I Brought Down The MC5
If the MC5 is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” to coin the famous Churchill phrase, then surely, a memoir written by Michael Davis, its late bassist, must rank among the mysterious and enigmatic work of them all. Information about the legendary Detroit band – which fused assaultive rock 'n' roll, free-form musical explorations, and radical politics into an incendiary cocktail – has been notoriously hard to come by, leaving conjecture, rumor and street talk to fill the void.
I got a sense how large that void loomed in 1994-95, when I wrote a major retrospective for DISCoveries, for which I interviewed nearly all the major players – including Davis, guitarist Wayne Kramer, and drummer Dennis Thompson – which required a lot of additional fact-checking and follow-up work.
The finished story went down well, and drew a roughly dozen letters, including one from the person who'd taped the oft-circulated '69 Westfield High School show, writing in to correct the actual date! I've rarely seen that type of fervor, before or since. Since they’re the first major inside accounts, Davis's book, along with Wayne Kramer's chronicle, The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, The MC5, And My Life Of Impossibilities, seemingly arrive as timely additions to the canon. Sadly, Davis didn't live to see the fruits of his labors, dying in 2012 from liver failure, at 68.
At the start, I Brought Down The MC5 reads like the Byrds' famed directive from “So You Want To Be A Rock 'N' Roll Star”: “Get yourself an electric guitar, and learn how to play.” Davis does a fine job of conveying how it felt to grow up in such a fast-moving era, when today carried greater weight than tomorrow, and constant competition forced bands to up their game rapidly, or risk getting weeded out: “It was 1966. Life was still being experienced in black and white, stuck in limbo between postwar and Pop art. Stereo was still a new technology. LPs were still being produced in mono. But after years of street rod projects by teenagers and car buffs, muscle cars were appearing in the showrooms of Detroit. Acid was the new drug, and the MC5 were on the doorstep of a breakthrough.”
In the MC5's case, though, the transition proves particularly dramatic – even by the ‘60s' hyper-accelerated standards. One minute, they're decked out in the regulatory matching uniforms, dishing out the usual suspect covers, like “Pipeline,” and “Ramrod”; the next, Fred Smith hits on the droning guitar riff that yields the MC5's signature free-form showpiece, “Black To Comm.” The original bassist and drummer aren't having any of it, so they quit, “like a script in a corny movie,” as Davis puts it. Their departures clear the field for Davis and Thompson to ignite and refine an ever-accelerating process of exploration that yields Kick Out The Jams, the audacious live debut album, recorded over Halloween weekend, 1968, at the band's Detroit stomping grounds, the Grande Ballroom.
By then, Elektra has scooped up the band, whose potential seems limitless – until it's brutally derailed by a fiasco over the censorship of a certain heavyweight curse word from “Kick Out The Jams” itself. “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” gives way to “Kick out the jams -- you can almost hear the snip of the producers’ scissors – brothers and sisters!” Further protests with Elektra follow, to no avail. Suddenly, the band loses its deal, and – not surprisingly – begins to doubt itself amid the fallout of being tagged as “not ready for prime time” by music industry gatekeepers, and “sellouts” by their countercultural fanbase, a tag that’s reinforced and underscored by Back In The USA (1970), a far cleaner, more restrained beast than the fiery debut.
Bit by bit, the original dream of “rock 'n' roll, dope and fucking in the streets” crumbles under poor record sales, intra-band infighting, and crippling smack habits – except for Tyner, who focuses increasingly on marriage and family life as the nightmare ticks down to its inevitable end. Davis casts himself as an insecure outsider in his own band, whom he paints as distant and remote, especially late vocalist Rob Tyner, and late guitarist Fred Smith. When not scoffing at the Five's political stance, he's pillorying his former colleagues for all sorts of chemical, sexual and personal hypocrisies. That Davis also points those fingers at himself doesn't make the read any easier.
On a certain level, I Brought Down The MC5 brings new life to Ian Hunter's truism, “Trust the message, not the messenger.” After missing an important British gig, Davis’s bemused colleagues have had enough, and elbow him aside, as they soldier ahead, with a string of replacement low enders. However, Davis sees them off for one last blast at the Grande on New Year's Eve, 1972, which earns the MC5 the princely sum of $500, or $100 per man – not much money, then or now, for a couple sets' work.
This book often reads like a rock 'n' roll-style episode of “Intervention,” as Davis spirals down into a seemingly endless cycle of broken relationships, alcoholism and drug abuse, yet fails to find a place in the rock 'n' roll world he knows, or the regular Joe world he hoped to leave behind for good. The weight of it all lands him in federal prison in 1976, where Davis is surprised to bump into Kramer, also doing time on drug charges, though they don't become best buds there, either. So much for the idea of band bonding, I guess; if you ever entertained any illusions on that score, I Brought Down The MC5 will bring you down to earth in a hurry.
