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Michael Davis
Photo credit: Angela Davis
The MC5

It has been 35 years since Detroit’s mighty MC5 exploded onto the national scene with the incendiary live debut album Kick Out the Jams. Taking the stage on All Hallow’s Eve 1968 at the legendary Grande Ballroom, the 5’s infamous two-night stand solidified their reputation as anti-establishment flag bearers and certified rock ‘n’ roll rebels. While commercial success ultimately eluded the band, the influence and popularity of the MC5’s music has endured. Spring of 2003 found the three surviving members reunited for a special show at London’s 100 Club in conjunction with a Levi’s marketing campaign (the performance is scheduled to be released as a DVD this fall). The year has also seen the brilliant documentary film MC5: A True Testimonial play to SRO crowds and rave reviews.

So what of the 5’s bassist Michael Davis? After the many highs he experienced with his brothers-in-arms, an equal number of lows followed as he became a “free agent of self destruction” after the band’s breakup in 1972. Davis spent much of his post 5 time drifting in and out of the music scene, playing most notably with Stooge Ron Asheton in Destroy All Monsters (late ‘70s to mid ‘80s), and more recently with Luminarios. Happily married to wife Angela (principal of Svengirly Music Inc.), Davis is still extremely active, working with Sweden’s own Dollhouse, and gearing up for the possibility of future 5 reunion gigs. Davis remains excited and intrigued by his former band’s legacy, and is fired up to comment on his musical past, present and future.

PopMatters: What aspects of the MC5’s aura/music do you think resonate strongest with fans?

Michael Davis: Rebellion. No doubt about it. In their face, we’re going to do it our way. It’s something that is nearly impossible to pull off, considering one has to work within the system that exists. Aside from pure marketing of pop stars, the bands that generate the most respect are the ones that purport to be on the outside of the system. Of course, it has to be done with an independent and original style. This element is so apparently lacking in today’s bands of rebellion. Otherwise when one listens to the music of the 5 it’s a bit vague as to what it was all about. Nonetheless, the current generation of 5 fanatics certainly seem to get it, and in a most awestruck way! This is what particularly fascinates me. As time goes by, the 5 not only endures, it is growing to a bigger audience.

PM: The rebellion and revolution that the band represented seemed appropriate based upon the sociopolitical environment of that time. Could such a group flourish in today’s climate?

MD: Absolutely. This world is even more fucked up today than it was back then. What really changed as a result of the counterculture? Nothing, other than a few aesthetic perceptions and a moderate amount of legislations that are constantly being assaulted by the conservative right wingers that only give a fuck about their political agendas and their pocketbooks. An artist who takes a strong stand can always draw a throng of supporters. That artist has to speak to the open-minded young people of this world. That is the domain of the rock and roll, guys and dolls. Do it just the right way and watch the shit hit the fan. I think it would be a little tougher in today’s world. All of the media is so theatrical that an artist would have to be talking above all that digital seduction. Yet there is room for the real nitty gritty whenever it has a mind to surface. Originality is really the clue to everything.

PM: There are countless opinions of what/who the MC5 influenced. What do you believe is the band’s most significant contribution and legacy?

MD: This may be off the question a bit, but there is one thing I would like to discuss briefly. While I am personally not a religious person, there is a scenario that intrigues me. I can’t help draw a comparison of the 5’s experience with the one and only Jesus Christ. Without reviewing all of Jesus’ credentials for holiness, the only point I’m making is that he too was a rebel against the mighty bastards. Because he was put to death by the powers that be, his legacy is immortal. Whenever someone is executed for the sins of all, they automatically attain a form of sainthood. Isn’t this how the 5 are perceived, by and large? Massacred and martyred by the wretched world of greedy bullshitters? Abandoned by those whom we fought for? So it’s almost organic and human nature that as time passes, those who learn the story of the 5 become adamant in their support. Well, I don’t care about that. What I do care about is being recognized for creating a style of playing that has been an inspiration to other players. Your question may be alluding to the various opinions that metal, punk, hardcore, and whatever else is a direct influence of the MC5. With all of that I agree. Someone had to do it first.

