Besides being the party who propelled the MC5 (and New Order, and New Race, and The Motor City Bad Boys, and...) into the stratosphere with his percussive power, Dennis "Machine Gun" Thompson [pictured below, centre, with the MC5] is also undoubtedly the greatest living high-energy conversationalist on the planet. He talks the same way he plays the drums -- energetically, assertively, aggressively, thoughts spilling over each other two or three at a time, punctuated by explosions of laughter.
This interview took place in two parts, beginning on March 24 and winding up on March 28, 1998. We started out talking about his recent activities.
K: What have you been up to lately?
D: Well, lately I've been trying to become a priest, but they won't let me. I've got a CD coming out called Phantom Patriots, Volume One. I'm shopping a label. There are two or three labels that I'm courting; I'm looking for the best distribution deal, and I want accountability for sales. When you work with independent labels, you don't get that.
K: Who are some of the people involved?
D: Well, the first round are local people. That's Joey Gados, who played with one of Rob Tyner's MC5 bands; Pete Bankert, who plays with Dark Carnival, has played with, oh Christ, 15 bands, he owns a studio; and Tommy Ingram, who is a young singer, but...he's done the Detroit thing. It's a very powerful unit.
I just talked to Deniz Tek, I'm going to do a version of "Kick Out the Jams" for this, I believe. I'm either gonna have Deniz do the "Kick Out the Jams" instrumental or the theme song, "(We Are) The Phantom Patriots." And Deniz has agreed to do a solo for me. Once I get the DAT version of that finished, I'll send it off to him in Montana, and we already spoke about it and he said he'd love to, 'cause we haven't played together in awhile, and so I'll have Deniz Tek as another Phantom Patriot.
The concept of the Patriots is an ongoing concept. The idea is that every succeeding volume, I'll search to find new people, new players who want to donate their time and their energy to play the music; they won't care about the recognition, they won't care about fame, and they won't care about fortune. They will care about being able to play in a context that is completely, totally free. They're all gonna sign off as...whatever happens, "Dennis, if you can bring me 500 bucks for your initial deposit from sales, or if you can give me a royalty," I'll give them a royalty; I'll make sure they get some money.
There's 50 people that are lined up to do this concept, and the bottom line is, the Phantom Patriots is exactly what it means. We're phantoms, that means invisible; we're spectres, we're ghosts, whatever, shadows, and we are patriots; we love our country, we do the right things. And no one's gonna know who's in the band. Except me. I have to use my name as the hook to work the media. Once I get to the media, I start explaining the concept and they'll get the drift...like a benefit for the masses, y'know? (Laughs)
On Volume One, I bring in these musicians, and there's a synchronicity in the air. I'm bringing the players in to play. What I've tried to do is to get as many of my creative friends as possible to do the computer artwork, to do the marketing, friends that are DJs at radio stations, musicians that wanna just really play, etc., etc., etc.
K: Can you describe the music?
D: Well, the first CD is straight-ahead rock and roll. It's bad-ass rock and roll; the songs sound like MC5, the Stooges, Metallica, Pearl Jam, Nirvana; we cover the spectrum.
Patrice [Dennis' girlfriend]: On the CD, we have something very surprising, it's Rob Tyner speaking from the Heidelberg.
D: What it was, was a spoken invocation to "Kick Out the Jams," and this was at the Heidelberg in Ann Arbor, three weeks before he died. He was just preaching the Gospel for four minutes. So while I'm wrapping up this Phantom Patriots CD, Pete and the guys shut off all the lights in the studio and said, "Hey, Dennis, why don't you just go crazy, and be you, okay, just go!" So I did, I created a piece. I constructed an actual piece of artwork and I dedicated it to Rob and Fred. I cried a little bit, and I played. I played for four minutes.
Little did I know that Pete Bankert had thought about this, but didn't tell me about it, and he had this dialogue, because back in '91 at the Heidelberg, Pete Bankert was playing bass in Rob's band, so he knew, he knew. So anyway, I come into the studio two days later, and he put the two of them together. It was like, "What the...this is...excuse me." It's really good; talk about your spoken word or your performance art, this is crazy, 'cause I've got a person who's been dead for seven years playing a piece with me, and we're in perfect sync. I played well...Billy Cobham would be proud. Elvin Jones would be proud. Keith Moon, he'd be proud, too. Cool?
Rob died in '91, and Fred died in '94. They were both 46 when they died, and they both died of heart problems. So when I finally hit 47, that day, I swung from the chandeliers. Because I passed that 46-year-old year old curse of the Five, right? (Laughs)
K: How old are Wayne [Kramer] and Mike Davis now?
