50 years of kicking out the jams: MC5 on display

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

The sleepy downriver suburb Lincoln Park gave birth to the world-class MC5 and will honor the revolutionary rabble-rousers this weekend with a special exhibit in their honor.

The town has gone through tough times in recent years, but you can still get a sense today what it must have been like in the 1950s and '60s, with its old-fashioned skating rink, cluster of 1930s-style brick municipal buildings and even an A&W Drive-In (where MC5 drummer Dennis "Machinegun" Thompson once worked as a cook).

It must have been a shock to locals when the MC5 — forming in 1964-65 as the Motor City Five — emerged from their hard-working, blue-collar town: wild, rude and almost begging to be arrested.

In their short career, the band was booted off Elektra Records and busted (and sometimes beaten up) by police in various jurisdictions for singing the unexpurgated lyrics to their big hit "Kick Out the Jams." They played at several riots, including the Democratic Convention in Chicago, and angered the nuns in every Metro Detroit Catholic high school they played.

Despite, or maybe because of all that, the Lincoln Park Historical Museum is launching the exhibit "Fifty Years of the Motor City Five" with a party, 7-9 p.m. Saturday , and a tribute concert and picnic, 2-6 p.m. Sunday.

The MC5's Thompson, 66, will be the only living member of the group at the events. Guitarist Wayne Kramer, the other living member, lives in Los Angeles and can't make it. Singer Rob Tyner died in 1991, guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith in 1994 and bassist Michael Davis in 2012.

Legendary Rolling Stone rock critic Lester Bangs famously dismissed the MC5 in a review as sounding like "16-year-old punks on a meth power trip," athough later, at Creem Magazine, he warmed to their music. Jaan Uhelszki, his co-editor at Creem, was on board earlier.

"It was a band like no other, at least no white rock band," Uhelszki said. "They were their own invention — hot, unruly, dangerous and truly unforgettable."

Hundreds of items expected

Finding out that the MC5 (four fifths, anyway) were from Lincoln Park "is like finding out that AC/DC is from Mayberry," said Tim Caldwell, a music historian who is co-curating the show. Caldwell's older brothers were Lincoln Park classmates with several members of the band.

"I'd heard that record ("Kick Out the Jams") when I was 9, in 1969, and it was just the ultimate rock 'n' roll experience," Caldwell said. "The spirit of rebellion that is the essence of rock 'n' roll was embodied in these guys."

MC5 manager John Sinclair was co-founder and "minister of information" for the White Panthers, an anti-racist group formed out of Ann Arbor to show solidarity with the Black Panthers. The band took out an ad in local alternative papers in 1968 telling Hudson's to (blank) itself, because the department store wouldn't carry the uncensored "Kick Out the Jams." The group was dropped from Elektra Records almost immediately.

"In 1968 and '69, (Lincoln Park officials) wanted to run us out of town on a rail. They wanted to drop a nuclear bomb on us. Twenty-seven years later they're giving us the key to the city," Thompson laughed.

When Caldwell, a local music historian/collector, suggested the Lincoln Park Historical Museum mount an exhibit honoring the MC5, museum curator Jeff Day couldn't think of one good reason why not. He wanted to lure younger visitors in. Once Day and Caldwell realized that 2015 marked the band's 50th anniversary, they decided to aim for an opening this year.

The MC5 actually formed in 1964, but only three fifths of the group was the lineup that became famous. It was in 1965 that they came together as the Motor City Five. Tyner, Kramer, Smith and Thompson all grew up in Lincoln Park; Davis grew up in Detroit.

Day put a call out to fans and historians, asking for donations of photos and artifacts relating to the group. He was overwhelmed by the response and estimates that there will be "hundreds" of items on display. Some of those who have dropped items off include Ben Blackwell of Third Man Records and MC5 family members.

Some of the items in the "Fifty Years of the Motor City Five" exhibit include a large, 9-foot-by-3-foot MC5 portrait/banner painted fan Robert Gutzeit, who was a student at Thurston High School in Redford when he made it in 1971.