PM: How emotional was it to be onstage playing together with Wayne (Kramer) and Dennis (Thompson) in London?

MD: Not very. My job on stage has developed to the point that the moment I step on that stage I become like a bullfighter, an astronaut, a pro golfer. It’s all business, and a damn good business to be in. You are in the spotlight, and it’s your baby. So you give it everything, every time. Back in the days of love and confusion, I was under a most peculiar spell of my own making. I thought many megalomaniacal thoughts concerning my role in life’s scheme. I perceived myself as one who had chosen to right the wrongs of the world. I saw myself at the center of universal flow. I was it. Performing was the ultimate operation in my reason to be alive. I really believed in that. I was scared all the time. I thought that if I didn’t break through my personal barriers I was responsible for the entire human race to collapse. Crazy, eh? As stoned as I was, it wasn’t hard to get wacko. Not that I was always wasted. Even straight, I was walking the line. The whole entire time I was in the MC5, I struggled with myself. I loved to play but I was sure that I didn’t have enough talent to be there, and I would be detected as a pretender. It was a kind of Hell. Everyone was trying to imitate John Coltrane, and I was trying to insert chaos as jazz. Whatever, it worked! Thirty-five years later, we are the originators of so many styles, it’s mind-boggling. I still love to play, and when we were in London with Dennis and Wayne, I was probably at home in my heart with those who are dearest to me. I can’t really say in words just how much it meant to me.

PM: What do you say to those who feel the Levi’s deal is commercialism at its worst, and are yelling “Sellout!”?

MD: I say it’s hot here in Tucson, Arizona, and I need to have air conditioning. My electric bill exceeds $300 in the summer months. Whom do those people “sell out” to, to pay their expenses? Call it whatever you care to call it. When those guys go to work on Monday morning, do they consider it selling out? Are those guys sitting around waiting for the MC5 to provoke the revolution? I don’t think so. If the former members of the MC5 decide to nix the deal with Levi’s and stay home rocking on the porch, does that make the MC5 a better or more honest band? Nope. In fact, no one would have even known anything had happened. So what would they have us do? I say, let the boy boogie woogie. It’s in him, and it’s just got to come out. Actually Rob Tyner used to say that, and he got it from John Lee Hooker. Good company.

PM: How is your artistic vision different now than it was in the 1960s?

MD: I don’t think it is much different really. I have always been intrigued, particularly by the Baroque musical style. As an art student, I would draw and listen to music. I wished I could be playing that stuff. Growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s I was transfixed by all sorts of pop music. A myriad of country hits on the hillbilly stations, and an equal amount of mindblowing stuff on the R&B stations. Incredible times were those. When the mid-‘60s Beatles made their appearance, I realized that I could indeed be playing that stuff. Somehow, the Beatles made the world of music an accessible world. So I found a doorway to get into it. The MC5 was for me a test tube of sorts. In it I was experimenting with my possibilities as a player with virtually no training. Only desire and passion for a sound that was the essence of freedom. I was fortunate. I had a group of mates that were themselves looking for the ultimate sound. Sometimes we found it. On those occasions, we created our legend. On those occasions we were as great as the greatest band there ever was. The snag with the MC5 was not our political stances. The snag was we were inconsistent. We could make the top only on occasion. That is enough to bring anybody down. The point is, we could make the real top. Not everyone can do that. Maybe not anyone can do that, and that is the reason we are still around. I was a lot more of a shy guy back then. I was unsure of most everything. The present day Mike Davis is a calm character, with a healthy adoration of nature. I feel affinity with animals and plants, and even the soil. I feel only I am one with it, and I have a direct duty to take care for it. The forces of nature will do what they will, without any regard. Such is what it is. I still have the desire to blast away at the heavens, I am still possessed by an incredible sound that plays over and over again. I am still in love with my life and every day and every night and every body that ever came and went and stayed until it was all over. Kick out the jams motherfucker, or get off the stage!

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