Throughout Wayne Kramer’s new memoir, “The Hard Stuff,” the guitarist writes about episodes in his life when he felt scared. The abusive stepfather. The police attacks on his radical rock band, the MC5, and their fans. The prison stint he did in the 1970s for a drug deal.
His emotional honesty is a product of years in therapy, after many more years wasted in the downward spiral of drug abuse. Still, it’s jarring to read about the conceptual leader of the MC5 — the relentless hard rock band that gave us the phrase “Kick Out the Jams,” the only group to play at the riot-torn Democratic National Convention demonstrations in Chicago in 1968 — feeling “scared.”
“I experience that feeling to this day,” says Kramer, sounding surprised himself. At 70, he has a 5-year-old son. When a caseworker asked him what he wanted for the boy, he replied that he wants his son to know he’s safe, that “no harm can come to him, and that he can make a mistake and it’s not the end of the world.”
When the caseworker said, “Oh, you want to be the father you never had,” Kramer says, “I burst into tears.”
For the MC5, authority figures and the abuses of power were always the object of their protest. Short-lived — the band broke up in 1972, after a disappointing three-album run — their legacy nevertheless continues to inspire. To mark the 50th anniversary of the MC5’s debut, Kramer has assembled an all-star band including Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil and Fugazi’s Brendan Canty. The “MC50” tour pulls into the Paradise on Thursday.
Summer festival audiences both here and abroad have been enthusiastic, Kramer reports, even if many in the crowds are too young to remember the cultural chaos that spawned the band.
“I’m thrilled it still connects the ways it was designed to connect, and that it’s sustained 50 years,” he says. “Who woulda thunk?”
The MC5 came of age on the streets of Detroit, at a time when race riots and clashes with the cops were practically routine. The band sought to combine the hard rock of the Motor City — they abbreviated their hometown’s nickname for the name of the band — with the free jazz of the times.
They quickly became a top draw around the music-infatuated city of Detroit, upstaging touring headliners including Cream and galvanizing younger bands, like Iggy Pop’s Stooges. Their first album, “Kick Out the Jams,” was a live recording, capitalizing on the excitement of their shows.
But despite the input of producer Jon Landau — then a Boston-based writer about to embark on a long career as Bruce Springsteen’s manager — their second album was a flop. By the third, “High Time,” band members were struggling with drugs and alcohol and disillusion about the music business.
Frontman Rob Tyner died in 1991 at age 46, and guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, who was married to Patti Smith, died at the same age three years later. Over the years Kramer has put together several reunions; the current incarnation features singer Marcus Durant, who was in a heavily MC5-influenced San Francisco band called Zen Guerrilla.
“Each of the guys all have their own personal connection to the music of MC5, apart from their relationship to me,” says Kramer. “It’s not like they just got hired for a job — it’s more like this is a mission. They understand there’s a message there, of unlimited possibility, self-efficacy, self-determination — if you go all the way with it.”
Kramer has also taken his love of music behind bars, advocating for criminal justice reform and programs to reduce recidivism. Almost 10 years ago Kramer helped found Jail Guitar Doors USA, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing musical instruments to prison populations. The organization was first established in the UK by the musician Billy Bragg, who named it for the 1978 Clash song “Jail Guitar Doors” — which name-checked Kramer and his own incarceration.
Once or twice, the MC5 wrote songs that specifically addressed certain concerns of their generation. Kramer mentions “Human Being Lawnmower,” which was a protest against the draft.
‘I’m thrilled it still connects the ways it was designed to connect, and that it’s sustained 50 years. Who woulda thunk?’
But the band’s worldview was generally “a more fundamental rebellion,” he says. “The idea was that we were teenagers from Detroit who shared a sense of powerlessness, that we had no voice in the world.”
With friends (including the band’s manager, John Sinclair) drawing “phenomenally cruel prison sentences” for minor infractions like marijuana possession, Kramer says, “I think that affected us and maybe others of my generation — we were overreacting, like young people often do.”
Kramer still plays a signature Stratocaster designed with a stars and stripes motif.
“My understanding was that democracy has always been participatory,” he says. “It’s something for you to do, not just a word or an idea. It’s an action.
“Everything we did as a generation, and as the MC5, was fundamentally patriotic. I believe in the American experiment.”
Kick Out the Jams: MC50
At the Paradise Rock Club, Boston, Sept. 13 at 9 p.m. Tickets $35, www.ticketmaster.comJames Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.