Detroit artist Bill Morrison at his home studio (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
Bill Morrison is a tremendously talented artist and writer.
A child prodigy in art and drawing, he could draw better at age three than I can at age thirty-six. His competency across a broad range of specialties and his career trajectory are jaw-droppingly impressive as he continues upping the ante by challenging himself with new and different projects.
He lives in a lovely stately historic home in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, which backs up to the vast and beautiful Lake St. Clair.
Bill lives with his wife Kayre (pronounced ‘Care’), two dogs Gidget and Ripley, two cats Ziggy and Freddie, and a world-class collection of comics, collectibles, and artwork. His home studio is a delightful wonderland of creativity, pop culture inspirations, and gobs upon gobs of wickedly good Bill Morrison original art.
Detroit artist Bill Morrison at his home studio (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
I’m here chatting with Bill. He was both brave enough to let me into his home and kind enough to answer my 10,000 rambling questions.
As a lifelong fan of The Simpsons and Bill’s work, I’ve owned several of his comics, watched several of his shows, and for years had the amazing full cast of The Simpsons poster on my wall that Mr. Morrison did.
Meeting him was an honor and I can tell you that he is a thoroughly cool dude.
The Simpsons kitchen sink poster art by Bill Morrison
Published by Hero Collector, it’s a treasure trove of trivia masked as intentional continuity errors that are artfully designed to test your mental abilities of recognition and recall.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Bill Morrison!
Bill on The Beatles
Nerd Search: All You Nerd is Love: A Yellow Submarine Puzzle Book by Bill Morrison
“I’m a huge Beatles fan. My involvement with creating The Beatles books goes back to 1998 when Dark Horse Comics asked me to do a graphic novel for the 30th anniversary of Yellow Submarine. The deal unfortunately fell through midway. However, in 2018, I ended up doing a 112-page graphic novel adaptation of The Beatles Yellow Submarine for Titan Comics.”
“Titan Comics is based in London. They published our Simpsons stuff for Bongo in the UK. Initially, the licensing agent for The Beatles merchandise was interested in having me link up with Titan for the graphic novel. Then they came to me with a second project because they needed a pre-approved artist and put me in touch with Hero Collector, which is owned by Eaglemoss.”
“Hero said they have a series of books called Nerd Search where each scene has purposely incorrect information & items that the reader has to find, clues to solve, and at the end you get all the answers and rate yourself. I had a great time doing the book and I’m looking forward to seeing what the fan reaction is.”
“I’ve been a lifelong Beatles fan. Favorite song is Hey Bulldog. Favorite album is Rubber Soul. And I listen to The Beatles Channel on SiriusXM all the time.”
“I saw ‘A Hard Days Night’ (1964) at the drive-in when I was five, sitting in the back of the station wagon. Back then everyone was playing Beatles records.”
“The first album I had was Alvin and the Chipmunks Sing the Beatles Hits, then I got into the Saturday morning cartoon (1965-67), and saw Yellow Submarine (68) the first time it aired on TV in 1970.”
Beatles Yellow Submarine graphic novel by Bill Morrison
“I remember in high school there was a Broadway show called Beatlemania (1977-79) which was really popular and created a resurgence of interest in The Beatles. By that time, I was doing artwork and t-shirts.”
“At high school, my friend Steve Colwell and I started a small t-shirt business selling shirts of rock stars. We passed an order sheet around to everyone at school and they would place orders for our shirts.”
“My sister actually got to see The Beatles live in 1966 at Olympia Stadium in Detroit. My dad drove them and sat in the parking lot. The Beatles only played for a half hour, but they had several other opening bands, which was common at the time. Dad was smoking a cigarette outside the car when the big garage door on the side of the stadium rolled up. A big black limo pulls out as he hears the kids leaving. Suddenly the crowd spots the limo, and this horde of Beatles-crazed fans starts running towards him. My dad is between The Beatles and the kids. He says he had to jump onto a lamp post to avoid being trampled!”
The Early Years (or who is Bill Morrison and why am I in his house?)
Bill Morrison as Batman (photo courtesy of Bill Morrison)
“I’m an artist, writer, collector. I like working at my home studio where I use mostly traditional tools of the trade, some digital. I sketch with a blue pencil, use graphite and ink for comics, acrylic for painting, brush painting or airbrush, depending on the texture I’m trying to achieve. As for writing, I frequently jot down random notes in a book, otherwise I type in Microsoft Word.”
“My passion, thankfully, is my career and I don’t really have any other hobbies or interests beyond it. I love collecting toys, comics, art, but that all pretty much relates to my job. My wife and I like Art Deco, NY World’s Fair memorabilia, books (especially books on comics, comic collecting, illustrating, graphic novels).”
