you just stole our basketball coach," I offer, referencing former Pistons'
coach Larry Brown jumping ship to the Knicks.
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.
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.
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.
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.
66 north 6 street. This different than what you tell me."
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.
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.
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.
what'd you think?" I ask.
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?
I ask, almost hurt. "Why?"
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."
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."
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?
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.
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.
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
"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
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.
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.