Brainiac On Banjo: Our Revolutionary Rock God

The place was the scene of some kind of horrible crime; another postal worker had lost his mind. Couldn’t stand the tension, lost his pension, afraid of growing old out in the cold, no one to hold. As he did his stalking, that Glock did his talking, he settled the score up and down the floor. SWAT team sniper caught him at the door. The mailman put in a fresh clip, turned and slipped through a crack in the universe. “A Crack in the Universe” written by Wayne Kramer.

If America had only one musical Mecca — and we have about a dozen — that one place would be Detroit, Michigan.

Among the many talents who get their start or made their bones in Detroit, in politically-correct alphabetical order (more or less): Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, George Clinton, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, Bootsy Collins, Alice Coltrane, Alice Cooper, Marshall Crenshaw, Eminem, Aretha Franklin, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Glenn Frey, Marvin Gaye, Grand Funk Railroad, Bill Haley, John Lee Hooker, Tommy James and the Shondells, Yusef Lateef, Little Willie John, Martha and the Vandellas, MC5, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Phil Ochs, Parliament-Funkadelic, Wilson Pickett, Iggy Pop, Suzi Quatro, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Bob Seger, Del Shannon, Patti Smith, Edwin Starr, The Stooges, The Supremes, The Temptations, Sippie Wallace, The White Stripes, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Jackie Wilson, Stevie Wonder…

The MC5. Photo by Leni Sinclair

…to name but a very, very few. I could triple this list without looking at the internet; the total would run longer than the entire roll-call for The Avengers. If there’s anybody above with whom you might not be familiar — that’s why we’ve got search engines. It’s worth the effort.

I’m not going to play the “who’s best / who’s most important game” because it’s childish, stupid, deceiving and totally irrelevant. My guess is that your AI-based streaming service devotes an incredible percentage of its playlists on these Detroit performers. But I will note the efforts of Wayne Kramer, frontman for the revolutionary hard-rock group The MC5. Their stuff was to the point, it encouraged not only awareness but action, and by today’s standards some of the least woke stuff engraved in wax since “Barnacle Bill.” Don’t mention this to the MAGA Party; it’ll destroy their tiny little minds.

Ahh, screw it. Tell them anyway.

Wayne didn’t invent “protest” music; in this country that subset goes back to the very beginnings of roots music. More or less conceived in New Orleans with parents from the West Indies, Scotland, the Caribbean and the Mississippi Delta, roots music is quite aptly defined. It’s the starting point of the American music culture that begat rhythm and blues, jazz, country, rockabilly, and rock’n’roll in its hundreds of different incarnations. The MC5 and its manager John Sinclair came by their beliefs honestly from their environment, and they put those beliefs to hard, pounding heavy rock and roll. The kind you could pick up on your dental fillings.

When I joined the staff of the Chicago Seed, a great metropolitan newspaper, one of my first efforts was to help promote a benefit for the Seed and our sister-paper, Kaleidoscope, for which I also wrote. The benefit was at the stunning Aragon Ballroom, which remains extant, and the MC5 headlined the show. This was, for me, an amazing introduction to an angry and highly creative world bursting with new approaches, new philosophies and breathtakingly loud force.

Wayne Kramer, the MC5 and John Sinclair provided us with the soundtrack for our time, and pretty much gave birth to punk rock in the process.

Wayne Kramer. Photo by Jim Newberry

The last time I saw Wayne was about 15 years ago at Chicago’s legendary yet not-extant Heartland Café. That evening it was home to a memorial for my late friend and co-conspirator, Righteous Robert Rudnick, grandfather of the FM rock radio movement, poetry slammer par excellence and minister of propaganda for Sinclair’s White Panther Party. Lots of old friends were there, many of whom are no longer walking this planet.

Among the latter, now, is Wayne Kramer. He died last week at 75 from pancreatic cancer. That’s inevitable, of course, but it’s another milepost counting me down to zero. He was making music until he no longer could and was on Alice Cooper’s 2023 album Road.

Wayne changed our music, he energized us, he made us think. Tom Morello, no slouch at the revolutionary bit despite his youth, said on Instagram: “He (Kramer) possessed a one of a kind mixture of deep wisdom and profound compassion, beautiful empathy and tenacious conviction. His band the MC5 basically invented punk rock music.”

As the song goes, rock and roll will never die. Wayne Kramer’s critical contributions to the medium will live on.