Wayne Kramer in his mid-fifties remains exceedingly active, both on stage and off. He posts regularly at his own web site www.waynekramer.com
For a Q magazine Special Edition on Icons, published in November 2004, I was commissioned to write profiles on Pete Townshend and Joe Strummer. To distinguish these pieces from the dozens of other similar features already out there, I was asked to interview musicians who were either similarly minded to or clearly influenced by my subjects. For the piece on Pete, I talked to Matt Friedberger of The Fiery Furnaces and Wayne Kramer of The MC5. Kramer proved particularly eloquent, and I'm happy to reprint our phone conversation in near enough its entirety as follows.
We started out talking about the incident with which I kicked off my profile: the moment at Woodstock, August 17 1969, when "hippie rabble-rouser" Abbie Hoffman took to the stage in the middle of The Who's set to protest the incarceration of The MC5 manager and White Panther Party founder John Sinclair on trumped-up drug charges. Townshend, furious at the interruption especially mid-Tommy - kicked Hoffman hard up the arse, swiped him with his Gibson SG into the photo pit, and then announced to the crowd of half a million, "The next fucking person to walk across this fucking stage is going to get fucking killed."
Tony: Where were you, Wayne, when that incident took place?
Wayne: We were in Europe at the time of Woodstock.
[Researching some links and photos for this piece, I see that this was not actually the case. According to The MC5 Calendar, The MC5 were in the town of Milan in their home state of Michigan, playing with (Ted Nugent's) Amboy Dukes, the Stooges and others at a concert billed as "Michigan Music Supports The John Sinclair Defense Fund." Which makes the topic yet more relevant.]
-How was your relationship with John Sinclair at that point? Did you share Abbie Hoffman's sentiment?
Personally, John and I were estranged. But politically and in the larger sense of what was going on I supported John 100%. What the police did to him was criminal and I've never wavered in my commitment to John and what John believed in on those days. Him and I were having a hard time because in a lot of ways John was the scapegoat for the MC5 and he resented the fact that he had to go to prison and was lashing out at me. I understand that. I've been to prison myself and I know there's a state of mind that really doesn't want to accept the reality of the situation. And in fact, John and I got over that real quick, and have remained the best of friends ever since that time. I remember being confused by it at the time. My loyalty was to John and the injustice of his incarceration and also I didn't understand why Townshend made such a big deal out of it. I didn't understand Townshend's perspective that it was HIS stage. With the benefit of these many years to look at it they were both right!
-His view was that it was his stage at that time: "Who dares cross us?"
He was right, that was his stage and it was his time to say what he wanted to say. In my work as an entertainer, I've found ways to make a space for people who I think have something to say that fits in with my sense of what was right and wrong. But today I can identify with Townshend's stance. I worked hard to get that hour on stage, and that's my time. I'm saying what I have to say now. You have something to say, you get your own time!
The Q Special Edition: More info here.
-So where did you first come into audio-visual contact with The Who?
There was some footage that showed up on television from the Richmond Pop Festival. It was this band no one had ever heard of, called The Who. They had this terrific sound that was totally unlike other bands of the day The Beatles and The Merseybeat sound. They had a whole different intensity about them. And at the end of the performance, the guitarist wrecked a fabulously beautiful Rickenbacker guitar by pushing the neck through a Vox super beetle amplifier. It was beyond my ability to comprehend what was happening. I had to call someone on the phone and say "you won't believe what I just saw," call another guitar player up.
-I know the footage. [It's the Richmond Blues Festival 1965, the precursor of the modern-day Reading Festival, and The Who are shown performing Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere. It's on the 30 Years of Maximum R&B Live Video. Townshend doesn't quite wreck the Rickenbacker, but you do wonder how it emerges intact.]
