Wayne Kramer’s response to fans

Justin Timberlake Wears the MC5 (and Wayne Kramer Likes It) – An Open Letter to Fans & Critics.

The Kramer Report 3.17.03
An Open Letter to Fans & Critics
Justin Timberlake Wears the MC5 (and the MC5 Liked It)

We came together. We played. We conquered.

What a great time the last week has been. For those of you living outside the sphere of all things MC5, I spent the last ten days in London working on a truly wonderful happening.

The back-story: Some months ago we learned of the licensing of some MC5 images by Levi’s for a very limited run of vintage style shirts. This was done with our old friend Gary Grimshaw, the artist who designed much of the MC5’s graphics back in the day. The trademark was inadvertently used without the permission of the whole band and it looked like trouble brewed on the horizon. Instead of taking the traditional music business approach of Threaten and Fight, we tried to find a way to turn a lemon into lemonade. Truth was, we all liked Levi’s jeans and did a little research on their company. What we found was encouraging. They were open-minded. We agreed that the idea of a live show celebrating the artwork of Grimshaw and the music of the MC5 to bring the band’s message to a larger, more contemporary audience might be within our power. To draw the connection between the music of the MC5 and today’s music fans was one of our goals.

After a lot of brainstorming and an endless stream of international phone calls and e-mails, it actually came together. We would do it in a tiny and historic room in London, the 100 Club. Tickets would be given away by an alternative radio station and guests would include people who worked at Levi’s stores across Europe selling jeans, journalists who thought this was an historic event, friends of the band and people literally coming in right off the street. We also wanted to film and record everything, so we would have to keep it small in light of the current tragedies at overcrowded clubs.

Getting together with Dennis and Michael to play the music we helped create so long ago was a formidable challenge, but one that I undertook with great enthusiasm. It’s been a long time and much water under the bridge since we worked together. It was time.

The deaths of Fred Smith and Rob Tyner weighed heavy on my heart at the thought of presenting this music again. How do we do this with dignity to their memories and respect to their families? One answer came quickly. This would not be an MC5 reunion gig. This would not be advertised as an appearance of the MC5. That would be in fact, incorrect. There will never be another MC5. That would be impossible. What it could be is a celebration of the music and influence of the MC5. It was about the songs and the spirit of the group, and if we were to be true to the legacy of the band, then we would have to push ahead musically, trying to move past the place where we left off all those years ago. It was clear that, in order to do this correctly, we’d need help. Next call was to Dr. Charles Moore.

Charles was our horn arranger on “High Time” and a frequent collaborator dating back to the Grande Ballroom days of 1968. We did many special shows with Dr. Moore and other avant-garde jazz musicians in Detroit. I felt that having Charles on trumpet and fellow Detroiter Ralph “Buzzy” Jones on saxophone, the band could commit to pushing the sound. This was key. Charles and Buzzy were good to go. I started to get excited about the musical possibilities.

Now I faced the prospect of who was going to sing the songs. I sing a few of the tunes in my band today, but this was a much taller order. After some brainstorming and then talking it over with Michael and Dennis, I made a list of possible guests. This was an interesting exercise. Calling musicians worldwide and trying to arrange schedules at the last minute from a diverse number of folks (not to mention SXSW and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction conflicts) was a job I never realized could be so difficult. It brought me a whole new respect for people who do this kind of thing everyday.

I am happy to report that every single artist we invited sent great love and respect for the work of the MC5 and all left the door open to future collaborations. Little by little it started to come together. The excitement began to build when we arrived in London to start rehearsals. By then we had Dave Vanian from the Damned, Nicke Royale from the Hellacopters and Lemmy from Motorhead on board. We got right to work.

It was a trip learning these songs today in 2003. I’ve played a lot of music since I last played this material 30 years ago and I found that I had a fresh take on it. It was like learning someone else’s music but it seemed kinda familiar. I had written many of these songs, but it felt like I was in a dream-state. On a few of the songs I was struck by what a creative bunch of knuckleheads we were back when we were kids. Like digging through old photographs and seeing that you actually looked pretty good when you were young!

