Paying the Price

If ever there was a time to acquaint yourself with MC5, it's here and now inAshcroft's America.

Jun 12, 2002 at 4:00 am
If we got a dollar every time a lame-brained critic or PR moron name checked the MC5 in hyping some dirt-rock flava du jour, we could retire. Better yet, we could send those ill-gotten millions to the noble souls of Future/Now Films, who've been working their asses off for some seven years now, trying to get their feature-length documentary, The MC5: A True Testimonial, out of the production rooms and into a theater near you. Director David C. Thomas (originally from St. Louis -- in the early '80s he sang and played guitar with local punk legends Cool Jerk) and producer Laurel Legler snagged a couple prestigious arts grants, occasioned reams of positive press and earned the full support and cooperation of surviving band members and their friends and families. All the Chicago-based film company lacks is a bit more filthy lucre.

If ever the youth of America needed to acquaint themselves with the story of the MC5, it's now and here, in Ashcroft's patriotic playpen, where you can gladly shove your civil liberties right up your ass, you probable terrorist, and God bless America! The MC5 weren't just ass-kicking, balls-out, down-and-dirty rock & roll motherfuckers, although, in that regard, they were without peer. They were straight-up insurrectionists. Managed by White Panther Party founder John Sinclair, the Detroit quintet (MC stands for "Motor City") revolutionized the late '60s and early '70s underground rock scene, setting the stage for punk rock with their anarchic sonic squalor. Think we're exaggerating? These guys had FBI files before they even signed a record deal. During the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention, the MC5's set preceded -- and possibly incited -- a full-fledged police riot. (Let's see your CreedKornBizkit do that!). Adhering to the White Panther credo, "total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock & roll, dope and fucking in the streets," the MC5 never compromised -- and they faced the consequences.

Censored, dropped by their label, persecuted by the police and routinely ripped off, the MC5 never had it easy. Perhaps the worst indignity they've suffered, though, is relative obscurity. Though their influence is undeniable -- punk rock might have happened without the MC5, but it wouldn't have sounded the same -- their star was eclipsed by Detroit contemporaries such as the Stooges, who mined a similar sound without getting crushed by The Man in the process. It's too bad the MC5 had to pay such a huge price for their art, of course, but it sure makes for a great story. "It has the elements of a Shakespearean tale," Thomas says. "Characters of heroic proportions, a conflict that is archetypal and universal, resolution and redemption. You couldn't script a better story line!"

In addition to scoring interviews with all the principal characters, Future/Now has unearthed surveillance footage of the MC5's performance at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. "When the band's set ended, the Chicago police began wading through and clubbing people," Thomas explains. "The footage of the band at that event was shot by the U.S. Army Signal Corps as part of the U.S. government's surveillance of the anti-war movement during the Vietnam era. If it weren't for our efforts, it would still be collecting dust in a government archive."

According to Jim Roehm, a St. Louisan who's serving as executive producer, the documentary is a labor of love -- and not just on the part of the filmmakers: "We've had tremendous help from people all over the world in making this film. They know it needs to come from the heart and from the gut. In fact, there's no way it could happen without the support of so many fans. Other than, perhaps, a by-the-numbers Behind the Music, nobody else would have made this movie."

One of these fans is Matt Basler, whose parents saw the MC5 at Caveland, in Festus, back in the day. ("They said it was really, really loud," Basler recalls.) His mom, Sandy, happened upon the Future/Now Web site ( and wanted to help out. She told her sons, Matt and Bryan, about the project, and they took it upon themselves to organize a benefit at the Way Out Club, which takes place on June 13. A seven-minute trailer of the film will be shown, MC5 merchandise will be available for purchase and Roehm will field questions about the making of the documentary. Electrifying garage-rock, courtesy of Tok (the younger Baslers' band), the Electric and Billy Coma, rounds out the evening.

Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!