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Writer's Workshop: Wayne Kramer of the MC5 (and the MC50) | Feature Interview


by Ryan Dembinsky (@itsathinkpiece)

Asked if he minded discussing some of the gory details of his career and his new autobiography, The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities, such as a long and tumultuous struggle with addiction, snafus with the law, and the ups and downs (mostly ups) of getting sober, Wayne Kramer laughed off the question as if it was absurd. Of course, he will. He's Wayne fucking Kramer.  

"There is nothing I won't talk about. You've probably the idea that we [are] only as sick as our secrets?" he laughs emphatically. "So, here is the deal. I would do literally anything that would change the way I felt. I didn't like how I felt, basically ever. So, I knew if I drank a glass of vodka; shot a bag of heroin; snorted a bunch of cocaine; or took a bunch of pills, it would change that bad feeling. I would do anything to change it." 

Before delving into the writing process of the new biography - of which he wrote every single word himself without any ghostwriters or overarching guidance - Wayne went deep on his journey through a turbulent struggle with hard drugs and mental illness. 

"I suffer from both depression and anxiety. I think most people that end up self-medicating themselves into a problem suffer from depression or some degree of mental illness," he continues, "This stuff has been going on since the beginning of time. These substances have been around as long as human beings have existed. People have always mashed up grapes; licked frogs; taken herbs; and eaten the bark of trees. They'd do all kinds of crazy shit just to change the way they feel – just to get through the day."

In terms of the turning point where he decided enough was enough, Wayne cites age, development, and maturity as his impetus for change. He also never stopped being a creatively driven person, and the point came where he could see that the way he had been doing things was no longer working. He wasn't creating, and he wasn't accomplishing any of the things he wanted to do with the rest of his life. 

"With the benefit of hindsight, it's the idea that things that were cool in your teens and in your twenties become no longer acceptable when you reach your thirties, forties, and fifties," Wayne explains. "I notice this shift all the time in my work with prisoners." Kramer volunteers his time as a supportive mentor with imprisoned drug offenders to help them on their own recovery journeys. "When prisoners get to be around age fifty," he continues, "They are finished being tough guys and they are done being hustlers. They no longer want to be gangsters. They just want to get out of prison and get on with leading a normal life. I think that was a big part of it for me. I just aged out."

Wayne's stories are hilarious and self-deprecating when he looks back on his life of partying and addiction. It's clear that the happy-go-lucky attitude and ability to laugh at some of the decisions he made a young person goes a long way in recharging the second act of his life. He's ready and willing to play the back nine, whereas not too long ago he thought he might be nearing the end. 

"I had run my own program until I was about fifty years old, and I wasn't having much success with it," he riffs. "The results I was getting from my way of doing things were not good, at all, and not getting any better. It became clear to me that at the rate I was going, I would probably die very soon. I decided, ‘Look, time is finite, and I only have a certain amount left. If I am going to accomplish anything, I need to start taking my life seriously."

"I knew I had a mental disorder and I met some guys who were just like me, and they seemed to have gotten better. So, I thought, ‘Shit, if they can get better, I can get better too.' These were guys that were just like me. They put needles in their arms. They had done some terrible things and wound up in prison. And they went on to become these tremendous people who do nothing but help people. I knew what kind of guys they were because I was one of those guys. I knew them from prison. I knew them from the streets in Detroit. To see how much they changed, I thought, ‘Wow, I'm not any better or any worse than those guys. Maybe I could change too.'"

"So, I went to a guy that I knew who knew about these types of things. I admitted to him that I was a sick man and asked him if he could help me. He told me, ‘Hey man, we don't shoot the wounded.'" The turning point came in asking for help and that was perhaps the hardest part of all. Once he took that first big step, the rest fell into place.  

"Once I turned the corner, the rest of it was fairly easy. The tough part is accepting the fact that there is no way I could use drugs and alcohol successfully. It just wasn't going to work. Believe me, I tried. I tried every possible permutation. Every angle. Every loophole. And I couldn't make it work."

"It begs the question is the student ready? If the student is ready, the teacher will appear," he laughs. "I had every possible argument for not changing until I ran out of them. All I had to do was look at the empirical evidence of my own life compared to these other guys and where their lives were at. I thought, ‘I want what they have." I wanted to get better more than anything I ever wanted in my whole life, so I did anything and everything someone suggested to me."

Regarding the twelve-step approach, the program was useful to Wayne for the first ten or fifteen years, but as he progressed and learned more about addiction, he since moved on from the twelve steps. "AA tends to be a bit of a closed community where it's the AA way or no other way," he explains. He believes it is helpful in the early years because there is a community that cares about people and makes them accountable for yourself. "My experience is that you really cannot overcome addiction by yourself. I have a whole circle of people that I trust my life with and that I can call up and say, ‘Am I the biggest asshole in town because I just told a guy this?' They will tell me, yeah Wayne you blew it. Go back and apologize or apply this principle to this situation. Without them, I would be nowhere."

Wayne's addiction equation included heroin as a variable, so he has become a supporter of methadone maintenance and suboxone therapy. He did two stints in a methadone program, once for two years and once for six years. As he describes it, "Methadone made a huge difference in my life. I wasn't ready for my body to be completely free of opiates, but I was definitely ready to leave the creepy lifestyle behind - putting needles in my arms, dealing drugs and being a scumbag."

Wayne has clearly taken on a mindset of wanting to help others with similar afflictions as he suffered from mental illness and addiction. He offers some of his own experiences and wisdom to anyone who might be reading this that got stuck in the same mud. There is a part of getting sober that basically sucks and people don't always educate others about, so he offers some advice about when the acute-withdrawal hard part is over, but so too is the part where the honeymoon phase of feeling good about getting your life back together.

