Musings on Rock and Roll
by Ken Shimamoto





Posted September 17, 2001


If you go to the Roseland Cemetery in Berkley, Michigan, today, you can find him buried under a simple marker that reads, "Beloved Husband & Father, Robert W. Derminer, Dec. 18, 1944-Sep. 18, 1991." On the marker is a representation of his "spirit animal," the buffalo. Nearby is a larger memorial, a round slab of marble (in the shape of a tire? Or a giant Afro?) bearing the legend "Let me be who I am" (from his best-known song) and the name by which more people know him - Robin Tyner.

It was almost 10 years ago now that Rob Tyner, lead singer of the legendary revolutionary rabble-rousers and punk precursors the MC5, died of a heart attack behind the wheel of his car in his suburban Michigan driveway, aged 47. I remember reading about it in the Village Voice when I was a year from separating from the Air Force, doing time in Bossier City, Louisiana. The writer of the piece was from Detroit and talked about having his radio on when all of a sudden they started playing "Ramblin' Rose" (funny, I thought, 'cos Brother Wayne Kramer sang that one), "Kick Out the Jams," and "Looking At You." It was the first time he'd heard the Five on the radio in years, and he knew that something was up.

I was sneaking up on 35 years old then and hadn't thought much about the Five for 20 years or so, but it still seemed like the end of something important.

Born in Detroit and infused with that city's car-burger-and-rock'n'roll culture, Rob was a teenage beatnik, cartoonist, jazz and sci-fi freak whose brother was friends with a high school hood, motorhead, and budding guitarist named Wayne Kambes. Rob caught the rock'n'roll bug after hearing the Rolling Stones' amped-up take on electric blues and R&B. He was sitting outside a White Castle burger joint, blowing harp, when he encountered Wayne and they got to talking about Wayne's band, the Bounty Hunters.

The MC5 started out with Rob, Wayne and Fred Smith cruising around in Rob's car, dreaming. Rob named the band MC5 (short for "Motor City Five") because "it sounded like a car part." He used to wear a washer which he called his "MC5-ness" on a chain around his neck. Powerful links were being forged. By all accounts, Rob was the spiritual touchstone of the Five, starting from the time he talked Fred Smith (who was used to using his fists to get his way) out of kicking his ass (after he'd chastised Fred for hassling the help in a restaurant) by asking him, "Why?" Rob's concept of rebellion didn't extend to being rude to waiters; he believed in treating all people with respect.

It's unsurprising that Rob was the first of the Five's founder members to leave the band, when he discovered he didn't enjoy the pressures of touring as much as he did the simple pleasures of home and family. Rob's life gives the lie to Chris Stigliano's ridiculous assertion in Black To Comm #19 that Rob (like most of BTC's readers) "came from white male stock" (a statement which reminds me of nothing so much as the King of Siam in Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical writing to Abraham Lincoln, offering to populate the forests of America with elephants by sending over "several pairs of young male elephants"). Like all the early Motor City whiteboy rock'n'rollers, Rob was steeped in the tradition of R&B showmanship which he witnessed on many hometown stages and experienced vicariously through records like "The Temptations Live at the Rooster Tail" and "James Brown Live at the Apollo" (the Five's "energy model," which they'd habitually blast in the van to vibe up on the way to gigs). Rob's vision of rock'n'roll was inclusive enough to encompass Little Richard, Ray Charles, and James Brown as well as the Stones, Who, and Yardbirds. (Check the Five's early set lists for proof.)

When Wayne Kambes became Brother Wayne Kramer and Dennis Tomich became Dennis "Machine Gun" Thompson, the erstwhile Bob Derminer renamed himself in honour of John Coltrane's piano player, McCoy Tyner. And not to forget, he sported the largest Afro ever worn by a white man in rock'n'roll (including Jimi Hendrix' Experience), prompting MC5 comparisons every time a band of white or brown rock'n'rollers arrives on the set similarly coiffed (At the Drive In being only the latest). Rob learned his lessons well, but ultimately, he sang his OWN song. He should be remembered as the author of two of the finest, truest descriptions of the rock'n'roll experience extant: "Kick Out the Jams," a testimonial to the Rock's power as well as a STATEMENT OF INTENT, and "Looking At You," a paean to the mystical connection between performer and audience that can make the music transcendant. Lacking the physical charisma of Mitch Ryder or Iggy Pop and the effortless soul of Scott Morgan, Rob got by on heart as much as he did on pipes (although he DID have the power, vocally - dig his Near Eastern-sounding vocalismo on some of the ca. '68 "experimental" Five stuff, or his more straight-ahead R&B-based testifyin' on the early AMG and A-Square singles and the "Kick Out the Jams" album). He had so much heart that he didn't even appear ridiculous when he mounted the stage in later years, a hefty man clad in leather biker/bondage gear, sometimes brandishing a samurai sword.

His compositional gifts were musical as well as lyrical; today, Wayne recalls how ALL of "The Human Being Lawnmower," with its tortuous twists and turns, poured full-grown out of Rob's head during the "Back In the U.S.A." sessions. His one solo songwriting credit was also one of the Five's most enduring pieces: "Future Now," from "High Time." After leaving the band in '72 on the brink of a European tour which Kramer and Smith unwisely opted to undertake without him, Rob continued to keep one foot in rock'n'roll (once it's in your blood, you've got no choice), cutting a solo single in England backed by Eddie and the Hot Rods and fronting various bands billed as the MC5 (with young bloods like guitarists Robert Gillespie and Joey Gados and bassist Pete Bankert) around the Motor City, incurring the wrath of Wayne and Fred for doing so. (The recording of a show by the Gillespie-led edition that was released by Motor City Music as "Rock'n'Roll People" a coupla years back has just been reissued by Captain Trips over in Japan with five bonus tracks. The "Blood Brothers" solo album featuring the Gados line-up is discontinued and hard to come by, but has some worthwhile moments - particularly "Grande Nights," the lyrics to which appeared on the '91 CD release of "Kick Out the Jams" along with Rob's new liner notes - although it sounds a little dated, largely due to Gados' squealing metallic guitar sound.)

It's interesting that late in his life, this former antiwar activist (if only by association), whose performance at the '68 Yippie "Festival of Life" in Chicago was immortalized by Norman Mailer, chose to do outreach work with Vietnam veterans and even made music with vets (the "Ambush" album he recorded with musicians including hornman Marcus Belgrave and former Third Power/Bob Seger guitarist Drew Abbot under the rubric Stev Mantiev)...another example of the webs of inclusion Rob sought to build between people and groups. Clearly he realized (as Seger did when he wrote "2 + 2 = ?") that "it's the rules and not the soldiers who are my real enemy." Do whatever you do to get LAID BACK and SPIRITUAL, then throw on the first side of "Kick Out the Jams" or maybe Bro. Wayne's "The Hard Stuff" for "The Edge of the Switchblade." Contemplate an extraordinary life, and realize that they just don't make 'em like Rob Tyner anymore.