On Halloween night 2003; Zenta New Year to Detroit hippies ; Chicago filmmakers David Thomas and Laurel Legler screened their years-in-the-making documentary 'MC5: A True Testimonial' at the Detroit Institute of Arts. It had been 35 years ago to the day that the legendary Detroit band had recorded its anthem 'Kick Out the Jams' in a live concert at the Grande Ballroom on Detroit¹s near west side. At the screening, young fans who'd never seen the MC5 live but idolized them were mixed in with graying boomers who openly sobbed at scenes of the Grande then, with a thousand kids milling around and the Five in full throttle; and the Grande now, empty and derelict.
But after RCA/BMG was set to release the film on DVD on May 4, with a short theatrical run immediately before that, suddenly last week the film was abruptly stopped by the MC5's publishing company, Warner Chappell, on behalf of Wayne Kramer, a surviving member of the group. For those close to the MC5, it's a haunting reminder of the band's traumatic breakup in 1972, when Rolling Stone ran a story on them called 'Shattered Dreams in the Motor City'. How did a 35-year-old dream of peace, love and eternal rock stardom shatter yet again? In patchouli-scented, all for one and one for all '60s mode, all five members of the MC5 were given writing credit for all of their songs. Thus any one of them can refuse permission for a license.
The history of the MC5 was a tumultuous one, from the first fistfight in Lincoln Park between lead singer Rob Tyner and guitarist Fred ³Sonic² Smith to the last brawl, at Tyner¹s home, when he refused to accompany the group on a 1972 tour of England. The drama is what makes the MC5's story such a compelling film. Back in the mid-'60s, the young MC5 wore matching shirts and played VF halls like any other Beatles-era band. It was only after they became the house band at Russ Gibb¹s Grande Ballroom in 1968 that the MC5 careened into the hearts of Detroit youth with music and a persona that was loud, funny and inspirational on a level mere party bands weren't. Their appeal is something Detroit-area baby boomers struggle to explain, which is why 'MC5: A True Testimonial' resonates with audiences. It manages to tell the band¹s story and simultaneously explain the '60s to those who either don't remember, or who weren't there.
Kramer says he doesn't like the term 'legend', but the MC5 long ago passed into that realm. In 1968, they took a macho, hometown pride in blowing supergroups such as Cream off the Grande's stage, and developed such a strong following that Elektra Records snapped them up that year. It was their song 'Kick Out the Jams', with its profane language, and their links with '60s revolutionary politics, John Sinclair and the White Panthers, that helped the group become infamous. That Kramer has blocked the film's release hasn't pleased the survivors of the two MC5 members who¹ve died: lead singer Rob Tyner and guitarist Fred 'Sonic' Smith. 'I said to Laurel and David all along, their journey has so paralleled that of the MC5', says Tyner¹s widow Becky. 'Now we¹re at the breakup of the MC5. The bully tactics, the pressure. It¹s almost cosmic'.
That is the one thing that Kramer and Tyner agree on. ³Trouble seems to follow the MC5,² Kramer said by phone from his Los Angeles office. He and his manager wife Margaret are making plans for a July release of his own film, ³Sonic Revolution,² which documents the London reunion of the surviving members of the MC5. Kramer also plans a tour with his surviving MC5 mates Dennis Thompson and Michael Davis, as ³DKT/MC5.² The use of the name ³MC5,² with two of the ³5² dead, has family members unhappy. Jackson Smith, the Detroit-based musician son of Fred and Patti Smith, is also disappointed that release of ³A True Testimonial² is being held up. ³It¹s a travesty that it would be blocked,² Smith says. ³It¹s a great document of the band, it¹s a great document of life, and it¹s a great document of things ... far and beyond the band.² Smith, who is in the Detroit band Back in Spades, is also irritated that the DKT/MC5 Web site makes no mention of his father, Fred Smith, or Rob Tyner.