Third Man Records' Blackwell, an avid collector of Detroit-related music artifacts, lent the museum a framed purple and white White Panther flag designed by the late graphic artist Gary Grimshaw. Blackwell is also digitizing a Leni Sinclair film of the MC5 performing live. The film will be played during the exhibit opening Saturday.

Along with photos by Sinclair on display, there are also many early photos of the band taken by photographer Emil Bacilla, who grew up in Lincoln Park.

Day's favorite artifact, so far, is a star-studded, broken guitar strap thrown from the stage of the Grande Ballroom in October 1968 by Kramer and caught by fan Robert Noe. "I don't think even Wayne knows we have it," Day said.

Tyner's family lent the museum some of the psychedelic outfits he wore onstage, many of which were sewn by his wife, Becky. That includes what Tyner called his "Kick Out the Jams" shirt, a glittery-striped number, and silvery bell-bottom pants with just the right amount of stretch (and repair in the knee area) for all of those stage dives. Tyner wore the outfit at the Grande in October 1968 when much of the "Kick Out the Jams" recording was made.

Thompson to play

Along with Thompson, members of Tyner's family will attend, as well as members of Smith's family, and Day is hoping that Davis' grandchildren will attend.

Thompson will sit in on drums with one of the bands at the Sunday concert. He recalled when the MC5 played the Lincoln Park band shell in 1966. "We played 'Black to Comm' and cleared the room!" he said.

The drummer is just as happy that it's Lincoln Park honoring the group, rather than a big museum or say, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He cites the Hall of Fame's induction of Donovan and the Beastie Boys as proof that its mission statement is meaningless.

"I appreciate (the Lincoln Park honor) even more, because it's grass roots," Thompson said.

How could a band like this come out of Lincoln Park? It was was one of the many blue-collar Detroit suburbs that boomed after World War II, thanks to auto jobs. And, as Thompson pointed out, those autoworker parents had the money to buy their children guitars and drums.

"It was the beginning of garage rock. I know it started in Detroit," he said.

The MC5 also were known for their avant-garde influences, and DJs Brad Hales and Adam Stanfel will spin music at the Saturday opening to reflect those eclectic roots, which included Sun Ra, Albert Ayler and jazz greats, as well as rock and R&B.

In the wake of all the social and political changes in the last few weeks, Thompson is proud of what the MC5 did and took a few beatings over.

"A lot of the things a whole generation, a whole subculture were were standing for, came to pass," Thompson said. "Remember, we were talking against the war, standing up for minority rights. Some progress has been made. More with some issues than others."

The controversy and conflict that's swirled around the band for years will fade with time, he thinks. Thompson does lectures at local universities on music history and is writing his own script for an MC5 film, told from his perspective. He's had a lot of time to think about what happened to the band, after such a brief, promising ride.

"Errors were made, but we're going to go down in history for music, I believe, not so much the politics," Thompson said. "That's rewarding. Nobody got rich, but we sure made an impression. I'm proud of that. That's what I think the Lincoln Park (exhibit) is all about. It's a microcosm of what Lincoln Park could do, the American dream."



'Fifty Years

of the Motor City Five'

The MC5 exhibition features the iconic works of Leni Sinclair, Carl Lundgren, Gary Grimshaw and Emil Bacilla, plus a host of original materials and artifacts. Lincoln Park Historical Museum, 1335 Southfield Rd., Lincoln Park.

Saturday: Opening reception, 7-9 p.m., with music of the MC5 and the era spun by DJs.

Sunday: Tribute concert and picnic, 2-6 p.m., featuring Chatoyant, Rocket 455, Timmy's Organism. Dennis Thompson will sit in on drums for several MC5 songs with Timmy's Organism. Memorial Park Band Shell

Admission is free (donations accepted). The exhibit will run through Sept. 7. For museum hours, go to lphistorical.org/ or call (313) 386-3137.