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Guitarist, Singer, Songwriter Wayne Kramer

Guitarist, singer, songwriter Wayne Kramer. In the late 1960s he founded the MC5, a Detroit band considered to be the prototype for punk rock. By 1972 the band had burned out. In between then and now, Kramer did time in jail for drugs, teamed up with Don and David Was to found the group Was (Not Was), and began a solo career. His new solo album is Adult World.




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Other segments from the episode on August 20, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 20, 2002: Interview with Wayne Kramer; Commentary on language.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Wayne Kramer discusses the music and radical politics
of his 1960s band, the MC5

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In the late '60s when a lot of rock bands saw themselves as being in the
vanguard of a cultural or political revolution, the Detroit-based band the MC5
was one of the most radical of them all. In their early days, they were
managed by John Sinclair, the head of the revolutionary White Panther Party.
The band was a critical success and a popular one, too, with a Top 30 album.

The MC5 broke up in 1972. Now they are seen as a forerunner of punk rock and
an early expression of heavy metal. A new documentary about the band will
have its premiere at the Chicago Underground Film Festival on August 22nd and
will be shown at the Toronto Film Festival in early September.

My guest, guitarist, singer and songwriter Wayne Kramer, was a founding member
of the MC5. He's still performing and recently started his own label called
Muscle Tone Records. It released his new CD "Adult World." Let's start with
a track from "Adult World." This is "Talkin' Outta School."

(Soundbite of "Talkin' Outta School")

Mr. WAYNE KRAMER: (Singing) Do I need a shower or do I need a shave? Do I
need an inside tip? Is there any money that I can save? Do I need to find my
business or stick my beak in yours when it's clear that one man's ceiling is
another's floor? ...(Unintelligible). And I'll assassinate your character
'cause I live by my own rules. And I'll write it off as the voice of faith
'cause I'm talk, talk, talk, talkin' outta school. Talk, talk, talk, talk,
talkin' outta school. Talk, talk, talk, talk, talkin' outta school. Talk,
talk, talk, talk.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: That's Wayne Kramer from his new CD, "Adult World."

Wayne Kramer, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. KRAMER: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be with you today.

GROSS: Wayne Kramer, how would you compare the music you're making now to the
music you made in the MC5 era?

Mr. KRAMER: I think it's better if I had to, you know, qualify it. Music is
one of those interesting activities that is not actually tied to being young,
that you can continue to develop your ideas and your passion can go deeper and
your technique and your craft become better and your ideas can be more
stretched out as you get older. I mean, look in the world of the blues and in
jazz. So, you know, I think that, you know, you don't necessarily have to
pull over and park when you're 25.

GROSS: Well, when you started playing with the MC5, rock was, you know, a
youth music then. And for you, it was a revolutionary statement, as well. So
is it more about the music itself to you now?

Mr. KRAMER: No, you can't--I don't think you can take the literary or
political or, you know, social content out of it. You know, it's all one
thing. It's all one message. It's all one communication.

GROSS: Now noise and distortion were part of the MC5's music. Are you still
interested in that kind of sound?

Mr. KRAMER: Love noise. Love noise, yeah.

GROSS: What do you love about it?

Mr. KRAMER: I'm trying to think of music beyond the traditional forms of
music. And, you know, if I take the best Chuck Berry-type guitar solo I can
play and push it to the next level, I'm closing in on what the free jazz guys
were doing in the late '60s and in the '70s. You know, we're starting to move
out of the beat, out of the key, into, I'd like to think, a more pure sonic
dimension. And, you know, there's a lot that happens in the world of our
hearing and in what sounds represent that aren't traditional music, you know.
I mean, you know, in today's music, in sampling, you hear car horns and dogs
barking, and to me these are all just tools and techniques that I can use to
tell stories more vividly.

GROSS: Let's go back to the beginning, more or less, of your story. You grew
up in Detroit. Did your father work in the auto industry?

Mr. KRAMER: Yeah. Well, in a satellite sense, you know. He was an
electrician and later was in the building trades.

GROSS: Did you...

Mr. KRAMER: And then I had a stepfather later on who also worked in the--he
actually worked in an oil refinery there in Detroit.

GROSS: Did you figure that when you grew up, your job would somehow to be
connected to the auto industry?

Mr. KRAMER: Well, that was my fear. You know, that's the birthright if
you're born in the industrial Midwest, you know, that you're going to end up a
shop rat.

