|Usually, when the band stops playing and the mob doesn’t
have any-thing to focus on, the riot starts. At least that’s the way it
generally went down with my band:
We played a fair amount of riots in our day. It was Riot Season in America. It happens every few years. The Belle Isle police riot of April 30, 1967 was one of the first I was in. Heralded in the Detroit news-papers as “Love-In Turns to Hate,” the date happened to be my 19th birthday. The hippie movement had arrived in Detroit and the MC5 were the band on the cutting edge of the counter-culture, so it was only natural that we play.
The day had progressed peacefully enough, with pot smoking and acid tripping and freaks of all stripes carrying on like they do. When we took the stage, which was in a gazebo in the park, it was the peak of the afternoon and everything was going great. The crowd, full of freak/fan/street folk, had moved in tight on us and I resorted to the technique of brushing the crowd back by looking the other way and then crashing into them; as if I was so caught up in the moment that I didn’t know what I was doing. Worked like a charm. Make some room motherfuckers, I’m trying to do a show here! Everyone was hav-ing fun and we all enjoyed ourselves completely.
The sun went down and the Detroit Police department decided we weren’t clearing out quickly enough. They started bum rushing every-one off Belle Isle, which is an island park in the middle of the Detroit river between Detroit and Windsor. We loaded up our gear in Emil Bacilla’s Volkswagen van and got ready to leave just as the cops got into position. I’m guessing they had been rehearsing their lock-step and were overjoyed to have a chance to use it. Not that anyone there posed any kind of threat. After all, this wasn’t a cadre of highly trained Marxist militants. We were a bunch of stoned-out weirdos and Budweiser-buzzed factory rats enjoying a free concert. What we didn’t realize was the first pass by La Policia set the stage for the massacre to come.
At first, it was a game. The police line came forward and everyone would shriek and laugh and run away, but very quickly--when the first heads got busted--the humor drained out of the situation. The violence the cops used was ridiculously out of proportion to the dan-ger they faced. They seemed to be really enjoying the total over-powering dominance they had. I hopped into an open bed pick-up truck with some of the band gear and watched as we drove slowly around the island toward the bridge where, to our surprise, a police road-block had stopped traffic. It was then that the mounted police arrived and, in all my days on this planet, I never saw anything like what they did next. The mounted cops took a galloping start on running people and clubbed them like they were playing polo. Giddy-up there horsy. Whack! Pow! Score! Women screaming, blood spurting, men yelling curses. The sun had gone down now and the trees in the park were back-lit by police headlights and flashlights. Everywhere I looked, another creep scene was going down in the darkness and glare. Like an unholy Chinese shadow puppet show.
We finally got back to our headquarters at the Artists Workshop and started putting out calls for help. We made inquires to hospi-tals and jails for the whereabouts of missing family and friends. We were all outraged at what had just gone down in “our” city in “our” park by “our” police. It was a night where the line had been crossed and things were never the same. We would never again return to the myth that the police were there to serve and protect. Later that same summer, during the August ’67 Rebellion of Detroit, it became all too clear that one of the worst outbreaks of police vio-lence in the history of these United States would put the Detroit Police Department into position as their league’s leaders. I say police violence because that’s what it was. It wasn’t black people killing white people any more than it was black people killing the police. It was the police killing everyone.
More than fifty were killed; billions of dollars in damage and one of the great American cities was scarred forever. The President of the United States had to order the Army into Detroit to restore order. Tanks and armored personnel carriers were patrolling the streets I grew up on. The city was at war with itself for a week. I can only imagine what Korea or The Battle for Hue City was like. I know what Detroit was like. It was some fucked-up shit.
It all began on a Sunday. I had been out at the lake with singer Tim Buckley and some other musicians and friends and was driving back into the city. We were coming home the long way, taking Grand River Boulevard because the panel truck my pal Frank Bach owned couldn’t go fast enough or safely enough on the freeway.
