The definitive MC5 documentary feature film — two hours — made a few years ago — never released.
The following article on the making of this documentary was originally published in Arthur Magazine No. 9 (March 2004) (available from The Arthur Store) when the commercial/theatrical release of this wonderful, heartbreaking film seemed imminent…
Detroit’s visionary MC5 receive a film tribute that aims to rewrite rock history
By Steffie Nelson
On New Year’s Eve, 1972, the MC5 took the stage at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, a vast psychedelic venue where they’d held court as the “house band” between 1966 and 1969. Their live shows had been so incendiary, the five band members so arrogant, that even a huge star like Janis Joplin, no slouch in the live department, once refused to go on after them. This gig, their swan song as it were, was sloppy and dispassionate; the ghosts of past glories even more unforgiving than the sparse, cynical crowd. Guitarist Wayne Kramer took off mid-performance to go cop dope, and the MC5 never played again. Kramer and guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith were 22; singer Rob Tyner and drummer Dennis Thompson were 24; bassist Michael Davis was 26. In the end they’d effectively been “pulled apart by the killer forces of capitalism and competition,” which their manager John Sinclair had railed against, perhaps presciently, in the liner notes to their now-legendary debut album Kick Out The Jams.
The MC5 hold a curious place in rock history. Their ascendance represented a moment in America when art and commerce converged, when all that was vital and visceral was also the pinnacle of hip. As the flamboyant and badass musical mouthpiece of the White Panther Party, the MC5 did embody the soul of the late ‘60s counterculture: one foot in the optimistic past and the other in the disillusioned, deadly future; one hand holding a guitar, the other a shotgun. It’s an irresistible image, one which was unappetizingly co-opted by Levis last spring for a series of T-shirts. A promotional performance in London by the three surviving Five (Rob Tyner suffered a fatal heart attack in 1991; Fred Smith died of heart failure in 1994) was seen by detractors as a final, sad sellout.
The question of whether or not the MC5 failed at the end of the day is much debated in the riveting feature-length documentary MC5: A True Testimonial, directed by David Thomas and produced by Laurel Legler. All parties agree, however, that for a fleeting, incandescent moment the MC5 were “at the center of the yin-yang,” as Michael Davis philosophizes in the film, “and it was our job to keep it going in a positive direction.”
But the proverbial yin-yang was already spinning into darkness, and it took the MC5 with it. Like fireworks on the fourth of July, they rose with a bright, beautiful bang and, as far as mainstream America was concerned, disappeared with a puff of smoke into the night. They were, ultimately, sacrificial – the artistic entity that was the MC5 didn’t survive more than seven years—but their legacy has continually inspired legions of punks, rockers, artists and freaks, who got turned on to their music through word-of-mouth, or more than likely though the persistent echo of a call to arms that rings with timeless resonance: “kick out the jams, motherfucker.”
As David Thomas says, “The people who know, know. The other people don’t get it.” The Chicago-based Thomas and his wife Laurel Legler began working on MC5: A True Testimonial in 1995, spurred on through financial troubles and licensing hassles by sheer love and respect and the determination to do justice to these American legends. As Legler points out, few bands have received this sort of filmic treatment, and if they have their way MC5: A True Testimonial will revise rock history. On the eve of a limited theatrical release and the worldwide release of a nearly four-hour DVD edition of the film (including deleted scenes, complete live performances, interview outtakes and fan testimonials), David Thomas and Laurel Legler are ready to testify.
ARTHUR: What was your initial personal attraction to the story?
LAUREL: The impetus for my even looking into this was a close friend of mine who was a rock ‘n’ roll journalist had made some MC5 compilation tapes for me, and he said, ‘Someday before I die, man, I’d like to see a movie about those guys.’ And I thought, I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. And I started looking into it, and it’s like, there’s nothing written about these guys, I got nothin’ here, what’s the deal? And of course that was what piqued my interest—what happened? These guys looked fabulous! They’re fabulous and scary and incredible and their music was astonishing. So it started out with a sense of mystery…And the first thing we had to do was contact some of these folks to find out if they were even interested in having a film made. We didn’t presume anything. We didn’t step into this and say, ‘We’re going to make this movie and here we are, deal with us.’ It was quite the opposite. And everybody said yes. So once everyone was on board it gave us both the permission to pursue the dream and also the responsibility.
DAVID: We really worked with everybody on this. We couldn’t have done it without their cooperation. It was really a labor of love, not just from us, but from all the people involved. It actually became something of a healing process because obviously there was a lot of bad blood and a lot of broken dreams.
How do you hope that will impact on the audience? What do you think the film’s ‘message’ is?
