by Richard Goldstein

          Detroit may have gone Humphrey, but it's Nixon country - a vast, gray flatbed gone dour with the resignation of an industrial spa. The streets are straight, the houses frame, and the people - well, the best one can say is that they form a city of rank and file. It's hard to guess whether the giant tire which hovers over the airport expressway is someone's idea of an L.A. joke, or an authentic religious symbol. At very least, that plaster imitation of a rubber wheel is the totem of Detroit.

          I had come to see the MC5. Three things intrigued me about this band. First, they were the only group to play Lincoln Park during the Democratic convention. For a group with no capital to risk its equipment not to mention its lives, takes a special kind of commitment bordering on joy. Yet the risk had been worthwhile, even commercially. The MC5 are already known in pop-critical circles (in which I mean to include everyone who has never published in The New York Review of Books) as an authentic guerilla-rock band, which encourages screwing and smoking, and not even averse to livening up a slow set by shitting onstage.

          They live in Ann Arbor, a college town thirty minutes out of Detroit. It's peaceful here - mostly, I suspect, because the violence is regimented around the taking of exams. There are trees and sky, and that crisp Midwestern smell, like a young girl's cheek. If you have a tribe, Ann Arbor seems a far more reasonable place to stake out turf than, say, the Lower East Side. For one thing, it's spacious, and for another, there are plenty of townies to offer tea and sympathy to a resident freak.

          The MC5 and their people share a rambling twenty room house near the University of Michigan campus. The floors are clean, the stereo system is in good condition, and the dope facilities are excellent. In the basement, their manager John Sinclair runs the commune known as Trans-Love Energies, edits a local broadside called The Sun, devises propaganda for the "White Panther Party," publishes local poets, and organizes artists' workshops. As a veteran beatnik and jazz-freak, Sinclair has infused the entire group with his scene. That enlightenment covers the MC5 like cheap polish. Just underneath the surface, you can feel the real grain, and it's rough. Run your hands over the MC5, and you get splinters.

MC5 live - photo by Joel Brodsky
photo : Joel Brodsky - Grande Ballroom, Zenta New Year -
          They've been playing together in the Detroit area for four years, building a local following for their spasm-rock. It's been a lean time for raunch, what with the jazz-folk-raga blend in vogue. You couldn't picture the MC5 playing before an audience of 20,000 stoned love children - not with the fire and brimstone in their sound. No wonder they hate all ornate music, as well as the light and flower cosmology that goes with it. The whole hip circus is what kept them down.
          Today, they are fiercely proud of the elements of angry black jazz in their music.

It is not the passive saintliness of blues they worship, or the stylized exuberance of soul. They're after demon-sound - noise for conjuring - , searing, and pressing honkies everywhere up against the wall (any wall will do). Their allusions are all within the R and B genre, but ironically, it is the white-boy rock 'n' roller jive that stays with you after the tonal assault has died down.

          Dissecting their music into riffs and fills, you sense an immense void in the area I can only call literacy. We have been conditioned to accept experimentation in the guise of primitive music. The primacy of the recording studio, coupled with an abundance of stereo home equipment, has resulted in a compartmentalization of the rock experience. Today's solos - even when they are improvised - sound diagrammed, as though the ebb and flow of energy were being fed through channels.

          But the MC5 come on live and whole. They move with the kind of energy long gone from rock, but not forgotten. Up onstage, they do the Chuck Berry cakewalk, the Little Richard split, the James Brown kneedrop, the Jackie Wilson leap. There is only one other group which utilizes these clichés with such mastery of the logistics of rock: The Who. The similarities between Pete Townshend and the MC5's guiarist Wayne Kramer, suggests that they both draw their energy from the same roots. And both perform with the reverence which is the most authentic kind of commitment a musician can display. That's what makes a band a scene.

          In Detroit, the scene is centered around the Grande Ballroom, a dancehall done up in Midwestern Mooresque. The surrounding streets are still gutted with riot-ruins (empty lots filled with splintered brick and glass). Speeding by in a car, the neighborhood looks like the inside of a six-year-old's mouth, with gaps where the baby teeth should be. But inside, it's wall-to-wall rapport. For its solidarity alone, Detroit reminds me of Greenwich Village in 1963, Liverpool in 1965, San Francisco in 1967. In all these places, you could tell a music scene was authentic by the influence it extended over people's style.

          The MC5 do that much for Detroit. When brother J.C. gives his White Panther pitch, hands go up in eager fists. Flags are burned on the spot. Chairs and mikes are smashed. Like in the old days.

          Outside The Grande tonight, Elektra records has set up a portable studio in the belly of a rented truck. All the tumult onstage is compressed onto those everpresent spools of tape. But there is something symbolic in the subservience of this studio; it represents an astute recognition that the MC5 - if they are to matter at all - must matter live. All the mixing and mastering in Christendom won't improve their sound as much as an audience shrieking whenever the lead singer commands: "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!"

MC5 - photo Joel Brodsky
From left to right: Fred Smith, Dennis Thompson, Michael Davis, Rob Tyner, Wayne Kramer        Photo : Stephan Paley

          The kids get the point (and the MC5 is definitely a kid's group). Far from the random ecstasy of a California freak-out, theirs is a highly directed release of energy. These are the children of insurgency; no wonder they expect their culture to coerce. To watch them standing under the strobes, hands raised in youth-salute, is to understand how pop art can serve as a political mirror, refracting reality through slogan and myth. Undeniably, there is fascism in the MC5 and the ecstasy they provide. Not just because they make you want to kill foreigners (in this case, adults), but because they suggest the terrible relationship between right and might which is at the core of all art.

          At home, after the Grande gig, there is music and dope and spaghetti cooking in the kitchen. Girls scurry about, brewing tea, changing records, making conversation. A neighbor arrives with two gift pumpkins. And the group sits around an immense dining room table, rubbing their bellies and pounding their forks. They put my head into Huns. Warriors. The conqueror race. I tell Wayne his music is very violent, because that's all I can think of to describe fifteen minutes of sheer volume punctuated by the stab of a strobe light. Violent. He gives a soft, certain smile, and answers: "Well, that's rock 'n' roll."

The Village Voice, 1968           ©1968 by Richard Goldstein
I wish to acknowledge the help and support given me by Michael Prosser
who provided us with this article.