D: Wayne'll be 50 in another month, end of April, I believe, and Michael will be 54 in June or July. And I'll be 50 on September 7th, 1998.
K: Can you expand a little on the concept behind the Phantom Patriots?
D: The concept of the Phantom Patriots is a book I've been writing for ten years. Essentially it's a roman a clef of the experience of the MC5. The Phantom Patriots are everybody in this country who cares about improving the quality of life here. Raising the job standard level. Raising the educational level. Taking care of the children. All the things that need to be done. And the way to address this is, we'll be patriotic, but we'll be like spectres; we'll be invisible, we'll slowly change the people's attitude.
The idea is to try to remain invisible, try to get a lot of people working and having fun. We're not into it to make money, we're not into it to get laid, we're not into it to be rock and roll stars, we're into it for the love of the art of it all, and the philosophy of it all, and the politic of it all. I think it's gonna be a very, very beautiful ongoing thing. I see one CD per year. I'll be the one that's gonna be visible, and I'll use the MC5 name to market it. But each package is gonna be a creative package, which you don't get much, nowadays. You get standard art department kind of general puff. But I've got a guy who's very creative and artistic who spent three weeks on just the front cover so far. You know why? He doesn't make enough money at his day job and he needed something creative to do. That's sorta like the idea.
I dunno how I'm gonna do this, but somewhere in the inside sleeve, I'm gonna let the people know who the players are. But I'm not gonna list 'em right out. I'm gonna make the consumer work at it. 'Cause I figure when I was younger, when I got a record, I used to like to sit down and put it on and "Wow," the amount of information you give me about these people is important, but make it more of a chase, a mystery; make it intriguing. I like packages like that...
K: Kinda like the inside sleeve on High Time.
D: There you go. Where you give a lot of content...not too much, but you give a broad enough spread...a different spin on the scene, people like that. They do appreciate that. Nowadays, a lot of CDs you buy, you can barely read the lyrics, they're so damn tiny, and there's some stupid shot...like the Presidents [of the United States]' first record; what a stupid fuckin' cover, but they went triple platinum.
K: Tek said you were doing some session work. Can you tell us about that?
D: Yeah. The session work I've done, I've mostly just done for youngsters around Detroit. Nothing that I would expect that you would even hear. It was fun going out to help these kids. What I did session-work wise was I had some good fun playing with some young bad ass boys who had some good sounds. I also hired myself out, "Oh, you can hire Grandpa, y'know, for a hundred bucks." Cool.
K: Has Ben Edmonds found a publisher for his MC5 book [No Greater Noise] yet?
D: He's not finished writing the book! I think he's sort of waiting to see what happens. I give him a couple of years. See, this movie thing is pushing him along the road a bit. If this movie comes out before he finishes his book, he's gonna be pissed.
K: I guess the point is the whole story's not told yet.
D: No, it's not. It's the greatest story never told! It really is. It's the best story never told. Quite frankly. 'Cause it involves all of us. (Laughs) My band was the only band at that point in time that really addressed that issue. We didn't give a flying fuck about the consequences. And trust me, I've got the scars on my body to prove it.
K: How'd you get started playing music back in Lincoln Park?
D: Well, what it was, was that I had a friend named Billy Vargo who played guitar, and I'm thinking, how old were we, we were like maybe 15-years-old, and he was the leader of the band. We had three guitars, no bass, and me on drums. And I was doing it, I was playing.
My brother is 10 years older than I am, and he's been a musician all his life. So when he was sixteen, I was six years old, and they had a rock and roll band, practicing music in my basement, the drummer would leave his drums, so four year old, five year old Dennis would run down there and bang on the drums and Mom would yell down there, "Dennis, get off those drums, they're not yours!" But she'd always give me at least 10 minutes, you know? So I got it from my brother, and at the tender age of twelve years old I was already playing weddings, and by fourteen I was playing clubs with my brother.
So anyway, in high school and junior high school, I met the other guys and we had a band. The band was called the Bounty Hunters, for Steve McQueen back in those days. Wayne played in the Bounty Hunters for a real short time. Wayne taught Fred how to play guitar...Fred Smith. Fred would go over to Wayne's house and Wayne would show him how to play chords, and that's how that happened. Fred became actually the better rhythm guitar player, by his natural, innate ability.
