The following interview with Robin Tyner, lead singer of the MC-5, the major Detroit avant-rock band, was recorded by John Sinclair in the first week of May, 1967, for THE SUN. The MC-5 has been together for almost three years and has developed into one of the most exciting bands to be heard anywhere. The group comprises Tyner, lead singer, harmonica, auto-harp, etc.; Wayne Kramer, lead guitar; Fred Smith, rhythm guitar; Michael Davis, bass; and Dennis Thompson, drums. Their first 45 single, “I Can Only Give You Everything.” has recently been released on the AMG label, and an album is being planned now. Tyner himself is not only a brilliant singer and leader but also draws, does cartoons, writes songs, and is writing a book of exercises for lead singers which will be published soon by the Artists’ Workshop Press/Detroit.
JS: Let’s talk about the music….
RT: Well, as I see it, the real music scene in Detroit is doing all right. But the whole—the population of all the musicians—and there’s an awful lot of young musicians in town—the percentage of these people who are really into it is so low that you never get to hear any of it. I mean if there is somebody in town who is really into it, you know, in the straight teeny-bopper scene, we never get to hear them. I’ve heard very few bands in this city that I can even listen to—like, there’s Billy C. and the Sunshine, I have to mention those cats—but the whole thing is very appalling. Because being a musician, I’ve lost all my sense of being entertained. You know, I can’t be entertained at all, because I’m an entertainer. I know that this Isn’t like, AH! A SHOW!, but just guys up there working a job like I work a job, and I’ve lost my concept of that. But to see somebody get up there and actually work, like work on a musical plane, to get onto these planes and just drive and work like a motherfucker, you just don’t see it. Except, of course, when you’re listening to the three or four good bands in town, or in the area—the ones I’ve heard. And I hope to God there’s more people, you know. And there will be. Because the real people are getting good, so the people who copy them will have to get good. So pretty soon it’ll be…well, I have no worries about the scene, let me put it that way. Because it’s just going OVER THERE, you know, from all the contact. Like, you go to the Grande Ballroom and what do you see? You see, like, Billy C. and the Sunshine three times—there are bands who are Billy C.; or who are the SpikeDrivers or the Southbound Freeway, you know, you find that even now there’s a small amount of hereo-worship going on, and copping different numbers and things. It used to be that you’d go to the Grande and there’d be 4 or 5 MC-5 bands, 2 or 3 Billy C. and the Sunshines, the Back & Back Boo Funny Music band…and those people used to be sort of a driving influence there, but it’s gotten so far now that we can’t even play there anymore. At any rate, the musicians who do copy, who’ve got it down, you dig, and they’ll be getting into it pretty soon. Because every band comes, you know, you get five people together, or four people, in a band, who have got it, and you’ll just come. One night you’ll be up there on the stand and you’ll just come, and the people will just flip out, and it will be together, I felt in my group, you know, like “unhhh, unnhhh, I’m coming,” and then POW!–one night we EXPLODED. We didn’t care if the people dug it or not, and musically we just exploded. We used to do our “avant” numbers as sort of unleashing a monster on the crowd—we didn’t care if they liked it, we hoped they hated it, because we were killing them, we were shooting them down with these monstrous amplifiers and we just didn’t care. We were obnoxious. We’d get up and do all of our tunes, and then at the end, we’d come.
JS: “Black to come,” yes. That always makes me think of William Burroughs, you know, “People of the earth to come out….”
