take up two to three minutes. But we were always drawn to jazz because with jazz players you have the element of musicians actually playing music together so it's not an orchestrated piece that's played the same every time. It's chemistry that happens between musicians.
These days a lot of musicians aspire to a sound [like your early singles], and they don't even come close, but that total dried-out, deeply saturated... in your face [sound] wasn't the norm at the time.
Wayne: Somebody left the keys in the bulldozer. [Laughs.] We didn't know what we were doing. [The music] was just an artifact, a record of what happened that day, by a bunch of maniacs.
My favorite part of any kind of music is when something is not totally formed yet and people are making up their rules as they go along. Before something becomes whatever form it's known as down the line, and you guys were definitely making up the rules as you were going along.
Wayne: But that's the way it is in all art. It's best right before you get it right.
Dennis: One of the things about being from Detroit was we were all into the drag strip--more power, high energy. And that was symbolic of Detroit, the Motor City--it was loud, it was crushing, it's banging and it's noisy and it's gritty and it's tough, it's rough. I think that's a lifestyle that comes through in the music, especially in the drumming.
Let's talk about 1968; that was a pretty heavy year. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, and this is when you find yourself putting out your first record. What did you guys think at that time that the future was going to look like?
Wayne: We were like standing on the edge of a cliff and there was a divide that went right down the center of families across the dinner table. It was so polarized between the direction the country was going in and it just didn't look good at all. It was highly charged, and in retrospect it was pretty romantic too, very exciting.
Michael: I didn't think that the rest of society outside of ours was relevant. I thought they were all kind of waiting for us to bring down our message, and "us" was the whole rock 'n' roll generation of a whole new world of counterculture. I thought we were the only relevant thing there was--that the army, and the war, and the government were all part of an archaic system. I didn't know how we were actually going to make it happen, but I thought somehow that our lifestyle was going to reach out and push all the bad stuff away, and like Wayne said, it was kind of a romantic notion.
Dennis: For me, from 1967 up through 1968 I had hope. I had hope that the movements would combine and grow and that the war would end straightaway and that more people would come on board and coalesce and there would be solidarity. We played the [Chicago] Democratic Convention in 1968 in the park and we were the only band that showed up and then there was a police riot during our set and that's when it sort of hit me that this design that we sort of had in our mind was really not going to happen.
Before that you were pretty optimistic about the future?
Dennis: Yeah, maybe [it was] youthful naiveté, but we thought that if we worked really hard at it and everybody got together, we could make this happen. But it wasn't that simple. There were a lot of dynamics working against us which began to take off, such as the fact that the FBI was interested in us. We knew we were being harassed on local and state levels.
Wayne: And finally they did end the war and civil rights came and all the things we were fighting for came to pass, but what was so discouraging is here we are again today and nothing's changed.
Dennis: We find ourselves in the same cycle, except now it seems more subtle, society seems more fragmented, everything is categorized and celebrity-driven. They co-opted our language, they co-opted our style--the youth culture's been co-opted [and] marketed and sold back to us at twice the price.
That's a good segue....Tell the story of how Levi's got ahold of your logo.
Wayne: Rob Tyner's widow, Rebecca Derminer, Gary Grimshaw, the artist, and Leni Sinclair, the photographer, sold out the MC5 to Levi's. When we found out about it, we were able to rescue the trademark. [We took] a really bad situation--they didn't have the rights to license the MC5's trademark--and we were able to convince Levi's to create something great out of what was a potential disaster. We suggested that if they were really into the MC5, why don't they make a live show and bring me and Dennis and Michael together, and make it a free show in a small club just for people who love the music of the MC5. That was the beginning of all this that we're doing now.
One story that wasn't touched on at all in that [recent documentary] MC5: A True Testimonial that I wanted to ask you about was the  show in New York City with the Motherfuckers.
Michael: We'd gone to New York [because] Electra Records was presenting us to the New York media at the Fillmore East. And it was devastating. [It was] where the business collided with the revolution and it was like... shit sparking all over the place that shouldn't have.
Dennis: Essentially the audience was comprised of a lot of the "Up against the wall, motherfucker" people, street people, anarchists. And what I remember briefly is that there were people shouting out in the audience two, three songs in about, "Let's start the revolution right now, just give us the word," talking to Tyner. "We'll burn this place down right now; give us the word, give us the word." Rob [took] a moment to say, "We didn't come here to start the revolution, we came here to play this music." The dichotomy that was so obvious was that [Electra Records A&R man] Danny Fields made a bit of a [mistake]. It was standard fare to have limousines [for bands] and he just missed [that this might be a problem] as an oversight. So we had these street people who were relatively poor, angry, pissed off, wanting to go and tear it all up right now and we had three limousines waiting for us out there, so it was a [crazy] scene. The eggs came out and this one woman who was lactating was squirting milk at us and throwing rocks and bottles at us.
A big canvas screen that dropped down on stage was ripped with knives and they smashed and trashed our equipment. Wayne and myself were surrounded by about 150 of these lunatics and they were asking questions and we were trying to answer them without either of us getting more tense. [It felt] like somebody was going to get killed there. [It also] might have sent a message out, though--to the powers that be at the clubs and the corporate establishment that books the bands--[about] the MC5 guys. I think there was a story in Mojo that said that [show] had been the beginning of the end of the MC5 because of the collision--if you want to call it a collision--of the MC5 music and philosophy and the corporate world.
Back in the USA [came out in] 1970, and you'd split ties with the White Panther Party, and John Sinclair was in prison, right?
Michael: We didn't sever our ties; they purged us from the party. For being counterrevolutionaries.
Wayne: Because we refused to pay their rent. [Laughs.] We didn't have the money. We couldn't run their house and our house too.
Dennis: We picked up the tab all the way along. We picked it up for the party, for the newspaper people, for the seamstresses, and roadies, and hangers-on.
When you signed to Atlantic, you were with Jon Landau.
Michael: Everything came to a head around then.
Dennis: Jon Landau filled the vacuum of Sinclair being in prison. The thing about Landau is that I can look back in retrospect now and say thank you. At the time we had an antagonistic relationship because I didn't like what he was doing to my drumming and my band and making us play tight because we were still coming out sloppy--or "freeform" would be a kinder way of saying it. There's no freeform on Back in the USA. Now, as a more mature adult, I can say that was actually a good machine we went through, learning how to play tightly.
I guess the only other thing to cover is High Time, which, like Dennis said [to me] earlier, was a synthesis of the first two records--and I totally agree. I think it's a great record, and at the time it sold the least [number of copies]?
Wayne: Yeah, at that time Atlantic Records had given up on us completely.
I think "Skunk" is a fitting end to that record; the last verse is like, "The song's been sung, the deed's been done, staring you right in the face."
Wayne: It was the last gasp. The MC5 in a way accomplished everything we tried to do in the beginning before we ever made albums. We were hugely popular in our community, we could pay our rent and have food money and had all the girlfriends we could handle. We had nice cars before we even started making albums and it was the claim for more success, for bigger international stardom, that did us in. But that's just the way that it goes. And that makes what we're doing today such a gift: that the work we put into it held up over 35 years, that every generation seemed to rediscover the work of the MC5. In the end it's the music--it's the music that sustains over all of the years. And it's the music we see in people's faces.