"Escape to New York:

A Dad, a Daughter, and the 5"

by

John Jeffire



"Welcome to LaGuar-r-r-r-dia!" intones the beaming ground service attendant, the rolling R's purring musically off her tongue, and I instantly feel a Jets versus Sharks electricity jolt me back to life after a sleep filled flight from Detroit. However, I am here in the Big Apple with my 19-year-old daughter Lea not to celebrate New York or its inhabitants. No, we have touched down in Yankee territory to rekindle the past of Motown's original rock and roll badboys, the legendary American punk pioneers, the MC5. I can already see Lea and I standing outside Brooklyn's North Six Club later that evening, eagerly awaiting a front to back performance of the band's groundbreaking live album Kick Out the Jams, originally recorded in 1968 during the wall-rattling days at the hallowed Grande Ballroom. Ah yes, life is indeed good!

     As we are driven to our hotel, I make smalltalk with our bushy bearded, turbaned cabbie. He tells us of a bomb scare on the subway that echoes the recent tragedies in London. War, violence, fear-somehow things haven't changed all that much from the MC5's heyday and their condemnation of Vietnam and the violence and oppression that permeated America.

     "Well, you just stole our basketball coach," I offer, referencing former Pistons' coach Larry Brown jumping ship to the Knicks.

     "Oh, I don't tink too much on da basketball," he replies, and I don't blame him because I'm bored silly with Larry Brown and all his I'm-the-main-attraction theatrics. No, to hell with Larry Brown, the slow-talking mumble-mouthed Benedict Arnold, because in a few short hours we are going to rock with true Detroiters, the three surviving members of the 5 and an all-star supporting cast.

     Now, if you're a Detroiter and you have to ask who the MC5 were, do me a favor and slap yourself upside the head right now. Put it this way: a Detroiter unable to identify the MC5 is like a Seattler who can't quite tell you exactly who that Jimi Hendrix guy was. If your head is now throbbing from a well-deserved self-inflicted blow, let me explain that the MC5 were America's original punk-garage rockers, political protesters against the Vietnam War, counter culture musicians associated with beatnik poet John Sinclair's radical White Panther Party, and artistic innovators who fused heavy metal and free form jazz. Behind the searing vocals of the late Rob Tyner, the high decibel dual guitars of Wayne Kramer and the late Fred "Sonic" Smith, and the rock steady rhythm section of bassist Michael Davis and fleet-fisted drummer Dennis "Machine Gun" Thompson, the band ruled Detroit's rock scene in the mid to late sixties and early seventies. In fact, no less than Mick Jagger himself called them the greatest live act he had ever seen. They were much more than the naughty group who by taunting us to "kick out the jams, motherfuckers!" found themselves blacklisted from numerous radio stations and challenging the traditional bounds of a musical artist's right to free expression. They were Detroit in the sixties, restless, openly confronting war, racism, brutality, sex, drugs, oppression and anything else "safe" musicians avoided. Melding the sounds of black forms like blues and jazz with thunderous industrial rock, they filtered it all through the cocky, rebellious, exuberant mindset of five kids from Lincoln Park. Although the band now went by the moniker of DKT-MC5 (the prefix specifying survivors Davis, Kramer, and Thompson), my own father hooked me on the band decades ago and now it was my parental Motown obligation to do the same for my child.

     Lea and I cram a quick dinner in before heading out for the first leg of our odyssey. Over the years, I had familiarized her with the MC5 and their music. On car trips and while doing weekend chores around the house, I was always quick to throw one of the 5's three classic recordings onto the CD player, and she had actually grown to like the stuff. We had met Thompson at the Detroit premier of the MC5 documentary at the DIA and seen them reunite at the Majestic Theater in 2004, and Thompson had even visited the high school were I teach and given a great two hour lecture to 500 students on life in Detroit in the 60's. We knew the music and had come to know one of the band members fairly well. Would Thompson and fellow survivors Kramer and Davis be in the zone tonight? What kind of crowd would Gotham serve up? Would we be surrounded by grey haired, hip-replacement oldtimers, curious newcomers, or some mixture of both? We'd soon have our answers.

     The ride over began inauspiciously enough as our driver Jose took us to the corner of 66th and 6th Avenue, where the vacant eyes of the winos told us we were definitely not in the right place. After repeating "66 North Sixth Street" for the eightieth time, I finally dig into my wallet and show him a ticket, which has the address printed on it.

     "Oh, 66 north 6 street. This different than what you tell me."

     The Detroiter in me bubbles up. It is now 8:35 and the doors opened at 8 with the opening act scheduled to hit the stage at 9. I explain in my most cordial Motown tones that we better be at the club by 9. He mumbles something and I am grateful I never paid attention in Spanish class twenty some odd years ago or we might have a real problem.

