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MC5's Wayne Kramer bringing the revolution to Fort Lauderdale

“Brothers and sisters! The time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are gonna be the problem or whether you are gonna be the solution! You must choose, brothers! You must choose!”

With that introduction, shouted by an emcee to the audience gathered at Detroit's Grande Ballroom in 1968, the Motor City 5 barreled into the live performance that would fill their debut album, “Kick Out the Jams,” a searing tour de force of rock guitar, free-jazz audacity and proto-punk chaos that went on to shape the sound of the Ramones, the Clash, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam.

“With the most anti-establishment credentials in rock and roll (the f-bomb was their go-to expletive) the MC5 prefigured much of American punk rock,” reads the MC5’s 2018 nomination to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, calling the band “about as ballsy as it gets.” The nomination, the band’s third, was unsuccessful.

Led by Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith — each on Spin magazine’s list of 100 greatest guitarists of all time — the MC5 was raw, primal and overpowering. And they burned with an optimistic, revolutionary zeal of the time, symbolized by an eight-hour performance for Vietnam War protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, before it dissolved into a cloud of tear gas and police batons.

As reflected in Kramer’s recently published memoir, “The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5 and My Life of Possibilities” (Da Capo Press), the band flamed out quickly after appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone, breaking up four years later with three major-label albums to show for it. In 1975, Kramer began a two-year sentence for a drug conviction.

Kramer is now 70 and living in Los Angeles, where he composes and produces music for film and television, and the book, while detailing the struggle of an addict and an artist, is layered with the optimism of a man committed to seeing past impossibilities.

His jail sentence inspired the 1978 Clash song “Jail Guitar Doors,” which, he is quick to point out, provided the name for his program (co-founded with Billy Bragg) that provides guitars to prison “lifers.” This summer, he succeeded in a five-year effort to bring Jail Guitar Doors USA to prisoners in his hometown of Detroit.

On Wednesday, Sept. 5, Kramer will kick off the North American leg of a tour celebrating his seminal album, Kick Out the Jams: The 50th Anniversary Tour, with a concert at Revolution Live in Fort Lauderdale. Backing Kramer is the supergroup MC50, which includes Kim Thayil (Soundgarden), Brendan Canty (Fugazi), Billy Gould (Faith No More) and Marcus Durant (Zen Guerrilla).

While getting ready for the tour, an affable Kramer spoke by phone from his L.A. studio about the revolutionary era that spawned “Kick Out the Jams,” the remnants of that activism he sees in Parkland’s March for Our Lives students and his memories of growing up around Detroit with friend Jimmy Osterberg, now known as Iggy Pop, a Miami resident he’ll try to coax onstage with him in Fort Lauderdale.

You must be a kind of godlike figure to Kim Thayil and those guys. How did the first rehearsal go? Were they up to the task?

They were way up for it. Each of the guys in the band all have their own personal relationship with the music of the MC5, apart from the friendship with me. They discovered the MC5 in their own time, and the MC5 has its own meaning to them. It wasn’t like a guy called up and offered them a job. This was something that is important to them. We all share this same sensibility about the perilous state of the nation today and the fact that we’re carrying a message of self-determination and self-efficacy, that people can make a difference if they commit wholly to taking positive action. It's what the MC5 always represented — unlimited possibilities. And action, now more than ever. [Laughs]

You’re doing “Kick Out the Jams” in its entirety, I think. You are also doing music from “Back in the USA,” like “The American Ruse.” What else?

We’ll do a whole selection of songs from the other two albums, as well, and those will revolve every night as we try to get different special guests to join us.

Do you have any guests lined up for this stop in Fort Lauderdale?

Who do you have in mind? I don’t know the area. Who would you recommend?

I’ll give you a name: You and Iggy Pop go way back …

Oh, sure. Of course, I was gonna call him. No doubt. … I’ll give him a holler and see if he wants to come over to the gig and sing a song or two.

Can you talk about that relationship and why it’s endured?

We met probably 55 years ago. He was the drummer for a band in Ann Arbor called the Prime Movers, and I was looking for a drummer for the MC5 and I went up to see him play. I wanted to hire him, but he didn’t want to play drums anymore. He had a new idea he was trying to get together, this kind of concept band that turned out to be the Psychedelic Stooges.

