In the Business of Disrupting Business

When workers took to the streets of Madison, Wisconsin in February to protest a “budget repair bill” that would essentially do away with teacher’s and other public service unions, Wayne Kramer (MC5), Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine), and The Street Dogs (with Mike McColgan, formerly of The Dropkick Murphys) were among the musicians that showed up to lend their support. In the August 1997 edition of Live! Music Review editor BILL GLAHN interviewed Kramer during his Citizen Wayne tour. Much of the interview centered on the plight of workers and Kramer’s comments are as relevant today as they were then.

“I’m in the business of disrupting business.”

– Wayne Kramer during a performance in St. Louis during his Citizen Wayne tour.

BILL GLAHN: There seems to be a genuine camaraderie on the new record with working people.

WAYNE KRAMER: Yes, I honor work. And I honor the working man and woman. I think working people are being fucked across the board. I think big business makes more and more money every year. Wall Street makes higher profits. Corporate CEO’s salaries are inconceivable in size – the amounts of money they make. And still they cut benefits, cut jobs. I think wages and wealth are the civil and human rights issues of today. I think we have management consultants… they’re the new goon squads. They downsize and streamline. And people’s jobs go out the window.

Last night you said from the stage that you didn’t think any intelligent person could be an optimist today.

I don’t see anything out there that makes me optimistic. But I do believe I am a prisoner of hope – that there are ways to overcome injustice. You can call me old school but I still believe in things like self-determination and equality and peace and love.

It doesn’t really seem like things are getting better.

I played a demonstration called Motown Action ’97 to support the striking newspaper workers up there (Detroit). They’ve been on strike for over two years now. A lot of those people are personal friends of mine. Gary Graff and Sue Whitehall – the music writers. They’ve supported my work all through the years. And the toll that it’s taken on them has got to be (pause)… serious.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled the day before the rally that the management had been guilty of unfair practices all along. So all the trade unions came to Detroit. There were some estimates – 125,000. I had a chance to talk to John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO. I believe in unions. I believe that unions are the only way working people can interface with big management and get any kind of fair deal. Otherwise they would just run us over and spit us out. They don’t’ care.

One of the misplaced priorities of capitalism is profit at any cost. I believe in free market economy and free market capitalism but as a group we can organize and use what political power we have. It was kind of moving to see United Mine Workers, carpenters, plumbers, pressmen, Teamsters from all over the country there to show their support. Teachers. The teacher’s union has over 800,000 members! I think unions can be a strong voice.

But a lot of the guts have been taken out of unions.

Yeah, but I think Sweeney has a vision. Union budgets in the last 10 years have spent 3 per cent on organizing. Sweeney said we can’t survive like this. So he’s committed 30 per cent across the board on a national level and a local level to go back into organizing. To get the rank and file. To go into the neighborhoods. To go to the churches. To go to people’s homes. And convince them of the value of the union. And the strength of the union. Things like record store clerks. There was Borders Books and Records. There was a movement afoot to form a union and the management squashed it. But I think the union can come back. So my pitch to John Sweeney was, “If I can be the point man in the rock & roll world, then count me in.” I had to be there. I’m from Detroit. Those are my people.

I was a member of the UAW for nine years. I worked at Honda’s East Coast warehouse – the only Japanese car facility to organize successfully. It didn’t come without a toll. But it was possible. Not long afterwards, Reagan did his bit on the air traffic controllers…

Reagan busted their backs. He busted the backs of unions, period. Reagan… His legacy… What a dog he was! So I try to honor the worker in my work – in songs. I’m from that background. I worked myself at things besides music and so I relate to it. It’s the same struggle. You make a decision. You take a stand. It’s like the war in Vietnam. It’s like racism. And I took a stand and that’s where I’m at on it. Some people don’t like it and think it’s unpopular but tough shit.

Unions have received some bad press.

And let’s not kid ourselves. There has been some corruption in the unions.

Some people will tell you that unions have outlived their usefulness. But I think a lot of people are seeing it different now.

Right. I used to say (in “Back When Dogs Could Talk”) ‘my blue collar workers’ but now I include white collar workers as well, because they’re suffering, too. As I said – the new goon squads… management consultants… I’m trying to spread some consciousness in my world. I believe in the dignity of work. Work is the glue that holds us together. When your neighborhoods where there’s no work and there’s no opportunity or possibility – those are the neighborhoods that are destroyed by crack, alcoholism. If you combine meaningful work and love – that equals living. When you leave those things out, then you’ve opened the door for all manner of personal psychic demons.

You were saying that you believe in a free market society. Do you still believe that that exists here in the States?

Yeah, I think there’s entrepreneurial possibilities, like what you do with your magazine, what people like Brett Gurowitz do with Epitaph Records, what independent filmmakers do. By making things happen themselves. I certainly encourage all that. The best thing about punk rock is that it’s ‘do it yourself.’ There’s no manual. We’re learning as we go.

Don’t you think a lot of doors have been closed, though. Especially in the music business?

(nodding his head) Yup.

If you go back to the ’50s or the punk era, small labels thrived. Now there’re six labels.

(still nodding) Yup. Well these guys, these six major labels, they don’t care anything about you, your artists, your health, your career. They’re concerned about market share and profits. The last thing they’re interested in is music. I saw an interview last week with Tony Brown (Nashville record executive) and he said (paraphrasing) “What we do is we find young people who don’t know anything and have never played anywhere and have never done anything and we run them through media training, put records out on them, and put them on the road for three or four years and we destroy them. We destroy their lives. We destroy their health. We destroy their marriages. And then we throw them away and we get more.”

