The bone-rattling guitarist helped set a revolutionary path for expression in 6-string-based music, while drawing on the cultural explosion of the ’60s and elevating its promise for future generations.
Poet, author, patriot, rebel, felon, jailbird-turned-prison-reformer, and—most important—part of the twin-guitar engine of the influential rock band the MC5, Wayne Kramer died on February 2, at age 75, leaving a gap in the world of activist musicianship and a tear in the fabric of American music history. The cause was pancreatic cancer.
Kramer was just 19 when his career began with the founding of the Motor City 5 in Detroit, alongside fellow guitarist Fred Smith, singer Rob Tyner, bassist Michael Davis, and drummer Dennis Thompson in 1963. The group were as tough and complicated as their hometown—musical firebrands, playing with an energy and intensity rarely seen in the then still-evolving rock genre—and Kramer performed like Chuck Berry and Sun Ra in one body. Which made sense, for while rock was their voice, they embraced the cultural explosion of the times in all its glory, including free jazz, and in particular figures like John Coltrane and Sun Ra, whose music reflected the Black freedom struggle in its themes as well as the purity of self-expression.
As a result, before Hendrix began recording, the MC5 were blazing a trail in rock improvisation. “We attacked that concept like a dog on a steak,” Kramer told me at our first meeting in the ’90s, which was arranged by our mutual friend, the band’s original manager and counterculture icon John Sinclair. “The people we idolized were Coltrane, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor … and the Yardbirds and the Who. We saw a connection between those kinds of music. I was pushing Chuck Berry-inspired solos into the territory Coltrane was in. We cultivated music in the moment, coming up with it on the spot. Taking risks is what makes something unique, no matter what it is.”
“It’s those moments when everyone in the room is on the same wavelength, and the barriers between us explode.” —Wayne Kramer
And so, for their raw, unbridled, and at times practically unhinged sonic attack, the MC5 are an important element in the bedrock of punk rock. “The context of punk,” Kramer explained, “is to try to move away from the status quo and do things of principle that are of value. Most people today understand it as something that’s been commodified to mean Green Day or the Offspring, which are mainstream music business success stories, not my understanding of what punk really meant.”
The MC5 almost immediately became a cultural force, in both music and American politics. “Kick out the jams, mother****ers,” the shout that singer Rob Tyner used to lead the charge of their every performance, became not only a call to rock, but a call of the rising tide of youth culture in America. On their own turf, the band used its record-deal advance, the largest scored by a rock group at the time, and concert proceeds to fund a food kitchen and for their local community’s medical needs.
After raising the ire of the American political establishment with a conflagrant performance in Lincoln Park, Chicago, during the 1968 Democratic Convention, they landed in the crosshairs of the authorities and their slow erosion began, complicated also by drug use and other internal conflicts, and the arrest and imprisonment in 1969 of their colorful manager Sinclair, who had founded the White Panther Party in support of the Black Panthers, and later co-founded the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival.
The MC5’s battle cry of a live album, from 1969.
Nonetheless, by then the MC5 had laid enough groundwork to be widely acknowledged as progenitors of punk rock (by virtually everyone but the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in which they surely deserved a place while Kramer was alive). Drummer Dennis Thompson remains the only surviving member of the original recording band, which broke up in 1972.
That spirit of activism and DIY creativity stayed with Kramer throughout his career—although it was sidelined by a four-year prison sentence in the mid 1970s for selling drugs to an undercover agent. While in prison in Lexington, Kentucky, he met Red Rodney, who was also incarcerated there on a drug charge. The jazz trumpet genius took Kramer under his wing and continued Kramer’s musical education in prison.After serving his time, Kramer moved to New York City and teamed up for a short-lived band with Johnny Thunders, and produced and played in a series of other groups. He also worked as a carpenter during a brief stint in Nashville. But in 1991, he ignited his solo career with a series of albums, including the beautiful gut punch of 1995’s The Hard Stuff, which features his acolytes from the Melvins and the Vandals. These albums blended Kramer’s songs and his poetry set to music, and his list of collaborators grew to include Dee Dee Ramone, Chris Spedding, Bad Religion, David Was, Nels Cline, and, perhaps most importantly, kindred spirit Tom Morello, for whom the MC5 and Kramer were profoundly influential. Kramer eventually launched his own record label and a U.S. branch of Jail Guitar Doors—the latter an offshoot of the U.K. organization started by Billy Bragg, dedicated to reforming inmates through music.
The classic MC5 lineup.
