Pioneering punk guitarist Wayne Kramer, co-founder of the legendary protopunk band MC5, has sadly passed away at the age of 75. The iconic musician died on Friday at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles after battling pancreatic cancer, according to his close friend and executive director of Kramer’s nonprofit organization Jail Guitar Doors, Jason Heath.
Kramer’s indomitable spirit and raw guitar sound were instrumental in shaping the punk rock genre. He, along with fellow guitarist Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, vocalist Rob Tyner, bassist Michael Davis, and drummer Dennis Thompson, formed the influential band MC5 in Detroit during the late 1960s. Managed by White Panther co-founder John Sinclair, the MC5’s music was fueled by their revolutionary vision, with hits like ‘Kick Out the Jams’ becoming anthems for rebellion.
Renowned musician Tom Morello, guitarist of Rage Against the Machine, expressed his grief on Instagram, calling Kramer “the best man” he has ever known. Morello credited the MC5 with inventing punk rock music and praised Kramer’s profound compassion and unwavering conviction. Kramer’s impact extended beyond his music career, as he dedicated his life to social activism and co-founded Jail Guitar Doors, an organization that reforms prisons through music programs.
Although the MC5 experienced limited commercial success and disbanded in the early 1970s, their legacy endured. Kramer chronicled his tumultuous journey in his 2018 memoir, ‘The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities.’ Today, Dennis Thompson remains the sole surviving member of the MC5.
Wayne Kramer’s musical partnership with Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith began in their teenage years, as they played together in various Detroit bands before solidifying the core lineup of the MC5. Inspired by the likes of The Rolling Stones and The Who, the band gained a devoted local following and embraced radical leftist politics during the tumultuous late 1960s. They made history as the only band to perform at the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where anti-war protests were met with police violence.
‘Kick Out the Jams’ remains the MC5’s most renowned track, reaching number 82 on the Billboard Hot 100. The band’s explosive live album of the same name peaked at number 30 on the Billboard 200 in 1969. The MC5 went on to release studio albums such as ‘Back in the USA’ and ‘High Time’ before disbanding at the end of 1972.
Though Kramer continued to lead various iterations of the MC5 and collaborated with other artists like Was (Not Was), he faced personal challenges, battling substance abuse and experiencing legal troubles. In 1975, he was arrested on drug charges and served four years in prison. The name of his nonprofit organization, Jail Guitar Doors, pays homage to a Clash song that references his struggles with cocaine.
Wayne Kramer is survived by his wife Margaret Saadi and his son Francis, leaving behind a lasting legacy in punk rock music and social justice activism.
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