Sunday 20 October 2019

Wayne's world: drugs, politics and proto-punk

Autobiography: The Hard Stuff — Dope, Crime, The MC5: My Life Of Impossibilities, Wayne Kramer

Strung out: Wayne Kramer found fame with MC5, the proto-punk outfit that inspired a generation of musicians
Strung out: Wayne Kramer found fame with MC5, the proto-punk outfit that inspired a generation of musicians
The Hard Stuff

Tony Clayton Lea

In 1965, Lyndon B Johnson was President of the United States, and the spacecraft Gemini 4 had been launched. In other news, a long-haired 16-year-old with dirty jeans, a black leather jacket, an electric guitar and a motorcycle was lurking around the streets of Detroit with little else but trouble on his mind.

"School was an unavoidable slog," writes Wayne Kramer, malcontent turned musician. "My main educational objective was to entertain my fellow students." Thus began an adult life that was never less than extraordinary but which was bound for as many highs and lows as drugs would allow.

In between the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll scenarios of Kramer's swift rise to stardom, however, was politics. While relationships with his father and stepfather would never be resolved, it was his mother's entrepreneurial spirit and political courage (she opened the first interracial beauty salon in Detroit) that would inspire him to fuse music with an open, respectful mind that embraced racial ideals and gender equality, and which (eventually) raged against corruption.

By the time he was 20, Kramer had not only co-founded MC5, a proto-punk group that inspired a generation of musicians, but was also well on the way to becoming a hardened drug addict.

From preparing for his medical examination to determine his fitness for his draft into the US Army by going on a 10-day meth binge ("I was probably certifiably psychotic") to his long-term relationship with heroin ("I found a copy of Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and it became the guidebook for my consumption of everything I could get my hands on"), Kramer documents in chilling detail how his life changed from one of optimism to despair. "Hope is a great breakfast," he sardonically quips, "but a lousy dinner."

It is a testament to the resilience of the human body that Kramer lasted so long as an addict without succumbing to either disease or death. His inevitable comeuppance arrived not with ill health, however, but via a drug bust.

By 1974, with MC5 and all of its dreams of success shattered, Kramer had taken to dealing hard drugs in order to feed his habit. Attempts to stop were doomed to fail and were always mired in the drug dealer/addict dictum of "one last big deal to set me up for a while, then I'd get straight".

With a cocaine deal gone wrong, Kramer went straight all right - to prison.

You might think that four years in a federal detention centre would have straightened Kramer out so tightly that he would have learned his lesson. Alas, no. Although his time away radically changed him ("I wasn't the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed idealist anymore - rock'n'roll was not going to be my solution to everything"), it didn't alter his drug intake. Moderate royalties accrued from MC5 record sales and radio plays were quickly spent on drugs to "score large amounts and stay high for weeks at a time". Come 1980, with a surge of credibility coming from UK and US punk/post-punk musicians (who credited MC5 as potent forerunners), Kramer could have cashed in his chips and cruised home on a second wave of adulation. Instead, he hooked up with former New York Dolls' guitarist and dogged heroin user, Johnny Thunders. With no small wit, Kramer portrays this development as being "off to the races again".

And so it went on, a fitful cycle of life events that finally ended in 1999 when Kramer was in his early 50s. Through extended therapy sessions and years of acutely applied self-awareness, the musician finally realised that the route to what he terms "durable fulfilment" was learning the significance of service as a way of life. It is, he writes, "how I rebuild the self-respect and dignity I lost on my trip to the gutter".

The Hard Stuff is as cold-hearted as it is valuable, as despairing as it is redemptive. There are several flaws, however, in the telling of the tale. For all the acclaim of MC5 being perceived as a primary precursor to punk rock, Kramer writes more about improv jazz as the superior form of music, and anyone wanting an incisive history of MC5 as advocates for militant politics will be sorely disappointed.

Also, he barely mentions fellow Detroit musician and proto-punk performer Iggy Pop, despite their parallel rise to fame and notoriety. Perhaps undermining all, though, is a writing style that lacks the punch of the music. Everything is written from such a detached viewpoint you would wonder if his lack of connection is related to the practicalities of egoless self-therapy.

For all of this, the book is at least written by a musician who lives not only (as he modestly, optimistically observes) "in the tension between the angel and the beast" but who has also survived to tell such an incredible tale.

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