Kramer never lost his vitality onstage and, after 2011, always played the Stratocaster signature model that Fender created for him that year, with an American-flag finish and a humbucker in the middle position. Starting in 2018, Kramer put together a band he named the MC50, to tour in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the MC5’s 1969 live album Kick Out the Jams, the most furious document of their aesthetic. The band performed the MC5’s music with brass-knuckled perfection, and included Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil, Fugazi’s drummer Brendan Canty, and Zen Guerilla frontman Marcus Durant. And Kramer, then 71, led the fray with the snarl and pounce of his 19-year-old self, always heading the charge with solos that were brash, raw, and expressive, displaying his love of free jazz with unpredictable melodic lines, flurries of notes not unlike triple tonguing, and jagged riffs, and laying down self-assured and powerful chording that could drive a spike through a wall. And he did it all with a warm, midrange-ripe tiger’s growl snarling from his amps—then Fender DeVilles, rather than the 100-watt Marshalls stacks he played through with the MC5.
During that tour, in 2019, Wayne was profiled in Premier Guitar by Bill Murphy, when his fascinating autobiography, The Hard Stuff: Crime, Dope, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities, was published. Astonishingly, Kramer’s final recording project is an album under the MC5 name, featuring the band’s original drummer on two tracks, Don Was, Morello, Vernon Reid, and Slash—and produced by Bob Ezrin. The release of the album, Heavy Lifting, is scheduled for this spring.
Morello issued this statement following Kramer’s death: “His band the MC5 basically invented punk rock music. Wayne came through personal trials of fire with drugs and jail time and emerged a transformed soul who went on to save countless lives through his tireless acts of service.”
When I last spoke with Wayne, when the MC50 played at Nashville’s Exit/In, he still extolled his belief in the magic of the moment. “To be right there, in a club, and to hear somebody play something they’ve never played before—to take a chance, to allow risks.… It’s those moments when everyone in the room is on the same wavelength, and the barriers between us explode.”
Listen to the MC50 and Wayne Kramer kick out the jams, mother****ers! One more time....
A lifelong friend and student of EVH grieves the loss of a once-in-a-lifetime artist who fused musicality, precision, and groove with an architect’s vision.
An electric guitar is made of wood, wires, metal bits, and magnets, all inert and lacking biological response. However, we know that certain mysterious combinations can unlock the powers of sapient creatures, like Arthur pulling the sword from the stone. For most of us, the guitar is cruel, incapable of ever being played fully in tune, and causes its suitors to shed layers of skin on their fingertips while trying to tame it. It taunts all of us as if to say, “You’re adorable, I like what you’re trying to do.” Many of us humbly quit and curse the very existence of the instrument, lamenting that we do not possess the skill required to make the guitar obey our commands.
But every so often a guitarist comes along who does something so unexpected, even the guitar itself has no choice but to surrender. Edward Lodewijk Van Halen was such a guitarist, and arguably, he inspired more people to play guitar than anyone in history. A perennial rule-breaker with a name mightier than most mythical beasts, he commanded the instrument to perform as a pure extension of his unbridled creativity all while smiling wider than the Grand Canyon. It was as if he space-docked himself to the guitar prior to launching into the “ZONE,” where he was able to effortlessly summon otherworldly riffs.
Music was changed forever when Edward Van Halen was introduced to the world and now it’s forever changed by his early departure from our world. To this day, there isn’t a more original guitar intro than “Mean Street.” It’s as perplexing now as it was 39 years ago when it forced all of us to ask ourselves, “How is he doing that?” Which, by the way, he had all of us asking that question since the first Van Halen album, when we heard “Eruption.” Because he was such an innovator, we may never stop asking that question.
For those of us old enough to remember living in an analog world where we listened deep and hard and caught all the nuances on every recording because we didn’t have search engines to offer us ubiquitous visual references yet, take a moment to cherish that feeling of being so completely blown away by EVH’s contributions to music. We lined up at record stores to pay for as much music as we could afford and camped out in the snow in long lines with other worshipers to buy tickets for concerts we couldn’t imagine missing. We took binoculars with us hoping to catch a fleeting glimpse of EVH demonstrating what in the actual fuck he was doing. We couldn’t get enough and couldn’t wait to see what he would come up with next. He changed our lives.
Edward Van Halen fueled a desire for music in millions of fans through his guitar playing and his signature sound. The geometric patterns he designed for his instruments became iconic as well. The abstract nature of his guitar artwork bolstered the originality of his music, causing players to not only imitate his playing but his actual artwork as well. There aren’t many musical artists who can be recognized within seconds the way EVH can. We know him from a single note or a single glance at his guitar. He was the architect behind it all.
He often simplified the complexities of his music, explaining, “I just want my guitar playing to make people feel something.” He accomplished that beyond his wildest dreams. For all of his incredible skills, he remained humble, even a bit insecure. That made his music even more likable because he remained human, even though we all idolized him as a superhero. His influence can already be measured over 40 years, and without question he will inspire many future generations.