So I'm in high school, and this is about, we're talking maybe eleventh grade, maybe tenth grade, they formed the MC5, which was Wayne Kramer, Fred Smith, Rob Tyner, Bob Gaspar on drums, who has passed away, and Pat Burrows on bass. They were in the band for maybe six months, and they aced out and did the Dave Clark Five show at the Ford Auditorium in downtown Detroit. Well, they started moving into this avant-rock business, where they bought more amps and started getting louder and louder, and Bob Gaspar the drummer was bitching, he says, you know, "I gotta keep slamming these drums so hard, I don't wanna play this way." And Pat Burrows the bass player was gettin' pissed off, and said, "I don't wanna do this crazy stuff." (He was from the James Jamerson school of Motown bass playing). So these guys got disaffected.
So one day Wayne pulls up on his motorcycle at my house, and I'm still in 10th grade, so that's makin' me 15, 16? Somewhere around there...pulls up and says, "Hey, do you wanna play this job we got? Our drummer quit. It's a place called the Crystal Bar." And what it is, is a shot and a beer joint -- it's a dump. They had flyers made up and everything...the name of the band's the Motor City Five. "Okay, I'll do the job." He shows up on his motorcycle in the middle of the night and [I] went down and did the job for the weekend. We had about three toothless bums just sittin' there. And here we are onstage playing "My Generation" and Yardbirds and Kinks and all. That's when I joined the Five.
K: Was "Black to Comm" in existence back then?
D: No, that happened at the Grande Ballroom...you know what "Black To Comm" means?
K: No, I never understood that.
D: Okay. "Black To Comm" was when we were playing the Grande Ballroom, we used to let bands -- a lot of bands would use our equipment, and we would say, "Fuck you, if you break it, we told ya...'black to Comm.'" Quite simply, on the P.A. amp, "Comm" is commonly referred to as the negative ground, and the "Black" was the wire...clear from the power source, right? And that's exactly what it was, it's like, "Okay, just be sure you put the black wire into the comm connection here," you know what I mean? "If we trip over it and knock it out again" -- because there was all these wires strewn across the stage.
This is back when technology was...there was no technology. It was low technology. And we were one of the loudest bands on the planet. Us and Blue Cheer, I believe, would probably be the loudest..."the firstest and the loudest." And we'd do it on purpose, because going to a Catholic high school like Aquinas with four Marshall stacks, totalling eight Marshall stacks for guitar players and two Sunn cabinets for the bass player, and going into a gymnasium for basketball, and just watching the nuns, the top of their habits they wear...watching it blow off, was worth it. And the kids, you know what the kids were doing, they were dancing and prancing and having a blast.
So we just used that title, that became the title of this riff, this riff was just, well, Fred would just start out [sings the two chord intro to "Black to Comm"] and we never knew where the song would go; this was our free-form forum just to experiment. And Rob wrote just a few lyrics for it at the beginning and it was real exciting, and of course, that's what caused Burrows and Gaspar to quit the band, because they started getting into this "avant-rock," which is what we called it; the Yardbirds used to call it "rave-up" -- that's when they started really playing and going crazy.
So, eventually that evolved, and the more that we got involved in John Sinclair's jazz influence, we started listening to Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp and Pharaoh Sanders and John Coltrane -- especially John Coltrane -- and John Sinclair had this record collection that was one whole wall, you know what I mean? So we started listening to all this great music and it started to affect how we played. Then we started getting into just plain sound explorations and feedback and just working with sound. You add a little LSD to that and it gets pretty crazy.
K: As far as your own drum style goes, you've always talked about Elvin Jones, and you can hear a lot of that on "Ice Pick Slim" on Alive -- there's definitely a lot of Elvin there.
D: That's an Elvin groove.
K: And on Thunder Express there's this version of "Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa" that's like the bridge between the JBs and Funhouse...a lot of funk in there. Who were some of your influences on the traps?
D: OK, my major influences, in no particular order, would be Keith Moon, Mitch Mitchell from the Jimi Hendrix Experience, John Bonham.
D: Mmm-hmm. He had some pretty fat, snappy grooves, and he had a big drum set. We played with Led Zeppelin maybe eight or nine times and I'd watch him, y'know, "This guy's definitely got his chops together;" he was doing all that bass drum triplet shit before anybody was doing it. And doing it hard. So he was an influence inasmuch as I picked up a few tricks from him. I liked Charlie Watts in the Rolling Stones; I liked Stax/Volt -- I don't know who that session drummer was, but I liked the Stax/Volt session drummer.
K: Al Jackson or somebody like that.
D: Wilson Pickett and all those; I loved the Motown drummers, of which there was a stable of 'em. Billy Bruford from King Crimson; I'm thinking about what influenced me -- now I'm my own guy. There's so much electronic drums now that I don't wanna get into that part of it. The Yardbirds' drummer too, and the Kinks'. The really good early English bands: the Animals, the Hollies.
K: The Pretty Things?
