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The Renegade Idealist

By Larrybob (larrybob@io.com)


May 9 2003


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 tales of 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 projects.

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 in Amsterdam.

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.