Wayne Kramer celebrated two major milestones in 2018. First, he turned 70 years old in April, and second, he hit the road with an all-star backing group to mark the 50th anniversary of Kick Out The Jams, as pivotal a piece of American underground music as any. With so many big things happening, now definitely feels like the perfect time for a look back at his life and career, which you get in this autobiography, aptly titled The Hard Stuff (named after one his 1990’s albums on Epitaph). Of course MC5 fans will relish the opportunity to hear Kramer’s version of events from the band’s history, but, truth be told, there’s already been so much written about them across a myriad of books and articles that the best pieces of meat have already picked off the bone. So, while most who read The Hard Stuff will be ardent MC5 fans, the most enjoyable sections are actually the ones about Kramer’s life before and after The MC5.
Early in the book, Kramer (real last name: Kambes…a fact I never knew) recalls how the twin terrors of an absent father, and an abusive step-father turned his childhood upside-down almost overnight. The damage from these relationships led him to seek out trouble wherever he could find it – which came back to bite him in the ass after the MC5 fell apart 1972 under the pressure of drug addiction, mismanagement and bad career choices. Essentially left adrift in the world, with no musical prospects and a serious heroin habit to boot, Kramer spent the next few year trying to fill the holes in his life and wallet with a dangerous concoction of burglary, fencing stolen goods and drug dealing. Unsurprisingly Kramer, never one for smart decisions, got busted in a major cocaine sting and was sent to prison for four years. The chapters detailing his day-to-day existence as just another inmate among many, are particularly harrowing.
Released from prison in 1978, the next forty years of Kramer’s life whiz by in just 80 pages. True, nothing in his post-jail musical resume carries the same weight as The MC5 era, but still, he could have easily added some additional depth to this part of the book. What he does let us in on is about twenty more years of irresponsible drinking, drugging and womanizing, followed by a hard-fought sobriety, ultimately bringing us to the older and wiser Wayne Kramer of today: A father, a husband, a well respected musician who isn’t hurting for work, and a philanthropist whose non-profit organization, Jail Guitar Doors, helps inmates use music as an outlet for expression. The Hard Stuff’s lesson is an inspirational one: no matter how far you fall, circumstances can arise which lead you to a better place. Plus it’s just wildly entertaining – I finished it in about two days.