When a fan posted on waynekramer.com hoping that Back in Spades would open for the DKT/MC5 tour, Smith felt that was his chance to speak out. ³I posted to make it clear that there was no chance Back in Spades would be involved,² Smith says. He also alluded vaguely to bad blood between his family and Kramer. His post was deleted by Margaret Kramer, who posted that she would allow no ³personal attacks² on the forum. Famed Grande Ballroom poster artist Gary Grimshaw, who recently moved back to Detroit from San Francisco, is ³disturbed² by Kramer¹s opposition to the film. Grimshaw did the cover graphics for the ³True Testimonial² film, as well as for Kramer¹s film. ³I had no idea when I did that for him that there was going to be any problem, that Wayne would set it up as the only authorized MC5 movie as opposed to ;A True Testimonial.¹ If I¹d known, I don¹t think I would have done the cover for him.²
For their part, after a six-year odyssey, filmmakers Thomas and Legler are upset at having to cancel the April showings and May DVD release of their film, which would have included a Detroit premiere late in the month. The two had painstakingly accumulated old footage of the MC5 playing live. The clips came from many sources, including the attics of fans, and show the band playing at the Grande, at Wayne State¹s Tartar Field, a Belle Isle Love-In and many other places, including government surveillance film, in brilliant color, of the MC5 playing a protest rally at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. Asked on Tuesday about the film¹s status, Thomas and Legler were only able to issue a lawyer-vetted statement: ³Exhibition and distribution of the film is currently on hold. Negotiations are delicate and we cannot comment further.²
But in an earlier conversation Legler sobbed when she spoke to a reporter. As for Warner-Chappell Publishing, which technically has not issued a license for the film to use the MC5¹s songs, Pat Woods, senior director of licensing, did not return a reporter¹s call. Although he now calls the film ³unlicensed² and a ³bootleg,² Kramer is virtually the narrator of ³A True Testimonial,² driving a gold Pontiac GTO through the streets of downtown Detroit in the beginning of the movie, and around Lincoln Park as he describes how the band was formed in the parking lot of the Route 66 restaurant. But Kramer prefers to talk about ³Sonic Revolution² and the proposed tour of DKT/MC5, which would use a rotating series of lead singers, including Marshall Crenshaw and Evan Dando of the Lemonheads. Asked about the ³True Testimonial² documentary, he says, ³I don¹t comment about unlicensed, bootleg films.²
One of the group¹s most appealing qualities is that they always had a sort of irreverence about their politics. In 'A True Testimonial,'Kramer talks about having a romantic encounter, then looking outside a window at the group¹s Wayne State-area house to see the MC5 van being firebombed. ³Now that was fun,² Kramer exults, in the film. Among the most disappointed fans of the ³True Testimonial² film are younger people who have heard all the legends about the MC5. Brian Bowe, 31, the Michigan-based editor of Creem magazine, sometimes posts on Internet forums as ³MC5rules.² ³The fact that it¹s not coming out is disappointing for people like me, who are huge fans but never got to see the MC5 play live,² says Bowe. ³Their showmanship and the way the band moved was such an important part of the presentation, and that¹s a part of the story you don¹t get from listening to records.² Guitarist Kramer often mentions ³the message of the MC5² and how he wants it to get out to younger generations.
Will the younger generations think the MC5's message one of peace, love and raw power through high decibel rock, or is it that ultimately, nobody can get along? 'I don¹t know what the younger generation would say,' Kramer says. 'I don't have all the answers. I don¹' have any answers'. As for the legal wrangling over the film going away: 'I can't predict the future', Kramer says. 'If I could, we'd both go out to Hollywood Park (race track) and we'd clean up'.
You can reach Susan Whitall at (313) 222-2156 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Surviving members of the MC5 are, from left, Wayne Kramer, Dennis Thompson and Michael Davis. Press copies of "MC5 A True Testimonial," right, were sent out before distribution of the film was stopped.
About the MC5
Members: The MC5, first known as the Motor City Five in the mid-'60's, featured lead singer Robin Tyner, guitarists Fred "Sonic" Smith and Wayne Kramer, bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson.
Career: Started out playing teen dances and VFW halls in and around their native Lincoln Park. Segued from playing cover tunes and dance music to a raucous, fuel-injected sound that came to epitomize the high energy Detroit rock 'n' roll sound of the '60s.
Scene: The MC5 were the house band at the legendary Grande Ballroom on Grand River Avenue, and honed their live act there. It began with emcee J.C. Crawford whipping the crowd into a frenzy with his call of "Are you ready to testify?" after which the band would open up with Kramer singing "Rambling Rose."
Signature song: "Kick Out the Jams," with its use of a common expletive, got the group banned from Hudson's, innumerable radio stations and high school dances.
Politics: After joining forces with manager John Sinclair, the MC5 got caught up in the revolutionary mix of music and leftist politics that permeated the Bohemian Cass Corridor scene at the time. The band lived communally with the White Panthers for a long time but eventually moved away so it could concentrate more on music and less on politics.
Breakup: The band splintered after a contentious Grande Ballroom show on New Year's Eve 1972. Smith went on to found Sonic's Rendezvous Band in Detroit; Kramer, Davis and Thompson also pursued music separately, Thompson with the Detroit-based Motor City Bad Boys.