BILL GLAHN POSES THIS QUESTION TO MC5'S WAYNE KRAMER: WHAT HAPPENS WHEN AN ARTIST HAS MORE TO SELL THAN HE HAS TO SAY?


"Brothers and sisters... I wanna see a sea of hands out there... I wanna hear some revolution out there, brother..." In the late '60s rock 'n' roll dropped the "roll" part, cranked up the volume, politicized itself, and became an instrumental part in overthrowing two corrupt administrations (Johnson and Nixon). A line was drawn on the concrete between America's youth and the status quo. None drew it deeper than Detroit's MC5. The Five spearheaded manager John Sinclair's philosophy of "total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock roll, dope and ****ing in the streets" with their groundbreaking debut, Kick Out The Jams. The military-industrial complex was the enemy, as were the corporations that fueled it. "The time has come for each and everyone of you to decide whether you are going to be the problem or you are going to be the solution. You must choose..."

After the Vietnam War wound down, rock maintained its revolutionary stance in the form of Punk. But by the '80s, rock was in immanent danger of being dragged into the mainstream by the same forces that it had rebelled against. Crass commercialization was the order of the day. The voice of rock 'n' roll was being co-opted to sell everything from perfume to beer. And when it accelerated from the occasional radio jingle into the arenas and concert halls, under the guise of "keeping ticket prices low," music journalists around the globe went on the attack. Who could blame them? When an artist has more to sell than he has to say, the music most certainly becomes diluted.

 

Highly recognized journalists such as Dave Marsh and Charles Young began taking the artists to task. Marsh began in 1983 when The Who took on Miller Beer as a sponsor for their second "farewell" tour. Marsh: "Ad agencies and corporations bought starpower, and this called allegiances into question: What would the Who have to say when the Miller workers went on strike?"

Moving deeper into the decade, not even upstart acts such as The Long Ryders and The Del Fuegos could escape the critics' wrath. After the financially strapped Long Ryders took on Miller as a sponsor in 1987, the public perception of them went from one of being one of the hippest bands on the planet to being corporate lackies in a matter of weeks. While never overtly political, The Long Ryders, fronted by the leftist-leaning Sid Griffin, were hardly an example of "corporate whoring." For them, an injection of outside funding was what was needed for survival. While some band in-fighting and label problems may have played a part in their demise, Griffin attributes the whipping they took in the press for the Miller ads as the straw that broke their back. In the end, the war against commercialism in rock music was yielding few victories and some undeserved casualties to go along with them. These days Marsh states, "It's different now than it was then. Then, there was a chance to stop it. Still, we lost and the whole campaign seems a mistake in retrospect."

"Lost" is an understatement. With every passing week, there seems to be another classic rock tune being incorporated into a new TV commercial. Everything from the silly (Iggy Pop's Lust For Life used to promote a Cruise Line) to the sad (The message of The Clash's London Calling being bastardized to sell Jaguars). But not every artist is being seduced. As Marsh correctly points out: "The level of resistance to sponsorship is pretty high; it's ineffective but it's pretty high, considering."

 

For those of us that like our music untainted, there are always artists we can count on to resist the lure of the corporate dollar. Ever wonder why Cadillac has a new ad campaign titled Break On Through, but features Led Zeppelin's Rock And Roll? It's because The Doors' John Densmore nixed the use of that band's music as a selling tool, as he has done religiously through the years. But if he were to give in, there is no doubt that it wouldn't be considered newsworthy. Densmore doesn't put the kabosh on commercialization of The Doors' music out of fear of a media backlash. He does so, among other reasons, out of respect for Jim Morrison's wishes and because he doesn't need the money. He can afford to keep The Doors' music pure.

Ex-MC5 guitarist, Wayne Kramer, should be so lucky. The sound of Kick Out The Jams still reverberates among those with a revolutionary bent. When Kramer took on, not one, but three sponsors for his recent Adult World tour, it did raise eyebrows. And a few danders as well. "How on earth could an artist who describes himself as 'left of left' jump into bed the enemy?" Avoiding the term "corporate sponsors," Kramer terms his deals as "strategic partnerships." The trinity forming his transgression consists of Fender Guitars (an obvious choice), Apple Computers (a stretch, but still an instrumental tool in his music-making), and X-Large Clothes Inc. (say what?). Kramer had some explaining to do and he welcomed the opportunity to do so.

"It's time to testify. I want to know.... Are you ready to testify?"

I started off by asking Kramer to explain how his deals work. He explains that he doesn't receive money for his endorsements.

"Not having the million dollars necessary to market Muscletone Records (Kramers' own label), I have to find new ways to reach the audience. One way that I do that is with what we call "strategic partners." It's a business principle. I've developed a relationship with Apple. I've used Apple computers for years now. Music and film people have really supported Apple. So when the opportunity came up to do some demonstrations for Apple, I jumped at it because it's a win-win deal for me. I get to go directly to the people that I want to reach and expose them to the things that I'm trying to do. I didn't ask Apple for anything. I didn't want anything from them. To me it's being of service to a product and a tool that I appreciate, that I think is a good tool. And it gives me a platform to market my records. That's the way the deal works. They promote. They do a flyer. And they let people know that Wayne Kramer will be there to do a demonstration of Pro Tools (a music mixing and mastering program) and the power of a Mac and how he made his new record on a Mac.

