Thirty years after the MC5's turbulent glory
days, bassist Michael Davis sounds like a very happy man.
He resides a long way from Motor City madness in Tucson, Arizona,
where, as he replied when I remarked that they don't observe daylight
saving time there, "We're constant. This is the center of
After the Five, Mike soldiered on with Fred "Sonic" Smith in Ascension, then served jail time on a drug charge. From 1977 to 1984, he was a member of Destroy All Monsters with ex-Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton. More recently, he's performed with the Empty Set, an L.A. band led by ex-DAM drummer Billy Frank. Since 1996, he's been a member of Rich Hopkins & the Luminarios, a band that employs a floating cast of Tucson and Minneapolis musicians, and enjoys a measure of popularity in Europe. Michael joined me at the I-94 Bar from his home in Tucson on May 17 and 31, 1998...
K: How'd you happen to join the MC5?
M: When I met those guys, I was not a bass player. What I did was play acoustic guitar and harmonica and sing Bob Dylan songs. When I heard Bob Dylan about 1962 or '63, it completely changed the direction of my life. I'd never heard anybody sing like that or talk like that or express themselves in those kinds of words. Up to that point, I was at art school; I was at Wayne State University studying to be a painter, an artist, kind of the whole normal thing, and then I went and saw Bob Dylan play at the Masonic Temple -- at that time, he was just playing a guitar sitting on a stool all by himself -- and it took hold of my life. I decided that's what I wanted to do; I wanted to be a musician.
When I met the MC5 and Wayne [Kramer] in particular, that's what I did. He and I got to be friendly and we started hanging out. We'd get acoustic guitars and we'd sit around and sing Beatles songs and learn all the lyrics to the Beatles' stuff. Wayne was still in high school and I had a few years on him. I'd been around here and there -- I'd lived in New York and places and so he kind of looked up to me, and I was telling Wayne where it was at. We'd play the guitar and do all this harmonizing and stuff like that.
Well, I also knew Rob Tyner from living
down in the downtown area where the students and the artists would
live. So Wayne and Rob decided it would really be neat if they
could get Mike in the band somehow, and that wasn't too hard to
do, 'cause basically Wayne irritated the bass player to the point
where he got mad and quit the band. He left and then they said,
"Okay, Mike, you're on," so I went out and bought a
white Fender Precision bass and sat down in the basement with
Wayne and learned about 20 cover songs that the band did at the
time -- the MC5 was a cover band -- with one original piece; that
piece was "Black to Comm," which was totally
experimental, atonal madness. And that's how I got in the band.
Ironically, the first gig I played was at Wayne State University,
where I'd gone to
school to become a painter.
K: I remember bein' about 11-years-old and looking at the back of the Kick Out the Jams album and seeing the picture of you playing your bass wearing that kind of psychedelic Uncle Sam suit. I have to ask you, since Dennis mentioned it, about choreography. Something about how when you guys played, you would have these moves worked out.
M: Have you ever seen Leni Sinclair's Super-8 film of "Kick Out the Jams?" It's got a segment of us doing the dance steps...the choreographed dance steps that we did in "Teenage Lust." Where that came from is we always had a deep appreciation for rock 'n' roll bands that played in bars that were like rhythm 'n' rock type things, the first early days of rock 'n' roll. Everyone of us...me being older, and those guys...we all loved that whole R&B kind of thing with Fender musical instruments and guys in sparkle suits, just wailin' and battin' it out and gettin' all sweaty and rock 'n' rollin'. And one of the things that bands used to do way back in those early days was they used to do steps. The bass player, the guitar player, and the sax player would move in synchronized, choreographed patterns, and these things could get really complicated, where the guys were doing spins and then sideways and backwards and forwards, and it was really exciting to see it. It blew your mind; they'd all have the same gold lame suit on and these Fender instruments and playing this beat music and boppin' forward and backward and side to side and it just looked really cool. It'd just give you shivers. And that was our little attempt to resurrect that form. And we only did it on one song.
K: What's your best memory of being in the MC5?
M: There's a lot. The first thing that comes to mind is when we played on the Bob-Lo boat. Bob-Lo is an amusement park on an island in the Detroit River...you take the...it's not a paddlewheel boat, but it's kind of that shape of a thing. You go down the Detroit River to this amusement park. Well, we had this gig on Bob-Lo Island, and it turns out it was like freezing cold and we played in this huge coliseum type of steel and concrete structure. Our fingers were just frostbitten to the bone trying to play these songs, I mean seriously seeing your breath, and there's a small crowd, I don't remember what it was called, the Teen Fair or...it was some by-the-way kind of weird gig that Wayne got the band.