     When we finally arrive at our destination, I'm baffled. No crowd. No rowdy line like we had stood in at the Majestic, where half the fun of the experience was listening to the graying ex-hippies rekindle their former passions, whooping and telling tales of police oppression and wild 60's pre- and post-concert adventures. Here, on this dark backstreet in Brooklyn, though, nothing, and I have to check the address again to make sure I am where I should be. We warily approach the front door and enter, finding ourselves in a storage room atmosphere, sparsely populated with the old timers I had imagined and folks more my age but who look like they have just walked out of a Dockers ad, most of them sitting glumly in a makeshift bleacher type area at the back of the club. By far, my daughter was the youngest person here. Hmmm, definitely not what I was expecting.

     And my expectations are further undermined when the warm-up band Suffrajett doesn't take the stage until 10 p.m., an hour later than advertised. Lea and I are not here to party but to experience live music, so the delay does nothing to build our anticipation. Lea shifts back and forth impatiently and some young people do begin to filter in until, thankfully, Suffrajett breaks the tension with an energetic set. The lead singer is a lithe beauty who plays electric violin, and the guitarist hacks out some sweet heavy riffs to liven up the steadily growing crowd. When Suffrajett exits to an appreciate response, Lea and I at least have something to talk about and we exchange observations about this previously unknown-to-us band, resulting in Lea picking up a CD. But it is almost another full hour before the stage is readied for the main event, and I can sense my young companion beginning to lose steam after a day of flights and cab chases and running about.

     Set up begins awkwardly as a woman begins taping what appear to be "cheatsheets" about the stage. Former guest singer Evan Dando of the Lemonheads bragged how the 5 had influenced him and then obviously struggled to remember lyrics in previous shows, much to the ire of hard-core 5 devotees. Thankfully, Dando was no longer in the line-up, but no way have we traveled half way across the country to see and hear any half-rehearsed fumbling. Moments before the band takes the stage I spot Thompson making his way through the steadily packing crowd, and I meander through to shake hands and wish him luck. Soon, he is on the stand with Kramer, Davis, and former Guns N' Roses member Gilby Clarke. Kramer, dressed leisurely in all white like a Florida vacationer, loosens the audience up before the band launches into traditional show opener "Ramblin' Rose." Unlike the original, though, Kramer does not use the hysterical, tongue-in-cheek falsetto, which I had my heart set on hearing. The music, however, is rock solid and felt deep down in the nether regions of the gut. Next, the most recognizable song in the MC5 catalogue, "Kick Out the Jams," is introduced with the mandatory "mother fuckers" send-off and a tension-building guitar tease that segues into the atomic opening chords of the mother of all Motor City anthems. Mark Arm of Mudhoney takes over the vocals on this one, and he's in the zone, punching the lyrics at the right moments and obviously enjoying the energy. No, he's not Rob Tyner, but I'm hearing one of my all-time psych up songs live and all is good in the hood.

     The highlights unroll in quick succession. Kramer and Clarke engage in a fun guitar dual on another of my favorites, "Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa)," and Kramer gets the crowd on board for some communal singing, which we gladly buy into. Lea is not quite ready to shout "Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa" with me and the other geezers, but none of her nineteen year old's "this is so gay" attitude is present, either. We both agree that the next guest singer, Lisa Kekaula of the BellRays, is simply stunning. Kramer, Davis, and Thompson knew what they were doing when they added her to the roster because her voice is blazing, powerful, and sensuous all at the same time. She smiles and dances with total assurance, completely at home with the band and material. Her vocals on "Motor City Is Burning" are flat out stupendous, capturing the fervor and anger of the '67 Detroit riots. Straight up awesome.

     By the time Arm retakes the mic and the band hits "Starship," Lea is done in, completely exhausted by the day's travel and bustle. Sure, I want to stay to the end of the show, but as a parent my duty is to get my child to the hotel to rest up for the next stage of our adventure and we quickly depart into the muggy Brooklyn air to hail yet another cab.

     The next morning, we hop off the subway at 33rd Street so we can hike the remaining distance to Central Park. We jump back and forth from Broadway to 5th Avenue, sightseeing, people watching, and window shopping. Manhattan is like Greektown on steroids, and in summer it is teeming with sights, sounds, and smells that overwhelm the senses. Over lunch at Angela's Rock and Roll Deli, our conversation drifts back to the previous night's show.

     "So, what'd you think?" I ask.

     "I don't know," Lea begins, searching. "I feel kinda bad for those guys."

     I'm stunned. The greatest rock and roll band America has ever produced was back at it kicking out some fierce jams-how could that be anything but off the charts marvelous?

     "Bad?" I ask, almost hurt. "Why?"

     "Well, it's not the same without Tyner and Smith," she explains. "It was their music, too. I don't know, without them, it's just not the same."