GROSS: How was the MC5 first created? And let's place it. It
was--What?--1968, '67?

Mr. KRAMER: Well, that's when we kind of broke out of a regional popularity
onto the national consciousness. But we really started about '64, '65 in a
neighborhood kind of way, you know. I looked around for guys in the
neighborhood that wanted to be in a band, and collected a bunch of
ne'er-do-wells just like me, and we decided to call ourselves--we had a bunch
of other, you know, subgroups. See, it was a very competitive scene in those
days. I mean, this is, you know, the boom time after World War II. Everybody
has good jobs, and you can buy an electric guitar on credit from Sears and
they were everywhere. I mean, everybody, you know, had an electric guitar.
Everybody was in a band. I mean, it was really a popular activity.

But, you know, we kind of coagulated as the MC5 at a point, me, Rob Tyner,
Fred Smith, Michael Davis and Dennis Thompson. And, you know, we really
worked hard at what we were trying to do. We really worked hard on trying to
be the best band we could possibly be, you know, be better than everybody
else, because for us, it was--we looked at it as a way out of the factory, as
an alternative to the lifestyle that we were guaranteed to have to fulfill.
It just wasn't all that appealing, you know.

GROSS: Well, the MC5 became, you know, a self-styled revolutionary group.
What politicized you? What got you thinking more about revolution than Chuck

Mr. KRAMER: Well, Chuck Berry was revolutionary. But, you know, it was the
day--we were very much a part of the time we lived in. And this was a time in
the '60s--and I know it's hard for people to have a feel for it today, but the
country was fractured down the middle. And the war in Vietnam had created
such a division in the generations, between the older World War II generation
and our generation, that we really thought the whole thing could just blow up
at any time.

And we just were frustrated with the slow pace of change, we were anxious
about the future and we felt like we had to take action. And the action we
took was in endorsing our idols, which were the Black Panther Party and
Malcolm X and, you know, our spiritual leaders, which we viewed as John
Coltrane and, you know, Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Archie Shepp. And
we tried to bring all these ideas together in message that our band could
represent, self-efficacy, that we could present the idea that, you know, you
didn't have to go along with the program, that there was a better way that we
could do things.

GROSS: The band hooked up with John Sinclair, who was the head of the White
Panther Party. What was the philosophy of the party?

Mr. KRAMER: Well, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton put out the call for there to
be a group in the white community, in the hippie community, to take up
parallel work with the Black Panther Party. And we were ready. I mean, we
just said, `Yeah, that's us,' you know. And it was romantic and it was
dangerous, but I don't want you to think that, you know, we were sitting in a
warehouse on the west side of Detroit, desperately cleaning our shotguns
waiting for the revolution. I mean, we sat around a table and smoked tons of
marijuana and laughed our asses off at what was going on, and this all just
seemed to make perfect sense to us, you know.

GROSS: Let me read part of the 10-point program of the White Panther Party.

Mr. KRAMER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: (Reading) `We want justice. We want a free world economy. We want a
clean planet. We want a free educational system. We want to free all
structures from corporate rule. We want free access to all information, media
and technology. We want the freedom of all people who are being held against
their will in the conscripted armies of the oppressor throughout the world.
We want the freedom of all political prisoners of war. We want a free planet.
We want free land, free food, free shelter, free clothing, free music, free
culture, free media, free technology, free education, free health care, free
bodies, free people, free time and space; everything free.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Bring back memories?

Mr. KRAMER: Love it. Boy, that sounds great.

GROSS: Did you charge for concerts or were they always free?

Mr. KRAMER: Oh, we charged as much as we could. Unfortunately, many times
they were free.

GROSS: Speaking of free--I mean, I remember there were a lot of rallies in
the 1960s `Free John Sinclair,' who was affiliated with the MC5 and was
arrested--sentenced to 10 years for carrying two cigarettes. So what was the
relationship of...

Mr. KRAMER: Two marijuana cigarettes.

GROSS: I'm sorry. Two joints, yeah.

Mr. KRAMER: Right.

GROSS: What was the relationship of John Sinclair to the MC5?

Mr. KRAMER: Well, John was officially our manager, but he was really--see, we
had tried to work with, like, music business-type managers before and it never
worked because we were really insane. We were unmanageable. And John was the
first guy we met that actually--the band respected; that, you know, John's
analysis made sense to us. And John's, you know, political stance and
cultural background made sense to us. And John admitted that, you know, he
didn't know what he was doing, either, that, you know, he had just learned
from The Grateful Dead--they didn't know what they were doing and they said,
`Yeah, we've got these corporations to give us money--these records companies.
And you could do it, too.' So we said, `Hell, yes. Let's try.' What would
you be if you didn't try?