The rehearsals ran counterpoint with promotional work for the event. We spent the days in the studio and the nights doing European press. This is standard procedure for any touring artist, but the interest in this show seemed to be rabid based on the number and intensity of the interviews we did. Some of the British music press was curious how this gig came to happen and tried to generate a scandal around the MC5/Levi’s connection. The Guardian’s cub reporter in particular gave it a nice try, but he ran out of steam. Rather than focus on the fact that he had the first interview with us all together for the first time in decades, he published a tired MC5-have-the-nerve-to-get-paid-for-their-work article. Yawn. Here we go again.

Speaking of scandal, I’ve been following the dialogue on the message board and enjoying the vigorous exchanges. There seems to be a lot of speculation and incorrect assumptions, so I’m gonna break this down for you all right now.

Artists have, from the beginning of time, used whatever means at their disposal to reach their audience. Moving musicians around the world, recording, promoting and distributing records and all related activities is an expensive undertaking. In the past, record companies covered the cost of much of this, but that’s not the case today. In today’s world music economy, the artist needs new resources. If you don’t fit into the mega-hit formula of MTV/Clear Channel, you must find alternative ways to get to your audience. The Internet is one way, like we’re doing right now.

You must also find a way to survive that is in harmony with your view of the world. All the anti-establishment sentiments in the songs don’t mean a thing if you can’t pay your rent. The pundits and fans wishing the MC5 were guerillas hiding up in the mountains and making raids down on the cities are way off the mark. For one thing, we dress better and we don’t live in tents. We live in houses and apartments just like everyone else. We have bills just like everyone else. I love hearing about all the millions of bucks folks think I have. What a hoot. If and when I ever make big money, I’ll let you know.

The dynamic goes something like this. If we put ourselves up as revolutionaries who are willing to say something in our music besides the usual rhyming blather, and we find acceptable ways to pay our rent, the critics attack us. There is no way around this and I accept it as the cost of doing something as opposed to doing nothing. This kind of mean-spirited slagging has been going on for 35 years with the MC5. The current class of mudslingers should have been around in the ’60s when we were getting it from the Black Panthers, SDS, the Weathermen and The Motherfuckers. They would have eaten all those lightweights alive. The Radical Left found us not revolutionary enough for the revolution. The Radical Right tapped our telephones and harassed our families.

If I declare myself to be a messenger of change, to protest what I know is wrong in the world or in myself, then actually be the person I represent myself to be, my critics seem to be compelled to needle me for not being downtrodden enough, not oppressed enough. There’s a perverse thing going on here with critics and fans. It’s especially peculiar to me that, when I was rotting in Federal Prison, the British music press revered me. Maybe they’d be happier if I’d never work again and be a glorious petrified legend. True to form, rather than step up to the plate this time and explore the decisions made by us, they tried to make us look bad. I would be disappointed if they didn’t. It’s predictable and it’s cheap and it’s their usual lazy journalism not backed up by any political ideology or theory one way or the other. It’s about filling column inches with as little effort as possible, and they have a right to do so. It’s as if we were accountable to a different standard that anyone else. If you shine a light on injustice, you can’t have a nice, clean house?

There is a distinction that could be made and this is it:

There is nothing wrong with success, as long as it doesn’t come first.

There is nothing wrong with money, as long as it doesn’t come first.

There is nothing wrong with having the respect of your fellows, as long as their opinions don’t come first.

What is wrong is when prestige and status come before human concerns. When money comes before people, trouble follows. That’s on a personal or corporate level and true for me as a person, for a band or a corporation. A corporation is not, inherently, an evil thing. Some are, to be sure. Companies that poison water and air for profit are wrong. The military-industrial complex is at the center of much that’s wrong in the world today.

Everyone works for a company. What do you think record companies are? All your favorite artists from Rage Against The Machine on Epic to Bruce Springsteen on Sony, to Iggy Pop on Virgin record for major international companies. Do they slam Steve Earle for being on Artemis? Or The International Noise Conspiracy for being on Epitaph? These are all corporations. I own a corporation. It’s MuscleTone Records.