“My most marketable ability as a commercial artist is I can pick up other artist’s styles very quickly, which is very helpful in animation. I need a few practice sketches to find the rhythm, then I have it.”
Bill Morrison with Casper doll (photo courtesy of Bill Morrison)
“I was born January 15, 1959, and grew up in Lincoln Park, Michigan, about ten minutes south of Detroit. My dad is from the Hocking Hills, Ohio area and my mom is from Wyandotte, Michigan. Her father was Judge Arthur Decker, who as a young man, was a prize fighter nicknamed Kid Decker. My parents have always been very supportive of my artistic ambitions.”
“I have four living siblings: Alice, Donna, Sue, and Janice. My brother Don just passed away recently. Two of my sisters live here in Michigan, and two live elsewhere. My wife Kayre is also from Lincoln Park. Yes, we started dating in high school, and we recently moved back to Michigan to be closer to our families. This fulfills the mission of my youngest sister Alice, who lives in Novi, and has been trying to re-gather all of us for years.”
“Growing up, my older sister Sue was artistic, and she taught me how to draw at age three. She sat me down at the kitchen table and taught me how to draw a stickman. She drew a figure and told me to copy it. Then she left, came back in ten minutes, and says I had “vastly improved” on the drawing. She got real excited, thought I was a natural talent. She was always keyed into what I was into. Early on I would emulate her character drawings of Snoopy, the Wolfman, etc, whatever my mania was at the time”
Detroit artist Bill Morrison at his home studio (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
“In 1977, I graduated Lincoln Park High School and immediately enrolled in Detroit’s College for Creative Studies. I started off wanting to be a comic book artist but learned I’d have to go to NYC to establish myself. I love New York now, but back then the idea of living there sort of terrified me. I had a teacher Gary Ciccarelli for airbrush class. He was really into the whole West Coast airbrush scene, which was highly glamorized, stylized, lot of palm trees and neon. And he turned us onto stuff I hadn’t been exposed to.”
“I graduated CCS in 1981 and got a job at Artech, Inc. in Livonia doing technical drawings for the automotive industry. I would be in a big room with 15 artists. The guys in the other room would look at a blueprint and sketch it out in 3D, then they would send it to us and we would refine and perfect it. We did mostly engine stuff, mechanics manuals & parts catalogs, cut-away paintings of diesel fuel pumps, etc.”
“In 1982, I married Karen “Kayre” DeLosier, the love of my life, and we lived in Plymouth, Michigan for a bit near Plymouth Road and Haggerty, before moving to the West Coast. Moved to Beverly Hills briefly, then Sepulveda (which became North Hills), then Simi Valley.”
L.A. in the ‘80s: a town awash in neon and perms and mohawks, oh my!
Bill Morrison with Roger Rabbit (photo courtesy of Bill Morrison)
Bill was employed as a professional illustrator at B.D. Fox and Friends Advertising from 1982-86, which is where he first met legendary cartoonist, Matt Groening, who was just an unknown scribbler at the time. After that, Bill was at Willardson & Associates. During this time, he also worked on iconic movie posters like the famous Little Mermaid (1989), The Land Before Time (1988), Oliver and Company (1988), all sorts of Disney movies, of which he said his favorite poster is The Prince and The Pauper (1990).
“My first job in Hollywood was doing movie posters at B.D. Fox and Matt (Groening) was a freelance writer there. B.D. Fox was a boutique ad agency for the entertainment industry. A co-worker, Mili Smythe was an art director there and she was friends with Matt, they’re both from Portland, and she introduced us. Mili told me about Matt’s comic strip, Life in Hell.”
“Occasionally she would ask us for input on things like childhood songs to give to Matt, who would then put the song references in the comic strip. At work, Matt would pitch tag lines for posters, but we didn’t really become good friends until The Simpsons.”
The Prince and the Pauper (1990) poster art by Bill Morrison
“I designed the posters for horror movies House (85), Blood Diner (87), and I was the in-house illustrator doing rough sketches and comps for films like The Return of the Living Dead (1985). Art directors would come to see me with ideas they needed me to draw up. For the Return of the Living Dead poster, I don’t know who did the final painting but I remember being surprised that Bill Stout didn’t do it. He was a well-known poster artist, and he designed the zombies for the film”
“In 1986, I was invited to work at an illustration studio owned by David Willardson, the California airbrush artist, called Willardson & Associates. We did all sorts of advertising for all different products, mostly photo realistic work but glorified, Nestles Quick, Maxell Tape, etc, and one of the jobs was for Disney. It was a re-release of Cinderella, they wanted a one-sheet poster. I did a teaser they liked, then another one, and another one, then anytime Disney released an animated film into theaters. I did Little Mermaid, Oliver and Co, Rescuers Down Under, Roller Coaster Rabbit, Prince and the Pauper (a Mickey Mouse featurette), Peter Pan, Jungle Book, Bambi, Lady and Tramp, Fox and Hound, etc.”