Davis fares little better after his release. Though he quickly finds another major gig in Destroy All Monsters, which pairs him with former Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton, the experience feels no more satisfying than his MC5 days did, as he details in one of the best chapters, “Delirious Alcoholic Megalosaurus.” For Davis, the band represents a considerable step down from the heyday of the Grande; instead of playing to 3,000 people, DAM grinds it out to far smaller crowds during the punk era -- dozens or low hundreds, depending on the night -- playing its brand of brutish heavy rock at precisely the time that the masses don’t want to hear it.
You can feel the squirming leap off the page, as Davis dismisses Niagara (“Her deadpan, flat, half-spoken vocals gave the music an air of laughable contrivance”), and Asheton’s leadership of the band (“he was content to turn the project into a super-hip couple show”). All the Spinal Tap cliches seem present and correct, as a disillusioned Davis quits in June 1984, feeling satisfied at “having departed the court of the royal couple.” Ouch!
Overall, I Brought Down The MC5 is well-written and worthwhile, though at times, I had to put it down periodically -- seeing so much dysfunction spun out over nearly 350 pages, at times, makes for a wearying read. (I often found myself saying, “Dude, maybe you should have bought a chastity belt instead of a Rickenbacker.”) Newcomers should start with the handful of other major resources first, like Guitar Army, a collection of writings by the MC5's oft-maligned first manager, John Sinclair, whose perspective provides another essential ingredient to the story, regardless. As much as his enemies have sought to whitewash him out of existence, if you don’t seek out his viewpoint, the MC5's story won’t make as much sense.
I should also point out that these resources don't just exist in book form. Actually, the best starting point is the Ann Arbor District Library -- which hosts an extensive alternative and underground press collection from the '60s and '70s online, at https://aadl.org/community/oldnews. To access the “good stuff” – or all things MC5- and Sinclair-related – go to the Ann Arbor Sun: https://aadl.org/papers/aa_sun. You’ll be glad you did.
One other issue deserves comment. Memoirs are equally notable for what they leave out, as much as what they leave in, and I Brought Down The MC5 omits a slew of potentially interesting reading. That includes Davis's feelings about the DKT/MC5 reunion (2003), his 2006 motorcycle accident, last marriage, and the formation of his foundation, Music Is Revolution – all of which are hurriedly noted, but not detailed, in an apologetic, but brief, epilogue.
Did Davis plan on saving these topics for another book? Or did he just find those particular pieces of psychic turf too painful to revisit, or did they seem less important than the story he'd already laid out? We don't know, because the editors, whoever they were, didn't see fit to tell us. Is that playing fair with the reader who's hung in there for nearly 350 pages of one person's dysfunctional odyssey? I don't think so. Readers aren't mushrooms to be fed crap, and kept in the dark. Some sort of forward or afterword outlining these decisions, and how Davis's book came to light – as a project of Cleopatra Records, instead of a conventionally published, or self-released work – would have worked wonders.
As a fan, I'd also really have appreciated some info about the albums themselves, but you won’t find that here – other than a page or two about the struggles of making Back In The USA, an album that, ironically, saw Davis yield his bass to Kramer for half of it. It’s a missed opportunity, because I didn’t care who the MC5 slept with, or what they smoked, but what they played, and how they played it. A little of that info would have gone a long way, particularly on the final album, High Time, which represents a solid marriage of basic songcraft with the band’s freewheeling live approach. Alas, you won’t see that here, either.
Even the book’s title is something of a head scratcher, since the band trundled along for a good 19 months after parting company with Davis in February 1971. He didn’t have any songwriting credits, other than the collective attribution given to Back In The USA, so while he wasn’t chopped liver, it’s hard to figure where the title fits what the tin says. Technically, the loss of Thompson’s rhythmic undertow, and Tyner’s vocal fury, exerted a far greater negative gravitational pull on the increasingly rudderless MC5, as one listen to the flatulent and unfocused proceedings captured on Finnish TV (“Pop Konsertti”) in December 1972 will demonstrate.
As a longtime fan, these omissions – and lack of context or explanation for them – are only all the more frustrating, when we have yet to see A True Testimonial, a 90s-era documentary scuppered by lawsuits, and the late Ben Edmonds' abandoned biography, No Greater Noise: The MC5 Story. Both works would surely stand as definitive, if somebody would ever release them! (In fairness, I understand that Edmonds's book is still in the pipeline, waiting for another writer to complete it. I don't know what's happening with A True Testimonial, of which Davis also says little, beyond a story or two about his involvement in it. You'll probably have to score a bootleg review copy, like I did, to fully understand my frustration at not seeing this film get a proper release.)
I'll have to see if Kramer's book addresses these issues, when I get my hands on it; I'll let you know how that turns out. For now, I Brought Down The MC5 is a worthwhile addition to the story, but best appreciated as one more link in a wider screen narrative that awaits a fuller retelling. If not? Then the logic spelled out in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” might end up having the last word: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Enigmas are funny like that.