GROSS: My guest is Wayne Kramer. In the '60s, he was a founding member of
the MC5. His new CD is called "Adult World." More after a break. This is

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is guitarist, songwriter and singer Wayne Kramer. He has a
new CD called "Adult World." In the '60s, he was a founding member of the
MC5. When we left off, he told us that in the late '60s the band was signed
by Elektra Records.

So you got a record company contract...

Mr. KRAMER: We did, indeed.

GROSS: ...and then you went around recording things like "Kick Out the Jams
Mother"--expletive deleted...

Mr. KRAMER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...which couldn't very well be played on the radio and I'm sure the
record company wasn't really thrilled that the lyrics to your song had an
expletive like the king of expletives on it. So what were you thinking?

Mr. KRAMER: Or the queen of expletives.

GROSS: What were you thinking when you got this good album contract, this
good record deal and then, you know, recorded a song on it that couldn't
possibly play and that you had to know would be considered a real liability to
the record company?

Mr. KRAMER: Well, you know, the song had this introduction, you know, where
we came out and we screamed at the top of our lungs, `Kick out the jams, MF.'
But, you know, we weren't complete idiots about it. You know, we knew that
that would never be played on the radio, so we recorded an alternative intro
which was `Kick out the jams, brothers and sisters.'

And, you know, it might be an interesting footnote to look at it, because what
happened was we had agreed--we knew that--I mean, "Kick Out the Jams, MF" was
not going to be a hit single. So we did this other version. And what we told
Elektra Records was that we knew when the album version, the real version hit
the stands, that the stuff was going to hit the fan, but let the single get as
firmly established in the charts as it can. Wait till it starts coming back
down the charts before you put the album out because then they won't be able
to stop us, you know, 'cause then we'll be a bona fide hit band. And then the
controversy will work in our favor, you know, because we're telling the truth
here. And the record company, in all their short-sighted lack of wisdom, when
the single started going up the charts, they rushed the album out. And when
they rushed the album out, of course, the stuff did hit the fan and people
started to be arrested for selling the album. Kids in record stores or clerks
were being arrested for selling this obscene record.

And this is hard to understand in today's climate of, you know, hip-hop and
hard-core rap, you know, where `MF' is every third expression. But in those
days, this was a major crisis. And, of course, the music industry wanted
nothing to do with it, and, in fact, banned the MC5 from then on, really.
That was really, you know, the straw that broke the camel's back, you know,
because nobody wanted anything to do with the MC5. We were way too much
trouble, way too much bother.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "Kick Out the Jams"? We'll hear the original
version with the expletive in it. We will conveniently bleep the expletive,
but still you'll get the point of the recording. So here it is, the MC5.

(Soundbite of "Kick Out the Jams")

MC5: (Singing) Kick out the jams, mother (censored). Jams. I, I, I, I, I'm
gonna, I'm gonna kick 'em out. Yeah.

Well, I'm feeling pretty good and I guess that I could get crazy now, baby.
'Cause we all got in tune and when the dressing room got hazy now, baby. I
know how you want it, child. Hot, quick and tight. The girls can't stand it
when you're doin' it right. Let me up on the stand and let me kick out the
jams. Jams. Kick out the jams. I want to kick 'em out.

GROSS: "Kick Out the Jams," expletive deleted. And my guest is one of the
founders the MC5, Wayne Kramer. He has a new CD called "Adult World."

On one of the MC5 recordings, "Ramblin' Rose," there's a live introduction by
Jesse Crawford, who was a White Panther minister of information.

Mr. KRAMER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Was this a kind of standard thing in concerts, that one of the White
Panthers would come up and give their rap before a performance?

Mr. KRAMER: Well, you know, we were all ministers of something or another.
We--you know, ministers of culture in the streets, ministers of defense,
ministers of--you know, I mean, it--you know, I hope it comes across that this
stuff was done with a lot of humor, you know. We really weren't--you know, it
didn't get heavy till much later. It was really done with a lot of fun in the
early days. But that was J.C. Crawford's role. He was our emcee, you know,
our masters of ceremonies. See, we tried to build a show based on our heroes,
and one of them was James Brown. And James Brown has an emcee that would come
out and say, you know, `And now the hardest working man in show business, here
to sing such hits as "Try Me"--dah, dah--"I'll Go Crazy"--dah, dah.' So we
just took that spirit of what he was doing, and J.C. came up with his own
text on it.