RT: The job is getting rougher every day, getting more and more demanding, on the part of singers in general. There are people in the world who are shooting the scene farther and farther, and it’s going so fast that you have to RUN to keep up with it. A year and a half ago, back in the early days of Mick Jaggerdom, that’s when a singer didn’t have to DO anything but be a singer and do his act—and he didn’t even have to sound good, because that was hip back then—sound a little raspy, sing a little flat, and that was cool, because a little farther back it was Sinatra, you know, and he didn’t do anything either. But nowadays, singing…I mean listen to Spencer Davis for a minute, and you can tell that he’s obviously IN IT. He took a left turn at Ray Charles and…
RT: Right. He shot it right out there. You just can’t be a “singer” any more, you got to DO IT! You got to be together musically…your voice has got to be so good, man, because the people demand it. They won’t let you shuck anymore. Listen…I’m no longer talking to John Sinclair, I’m talking to the public: people of the world, the next time you see a live band, and they go up there and do top ten material, you oughta turn on them and say PLAY THE MUSIC—either play the music or GET OFF THE STAND. Tell them that…. The lead singer of the future will have to be the most versatile cat in the band, because he has to be THE solo instrument. The lead singer and the lead guitarist are the ones who do actual note-run solos. The rhythm guitar player does feedbacks and keeps the sound up. The rhythm guitar is no longer just a-chink a-chink a-chink, it’s an art all in itself. Anybody can go the note-run route, you know, like lead singers and lead guitar players—you can express yourself beautifully with note-runs, you hear it all the time—Jeff Beck, Mike Bloomfield, they can run it down with notes. But it takes more to play a different game—the rhythm guitar has to carry the band’s sound all by himself. He’s got to BE THERE. And I haven’t heard too many of that kind of player yet…
JS: Well, I think you’ve found one…(IN UNISEN): Fred Smith…(sigh)
RT: Yes…I’d like to thank all the cats in my band for getting as far as they have, and I wish them luck for the future. (Laughter) But as far as being a lead singer goes, in another year and a half the lead singer will have to be the most multi-instrumentalist person in the band. Lead singers should be in there playing tenor saxophones, and alto, and bassoon, oboe, everything else…harmonica, which is like a sanctioned instrument for rock&roll. I got onto that the first time I heard Mick Jagger, Gary Grimshaw brought the record over and I knew the second I heard it that I had to be a singer. So I had this harmonica I’d picked up a couple weeks earlier, and I got right down in there with that. I tried for months and months but couldn’t do anything with it. Then one night I was at a beer party and some cat told me that all blue notes are “in” notes—draw notes—and that did it. That straightened me right out. Every lead singer should have a whole range of instruments, like say, Joseph Jarman has…belles, wind chimes, gongs, and anything else that makes music. I’ve been playing organ, auto-harp, chromatic harmonica, Japanese flute, recorder, and something else…I can’t remember what it is. (Laughter) That’s why I began going into the realms of the sonic…playing feedback off the microphone. Hey, singers! You’ve got an instrument! Anyone who’s got a sound system has got an instrument. You can play the microphone.
JS: I’ve always wondered how you picked up on that. Did you hear someone doing it, or did you just discover it?
RT: We were playing at a party at Betty Conn’s house one night, a wild beer party, and we played “Hang on Sloopy” for 45 minutes, and I said to myself, “there’s got to be something else we can do,” because my voice was gone, and I’d been playing harmonica until my mouth bled, you know, and I felt that there was something else we should be doing—because I had to keep the level up there, we were using guitar, bass and drums at that point and we just kept going and kept going. That was when we were first getting into it, getting farther than what comes out of the radio speaker, and it was a question of what could we do to take it even farther. So I told everyone, in the course of the song, to listen because something really spectacular was going to happen. And they wanted something spectacular, you know, everybody was just sweating and screaming, because if you take a tune like that a drag it out, it gets so much power, like a mantra, you just say it until it’s got so much power that you can’t hold it any more and it explodes, and it HAPPENS. So I went over to my line speaker and shoved my microphone into it, and some glorious and beautiful sounds came out of the speakers and the amps. So I began doing that profusely.
JS: When was that? Who was in the band then? Were they working on feedback by that time?
RT: That was about two years ago, and we had just begun to break into it. That was a few nights before we actually did it on stage. We did it in Dearborn, and we just EXPLODED out there. The first night we did “Black to Come,” we wrote it down in Kramer’s basement, and Fred Smith discovered that you could turn up the Super-Beatle amp until it was unbearable, right. And started playing the opening chords to “Comm” spontaneously and smashed a jar! At that time our group—we had Pat Burroughs and Rob Gasper on bass and drums. Gasper now has a really beautiful, very tight band—the Endless Chain—really together. Gasper’s a tight drummer anyway. Burroughs elected to go to the Marin Corps.
