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Panic In Detroit: Our 1997 Wayne Kramer Feature

The former MC5 guitarist proves he can still kick out the jams
Wayne Kramer
Wayne Kramer (Credit: Ian Dickson/Redferns)

This article was originally published in the June 1997 edition of SPIN. In memory of Wayne Kramer, who died on Feb. 2, 2024, we are republishing it here.

“Punk had a different meaning in prison,” recalls Wayne Kramer with a hearty laugh. “It wasn’t anything I wanted to be associated with.” Kramer’s jailhouse reticence is understandable, but as far as the accusation of providing a sonic blueprint for punk rock, he’s guilty as charged.

Kramer and the late Fred “Sonic” Smith were the dual guitar attack for the MC5, one of the leading exponents of late ’60s Detroit-area horsepower that helped paved the way for not just punk but heavy metal as well. Wedding the out-there explorations of Sun Ra with the down-there exhortations of Chuck Berry, “Citizen Wayne” (also the title of his new album) and the Five performed with a ferocity unmatched by anything except the radical militancy of their political beliefs. Part of manager John Sinclair’s White Panther Party, their ideological tenets included “total assault on the senses by any means necessary, including rock ‘n’ roll, dope, and fucking in the streets.”

It was such a fervent stance, in Kramer’s view, that it got the MC5 “crushed out of the music business.” After the band’s dissolution in 1972, Kramer turned to heroin and alcohol for solace, supporting his habits by “scamming anything that would turn a profit.” He ended up serving 26 months in a federal prison in the mid-’70s for cocaine trafficking, then scraped together various ill-fated band projects before relocating a few years ago to Los Angeles. There he was introduced to Epitaph Records owner and MC5 fan Brett Gurewitz, who recognized that Kramer was still quite capable of delivering the jams so sorely in need of kicking out.

Now sober and happily married, Kramer cracks a wide smile as he describes himself as “a reasonably well-adjusted grown-up.” At 49, his days of teenage lust may be long gone, but Kramer’s guitar playing has lost none of its youthful fire, as evidenced by the thick crunch of songs like “Stranger in the House” on Citizen Wayne, his third Epitaph release.

Live, Kramer’s ability to segue seamlessly from brawny rock rifting to free bursts of fluid and flammable improvising evokes no one so much as the late jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock. “Sometimes it feels like revenge,” says Kramer of his new opportunity to testify. “I get to do what I want to do and go out on stage and blister. Not that many guys get a second chance. I feel really, doubly, triply blessed.”