Anyway, we played this place and it was just absolutely freezing. Well, in the afternoon, towards the evening, we got back on the Bob-Lo boat, and we started cruising back to downtown Detroit. Someone, Tyner I think, all of a sudden decided to pull out our gear and place it on the second deck and just plug in and play! For some reason, it was not as cold on the boat as it was on that island, and we got our stuff, plugged it in, started to play, started doing our cover things, "Gloria" and the Stones and Kinks songs we used to do. The whole fuckin' deck filled up with people and this place was just rockin' and it was outdoors on a boat, cruising down the Detroit River, and people were dancing and just going absolutely nuts. I remember that because any time that you get a crowd in front of you that is just totally immersed in the music and they're just dancin' their asses off with no regard for reality, you've really succeeded, I think, and that's the first time that happened; it's a memorable occasion. That's one of my fondest memories of the band.
K: Speaking of the early days, when you were a cover band playing Who and Kinks and Them and Yardbirds stuff -- kind of a great exemplar of that Count Five/Shadows of Knight/Seeds garage sound -- Dave Thomas from Future Now [films] told me [ex-manager] John Sinclair said, "don't call them a garage band and don't use that phrase to anybody in the band; they won't like it."
M: That's my favorite time in the whole life history of the MC5. The time before we became affiliated with Trans-Love [Energies] and John Sinclair, when we were a garage band. That's the kind of music I like to play today. When I first started playing in the band, that was the most fun, playing all those cover songs. That's where we learned to play our improvisational blah-blah kind of music. We'd take "Can't Explain" but in the middle part, we'd take off and play this totally spaced out fuckin' instrumental. We did that with a lot of songs, and that was fun. The sound was just raw and fuckin' rough and exciting. Later, when we were trying to be like jazz musicians, that was the shit that really kinda wore me down; I really didn't even like that stuff at all.
I don't know why John said we wouldn't want to be considered a garage band. That was before his time. In retrospect, if I could think of one thing that was really the turning point, it was meeting John Sinclair, because before that we didn't care; we were just having fun. And I really liked that raw, garage-y, kind of experimental sound we were doing. And after we started listening to jazz musicians, all of a sudden we were musicians and improvising. Then when we started trying to do it, it just took the whole spark out of it. Then it became an ordeal, instead of a spontaneous, blast-you-awake kind of thing. That's my favorite time in the band. When you see all that corny shit of us wearing our band uniforms and everything, we didn't know what we were doing, and so consequently, what you got would just surprise you completely. Everything we did was a surprise. Later, when it became expected that we were gonna play some song for like 35 minutes, it wasn't as much fun.
Did I tell you about when we used to go down in the practice room and turn all the lights out? We'd go in the practice room and turn all the lights off, so all you could see was the red lights from the amplifiers, and play in the dark. That way, you couldn't see your instrument, you didn't know who was doin' what, it was a new way to approach playing music. You couldn't see what you were playing, all you could do was listen. I thought that was a great exercise. We did a lot of really psychedelic, way-out shit in the dark. That was our way of practicing that stuff, that really spaced-out shit. All you were was just a mind in a space, with your fingers on an electrically amplified instrument, and a lot of our atonal music came from that. We'd just play and play and play until you'd just grab onto some part you'd hear somebody else playing, and play with it, and when everybody did the same thing and grabbed onto this one part, it just kind of took on a life of its own. That was really the magical stuff.
K: What about your worst memory from the MC5 days?
M: I dunno, probably in 1971 or early '72 when I was thrown out of the band on the tour in England. Kind of put out of the car on the highway so that I had to find my way back home and start things over for myself. After about 1970, my interest and attention turned to substances. It was not a pleasant experience anymore being part of it and people in the band weren't communicating. When we got together it was like business meetings and playing gigs was a joke. I had divorced myself from even hanging around with anybody and I was into a pattern of substance abuse...I even bought my own ticket to go to England, and what happened was, I went to the airport to go to England and I got busted. (Laughs) I'm laughing now, but I wasn't then. I got busted going through the security and they took whatever I had and said, "Okay, now you get out of here."
