i wanna hear some revolution: return of the MC5
Northsix, Brooklyn, NY
July 29, 2005
Of all the places I’ve ever wished I had been back in the day — the Apollo Theater, the Mercer Arts Center, The Marquee Club — the Grande Ballroom has always been in that top five. Tons of great music, to be sure, was performed there — the Who always considered Detroit to be a second home in the 60’s — but mostly because of the Motor City Five. I cannot claim that I came to them on my own; obviously, it was because Marsh and Lester and a half dozen other folks who were the epitome of cool back when I wasn’t old enough to drink worshipped them. And when I finally managed to track down a sanitized reissue of Kick Out The Jams I walked around dazed for a few days.
So I was excited to see this show and you can throw whatever accusations of nostalgia or dumb-ass comments about “just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s good” because you’ll just look foolish and ignorant. Like I said in my review of the documentary, this band made history. This band changed rock and roll. This band was important and important to me. Damn straight I was excited to see this show, excited to turn up before doors opened and excited enough to grab a piece of the stage just to the left of center.
Rock and roll reunions generate so many different threads of emotion. The thread of: oh my god, I am seeing something I never thought possible. The thread of: how can this live up to my expectations? The thread of: how can you have expectations if you never believed it could happen but then they are there on some level, there is a legend to live up to and how much of a break do you cut them in the name of nostalgia or loyalty.
And then, of course, there is the thread of: OH MY MOTHERFUCKING GOD I AM SEEING THE FUCKING MC5.
That’s the one that ruled the evening for me.
The show was billed as the band playing the entire Kick Out The Jams record in order, and so I (and most of the audience around me) thought that the evening would start with someone (my money was on Handsome Dick Manitoba, and frankly I believe he could have done it from heart if pressed into service, as could most of the audience, I believe) echoing Brother J.C. Crawford’s legendary invocation:
Brothers and sisters, I wanna see a sea of hands out there… I want everybody to kick up some noise, I wanna hear some revolution… Brothers and sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are going to be the problem or whether you are going to be the solution! You must choose, brothers, you must choose. It takes five seconds, five seconds of decision, five seconds to realize your purpose here on this planet. It takes five seconds to realize that it’s time to move, it’s time to get down with it. Brothers, it’s time to testify. And I want to know — are you ready to testify? ARE YOU READY?! I give you a testimonial: THE MC5!!”
And then they crash into “Ramblin’ Rose” with Wayne Kramer’s legendary falsetto.
Instead, a tiny bit of a letdown, there was no intro at all, just the band walking onstage: Wayne Kramer, dressed all in white, down to his shoes, looking like Captain Steubing on hallucinogens; Dennis Thompson settling into place behind the drum kit with the dignity of an Indian chief; and Michael Davis strapping on the bass and looking slightly apprehensive, as though they were getting ready for a showdown.
But then again, I guess they were.
Opening notes of “Ramblin’ Rose” were chaos and it seems like every person in Northsix knew every single word. No falsetto, but I can’t really hold him to that THIRTY FIVE YEARS LATER, now can I. Out of the corner of my eye I can see Mark Arm sidestage, staring at Wayne with dogged concentration, not moving, but with the air of energy of a prizefighter girding himself for the ring. And then, he strode onto the stage, took possession of the microphone, and before I knew it – they must have said something, I’m sure, but this is where I got lost in it all and time froze and my brain whirled and when I came out of it I am singing along:
Yes i’m starting to sweat
You know my shirt’s all wet
What a feeling
In the sound that abounds
And resounds and rebounds off the ceiling
You gotta have it baby
You can’t do without
When you get that feeling
You gotta sock’em out
Put that mike in my hand
And let me kick out the jams
yeah Kick out the jams
I want to kick’em out
There are goosebumps and bewilderment, that feeling of am I really seeing this? Am I dreaming?, feeling like the air shifted, the energy changed, that there is magic in this place, there was magic made by these three men and their absent friends and they are able to open it up and invoke it again.
Mark Arm. Admittedly, I am a die-hard Mudhoney devotee. I believe they are a national treasure. Yes, it is easy to feel that way when you live in Seattle for close to 10 years and can drive up the road and see them play a bar that barely holds 100 people. But the fact remains that they are amazing and Arm is an amazingly compelling frontman with energy to spare — still! — and most importantly, this music is part of him and who he is the same way it was for every person in that audience. When Mike Watt and J. Mascis first pulled the Asheton brothers out of retirement sans Iggy, I was more than a little bit surprised that Mark Arm didn’t get offered the position. But this is pretty damn okay too. Not that I ever had any doubt, but Arm brought it big time. I’m surprised he was still standing by the end of the night with the amount of conviction and searing raw power he threw into each and every song. Not that I ever got to see Rob Tyner live, but I felt like Mark channeled his spirit and mixed it enough with his own personality and presence and the result was appropriate, convincing and damn effective.
