Wayne Kramer enjoyed a bit of a career renaissance in the mid-1990s, recording three solo albums in as many years. I saw the intrepid punk rocker and political activist five times during this period, all at small Los Angeles venues that are long gone.
And now “Brother” Wayne is gone too — felled by pancreatic cancer on Feb. 2. The former guitarist with pioneering Detroit rockers the MC5, of “Kick out the Jams” fame, was 75, a legend in his own lifetime. But “being a legend doesn’t pay shit,” Kramer told me over burgers at Hugo’s in West Hollywood in May 1997. He had turned 49 a week earlier (Christ, that’s much younger than I am now!). “The legend business is not all it’s cracked up to be. I’m struggling to make a living in this rock ‘n’ roll just like every other band out there.”
In his bid to reach a wider audience, Kramer recalled phoning the organizers of that year’s Horde Festival to see if they would add him to the bill of the upcoming trek headlined by Neil Young. The conversation went like this:
HORDE: “Neil says he wants to be the only older guy on the tour.”
KRAMER: “That’s kind of a patriarchal, ageist stance, isn’t it?”
HORDE: “Oh yeah, we never thought of it that way, but we love your records, we love what you’re doing. But this is what we’re faced with. The guy’s nuts.”
Kramer — Young’s junior by two and a half years — didn’t have too many complaints otherwise. “I’m as happy as anyone can be who’s not sure where the next 50 bucks is coming from. Right now’s the happiest time in my life . . . I get to make records, I get to tour in a band. This is of itself a great achievement.”
Kramer had just released the album Citizen Wayne, hard on the heels of The Hard Stuff (1995) and Dangerous Madness (1996), all on Brett Gurewitz’s Epitaph Records. The new album included a jail song with a comedic element, “Count Time” — because “Nobody wants to hear a melodramatic ‘Woe is me / I was locked up in a penitentiary,’” he said.
He knew of what he wrote, having been sentenced to four years’ imprisonment on federal drug charges in the mid-’70s. Years later he would help establish the charity Jail Guitar Doors to provide musical instruments to prisoners.
During his stretch he stayed out of trouble by playing guitar. “I think that established my identity, that I wasn’t a gang-banger, I’m not a tough guy, I’m not a hard case, I’m not a hustler. I’m a musician. The gangsters would come by, ‘Oh, you’re the white boy who plays that wah-wah. You’re cool. We dig you.’
“I’m into the whole prison culture thing because literally 60 percent of the people in prison have no business being there. In the end it undermines the rule of law, it undermines the respect for policemen, it undermines the concept of law. I actually believe in those things.”
Just to be safe, though, Kramer recommended complete avoidance of the constabulary.
“My attitude is to have nothing to do with law enforcement whatsoever, have no contact with and never joke with them and never play games with them. They’ve got badges, they’ve got guns, and if they feel threatened they’ll use them both against you. That’s a lot of power.”
It was a most educational, fun interview. When he mentioned that he needed a new bass player, I gave him a friend’s name. “Is he sober?” he immediately asked. He said he liked Crowded House — I can’t remember how that came up, though I could play the tape, I suppose. After we were done he said to keep in touch. All very punk. That evening I saw L7 and the Offspring at a sweaty Hollywood Palladium gig. Fairly punk. Then I returned to my boring desk job until 1:30 a.m. Not so punk.
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