Kicking out the Jams

Don McLeese sent me the manuscript for his book on the MC5 last week, and I love it. I remember my brother giving me tapes of MC5 albums when I was 15 or whatever, and it didn’t sit too well with my janglepop fetish at the time. But of course, my brother was right all along. Anyhow, Don’s book is coming out in the autumn, and here’s an early extract from it:

Let me admit, brothers and sisters, that I can barely remember significant details of the day that I’ll never forget. Impressions dissolve in the haze of marijuana from that sunny summer afternoon in Chicago, while the subsequent passage of almost four decades has sacrificed more to the mists of memory. Yet the imprint remains indelible. Like a car crash or a blitzkrieg, it divides my existence into Before and After. For nothing was more important in my eighteen-year-old life than rock ‘n’ roll. And rock ‘n’ roll would never be the same for me after I saw—experienced? endured? survived?—the band that would change my life.
No, I’m not going to pull a Jon Landau. I won’t claim that I had a vision of rock’s future when I first withstood the aural assualt of the Motor City Five, whose sound and fury disrupted that idyllic Sunday in Lincoln Park. Contrary to common legend, the MC5 didn’t spark a riot with their free concert on the eve of the 1968 convention. They simply lit the fuse, escalating the tension, energizing the crowd to a fever pitch of musical militancy as the police encircled the park, with their riot gear and billy clubs, maintaining a stonefaced vigil.
I can still see the orb-like Afro of the lead singer as badgered the crowd, pointing his finger, thrusting his fist, working his feet like a speed-freak James Brown. I would later know him as Rob Tyner, but all I knew at the time was that he was crazy. But not as crazy as the two guitarists, the ones I would later know as Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith, both brandishing their instruments as if they were lethal weapons while swiveling their hips, arching their backs, flailing their arms, kicking their legs.
All this over a rhythm section that left no space unfilled in its relentless propulsion, a bassist and drummer—Michael Davis and Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson, I would later learn–less concerned with staying within the pocket than obliterating that pocket. When a low-flying surveillance helicopter buzzed the band, the whoosh and whirr of its blades didn’t interrupt the music, but enhanced it. Even the occasional roar of a cop’s motorcycle seemed like part of the musical gestalt, amid a crowd that fully expected that musical chaos would lead to physical violence. This wasn’t a rock band; it was a street fight. This wasn’t a concert; it was a battle zone.
We had been waiting for something to happen, even desperate for something to happen. The MC5 were what happened. We hadn’t known what to expect, but none of us had expected the 5. Almost none of us had ever heard of the band, except those who had made the drive from their native Detroit. Though we thought we’d been ready for anything, the frenzied, ear-splitting performance left most of us shellshocked. It was a musical mugging so far beyond the realm of expectation that it would take years before punk or metal would provide some sort of frame of reference, though no punk or metal band would ever match the galvanizing force of the 5.

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