Because we wanted to make this a show. We wanted to make--we wanted to
entertain people and take them someplace they hadn't been before, because the
world, as far as we could see--I mean, there were some awful bands back in
those days, you know. The California bands were terrible. You know, they
could barely play. And they would come into Detroit, you know, with these
huge reputations and we'd say, `God, you guys, man, kick out the jams or get
off the stage,' you know. Because we were really--we were focused on this
idea of high energy. We wanted to have energy in our performance because that
was the thing that felt the best.

And when I listen to music, if I listen to black gospel music, there's a
visceral commitment, there's a visceral energy to it. There's a spirit to it
that reaches--that touches me, the music of James Brown, the music of Chuck
Berry and the free jazz music, you know. I even heard it in, you know, the
music of The Who or some early Rolling Stones tracks. It had that energy. So
that was the thing we focused on. So having the emcee was part of that to
create this entire spectacular event.

GROSS: So instead of having the James Brown emcee talking about his hits, you
had J.C. Crawford saying, `If you're not part of the solution, you're part of
the problem.'

Mr. KRAMER: Exactly.

GROSS: Let's hear the introduction to "Ramblin' Rose," and hear some of
"Ramblin' Rose," as well.

Mr. KRAMER: Great. Great.

GROSS: You're singing lead on this.

Mr. KRAMER: That's me, yeah.

(Soundbite of "Ramblin' Rose"; audience cheering)

Mr. J.C. CRAWFORD (Emcee): Brothers and sisters, the times has come for each
and every one of you to decide whether you are going to be the problem or
whether you are going to be the solution.

(Soundbite of audience cheering)

Unidentified Man: That's right!

Mr. CRAWFORD: You must choose, brothers. You must choose. It takes five
seconds--five seconds of decision, five seconds to realize your purpose here
on the planet. It takes five seconds to realize that it's time to move; it's
time to get down with it.

(Soundbite of audience cheering)

Mr. CRAWFORD: Brothers, it's time to testify. And I want to know, are you
ready to testify?

(Soundbite of audience cheering)

Mr. CRAWFORD: Are you ready? I give you a testimonial, the MC5!

(Soundbite of audience applauding and cheering; music)

Mr. KRAMER: (Singing) Yeah! Your love is like a ramblin' rose. The more you
feed it, the more it grows.

MC5: (Singing) Ramblin' rose. Ramblin' rose.

Mr. KRAMER: (Singing) Come on grow.

MC5: (Singing) Hey!

GROSS: That's the MC5's recording "Ramblin' Rose." The lead vocal on that
sung by my guest, Wayne Kramer, who has a new CD called "Adult World."

What kind of crowd reactions would you get? What were the best reactions?
What were the most extreme reactions?

Mr. KRAMER: Well, probably the best reactions we got were in the Detroit
area, you know, because we played there regularly for years and we had a
regular job at the Grand D Ballroom. And we created that audience in Detroit
and groomed them to be the best rock 'n' roll audience in the world. And, you
know, we were able to transmit that to Chicago, to Cleveland, to New York and,
ultimately, we carried our message across the sea to England.

But it never really translated on the West Coast. The hippies just didn't
connect with the MC5. You know, we just had--we had too much macho energy,
our clothes were too shiny, our amps were too big and we did too much leaping,
spinning, screaming, hollering, feedback. And, you know, California was all
about, you know, (singing) `Wear some flowers in your hair,' and we just were
out of sync with the West Coast.

GROSS: Wayne Kramer was a founding member of the MC5. He has a new CD called
"Adult World." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: Coming up, being watched by the FBI. We continue our conversation
with Wayne Kramer about his work with the radical band the MC5. He has a new
solo album.

Also, Geoff Nunberg on the linguistic disagreement between the cultural right
and the post-modernists.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Wayne Kramer. In the
'60s he was a founding member of the Detroit-based band the MC5, a band that
was considered politically and musically radical, and played at many political
protests and demonstrations in the '60s. Their first manager was John
Sinclair, the head of the radical White Panther Party. The MC5 is now
considered a forerunner of punk rock. The band broke up in 1972. A new
documentary about the band will soon be shown at the Chicago Underground Film
Festival and the Toronto Film Festival. Wayne Kramer is still making music.
His new CD, "Adult World," is released on his new label, Muscle Tone Records.