     "That's true," I counter, carefully reflecting on her point, "but the music was good. No question Lisa Kekaula belted out her tunes. And I know what you mean about Smith and Tyner. But what's the alternative? To play no music at all anymore? At least now new people get to hear at least a part of what everyone talks about."

     "Yeah," Lea adds, "the music was good, but you can't go back to those times. When Kramer was getting the audience to sing, he talked about working together and bringing unity and unity creating power. But people don't believe that anymore. The same issues don't exist, and even if they did nobody today wants to get involved."

     Wow, I've had this near-identical discussion in my Honors classes I teach. Where is the activism today? The outrage? The impulse to take charge and change things for the better? Where are the protests and movement and energy? One student this past year summed up the let-them-eat-cake naivete of this generation when she responded to the above questions with, "What if you think everything's okay in the world right now and nothing needs changed?" Whose world, I countered, yours? Do you think everyone in this country, let alone on the planet, has enough to eat every day? A warm, dry place to sleep at the end of the day? The ability to read? Proper medical care? The list went on and on and it dawned on me, these are good kids I work with, but they just don't know what life is like outside the boundaries of their materially overflowing, fully-insulated suburban domains. And unlike the 60's, their music doesn't enlighten them and spark their consciousness. Even problems like gang warfare and family decay are more often glorified and depicted as a glamorous lifestyle choice than lamented or criticized, so why shouldn't kids think all's well in Neverland?

     We can't solve the world's problems in the time it takes to polish off a corned beef and pastrami combo, so we finish our trek to Central Park. My mind had been filled with the TV version of the park, where muggings and slayings take place on a minute by minute schedule, but the place is absolutely beautiful, with water and trees and a greenness that is even more impressive because of all the skyscraping cement that surrounds it. We find the open air amphitheater and claim seats on the ground in the infield, and it is scalding outside. Before opening act Suphala begins her set, the crowd is already considerable, and I recognize some of the types I saw the night before but also a younger crowd, skin pierced and tattooed, and I begin to feel this is more of what it should be, a joining of races and genders and generations. And there are characters, one Lea calls Gilligan, replete in a gray mullet and goofy sailor's cap, dancing erratically off to the side even when no music is playing. All omens are positive for a great show.

     Suphala is of Indian descent and she plays the tabla, a bongo-like percussive instrument. Her music is exotic and entrancing and makes for an unexpected experience. She is followed by the Sun Ra Arkestra, a band of free-form jazz practitioners whom I can only describe as energetic, cacophonous, and fun. Lea, though, is not into the chaotic sprawl of their sound, so we take a walk around the park for a while to escape the sun and prepare for the 5.

     As we walk to the venue back along the path teeming with joggers and roller bladers and parents pushing strollers, I can already hear strains of the tune      "Shakin' Street" and I am in a frenzy to get back to the ampitheater. With Lea struggling to keep my pace, we slide as close to the stage as the packed, approving crowd will let us. And the songs continue to pour out, with favorites not played the night before such as "Sister Anne" puncutating the performance. It's Motor City rock heaven. Kekaula is again fabulous and she manages to even one-up her performance from the night before. Bassist Davis shines on a funky solo that leads into

     "Looking at You," another Kekaula rendition that soars. Later, Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators takes the mic and does a gut-thumping version of "Call Me Animal." Altogether the musicianship is tighter, the crowd more enthusiastic, and the setting more enjoyable.

     The festivities conclude with everyone up on stage for a free-for-all version of "Starship," highlighted by the other-worldly contribution of the Arkestra and Mark Arm's eerie poetry recital of Tyner's lyrics. The journey is complete. We are satisfied. We have witnessed a triumph.

     Wordsworth once said that "nothing can bring back the hour / Of splendour in the grass, / of glory in the flower," and I am inclined to agree. As Lea and I board our flight back to Detroit on a bright Sunday morning, I must admit that nothing has been rekindled or revisited or brought back. No, we do not live in the sixties, and the 5 are now three plus some hardworking friends, but in this time of death in Afghanistan and Iraq and racial tension, abuse of women, homelessness, hunger, and a thousand other evils, we can listen to what the sixties told us and, thanks to grizzled rock and roll warriors like Kramer, Davis, and Thompson, still tell anyone today who is willing to listen. 


John Jeffire was born in Detroit and still lives in the metro Detroit area with his wife, daughter, son, and two hyperactive Jack Russells. Recently, he was awarded the grand prize in the Mount Arrowsmith Novel Contest for his novel '67: the jams. Jeffire's book is set in Detroit and follows a high school drop-out, "Motown," as he fights through the 1967 riots and a tour in Vietnam. Jeffire is currently teaching English and coaching wrestling at Chippewa Valley High School in Clinton Township.

 

(Photos by John Jeffire. Additional photo by former Detroiter Kurt Novack. Thanks Kurt.)

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