But we remained friends. We lived in the same neighborhood in Ann Arbor, and we hung out all the time, listened to the same avant-garde jazz albums and smoked the same hashish, ate the same peanut butter and jelly sandwiches [laughs] … shared the same girlfriends, jammed together.

Who were some of those avant-garde jazz artists you listened to?

Oh, the music of John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, Sunny Murray, Archie Shepp.

I don’t know that people hear those influences in Iggy’s music, or yours. Is it there?

Oh, it’s there. When [tenor saxophonist] Steve Mackay joined [the Stooges], that was an obvious connection. His use of sleigh bells [on “I Wanna Be Your Dog”]? That’s something we got from the avant-garde, free-jazz guys.

You recently wrote an op-ed column in the Daily Beast about your experience at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. You describe your younger self as “youthfully naive.” What did you mean?

Well, when you’re young, you have great certainty. I thought I knew everything and I was right about everything, and I was gonna live forever. If you get to be older, then you start to realize you know less than you thought you knew, and you’re definitely not going to live forever.

So I had a utopian view of the world that I saw right around the corner, if we could get organized, if we could get past the threat of nuclear annihilation, that we could go on to this beautiful, creative existence. I would put that under the heading of youthful naiveté. [Laughs]

Did you think you could actually effect change then?

I thought we could play a role in it, yeah. And I still think that music can play a role in change. It shows up in the sense of community that we share if we both like the same songs or the same style of music. It shows up in the stories in the song’s lyrics, the stories of the world we live in and how we feel about it. Music has the role of being an inspiration to people, to fuel their efforts when they do take action. It does not replace political action and the participation in the democratic process, but it’s an adjunct to it.

Is there music today that inspires you in that way?

Yeah, I find it in bands like Tank and the Bangas, or Lake Street Dive, or Dirty Projectors. I think all three of those bands are really creative, and they really stretch people out and they push the boundaries of what pop music could be. I think they’re all about the same idea of unlimited possibilities that we championed in the MC5.

What are your impressions of today’s youth. In Fort Lauderdale, you’ll be a few miles from Parkland and the March for Our Lives students. Do you have confidence in what they’re doing?

I do. I have great faith in young people, and all people of good conscience, that they’re going to pick up the hard work of civilization-building that we started in the ’60s. You know, it’s going to be their world. They’re going to be running things and I think that they’re gonna do a better job of it than this older generation is doing. I mean, I thought we were doing pretty well with the election of Barack Obama, and then the pendulum not only swung in the other direction, it fell off the wall and crashed.

Are you optimistic?

I am, but to quote Antonio Gramsci, “The point of modernity is to have no illusions without becoming disillusioned.” I always have faith, and I have hope. But I know that hope is a great breakfast, but it’s a lousy dinner. Hope has to be backed up with action. And that’s where the young students, especially those kids in Parkland, really stepped up. They understood what had to be done, and they did it. And they made a difference, and they will continue to make a difference.

What kind of audiences have you been getting on this tour? What has the response been like?

We started earlier in the summer doing festivals in Europe, and at the first couple of appearances, I had the sense — I could be wrong — but I had the sense that half of the crowd had no idea who we were. They were just young people at the festival having a good time. Maybe some of them did know, and had heard “Kick Out the Jams,” but I think half of them didn’t know. But by the second song, they all understood exactly what it was we were doing. They understood this balls-to-the-wall, hard-rock music being played really well and passionately and the positive message, and by the time we finished our concert the crowd had doubled in size. So I think we’re on the right track, and I think the music holds up pretty well.

Wayne Kramer and MC50 will bring their Kick Out the Jams: The 50th Anniversary Tour 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 5, to Revolution Live, 100 SW Third Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. South Florida’s Goddamn Hustle opens the show. Tickets start at $26. Call 954-449-1025 or go to JoinTheRevolution.net. For more on Kramer, go to Facebook.com/WayneKramer or JailGuitarDoors.org.

bcrandell@sun-sentinel.com

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