I was really looking forward to an ear-splitting, incendiary “Rocket Reducer No. 62” (aka “Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa”), so I have to admit that this is the number where the whole concept of the album trying to be recreated (and yes, you could recreate a live album, the Who getting up to recreate Live At Leeds or the Stones redoing Ya-Ya’s is entirely possible — not plausible, mind you, in a million years, but it’s a distinct sequence of songs that has become legendary through live recorded performance of same). What I really wanted was for them to tear through the album until my eardrums were bleeding and them come out and play another set of songs that I needed to hear. The latter happened, but I didn’t get the intense song-to-song transition that I had some kind of expectation of getting. But in this song specifically, instead of the guitar orgy I was hoping for, instead, Wayne stopped the song for a little three-part singalong, and you know, all right, unity and all that, but we coulda done that later to “High School” or something a little bit lighter.
Time to flip the album.
I don’t know if anyone else is a fan of Continuum Book’s 33 1/3 series, but I am obsessed (and also have promised myself I will write something to at least submit for consideration once my first novel is published). In the fall series, there is a volume about Kick Out The Jams and the author, Don McLeese, describes the second side of KOTJ aptly:
Four songs, fourteen and a half minutes of high-energy epiphany and raw sexual release. Then comes the second side, which remains the second side even in the CD era, another set of four cuts as diffuse as the first four are focused. In the vinyl era that spawned the album, you’d listen to both sides of a release at least once but then come to favor one side over the other. I’d guess that most of the more than 100,000 who bought Kick Out The Jams played side one 25-50 times for every time they turned the album over.
It’s not like it sucks or anything, okay, it’s just a little bit more, um, experimental in spots. I always remember being disappointed that a song with a title like “Motor City Is Burning” didn’t live up to its name (at least in my opinion). And for this show, the second guest vocalist, the absolutely fabulous Lisa Kekaula (the Bellrays) brought the soul power to the stage. Oh, my god, she was STUNNING. She livened up “Borderline” and even “Motor City Is Burning,” and then Mark returned to finish up the record. Wayne announced they were taking a 10 minute break and would be back to play some more.
At first I was a little bummed, I wanted to keep the vibe going, but there was no worry because they grabbed it back immediately, deafening cheers as soon as the first notes of “Shakin’ Street” started, Michael Davis on vox. Gilby Clarke (oh, yeah, he was there too) acquitted himself admirably on “Tonight”. The inimitable Handsome Dick bounded on for “Call Me Animal,” “High School” and “American Ruse.” I like HDM — okay, I like him in character and in context and I also like his bar. But no matter what you think of him, there is no doubt thathe was absolutely the right choice for those three songs, no question whatsoever, jumping up and down and staring intently at WK during every guitar solo, havin’ a party during the first two numbers. Mark Arm came back for a fun, rollicking “Sister Anne” and then, and then… a little political address from Mr. Kramer, about how when they recorded the album, we were involved in a war far away and we didn’t like it — and how, isn’t it odd, over 30 years later, we’re in exactly the same situation, this ushers in Fred “Sonic” Smith’s anti-Vietnam ode, “Over and Over,” and Mark imbues it with a fury that isn’t out of place now and wouldn’t have been out of place back then either. It was fierce and majestic and no matter how many times I have heard this song before, it was suddenly like I understood it for the first time, I felt it for the first time.
Lisa Kekaula is back for two more, “Human Being Lawnmower” which was fine and all, just fine, and I’m a little tired by now and hungry and it’s been a long, long night, very emotional, all of that. But then Michael Davis hits the opening notes to “Looking At You” and Lisa has the maracas and she’s shakin’ it up there, dancing around, rocking it out, voice soaring, it’s low and soulful and loud and proud all at the same time, and she’s shimmying around the stage, and it was then I felt it again, that moment of otherworldliness, that magic touch, the irrational feeling that while I never was at the Grande Ballroom and I will never, ever know what it was truly like, at that second there was this glimmer that made me believe that this moment might actually have been close to what it was like. And I well know — and Wayne asked for a moment of silence for them — that 2/5 of the magic wasn’t on that stage (and I cannot even conceive of what it would have been like with Sonic Smith and Rob Tyner too).
Everything that happened after that didn’t matter much, at least to me.
After the show, we walked down the street to get some food. As a couple were seated next to us, the woman noticed my “Got Motown?” shirt and asked if I was from Detroit.
No, I answered, I just saw the MC5, that’s why I was wearing the shirt.
“You know, I grew up down the street from where they used to play,” she said. “I never saw them, I was too young. But I grew up always hearing stories about them.”
“Well, I can tell you that they were all true,” I assured her, with more than a little bit of conviction, and a whole lot of emotion.
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