DAVID: My feeling about this film is that yes, it’s the story of a particular group, a particular time and place in American history, but ultimately it’s the story of individuals who are chasing their dream. And they make some mistakes, and they do some good things and some not so good things. In some ways it’s almost like the MC5 story is the archetypal story of artists, creative people who band against the establishment or whatever you want to call it, and the beauty that wells up from their art in spite of all that resistance. It’s a little bit about that real human drama that happens to everybody in their own lives. Which was why we worked so closely with all the people, to try to get some sense of their personal loss and their personal accomplishment because those are the things that we all strive for. These guys are, on some level, just like you and I.
Considering the state of our nation, is the MC5 story more relevant than ever, or is it more like some quaint vestige of a bygone era called ‘the sixties’?
DAVID: I think it is more relevant than ever. We couldn’t have foreseen what’s happening in Iraq when we started the project in 1995, but I think that not unlike what’s said in our film: it’s all a circle. History is cyclical, and here we are again: embroiled in a war that has divided people in terms of their opinion about it, which could largely be seen as an unpopular war.
LAUREL: Has the country been this polarized since Vietnam? I can’t really remember a time that it was, over issues as important as this. The country really was divided, it says in our film there was a war not only in Vietnam but in the streets here. Unfortunately we don’t have a war in the streets here, I wish we did. I talk to people all the time, ‘Why aren’t we in the streets marching?’ ‘I don’t know, can’t get a permit.’ It’s just ridiculous! …When we started the film we really thought there would be some elements of it that would be kind of unbelievable to younger people—you know, National Guard troops on the streets in their town—and then suddenly 9/11 happened and we were seeing that for ourselves.
DAVID: Who would have thought, a year ago, that the Dixie Chicks were gonna be ostracized for their political views by the very media that brought them to that popularity? I mean it’s not as if the Dixie Chicks are saying ‘kick out the jams motherfuckers,’ but y’know…
Can there ever be a legitimately revolutionary band again? Can there ever be another youth revolution? In a way it’s almost like it’s been set up by the media and the culture so that it can’t ever happen.
DAVID: I think that’s very true, in fact, and that’s one of the things that’s really interesting about the MC5 story. The story happens at a point when the record companies and the media are all trying to get their arms around this thing which is still kicking pretty wildly. There’s no containing it yet, and the MC5 phenomenon occurs before people are aware of the ramifications. I mean, who thought that the Vietnam War would result in Napalm falling out of the sky on villagers, soldiers disabled by chemicals; these are almost futuristic, science fiction kind of ideas. Whereas now, as a culture we’ve had those kinds of experiences, and there’s this continued effort to keep the voice of dissent stifled. The powers of the media and marketing and pop mass culture conglomerations are not the least bit interested in a message that rocks the boat, that bites the hand that feeds it.
What happened with Elektra Records? Danny Fields signs the MC5 and The Stooges at this big ‘signing party,’ and then they were dropped six months later. What do you think the label expected from them when they signed them?
DAVID: When Elektra Records signed the band in the fall of 1968 we were just beginning to hear the first rumblings of what came to be called ‘the revolution.’ And Danny Fields has told us that Jac Holzman and Elektra Records really saw this revolution as a money-making thing. Here was this group that was the ‘band of the revolution’ and for a brief period all the record companies were really jumping on that bandwagon. I remember there was a Columbia Records print ad at the time that had a picture of a protester inside a jail cell and the caption to it was: ‘But the Man can’t take away our music.’ And it was really this whole idea of packaging the revolution. What happened, though, as John Sinclair tells us in the film, ‘We were being the people that we said we were.’ They meant it. The total assault on the culture: rock ‘n’ roll, dope, and fucking in the streets—they meant it. And I think that was a little too hot for Elektra to handle.
LAUREL: They weren’t good little soldiers for the record company, and as we all know, if you’re going to be successful with your record company the record company has to like you. And they would show up at the offices and they would smoke pot and they would be loud and all these things were happening. They were just getting signed and the CIA office in Ann Arbor is bombed [an act that was widely attributed to the Trans Love House]…
DAVID: …And they’re playing the ’68 Democratic Convention [Abbie Hoffman’s Festival of Life protest in Chicago], and the FBI is all over them. Even before the record is released, this is a band that has FBI files. People really did see them as a dangerous entity, because on a cultural level they do represent the nexus, the coming together of a white, long-haired, counterculture, anti-war movement and an increasingly militant, revolutionary, armed, black power movement. Obviously, if there had been a true coalition of say, SDS and Black Panther, there really could have been revolution in America at that time.