D: For sure, Viv Prince...The Byrds. Even Joe Butler from the Lovin' Spoonful; I saw him when I was 16 at the State Fairgrounds here in Detroit, and he was slappin' 'em hard, and I didn't realize, "Wow, the Lovin' Spoonful; here's Joe Butler and he's playing matched grip and he's smacking 'em".
And the reason a lot of us young drummers had to hit 'em so hard then: 'cause we weren't miked. The only way you could cut through the Marshall stacks, or the Sunn stacks, or the Vox stacks of the guitar/bass setups was to hit 'em as hard as you could. Because we really didn't have the technology up to speed; in most places, unless you had your own P.A. system and you had a 16-channel board, which we didn't have, you couldn't mike the drums up, so you had to develop a style that was really pretty powerful. 'Till eventually, down the road, we finally started to get miked, and then you could develop more of an Elvin Jones style, where there's a little more wrist involved.
But what I did, I studied Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali and Billy Cobham. There you go. There's a list that is probably the coolest drummers you could...oh, excuse me, gotta get serious...Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. That does it. I can't forget Buddy. That was when [drumming] was all about the wrists. And then what happened was, probably because of rock and roll, you had to pretty much scrap the wrists and get into the arm. Now you can do whatever you want, so it doesn't matter.
I told you about this one particular tune "The Glue" on the new CD, which is a drum song like "Skunk" was on the third [MC5] record [High Time]. But this is brand new and it's got style; it's not gonna be any of this tricked out shit, it sounds like Elvin Jones...you can hear Elvin's influence; it's in there.
K: Talk a little bit about Russ Gibb and the Grande Ballroom.
D: Russ taught in the Dearborn school system, English and history I believe, and he was a part-time disc jockey. There was a workshop called the Artists' Workshop on the Wayne State campus. (I went to Wayne State University for two years and I studied physics and engineering.) The Artists' Workshop was right below us; we lived in a dentist's office, an old dentist's office right above it. And on weekends they'd have poetry readings and jazz bands, and Wayne and Rob met John Sinclair, and the first time we played one of those sessions was on a Saturday or Sunday, and there were three or four jazz bands, some poetry, then the MC5 came up and just blew the place. Leni Sinclair [John's then-wife] pulled the plug on us; she said, "You're too fuckin' loud."
Anyway, that night, Russ Gibb showed up. Either Rob or John (I'm a little foggy here)...Russ had contacted them, that he wanted to start a ballroom similar to the Fillmore on the West Coast, he could see that there was a market for that type of thing. He didn't own the Grande but he leased it from an old fella [Gabe Glantz] who owned the building. Russ said, "Would you guys be interested in being the house band? I can't pay you nothin'." We needed a place to play, a large place to play, and a place to rehearse...[so we said] "Oh, yeah, this sounds like a great idea, 'cause we're starting to get all the feedback from the Avalon, the Straight Theater, and the Fillmore.
So that's pretty much how it started off. We probably played there six-eight months without making a dime. We were just happy to be the house band. When we first started playing the Grande, we rehearsed there in the afternoon with our coats on, because there was no heat, and we played for free. We were just in the spirit of what was happening in California. The bottom line is, we stuck it out and we played for free and we developed a following.
So Russ was instrumental in organizing the scene, the focal point being the Grande Ballroom. But at that point in time there were a lot of places you could play around town, little clubs, sock hops, high school dances, sweetheart dances, roller rinks, battles of the bands, not to mention your colleges and junior colleges. There was enough of a scene that a band could make just enough money to basically survive, and the Grande was the gig you wanted to have. In the beginning, there were no national acts, you just had the locals, but you've got Bob Seger playing, you've got the Rationals playing, you've got Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes playing, the MC5, the Psychedelic Stooges, Third Power, Savage Grace, and these local bands all had followings.
And what was happening was all these followings were merging and the camps were coming together like tribes and we're starting to get a decent crowd. Decent enough to where Russ Gibb could actually start bringing in national bands. And once the national bands came in, the Grande became a pit stop. So Russ' influence basically runs pretty deep. He ran the business of it; eventually, we started to get paid, and I believe he's still teaching school.
K: Really? I'll be damned.
D: Mmm-hmm. It's just that he's older; he wasn't a crazy person, he wasn't unstoppable like we were, I think was, if anything, just a little pot smoking, but he wasn't into the LSD or anything else.
K: What were your best and worst memories of being in the Five?
D: Best memory? I dunno, I'd have to call it the [1967 Detroit] Belle Isle Love-In...really the best show. That's when we were perfectly in tune. Worst memory? The band breaking up. That was in...'72. At the Grande Ballroom.
