Let it be known: the Motor City really did burn. There really was revolution, dope, and fucking in the streets. And the MC5 really did kick out some jams. Delivering pure rock & roll with a previously unheard-of strength and energy and fusing it with the consciousness-raising clatter of the nascent free jazz movement and the political jive of the era’s leftist vanguard, the MC5 truly were, if only for a moment, the most powerful and dangerous band on the planet. But once the revolution was squashed— the fuzz cracked enough skulls and tossed enough leaders in prison; the record label lost interest and the money dried up—all that was left, at least according to Wayne Kramer’s seriously heavy 2018 memoir, The Hard Stuff (Da Capo Press), was the dope.
Though chronological and straightforward in its narrative, The Hard Stuff reads much more like a personal exercise in catharsis and self-examination than an attempt to correct the historical record. Kramer doesn’t offer much new information about the life and (high) times of the MC5 and moves through that period rather briskly. He gives a general overview of the band’s formation and the debauchery and chaos of “the ‘60s.” It’s engrossing enough, but certainly not revelatory. There is a point in this section, however, when the social and creative ideal envisioned by the band and its mentor/manager Jon Sinclair is described as, if not in reach, at least genuinely discernible. That moment sadly turns out to be the beginning of the end, the first step on a long road into frustration, struggle, and pain. The MC5 remains Kramer’s calling-card throughout his story, but the band itself isn’t heard from again for nearly the rest of the book, with Fred Smith’s and Rob Tyner’s deaths getting only the most cursory of mentions.
As the title suggests, Kramer goes on to experience some truly awful stuff. The product of a broken and abusive home, he didn’t ever have it easy, and he used music as an escape. A voracious and committed student of his craft, Kramer bought into the MC5 not only as a vehicle for social and cultural change but also as an outlet to push his own creative instincts. Plus, he just wanted to play in a rock band. But his drug addiction, which took hold roughly as the MC5 were dissolving, destroyed that and nearly all subsequent plans going forward, landing him in prison in 1975. In many ways, this is the where The Hard Stuff really begins, in Lexington Federal Prison. Created in 1935 to house inmates with drug addiction, Lexington became somewhat famous for the number of jazz musicians who ended up there, and, in fact, Kramer would befriend and work with Charlie Parker sideman Red Rodney during their time together inside. While Kramer certainly doesn’t romanticize his incarceration, this section of the book is one of the most intriguing, largely because of the insights Kramer gleaned about life, society, and his own sense of self as an artist and a human being. One sincerely wants Kramer’s time in prison to be an inspiring story of how the right type of rehabilitation—one that treats addiction as a disease and not a crime—can help an individual and set him on a path toward personal fulfillment. Unfortunately, for as profound an impact as prison would ultimately have on Kramer, Lexington didn’t do the trick. He would continue to battle drugs and his own poor choices from almost the second he was released and for decades thereafter.
The Hard Stuff has stories about Gang War (the who-could-have-ever-thought-that was-a-bad-idea? collaboration with Johnny Thunders) and interesting musical tidbits about Kramer’s time in New York City. Detroit music nerds will be interested to learn that Kramer played in a band with Motown songwriter and behind-the-scenes legend Melvin Davis. By and large, though, The Hard Stuff is an unrelenting, brutally honest look at addiction. That Kramer never succumbed is a miracle, but his struggle is nothing short of horrifying. During his time in Key West, it looks as if Kramer has really pulled himself out of his tailspin. He’s playing music, but he’s finding true fulfillment building houses and with a new love in his life. Alas, Key West proves only to be hiatus from the grip of drugs. A move to L.A. in the 1990s results in a well-received solo album put out by Epitaph Records, but even that triumph is eventually undercut by the paroxysm of substance abuse, culminating in a troubling blackout while on an international flight back from a tour.
Eventually, Kramer does straighten out, and the book gets its happy ending. Taking charge of the MC5 legacy appears to have been a key motivating and sustaining factor in the process. Michael Davis, in his own 2018 book about his life in the MC5 and beyond, apparently takes issue with some of what Kramer claims. But Brother Wayne takes great pride in presenting himself as the driving force behind not only the MC5 reunions, but also helping to get the band’s chaotic royalty situation rectified, which is no small accomplishment so many decades on. The reemergence of the MC5 clearly gave him a sense of purpose and perhaps some closure with the past.
Despite Kramer’s stability by the book’s conclusion, The Hard Stuff is not an easy read. Its author hides behind nothing, and his steely-eyed examination of his faults and past digressions must be applauded. Kramer is proud of where he is today and deserves to be. It’s reasonable for readers to be disappointed in the relative dearth of information about the MC5 here, but for a story about an individual desperately trying to conquer that which plagues not only his past but his present, it’s equally understandable for the teller of such a tale to continually want to look to the future.