It was like when you're confronted with ideas that are beyond your ability to identity. Like something's going on here and you really don't know what it is. It was compelling. What did this mean? What was he doing? And that really opened the door to this attraction. I was attracted to the sound and the ideas behind this band called The Who. I was probably their biggest fan in Detroit. I did more to promote The Who than anybody. Rob Tyner got them right away; he was a little older than me and had a little broader vision than I did. That what was happening here in the context of a pop band, was that they were artists. They understood principles larger than strictly musical principles and entertainment though it included musical and entertainment language and symbols and sounds. But they also understood a larger sense of performance art. And they brought that to the stage, they brought it to the work. This was something no one had done consciously yet. The Rolling Stones had the art of dance, The Beatles had the art of music and harmony, but Townshend really brought a larger sense of what was happening in the world of, maybe, the situationalists. Or a sense of avant-garde. Almost surreal rejuxtaposition of familiar imagery in unfamiliar ways. He almost took a William Burroughs approach to being in a band he cut it up and put it in a different order. I read that he termed it auto-destructive art.
-Well, he got that phrase from art school.
I knew it had to come from somewhere.
The MC5 in their on-stage prime: Dennis Thompson on drums, Fred 'Sonic' Smith and Wayne Kramer on guitars (I'm not entirely whcih one is which from this pic) and singer Rob Tyner on the floor. Bassist Michael Davis is out of shot.
-The MC5 were very much of the streets, not to be trifled with? Did you feel there was this affinity with The Who?
Yeah. I feel like they had a step up on us, they were a little bit older had been in the game a little bit longer. They could play better, could sing better. Their ideas were evolved. They were just ahead of us. We were just a little bit younger. In 1966 I was 15-16. (He turned 18 on April 30 that year.) I was about 19 when I wrote 'Kick Out The Jams.' It took me that long to learn the skills of writing a song and performing and entertaining people. So yeah, we identified with (The Who). I identified with them on a lot of levels that are not verbal, not intellectual, but more a sense of character. Who he is. The man that he represents himself to be. We certainly admired them, we certainly copied them, we tried to learn from them, as all artists do from their mentors. Townshend was the guy that showed me that there was ways to get sounds out of the electric guitar that were unorthodox and which no one had really explored yet, this whole business of feedback and distortion. He was like the snow plough, cleared the way for the rest of us.
-As a songwriter and lyricist, he could write pubescent pop songs, but The Who were pretty much the first group to come out with 'My Generation,' 'Anyway Anyhow Anywhere,' these very cocky anthems of youth
And also be able to get a lyrical handle on disassociation, disenfranchisement, and being disconnected. And really sum up what teenagers felt. Being an outsider, these are basic concepts in what we know as Rock 101 Songwriting. In those days, this was a new territory to be breaking into as articulately as he was. To say 'The Kids Are Alright,' to say it that plainly
-Again, was that something you could take on board as the MC5?
We saw this connection in the music of James Brown and Motown. We would learn Motown songs because I wanted to be (Motown bassist) James Jamerson. I knew who he was. I would see him and the other Motown musicians at the local music store; they were the kings. They ruled in Detroit. I wanted to grow up and be those guys. We would learn those [Motown] songs as best we could to try and play those things. And The Who was doing the same thing. We were doing a version of 'I Don't Mind' before we heard The Who's version. When we heard their version it solidified our aesthetic. And to be honest, they did it better than we did, they were better players. Certainly, they were a better rhythm section.
I just saw the Who in Australia, and Townshend is a motherfucker. He is playing his ass off. He is still a superior guitarist to 99% of the fellows who make a living playing the electric guitar. He just outdistances them, out techniques
speed, melody, harmony, inventiveness. He has his own voice on the guitar; that's what all artists are looking for. You want to tell your story your way.
-(I talk for a while on Pete Townshend as rhythm guitarist. How I admired him when I was younger because he wasn't a flashy lead guitarist, he played magnificent riffs, and even when he played solos they were simple.) Did you get same thing?
