08 July 2006

A Testimonial

A well-connected friend lent me a copy of the long-awaited (by me, anyway) MC5: A True Testimonial, a documentary on what might arguably be called the world's first real punk rock band. I say "arguably" not because I want to argue about it, though once upon a time I might have. But categories and classifications aside, it's hard to deny that the MC5 have wielded an influence wildly out of proportion to their relatively brief career and lack of commercial success.

I was hoping to see old friends - or maybe even myself - in the crowd and background shots, but apart from the usual suspects like John Sinclair and Pun Plamondon - oh, and a quick shot of Gary Grimshaw - I didn't see many people I knew; either that, or the mists of time have befogged my ability to connect those teenaged and twenty-something longhairs from the late 60s to anything resembling real people today. But that was a minor disappointment, and just about my only disappointment in an otherwise excellent film.

I have no idea if it will be of similar interest to people with no direct connection to Detroit or Ann Arbor, though I imagine almost any punk rock fan would be intrigued to see the connections resonating down through the years, and students or devotées of 60s politics should be fascinated and/or appalled to see how intense - and at the same time, how ridiculous - the "revolutionary" movement could get. John Sinclair, caught in a rare moment of unembellished candor, admits that the White Panther Party's 10 point program was about as far from a serious political statement as it was possible to get, dreamed up as it was by "a bunch of guys sitting around a table high on pot, acid and beer." And other, harder drugs as well; my favorite and most revealing John Sinclair memory (forgive me if I've posted about this before; I can't remember if I did) stems from the time when I asked him how he could go around giving lectures to high school students on the dangers of "honky death drugs" like cocaine when he and other members of the "Central Committee" often used cocaine themselves.

His answer was a classic, proving that the man probably could have had a career in conventional politics or big business if he'd only been willing to cut his hair and tone down the rhetoric a bit: "My public policy is perfectly correct. It's just a matter of bringing my private practice into line with my public policy."

Sinclair is all over the midsection of this film, and even comes off as a little poignant when he talks about how the band sacked him as manager after he expressed disapproval over the "new direction" he felt they were taking, as typified by Fred Smith wearing a spaceman costume on stage and touches of glam rock beginning to creep into the act. The swagger with which Sinclair conducted himself in those days - more than a smidgen of which he retains to the present - both obscures and emphasizes his origins as the quintessential Detroit hustler, loud, brash, unburdened by normal conventions of civility, so transparently on the make that it's almost endearing. Danny Fields, the Elektra A&R man who originally signed the MC5, talks about Sinclair's black leather coat and his "yo ho ho" swagger, and while I'd never thought of John as the pirate type before, it fits.

Fields also provides the film's camp highlight when he describes himself as "coming from the most effete crowd in the most effete city, poised to be slammed by blood, lust, sweat, cum, and vigor. I expected them to be drinking out of horns...and using deer feet to spoon up the food. They were so, so butch. I never saw anything like it!"

For me personally some of the most exciting stuff was the MC5's very early years, before they got caught up in Sinclair's revolution. I knew they'd grown up pretty close to my neighborhood, but I wasn't aware just how close until I saw footage of some of their boyhood homes and of Lincoln Park High School, located just down the road from the much joked about intersection of Champaign and Dix ("Did you hear about the whore who lived on..."). I never met any of them during those days, though I did see them play a battle of the bands during the summer of '65, which they lost to my neighborhood's favorites, the Satellites. At the time they were thought of as a mod band, with matching English-influenced outfits and playing something described as "avant-rock." Being rather unsophisticated in the ways of the world, let alone French pronunciation, we pronounced it "Avon-rock," no doubt leading many to ponder what this kind of music had to do with either Shakespeare or makeup products.

By the time the 5 got involved with Trans-Love Energies - later the White Panthers - and moved to Ann Arbor, my own life had gotten so chaotic that I saw them play a lot less often than I might have if I hadn't had spent so much time hiding out from the police, estranged lovers, and myself, but I still saw enough of them to know that there was something awfully intense going on here. At the same time, there's an attitude that I think is common in Detroit, a collective lack of self-esteem that's so defensive that it often appears offensive - that makes it difficult for local people to respect local heroes, at least until they've been given the stamp of approval from allegedly more sophisticated places like New York or California.

