Like all things made by or affiliated with MC5, guitarist Wayne Kramer’s new memoir, The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5 & My Life of Impossibilities, leaves one wondering, “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?” This in turn begets an even more essential question: What is the MC5, and what is its legacy? As the last man standing, Kramer is responsible for answering these questions and I honestly can’t tell you if he’s doing it well.
The main line of cultural wisdom is that this band is the progenitor of all punk rock music. Yet in the memoir, Kramer spends the majority of his musical attention making the case for free jazz as the most superior form of composition for both its improvisational and its collaborative capacities. He devotes literally just one page to Iggy Pop, even though their Michigan days and musical rise basically coincided and they orbited each other for years. Kramer spent some of punk rock’s best years in prison, and in discussing his reentry into the music business afterward, he struggles to find any meaningful difference among the punk acts he’s encountered. He goes so far as to identify the original gangsters of NWA as more fitting intellectual heirs to the work of the MC5.
It does seem clear that he would like any consideration of the legacy of MC5 to focus at least as much on their political thought as on their musical talent. Kramer’s prologue grapples with his experience of the 1967 Belle Isle Park police riot. He has an extensive list of heroes who contributed to his ideology, chief among which are frontman Rob Tyner and eventual manager John Sinclair, a poet perhaps better known as the founder of the White Panther Party. Kramer consistently returns to the theme of police brutality in America, including his thoughts on the Detroit riots, the ugly methods of police work in raids and plea bargains, and the meaning of incarceration as a rehabilitative project.
There is ample opportunity in these political musings for Kramer to give deeper insight into his own character, yet many of these passages are delivered with a surprising coolness that keeps the reader at a long distance. He may be laying bare new facts of his life—such as the precise details of his breaking and entering schemes or the volume and frequency of his drug abuse—but the self-portrait rendered here is far from touching. It doesn’t feel like ordinarily blank punk affect, of which Patty Schemel’s Hit So Hard is an engrossing example. Kramer seems to apply a thick coat of varnish. He is saying the words that denote lessons learned and slates cleaned, yet the usual connotations bolstered by pathos are missing.
Perhaps this is because Kramer is a jerk. I don’t know if he is one, but reading this book didn’t make me feel like we could hang out. The voice here seems rather entitled and often seeks to smooth things over where there is clearly still woundedness. The worst of these offenses is his last word on Fred “Sonic” Smith, boyhood guitar partner and co-equal founder of the MC5, who’s death is given only one paragraph. Kramer says the two were not close after his release from jail. Well, this memoir would have been exactly the right place to reflect on that. Kramer says he’s been sober for about two decades now, but this book reads like he set up an AA meeting and then didn’t want to stand up and give his share. There’s a certain hollowness to his tone that shows how guarded and perhaps angry he still is — maybe too ornery to fulfill the requirements of the genre.
Yet, we must undeniably give Brother Wayne Kramer his due. He’s heading out on the MC50 tour with a supergroup he built from pieces of Soundgarden, Fugazi, King’s X, and Zen Guerrilla. They’ll play Kick Out the Jams in sequence, and then an encore of other MC5 material that will be different every night. The tour will conclude with two shows in where else but Detroit, on Halloween weekend just a few miles away from where Kick Out the Jams was recorded. This material is five decades old, yet shockingly—to a disappointing extent—still relevant to our modern age. It’s no surprise that Kramer is attaching this book to the tour, and the tour will likely garner better reviews than the book. Because what are readers supposed to do with it? It’s neither a proper band history, nor a complete addiction testimonial, nor a forthright political treatise.
The MC5 was all those things—a band, a scene, an activity. They rep for an intense, catalytic few moments in the long arc of rock ‘n’ roll. Though he is an imperfect vessel, Kramer is a survivor of the original MC5 and therefore his pronouncements about it are reasonably valuable. We owe him a lot and he might not owe us a thing. Am I just too jaded to recognize the Kramer is indeed giving us the hard stuff? He does it better on the stage than in these pages. Throughout reading The Hard Stuff, I had a creeping sense that the disparate facets of this book could all be much better written by Sinclair. I doubt Kramer would disagree.