Sunday, March 06, 2011

Wayne Kramer on Epitaph

This is the story of an experiment that failed.

In 1995, Epitaph Records/Bad Religion honcho Brett Gurewitz signed ex-MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer and tried to market him to the punk-rock loving teenage boys of America. It was a hard sell: Hot Topic shoppers don't generally buy records by middle aged whiteguys who look like ex-convicts (which Wayne, in fact, was; two-year bid in Lexington for his "deals of cocaine," as the Clash would have it), but Kramer and Epitaph gave it hell for four albums in as many years.

Following his release from prison in 1979, Kramer had briefly co-led the band Gang War with Johnny Thunders (an experience recalled in the song "Snatched Defeat" on his 1997 "automythological" record for Epitaph, Citizen Wayne) and played on the first Was (Not Was) record before spending several years working nonmusical jobs in Florida. While he was away, his old band's legend gained the luster of "godfathers of punk." Their albums were even reissued on CD after years of unavailability. But unlike Iggy Pop once he realized (ca. 2002) that the part of his oeuvre that people cared about most (besides watching him run around shirtless going apeshit onstage) was the three albums he'd made with the Stooges, Wayne couldn't just pick up the phone and tell the old guys "We're getting the band back together" for a nice victory lap. Two key components of the Five were gone forever, beloved lead singer Rob Tyner and enigmatic guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith having left the planet in 1991 and 1994, respectively. Instead, Kramer reinvented himself as something a lot more singular and self-consciously artistic than a mere punk precursor revisiting past glories.

Wayne's first Epitaph album, The Hard Stuff, hit like the atom bomb back in '95. I remember finding it in the record store where I was moonlighting, having just gotten reacquainted with the Five's power and passion via the French Thunder Express bootleg. I'd always dug Wayne's guitar playing, and the way certain solos of his utilized the Yardbirds-era Jeff Beck gambit of playing crazy descending scales all on one string. He and Fred Smith had internalized a lot of Chuck Berry, too -- the thing that made them seem like better musicians than the Stooges at first, but which maybe worked against them in the long run, making them sound more tradition-bound than their "little brother band." By the time he came back, though, Wayne's chops had expanded exponentially. He could arpeggiate his way from nut to bridge without ever invoking the shade of all those neck-tapping Italo-Americans, he'd added Sharrockian skronk to his trick bag, and he commanded a seismic vibrato as wide as a California earthquake.

The real news on The Hard Stuff, though, was his songwriting. Half the songs on the album were co-written with Mick Farren, the Brit journo/sci-fi scribe/social historian who'd brought the MC5 to the UK for the first time in 1970 to play the chaotic Phun City festival, and collaborated with Kramer on the musical The Last Days of Dutch Schultz while both men were living in New York in the late '80s. Kramer had a lot on his mind and was finding a voice in which to express it -- mature and streetwise, suffused with equal parts gallows humor and surprising compassion.

Of the Farren collaborations, the clear-eyed deglamorization of addiction "Junkie Romance" and the breakneck "Bad Seed" were the strongest. On his own, Kramer penned the Tyner tribute "Edge of the Switchblade" and two spoken word pieces, "Incident On Stock Island" (the auditory equivalent of a Jim Jarmusch cinematic vignette) and "So Long, Hank" (a Bukowski homage that appeared as an untitled hidden track at the end of the CD) that showed the influence of both Farren and poet/ex-MC5 manager/mentor John Sinclair. (Kramer contributed incendiary guitar work to spoken word albums by Farren and Sinclair during his Epitaph years.)

Kramer's sophomore Epitaph effort, 1996's Dangerous Madness, was a step forward. Farren co-wrote eight of the 11 songs, and several of them share the apocalyptic urban nightmare tone of much of his work, with three notable exceptions. While Wayne denied that the album was a bid for mainstream success when I interviewed him for the I-94 Bar in 1999, three of the songs have the same kind of Springsteen/Mellencamp "heartland" vibe as Scott Morgan's Rock Action album and form a triptych that's as unified as the first side of the Five's Kick Out the Jams, the first three songs on the Stooges' Funhouse, or the first four on Iggy's New Values. "Back To Detroit" was Wayne's alone and if it's not autobiographical, it sure feels _lived_. "Wild America" trumps Iggy's song of the same name with a Motown chord progression and hummable guitar hook. And "Something Broken In the Promised Land" reveals former White Panther Kramer as the midwestern populist he probably was all along, a role he'd return to when he performed the song on the capital steps in Madison earlier this year. Then as now, however, the mass-ass audience remained oblivious.

The high-water mark of Kramer's Epitaph period was 1997's Citizen Wayne, an ambitious work whose distinguishing features carried the seeds of its commercial failure. The production, by Wayne's former employer David Was, borrowed from hip-hop and electronica in a way that Punk-O-Rama-listening teenagers and other Rawk purists were uninclined to accept, and the songs, which chronicled Wayne's backstory from revolutionary MC5 daze to prison to his current sobriety, had more than a little hubris in them, even if their author backed it up with musical punch. Many of them are big fun: the tongue-in-radical-chic remembrance "Revolution in Apt. 29;" "Down On the Ground," which recounts the MC5's performance in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention to a riff borrowed from Rob Tyner's High Time highlight "Future Now;" and the aforementioned "Snatched Defeat." The most affecting moments here are the sole Farren collaboration "Dope For Democracy," a scathing indictment of the Iran-Contra affair and similar government hijinks, and "Count Time," which includes a litany of musos who've spent time in the "greybar hotel."

After the marketplace rejected Citizen Wayne, there was nothing left to do but release a live album, LLMF, that captured Wayne at a peak of performance, reworking his material in real time like a jazzman while reprising the past three album's high spots. Then he and Epitaph parted ways. He tried his hand at running his own label (Muscletone), which released another solo album, Adult World, and a collaboration with ex-Damned guitarist Brian James (Mad for the Racket), along with the obligatory bonus-track-laden reissues of all four Epitaphs. Eventually, he was able to reinvent himself yet again, as a soundtrack composer-cum-activist, giving the lie once again to Fitzgerald's dictum about second acts in American lives.

In a just world which we all know doesn't exist, maybe a new generation of rock connoisseurs will rediscover Wayne's Epitaph records in 20 years or so. As it is, they form a worthwhile, if not altogether satisfactory, coda to the MC5 story, one which deserved more attention than it received while it was happening.


Blogger Grubbermeister said...

Good post, sir!

12:51 PM  

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