JS: Is that when Michael Davis joined the band?
RT: Right. And we picked up Dennis Thompson from Lincoln Park—he played in a bar with us a couple nights, and I guess we just scared him into being our drummer.
JS: The powerhouse….
RT: You see, the thing is that Dennis amazes me…I don’t want to say anything about Dennis—I’ll just embarrass him… (Laughter)
JS: You have a lot of trouble with the technology, right? I know I’ve talked with people about this, like Marion Brown, the saxophonist, we were talking once about the arrest pushing the technology to make them come up with adequate tools….
RT: Yes, soon there will be an amplifier that can take….
JS: The MC-5….
RT: That can take sustained feedbacks. Oh, incidentally, I have to mention…if you singers want to play the microphone and the speaker, you’re doing it at your own risk. Because you can melt down your whole system that way. It isn’t a good thing for your speaker, but it sure is groovy. And I don’t want some cat coming up and telling me that I made him blow his set up, you know, so make sure this part gets in, OK? That too is an instrument. Like one night I dreamed I vomited on stage…think about that one! But I feel that it’s the duty of every lead singer to seek and find Joseph Jarman, and watch him! Because Joseph Jarman is the best lead singer that took the multi-instrumentalist route. In fact, most tenor players would make good lead singers.
JS: Yeah, they do, in fact, like Archie Shepp has said. Pharaoh Sanders, Archie, Albert Ayler, Roscoe Mitchell…Trane, all those cats.
RT: We saw Joseph Jarman out at Cranbrook last week and it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. Now, seemingly there’s no connection between rock&roll music and “avant-garde” jazz—they seem to be totally unconnected—but they aren’t.
JS: Right. These days most of the players come out of rock&roll, or rhythm & blues, anyway, like Archie Shepp says his biggest influence was Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and all those old screaming cats. Or Albert Ayler used to play with Little Walter’s band. Like Pharoah Sanders, on MEDITATIONS, right in the middle of “Consequences,” playing way up in the fifth register of his horn, screaming his ass off, and all of a sudden you hear him throw in “Hold On I’m Coming” by Sam and Dave. Blows your mind.
RT: What I really dig is the new resurgence of the Memphis Sound—that’s beautiful, man. Carla Thomas and Otis Redding. Um um. Joe Tex and Aretha. Yeah. Aretha Franklin, if you read this, I love you. I wonder if you need a band to back you up. I’ll just play the harmonica for you if you want. (Laughter)
JS: Yeah, you know Aretha started out as a jazz singer.
RT: Naturally. I started out as a jazz freak. So did you, so did…I mean shit, you have to have your chops together before you can do it.
JS: That seems to be the difference, actually, with the new rock&roll, and that’s the thing that seems to me to be the most exciting thing about the new rock, outside of the music itself—that the rock players are becoming musicians now, not just plastic guitar strummers, bouncer up and downers….
RT: Well, yeah, I mean, what else are you gonna do? I’m sure everybody who digs rock&roll will thank the British cats very much, because they’re the ones who started the whole thing, they made us into musicians….
JS: Right. And the British got theirs from the r&b people over here.
RT: They just turned it around, they just gave it the emphasis….I think they ought to be rewarded for that.
JS: Well, they have been….(Laughter)
RT: I think we oughta erect a shrine to them, to say “thank you very much.” Because, see, rock&roll began, and then it was perverted immediately—because of the American radio scene. Perversion. You know, it just became Connie Francis, and Bobby Rydell, and Fabian and those cats….
JS: That’s what drove me away from rock&roll back in 1959. Like, I’d been a rock&roll freak in high school, and then when those other cats came around I started listening to jazz and just wasn’t interested in what those people were doing at all.
