Sex, Drugs, and Venture Capital
"How can you tell the story of the MC5 without saying 'Rock 'n' roll, dope, and fucking in the streets' and 'Kick out the jams, motherfuckers'?" asked Chicago filmmaker Dave Thomas last weekend at the South by Southwest music-industry conference in Austin, Texas. "It's still a subject that makes some people nervous. If you're going to do the true story of the MC5 that stuff has to be in there. We feel strongly about it and we're not going to back off on it."
Thomas's film production company, Future/Now Films, has been making a documentary about the Detroit rock legends for nearly three years now. Despite several grants, including one from the Illinois Arts Council, Future/Now has only been able to raise a third of the film's budget of more than $300,000. Thomas cited the MC5's revolutionary stance--not just all the "fucking," he insisted, but the band's advocacy of thinking and doing for oneself--as a red flag for potential backers of MC5: A True Testimonial. But as MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer himself says in the 1996 oral history of punk Please Kill Me, "We had all the rhetoric of being revolutionary and new and different, but really what it was, was the boys got to go fuck and the girls couldn't complain about it." And with industry types buzzing about white Detroit rapper Eminem's filthy Interscope debut throughout the conference, the MC5's "revolution" was looking positively quaint.
Thomas was in Austin to participate in a panel discussion called "The Rise and Fall of the MC5," where he screened an explosive seven-minute trailer for the work in progress. He was joined on the riser for a love-in about the band's enduring influence by bilious rock critic and longtime MC5 fan Dave Marsh; Tom Wright, who ran the Detroit ballroom where the band frequently played in the late 60s; music writer Jaan Uhelszki, who worked illegally at the ballroom as a teenager; a sharp-dressed and congenial Kramer; and the band's grandfatherly former manager, John Sinclair, who chewed his beard and persistently remarked on how high they all were back then. But while some of their stories were entertaining--in particular Sinclair's X-rated characterization of Elektra founder Jac Holzman, who dropped the band after an obscenity dispute over its debut--they weren't entirely convincing.
For instance Marsh went so far as to say that the "rock 'n' roll in the streets" legacy was apparent in the revelry on Sixth Street in Austin each night--though in reality the main drag of the city's nightlife district, teeming with stumbling-drunk frat boys and credit-card-wielding A and R scouts, bore a closer resemblance to Rush Street on Saint Patrick's Day than to Lincoln Park during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where the MC5's performance served as prelude to a riot. And Kramer, who records for the southern California megaindie Epitaph, took the opportunity to anoint punk-rock retreads (and labelmates) Pennywise and Rancid the carriers of his old band's torch.
Still, the True Testimonial trailer, which included live footage actually shot by the army and a charismatic interview with Kramer, electrified the standing-room-only crowd at the panel, myself included. When I first wrote about this project in December 1996, Future/Now expected to complete the film in early 1998, but the day after the panel Thomas declined to revise the prediction. "We knew when we started out that we would have to dedicate our lives to it," he said.
It may have been this attitude on the part of Thomas and Future/Now partner Laurel Legler that drove away cinematographer Jeff Economy about a year ago. "We had drastically different ideas of what it takes to actually finish a film," says Economy. "I don't doubt that they're absolutely sincere about making this film, but I don't want one film to be my life's work. I don't want to be defined by what some other people did almost before I was born." Thomas would comment on the split with Economy only to say that the relationship "had become unworkable." Economy was replaced last summer by Seth Henriksen, whose documentary about Goreville, Illinois (where home owners are required to own guns), took top honors at the Slamdance festival last year.
While in Austin, Future/Now shot interviews with Marsh and Uhelszki, and they've already got footage of Sinclair; MC5 drummer Dennis Thompson; Rob Tyner's widow, Becky; and Fred "Sonic" Smith's first wife, Sigrid Dobat, as well as Kramer. Thomas says Future/Now is currently talking with several record labels about licensing the film's sound track and discussing European TV rights for the film, deals that could provide a substantial chunk of the needed capital.
The most recent album by Chicago's reclusive weirdo-roots group Souled American, Notes Campfire, originally released by the tiny German indie Moll in 1997, will finally come out domestically on April 6. Eric Babcock, a cofounder of the Bloodshot and Checkered Past labels, is releasing it on yet another imprint, Catamount. The band's four out-of-print Rough Trade albums--Fe, Flubber, Around the Horn, and the exceptionally hard-to-find UK-only Sonny--are also being reissued, on Tumult, a label started specifically for that purpose by Andee Connors of the San Francisco band A Minor Forest. After playing a rare show at South by Southwest last week, Souled American celebrated the reissues with three shows in the Bay Area, where the band's following dwarfs its hometown fan base.
A scan of the credits on Ghosts of Hallelujah (Munich), the new album by great Austin roots combo the Gourds, turned up the name of Max Johnston, the stringed-instrument specialist who until recently played with the Chicago-based country group Freakwater. Johnston, who quit Wilco to join Freakwater in 1997, moved to Austin last year from Lexington, Kentucky, and the longer commute to Chicago for gigs and recording sessions proved too difficult. At one of the band's two sets in Austin last weekend, however, Johnston stepped up to sing "Harlan," from last year's Springtime. Eric Heywood, who's made tasteful pedal-steel contributions to records by Son Volt and Richard Buckner, is the band's new fourth man on the forthcoming new album, which also features drums by Steve Goulding and a slew of countrypolitan-style string arrangements performed by the likes of Kent Kessler and Fred Lonberg-Holm. Freakwater plays Friday at Schubas.
On a related note, Johnston's predecessor in Freakwater and his replacement in Wilco, guitarist Bob Egan, will perform at Schubas on Wednesday in support of his recent eponymously titled solo debut.
The public access cable dance program Chic-a-Go-Go shifts gears this week to present Passover in Puppettown, a variety show and seder featuring Bobby Conn, the Goblins, and Schloinke; it airs on Channel 19 Tuesday at 8:30 PM and Wednesday at 3:30 PM.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Filmmaker Dave Thomas; MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer photos by Kevin Delahunty.