Kick Out the History Lesson!

On a business trip to Detroit in the summer of 1995, local filmmakers David Thomas and Laurel Legler chanced upon a scene that would redirect their lives for the next three years: workers painting over a giant building mural of proto-punk rockers the MC5. “It hit me that this bit of American rock ‘n’ roll history is still being covered up,” says Thomas. Returning to Chicago they and partner Jeff Economy–the three work under the moniker Future/Now Films–became so fixated on the idea that they decided to do something about it. Before long they had begun work on a full-length documentary on the MC5 and the volatile late-60s climate that led to its rise and then its fall.

Actually, the history of the MC5 hasn’t been so much covered up as revealed in fragments. All three of their albums have been reissued on CD, the band garnered its share of pages in Please Kill Me, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s recent book about punk rock, and the revived career of guitarist Wayne Kramer has precipitated no shortage of articles romanticizing the MC5’s influence on rock music nearly three decades later. For the most part the MC5’s relative obscurity is no different from that of countless other musical oddballs, from Captain Beefheart to Television.

The MC5’s attitude–a combination of unspecific antiauthoritarianism and an appreciation for mayhem–has proved more resonant than most of their music. Under the guidance of their provocative manager, John Sinclair, founder of the antiwar and generally anti-the Man White Panther Party, they came to represent Detroit’s counterculture; and by 1968, when they played the Festival of Life during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the MC5 had caught the ear of Danny Fields of Elektra Records, which released their incendiary live debut album, Kick Out the Jams, the next year.

Thomas and Legler discovered that the brick wall that sported the mural once belonged to Hudson’s, the department store that initially refused to carry Kick Out the Jams because singer Rob Tyner, on the intro to the title track, lovingly addresses his screaming minions as “motherfuckers.” In protest the band took out ads in local papers and plastered posters on the store’s windows with the message “Fuck Hudson’s”–using the logo of Elektra, which it billed for the expenses of the retaliation. The label paid the MC5, then dropped them, and without the group’s permission replaced the objectionable epithet with “brothers and sisters.”

The MC5 eventually signed with Atlantic, which issued Back in the USA (1970) and High Time (1971), but by then their moment had passed. Between Sinclair’s nine-year sentence for possessing a couple of joints, the members’ own drug abuse, poor business choices, and shifting cultural tides, the appeal of the group’s quasi-revolutionary agenda quickly disintegrated. In the intervening 25 years Detroit’s Stooges, whom the MC5 pushed Elektra to sign, have taken their place as the widely acknowledged punk prototype. With both Tyner and guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith dead, Thomas, Legler, and Economy are on a mission to salvage the MC5’s legend before it’s too late.

“The story of the band is interesting just as a Shakespearean tragedy, this rise and decline with a dissipation at the end,” says Economy, who’s directed numerous music videos, including Veruca Salt’s “Seether” clip. (He and Thomas also deliver this newspaper.) “But it didn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s completely tied into the culture. So much of what this country is about came from Detroit’s working class, and look at it now. It’s crumbling, and I think there’s a parallel between what happened to the band and the city.”

“It’s not just a great rock ‘n’ roll story, but it’s also a metaphor for American history,” Thomas adds, his voice cracking with enthusiasm. “When Oliver Stone made the Doors film and the JFK movie he missed the boat, because this is both of those things together. It’s like Spinal Tap meets The X-Files and it’s true.”

At first the Future/Now crew encountered plenty of suspicion and disbelief–Sinclair told them they were “demented” and a phone call to bassist Michael Davis elicited a gasp and the remark “I need to sit down”–but over the months their determination and possibly their obvious biases have gained the trust of their subjects. They’ve already conducted extensive interviews with Sinclair, Kramer, and drummer Dennis Thompson, and have met with initial cooperation from almost every principal figure (they’re still waiting to hear from Sonic’s widow, Patti Smith). Gary Grimshaw, the artist who designed the band’s distinctive concert posters, has agreed to design the film poster. Leni Sinclair, John Sinclair’s ex-wife, has provided rare performance footage, and the few minutes I saw of it supported the MC5’s reputation as visceral and electrifying.

The biggest potential roadblock, of course, is money. According to Legler, who handles most of the administrative responsibilities, Future/Now has spent $15,000 so far and hopes to raise another $285,000 from investors. “This is not a television program by any means, and it’s not going straight to home video,” she says. “Our intention is to have a feature-length theatrical release on 35-millimeter film.” She and her partners hope to finish all shooting by next summer and have the movie ready to release in early 1998.

“We’re really doing this because this is the movie we want to see,” explains Thomas. “I want to see the MC5 movie and nobody else is going to do it.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brad Miller.