Now because of the, like, revolutionary language that you used with the band
and your association with John Sinclair, I think you were watched pretty
closely, and I'm wondering if you ever got your Freedom of Information Act
files and if you could see for sure what the FBI was doing regarding your

Mr. KRAMER: Today I know a great deal about what the federal government's
attitude about the MC5 was, and it's very scary. The White House viewed the
MC5 as a threat. We have, through the Freedom of Information, documents that
go all the way to the top that the COINTELPRO program targeted the MC5 and the
White Panther Party. Our phones were tapped. We were followed. We were
systematically harassed, arrested, jailed in an effort by the federal
government, the state government and the city of Detroit, the Detroit Police
Department in particular, to squash the MC5. Because the attitude was, you
know, `When is somebody going to do something about this band? You know, we
can't allow this rock band to say the things they're saying, to do the things
they're doing and influence our children this way.'

And it wasn't a joke, you know, and it got more serious as time went on, you
know, in various court actions against us. And you know, I read an interview
with G. Gordon Liddy in Playboy magazine and he said he read our propaganda
and where we said we were willing to use any means necessary to destroy the
system and start over, and he said, `I took them seriously.' And so we used
everything we had against them.

GROSS: And so what did you think of what he said? How seriously should he
have taken you? How should he have interpreted what you were saying?

Mr. KRAMER: I think he took it correctly. If we could have changed the
world, we would have, you know?

GROSS: How did it affect the band when John Sinclair, who worked as your
manager and mentor in a way, when he was arrested for carrying two marijuana
joints and sentenced to 10 years? What did that do to your band?

Mr. KRAMER: Kind of broke our back, really, you know. Because John was the
interface between the band and the outside world. And even though, you know,
he was as crazy as we were, he at least had the wherewithal to be able to
talk, you know, and explain what we were trying to do in a manner that people
could understand; people in the music business mostly, you know? And we never
really found, you know, a champion after that. You know, we tried to work
with a couple other managers, but it just never worked, you know? It was
square pegs in a round hole. The MC5 really were unmanageable. Still are.

GROSS: So how did you fare without Sinclair?

Mr. KRAMER: Well, not very well, you know? We made a couple more records,
but the MC5 didn't survive, you know, and really the story ends on a very
heartbreaking note, you know, all the joy and all that promise in the early
days, you know, in the end, you know, the band broke up, and the band broke up
amidst, you know, drug abuse and, you know, recriminations and resentments and
being broke. But, you know, the worst thing that happened at the end was that
we lost each other, and now, you know, Fred Smith and Rob Tyner have left this
earthly plane and, you know, I've been able to reclaim my lost brothers, and
that, to me, is the good news, you know, that I had to go a long distance away
and then come back and be able to reconnect with, you know, the spirit of the

You know, it's a great loss to go through when you're a young man like that,
and I see it all the time in the music business, you know, young people, they
get their shot and usually it doesn't work out, and then they don't know what
they're going to do. And, you know, then the allure of Jack Daniels and
heroin become very powerful, and then they're really in a mess and there's
nothing to prepare them for that, and there was nothing to prepare me for
that. So I had to go through a long period and finally, you know, grieve over
the loss of the band and accept that that time had come and gone in my life.
And when I could do that and finally--in the end that allowed me to be able to
do the work I do today and, you know, to be able to be the man that I
represent myself to be today and to be able to sit here and talk with Terry
Gross on NPR.

GROSS: Well, you know, I thinking when the band split up that it was not only
like your musical base, but it was like your foundation for seeing the world.
I mean, it was like your family, it was your musical base, it was the way in
which you related to the larger cultural revolution going on around you. And
was it hard to just be like on your own after that, like an individual in the
middle of all this as opposed to part of a band, part of a group?

Mr. KRAMER: It was impossible. You know, I was just talking last week with
Elizabeth Tyner, the daughter of Rob Tyner, and she said that with her father
she always felt like he had been to the war and he wouldn't talk about it, you
know? And I think, you know, that might--you know, I don't mean to diminish
the fact that, you know, people go to war and it changes them, and certainly
being in a rock band is not the same as going into combat, but there was
definitely some combat involved, and spiritually, you know, there were such
highs and such lows that, you know, it can be a lot. It changes you.

