Kick Out The Jams, Motherfuckers!
By Mike Marino
Kick out the jams, Motherfuckers!
That was the purple-hazed, double-dazed battle hymn of the 1960's. The Late Great Altered States of America. The Red, White and Screwed. It was an era that ripped the bra off of Lady Liberty to reveal her falsies and hypocrisy. Meanwhile, Kick out the Jams was resonating from deep within the bowels of the Motor City from the stage of the Grande Ballroom. It echoed throughout the concrete canyons of a youthful hipster America. The Grande, for those who may not know it, is to rock n' roll what the tomb of Jesus is to Christians, except it was a much cooler and louder place!. It was a great time to be alive, stoned and crazy.
It was a musio-politico warning shot fired over the head of a disheveled establishment. The tattered flag that represented a faded American dream was emerging from the chaotic mushroom cloud of Flower Power. The Sixties brought about the assassination of two Kennedys and a King, not to mention a law and order police meltdown during the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. Vietnam was a raging drunken bull-dyke in a badass biker bar on too many bennies and dexies, and with too much to prove. The Black Panthers and Angela Davis had "gone to the top of the mountain" too, and realized it was the perfect spot for a sniper.
"Free Huey" and "Burn, Baby, Burn" had become the new bestselling militant mantras, pushing We Shall Overcome from the top of the Civil Rights pop music charts...and the hits kept on a'comin'. A gagged Bobby Seale sat at the defense table during the Chicago Seven trial where Judge Hoffman judged Abbie Hoffman and his merry band of pranksters, hipsters and Yippee lost boys. Michigan had spawned the Students for a Democratic Society on the heels of the Port Huron Statement, and from that seedling sprang the Weathermen... and, by the way, you really don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. In Detroit and the neighboring People's Republic of Ann Arbor, John Sinclair and a cadre of blue collar artists - slash - bolsheviks formed The White Panther Party, a group in spiritual alignment with the Black Panthers. San Fran-freakin'cisco had Haight Ashbury, New Yawk had the Village and Detroit had a small pisser of a bohemian ghetto known as Plum Street--- artists, headshops, too much sandalwood and intense patchouli incense, panhandlers and rag tag student neo-revolutionaries from Wayne State and pants pissin' winos from the Cass Corridor... that was the backdrop. Now, the players.
The Motor City had its unholy share of madmen and rock n' roll Rasputins. It was the rock hunting grounds of Her Leather Thighness, Suzi Quatro, the Amboy Dukes, Frigid Pink, the Stooges and Frost. The brothers Hodge, Dallas and Catfish. The radio station of choice was WABX, home of Dave Dixon and across the river the Canadian, eh, airwave ballbuster of CJOM with it's no holds barred middle finger attitude to the American Woman across the bridge. The Fifth Estate newspaper was the only paper worth stealing and 12th Street was ready to boil over with snipers, tanks and the National Guard as race relations reached below sea level, lows that erupted in a rage with looting, shootings, beatings, and a city left scarred and scared... it was the home of rock n' roll. It was bar bands, garage bands and basement bands. God created this rock n' roll universe in six days and on the seventh, He rested, but not before he created the MC5 and built the Grande Ballroom.
The Grande is the quintessential Ingrid Bergman of rock venues in the Motor City. Just enough erection-causing sex appeal , style, grace and Ilsa elegance, ala "Casablanco", that was built in 1928 with the ballroom located on the second floor. Jazz bands improvised as Detroit's elite swarmed to over-capacity the ballroom, boppin' and jazzin' and finger poppin' into the Thirties. Then along came Bennie Goodman and the other big bands whose sound filled the cavernous ballroom with a bobby sox sexuality. In the Sixties, Russ Gibb took over and started booking bands from Jeff Beck to Cream and everyone in between. Bob Seger and Ted Nugent plied their rock trade alongside the top acts and other local acts that comprised the Detroit rock n' roll scene, but one band came to epitomize the mucho grande days of the ballroom Grande... The Motor City Five.