So I came back the next day to get another flight and by that time, I had missed a really important gig the MC5 had at the London School of Economics. So when I did get there, Dennis picked me up at the airport and told me, "Hey Mike, things are not well and everybody's pissed off" and [I responded], "Take me to wherever I can buy some drugs." So we did that and I played a few gigs, then about a week after that, the guys called me in and we had a meeting in somebody's room and they told me that I was gonna be out. So that was that. But, on that tour, they picked up this English guy who played the bass on the rest of the tour. When I got home, I read in the Rolling Stone where the band had been booed off the stage at Wembley; they had to leave because the crowd was heaving pints of lager at them. They didn't want any of it. So I really can't say that much about the rest of that tour.
K: At a certain point, the band started spending a lot of time in Europe.
M: Not really. It might seem like that. We didn't have tours the way people have tours now. I never had a tour with the MC5 that was like what I do with the Luminarios. When I go with the Luminarios, we play every night for a month. Back then, we went to Europe (actually, we went to England), and we might have half a dozen gigs, but we'd stay there for three weeks. There was a lot of space between shows. I don't know why; maybe there weren't as many venues. But we never traveled from city to city to city to city like we do now. We only went over there a couple of times.
K: Dennis told me that after the Five broke up, three of you actually tried re-grouping as Ascension. Can you tell me a little about that?
M: Ascension was Fred Smith's concept; it was
gonna be Fred's band; he'd write the material and I would do the
singing. There was some sort of mystique about me back in those
days, that I could sing (Laughs); it probably came from
the folkie Bob Dylan-y thing, so everybody believed I could sing.
Of course, I found out years later that there was absolutely no
truth in that (Laughs), but some things just get carried
along by reputation or whatever. So Fred thought that I would
be able to do the singing and we went out and got me a little
Casio [keyboard] so I would have something to do besides
stand or leap around. We hired a dude named John Hefti to play
the bass, and Dennis agreed to play the drums, and we thought
we had us a
There's a tape around of this Ascension stuff; it was Fred's compositions and Fred's idea to have this band. I don't think we played a lot of gigs, maybe two or three, and the kinda stuff we got as gigs wasn't anything that's gonna get you in Rolling Stone, like playing three or four sets a night in a bowling alley..."What? How'd we get here?" But I found out very quickly that if you have to use your voice for more than an hour and a half, you're looking at some trouble if you're not used tosinging. So it didn't last a really long time, but it was a lot of fun...practicing in Dennis' attic and sweating our balls off up there in summer in Detroit. Very strange times those were. Very strange.
K: Is it true that Wayne and Rob were asked to get involved in that and they declined?
M: No. We wanted to do something different than MC5. The Fred Smith Show.
K: I was talkin' to Scott Morgan the other day. He said you were in one of the early incarnations of the Scott Morgan Band when he left the Rationals.
M: That was the first incarnation of Sonic's Rendezvous Band. It was a name that Fred came up with as we were on our way to our first show. He said, "This is the name of the band. I wanna call it Sonic's Rendezvous Band" and everybody went, "Okay, Fred." (Laughs) When Fred said something, you just went, "Okay, Fred." And that was what that was. Scott was not in it at the beginning. Later, we had this guy playing keyboard, James Allen. He was a relation to Jimmy Hoffa, nephew or something, and Fred thought that was good 'cause this was a connection to the real Detroit. Fred was real pleased at that fact and James Allen was actually a real good guy and a good keyboard player, and sort of a funny dude. I don't know whatever happened to him.
We played at this place where Fred and John Sinclair had gotten busted a couple of years before that for disturbing the peace and rioting. Morgan was somebody we all respected as a singer and his thing with the Rationals demanded a lot of "Respect," ha, ha; they were a good band. They never fucked up like we did (Laughs). There was the Scott Morgan Group. One record that Fred and I played on, then Scott and Fred teamed up as Sonic's Rendezvous. I went to jail.
K: Talk about Fred a little bit. Some impressions of him.
M: There's a lot to go into, 'cause Fred was probably one of the most complicated, impressive individuals I've ever met. Fred was kind of a person that had the quietest demeanor about him, but in his way, he could just dominate every fucking situation by barely saying anything, just by being there. He had this kind of tremendous stable strength. Unshakeable. This guy had one of those looks in his eye like there wasn't anything that could scare him, anywhere. He was completely secure in himself. In some ways it was awkward to be around Fred, 'cause here's this guy that didn't really talk much, but when he did say something, it was like the most dominating thing in the world. But he didn't want to be like "the leader," 'cause that was not his way. He wasn't into it to take over, he just kinda had this presence about him that you couldn't deny. He was comfortable, as far as I could tell, in a roomful of people drinking beer, or in a fucking conference room with record executives pushing the buttons in the music business. He just didn't have a problem with anything. He was very controlled, a control freak, to use a cliche, but not talk, talking all the time.