He clearly understands the art of rhythm guitar. It's a lost art. Fred Smith and Brian Jones and maybe a couple of other guys were the only guys who ever really perfected it to the art form. It's a really demanding rigorous technique to master, because it requires you to play things consistently, syncopated, and it hurts! Lead guitar players get away with murder they can let a note ring forever, they can trill, and play triplets, but to play rhythm guitar properly and have it have meaning in a band context, in an ensemble, that's a demanding technique. And if you are a serious guitarist you have to master it. You have to master both. It's not enough to play a solo or just play a solid rhythm, you have to understand how these things all work together. You're right he was the guy that really made rhythm guitar come alive.
-Did you ever play together?
Yes. They came to Ann Arbor and played a club that was about as big as my studio. It was a little teeny basement club and I stood inches in front of them; there were maybe 40 or 50 kids there. I was so close I could see the sweat dripping off their noses. It was just an unbelievable experience for a kid like me, for being in a band and understanding what they were doing. The club was the 5th Dimension. [This was in fact The Who's first ever club gig in America, June 14, 1967, a warm-up for Monterey Pop that weekend. Kramer is only the second person I've come across who attended the show.] It was a great gig because a rentacop came up on stage when the smoke started coming out of Pete's amp, and Townshend was twirling around and clocked the guy, semi-accidentally
Obviously Pete knew what he was doing, but everyone was just like "Wow, did you see that?!" We were just whats the English expression? 'Gob smacked.'
-And when you say rentacop, you're talking about when they would hire the local police.
Yeah. And he was up there trying to take charge: "Oh Jesus, there's a fire, let me get in here." Clunk!
They played the Grande Ballroom in Detroit often I was at all these gigs, but I was too shy to try and meet him. We were on another show with them in Toronto, the last date of a US tour and they really tore up the gear that night. [It was at The CNE Coliseum, The Who with The MC5, The Troggs and Raja, Sunday 7 April 1968.] They were pretty wild backstage, they were enjoying themselves, the tour was done, I was intimidated and didn't feel like I could slide in with them and be a peer. They were still idols of mine.
-Have you ever met him?
Unfortunately I've never sat down and had a talk with Pete. I just figure at some point I'll be somewhere and I'm guessing we're kind of cut from the same cloth. I've studied him and clocked his work over the years. And I read his stuff. Our paths are not dissimilar.
Wayne Kramer (at left in the above picture of The MC5) is a particularly strong presence in the incredible documentary movie The MC5: A True Testimonial, which should be compulsory viewing for all rock fans. Sadly, he fell out with the film-makers and, though the film played in select cinemas and DVDs were distributed to the press, the movie is not commercially available. Read my review here. Kramer's explanation for halting the movie's release is available at the Davis-Kramer-Thompson site.
In the world of rock music, Pete Townshend is an anomaly, because he is an intellectual. And rock prides itself on being dumb. But he's found a way to work in this game and to do it as an artist, to bring artistic principles into the work and to elevate
He single-handedly raised the bar in what was considered a dumb teenage fashion trend. He was able to marry the worlds of serious art from over the ages, as something that makes a connection between people, that makes the world a more harmonious place and less separated, art designed to be a bridge to carry a message between people, to let us know that in the end we're not alone. And Pete Townshend was the snot nosed kid from Shepherds Bush and I could be a snot-nosed kid from Detroit, and say, Yeah I know that kid. I know him. And know that him and I are the same kind of guy, and there are millions just like us. And that really is a contribution to make. In the end we want to feel like maybe we left the place a little nicer than we found it, and I think you can say that about Pete Townshend. He worked hard at it.
The MC5's message has always been that you can make a difference but you have to do it wholeheartedly. You need to make a commitment but you can't hedge on it, you can't do it when it's convenient and not when it's not convenient, you have to be in it with both feet. That's what Townshend always did, that's what I think great artists have always done. I would put him on a list with Picasso and John Coltrane and Salvador Dali and Sun Ra; he elevated the art form.
Interview conducted October 15 2004. My thanks to Andy Neill, co-author of Anyway Anyhow Anywhere: The Complete Chronicle Of The Who, for suggesting I talk to Wayne Kramer and then putting me in contact with him.