The Motor City Five added an element of fuel-injected energy and high octane creativity to a highly combustible mixture of rock and revolution. The turbulent Sixties were fueling the band with left-wing politics and a penchant for psychedelics, the Breakfast of '60's Champions. Bizarrely, or not, the group made the cover of the highly coveted Rolling Stone Magazine (in the days it was worth reading) without having an album out. Their on-stage antics, pitbull approach to convention and their outrageously high-powered hi-amped energy paved the way of their reputation with the effectiveness of a bulldozer clearing a rain forest. They were loud and they were proud. They had energy to spare and you didn't have to be an Einstein to figure out that E=MC5.
In the beginning there was rock n' roll...Wayne Kramer and Fred "Sonic" Smith were high school friends and guitarists who played in several bands at sockhops which were the rage of the day before the days of rage. By 1964, the Motor City Two were now Five with the addition of Michael Davis on bass, Dennis Thompson on drums, and a singer with a voice that seemed to erupt from a very angry volcano, Rob Tyner. Tyner originally was going to be the band's manager but didn't care for that aspect... can't get laid being a manager, eh? So he tried out as the bass player, and failed miserably. So, as is inevitable in rock n' roll, the one who is the least talented musician becomes the singer and front man. If Phil Spector built the Tycoon of Teen "Wall of Sound", then Tyner and the Five created the rock n' roll wall of heavy metal iron and steel that was a natural musical spawn of the blue collar-unionized autoworker City of Motors.
Enter..stage far left. The Lone Socialist Ranger in the persona of John Sinclair who would take over the duties as "manager" for the group and use it effectively to spearhead a cultural revolution through raw high energy rock n' roll. Sinclair was one of the first Marxist multi-taskers, if such a thing can exist. He was head of the Detroit Artists Workshop, anarchists and artists working towards a gentle world of peace, art and anarchy. His militancy grew over the years, and he, along with others, formed the White Panther Party as the vanilla extract to the Black Panthers. The Five/Sinclair marriage lasted a few years with the band getting more revolutionary by the minute as they and Sinclair spiraled through the helter skelter Sixties, the decade that had a societal deathwish and would climax in death and disillusionment with not only the establishment, but itself.
The stage was set....
There was the Haight ...there was the Village...and in Detroit there was Plum Street. Plum Street was the envisioned Bohemian art colony smack dab in the middle of middle america in the middle of the middle earth of the Motor City. Shops, artisans, a gentrified community unlike the rucksack roadies that were crossing the continent. Haight Ashbury, Colfax Ave in Denver and the Village had evolved over the years, a fine wine aging in an oak cask. Plum Street, in typical Detroit fashion, was "assembled and manufactured" and rolled off the assembly line in 1966 with fanfare and the goddamn mayor of Detroit officially opening it! How fucking revolutionary is that? It was capitalism and commercialism trying to sell new Cadillacs in a used car lot. Yes, the artists came, yes the tourists came, and yes, the "hippies" came and were (ready for this shit?) Persona Non Gratis as they did what they will do and did in those days... you know, "Spare Change?". You have to remember, Plum Street was a fake. It was not a real "woman" but a drag queen on a runway strutting her stuff, attractive maybe, but not the real deal.
April...1967... just months before the summer solstice and the flower powered Summer of Love, the pseudo-hippie scene of Detroit emulating the San Francisco Human Be-in decided to stage a love-in, which in the blue collar vortex of Detroit is an oxymoron. Let's face it, Detroit was never the sensitive type. Detroit, Rock City! Detroit, Murder City! No sissy Seattle here, amigo. The "Love Locale" chosen was Belle Isle, an island playground smack dab in the middle of the Detroit River, with a bridge from Jefferson Ave taking visitors to its gardens, outdoor grilling pits, decorative fountains, aquarium, dance emporium and yacht club. The same bridge that Harry Houdini did his appendix-bursting-underwater escape trick from.