Edward Van Halen himself was lightning in a bottle, and he could transfer that energy to arenas and stadiums like nobody before or since. Van Halen as a band left audiences feeling like they were floating above the ground for weeks after seeing them perform. The band described it as playing for 10,000 of their closest friends and, at their apex, there was nothing that could compete with the almighty Van Halen.
Even though he had the physical capability to display his prowess, EVH had the maturity and restraint to know what was right for the song in every sense. He was a brilliant arranger, opening all our minds to the utilization of interstitial structures to lead us back to the massive hooks he composed. When it came to soloing, his opening phrases were the stuff of legend. He was natural, he flowed seamlessly from improvisation to calculated and sophisticated syncopations. Edward’s impeccable inner pulse was his greatest asset and the very thing that made his playing so unique. To even get close to imitating his actual playing would take a lifetime. If you ever did get there, you would be confronted with the realization that Edward would’ve climbed his own mountain instead.
As athletic as his playing could be, it was never flash over substance. He epitomized the fusion of technical precision and musicality. His intense rhythmic bond with his brother, Alex, fueled their music in a way that can’t be accurately described in words but can most definitely be felt emotionally. It was glorious to watch the virtuoso Van Halen brothers doing what they do best, and when Wolfgang joined the mix, the DNA trifecta was one of Edward’s proudest moments. He loved playing music with them and we should all take a moment to recognize that the Van Halen family loss is deep. If “Unchained” used to fire you up, it might make you cry your eyes out now.
We are the benefactors of Edward Van Halen’s groundbreaking and timeless music, innovations, and design. We are the awestruck bystanders who witnessed a once-in-a-lifetime culmination of groove from the soul, harmonic complexity, and wicked tone wrapped up in a childlike grin. Edward Van Halen didn’t play the electric guitar like us: The guitar was filtered through him and his deft guidance. He made it look easy—we know it wasn’t. For many, he will always be the King. Long live the King!
Gold necklaces, contraband mags, and backstage near-run-ins: How the guitar god helped shape the life of PG’s editorial director in far more than just guitar playing.
My earliest memory of Edward Van Halen is from 1978, the year his band’s eponymous debut LP was released. I was 6 years old, and our family had just moved to a new neighborhood miles from everything I’d ever known. I was in a new school and didn’t know a soul. My shyness didn’t help matters. I felt alone and insignificant.
I remember standing in front of the big Sharp-brand record player in our hardly furnished, plush maroon-carpeted basement family room, in utter awe at the sounds emanating from the 2-foot-high speakers. The backward car horns, the foreboding Eb bass note, the behind-the-nut string plucks, all worming through a black hole and forever into my brain. As a goody-two-shoes (then) Mormon kid from Provo, Utah, I felt guilty for being so captivated by a song called “Runnin’ with the Devil.” But that didn’t last long, as the next track was “Eruption”—Eddie’s tour de force instrumental guitar track that blew minds around the world and changed the landscape of modern music. It didn’t matter that I didn’t yet know how to play guitar—in fact, the idea had never even occurred to me before that. I didn’t need to know a thing about the 6-string to echo millions of other music fans—including expert guitarists—in gaping, “How the heck is he even doing that? Is that really a guitar?”
I wouldn’t lay my hands on the instrument myself for another six years, but the seed was planted. I’ve already shared how, as a kid, the only 8-track cassette I ever wanted to listen to in the family car was Van Halen II. And my older brother, Sam, and I spent countless hours lip-syncing to all the Roth-era albums. School art projects, workbooks, and folders were crisscrossed with striped patterns like those on Ed’s famed Frankenstrat, his Ibanez “Shark” Destroyer, and all those weird axes on the slipcover for 1982’s Diver Down.
Besides imprinting on my musical mind, EVH affected my very identity in other ways … some of which are pretty funny/embarrassing. The year Women and Children First came out (1980), the images of Eddie suddenly made me enamored with gold chains. I unabashedly drew pictures of myself on school stuff with long hair and a VH (“Van Hammond”)-logo necklace. Before long I’d gotten in trouble for absconding with Mom’s recently bought gold chain and wearing it to either a baseball practice or a scout get-together. I forget which it was, but I do know that once I’d gotten to the activity, Sam noticed the chain and made me take it off so it wouldn’t get broken. But he put it on instead, so he probably just wanted to look like Eddie, too.
On vacation that same summer, I pestered my parents so bad about getting my own gold chain that they finally acquiesced and got me a cheap fake-gold thing. I’d wanted one with a crucifix, too, just like the one clearly visible around Ed’s neck on the back of Women and Children, but Mormons don’t typically wear crucifixes and I knew not to push it with Mom and Dad on vacation. Dad was probably never more ashamed of me than he was when I donned a sissy piece of jewelry out of love for the greatest guitarist I’d ever heard—the guitarist responsible for music he insisted they’d be playing in hell. I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t voice my desire for the jumpsuit Ed was wearing in the same pics.