K: Give us some impressions of Rob and Fred. Something you remember that kinda captures the kind of people they were.
D: Mmm. That's a tough one. Rob, I'd have to say, pretty much the intellectual part of the MC5 body. The philosopher, the, how would you call it, the inner space probe artist...(Long pause) Rob the poet, Rob the philosopher, Rob the thinker.
Fred Smith the rhythm guitar player, the creative musical person in the band, the most musically driven. Fred was the rhythm guitar player and he'd come up...like Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones, he would come up with the coolest guitar parts, and Wayne Kramer was more or less the icing on the cake. He was like the showman de rigeur. He was the person you'd put up front to do the dancing, the swinging, and the twirling, and the swirling, you know what I mean? The Peter Townshend focus. Wayne was better than Peter, 'cause he could dance.
And then you got Michael Davis who just more or less was the bottom line, the bass player, and his role was just to play the bass, but when we all started to do our crazy movements, Michael was into choreography, because we used to rehearse this shit.
That's how cool we were (Laughs) -- rehearsing breaking up your equipment. John Sinclair used to get so pissed off because he was trying to juggle our bucks, right? The money we were making? And we were breaking shit up faster than we could buy it. That was the biggest complaint. "You gotta stop doing this auto-destructive shit." We said, "John, take a look at the fuckin' response from the audience." We did it creatively. You know, Peter Townshend started it by smashing his guitar and running it backwards into his amps. But we used to destroy the whole fuckin' stage. We're talking about doing this in 1967. (Laughs) Pretty cool.
So Patti Smith calls me two days before we buried Fred, and asks me to do a eulogy, and the minute she called me, the moment that she called me, I happened to be sitting in my living room on the couch. On the coffee table was a bunch of paper and a pen in my hand, and I was going to write something to Fred, because I knew he died, blah blah blah. There was a bottle of Jack Daniels there, and I look at this blank page and I don't know what to fuckin' say about Fred Smith. I had no idea, 'cause he's a complicated man. All of a sudden I get a phone call from his wife. She says, "Dennis, would you please give a eulogy for Fred." At that point in time, I took a big long swig of that bottle of Jack Daniels and I proceeded to write a thing called "The Cellophane Flower and the Fork in the Road." It's printed on the Internet, and it's my eulogy to Fred. (There's a band in L.A. called Cellophane Flowers.) But the eulogy was...it came to me, all of a sudden after Patti called me, all of a sudden, the pen just started to write, and I could write the right thing about a fallen mate that I've known for a long time, and I really miss him every day of my life. You bet.
K: Talk about the Stooges a little bit. It seems like over the years you've had a lot of association with those guys in different ways.
D: Off and on, with Ron [Asheton] especially. We were together, I would say '71 to '74-'75, about three or four years in California in a band called the New Order. That was Ron Asheton on guitar, myself, Jimmy Recca -- who was in one of the latter day versions of the Stooges -- played bass for 'em, a guitar player from Detroit, Ray Gunn, and David Gilbert who became the lead singer of the Rockets.
Ron and I like to do projects together occasionally, and he's pretty busy. Doing a lot of work; the Stooges are really visible. In the beginning, we considered them...apprentices, but they were friends of mine, Mike Davis and the road manager, Steve Harnadek (we called him "The Hawk"). We would go hang out at the Funhouse, which is right in Ann Arbor. And these guys were just learning how to play. When Scott Asheton first played drums, he had two old 50-gallon oil drums. Very, very slick, hahaha.
K: So that's a true story!
D: Yeah! They were really like the first true performance art band. They couldn't play very well, so they played all this simple stuff; real simple riffs and rhythms. Ig would have to just overreact, overrespond, overdramatize to get the band to get over when they started playing the circuit. That might be what caused him to develop his singular style. And those guys played together, and they got better and better. We always referred to them as our brother band; when we got signed, Danny Fields came out here from Elektra Records, he was the head of the A&R department, Jac Holzman was the president. Danny came out to sign us. He saw the Stooges and fell in love. So actually, Elektra got two bands for the price of one...we both got signed. The "pizza pizza" deal.
Well, what happened is, the day after we signed, we started to go our separate ways; they MC5 did their thing, [the Stooges] did theirs. They went through their trials and tribulations; Davey Alexander died, the bass player, but Ron was with them the whole time. So Ron and Scott [Asheton] are my real good friends. Iggy? I'm a friend of Iggy, but we don't get along all that much. But the guys in the MC5, Wayne specifically, and Fred, didn't think too much of those guys. Rob thought they were very, very cartoonish and liked them. He said they definitely had a future. Which proved to be a fact.