Kick Out the Jams
The MC5 at West Park
From the June, 2011 issue
It was forty-two years ago, but I still remember our trip to West Park in June 1969. I lived in the Lakewood neighborhood, across from Weber's Inn. West Park was about three miles away, and I was supposed to ride my bike only as far as Slauson Junior High, where I would be starting seventh grade in the fall.
West Park was only a few blocks farther, but the school was my boundary. This was when a serial killer was stalking young women, and though he didn't have any known male victims, my parents weren't taking any chances. Besides, hobos had been known to hang around at West Park, yet another reason not to go there.
But we had to go, because the MC5 was having a free concert. The scandalous hippie band, managed by White Panther John Sinclair, had released a song that actually had a variant of the (gasp) "F" word in it. My fellow fifth and sixth graders were still snickering about the line in the Beatles' "Lady Madonna" that contained the word "breast," so you can imagine how our world changed overnight when we heard about the line in the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams."
"Kick Out the Jams" was so controversial that Arlan's, the department store in the Westgate shopping center, refused to carry either the album or the 45 single. I finally heard the song one Sunday night on WABX, the Detroit "underground" radio station. But the line I heard was "Kick out the jams, brothers and sisters"--not, as we'd been told, "motherf*s."
When I reported this crushing news to my friends the next day, one kid said that his older brother had heard them sing it the obscene way in concert--the clean version was for the radio. This was all we needed to know. We were going to go hear the MC5 ourselves. Besides, we had seen a few hippies downtown but never a number of them in one place. This
was going to be an educational trip in more ways than one.
We met at the gas station at Lakewood and Jackson to put air in the tires of our Sting-Ray bicycles. Low-slung handlebars, banana seats--these were a status symbol at the time. As we bought some candy bars and Slim Jims, my friend Steve showed me the stiletto knife that his cousin had bought for him in Tijuana. "Just in case one of the hippies has a bad trip and attacks us," he explained.
We got to West Park just as the first band--I think it was Savage Grace--was finishing. The crowd was as wild as we imagined, playing Frisbee and openly smoking pot.
After about forty minutes, a band came on stage. I was surprised that the musicians looked just like their fans, wearing bell-bottoms and puffy long-sleeve shirts. Rob Tyner, the lead singer, was kind of chubby and wore glasses, not what I thought a rock star would look like. Between that and the fact I had never seen a white guy sporting an Afro before, I wasn't sure if we had the right band until they started their set. They played "Ramblin' Rose," "Come Together," and "Motor City Is Burning," a song about the 1967 Detroit riots. And then, pay dirt: Tyner yelled out "Kick out the jams, motherf*s!"
My friends and I stared at one another with huge grins--he said it and we heard it! Then he said it a few more times and got the crowd chanting it. We couldn't believe what was happening. The crowd was thrashing in time to the music, a kind of dancing we'd never seen--we were still working on the frug and the swim. We left soon afterward. For a bunch of junior high boys, what could top hearing "motherf*r" over and over?
The next day we gave details of our bold excursion to a very impressed group of neighborhood kids. A few of them didn't believe us, but the afternoon's Ann Arbor News pretty much confirmed everything we said. After that, we were the big men in Lakewood for two weeks or so. As we retold the story, we started to spice it up--one guy even claimed to have seen a topless hippie girl. I couldn't corroborate this, and I'm still not sure I believe him.
About ten years later I saw Fred "Sonic" Smith, one of the MC5's guitar players, at the Second Chance nightclub (now the Necto). He was sitting with his wife, Patti Smith, the punk poetess who had just had a fairly big hit with her version of Bruce Springsteen's "Because the Night." The MC5 had disbanded about five years earlier, and Fred Smith was now in Sonic's Rendezvous Band, along with Scott Morgan, formerly of the Rationals, Gary Rasmussen of the Up, and Scott Asheton, who was with the Stooges. The band was between sets, and I walked up to the Smiths, thinking they would probably tell me to get lost. To my surprise they were willing to talk, so I told them about our trip to see the MC5 at West Park. Both seemed to find the story fairly amusing, and I sat with them awhile longer.
Fred Smith and Rob Tyner have since passed away, as has one of the pals who rode from Lakewood to West Park. The park itself recently reopened after a total renovation. But the band shell where the MC5 played is still there. This summer, I plan to sit on the hill by the band shell and listen to "Kick Out the Jams" on my iPod.
[Originally published in June, 2011.]
On December 9, 2011, DDT wrote:
Ne'er a cooler story in the land was told. RIP Sonic!