By the time 1984 came out, new wave and synth-pop were all the rage. Tears for Fears, Duran Duran, A-ha, Depeche Mode, Alphaville, Men Without Hats, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, etc. were in, and to kids at school everything else was outdated garbage from a bygone, no-longer-cool era. I liked a fair amount of the new stuff, too, but I took all sorts of heat for being the die-hard Van Halen fan still decorating everything in sight with red-and-white stripes.
That year was a huge turning point in two ways. First, I finally started taking guitar lessons. I had no interest in “boring” ol’ acoustic guitar, but Mom said I could switch to electric if I stuck with it for a year. Second, I went to my first ever rock concert. Fittingly, it was Van Halen's 1984 tour. It was just me and Mom, in the nosebleeds at the Salt Palace arena in Salt Lake City. (Sam, despite being the one who slept in line for tickets, prioritized some school event that he’s probably kicking himself over to this day.) I’m not ashamed to admit that the “Little Dreamer” in 12-year-old Shawn sat there, peering through the haze of pot and tobacco smoke, fantasizing about being called onstage to play alongside EVH, despite the fact that I could barely play a barre chord, let alone pull off blazing double-tapped runs.
In 1985 I got my first electric, a 1983 Fender Strat the local shop had never been able to sell. I didn’t know anything about electrics except that I wanted one and a Strat technically was one. I began devouring every guitar magazine I could lay my hands on, and I’d only had my Strat for a few months before I realized it simply wouldn’t do. The interviews and ads clearly showed Eddie with cool-looking, brightly colored Kramer guitars outfitted with a humbucker and Floyd Rose tremolo you could endlessly wail on. Naturally, I had to start nagging Mom again. Within another year, I’d saved up for the best Kramer in the state of Utah, a Stagemaster Custom in “flip-flop red.” All because of my hero Ed, whose poster was over my dresser, bidding me good day as I headed to school each morning.
That year, Mom and I also hit the 5150 tour, and when OU812 came around, Sam took me to that show. As difficult as it is for longtime readers of my Tuning Up column to believe, the now-atheist author of those columns was a door-knocking missionary in Washington state when For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge came out. I wasn’t supposed to listen to anything but church or classical music during those two full years of proselytizing, but on days off I sometimes managed to convince my missionary “companion” (I know, it sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?) that it was okay to sneak off to the local music shop so I could play electric guitar for a little bit. On one of those visits, I saw Ed on the cover of a guitar mag for an interview about Carnal Knowledge. I bought it and voraciously consumed the contraband interview, against missionary rules. It was the only time I did so during those two years, and the fact that it was for the only EVH-related mag I saw during that period attests to the pull the man who “ran” with the Devil still had over me, even then. Naturally, I missed that tour, but Balance came out the year I married my wife, and she and I took Mom to that one, too.
Several years later, I had two windows to meet the man who’d turned me into a lifelong guitar freak. In 2011, while covering the Winter NAMM show for PG, I spotted Edward just a few feet away in Fender’s exhibition space. As you’d imagine, people thronged about him, as they must have everywhere. I’ve never wanted to be that guy, fawning and pawing for an autograph or a selfie. Plus, I was behind schedule for my next video appointment. I hoped someday I’d have another chance to say hello under better, less harried circumstances. I always held out hope we’d get to do a proper interview.
The following year, PG multimedia manager Chris Kies and I flew to Nashville in 2012 to do the closest thing to an interview or Rig Rundown that Van Halen management would approve. We got to sit in on soundcheck. Eddie played impeccably, and it was lovely to see and hear him and son Wolfgang having a ball together onstage, all while singing trademark Van Halen harmonies perfectly, unimpeded by Roth’s struggling vocalizations. Afterward, we got to photograph Edward’s gear and talk to his and Wolf’s guitar techs.
In the midst of all this, as I was walking back from a trip to the backstage restroom, I saw Eddie briefly emerge from a side hallway blocked off with a curtain and an “authorized personnel only” sign. Having been given strict instructions from Van Halen management to not exceed the bounds of the agreed-upon arrangement, I had a mighty internal dilemma. With a mind to both management strictures and my lifelong aversion to coming across like an ass-kissing wanker, I chose to play it cool. I smiled and gave a friendly wave, and within a couple of seconds he was gone. Ever since then I’ve held out hope for that proper interview. I’m sure he had no idea who I was. But I know who he was. He was and is my hero, Edward Van Halen.