Wayne Kramer

Interview by Dennis Morgillo

Interview with Wayne Kramer of MC5
by Dennis Morgillo
Wayne Kramer is a Guitarist, Producer, Composer, Humanitarian, Activist and founding member of the legendary band MC5.  Wayne founded 'Jail Guitar Doors' USA which supplies Musical Instruments to inmates. Wayne will be appearing at the Bowery Electric in NYC this November. A very special performance of the Heartbreakers LAMF with Walter Lure, Tommy Stinson and Clem Burke, and featuring special guests. 
Madhouse: Can you tell us what it was like growing up in detroit in the 50s and 60s. What made it such a fertile ground for music? 
Wayne: Good jobs made it fertile ground, union jobs and plenty of them, a great power nation of immigrants, people from the southern states that came up, the african american culture, it was an all american city if you wanted it built, we could build it in detroit so a thriving music scene grew out of all of that stability and opportunity. 
Madhouse: Parents could afford to buy their kids guitars and drums 
Wayne: Yeah and there's places to play and the factories went 24/7 so you can work in a club 7 nights a week 5 sets a night start at 9 until 2 in the morning and play 5:45 minute sets so there was a lot going on in the 50s and 60s 
Madhouse: What were your influences to pick up the guitar, who made you say I have to play the guitar myself? 
Wayne: Chuck berry and Duane Eddie, were 2 of my big individual influences.  
Madhouse: Do you remember getting your first guitar, where you got it and what kind of guitar it was? 
Wayne: Yeah it was a Kay and it was a piece of shit, it was an awful guitar that was impossible to play.  
Madhouse: It builds character right.
Wayne: Something like that. 
Madhouse: MC5 were radical badasses at a time when most musicians were into peace and love. What do you think influenced you guys, were you guys like juvenile delinquents, was it the blue colored neighborhood, what got you into that? 
Wayne: Yeah it was those 2 things and we were all so part of a generation that rebelled against our parents, the contradictions were too much to take, the war in vietnam did not make any sense, the way different colors were treated, the way the police treated us, drug laws, sexual mores, so we embraced our times and then we became radicalized by the violence of the day and incorporated that into the art as well.  
Madhouse: I saw that you posted on social media, a tribute to John Sinclair. Can you tell us who he was, who he is and what he meant to you. 
Wayne: John sinclair is the hardest working poet in show business, he continues to write and perform around the world and he remains one of my closest and dearest friends. In the MC5 era he became our manager and mentor. 
Madhouse: You guys started the white panther party, how did that get started and how did you get involved with that? 
Wayne: We read in the black panther newspaper that the black panther party called out for white radicals to do parallel work in our community and we found it was way to give an expression to our frustration to the slow pace of change and we admired the black panther party and that they really dressed well, and we had kind of an unrealistic idea about violence ,that guns were sexy, manly and romantic and of course that was a terrible mistake for everyone involved. The black panther got them death squads across the country and for the white panthers it got us court cases and indictments and jailing and kicked out of the music business  
Madhouse: That kind of stuff terrified the country at this time then the fbi was on you, and you don't want the fbi and government coming down on you, like you said right? 
Wayne: It wasn't part of my plan, no 
Madhouse: John Sinclair ended up getting arrested and all of these other problems, the government will not rest once you are on their bad side right 
Wayne: The Nixon justice department didn't rest and they're not resting today, they are still snooping on everyone's phones and internet, with the spy planes and satellites. Civil liberties, free expression are under attack right now, everyone seems to be kind of going along with it like it's okay but it's really not 
Madhouse: At the 1968 democratic convention of course, there was a riot a going on, is it true that you guys played for 8 hours straight while these riots were going on  around you? 
Wayne: Thats a great rumor, no we didn't play for 8 hours, we played for an hour. I don't know how that rumor got started but i think it's fantastic, 
Madhouse: That's great, go with it. A Lot of people were too young at this time or weren't aware, what was it like at that national convention when all this craziness was going on? 
Wayne: It was very exciting, dangerous and romantic 
Madhouse: You guys were obviously very political, this kind of stuff got you thrown off the record label, so what do you think about what's going on in politics today? 
Wayne: I think it's pretty amazing, I think the rights never anticipated the likes of Donald Trump and he's used their own unwillingness to put the welfare of the country ahead of their political ambitions against them. It's kind of amusing, the Koch brothers never thought in a million years a guy like Donald Trump would come along and ruin their plans. 
Madhouse: Do you support a mainstream party at this point, or a green party or whatever? 
