Sept. 12 2012 08:13 AM

Former MC5 guitarist talks politics, prison and Pussy Riot

Wayne Kramer, performing at South by Southwest in march
Photo by Gary Miller

Former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer may be one of punk’s founding fathers, but he’s looking pretty grandfatherly these days. At 64, he has thin gray hair, a self-effacing chuckle and the kind of patient, idealistic political views that would drive a hardcore Occupy Oakland protestor up the wall.

“I still support Barack Obama, but I don’t expect him to do the things that I think need to be done,” he says. “I have to take responsibility for that and make that happen myself in my own sphere. I believe one person does make a difference.”

That might sound rather tame for a guy who, back in the late ’60s, co-founded the hard-left White Panther Party, an offshoot of the Black Panthers. But Kramer’s lived a hard life, and he’s probably earned the right to be a little mellow.

Kramer, who’ll be in town this week for San Diego Music Thing, was born and raised in Detroit, but he now lives in Los Angeles with his wife and manager, Margaret Saadi Kramer. He doesn’t tour or perform much anymore, preferring instead to write scores for film and TV, like the HBO comedy Eastbound & Down. He’s even taken classes to hone his skills as an orchestral composer.

It’s been 40 years since Detroit hell-raisers MC5 broke up, but Kramer has lots of spark left. When I called him last week, he was just getting over a nasty case of bronchitis. After letting out a couple hacking coughs, he assured me he’s doing better. We soon got to talking about issues that are close to him, like California’s overcrowded prison system and Detroit’s brutal economic collapse.

“It’s a great example of the absolute worst aspects of capitalism,” he says, referring to automakers that have abandoned the city. “You have a city full of workers and no work.”

Though he’s released a number of solo albums over the years, Kramer is perhaps best known for having played Sun Ra-inspired riffs on a red-white-and-blue guitar with MC5, whose blistering anthems and divisive stunts laid the groundwork for punk rock. In one of Rolling Stone’s better-known turnarounds, the magazine panned MC5’s classic debut, 1969’s Kick Out the Jams, only to list it years later as one of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”

When he’s writing for film and TV, Kramer doesn’t get to kick out the jams like he used to. He’s working on a score for a stop-motion animation film called Hell and Back, created by the L.A. studio Shadow-Machine. His goal is to meet the storyteller’s vision, and he won’t argue if the director wants something changed.

“That’s a conversation you don’t want to have,” he says. “You will never convince the director that your idea for music is better than his idea.”

For a guy who dismisses American consumer culture as passive and nihilist, Hollywood might seem like a strange place. But Kramer doesn’t feel the least bit conflicted about his work.

“Unless my house is in order, I can’t do anything for anybody else,” he says. “There is no way to live off the grid and engage at the same time. If you touch a dollar bill, you’re part of it. It’s not like we’re revolutionaries living up in the hills and we come down and make a raid on the armory.”

Still, Kramer has an activist’s edge. In 2009, he and his wife founded Jail Guitar Doors USA, the American branch of an organization that puts on concerts and gives out free guitars to prisoners across the United States and the United Kingdom.

For Kramer, it’s a personal issue. In 1975, he was sent to a federal penitentiary in Kentucky for selling cocaine to undercover agents. He spent more than two years in the slammer, and now he sees a bit of himself in the inmates he meets, many of them low-level drug offenders.

“Sometimes I feel like they’re the only people that really understand what I’m talking about,” he says. “The stuff that they did, that’s the stuff I did. And what they’re going through, that’s what I went through.”

While Kramer’s an outspoken advocate for prison reform in the United States, he’s also speaking out in support of Russian feminist punks Pussy Riot. Last month, they were found guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and sentenced to two years in prison for performing a song against President Vladimir Putin in a Moscow cathedral.

“It’s really a harbinger of bad things to come from Putin and the Russian political regime,” Kramer says. “When they start sending musicians off to prison for singing songs, you know that the death squads aren’t far away.” 

Though he doesn’t seem particularly enthralled by Pussy Riot’s minimalist, roughhewn jams, he loves their audacity and enthusiasm. Indeed, he thinks more people should be pushing in whatever way they can toward positive change.

“I think there’s something to be said for, um, being of service to your fellow man,” he says, letting out a chuckle. “I know it sounds like a corny concept, but I think it has true value.”

Wayne Kramer performs at Bar Pink on Friday, Sept. 14, and speaks at the Lafayette Hotel on Saturday, Sept. 15, as part of San Diego Music Thing. See for the schedule.

Email or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.