One of the groups playing that day was the MC5. The park was packed, the rolling papers kept rolling along, acid was dropped and music filled the park with thousands of weekend hippies, artists, musicians, bikers, hipsters, squares and narcs. Narcs in the parks was a mainstay of the Sixties. As the sun began to set with the city skyline framed in the foreground, the cops were getting restless.. uh oh, bad sign. The polizia on foot and mounted troops stormed the crowd to move them off the island, back across the river, back to Jefferson Avenue, but apparently they weren't moving fast enough so batons were raised, heads were cracked, and all hell broke loose as the cops went anal on the "anarchy" before them.
The Outlaw motorcycle gang was also on hand and there were instances of members of the brotherhood beating up bystanders. During all this, businesses on Jefferson Ave, including the restaurants, locked their doors. Liquor stores on the other hand didn't fare as well with windows smithereen'd and bro's Jack Daniels and Johnny Walker making their escape to the streets. The crowd of close to 3,000 was finally dispersed by 9:30 pm. Sinclair rationalization claimed that all the real hippies had left before the melee and the problem was caused by wannabe's and police. The MC5 had experienced their first head-knocker riot, but more were waiting in the wings on the turbulent horizon just months away, August actually, as the Motor City became an occupied city.
Detroit has this peculiar habit, religious in nature me thinks, of setting itself on fire, overturning cars, and looting. Sports mainly will be the gasoline to fuel the flames... a Piston-pumping win on the court, a Red Wings victory on ice, a Tigers ballpark win... doesn't matter. Like a Buddhist monk in Saigon, it decides to torch itself to celebrate a victory or bitch and moan about defeat. In late summer, 1967, it was a street rampage bonfire that ignited on 12th Street. In those days, cops were in the habit of harassing anyone with long hair or black skin. In the city, a blind pig was raided by the infamous "Big Four" which were separate groups of four cops who fancied themselves Texas Rangers or some macho fraternity of law and disorder who roamed the inner city neighborhoods of Detroit checking identification of people who may just be standing around. They would arrest people in squad cars, or trump up charges on an individual, pulling one magically out of the hat, or cop helmet in this case. In a few cases, the Big Fours tactics led to the outright murder of three people during questioning. A teenager and two prostitutes, each shot "while attempting to escape the back of a squad car". Police honchos bought the act, lock, stock and gun barrel, with a sly wink.
The blind pig raided was merely a group of black citizens hosting a welcome home party for two returning Vietnam veterans. The cops expected a dozen people to be on the premises, easy billy club pickin's, but instead found damn near a hundred of these mo'fo's. Shit...Calling all cars, calling all cars. Gotta have backup, right? The cops burst in roughing up the patrons, things started to get out of control and before you know it, riots broke out. It was Dresden during the fire bombings as the city flicked its Bic and went up in glorious technicolor flames. Cops shot at looters, and snipers shot at cops and firemen from rooftop nests as the city and the police went schizoid with a synapse that snapped. The National Guard (the weekend warriors from the farm) were called in along with Michigan State Police (glorified meter maids) and eventually the White House wanted in on the head-busting action and ordered the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne to the scene. Christ, it was the Tet Offensive in reverse. Tanks rumbled through the streets, martial law was in force, and at the end of the five days, the tally was 43 killed, 1,100 injured and over 7,000 arrested. Today, 12th Street has been renamed...Rosa Parks Boulevard.
You can't blame this one on the MC5 or even John Sinclair. They were in town, yes, and living in the city, yes, so they were witness to the flames and brutality. In an interview, Wayne Kramer related that he was arrested during the riots because he had a telescope in his apartment window downtown. The cops saw it and busted in, cracking heads and opening them up like so many cans of Spam. Kramer was arrested, the cops claiming he was spotting uniformed targets for snipers. Incoming!! This was the Fives' second encounter with a schizophrenic Demon-ocracy not taking it's meds. The MC5 and John Sinclair were now in the rifle sights of a paranoid establishment and were poster children of the dreaded Red Squads that kept lists of "enemies of the state", a phrase borrowed from Josef Stalin no doubt, but it was the year 1968, the Chicago Year of Daley that would make all other riots pale in comparison and place the MC5 on a government hit list, marked for commercial death.