“I did The Land Before Time movie poster for Amblin Entertainment. I only did the characters, not the background. This was in the pre-photoshop days and I’m at the studio and I get this big painting delivered. They said we need you to re-draw the dinosaur characters and paste them over the existing ones. I did it on one-ply Strathmore paper, which was tricky to paint on because it’s so thin. Then cut out the outline perfectly with an x-acto knife then painted the edges with a brush. It’s very hard to match outline colors perfectly. Then I took spray mount and permanently sprayed them onto this guy’s painting, which seemed kind of unethical but I had to do it.”
The Simpsons & Matt Groening
First signing with Matt: from L to R are Matt Groening, Steve Vance, Bill Morrison (photo courtesy of Bill Morrison)
Bill joined The Simpsons crew in 1990 and played a seminal role in the global expansion of the franchise. He was doing illustrations for 20th Century Fox and creating all sorts of art for merchandise, sketches, t-shirts, posters, etc, while simultaneously art-directing other merchandise artists at Klasky Csupo Animation Studio.
“In 1987, The Simpsons made their global debut on the Tracey Ullman Show. It was one of the animated bumpers they did. Then it morphed into the December 1989 Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire holiday special episode, then the show officially premiered February 1990. It was an immediate blockbuster hit.”
Simpsons Yellow Album art by Bill Morrison (image courtesy of Bill Morrison)
“I knew Matt (Groening) from our time working together at the ad agency a few years prior. He brought me into The Simpsons creative family, and I started doing character drawings for merchandise. I created the merch style guide, which is for companies who license the brand. If a licensee takes out a license, they get a style guide of images they can use. Some licensees pay extra for custom artwork. I also did almost all of the video game packaging in the early days, along with calendars, books, and more.”
“I didn’t have anything to do with the characters beyond what they looked like until we did the comic books. Sometimes the stories in Simpsons Comics necessitated creating new characters. For Radioactive Man we got to create a broader cast of characters because they didn’t exist on the show. Radioactive Man’s origins are similar to the Hulk. Fallout Boy’s origins are similar to Spider Man. It’s mostly parody and satire. At one time there was talk of doing a Radioactive Man cartoon show but the idea was shelved when Futurama came out. I would love to see the idea get revived and think it could be a big hit.”
Simpsons Comics & Stories # 1 art by Bill Morrison
“In April 1991, Simpsons Illustrated launched and the series ran for ten issues. It had a comic section, and at the end of the second year, Groening and Editor Steve Vance wanted a gimmicky annual issue, so we decided let’s do a comic book. We named it Simpsons Comics and Stories and it came out in February 1993.”
“It was such a big hit that it gave Matt the confidence to start Bongo Comics, so we did. Starting a comic was a dream come true. We started it in November 1993. I served as Art Director, Steve Vance was the editor and his wife Cindy was colorist and letterer. After the first year the Vances left, and I became the Creative Director (Editor and Art Director.) I was directly involved in some way with every issue (writing, penciling, inking, supervising, art direction, etc). My favorite character to draw is probably Radioactive Man.”
“Matt and I are still good friends to this day.”
The Simpsons episode: A Serious Flanders (November 2021) poster art by Bill Morrison
“In terms of The Simpsons tv show, my favorite episodes are Radioactive Man, Black Widower (great art direction), and many of the episodes from the Conan O’Brien era (1991-93). Also, I love the recent two-part episode “A Serious Flanders” for which I created an advertising poster.”
Bill also did the cover artwork for The Simpsons DVD’s.
And Bill won several Eisner Awards for Simpsons Comics (2000), The Amazing Colossal Homer (1994), and Radioactive Man.
Roswell Little Green Man, Futurama, and more!
Roswell Little Green Man art by Bill Morrison (image courtesy of Bill Morrison)
“In 1996, I produced my own comic series for Bongo called Roswell, Little Green Man. Although Roswell loosely takes place in the late 1940’s, it was my love of 50’s sci-fi films that inspired it. The first story deals with giant ants, harkening back to Them! (1954 sci-fi movie). The series was nominated in four different categories for the highly coveted Eisner Award. We ended it because we started a little show called Futurama and I didn’t have time to work on the show, along with my Bongo duties, and also my own comic.”