Which I thought was pretty upfront because that’s exactly what they do. Major labels, across the board. This industry – the record industry – is built on the dreams of young people. They take youth culture, record it, manufacture it, package it, sell it back to the youth and rake in all the profit. Very few musicians ever end up with anything. For every Tom Petty and Springsteen, there are hundreds of men and women out there starving. Working two jobs so they can still be in a band for this dream of making it.

This is the big hypocrisy, because the music industry has such a reputation for (caring)…

Let’s save Tibet.

Save Tibet. Fuck Americans.

Yeah! Let’s save the whales.

Here’s an industry that gets behind every welfare issue or homeless issue. A US$40 billion industry that doesn’t supply basic health care needs or benefits for their primary money earners.

This is a big issue with me. This is something that I want to pursue with Sweeney. Go across the board. How many musicians do you know who have health insurance? I don’t know any. How many record executives have health insurance? Record executives – they’ve got pension plans. They’ve got health insurance. Every musician I know works three jobs and has nothing. I’m 49 years old now. Health is starting to become an issue with me. My great fear in life, like everybody’s, is to be old and homeless and sick with no money. That’s what motivates me in the morning. To get up and write a song, get on the phone, book a tour, make shit happen, get a record together.

Let’s talk a little about the tour. How long is it going on?

This tour is 30 cities, about five weeks.

Are you doing one tour this year?

No, I’ll do a lot this year. I usually do two or three. There’ll be a European tour and a Japanese or Australian tour. I love to work. I’m a musician. I love to play.

You have a new bass player (Doug Lunn). He wasn’t on the record, was he?

No. Paul (Ill), like so many musicians in L.A., works in about five bands. One of the other bands he works in, he’s a full partner. He’s a writer in it. He felt as though he needed to make a commitment to them and he needed to be in Los Angeles over the summer. I, of course, had to honor that. I mean he was gracious enough to do my gig for as little as I can pay. He worked real hard for me and he’s a wonderful musician. We will continue to work together but he couldn’t tour this year.

Well Doug is certainly more than capable. I was really impressed by last night’s show.

He’s a monster! A beautiful musician.

This is really a fabulous rhythm section. I think you’ve been blessed to work with some great ones. Brock (Avery) is a marvelous drummer.

The rhythm section is the most important part of the band. And I can say that as a guitar player. In a band, the bass player and drummer have gotta be smokin’. A band is only as strong as the rhythm section. You can have a great front man, a great guitar player – but if the rhythm section ain’t working you’re fucked.

I think musicians are probably much more aware of you than the public in general.


And as someone who was in a band that really mattered. I would imagine the MC5 had the same dreams as anybody else who ever started a band – to be successful – but the MC5 demanded to be successful on their own terms and it fell apart.

Oh, we wanted more than to be successful. We wanted to change the world. Our idea was to have a new music. A new politics.

Did popularity ever enter into that?

Of course. Even Chairman Mao says bad art is bad for the revolution. You have to make good music. People have to appreciate what you do. And, of course, we wanted to be accepted and loved for our work.

Do you think that the fact that the MC5 fell apart has made you a better artist today?

I have to feel that this has all been a process you go through. That it couldn’t have gone any other way. That would be idle speculation. Brett (Gurowitz) and I have discussed it and Atlantic Records made their mistake – Ahmet Ertigan, who is one of the most pernicious of the record company thieves and scoundrels and robber barons and exploiters – he made a mistake by not supporting the MC5. Had he supported the MC5 chances are we would have gone on to make millions of dollars for Atlantic Records and for each other, and today I would be in an income bracket with Bob Seger and Ted Nugent and Neil Young. The MC5’s influence would have been vast and everybody would know the music of Sun Ra and John Coltrane today.

But the world wouldn’t have Dangerous Madness and Citizen Wayne.

Right. Right. And I have to look at it like these are the cards that I’ve been dealt and make the best of them. The center never holds. The only thing you can count on is that things will change. I think as an artist your responsibilities are to yourself and your art – that if you have a commitment to writing great songs, making great records, doing great gigs, that’s the best you can do.

There’s a lot of ancillary things you can do, a lot of influence and focus that you can draw to things, but your real commitment is to yourself and your art. Cause in the end we’re only here for a short time and you’re dead for a long, long time. What’s left is the work you do. That’s why I’m committed to work as I am. I would hate to die and feel like “I shoulda, I wish I coulda.” So that’s why to me it’s all about doin’ the work.” Too me, that song “Doin’ the Work” on Citizen Wayne, is a love song.


Tom Morello, Ike Reilly, Wayne Kramer, and Street Dogs performed “Kick Out The Jams” at Monona Terrace during the Rally for Wisconsin’s Workers in Madison, Wis. on Feb. 21, 2011, in support of public employees whose collective bargaining rights are threatened by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget repair bill.

The musicians that came to Madison are sharing the stage with everyday workers. Unlike some other big brand benefits, where stars opt to speak FOR folks, this is one where they are speaking alongside of folks. Unity.

At the time of this writing, protesters are still occupying the Capitol Building in Madison, WI with continuous demonstrations and more rallies planned. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (stage workers union) is providing the staging and labor for one such event and you can help defray the costs here.

BILL GLAHN wrote, edited and published Live! Music Review, a magazine devoted to bootleg recordings when bootlegs were not so common. And they are still not so common today. Live! Music Review is also on Facebook and on Twitter (LMRonTwit). Do drop by to say hello and, as Bill says, all comments welcome.