Wednesday, January 02, 2019

2018: The Year My Readers Let Me Down

Specifically, none of you guys told me that Wayne Kramer was doing an MC5 fiftieth anniversary tour (as MC50) untill two weeks after the show played New York City. You bastards.

Get on the ball, people!!!

But, as I mentioned the other day, since I love you all more than food, I am thoughtfully reproducing here -- for those of you who don't have subscriptions -- a terrific piece about Kramer from the Dec. 17 2018 issue of The New Yorker.

The seventy-year-old guitarist from the proto-punk group MC5 revisits the East Village of the eighties.

By Nick Paumgarten

By many lights, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is a silly project. Recently, Bruce Dickinson, the lead singer of Iron Maiden, called it “an utter and complete load of bollocks.” He said, “It’s run by a bunch of sanctimonious bloody Americans who wouldn’t know rock and roll if it hit them in the face.” Evidence, if you want it, can be found in the hall’s failure to enshrine the MC5, who may have been the first real rock-hitting-you-in-the-face band. (They’ve been nominated this year, for the fourth time, but, with the induction announcement likely coming this week, oddsmakers have put their chances below those of better-selling and less face-hitty acts like the Cure and Stevie Nicks.) It was fifty years ago that the MC5 released their proto-punk anthem and album “Kick Out the Jams.” They were five spirited white boys from Detroit who’d been radicalized by the 1967 race rebellion (they joined their mentor, the poet John Sinclair, in establishing the White Panther Party, an adjunct of the Black Panthers).

This fall, the guitarist Wayne Kramer, one of the two surviving MC5s, toured with other musicians as the MC50s. Kramer, now seventy, has also been peddling a memoir, “The Hard Stuff,” which relates the band’s grand ambitions and commercial failures (they broke up in 1972, after just three albums), his own descent into crime and heroin addiction, his years in federal prison (drug trafficking), and his subsequent decades of trying to get his shit right, which (spoiler alert) he has—at least as of today, as he’d say.

Kramer was released from prison in 1979. “I said, If I’m not on the good foot after a year, I gotta leave Detroit,” he recalled the other day. “All my friends and associates were in the life. They were dealing, and they were ripping and running. So I came to New York, where I’d be safe”—big laugh—“here where heroin flowed out of the faucets.”

Kramer was strolling in his old East Village neighborhood, pointing out bygone haunts amid the new condo projects and juice shops. He was wearing Day-Glo-orange running shoes, black jeans, and an expression of perma-delight: survival. Punk had meant one thing in prison but another here, when he turned up to discover that the MC5 were cherished as forebears by the CBGB generation, which had adopted the term. The other MC5 guitarist, Fred (Sonic) Smith, got married in 1980 to Patti Smith and died in 1994.

"I was in this band Gang War with Johnny Thunders, which was another terrible decision,” Kramer said. Thunders, a founder of the New York Dolls, “was in the midst of active opiate abuse, and people in that condition have a prior commitment. I also had a girlfriend who was using. I didn’t have a chance. Red Rodney”— the jazz-trumpet great, who had been in prison with Kramer—“had warned me about that, and he was absolutely right. So, after Thunders was late for rehearsal for the umpteenth time, I told him, If you’re going to cop, pick me up a couple, too. And then I was up to my old tricks.”

215 East Tenth Street: Kramer’s neighborhood beachhead. “Third floor in the front,” he said. “Some judiciously applied grease to the super got me the next available apartment. The storefront across the street was a reefer store.” It’s now a high-end Japanese cafĂ©. The drugs, and what he considered the industry’s anodyne preferences, kneecapped his attempts to resuscitate his career. Before long, he was homeless. He wound up in an S.R.O. on Lexington Avenue.

“So me and a partner went to work for a couple of brothers who owned buildings all over this neighborhood,” he said, and pointed at one across Avenue A. “We renovated an apartment on the top floor there for a guy I was told was the nephew of Donald Trump.” The job also included a lot of hot-tar roofing. “One day, I had an ‘Aha!’ moment. I found myself both freezing and burning up on a rooftop, my feet stuck in the tar, and I thought, Hey, I used to be an artist. What am I doing?”

He took up woodworking, as an apprentice to a cabinetmaker downstairs from his next apartment, on East Thirteenth Street—now a real-estate brokerage. “Frank Mattiello. He was a music fan. He builds skyscrapers today. And we’re still best friends. He’s the godfather of my son, Francis, who we named after Frank.” Kramer ticked off some old job sites: Oscar de la Renta’s apartment uptown and the Barbizon Hotel. “I added something to this city. It wasn’t all doom and gloom.”

He left New York in 1989, for Key West. “I built a couple houses, and a lot of stuff for Jimmy Buffett. He’s a good boss.” Eventually, Kramer moved to Los Angeles, got married, got sober, and regained some traction in the music business. “Opiates are painkillers, and they kill psychic pain, too,” he said. “But that’s where your ambition comes from: ‘You have to do this thing.’ There were a lot of moves back then I didn’t make.” Still, failure, if you want to call it that, has its rewards. He said, “If we’d been successful, I’d probably be dead.” ♦

It is one of the great regrets of my life that I never saw the MC5 live, but I did meet Kramer in the 80s once at some club in NYC; I don't remember who the act we were seeing was or when exactly this happened, but I do remember that I got to tell him how much I loved the MC5. And, if memory serves, how much I loved his production of the eponymous 1987 album (on Enigma) by The Broadcasters, who remain one of my all time favorite bands of the period.

Upon reflection, we may have been introduced by power pop legend Marc Jonson, and I'm pretty sure it was at the late lamented Kenny's Castaways, but hey -- it was the 80s. We were all pretty much over the top and my recollections may not be reliable.

In any event, The Broadcasters were an absolutely killer band, and although they didn't really sound like the 5, Kramer was obviously a brilliant fit as their producer. Here's the radio hit from the record, which makes the point pretty obvious.

The rest of the album, including a great cover of the 5's cover of Them's "I Can Only Give You Everything," can still be acquired over at Amazon HERE. Or -- if you're really nice to me, I can burn you a copy.


Mark said...

That's 13 Ghosts, which I have, primarily due to your review in the mag NOT formerly know as High Fidelity. And speaking of mags, the once mighty Rolling Stone, now co-owned by Pennske Media and something called BandLab Technologies, is now a monthly (it was a bi-weekly for all of its earlier life), and its current subscription cost is close to its newsstand price, whereas in its past subscriptions were severely discounted. Why? Probably due to low-cost print ads.

Still there are flashes of absolute brilliance, such as this November piece on Nick Lowe, at - by Mark Binelli - that could serve as a tutorial on narrative non-fiction.

See? We do tell you shit.

pete said...

I saw them in Seattle in October, with Matt Cameron, of both Soundgarden AND Pearl Jam, as second drummer. A great night.