Wayne: There is no party that has a chance of doing anything that i think that would have the interest of the country, If Hillary wins, I'm sure the republicans are plotting her impeachment now just like they did to Barack Obama. They were planning on stiff arming him on anything he was gonna attempt to accomplish. We're in an interesting time on how all of this might shake out. The trouble is, I think, no matter what happens it's going to be more of the same. I would like to see a justice reform on  a massive scale, we've locked up more people than any country in the history of the world under longer periods of times under worse conditions, we've destroyed entire communities with political expediency, our foreign policy in my not so humble opinion, is an embarrassment and an international disaster. The idea that we are going to export western liberal life values to the middle east with men with guns is ludicrous.  
Madhouse: Yeah it hasn't been working so good over these years 
Wayne: The idea of somehow we're the world's policemen is terrible folly. 
Madhouse: Have you ever thought about running for office ? 
Wayne: I thought once about running for the musician union office but i got over it.  
Madhouse: I never talk politics but since you are on the show we are going to, just for a little bit. Don't you think if 40 years ago people started voting third party, fourth party, by this time there would maybe be a relevant third or fourth party? 
Wayne: Sure, just like Europe. 
Madhouse: I think that's what the problem is because now when someone suggests voting for the third or fourth party, that's viewed as a wasted vote and nothing ever changes. 
Wayne: I voted for Nader back in the day, I voted my conscience. 
Madhouse: You mentioned about drug laws.. You are involved in Jail Guitar Doors which is something that Billy Bragg started in England, and then you got involved in that and started a chapter in the USA. How did you get involved with that and how did that come about? 
Wayne: Sure, I served a federal prison term in the 1970s at the beginning of the drug war and after i was released I watched as more and more people just like me went to prison for longer sentences and under worse conditions. That pissed me off, I said when is somebody going to do something about this. First it was thousands, then it was tens, hundreds of thousands, today it's 2.3 million of our fellows under lock and key. Nobody said anything about it until the last couple of years. I've been an activist my whole life, the only way I can militantly oppose a neolism, my own sense of meaninglessness or my own cynicism which is the problem to take ethical action, by ethical action i mean thoughts and actions that move in the direction of human happiness and away from the direction of human suffering. I knew I was a musician and I'm an ex-convict. I’m a return citizen, what can I do? I can play concerts at prisons, I've always enjoyed it when people from the outside came in and played when i was in prison, so I took a bunch of my friends Gilby Clarke, Don Was, Perry Farrell, Jerry Cantrell, Handsome Dick Manitoba, and we all went into Sing-Sing NY and I took Billy Bragg to that show, and he started telling me about Jail Guitar Doors in England. I told him that’s a good thing, you're British I should probably do this in America, and he said good, I just gonna task you with it. My wife Margaret Kramer, Billy Bragg and I founded Jail Guitar Doors USA, that was 8 years ago, Today our guitars are in over 75 american prisons, we're running songwriting workshops programs in county jails across the country, Cook County, Chicago and here in the Los Angeles County jail, Texas, San Diego, in 4 California state prisons including the California state institute for women and one in the California youth authority camps, they call them camps but they are actually prisons for boys.
Madhouse: You supply them with instruments and classes, for a lot of these people there's no real rehabilitation in prisons, did you find that when you were in there, did you have your guitar when you were in there? 
Wayne: I caught the tail end of the era of rehabilitation in american corrections, so yes I had my guitar, we had a band, we had a lot of programs but they all went away with the drug war and ratcheting up of the mass incarceration in America. They took the weights away from prisoners in California, the books out of the libraries.  
Madhouse: What do you think of the drug laws, Didn't it kind of save you by getting you off the drugs  at that point? 
Wayne: It didn't really get me off the drugs, I did everything that they made available , but the state of the art of recovery was, this was the 1970s and we didn't know the things that we know today, of what works and what doesn't, and it was many years before I found a way to live where drinking and drugging weren't necessary, I didn't get sober until i was 50 and im 68 today.  
Madhouse: Well congratulations on that, let's talk about the arrest itself, did it stem from the FBI  still after you guys in the MC5? 
Wayne: Well I asked the DEA agent that arrested me, how did he find out about me, he said Kramer we have shit on you going back to in the 60s. 
Madhouse: Did you ever check out your files via the Freedom of Information? 
Wayne: I have them all, of course.  
Madhouse: Your upcoming concert, you're going to be doing a concert/tribute to Johnny Thunders playing his classic music with Clem Burke and Walter Lure and you of course, how did that come about?  
Wayne: Jesse Malin put it together, my dear brother, Jesse Malin phoned me up and said we're thinking about doing this, does this sound like fun, and i said yeah it could be fun let's give it a try and it kind of just blew up overnight.  
Madhouse: I forgot to mention Tommy Stinson from the Replacements is going to be playing with you guys.  
Wayne: Yeah I'm looking forward to it if we can create some good feelings that are connected to Johnny's memories, and the music that he made in the Heartbreakers, that's not a bad thing. 
Madhouse: It started with one show,  then two, then to multiple shows.  You think you guys might extend it to more cities if it goes well? 