Yeah, you're right, it was my whole world. It was my whole life so, you know,
I had to be able to finally accept that loss and then, you know, get on with
my life today and the day I live my life, which is today, right now.

GROSS: My guest is Wayne Kramer. In the '60s he was a founding member of the
MC5. He has a new CD called "Adult World." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest, guitarist, singer and songwriter Wayne Kramer, played with
the radical band the MC5 in the '60s and early '70s. He has a new CD called
"Adult World."

You know, we've been talking about, like, the revolutionary slant of the
music of the MC5, but some of it was just really fun. And I thought I'd play
one of the tracks that was just really fun. And this is "High School," and it
sounds almost like a rough draft for The Ramones for their "Rock & Roll
High School." I mean, do you think they listened to your "High School" before
doing their own "Rock & Roll High School"?

Mr. KRAMER: I know they did.

GROSS: Oh, yeah?

Mr. KRAMER: I mean, yeah, they're friends of mine.


Mr. KRAMER: I was friends with Joey and Dee Dee, and I know Johnny a bit, you
know, but yeah. Listen, their manager was our publicist...


Mr. KRAMER: the connections are, you know--I mean, the connections are
there. John Landau, who produced "Back in the USA," went on to manage and
produce Bruce Springsteen, you know? I can see how--this is idea diffusion.

GROSS: Right. And "Back in the USA" is the album that this track is from.

Mr. KRAMER: Right.

GROSS: Let's hear it. This is the MC5, "High School."

Mr. KRAMER: All right.

(Soundbite of song "High School")

MC5: (Singing) Well, come on. The kids want a little action. The kids want
a little fun. The kids all have to get their kicks before the evening's done,
because they're going to high school, rah, rah, rah, high school, sis-boom-ba,
high school, hey, hey, hey, you better let them have their way. They only
want to shake it up, baby, dance to the rockin' band. They only want a little
excitement. They like to get a little out of hand, because they're going to
high school, rah, rah, rah, high school, sis-boom-ba, high school, hey, hey,
hey, you better let them have their way.

GROSS: That's the MC5. And, by the way, the MC5 recordings are featured on a
recent anthology on Rhino Records called the "Best of the MC5." My guest,
Wayne Kramer, is one of the founders of the group. He's still in the music
business. He has a new CD, which is called "Adult World," and it's on a label
that he runs as well, an independent label.

It was very difficult for you when the MC5 broke up, and you went through a
kind of long period of addiction to heroin, alcohol. You spent some time in
prison in I think it was the mid-'70s?

Mr. KRAMER: Mm-hmm. That's when I first started listening to "All Things

GROSS: Oh, that's what they all say in prison.

Mr. KRAMER: A lot of people in prison listen to "All Things Considered."
It's a great show.

GROSS: Did they really?

Mr. KRAMER: Absolutely.

GROSS: That's really funny. Good. So you were in prison for--What?--selling
drugs to an undercover agent.

Mr. KRAMER: To a federal agent, yeah.

GROSS: What was their cover?

Mr. KRAMER: That they were New York mafioso drug couriers, and they looked
the part and they talked the part and they walked the part. And see, you
know, when the band broke up, I really lost my connection to any spiritual
principles, any principles at all, you know, and I was really kind of adrift
there in a real negative time and a place. And doing wrong is a way of
getting attention, too, you know, and there's a whole hierarchy in the
criminal underworld of, you know, being a ghetto star, you know, being a
hustler, being an earner, being, you know, somebody that gets paid, someone
that gets over. This is the kind of terminology that, you know, was in my
speech a lot. This is the way I thought a lot. And, you know, that all
culminated with this huge narcotics conspiracy that I was involved in.

GROSS: When you were in prison, in a federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky,
you met Red Rodney, the trumpeter who, early in his career, played with
Charlie Parker's band. And you used to play together in prison. What kind of
music would you play?

Mr. KRAMER: Yeah, probably the high point of being locked up for two and a
half years was the time I spent with Red Rodney. He was, you know, like--you
know, I grew up admiring jazz musicians and, you know, drug addict jazz
musicians and alcoholic writers, and I wanted to be like those people, you
know? And finally, you know, being in prison with Red Rodney, you know, he
really became like my musical father and actually taught me a Berklee music
correspondence course in music theory. We played bebop. You know, I went in
a pretty adventurous rock guitar player and came out, I'd like to think, a
competent musician, you know? He was a wonderful man, and I love him dearly.
You know, I think about him a lot. In fact, there's a song on "Adult World"
that I wrote about him called the "Red Arrow."

