The Hard Stuff by Wayne Kramer review – portrait of a self-saboteur

He implausibly defied drugs, detention and death – now the MC5 maverick delivers an equally uncompromising memoir

The MC5 were never a famous band, merely a legendary one. The Clash wrote a song about their lead guitarist and ideologue, Wayne Kramer, called Jail Guitar Doors. Another generation of LA punks resuscitated his career in the mid-90s. A carousel of well-known musicians routinely fills in for departed MC5 band members whenever Kramer and co tour, which isn’t often: a 50th anniversary MC50 outing hits the UK in November.

Really, though, Kramer – the author of this eye-opening memoir – should be dead, several times over. He might still be in prison, had he murdered the guy he shot at for abducting his girlfriend. The gun wasn’t loaded, although Kramer was.

Miraculously, the prison time Kramer served for dealing drugs to fund his heroin habit was cut short. Equally implausibly, his decades as an addict merely resulted in frequent Reaper-dodging, as associates and girlfriends dropped like flies. It would not be far-fetched to call the man born Wayne Kambes in Detroit in 1948 a career criminal who once dabbled in music. As this wide-ranging, matter-of-fact memoir makes clear, though, the goal was always “to capture joy” through a visionary strain of rock music, laced with radical politics and free jazz extemporisations.

It is a mealy-mouthed cliche to talk of people who have done a lot of work on themselves. But clearly Kramer has gone at analysis and restitution with the ravenous gusto with which he first embraced rhythm and blues and the British invasion – and, later, crime. His journey from fatherless child to musical maverick to junkie to upstanding survivor reads like a history of the late 20th century, or possibly a gritty paperback.

“Brother Wayne” has a front-row seat on the carnage of the 60s, New York’s Lower East Side in the 70s, the ongoing perfidies of the music business, the inhumanity of the war on drugs, and, finally, therapy. He’s a fascinating bunch of guys: a seeker, a musician’s musician, a straight-talking, working-class midwesterner who figured out early on that the police were lawless and the land of the free was racist, sexist and opposed to mind-expansion. Best known for their insurrectionist rallying cry, Kick Out the Jams, Detroit’s incandescent Motor City Five released three albums on the 60s-70s cusp, inspiring many, before imploding miserably. Their manager John Sinclair, leader of the White Panther party, was jailed. The music industry grew tired of the band’s uncommercial stance and ungovernable antics.

Cue Kramer, the bitter self-saboteur, a man whose desperation and bendy ethics conspired to trash his reputation, derail his life and disappoint his mother. There are many cameos here, not least fellow Detroit musician Ted Nugent, an ardent rightwinger, who is one of this committed progressive’s buddies.

This journey through the hard stuff is admirably hard on Kramer himself. The self-portrait that emerges here is of an intelligent man of no little principle, slugging it out with his inner thug, losing battle after battle before finally, painfully, winning back both career and respect.

• The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5 and My Life of Impossibilities by Wayne Kramer is published by Faber Social (£14.99). To order a copy for £12.74 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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