 "After the initial excitement of getting sober wears off, things start to feel a little depressing and it becomes hard to find new activities to fill that void of excitement and the dopamine/endorphin rush that the drugs provided," he explains. "This is a temporary condition called anhedonia. When we alter our brains with substances, and it doesn't really matter what it is – cocaine, heroin, pills, vodka – if you do it long enough the substance effects our brain, and the brain becomes used to it. When we stop supplying that stuff to our brains, our brains go flat. It's a temporary condition that can last up to 90 days where nothing is funny; sex isn't that interesting; you don't want to go hear a band, and you don't want to see your friends. But the good news is that this is temporary. All these things will come back, and your brain will reset."

"Even though nobody understood this scientifically when they created it, there is a good reason why most programs for sobriety suggest newcomers attend 90 meetings in 90 days. This is a pretty good way to tackle the anhedonia because it gets you to a meeting every day. You get a little shot of natural endorphins from the meeting and hopefully, that is enough for you to make it to the next day. Man, I remember this all too well. I thought I ruined myself completely. I thought my sex drive would never come back. Shit, I thought sex was a syringe full of cocaine and a girl fellating me," Wayne laughs. "Sex is way more than that, but that just shows how aberrated I had become. But it all comes back, I promise. I guarantee it." 

He described how his "life" never used to matter much. Rather, "living" was what mattered. He came to the realization that in the way he had been living, it was always the people he knew, or the things he accomplished, or the "shit" that he owned that mattered. "That wasn't my life," he explains. "It might be a living, but it wasn't a life. My life is the kind of person I am inside and what I represent myself to be."

As it relates to the book, Wayne jokes how his friends had been bugging him to write a book for years about his wild ride in the MC5 that included a quick ascent to cult stardom and a steep fall that had him dealing drugs in Detroit to feed an addiction that ultimately landed him in jail. On paper, it's the stuff of rock ‘n' roll legend, but it's clear in talking to Wayne that it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. He humbly plumbs the depths of addiction, painting a bleak picture of it all in hopes of deterring anyone who might be seduced into that lifestyle. He also clearly finds joy in helping others rise out of their own wreck of addiction as he has unending gratitude for the folks who helped him. 

"The question I always asked was, ‘How would I end it?' I'm nowhere near finished with my work. I'm not dead. And I'm still in the middle of everything as far as I'm concerned. But then five years ago, my son was born. So, I thought this should be the ending of the book. You live one life before you have kids and then as soon as your first child arrives, your life changes and you begin a second life as a parent. So, I thought this is the place to end it."

While the birth of Wayne's son certainly represents a monumental life event and suitable ending for his story, the way things are going he might need to write a sequel in short order here. The future is bright and unwritten: Wayne's career is currently experiencing a massive rebirth of sorts. 

He just finished a world tour of 35+ dates across the US and Europe with what has been dubbed the MC50 – a reunion tour celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Motor City 5's seminal live album, Kick out the Jams. Wayne assembled a tour de force band with Kim Thayil from Soundgarden playing guitar alongside Wayne (guitar), Billy Gould on bass from Faith No More, Brendan Canty on drums from Fugazi, and Marcus Durant on vocals of Zen Guerilla. Guest appearances have included big names like "Everybody Walk the Dinosaur" brainchild, Don Was, Matt Cameron of Pearl Jam, and Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs. The shows have been receiving rave acclaim for being as tight and energetic as any the original MC5 played in their prime in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

And get this: they might make a record. Yep, you heard it right. Post-Trash perhaps breaking some news mofos: The MC50 might record a new album with this new enthusiastic lineup of Kramer, Thayil, Canty, Gould, and Durant. 

But wait, there's more. Another cool bit of new music is coming courtesy of Third Man Records, who recorded a version of the fiftieth-anniversary performance of Kick Out the Jams at the historic Detroit venue The Grand Ballroom (this time at Third Man's Detroit outpost). As reported by the Detroit Free Press, "Inside a backroom production studio, an audio crew mixed on the fly while a vintage 1970 lathe cut the show live to acetate — setting up a "Kick Out the Jams" record that will be pressed at Third Man's vinyl plant and released in early 2019."

Finally, Wayne has also been working with another like-minded musical dignitary (also sober), Mike Doughty, from Soul Coughing. Mike announced in an interview with the Detroit paper, the Metro Times, that the two have sparked a friendship and collaboration. Per Doughty in February 2017, "Wayne Kramer and I — I guess this is kind of an announcement, being that this is for a Detroit paper — are starting a band. He emailed me out of the blue, I hung out with him in LA, and we're writing songs and making plans. No band name yet. My personal fantasy is to ask either Stephanie Mozgawa from Warpaint or Janet Weiss, on drums, and Booker T., who lives in LA now, to make the record with us." Wayne expounded upon this during this chat, highlighting that the two had already finished recording some new material which should be coming out this year as well. 

So, maybe Wayne Kramer's second act of life is the real stuff of rock ‘n' roll legend. As music fans, it's easy to love a bone-chilling tale of rock stars shooting cocaine while getting fellated, but it sure feels good to hear an uplifting story of a rock star coming out on the other side as well. "Everything I have of any value today has been accomplished in the past twenty years in a life where drinking and drugs were not necessary," Wayne summarizes. "I have a life now that is beyond my wildest dreams. I have a beautiful little boy. I have a wife that loves me. I have a job that I adore. I have friends. I'm able to have real relationships with people and a sincere enjoyment of my life. I would have had none of this. In fact, I am absolutely certain I would be dead by now."

We're proud of you Wayne. Keep kicking ‘em out, brother.