LAUREL: We would be completely remiss as the people who made the documentary about the MC5 if we were to attempt to say to people that the MC5’s revolution was strictly a political revolution. It wasn’t. It was a revolution of the mind. Rob Tyner was interested in the mind, he was interested in how culture can change, how individuals can change, and how that collective mind can change the world around you, what energy can do when it’s combined with other energy. So in that sense a revolution is always possible but it seems like it really has to start at home, with the individual making a decision to turn the television off, to stop buying the motherfucking SUVs and to discover something new, take a stand, go to a political meeting, something. But if I were to go to downtown Chicago right now with a megaphone and call for revolution, my ass is going to jail. Like Michael says, ‘We didn’t wanna have a shoot-out with the FBI.’ But he did want to get up on stage and bend minds, he wanted to go out as far as he possibly could with his music and the images and the whole package, the sound, the lights, the music, and change the way people think.
DAVID: Ultimately that’s the responsibility of the artist, isn’t it? To make people think, to make people question their world. Isn’t that the goal of art?
LAUREL: Was it David Cronenberg, who when asked if the artist has any social responsibility, said that’s where the paradox is: that it’s really an artist’s responsibility to be irresponsible. His exact line was something like, when you talk about social or political responsibility then you’re amputating the best limbs an artist has, you’re plugging into the system already.
DAVID: You know, it’s not as if these artists don’t exist and that there aren’t artists who are taking some kind of a stand.
LAUREL: It’s a two-edged sword: you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. You go out on this tour and you decide to do press conferences and discuss the situation and then people call you a sanctimonious asshole and tell you to shut up and just play music.
DAVID: It’s not unlike what John Sinclair said in our film: On the one hand they tell you it’s a hype, on the other they throw you in jail.
Let’s talk about the White Panthers. I feel like their history is full of contradictions. Some people say, ‘Oh, it was just a joke, it was the MC5 fan club,’ yet Wayne Kramer denies this. Even the name of the organization – is it true that there was a guy named Panther White?
LAUREL: Yes, there was. He was sort of a con man. ‘Panther White wasn’t the chairman of a chair!’, as John Sinclair would tell us.
DAVID: In a certain sense it’s a con, but there’s a sincerity to it as well – an idealism, a revolutionary spirit. It’s like a carnival barker: ‘Step right this way, you’ve got five seconds of decision. Step right up, brothers and sisters.’ It’s a jive, it’s a come-on, but it’s not what the media perceived as a hype, because on a certain level they do mean it.
LAUREL: Wayne still carries with him the political importance of what the band was trying to do. I think he felt that the White Panther party was important because it was in solidarity with the Black Panthers, that for all their pot smoking, acid-taking and cracked ideas, they did mean it. He says in our film, ‘We were ready,’ and then you see some of the other members of the band and they say, ‘What do I care if they vote for Republicans or live in a commune? I don’t give a shit.’ There was even that sort of division at the time within the band.
DAVID: And even that is a reflection of the culture as a whole. You had people like Martin Luther King saying that peaceful resistance was the way to go, but you also had people like the Weather Underground that were blowing shit up.
LAUREL: John Sinclair will say things like ‘We were fearless, we were righteous, we were connected to the universe.’ In the sense of a revolution of the mind, a cultural revolution, I think it did have an impact and it meant something. But they were nuts. [laughs] They would stay up all night and chew drugs and get up in the morning and try and act out the ideas they thought of the night before.
DAVID: But John was quite serious about the formation of the White Panther Party. [Maybe some of it] was fueled by his legal troubles, because he was looking at going to jail before the White Panther Party was formed–you know, his reaction to the establishment coming down was to become increasingly radicalized and increasingly militant.
Do you think that they needed John Sinclair to survive?
DAVID: What John brought to the band I think was really important. If John hadn’t become their manager, would the MC5 just have remained another American garage band? Perhaps. I don’t know for sure. But I think that he brought something very special to the group; he gave them a purpose, a direction, a program, for whatever it’s worth. But at the same time, the thing that he brought to the equation is the same thing that sowed the seeds of their destruction.
LAUREL: At the point when John Sinclair and the MC5 part ways, they no longer needed John Sinclair. It clearly wasn’t working, from a professional or personal standpoint.
DAVID: At the same time they had changed record labels, this guy Jon Landau had come in, and Sinclair had already been convicted, he just hadn’t been sentenced yet. He was waiting to go to jail. As Michael says in the film, ‘Here’s our manager. How’s he gonna manage our business if he’s in jail?’ It was pretty ludicrous. And there were people from Atlantic records that were saying, ‘This whole Trans Love Energy thing, this White Panther thing, this shit ain’t working. Fellas, half your money is going to support all these hippies that are living in this commune. You gotta split from this.’ And that Back In The USA record is a reflection of that change in their aesthetic. John Sinclair’s assessment of that record is that it’s complete crap. But he made the arrangement that brought in Jon Landau in the first place. He sows the seeds of what the band would continue to be at that point. It’s interesting, it’s full of contradictions. That ultimately is why we could spend seven years on this film, because the deeper we got into it, the more interesting it became.