Wayne: Yeah if it's fun, I'll know more after I've done a couple.  
Madhouse: I'm looking forward to that, it's going to be an awesome show.  You are living in LA now and you are working on film and tv composing, how did you get involved with that? 
Wayne: At a certain point, getting into the van again, didn't have the luster that it once did. I really love playing music for people and I still wanna do some gigs but I don't want to do 50 cities and tour Europe in a van in the winter. I always felt like I'd like to try to do music for film, maybe it's something I could do, I met some people out here that are in the tv business and that went well. I found some movies guys and they asked me to write some stuff, so far so good.  
Madhouse: I was reading that you worked on the Talladega Nights Soundtrack.
Wayne: Yeah I've done  a bunch of movies and tv shows, I like the work, it's like being the new guy in the band. It's a completely different kind of creativity. 
Madhouse: Do they give you the subject matter and you write a song for that? 
Wayne: Well it's more like you work for the director and he has an idea on how to tell his story and my job is to help him do what he wants to do. It's not really my music or my creativity or my vision, it's his and I am here to help him.  
Madhouse: What's next, you have anything new coming out, new music, a book or memoir coming out? 
Wayne: Yeah all of the above, I'm going to start a documentary about the 60s with a really good film maker and then I have a feature in the new year and a couple of other things, it's a very competitive business, you have to be working it.,  
Madhouse: I Think the MC5 should be a feature film, the story about them is amazing. 
Wayne: I'm with you I think it’d probably make a good story too 
Madhouse: Who'd you like to play you if they do that? 
Wayne: I don't have the faintest idea. 
Madhouse: How about Marky Mark, Mark Wahlberg? 
Wayne: That sounds great. 
Madhouse: Talking about the MC5 legacy now, I've talked to a lot of punk musicians and their main influence is MC5. Whether it's the Dead Boys from Cleveland, The Damned from England, The Ramones from New York, whoever it is , MC5 is the main influence on all of these guys. MC5 never sold tons albums or had number one hits, or anything like that, so what do you think is the legacy of MC5?  Do you think you'll get into the Hall of Fame, do you care about that at all? 
Wayne: Well it's always nice to be recognized for your work so to that degree it's an interesting idea, it's kind of hard to quantify art, as opposed to how many Home Runs you had. I think probably the reason is the uncompromising stance of the band represented the fence of possibilities of the music itself, we were trying to push beyond the beat and the key and trying to find a new way to play that wasn't tied to any pre existing traditions and the fact the MC5 never did pull the golden horseshoe out of their ass, we never did have a hit record, we never were a hit band, it kind of cements the outsider identity. It's kind of stuck in time, Marilyn Monroe will always be that beautiful blonde or James Deen will always be that beautiful young man and MC5 will always be that crazed revolutionary pre jazz electric guitar band that sang about picking up the jams motherfuckers and got thrown off the radio and kicked off the record label and arrested by the police and all of that shit. 
Madhouse: You guys were groundbreaking for sure, you were way ahead your time, I was a little kid at this point, I remember seeing you guys on a show or something and saying oh my god these are the coolest guys i've ever seen in my life, this is ridiculous. I do want to thank you for all of this great music that you've created and you've given me personally a lot of joy and I want to congratulate you on your humanitarian work and activism great work out there. Do you have any regrets about your career, life in general? 
Wayne: Well, no I don't have any regret, it all had to go that way you know, I don't shut the door on the past but I don't have any regrets about it. If I could go back and do things differently? Yeah I would have avoided some of the big mistakes I've made but we can't do that. The past is locked up in time and you can't undo it, so I just try to learn what there is to be learned from it and try not make those same mistakes again.  
Madhouse: Like you say everything you did in life brought you to the point you are now, so if you did anything then who knows where you'd be.  
Wayne: Yeah I used to think that so many years were wasted behind a bottle a vodka or a bag of heroin but I've finally come to realize that it's the most valuable thing i have because if I meet another guy, and he's going through the things i was going through, then i can say to him  what nobody else can say, is that i know how he feels because i did that too, you know.  
Madhouse: You lived in New York City for a while, You recorded and hung out with GG Allin. Was he as crazy as his persona, or was he nice and normal while no one else was around? 
Wayne: When i worked with him he was just like a brilliant young man who was excited about his songs and his band. He had not yet evolved into the scatological performance artist that he became later. He was a sweet kid when i worked him.  
Madhouse: I want to  thank you Wayne it's been great talking to you, I'm gonna see you November 16th at the Bowery Electric, I can't wait. Thank you for everything 
Wayne: Thanks Dennis, it's always nice to know that someone's listening and come by and say hello at the gig so I can put a face to the name. 
Author - Dennis Morgillo

Live From Dennis' House is an eclectic mix of comedy and music...
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