When I first got in the MC5, Fred and I shared an apartment in downtown Detroit, and we used to sit up all night, drink our beer and fantasise and dream and talk about what we were gonna do when we made it big, and our biggest plan was to keep two refrigerators, one completely packed with Stroh's beer and the other completely packed with Coca-Cola. That was our goal, when we finally made it big. (Laughs)
We'd sit up all night and play the acoustics and Fred had this little tiny amplifier that he'd plug in; at that time he had a Gretsch Tennessean. We lived in the top of an old house in downtown Detroit. We had this attic, and he had his section over in one little gable part, I had my section in another little window gable. I guess that's where I first really started to check out how original of a musician Fred was. These things he'd come up with...he'd play them over and over and over again and you'd never get tired of 'em. It was just like, "Let's hear it again," you know, and he's playin' whatever that part he was working on and he had this kind of mesmerizing, I would call it original style. He didn't ever sound like anybody else. It was always coming straight out of him.
And in the band, Fred was always kind of like sittin' over there and kind ofwatching as things took place, but if Fred didn't like the way something was, he'd speak up and kind of point it out, and nobody could ever deny Fred's comment or his argument about things. If Fred didn't want to do something, it wouldn't get done.
K: What was the dynamic like between Wayne and Fred?
M: It was a friendly competition. It was a fruitful competition; maybe it wasn't even a competition. Wayne had a style of playing, and he played like the people that he emulated and learned his guitar figures from, and Fred had a completely different sound. Both of their sounds and styles were unique to themselves, but when they got together, they'd trade off solo things. You see, Wayne was very good at inventing guitar solo lines, and Wayne would play his lines and the other one would be playing the rhythm to it, then they'd switch off, and Fred would play his concept, and Wayne would play the rhythm. And you could hear this kind of "I'll go you one better," but it wasn't like some kind of "Let's see who's the best," it was more like "Let's see how good of a thing we can come up with." When I first got into this music thing with those guys, I remember thinking to myself at the time, I couldn't ask for two better guitar players in the whole fuckin' world. I remember thinking that it could be Keith Richards and Jeff Beck...I was satisfied with Wayne and Fred.
K: Some impressions of Rob Tyner?
M: Rob Tyner was probably the most generous, considerate, respectful, warm, compassionate human being I've ever met. Rob was also probably the most conservative of the five of us, in the sense that he had probably the most down-to-earth values, and he was the first guy that got married and had children.
Rob really cared about people. He bled for the people. Everyone that Rob met, he cared about. If you shook Rob's hand, he was concerned about your well-being. It didn't matter who you were, he was interested in people and what their condition was and he always wanted to make things better for them. He loved the idea that when he was onstage, he was able to teach people something about themselves. He had a vision, and from what I could see, Rob Tyner's vision was for everybody to live in peace and harmony, and he wrote about it...that's what his lyrics were about -- I hate to use the corny phrase (Laughs), but Peace and Love, y'know?
So he was genuinely into it, but not on a sappy, flower power level. He believed in the power of people to heal and build and make the world a happy place for everybody. When he gave performances, he was genuinely giving the love that was in him to everybody who was out there in the audience that could receive it. Rob, to me, was the soul of the MC5. When I first met those guys, Rob used to wear a metal washer of some kind, that he had gotten at work, on a chain around his neck, and he called that his "MC5-ness." That was way back in 1965 or whatever and it symbolized his enthusiasm for the band. Rob Tyner named the band the MC5. We were pulling out onto the freeway and he announced that we should be the MC5. It was Detroit.
K: Sounded like a car part.
M: I regret I didn't get closer to Rob Tyner, but he had his kind of separate world from the MC5 'cause he was married and his son was born during the heyday of the MC5, so he had his kind of domestic family situation in the midst of all this chaos and dope smoking and partying. I imagine it was difficult for him to maintain his stability and still manage to be the front vocalist of the MC5.
K: In some ways it seems like he was a man apart from the band. In the Ken Kelley interview, Wayne talks about how Rob was tormented by the other band members...
M: Because he wasn't a "Pop Star." We gave Rob a lot of shit, especially after we signed with Atlantic and we were definitely pointed for business success. Somehow these things about Rob that we'd just accepted out of hand before turned out to bethe things that had to be changed. Rob really took a lot of abuse from the band about things like his weight and the way he dressed and this really dumb stuff, cliche bullshit, but he was really unfairly almost crucified. I remember after we moved out to the country, the band insisted on Rob running fifty laps around the house on a daily basis to lose weight so he could look more like some rock 'n' roll god and appeal to teenage girls. How could we go from this tremendous down-to-earth political stance into being these standard...pop star lads? (Laughs) It made sense at the time.