1968. The Democratic Convention in Chicago. There was a euphoric elation lifting the spirits of the younger generation accompanied by a sense of real change in the air, optimism for the future, and an arrogance on both sides of the line drawn in the generational sand. The chant of "Make Love, Not War" drowning out the Om! of Merle Haggards' "Love It or Leave It" Okie mental illness that affected an older generation with hardhatitis, "my-country-right-or-wrong" philosophizing. Jerry Rubin, Uncle Abbie Hoffman, David Dellinger, yeah, the list goes on and on of the participants and sycophants involved. Anyone who was anyone was there. Terry Southern covered the convention for left wing periodicals, but the scene that stands out is the live telecast of regular guy journalista Dan Rather being carted off unceremoniously from the convention floor with an appalled Walter Cronkite giving a blow-by-blow commentary. Mayor Daley of Chicago glared at the podium in a classic case of a Political Portrait of Dorian Gray whose time had come and gone. Outside in the park, the crowd was getting as restless as villagers ready to storm Dr. Frankenstein's castle to kill the Promethean beast the mad doctor had created. So with pitchforks held and decibels cranked up high, the band played on.
The MC5 were scheduled to play a free concert outside the convention hall, and they did amidst the amok and the chaos. They had been invited by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin to kick out the jams, and kick them out they did, right in the balls. Just as they were finishing, the cops moved in and the Five began removing their equipment as fast as they could. Having been through many riots before, they didn't need a crystal ball to know what was next on the "to protect and serve" agenda. The MC5 have the distinction of being the only band to actually perform a free concert amidst the melee and police riot that subsequently defined the American meltdown of the American wet-dream, and many were now thinking of bullets over ballots. The revolution was on....or so we thought.
Following the Demo-debacle, the MC5 clicked their revolutionary Red slippers (There's No Place Like Home) and returned to Detroit and the familiar sanctuary of the Grande. Elektra Records was now interested in the band (along with the Stooges) , so they sent a talent agent to hear what they had in a live performance and in the end signed the Five and Iggy Pop both to the label. Their first Elektra release is the now classic Kick Out The Jams which was recorded live at the Grande in late '68, and because the record company felt they sounded better live, they decided to release the live version. Of course, there was a matter of Motherfuckers, so the dreaded, castrated AM radio version that turned Motherfuckers into Brothers and Sisters won out... ok, so it was a compromise... it's hard to foment revolution without a top ten on the hit parade. Fuck Karl Marx and his manifesto and Mao's Little Red Book...gotta make Billboard Magazine first.
