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Reunion tour opens wounds for rock group

MC5's short-lived music career was marred by business squabbles, and the surviving members still face legal battles.

June 11, 2004|Greg Kot | Chicago Tribune

The MC5 risked everything to make great music, even their lives and careers.

As businessmen, they were epic failures. Now, a fresh flurry of ugly business squabbles swirls around the MC5, even as the band's three surviving members are touring together for the first time in more than 30 years.

A three-month world tour (including June 29 at the Henry Fonda Theatre in Hollywood) by the DKT/MC5, led by original members Wayne Kramer, Michael Davis and Dennis Thompson, was designed to showcase the band's seldom-heard but strikingly influential music and promote a new DVD, "Sonic Revolution: A Celebration of the MC5," due out July 6.

But it arrives against a backdrop of controversy and infighting, subjects the band became intimately familiar with in its first go-round. A seven-years-in-the-making documentary about the band's exploits, "MC5: A True Testimonial," has been derailed in the eleventh hour because of music licensing issues. Once again, the band is a house divided, with the families of the late Rob Tyner and Fred "Sonic" Smith pitted against Kramer, Davis and Thompson.

For such a fractious bunch, the reunion tour is something of a miracle.

"I never thought we'd get together again," Davis said, his gaunt frame sprawled across a couch in the second-floor foyer of MuscleTone Records.

The label and office, on a scruffy patch of Fairfax Avenue several blocks removed from the glamour of Sunset Boulevard, are owned by Kramer.

In the crucible of 1965-72, the MC5 forged a soundtrack for the Vietnam era and the street riots in the band's native Detroit. Their forward-looking fusion of free-jazz improvisation, rock 'n' roll raunchiness and us-against-them politics provided a template for metal and punk and prefigured the confrontational stance of bands such as Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine.

Yet the quintet remains a footnote at best in most of the rock history books. Like drunken gunslingers, they shot themselves in the foot countless times, and their careers seemed doomed from the start. The opening proclamation on their first album managed to offend just about everybody, including their own record label, which soon dropped them. Two studio albums failed to produce anything close to a hit single, and the band collapsed after its manager, began serving a prison sentence for marijuana possession.

The five went their separate ways after the MC5 imploded. Kramer and Davis spent time in prison as they fitfully tried to make a living playing music.

"That kind of loss, you go through these terrible lows and incredible highs with a group of guys, and then one day, it's all gone," Kramer said. "I know for me in my life, I never grieved over the loss until years later, until the death of Rob Tyner [from a heart attack in 1991].

"When I finally made my peace with it, I could go on and do the stuff I do today, which brings us to a really interesting spot, to go back out and play this music again. It's the last thing I thought I'd be doing at 55."

Two nights later, Kramer is helping pay the bills for his label and office by playing a gig at a farmers market a few blocks south of MuscleTone in Hollywood. Even in this unlikely environment, Kramer musters some of the old MC5 brio.

"It's bomb day in Paris," he declares in a deadpan sing-speak voice. "It's bomb day in Sri Lanka. Two bombs kill 50. Train interior littered with blood and paper.... It's bomb day in a restaurant interior where people are gathered."

Anyone who hadn't been paying attention is now.

"It's bomb day in New York; it's bomb day in Fallouja.... Oh, say, can you see when it's bomb day in Los Angeles?"

A woman flees with her lollipop-sucking grade-schooler. Others break into applause, and the crowd thickens.

By the end of the set, the crowd swells to more than 100, a mix of old MC5 fans, friends, passersby and street people.

In 1996, three Chicagoans -- David Thomas, Laurel Legler and Jeff Economy (who dropped out from the production a few years later) -- approached Kramer about doing a film based on the MC5's short, destructive career. He agreed and cooperated to such an extent that he's the charismatic star, the de facto narrator of "A True Testimonial." It tells the band's story, portraying the MC5 as a band of hoodlums who changed the face of rock music.

The performance footage, including scenes from the band's concert in Chicago during the riot-scarred 1968 Democratic National Convention, is jaw-dropping. It makes the case for the MC5 as the greatest live band in rock history. But the movie also demonstrates how the quintet collapsed beneath the weight of forces outside the band and carnage within it.

"It has good parts, bad parts, gritty stuff, ugly stuff, happy stuff -- it's all part of the story," Kramer said. But Kramer now is standing in the way of its release. He said filmmakers broke their oral promise to make him the film's music producer, while the filmmakers said they agreed only to let Kramer release an accompanying soundtrack on his label.

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