The poor guy, we were all over his case, but then we were hard on ourselves, too. The whole band was on this total meat-only diet for about three months. Everybody except for Fred, 'cause he was skinny to begin with. Somebody decided that we had a fat band and everybody had to go on this diet that was nothing but T-bone steaks and cottage cheese. (Laughs) It's like we were the guinea pigs of some fucking pop marketing guru and here we were out there emaciating ourselves on this horrible fucking diet eating meat and cottage cheese. Somebody told Wayne Kramer that this was the quickest way to lose weight, so Wayne had this kind of very callous way of making everybody in the band do his will, so it was decreed that we all had to live on T-bone steaks and cottage cheese for the next six months. And I'll tell ya, if you don't eat any fresh vegetables for two weeks or any bread, any grain products, you just become the weakest...you feel like you're in outer space or something. You just all of a sudden become this shell of a person. You lose weight all right...you lose about 20 pounds in the first two weeks, then you don't know who you are.
K: Was somebody from Atlantic or management actually telling you that you needed to do all this stuff?
M: Well, in a roundabout sort of way. We had the grand liaison to the "real world," Jon Landau, and he was filtering his information to Wayne Kramer, and then Wayne would turn around and decree that here's what the band had to do next, and there you have it.
K: Was Wayne the one with the closest connection to Landau?
M: Absolutely. Wayne always considered that the MC5 was his baby, and he was the leader. Way back in the beginning, everybody agreed to this, because Wayne was the only one who had a telephone. (Laughs) He was the only guy who lived at home, so he had access to a phone, and he kind of enjoyed taking on the responsibility. None of the rest of us really wanted to be in touch with anything, we wanted to explore our conceptual possibilities, but Wayne had that kind of down-to-earth...he could talk to people. At one point we had to join the union, everybody had to join the Musician's Union. When we filled out the form for ourgroup, we had to designate a leader, and it was decided in the union front office that Wayne was going to be registered as the leader of the MC5 and he took that quite seriously. No problem.
K: So he booked all the gigs and so forth early on?
M: He booked the gigs and he took care of any kind of business.
K: In the interview he did with Ken Kelley for Addicted to Noise, Wayne also said that at a certain point during the Back In the U.S.A. sessions, the band rejected his leadership in favor of Fred's. What was that about?
M: I guess so, in a way, but Fred wasn't really into leadership in a formal way. Fred was only into having Fred's way, so he when it came time to really step on the gas, Fred wasn't there. Fred was probably the most slow-moving individual that's ever graced the Earth. Fred wouldn't move until Fred decided to move. There could be a forest fire six inches from your ass and if Fred wasn't ready to leave, nobody left. (Laughs) You weren't leavin'.
I don't think the band rejected Wayne's leadership. I think he just stepped back to let Fred do some leading. The third album [High Time] was Fred's concept, that was "Frederico Smithelini..."
K: Great record.
M: Yeah, it is a great record...I think at that point, personally, I was going along with just about anything at that point. I was glad to see it, actually.
K: Before High Time, all the writing credits were collective. With that album, individual band members started getting songwriting credits. Prior to that, was it really a group effort?
M: Yes. When we did "Kick Out the Jams" or anything before that, when we wrote a song, we wrote it together. As time went on, the songwriting became more the function of individuals. And the guy who wrote a tune wanted to be recognised as the writer. Before that, we used to sit together at practice and just come up with things as a group.
K: What was it like working with Landau during the recording of Back In the U.S.A.?
M: The most wrenching experience of my life. Landau wasn't prepared to work with a band that wasn't that precise. He told us, "This is not a live remote where you guys just set up and play; this is a real record in a real studio where everything has to be correct."
Landau's main concern was making everything "correct;" the originality of the music was secondary. You see, every time we played a tune, we would improvise constantly to achieve the intensity, drama, and magic. That was our style, our approach to music. The thing that made us what we were. A lot of things were coming off sloppy and it was impossible to get satisfactory takes. It was a big problem. That was the beast we were. When it worked, it was killer, but when it didn't...well. Jon did what he thought he needed to do to make a good record. It was a weird time for everyone. We sacrificed a lot to make that record. Sinclair came in and listened during one of the takes and said, "It sucks." You could tell he was on his way out at that point; he was on his way to jail anyway.