But wait...not another fuckin' riot. New Yawk this time, and a riot by any other name...not on the scale of the Newark or Detroit riots...not near the benchmark set in Berkeley at People's Park and the gassing on Telegraph Ave. but a riot all the same, if you please. In New York, Bill Graham, rock impresario without peer, had opened the Fillmore East to complement his original Fillmore in the Fillmore District of San Francisco, now unfortunately renamed the Fillmore West. A group calling themselves the East Village Motherfuckers, an American version of Amsterdams Provos without knowing it, had talked Wild Bill Graham into setting Wednesday nights aside as "community night" with free shows for the panhandling proletariat who roamed the beat streets of the Village. Bill said yes, and even had the MC5 play a freebie for the community. Elektra, the MC5 label, wanted to showcase the band to a more affluent record buying crowd so they in turn booked the Fillmore (for real American cash money) on a Wednesday--- yes, community night. Now, that was a page torn from How to Piss-off an Already Pissed-Off Motherfucker 101. The MF's, never really a cheerful lot to begin with, weren't happy and stormed the Graham Bastille. (I know, more villager visuals for the reader to consume)
Bill stood his ground outside the auditorium and refused entry, in a stance reminiscent of Gov. Lester Maddox standing in a southern academia doorway brandishing an axe handle so black students couldn't enter a white school. Next thing you know old Bill is hit with a chain by a Motherfucker who breaks his considerable nose. Inside, the band is kickin' out the jams with Motherfuckers in the audience who had crashed the party, and when the Five finished, the maddening crowd storm-trooped the stage trying to rip off the Five's gear as the band itself bolted out of the Fillmore as fast as their power-to-the-people legs could run. Motherfuckers in hot pursuit, roadies mixing it up in the fray, a carnival call of Hey Rube goes up and all hell breaks out. Then it happened. Two limo's appear for the band. Limos? Revolutionaries...fuck...the whole crowd went nuts. Wayne Kramer tries to explain MC5 and White Panther theory while the crowd gets more hostile and come at him with knives just like a scene of the Sharks and the Jets in West Side Story. Kramer does get out alive with a little help from his friends, but unfortunately Bill Graham thought it was Rob Tyner who swung the chain at him (it wasn't but it didn't matter, this was Graham and he had more clout than God). Graham had the band blacklisted not only at his venues but within his secret society circle of promoters who made the rules and had the decoder rings to prove it.
The Five had released their album and waited for success to come a'knockin' at the door. One of the places that the newly released album was to be available was in the bands hometown mondo-monstro department store, J.L. Hudson's, the venerable mercantile dominatrix that ruled the downtown Detroit skyline on Woodward Ave for decades, merchandising whip in hand. Hudson's was the equivalent of the Mall of America in it's day in the Motor City. In fact, the Hudson family were the backers of the famed Hudson automobile including the NASCAR darling, the Hudson Hornet. Hudson's sponsored the annual Thanksgiving Parade that would cruise down Woodward from the Institute of Arts into the city center, past the Vernor's bottling plant where Detroiters for decades could watch ginger ale being bottled as they gazed through giant windows. And Motown had moved it's record studios from it's ghetto nest to the more prestigious Woodward Ave, all culminating in a dramatic waterfront as Woodward ended at Jefferson Avenue, exposing the freighter-bearing Detroit River just across from the Canadian city of Windsor.
Hudson's was the record store of choice for Motor City rock n' roll rebels. Elvis dominated the racks at one time and now it was time for the MC5, hometown homegrown favorites, to take their place on the Rock n' Roll Rack of Fame at the gargantuan Hudson's. Well, not quite. Seems the white collar sensitivities of the buying department at Hudson's, didn't take to the overtly blue collar, anarchistic war chant of the band, and the release was deemed, well, obscene, which in itself was an obscenity. The underground press and emerging FM radio stations such as the revolutionary WABX which broadcast from downtown Detroit took the battle of the retailer to the press and the airwaves and the Five took out a full page ad in The Fifth Estate underground paper with the simple message... "Fuck Hudson's"! Can't say for certain how effective it was, but today, ask any young Detroiter about Hudson's and they'll give you a blank deer-in-the-headlight stare... Ask them who the MC5 were and at best you'll get "Oh fuck yeah, Kick out the jams, motherfuckers" although they will still miss the point. Let's face it, this generation is not of a rebellious nature, but if they ever do reinstate the draft, I guarantee they will put down their Playstations and face it or fight it. Might even hear a chorus of Country Joe's Vietnam Rag.
It was a bit too much for Elektra, so they dropped the band faster than hot merchandise, but they were picked up by Atlantic, who somehow thought they could make a silk purse out of this rock n' roll sows ear. But that wasn't to be, either. Their releases failed to chart anywhere near acceptable and the material was turning commercial, which the band didn't like. Their political-managerial alliance with John Sinclair was changing too. The band was beat, and Sinclair was about to make the blunder of his life by getting narc'd. It was only a matter of time.
