Out of Michigan: MC5 and John Sinclair
The MC5 were a rock band from Michigan which formed in the late 1960s
and lasted through the early 1970s.
My first exposure to the MC5 was a copy of their first album, Kick out
the Jams. I bought it secondhand on vinyl sometime while I still lived in
Minnesota in the late 1980s. I probably knew to buy it because of mentions
of the band in Forced Exposure magazine, a Lester Bangs-influenced
publication that covered the noisy non-commercial music of the 1980s. My
copy of the album was of course the expurgated version where "brothers and
sisters" replaces the key word in the spoken intro phrase "Kick out the
jams, motherfuckers." I once made an answering-machine message where I
used the spoken intro as background and then came on to say that I was on
tour with the MC5.
Now I'm lucky enough to know Ken Kelley. Ken grew up in Ann Arbor,
Michigan, and lived in the same house with the MC5 and their manager, John
Sinclair. When I called up Ken to let him know that the San Francisco
International Film Festival included screenings of a new documentary about
the MC5, he insisted that we had to get tickets for the first screening.
The MC5 documentary showed in the Castro Theater -- while that venue is
not in mint condition, at least it doesn't have gaping holes in the roof
and plaster hanging off the wall like Detroit's Grande Ballroom. That's
the site where the MC5 recorded their first album, and also where they
played their last show. The film starts with footage shot inside the ruins
of the Grande.
The documentary features amazing footage of the band in action,
including government surveillance film of them playing outside on the
occasion of the Chicago democratic convention, and some great
black-and-white video with synched sound of an outdoor performance. There
was even a shot of the newspaper Ken published at the time, the Ann Arbor
Argus, which printed an ad saying "Fuck Hudsons" after the department
store refused to carry the MC5's album.
The interviews focus on the band members and people in their immediate
circle, such as Sinclair and the women who were wives of the band members.
Even the two band members who are no longer alive, Fred Smith and Rob
Tyner, are featured talking about the band, thanks to archival interviews.
In the post-film question-and-answer session, the filmmakers promised
much bonus DVD material, including more live footage of the band and
tribute interviews with various other bands who are fans of the MC5. They
also brought MC5 poster artist Gary Grimshaw to the stage and acknowledged
the presence of Rob Tyner's widow.
When former MC5 manager John Sinclair was in San Francisco a few months
ago, I got to hang out with him and Ken. We went to his performance with
his band, the Blues Scholars, at Slim's. Sinclair recited his
blues musicians over the backing of the band.
After an in-store appearance at Open Mind Music, we went back to the
place where Sinclair was staying and watched a rough cut on video of the
documentary about him that's still a work in progress. It's being put
together by Steve Gebhardt, who also directed Ladies and Gentlemen, the
Rolling Stones. Gebhardt has been working on the film for years. Ken and I
are probably the only people who have seen both this documentary and the
one about the MC5.
These days Sinclair lives in New Orleans. He left Michigan a few years
ago and has adapted to his new hometown, becoming a popular DJ on WWOZ;
he'd also had a radio show in Michigan, as well as working on publishing
The documentary covers all periods of Sinclair's life, from his days
with Trans-Love Energies, the MC5, and the White Panthers in Michigan, to
his current time in New Orleans. There's live footage of him performing
with his band. And there's his visit to Amsterdam to judge their pot
olympics. The film cuts together footage from different times, and
Sinclair's appearance changes markedly -- his hair and beard seem to
expand and contract from cut to cut. It's almost like there are three
narratives going on -- the history of Sinclair's time in Michigan, his
stories of blues musicians, and his other activities such as the festival
There's so much to Sinclair's life that it's no wonder that finding a
framework for all this material is difficult, with his arrest and
imprisonment for marijuana possession, the benefit concert featuring
Lennon and Ono, and so on. The documentary still is awaiting completion
and clearance for music and footage. It's still a work in progress, so
this should by no means be considered a review. But a completed version of
the documentary is well worth anticipating.
The MC5 film is more straightforward in its chronology, starting out
with band on the local circuit, to its signing with Electra, getting
dropped, getting signed to Atlantic, touring Europe, drug problems, losing
members, and finally breaking up. They played one last show together with
the original members, but the magic was gone and guitarist Wayne Kramer
left before the show was over.
There is relatively little overlap between the two films. There's only
a little live footage of the band that's repeated, and there is a lot of
information in each film that's not available in the other. Hopefully the
MC5 film will get a commercial release and the Sinclair documentary will
be completed soon, so that a wider audience can see these testimonials to
the powers that came from Michigan at that crucial time.