As we headed into the city just after sunset, we could see huge flames rising up on either side of the street ahead. My first reaction was just like any red-blooded American kid: “Oh boy, a fire!” But then I remembered what time it was in America, and how other American cities had exploded in rage and violence over economic and social injustice. People had had enough and spent the summer expressing their frustration in riots and burning and looting. Stores along Grand River had messages hastily written in whitewash: “SOUL” and “SOUL BROTHER,” in an attempt by shop owners to try and avoid the flames. Detroit police cars loaded with cops and national guardsmen held shotguns out of their windows forming columns to our right and left. People were running down the street carrying TVs and bolts of carpet. Driving further into the down-town area where we lived, we began to get a grip on what was hap-pening. The chickens had come home to roost. Chaos and madness reigned supreme.
Cutting across town to get back to our apartments, we drove through an intersection where a police cruiser had struck a car full of black men. The cops were beating them across the intersection with clubs and flashlights. Broken glass and men’s hats were lit-tered on the ground as the cops acted out a drama of hatred and rage. All across the city these scenes were played and replayed. On the second night it got worse.
Liquor sales were stopped. Gun stores were guarded by police and their owners. The TV news warned that the second night of rioting is always the worst, and the city braced for the carnage to come. Cousins called each other from the east side to the west side. Brothers called their dads. Friends called each other. Everyone went mad. None more so than the Police. The Detroit cops lived here and were stressed beyond anything in their experience. They had ruled the city by force since before they could remember, and now it had all gone terribly wrong. It was blowing up in their faces. The Michigan National Guard was the second (after the Detroit police) to hit the streets. They were basically regular local guys. A lot of them were from the rural farming country outside the cities who just wanted to avoid Viet Nam. Here they were, knee-deep in the shit and never left Michigan. These guys just wanted to get out of it in one piece and back to wherever they came from.
The third group on the street--and definitely the worst--were the State Police. In their opinion, the City of Detroit should just burn to the ground. They resented having to be there, dealing with problems that were none of their business. These guys were the highway patrol. Their jobs were the freeways and small towns of the great state of Michigan and they wanted no part of big city trouble. They acted out their resentments murderously.
The papers said forty-nine or fifty killed. My guess is that didn’t take into account how many bodies may have “disappeared” into the rubble of the riot during the week of mayhem that engulfed Detroit. By week’s end the Army Airborne had taken over the rule of law and the murders were stopped.
On the last day of the riots, I was arrested for having a telescope in the upstairs window of my house. The Army said me and my housemates might be spotting for snipers. Of course, the only spot-ting we were doing was trying to avoid the police. After a couple of my roommates were ceremoniously beaten by state police officers, we were released with no charges. The insurrection was over, but its effect lingered for a long, long time. After that summer, it seemed everyone in Detroit bought guns. Then, Detroit earned the nick-name “Murder City.”
The insurrection of Detroit was a class riot. As murderous as they come. The MC5 riot at the Fillmore East was a cultural riot, much smaller in size and scope, but more intense in consequences for me personally and my beloved band.
Elektra Records wanted to present their new acquisition. The MC5, to New York City with a big bang. It was a bang too, but not the one they had in mind. A climate existed in the Lower East Side of Manhattan where a group of militant radicals called the “East Village Motherfuckers” had forced promoter Bill Graham to let them use the Filmore on Wednesday nights. “Community Nights,” was what they called them. Anyhow, we went in and played a free and unadvertised Wednesday night show for our com-rades in the “Community.” The gig went down fine and a good time was had by all.
The following Wednesday, Elektra rented the Fillmore and did a huge radio promotion with ticket give-aways on the air and all the accompanying hoopla. The Motherfuckers were pissed off about los-ing their night and demanded Graham give up free tickets for them and their peeps. Graham was not the kind of guy to back down to intimidation, so he stood out in front of the theater and held the Motherfuckers off with sheer heart and moxie. For his bother, some Motherfuckers beat him with a chain and broke his nose. Graham, in his delirium, thought MC5 singer Rob Tyner was the chain wielder, and promptly banned the MC5 from working at either Fillmore, or, for that matter, any other venue he controlled. He also used his considerable influence to make sure that we didn’t work for any of his friends in the promotion business either.