John was busted for giving two joints to a narc. The result was a sentence of 9 and a half to 10 years imposed on the imposing White Panther. In 1971 a glitterati of leftist music luminaries assembled in the great Peoples Republic of Ann Arbor for the Free John Sinclair Rally. John Lennon and Yoko Ono were there, and in fact the song John Sinclair(10 for 2) is on the Sometime in New York album. Rockin' Robert Seger was there, as were folk artist Phil Ochs and Howlin' poet emeritus of the beat generation, Allen Ginsberg, to name but a few. Within days of the rally, the Michigan Supreme Court overturned the Sinclair sentence and from then on, the white knight was talking backwards as Ann Arbor held it's hookah high. Soon, marijuana laws were decriminalized in Ann Arbor, (many thanks to Zolton Ferency and the Human Rights Party), and combined, all these events led to the present day Hash Bash held on the U of M campus each year in academia's version of the Grassy Bowl Conspiracy. Thank you to both John's and Zolton.
The MC5 planets were no longer aligned in perfect chaotic harmony. The times were changing faster than a pit crew at Indy changing tires, the bright red of revolution had become a faded pinkish punkish hue and the war in Vietnam was escalating and the music hadn't brought the Pentagon to it's knees. Drugs began to push to the forefront of the band's quest for the holy rock n' roll grail, and as politics became less, well, political to them, the drugs took front and center stage, forcing the band into the background and relegated as the opening act of the comedy of sex, drugs and rock n' roll, and oh yeah, by the way, a blast from the past...the MC5.
One of the tours they did before the final splitting of the MC5 atom was in Jolly Olde across the pond to the land of the Ripper, God Save the Queen, the Union Jack and a jerkoff gang of UK Teddyboys at Wembley Stadium. Fifties wannabe rockers with peg pants, bowling shirts and enough fuckin' grease to last a week in the state penitentiary. There were 50 thousand plus in attendance, and not in a mood for the new look of the Five and began pelting the band with beer cans and other hurled missiles from the audience. Tyner, ever the Detroiter, began tossing them back and that was all she wrote. The band escaped from the stage and the stadium and headed back to the "sanity", they thought, of their beloved home turf, Detroit.
Nixon captured White House in 1972, the same year the MC5 said "fuckit" to the music industry. Touring and drugs wearing them down, no commercial successes and dropped by two labels will give you a complex in due time. So in true Five fashion, they decided to give a farewell concert at, where else? The Grande, the scene of so many past grand MC5 performances. The farewell show was pretty much a no show as far as packing in the SRO crowd. They were offered $500 for the gig. The crowd was sparse, 250, if that. Kramer got pissed and mid-set walked off the stage and the Five Horsemen of the Rock n' Roll Apocalypse had disappeared in a nuclear flash. It was the musical version of "Death of a Salesman", the MC5 now rock n' roll's Willie Loman.
Today, the defunct Five are in retrospect regarded as gods, as well they should be. John Sinclair lives in Amsterdam as a gentle poet who at times rambles incoherently to anyone who will listen anymore. The White Panthers became the Rainbow Peoples Party and by now, all of them are run of the mill Democrats. Bobby Seale schlepps BBQ recipes, Abbie Hoffman is dead and Lennon was assassinated.
The music scene as a whole sucks today with no MC5 or Ramones or Flamin' Groovies or New York Dolls on the horizon to salvage what is left of rock n' roll. The revolution never got off the ground full speed, but it did make a dent in the establishment's armor. The generation today is not interested in protest. In fact, compliance is the mantra, not defiance. Just once I would like to hear a presidential candidate stand at the podium and instead of saying things like "We must work together as one people to make a stronger America, my fellow Americans" ... just once, with a wink in the candidate's eye as he or she looks into the camera, smile to the American public and say...."My Fellow Americans....screw this....it's time to Kick out the Jams, Motherfuckers!!"
For more pedantic and pedagogic peregrinations, Marino-style, click here. The man is a maniac, but he does have a way with words.