Sound Advice

Brother Wayne Kramer testifies on art, adulthood, and American Idol.



Graceland, 381-3094, $8 adv.

9 p.m. Fri., June 28

That agonized squeal you heard a couple of weeks ago was Western culture slipping back another notch as the Fox network excreted American Idol, its latest attempt to deprive us of a life enriched by beauty.

You’ve seen the promo: Thirty contenders, each dying to be music’s Next Big Thing, will consent to onscreen humiliation by entertainment executives throughout the season. As the pool is slowly cut to a handful, votes from the viewing audience will help determine who scores the brass ring, a “major management and recording contract.”

In sum, the vapid self-absorption of Survivor meets the bestial sadism of an outdoor slave auction.

American Idol somehow manages to out-stink even such fully packed bogs as Who Wants to Pimp Out My Wife? and Caught on Tape XII: When Skirts Blow Up. (We believe we’re remembering those titles correctly.) The cynical, predatory assumption behind it isn’t that anyone can be famous; it’s that everyone wants to be famous. That notion isn’t just insane, it’s potentially lethal.

Can I get a witness?

“Fame and art are totally separate,” Brother Wayne Kramer attests. “The major record companies have perfected their damaging way of doing business: Throw a million dollars at a song, throw several songs at the wall, and see what sticks. Unfortunately, peoples’ lives are connected to those songs. When the dream doesn’t turn out the way they promised, that’s when you discover the analgesic properties of heroin and Jack Daniels.

“So if you had any healthy boundaries,” Kramer continues, “if you had a fully developed sense of your human worth, you wouldn’t subject yourself to that degree of degradation. But we live in a time when the common perception is, ‘Things will fix me’— if you own the right products, you’ll be fulfilled. That’s a terrible lie.

“In terms of my own life, I think, ‘What makes me stand up on a stage, in front of a thousand people, and demand that they love me?’ A damaged brain does that. Something’s wrong here.”

Then he growls warmly: “And I do know what it is, Mister Jones.”

From packing guitar in the MC5 to punk canonization to his upcoming album, Adult World, Wayne Kramer’s walked the proverbial crooked mile without losing his gleefully deranged sense of humor—nor, as Adult World demonstrates, his incendiary musical vision.

Part of that walk will receive a public airing later this year, when Future/Now Films’ biographical documentary MC5: A True Testimonial sees theatrical release.

Kramer, who contributed several interviews to its making, screened the final cut with pleasure.

“People who were there know about that history, musicians and writers and so on. But you ask your average 19-year-old poo-butt, shorts-wearin’, baseball-cap-sideways, Budweiser-swillin’ skateboard guy, he doesn’t know about the MC5. Nor would he give a fuck. He lives in a pre- and post-Nirvana world. The Beatles are History Channel stuff. So I’m happy to know the story—and it’s really the last great untold story of the ’60s—will get told accurately, at least once.”

But the unfolding tale is just as impressive. Kramer’s acclaimed Epitaph recordings (beginning with 1995’s magnificent The Hard Stuff) are receiving expanded rereleases, complete with bonus tracks and video, through his own MuscleTone imprint.

MuscleTone, the business wing of Kramer’s current projects, is rapidly acquiring a busy catalog. The label is slated to drop new records by Mother Superior (n饼/I> the Rollins Band) and Lesbian Maker, featuring former Dead Boy Jimmy Zero.

“There is a way to do business,” he says firmly, “that doesn’t damage people. Artists don’t work for labels, regardless of what anyone tells you. So we’re trying to do what labels like Righteous Babe and Epitaph have done—we don’t want to own the music. We want to market and distribute it and be in on the process, but we don’t want to own it.

“Shit, Elektra still owns Kick Out the Jams,” he concludes acidly.

Kramer’s forthcoming Adult World, also on MuscleTone, is a beautiful uproar of an album which, appropriately enough, begins with an unexpected assault. The opening shot, “I Brought a Knife to the Gunfight,” features a jaw-dropping midpoint solo—a keening, enunciated howl that arrives utterly out of nowhere and rips the simple melody to shreds.

The remainder of the album walks the line between mortar-attack squall and Ornette Coleman-style harmonics. “Nelson Algren Stopped By” delivers a bizarre recitation, Kramer’s tribute to a genuine American sonofabitch, over a barely controlled jazz riff. “Great Big Amp” is . . . better heard then described, as the man said.

In short, all the things Wayne Kramer does like a motherfucker—skyrocketing guitars, trenchant lyrics—are done loudly on Adult World, which blows the rivets out of any dozen supposedly hard albums currently on the shelves.

Kramer clearly revels in that dichotomy. “Music is supposed to piss off your parents,” he laughs, “and I am your parents! I’m 54 years old—I’m your grandparents! And don’t fuck with me!”

Yet time and experience have not only allowed Brother Wayne to hone his knives, they’ve afforded him a context for survival.

“If I started off as an enfant terrible and end up as an elder statesman, that’s probably the way it’s supposed to be,” he observes quietly. “You’re supposed to get smarter, right? And what the best art has done for me is told me, ‘You’re not alone.’ So I look at this business of writing pop songs for money, and if I’m honest and I can reach somebody who says, ‘I feel that way, too,’ then I’ve put in a good day on the line.”

One only hopes the next generation hears it—how it sounds for a man to burn, without being consumed.