“I was the Art Director on Futurama from 1998-2003. I assisted in the creation of the cast of characters with Matt Groening. Matt was the creator of the show and Futurama was done by The Curiosity Company, Matt’s own production company.”
“We did four seasons, 140 episodes. It was on Tuesday nights when it first premiered, and Matt didn’t like that. He told Fox execs to put it on Sunday nights 8:30 p.m. right after The Simpsons. They wouldn’t do it. Finally, they put it on Sunday’s but at 7:00 p.m., which was too early. Futurama is a workplace adult comedy, it’s about adults, romances, and it was inappropriate to put on then. Plus, at that time slot, if sports games ran longer than anticipated, which they frequently do, they had to cut portions of the episodes or not even air the episodes.”
Futurama art by Bill Morrison (image courtesy of Bill Morrison)
“I loved Futurama, especially Leela, and I helped design many of the weirder characters before Matt pitched the show. Matt would always do a final cut and tweak it. We’d be at his studio, he would give me a paragraph on a character, I would do drawings, then show him, it sparked him visually, then he would do a drawing, I would refine it, etc, it was a collaboration. I always felt my biggest contribution to the show was sometimes showing Matt what he didn’t want because it would help him decide which way to go with a character. It’s very difficult to create unique and original characters. Having some input from friends is valuable, the visceral reaction is valuable.”
“In 2000, I did a six-issue mini-series for Bongo called Heroes Anonymous. My editorial assistant at the time was Scott Gimple and I invited him to work on it with me. It’s about a support group for superheroes. We had it in development at the SyFy Channel for a while. Scott had moved on to Disney where he was working on a show called Fillmore, which was a safety patrol played as a 70’s cop show. He had an agent at this point who wanted him to go out and pitch ideas for shows that he owned. Since we co-created Heroes Anonymous he called me and we started pitching it to networks and the SyFy channel took an option. Scott and I worked together on the story for the pilot and Scott wrote the script. I was going to be on board as a producer. The network would give us notes on the script, and at first they were good notes. But eventually the notes got silly and were making the script worse. Finally, it got to the point that their suggested improvement notes were too embarrassing to seriously consider. We chose not to renew the option when it came up. Scott did okay though, he’s now the showrunner on The Walking Dead.”
“After that, I was lucky enough to be able to do my first book, which was a career retrospective on Dan DeCarlo, one of my favorite comic book artists. Dan is best known for drawing Archie comics and creating Josie and the Pussycats and co-creating Sabrina the Teen-age Witch. The book is called Innocence and Seduction: The Art of Dan DeCarlo. I knew Dan personally. We were friends until he passed away in 2001. I was also a fan and there were no good books on Dan’s art. I wanted to create something that didn’t exist yet.”
The Art of Dan DeCarlo book by Bill Morrison
“A few years later, I collaborated with Jane Wiedlin, co-founder of The Go-Go’s. In 2010, we did a comic book called Lady Robotika which was published by Image. The concept is based on Jane as a cyborg space hero.”
“In 2015, I wrote and illustrated Dead Vengeance for Dark Horse Comics. It’s a tribute to the gritty 1940’s pulp era and takes place in Detroit.”
Dead Vengeance by Bill Morrison
“Near my end at Bongo, Matt was working on a new show (what later became the show Disenchantment) and I was talking to the businesspeople telling them I’m looking for something creatively challenging. They said Matt wants to do a new company, comic, show, etc, but he’s not quite there yet. But we do want to develop a comic reader app for mobile phones and iPads, so I did that.”
“I designed comic reader apps. Here I am, devoted to printed comics, and I had to develop and promote comics on electronic devices. Had to learn the guided view mechanics of reading a comic online, panel to panel scrolling, etc. To do this I had to download digital comics and study them. I started taking them on trips with me and realized that you can still have your physical collection at home but also embrace digital comics as a convenience. I started promoting the app, called The Simpsons Store, then the Futuramaland comic reader.”
The National Cartoonists Society
Bill Morrison (National Cartoonists Society)
Founded in 1946, the prestigious National Cartoonists Society is the world’s main professional organization for people working in cartoons and comics. To be admitted membership, published cartoonists must send in samples of their work. Once vetted, they can become Artist members. Bill joined NCS in the mid-90’s and served as President from 2015-2019.
“I was a casual member for years. Then served on the board for Jeff Keane (Family Circus), then continued as VP on the board of Tom Richmond (Mad Magazine cartoonist). Then I became president.”