LAUREL: I think that we continue to be intrigued and surprised by the complexity of these people, individually and collectively. There was something truly magical that happened when these five guys came together, it’s undeniable. I think they tapped into energies, I think they did tap into the universe. I think that had the equation been different it never would have been the same. I just continue to fall in love with their complexity and their intelligence and their mystical side and their magical side, and they’re all still like that today.
You named your film production company Future/Now Films, which is the name of an MC5 song. What do you think they were plugged into 30 years ago that we weren’t ready for?
DAVID: ‘Future/Now’ is a Rob Tyner-composed song and those are Rob’s lyrics, and specifically, the line from the song that we had in mind when we named the company was, ‘The future’s yours right now, if you rule your own destiny.’ And that was the idea we were coming from with this thing, even before we could get funding, that we had to do this. I don’t think this was a case where we just said, ‘Hey, let’s do this groovy movie about the MC5!’ It didn’t really work like that. There was a whole series of synchronistic events, the witnessing of occurrences, everything in our lives had led us to this weird crossroads where we could take five seconds of decision and decide either that we were gonna make this MC5 movie or we were not…My favorite part is the very last line of the song, and Rob Tyner goes, ‘the key to the mystery…’ [thinking the phone has been disconnected] Hello? Yeah, that’s it. Ya get it? Fill in the blank, it’s up to you. It’s all here for ya, I’m givin’ it to you. I think he’s really amazing. I think that he was a shaman, and I think that he was a magically inspired person. On the liner notes of the first album, Rob Tyner is quoted as calling the MC5 ‘a working model of the paleocybernetic culture in action.’ Right? 1968. What the fuck does that mean? Except that now we are, arguably, paleocybernetic.
What do you think he meant by that?
DAVID: I think that he saw the MC5 and the process that the MC5 was going through as a model for the types of processes that we might actually be going through in the future. For instance an artist could work with other musicians in a tribal and/or communal setting, cut off from the influences of mainstream culture, and develop their individual ideas—compose, record, and actually get their music out to the masses, separate from the corporate power structure.
Do you think that there’s something about what happened in Detroit and with Trans Love Energies before they recorded Kick Out The Jams—like it was this self-contained universe or laboratory where all this stuff could happen, and then once they took it outside of that environment it lost…
DAVID: …the energy is dissipated? Perhaps. I mean, I think that there are a lot of really deep and interesting ideas that percolate throughout this whole MC5 thing. There are ideas of music and art as shamanistic and/or magical processes, by which one opens the gates, so to speak, by which one perhaps communicates with other levels of consciousness or being, other energy forms. There are interviews with Rob Tyner from as early as 1967 where he’s talking about music and sound’s ability to alter the molecular structure of the human body, and in fact we know that to be true now. These theories are confirmed, that if you play tones at the proper level, you can get people to perspire or feel anxious or feel calm. You can in fact affect their consciousness and their physicality. Rob used to refer to it, ‘They have to get the music in their meat.’
That’s very William Burroughs.
DAVID: Exactly. And he was a great fan and reader of Burroughs. It’s like that Parliament/Funkadelic thing, ‘Free your ass and your mind will follow.’ These ideas are all in there. There were ideas within the MC5 performance—not always conscious—which were drawing upon whole realms of ritual performance, like that whole JC Crawford ‘Brothers and Sisters’ speech at the beginning. That was all part and parcel of the shamanistic thing they were trying to do; they were trying to create this orgiastic, ecstatic union with the audience, whereby they could transcend their earthbound consciousness.
What else might have inspired this? I know they considered Sun Ra a mentor…
DAVID: You know what? Can I tell you something? Sun Ra laid his hands on me, about twenty years ago. It was in the early 1980s, I had just come back from England and my girlfriend at the time and I went to see Sun Ra. It was the first time I’d ever seen him and he was playing at the Jazz Showcase here in Chicago at the old Bismarck Hotel. I happened to be sitting on a corner chair on the two aisles, and at some point he did the processional around the room, and as he passed, twice, he laid his hands on my shoulders. And I looked up into his eyes and they were doing ‘Space Is The Place,’ and I will never forget the feel of the touch of his hands on my shoulders. It was not as if he pressed down on my body, but when he laid his hands upon my shoulders it was like they weighed a million tons. It was the heaviest physical touch, and it was the most profound physical touch that I have ever felt.
DAVID: Yeah. And a couple years ago I was relaying that story to Michael Davis when we were in Arizona with him. We were talking about Sun Ra and I said, ‘Michael, you know Sun Ra laid hands on me.’ And after I told him the story Michael looked at me with a very sort of piercing look and he said, ‘You know, maybe that’s when this all started.’