Meanwhile, as all this is going down out front, the band is on-stage trying to do our big NYC debut show. The stage wings were crowded with Motherfuckers waiting for us to give the word to burn the place down. Of course we weren’t about to give any such command and their anger started to turn on us. I tried my “brush back” technique and got little in the way of working room. Tough crowd. We finished our set and escaped to the dressing room while the motherfuckers and the street maniacs tried to run out the door with our gear. Our crew valiantly battles to hold on to our stuff and the greatest blunder in record business tactics imaginable happens: two limousines show up to carry the band back to the hotel. The revolutionaries saw red! “Limos!” The symbol of capitalist imperial-ism. Limos. The Motherfucker women were screaming and weeping about how we had sold the revolution out. They were smashing our records against the cadillac limos tail fins. Crying at the top of their lungs: “Bastards! Pigs! Phonies! Sell-outs!”
I stopped in the street as the guys ran for the cars. I knew I had to straighten this out ASAP. This was bad, bad, bad. They got it all wrong. They didn’t understand. I need to fix this. So there I stood, in the middle of an angry mob trying to explain White Panther/MC5 political theory, while Motherfuckers are agitating the speed freaks and street nuts into taking swipes at me with their knives. Finally, two Motherfucker lieutenants pick me up and cover me with their bodies to get me out of the crowd and down Second Avenue to safety. Not a giant riot, but a sure thrill for my young ass.
Finally, in this travelogue of terror, stands the now infamous Democratic National Convention riot in Chicago, 1968. Although there were many riot/creep scenes we went through in the MC5, the story wouldn’t be complete without the Festival of Life vio-lence. Now here was a riot to be proud of. Something to tell the grand kids about, if I had any grand kids, which I don’t, so I’m telling you. Everybody knew there was gonna be some shit and many were well prepared with helmets, gloves, gas masks etc. The cops were well prepared, too, with the Illinois National Guard backing them up in Chicago that summer week.
There were supposed to be bands from all over the country play-ing, West Coast hippie bands too, but they had second thoughts about it and, with hindsight, they were right. Funny, “we” didn’t find the possibility of police violence all that strange anymore. Coming from Detroit, we had seen our fair share of how the biggest gang in town could act and the Chicago Police Department was certainly the biggest gang in that town. The footage we’ve all seen a thousand times on TV, of demonstrators and police fighting in the streets, doesn’t do justice to the tangible fear. It was an unset-tling in the stomach; a gnawing, creepy feeling, like an inescapable cloak of dread. We felt it coming and there was absolutely nothing we could do about it.
To the experienced few, there were obviously agent/provocateurs in the crowd; probably undercover cops or FBI. They walked around pushing people. They harassed and provoked fights. The MC5 played right down on the ground in front of the people and we were being watched, even filmed. In the FBI surveillance films I’ve seen from the National Archives of our performance, it was shot by real pros. Good color, good camera angles. Nice job boys! (Closet fans, I’m sure!) We played our set, and we could feel the tension building. There were no smiling faces in the crowd.
Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin asked the MC5 to come and play, and we showed up because that’s what we did all the time. No big thing. But, by now, we weren’t dummies. We knew from experi-ence to get our amps and drums packed double-quick for our escape and, sure as shit, the first phalanx of motorcycle cops muscled through the crowd as soon as we stopped playing. We’ve all seen the file footage on TV a thousand times of what came next: Bloodletting, violent arrests, street fighting, skull crushing, anar-chy on the floor of the Convention hall. “The whole world is watch-ing,” and they still are.
This article (c) 2002 by Wayne Kramer
Credits: W.Kramer, Fred Smith, MC5 photos by Leni Sinclair.
Acknowledgements to LEFT OF THE DIAL's publisher David Ensminger and designer Russell Etchen for their help and kindness and to Margaret Saadi and Wayne Kramer.
Contact LEFT OF THE DIAL's staff at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also featuring in LOTD issue #4: Hot Snakes / John Stabb / Guided By Voices / Les Savy Fav / The Dils / American Nightmare / Lagwagon / Tommy Ramone / Daniel Ash / Martin Atkins / Brian Walsby / The Fleshies / Reggie & The Full Effect / The Fartz - Accused / Verbal Assault / The Fucking Champs / Ted Roddy / Suburban Voice / Pretty Girls Make Graves / Dillinger Four / Ramblin' Jack Elliot / Simon Stokes / The Paybacks . . .
Wayne Kramer's official site: http://waynekramer.com