Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Interest in MC5 spans decades

Formed in Lincoln Park, the MC5 had a
brief career, but long-lasting influence.


The first article I wrote about the MC5 appeared on the front page of the May 18, 1971 edition of the Bay Beacon student newspaper.

The five young men who were the subject of the article comprised not only an incendiary rock band, but were at the center of a political movement as well.

Students at Bay College weren't the only ones interested in news about the MC5.

Shortening their name from Motor City Five, the group had a brief and controversial lifespan but a large and lasting influence.

Formed in the Detroit suburb of Lincoln Park, the MC5 consisted of Rob Tyner, lead vocals; Wayne Kramer, Fender guitar; Fred "Sonic" Smith, Mosrite guitar; Michael Davis, Fender bass; and Dennis Thompson, drums.

The band made some national commotion when they played a free concert during an anti-war demonstration at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. Their "Kick Out The Jams" single made some noise the following spring, despite-- or maybe because of-- the use of a curse word.

The band was "guided" by Detroit poet John Sinclair, who disliked the term manager. He got the MC5 a gig as the house band at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit, owned by Russ Gibb. It was there they recorded their debut album before a live audience on Oct. 30 and 31, 1968.

By the following summer, Sinclair was sentenced to 10 years in prison after giving two marijuana cigarettes to an undercover narcotics officer.

Sinclair was sent to Southern Michigan State Prison in Jackson and later transferred to Marquette Branch Prison in the Upper Peninsula to serve his term. His relationship with the MC5 fell apart.

In a prison interview with Peter Steinberger, Sinclair said his imprisonment was the "best thing that's ever happened to our organization," referring to the White Panthers, Sinclair's group of counter-cultural white socialists looking to further the civil rights movement.

Separate from his political activities, Sinclair listened to music on a record player he bought from another prisoner and reviewed records for Jazz & Pop Magazine. According to his book "Guitar Army," Sinclair's record collection included jazz masters John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders and Archie Shepp; blues icons John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Paul Butterfield, plus Michigan staples like the Rationals, SRC, Bob Seger, the Up and of course, the MC5.

"Music really keeps me alive, you know?" Sinclair told Steinberger.

As Sinclair put in his time at Marquette, the nation's political climate continued to simmer.

Political activist Lawrence "Pun" Plamondon, who founded the White Panthers with Sinclair, went underground when he learned he was being charged with conspiracy in the bombing of the CIA office in Ann Arbor. Listed on the MC5's first album as "minister of defense," Plamondon secretly returned to lower Michigan after traveling to several foreign locations.

On July 23, 1970, he headed to the U. P. where he planned to hide out in the remote Keweenaw Peninsula. Traveling with two other White Panthers, Plamondon was arrested on US 2&41 near Naubinway, 50 miles west of St. Ignace, following an earlier stop for littering. Their vehicle was filled with guns.

According to his autobiography, "Lost From the Ottawa: The Story of the Journey Back," Plamondon was arrested and taken to the Mackinac County Jail before being moved to Detroit where he was charged with conspiracy and bombing government property.

Sinclair's fortunes improved on Dec. 10, 1971 when the John Sinclair Freedom Rally was held at Crisler Arena on the campus of University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The protest and concert featured ex-Beatle John Lennon and Yoko Ono, among others.

Sinclair was released on appeal bond three days later and his conviction was overturned. He had spent 29 months behind bars.

Plamondon eventually spent 32 months in prison, but his conviction was also overturned when the government admitted to wiretapping without a warrant.

Of Ottawa descent, Plamondom today is a respected tribal elder who speaks to high school and college students about the radical politics of the 1960s and 70s. Sinclair moved to the Netherlands, but recently talked about Michigan's medical marijuana law in an interview in "Big City Blues" magazine.

The MC5, meanwhile, played their last gig on New Years Eve, 1972, at the Grande Ballroom. Both Tyner and Smith died in the 1990s. Surviving members have held reunion shows in recent years.

Their three original albums stand as achievements to the MC5's musical greatness and provided the blueprint for the 1970s punk movement.

Many people continue to be fascinated by the band.

Film-makers Laurel Legler and David C. Thomas have spent years putting together a feature length documentary about the band, "MC5: A True Testimonial."

The pair collected photographs and silent film clips of the band, including surveillance footage shot by the U. S. government during the 1968 demonstrations in Chicago, and synched it to the band's music.

The documentary was shown at various festivals around the world from 2002 to 2004, drawing praise from critics and fans. However, the film became entangled in a lawsuit over publishing rights.

As one last hurtle to get the film released, Legler and Thomas needed to raise $27,000 to acquire a synchronization license to use the MC5's music in their documentary.

Just weeks ago, they put out a call for financial help with the aid of veteran Detroit music producer Freddie Brooks.

Brooks said he believes the MC5 documentary is "an absolute masterpiece and the film-makers deserve high praise both for their creativity and for their valiant struggle to make this tremendous film a reality."

My wife Sue and I offered our pledge to the effort. Despite more than 100 pledges, the funding goal was not reached.

For now, "MC5: A True Testimonial" will remain unissued, but people close to the project say they will find a way to release it.

I hope so. I would love to see it. Besides, the film provides the musical and visual background for that newspaper article I wrote four decades ago.

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