GROSS: I thought we could play that. Do you want to say anything about it?

Mr. KRAMER: I think I just did.

GROSS: OK. Good enough. This is the "Red Arrow" from Wayne Kramer's new CD,
"Adult World."

(Soundbite of song "Red Arrow")

Mr. KRAMER: (Singing) Was a note came out of his horn, about street corners
and fried food. Folks lovin' in a nightclub, swinging, in a mellow mood. Out
the horn came "City Nights" on 52nd Street. Dope fiends under neon lights,
moving to the beat. Red Arrow could play anything, the man could be
(unintelligible) from Brahms to Beethoven and the latest Broadway hit. He
carried himself with style and a ...(unintelligible) with grace and a song
inside his heart, and a smile on his face. The Red Arrow wrote it hard and
played it easy. The Red Arrow hit the heart and played for keeps. And to me
he was like a father...

GROSS: That's a song dedicated to the late trumpeter Red Rodney on Wayne
Kramer's new CD "Adult World."

You talked about how you really admired artists who were alcoholics or drug
addicts. What did you find interesting or admirable about that?

Mr. KRAMER: Well, it just seems so illicit and so romantic. But, you know,
none of those things made me an alcoholic or a drug addict.

GROSS: What did?

Mr. KRAMER: It doesn't work that way. What makes me a drug addict and an
alcoholic is I like the effect that those substances have on me when I put
them in my body.

GROSS: How hard is it for you now to stay straight?

Mr. KRAMER: Well, hard. You know, it's not that it's hard because I know
today that I don't have a drug and an alcohol problem, I have a living
problem. And if I...

GROSS: What do you mean? What do you mean?

Mr. KRAMER: Well, see, drugs and alcohol make it possible for me to live in a
world that I can't live in, you know, because I've got so many resentments,
you know, because I'm angry about the MC5, because I'm angry that, you know,
my peers are all wealthy and I'm not. You know, I'm angry because I didn't
get the girl I wanted. I'm angry--you know, I have resentments--I have all
this baggage that I carry with me, and it makes the world a world I can't live
in. So fortunately, I've been able to find a way to live where drinking isn't
necessary and getting high isn't necessary and that I can have a good life, a
full life and be grateful for every day that I have in this life, you know.

GROSS: So among the things you have in your life now is your music. You're
running your own record company label, your own record label that your new CD
is on. Why do you want your own label? You talked a little bit earlier about
the problems you had with record companies in the MC5 era.

Mr. KRAMER: Well, maintaining a career as a professional musician is very
hard. You know, the focus of the industry, in general, the gatekeepers, you
know, the five major labels, is to sell records to teen-agers. And I'm hardly
a teen-ager at this point. I'm 54 years old. But I feel like a lot of us
have grown up with rock music now. We've been around for a while, and we know
all about The Rolling Stones and Chuck Berry and Led Zeppelin, and we know all
these records, and we've grown up with it, but that a lot of music doesn't
come down the line for people over 35. And a lot of people over 35 still want
to rock, but there's no rock out there for them or it's limited. You know
what I mean?

There's Tom Waits and there's Steve Earle and Ani DiFranco, and there's a few
other people that are doing what I call grown-up rock or rock music for
grown-ups, but, you know, it just doesn't get marketed to us. You know, Fred
Durst and Linkin Park and Britney Spears just don't speak to me. They're not
talking about anything I'm interested in, you know. So I feel like maybe
there's some other people out there that feel like I do, you know, that want
to hear something that still has spirit to it, that's still passionate, that
doesn't insult your intelligence, that rocks.

GROSS: Wayne Kramer. His new CD "Adult World" is released on his new label,
Muscle Tone Records. A documentary about the MC5 will be shown this month at
the Chicago Underground Film Festival and next month at the Toronto Film

Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg on the grammar war between cultural
conservatives and postmodernists. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: Language purists and postmodernism

Over the past few years, critics on the cultural right have been going after
academic theories described as postmodernism. They accuse the postmodernists
of moral relativism and encouraging the idea that there are no standards of
right or wrong. But our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, has been listening to what
postmodernists say about grammar, and he thinks the critics have got
postmodernism dead wrong.