There is no way to live outside the system. That is a complete distortion of real life. If you touch money, you are part of the system. This acknowledgement is consistent with the stance of the MC5 since its beginning. What do you think “by any means necessary” means? Shooting it out with the pigs? Wrong fantasy, dude. We always viewed the system as the way to reach people with our music. We always believed in co-opting the system. We wrote “American Ruse” when we were on Atlantic Records for Chrissake! Effect change from within. Do you think that we didn’t laugh our asses off when we saw Justin Timberlake on the cover of Vibe wearing an MC5 shirt? How did that happen? Hell if I know, but it was a trip. It took us 35 years to get in deep and there it was, represented by Justin staring back at us. I figure he’d probably heard somewhere along the line about the “Mick-Five,” but I merely speculate.

If artists don’t want their music used in connection with other products or services, that’s their right. It’s their work. They decide what’s best for them, but that doesn’t mean their records aren’t products and they don’t deal in services. Artists have a right to make a living from their work just like anyone else does.

Where does it say in the revolutionary handbook that I’m supposed to starve to death?

People are constantly asking me if it rankles me that Iggy isn’t lambasted for licensing Stooges music to Nike (who use foreign child labor) or his own stuff to Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. It absolutely does not bother me. I just read in the New York Times that “the conscience of a generation” himself, Bob Dylan, licensed a song to Victoria’s Secret. These and other artists can do what they want with their own work. If they do or do not need the money is none of my business. Bless ’em all.

This is the point: The MC5 or any artist has a right to enter into any business relationship of their choosing. That’s why we do what we do. It’s our work and it’s our lives. It’s the music we share.

The other important point is this. I do not work for Levi’s. My company, MuscleTone Records, entered into a partnership with them to produce this event. We control the film and audio rights of this event. And, just for the record, I personally did not negotiate a performance fee for my services from Levi’s. If I make a dime from this event it will be because I worked hard to musically direct, produce and market this music. All of the artists who performed in this event will share in the profits, if there are any. There are no guarantees in this game, homeboy. It’s an argument that will run outta gas on its own, but sometimes it’s helpful to clarify the facts.

As I mentioned earlier, I did some research on Levi’s. I found out that they are a 150-year old, family owned and controlled company. They have a record of standing up for their workers’ civil rights going as far back as the South struggle during the Jim Crow era. They pay women equally. They do not use foreign child labor. Levi’s Vintage Clothing is made in the USA. They are decent folks and a good company and I have no problem with them. In fact, I admire them for having the good taste and vision to take on a project like this. The MC5 is not exactly the kind of band that most companies would have the cajones to be identified with. They made a dream come true for fans who have supported us all these years. If it were Dow Chemical or another polluter of the planet, I would have had to decline, but Levi’s are a good product. I’ve worn them all my life. What kind of jeans do you wear?

Back to the show. The guest line-up grew right up to the last minute with the addition of a wonderful 21-year old London soul singer, Kate O’Brien. I really wanted to have a woman sing Rob Tyner’s achingly beautiful ballad “Let Me Try,” and Kate was perfect. And at the last moment, Ian Astbury called up to let me know he was in town and asked if we wanted to hang out.

We filmed the show with a four-camera shoot and live audio recorded to Pro Tools that I’m mixing now. If it comes out as good as I hope we’ll have a CD, a TV show and a DVD to show for it.

The music was a joy to perform and everyone played their asses off. Playing with Dennis and Michael was a ball. Michael has been touring all over the world with Rich Hopkins and has recently set off on his own to do some solo work. He and Dennis mentioned in an interview that they plan to work together on a studio project in the near future. Dennis’s drumming was as high energy as ever. Kate, Dave, Lemmy and my main man Nicke all sang beautifully. Nicke’s guitar work was a living tribute to the artistry of Fred Smith. Ian Astbury’s inspired performance of “KOTJ” was hypersonic.

Seeing the joy in the faces of the fans blew my mind. By singing every song along with us, word for word, had me floating through the whole set. Another high point was performing “Black to Comm.” Charles and Buzzy brought their otherworldly brass sounds into focus with the screaming electric guitars and, together, we truly traveled the spaceways from planet to planet. Kate even joined in on some intergalactic vocals. It was some old songs played in a new way and some new music played in an even more immediate way. It was alive right then in the moment and it was good.

I’ll keep you informed on progress with the CD/DVD and thanks for all the messages on the site. You folks amaze me with the level of passion you have for the music and artists you follow. I want you to know I appreciate all your ideas and support (and criticism). Thanks for caring.

God bless, w.

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