Since the MC5 never achieved the full-on commercial success of Detroit's other homegrown sound, Motown, many of us tended to remain a bit dubious. Oh, we liked them all right, were quietly proud when they got written up in national publications, and loudly proud when they got slagged off in same, but we also put them down, joked among ourselves with the implication that ultimately they were just a bunch of goofballs from Detroit like us, and that when you were dealing with Detroit goofballs, you could never expect it to come to much in the long run.

How wrong we were; while the 5's moment in the sun was short-lived and abortive, and their drug-assisted demise almost bathetic, their legacy has lived on and grown stronger through the years. I don't know this for a fact, but I'd bet they've sold more records in the past decade than they ever did during their years as an active band. I regularly see kids wearing their shirts who couldn't possibly have been born when the MC5 broke up, and I've long ago lost track of how many contemporary bands I've seen who'd devoted themselves to copying that rough-and-tumble Detroit sound (and no, I'm not thinking of the White Stripes, whose contrived gimmickry has about as much in common with genuine Detroit rock and roll as Velveeta does with Camembert).

Wayne Kramer, who acts as narrator and tour guide through large parts of the film makes the obvious but still pertinent point about how the music echoed the sounds of the heavy machinery in the steel and auto plants that overshadowed our upbringing and threatened to devour our dreams. "You'll end up working on the line," was the all-purpose parental warning to kids who refused to study or behave, and a quick shot of what looked like Zug Island reminded me of what it was like when that warning came true.

Kramer was articulate, funny and insightful, and came off far better than the other members of the band. Two of them, of course, died at a young age, while the others who survived, drummer Dennis Thompson and bassist Michael Davis, seem to be carrying a little more drug damage. I'm only guessing in Thompson's case; he's actually uproariously funny when he goes on one of his rants or wishes one of his omnipresent guns were loaded so he could shoot the interviewer, and may just be acting like a conventional good old Detroit boy. But I've actually done drugs with Davis, the only one of the 5 I ever knew personally, though this was years later, in the Destroy All Monsters era, and what's scary is that at the time he seemed like the most rational and clear-headed guy in that scene, which included former Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton and his then-girlfriend, singer and performance artist Niagara. What, I ask myself, must I have been like at the time if that was my idea of normal?

Or perhaps Davis has spent too much time in the sun since moving out to Arizona, where he does most of his interview, alternately hunched over a campfire or poking around some cactus while raving like Dennis Hopper might had Peter Fonda left him wandering around the desert for the past 40 years. Not that he isn't interesting, just a little... out there.

But then who from that scene isn't or wasn't kind of out there? It never would have happened otherwise. What's mind-boggling, I guess, is how many people, myself included, were fully prepared to take such craziness seriously, and actually thought that we presented a credible and rational alternative to society as it was then constructed. "Total assault on the culture by any means necessary" were John Sinclair's words for it, and it was pretty intoxicating stuff for a while. Till the drugs wore off and the prison sentences set in, anyway.

Anyway, I'd tell you to rush out and see this thing right away, but unfortunately you can't; finished and ready for release a year or two, it's been stuck in legal limbo ever since as a result of some dispute over musical rights. It would be a shame if it never gets seen as a result, but somehow it wouldn't surprise me. It would just be an oh-so-Detroit kind of finale for the ultimate Detroit band.


Wesley said...

I hope this makes it out of the legal quagmire as it sounds excellent.

"Back in the USA" is one of my favorite albums; their performances of "American Ruse" and "The Human Being Lawnmower" -- not to mention the Chuck Berry covers -- are some of the most visceral of the angry young men variety I've ever heard, on par with early Sex Pistols.

You seem to be favoring a theory that genre-defining music emerges from emotionally charged socio-economic settings, and there's plenty of history to bear that out. But that's a theory in opposition to the theory of the artist, which argues that ideas (musical and otherwise) come from individuals, who, while undeniably influenced by their setting, are the true catalysts for the creative process.

I don't myself have a position on this, but I think it's an interesting question. For example, is there something about the post-9/11 atmosphere of NYC that has generated the lively music scene that you are lately describing, or is it simply a confluence of creative minds and musicians? Has Ken Livingstone so warped the socioeconomic playing field of London that the change for a burgeoning punk rock scene is limited to nil?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tease, Larry. The rest of us not-so-well connected people will just have to wait for the legal wrangling to end.

As a kid, I used to stare at the cover of my older brother's copy of 'Kick Out the Jams'. I couldn't wait for the day I would be old enought to buy a Mosrite of my own - like the one Fred Sonic Smith played. Johnny Ramone beat me to it.