"I've been a Fender endorsee for years. I've played Fenders since I've been a boy. Fender does a lot of good work in this world. I'm not really a big deal at Fender. But Fender recognizes that the long-term artists, the guys that have been playing guitars for years, are where their credibility comes from. And they appreciate that. And I appreciate the fact that they're there for me and people just like me. I own both Gibsons and Fenders. I buy these guitars. They don't give them to me… Fender has given me some guitars, but Gibson doesn't give me any guitars. The point is, that by utilizing the resources of Fender, I can reach more people. See, this helps me. They move very slow. I'd like them to sponsor my tours. But they move very slow. It's a monolithic corporation. X-Large gives us some clothes to wear on stage. They're good looking clothes."

 
I own both Gibsons and Fenders. I buy these guitars. They don't give them to me… Fender has given me some guitars, but Gibson doesn't give me any guitars. The point is, that by utilizing the resources of Fender, I can reach more people... X-Large gives us some clothes to wear on stage. They're good looking clothes.

I already own a Fender, and the Mac sounds interesting, but I'm not quite ready to jump on-line and buy some X-Large Clothes. Fashion was never my strong point. But as pitchmen, Ed McMahon and Paul Harvey have nothing on Wayne Kramer. I ask him if he thought being a product endorsee was ever a valid issue in the first place. And did he think there was some unfairness in the way some bands were trashed in the '80s.

"No, it was never really an issue. And if somebody can write something about a band and it destroys the band, the band wasn't about much anyway."

Ouch! I had to challenge Kramer on this one. The Long Ryders outlasted the MC5 by two albums. What does this say about the MC5? Kramer backs off a little.

"I think it's placing too much power on the press to say that a bad review… You know there's a dilemma in being an artist because artists egos gets out of control. I use my ego as power. If I'm using my ego, there's a component in there that's my grandiosity. Part of being grandiose is big schemes. Big plots. I wanna be a big star. Especially when you're young. And part of grandiosity is being thin skinned. I don't like it when people criticize me. 'How dare you! Don't you know I'm godlike? Don't you know who you're talking too?' I'm thin skinned. I don't like to be teased. I don't like to be criticized. I use this as power, as fuel. I never understood this when I was young. I never knew that my ego powers me and in the end it fuels my alcoholism. Because I can't live in the world like that. So it's easier for me to get drunk. Cause then I don't have to deal with it. That's the problem. This is a self- imposed crisis that I've created. The truth can be… and the truth for me today is, that if I do this work to the best of my ability, by principle, then I'm not subject to criticism. Because I've done the best I can do.

"And another man's criticism doesn't ignite my ego, my grandiosity, my thin-skinned-ness, because I know I've done the best I can do. And another man doesn't sit in judgement of me. Jon Landau told me a story that he wrote a review of Eric Clapton (when Clapton was in Cream) where he said that Eric Clapton couldn't sustain a 30- or 40-minute solo. John Coltrane can play for 20 or 30 minutes and keep it compelling. Eric Clapton can't. And it ****ed Clapton up so much that he had a nervous breakdown. See, we can't stand to be criticized. We can't stand it! So perhaps that bad press affected those bands that deeply that it broke their spirit. I know in my life that it affected me terribly when I read bad reviews of the MC5. And my whole life was a knee-jerk reaction to bad reviews. But that's not my life today."

Is there some point at which an artist shouldn't engage in these type of partnerships with corporations for any amount of money?

"I saw where John Densmore raised the absolutely valid point about selling The Doors' music to sell cars or something. 'We don't need the money. Why would we do this?' That's really a good question. If you've got millions, why would you do that? I'm not sure. How many homes can you own? I don't do this (make music) for money in the first place. I do it to keep on doing it. But part of the deal is I need money. I've got to pay the rent just like everybody else. I've never had money like that. I've never had the kind of success that many of my contemporaries have. I don't know what they're up against. I've known some people that have that kind of money and who have the right idea about it. To use that money to be some kind of contributor. Not be a taker. I think there's a way to have money and be ethical. You don't see very much of it, but I think it can be done."

This doesn't strike me as the lingo of a self-described leftist. But Kramer makes many valid points. I recently saw Dwight Twilley play in front of about 12 people at an out-of-the-way ballroom somewhere in the sticks of Wisconsin. It isn't unusual to see such lesser-known but still vital artists as Alejandro Escavedo and Slobberbone playing in front of equally sparse crowds. I'm not sure I can get used to the idea of London Calling being used for a Jaguar commercial. And I still have to wonder where Wayne Kramer will place his allegiance should Apple workers ever go on strike. But maybe the idea of "strategic partnerships" is an idea whose time has come as an instrument for putting the spotlight on artists that are struggling. It's just too bad that it came about 15 years too late for The Long Ryders.

Note: Wayne Kramer's current release is Adult World, on Muscletone Records. The Long Ryders' Rockin' At The Roxy DVD is now available from Ventura Distribution.


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