Still Kickin' out the Jams

Rock/political legends MC5 are on a bus headed for Club Congress

The other day, I called the MC5 (yes, that MC5) on their tour bus as it motored through Connecticut, from New York City to Cambridge, Mass. You see, the band is on a world tour and coming to Tucson for a gig at Club Congress this Sunday. This is not a typo; please do not attempt to adjust the vertical or horizontal hold on your copy of the Tucson Weekly.

How is it that the MC5, a pivotal group in American music--nay, American underground history--ended up on a trajectory to play the modest Club Congress stage to a bunch of us cactusheads?

Yes, it seems odd, considering the band broke up in 1972, and only three of its original members still live. But it's true.

Tucson will soon host the band that woke up the rock world with its rallying-cry-cum-manifesto "Kick out the Jams," was organized by White Panther impresario John Sinclair, staged an assault on the 1968 Democratic National Convention, was investigated by the U.S. Department of Defense and made the cover of Rolling Stone in 1969.

Like so many once-defunct groups--from the Eagles to the Sex Pistols, from the Grateful Dead to Mission of Burma--the MC5 have found truth in the credo, "Never say never."

This time around, the band is billing itself as DKT/MC5. We all know that the original MC5 stood for Motor City Five, a nod to the group's Detroit origins. The acronym DKT represents the last names of surviving members Michael Davis (bass), Wayne Kramer (guitar) and Dennis Thompson (drums).

Although fallen comrades such as vocalist Rob Tyner and guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith won't be on hand, it's an all-star affair, with Detroit power-popper Marshall Crenshaw playing second guitar and singers Evan Dando (Lemonheads) and Mark Arm (Mudhoney) handling vocals.

When this news hit, I had to talk to the band in much the same way that I had to see the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory a dozen times when I was kid.

As they tooled through the Connecticut woods last week, I tried to speak with band members on a juggled assortment of cell phones, each of which seemed to drop out after a few sentences. They politely answered and called back time and again.

Luckily for me, Angela Davis--no, not the Afro'ed radical of the 1960s, but the proprietor of the rock 'n' roll management firm Svengirly and a former Tucsonan--is one of the tour's organizers. The fact that Angela manages the careers of MC5 bassist Davis (her husband and also a former Tucsonan) and drummer Thompson is not coincidental. In this instance, it is actually fortuitous.

Angela is also handling lots of stuff, including merchandising and, significantly, coordinating interviews. As she always has been, she's also good for a quote or two.

Before the first call was dropped, she headed off looking for musicians. "Wayne's in the back of the bus with Michael doing some guy thing that involves screwdrivers and wires," she said.

Wayne? Does she mean Wayne Kramer, guitarist for MC5 and, in many people's books, a rock 'n' roll legend, one of the true godfathers of punk? Uh, yeah.

Suddenly Kramer--who has enjoyed a successful solo career making some damn good punk-rock albums during the 1990s--was on the line. He said he, Davis and Thompson have rarely played together since the group's demise more than 30 years ago.

There was that 1991 benefit for the family of the then-recently deceased Tyner, and not much else since.

Kramer said the current concert tour is meant to promote the July 6 release of the DVD Sonic Revolution: A Celebration of the MC5. The disc was inspired by and includes the March 2003 reunion concert that DKT/MC5 played at London's legendary 100 Club. Guests on the bill included such rock royalty as Motorhead's Lemmy, the Damned's Dave Vanian, the Cult's Ian Astbury and Nicke Royale from the much-revered Swedish punk band Hellacopters.

More goodies on the DVD include a bundle of previously unreleased footage, such as Sinclair's original promotional video for "Kick out the Jams," interviews, archival footage and commentaries by the band. There's also a 30-minute BBC-produced documentary that traces the band's history and includes interviews with Jack White (of the White Stripes) and Mani (from Primal Scream).

But although Kramer didn't hide the fact that they band is trying to sell DVDs, he said the tour is no comeback, nor an attempt to recapture past glory. "It's not a return to the past. All we can do is play now for now."

Even over the weak phone connection, Kramer exuded an air of quiet wisdom. "I have no expectations," he said of the reunion. "It cannot and will not live up to my, or anybody else's expectations."

Kramer patiently listens as I jokingly ask him if maybe the MC5 will return to playing music in the political arena for the 2004 Democratic National Convention. I know full well the band will be playing concerts overseas when it happens this summer.

Just before his signal faded, Kramer responded, "Well, maybe it is time for some social change. The country's in terrible shape, and it could use a new direction."

Originally, the DKT/MC5 tour--which also will play in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Europe--was scheduled to hit only six towns in the United States. Now, the band is doing 32 American dates in 35 days, Angela Davis said once the cell-phone connection was re-established.

She was going to put her husband, Michael, on the phone. Davis is universally known as a genuinely nice guy, and I wanted to talk about all the mutual friends we have in Tucson.

Davis, Tucson music fans may recall, lived here for many years in the 1990s and played bass regularly for the local band Rich Hopkins and the Luminarios. Sometimes he even stepped up to the microphone to belt out "Kick out the Jams."

Suddenly, Davis was on the phone. Then he wasn't, lost to the Bermuda Triangle of dropped cell-phone calls. Well, we know where to find him this Sunday night.