RT: After rock&roll became perverted, I watched it go down. And I was glad to see it go. Because it started off so beautifully, man, and it wound up so fucking malignantly corrupt, you know, that I was glad it just sank. Because after it sank, man, I turned my face toward Cannonball naturally and all those cats. And then a young man by the name of John Coltrane took over my heart and soul for a while. And just at the point Coltrane was about to come, see, and I could have been there to see it happen. But by then I was watching Mick Jagger and people, and getting my head tore up by cats who were doing the same type thing as the Adderleys were doing, only a little glossier because for me jazz had remained a static thing…Cannonball and the people of his genre, Herbie Hancock, the Jazz Crusaders—remember those cats, “Young Rabbits” and all that shit.
JS: You talked about the American radio system, which was responsible for all that shit being popular, and it wouldn’t let people know what was really going on in jazz at that time—Cecil Taylor, Ornette, Eric Dolphy, and all that beautiful music….
RT: Right! Radio stations ought to be bombed, right off the face of the earth. They’re a malignancy on our growth. Phew. I mean there are some parts of this cancerous corruption, man, that are OK. But then…then there’s radio stations. Any part of a cancer is still a malignancy, and you can’t sacrifice everything for just one part that isn’t so corrupt. But the AM radio scene is just ridiculous.
JS: It’ll change, though….
RT: Oh, sure it’ll change. It’s got to change. If it dosen’t, then nobody’ll believe it. We just won’t stand for it.
JS: Like what you were telling the people at the Love-In-Sunday, when the Seventh Seal and Billy C. were playing, that the people would have to demand to hear this music on the radio…because they don’t even know that the music exists, unless they hear it on the radio.
RT: Right, right….Anything that comes out of the box—any air disturbance or turbulence that comes out of the speaker—has to be made by somebody. And it can always be made better. Always. Any sound you hear can be made better. Remember that, man, because the depth and range of human musical ability is endless. Totally endless, man. You can do anything—ANYTHING—you can make the most fantastically gorgeous, soul-stirring beautiful phantasmagorical music, or you can make bullshit. You know!
JS: All bullshitters must be prosecuted! Semark had a beautiful story about that—did you see that? “The Judgment of Edmund Zwingy,” it was in CHANGE/2 I think.
RT: Yeah, I saw that! It burned into my skin! In fact, that was what turned my eyeballs to the malignancy, that story did. Read it, people—lead singer musicians, pick it up and take a good look at it. Also, for your convenience, the quotation at the top of this interview—you can clip it out and carry it in your wallet and look at it every time before you go on. Because John Tchical wouldn’t steer you wrong. That’s it! That’s the rules to the game.
JS: What about material? Like some of the things you’ve been doing lately that’ve been blowing my mind, making up lyrics as you go along that come out of the specific situation. Like at the Guerrilla Lovefare happening this winter, with all those beautiful vibrations flowing and throbbing in the room, and in the middle of “comm” you started singing., “Here we are people, / Look what we can do”….Amazing….
RT: That’s because the situation was amazing. It has to do with the situation, that’s all. Don’t forget—people listening to live music jump into a game situation and it becomes magic—and it’s beautiful, man, because while the vibrations are flowing all around you and it’s magic, you’re still living in the real world. So during the magic, if somebody tells you where you are in the real world, it burns home. It hits you outside of the magic of the music…it burns right through the magic of the music and hits you in the real world. The real world is terribly imporatant—don’t get hung up in the amphetamine-mouthed rapping, the real world is beautiful, and the music is magic.
JS: Singers and musicians were always, in ancient cultures, and in our own Western culture it’s especially true, before “literature,” in the oral culture all learning was passed on through the poets and the musicians.
JS: Poets were magicians.
RT: Of course. Poets are magicians, everybody’s a magician, man.
JS: And all learning was passed on that way. And now we’re talking about a return to an oral culture, less and less people read, and people are getting what they know off the radio, off the records…you can hear it, and that makes it more immediately REAL.
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