Like a lot of my favorite stories, this one begins with a pronoun. Not long
ago, there was an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that quoted
Harvard president Lawrence Summers in an interview saying, "I regret any
faculty member leaving a conversation feeling they are not respected." That
sentence was tailor-made to rile the purists, particularly given the context
and the speaker. And, in fact, a few weeks later, the Chronicle ran a long
diatribe from a professor of English who took exception to Summers' grammar.
According to the writer, Summers should have said, `I regret any faculty
members leaving,' not `any faculty member leaving.' Now the antecedent `any
faculty member' required the pronouns `he' or `she,' not `they.' That `he or
she' business is a construction that modern academics are particularly
attached to since it enables them to sound politically correct and pedantic in
the same breath.

The professor went on to chide president Summers for contributing to the
general decline of precision in language, all the more distressing when
Summers has presented himself as a defender of scholarly rigor. `Indeed,' he
said, `the woeful state of the language is evident to anyone who listens to
National Public Radio for 15 minutes or reads a single section of The New York
Times. That's what happens when students are taught that writing is a form
of pure self-expression to the point where composition teachers have a horror
of acting as language police and grammar itself is regarded as a form of
reactionary tyranny.'

The response went on in that vein for a full 1,800 words and concluded with an
insistence that all college composition courses should henceforth teach
grammar and rhetoric and nothing else. In short, it was an utterly familiar
harangue, distinguished only by the speciousness of the occasion for it. That
business about having to use the possessive `any members leaving' instead of
`any member leaving' is one of those mindless superstitions that's been passed
on to generations of schoolchildren at the end of Sister Petra's ruler. If
you really believed it was incorrect, in fact, you'd have to take a red pencil
to Shakespeare, Milton, Jane Austen and most of the other great figures of
English literature.

And as for the plural pronoun `they,' bear in mind that Summers' words were
quoted from a spoken interview, and that everybody uses `they' this way in
their informal speech. The only thing that made this disquisition notable was
that its author was the redoubtable Stanley Fish, the literary theorist and
self-styled champion of postmodern thought. In fact, Fish's piece in the
Chronicle of Higher Education appeared at about the same time as another
extended public pronouncement of his, this one in the July issue of Harper's
Magazine, where Fish offered a rejoinder to the attacks on postmodernism that
come from the cultural right.

That anti-postmodernist jihad has been waged with particular ferocity since
9/11, as the right invokes the September attacks in an effort to score a
decisive victory in the culture wars. The first salvo was fired just 10 days
after the attacks by Edward Rothstein, the one-minute intellectual who's
resonant in The New York Times culture pages. According to Rothstein, the
postmodernists would be unable to condemn the attacks in an unqualified way
since they reject universal values and ideals. In fact, he said,
postmodernism leads to establishing a moral symmetry between the terrorist and
his opponent.

And the US News & World Report commentator John Leo warned that our campus
cultures have been captured by the postmodern conviction that there are no
truths or moral norms worth defending. The result of that, Leo says, is an
`anything goes' morality and a drumbeat of rule-breaking that drowns out
traditional values.

Now you don't have to be a devotee of academic fashion to see that this is all
meretricious claptrap. And in his Harper's article, Fish rightly points out
that the postmodernism that the conservatives are attacking is a grotesque
caricature of what he and others have actually said. In fact, `postmodernist'
has become a kind of bogeyman word that conservatives use in something like
the way that the church used to talk about Masons.

But more to the point, the attacks on postmodernism are bizarre on the face of
things. I'll grant you that there's a lot of academic theorizing that's
variously flaky or pretentious, though neither flakiness or pretension is a
particularly new development in American academic discourse. But it takes a
singularly loopy turn of mind to see any of this as a social menace. Anybody
who seriously believes that the American moral order is threatened by our
literature professors should get back on their meds immediately.

It isn't simply that the enterprises of philosophy and literary study have
always been inconsequential in American life and even in the American academy.
More to the point, there's no group more deeply invested in traditional
standards and cultural hierarchy than academic humanists are, whatever theory
they drive to work. In fact, when you read Fish's linguistic screed in the
Chronicle of Higher Education, it's patently clear just how absurd the whole
campaign against postmodernism has been. No norms worth defending? Drumbeats
of rule-breaking? One standard is as good as another? When it comes to the
crunch, Fish has ideas about standards that are every bit as conventional and
as unconsidered as anything the cultural right could wish for. And most of
his colleagues would readily endorse those grammatical values even if they
might not put the argument quite so splenetically.

The future of the republic is in safe hands.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a researcher at Stanford's Center for the Study of
Language and Information and the author of the book "The Way We Talk Now."


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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