The MC5 Build to a Gathering
In sharp contrast with traditional rock concerts, where the performer was easily distinguishable from his audience, the MC5 resemble their fans. The separation between an audience and its heroes on stage is disappearing.
—Richard Goldstein, from Countdown: A Paperback Magazine
Wayne Kramer, Rob Tyner, and Fred “Sonic” Smith, childhood friends from Detroit, formed the Motor City Five along with high school classmates Michael Davis and Dennis Thompson in the mid-1960s. All working class kids, “greasers,” as their guitarist Kramer put it, they named the group the MC5 because it sounded both innocuous and purposeful, somehow fitting for the language of an auto industry town like Detroit. As Kramer tells it the lead singer of the band, Rob Tyner, came up with the name, thinking that MC5 sounded like a serial number, like something you might ask for on the line as you’re building out a carburetor. Prior to Kramer, Tyner, and Smith joining up together, Smith and Kramer had been in two rival neighborhood bands; The Vibratones and Kramer’s group The Bounty Hunters, named after the dragster of a local racer, Conrad Kalitta.
The three founding members came to music, as Smith said in a late 1960s French television interview, as a form of rebellion:
We were involved in various criminal activities, because we got into this rebelling type of attitude towards everything, from when we were very young. So once we got into this rebelling against systems and society and so on the combination of the music and that lifestyle produced a rock n’ roll scene for that area. Which was a rock n’ roll rebellion, you know?
In a 1988 interview when asked what he might have become if not for rock n’ roll Tyner responded, ... maybe armed robbery; could be. Assault and battery; definitely.
It was Tyner’s job to set up the PA system for the band. In the early days, around late 1965, this consisted of two big VOX column speakers. Kramer would remind him that the red wire was the live wire and the black wire was the common. From repeating this to Tyner over and over again—Black to comm. Black to comm.”—the phrase became a song title. A raver to end shows with.
And it used to clear the rooms, said Kramer. We could clear the rooms in 30 seconds. Everybody would be gone. And that’s when we started to realize that we were on to something.
Black to Comm is a roaring dirge kickstarted by Fred Smith. Loud like starting the massive engine of a muscle car on a hot mid-summer afternoon in the humid Michigan heat. Repetitive and intense just like all those long adolesent summer afternoons are. My hunch here is that what Kramer is saying, about the songs ability to clear the room ushering in a new and important stage for the band, is that Black to Comm was an assault that cleared the room and subsequently left a public, rather than specifically an audience, in its place. Those that got it stuck around, in a frenzy, dancing, freaking out, communing through the vibrations of the roar of the band in the now near empty VFW hall. The folks that remained, band and former audience alike, were now building something together. The feeling must have been euphoric, like something they’d never encountered before with other people. A visceral connection throughout the room. A wordless realization that these people, together, understand something in common, and yet none of them as of yet could articulate what that commonality might be. A few years later the groups manager, the poet and political activist John Sinclair, would write in the liner notes to the bands debut record, Kick Out the Jams, “We are a lonely desperate people, pulled apart by the killer forces of capitalism and competition, and we need the music to hold us together.”
There’s a tape from an October 1967 performance that the MC5 gave for a local Detroit television station, WTVS-TV. The band plays Black to Comm. The footage is surprisingly adept and innovative for the time. Especially for a local program. There are quick cuts back and forth between band members as well as the shows host, a man in his mid-fifties. Probably a veteran of WWII. At one point the camera cuts to the host, and quickly back and forth between him and the band as Dennis Thompson smashes harder and harder on his kit and the host covers his ears with both hands as if cowering from an aerial attack. As the song drones on to a close in blazing feedback the host speaks directly to the audience at home over the top of the music:
Those of you who are listening to this program at home are not getting the full benefit of the sound that we get in the studio.
Those of us in the studio now know how the Marines feel at the boundary line in Vietnam there when those North Vietnamese rocket shells come
—he breathes in for a moment, almost in a state of calm reminiscence of past experience survived—
Is he reminded of German shells? Is the chaotic blast of sonic shrapnel coming from the band reminiscent of his time overseas and here today in the studio, have these “lumpen hippies,” as Sinclair identified them, allowed the mother’s and father’s, teenage kids listening at home in their living room a small window into the mayhem that he experienced? So early in the war, is this broadcaster feeling, maybe not yet able to articulate, “oh, now you know a little bit about what I know. Now you understand a little bit of the hell we’re getting into.” He might not have understood exactly the effect the music had on him, but there’s something of a sly ironic smile on his face, so unlike the disgust of others of his generation who had to put up with the racket, the chaos, the sound. All this noise that they didn’t understand, be it the early murmurings of a new sound, a new look, a discordant radical tone of political rebellion. But you can see something in this tv hosts smirk. His smile is the smile of the trickster, of Coyote, of Loki.
A small glimmer of communion here now between the darkness of his past and the hazy vision of a shared future, a connection across time and a moment of uncertain clarity in the darkness. A spark, a match, a torch, an eruption.
Sam Gould of Minneapolis, MN is co-founder and lead facilitator of Red76. Build to a Gathering is the closing section of the essay In the Pines, commissioned by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MN.