National Cartoonists Society 27 Club
“It was a lot of work but very rewarding. It’s mind boggling to think I’m part of that lineage, a fraternity of my heroes. It’s very difficult to get people to join clubs nowadays as regular dues-paying members. I’m glad that I was able to help come up with some good ideas to move NCS forward.”
“Sergio Aragonés, Steve McGarry, and I were discussing effective strategies for reaching out to cartoonists and making it easy for them to join NCS. We came up with The 27 Club, where they don’t pay the $180 annual fee, and any cartoonist under 27 years old can join for only $27/yr. Jason Chatfield, who served as my VP and is now the president, continues taking it on. I love the NCS. We have the Reuben Awards every year for the Outstanding Cartoonist of the year. And last year we had our first annual online convention, which was great and well-received.”
MAD Magazine has been around since the Atomic Fifties, 1952 to be exact. This legacy institution had the foresight to hire Bill Morrison as Executive Editor in 2017.
“When DC Comics moved from New York City to Burbank, California, the MAD guys didn’t want to go. Finally, the publisher at DC worked out something with Warner Bros where the MAD Magazine offices could stay in NYC, but it was agreed that once they found someone to take over MAD, it would move to Burbank.”
“Then they hired me, and I had to hire a full staff, except for one guy who did decide to move from NY. I had done some freelance jobs for MAD in the past and now here I was overseeing all creative aspects of the magazine. We had good people, especially the art director, Suzy Hutchinson. I’d look at everything, make notes, some minor changes, etc. I loved working there.”
Bill Morrison with Alfred E. Neuman (art by Tom Richmond)
“We were given a really tough assignment, which was to take a magazine read by mostly white males (ages 11-16 and 45-60), most of whom subscribed and they wanted us to expand the readership to women, other ethnicities, and other age-ranges, while not losing our current subscribers. We succeeded in getting subscription numbers up, had expansion ideas that were ambitious but doable, talked about the possibility of live comedy shows at the Hollywood American Legion Post 43, simulcasting, taking it on tour, new merchandise, etc.”
“We were getting great positive feedback. I’m connected with hardcore (and therefore critical) MAD fans who told us we had struck a great balance. But corporate decisions beyond my control caused MAD to go to a reprint format.”
Bill’s Influences & Collections
Detroit artist Bill Morrison at his home studio (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
“I’m real big on Batman art and toys, non-superhero stuff like horror (especially Universal Monsters) and sci-fi, teen humor (any era but mostly 50’s 60’s). I typically go for eras and artists over genres. My favorite eras are 50’s-60’s.”
“Some favorite artists are Dick Sprang, Bob Oksner, Sergio Aragones, Dan DeCarlo. Growing up, some favorites were Neal Adams, Bernie Wrightson, Jim Steranko.”
It Rhymes with Lust (1950) cover art by Matt Baker
“Another favorite artist is Matt Baker, but his art is so expensive. He did the great cover for It Rhymes with Lust (1950) which many people consider to be the first-ever graphic novel.”
“Fine art, I like Salvador Dali, John Singer Sargent, M.C. Escher, Alphonse Mucha…though some might consider him more of an illustrator. Comedically, I’ve been influenced by Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, and more recently by Melissa McCarthy and Tina Fey.”
“To this day, I’m constantly discovering new influences. I also like the painter Norm Saunders, illustrator Wally Wood, Will Eisner, Robert Crumb, etc, too many to list!”
Mars Attacks art (card 32) by Norman Saunders (1962)
Bill Morrison holding a giant eyeball bowling ball (photo courtesy of Bill Morrison)
“I’ve been doing stuff for the fine art print market. And I’m doing some animation development projects and helping producers visualize their concepts.”
Bill at the drawing board, Bongo Comics (photo courtesy of Bill Morrison)
“At Comic Con (SDCC) one year, maybe ‘94-95, right after a speculator boom, when the industry took a turn downturn and was downsizing and consolidating, some publishers were shutting down, things at the time were looking down not up. The great Will Eisner walked by the Bongo Comics booth and I asked him his thoughts about the doom and gloom end-of-the-industry rumors. He said ‘I’ve seen this happen five or six times since the 1930’s. Comics is a language and a medium that people love. It might change shape, but graphic storytelling is an artform and is always going to exist’ and I thought that was tremendously uplifting and insightful and I try to always keep that in mind.”
“My advice to aspiring creatives is to always be open to opportunities you didn’t necessarily anticipate. For example, I never thought I’d be a writer, art director, editor. But I said yes, I was open to it and ended up discovering that I love those roles. Talented young people tend to focus on one single thing only and might invariably miss out on other areas of rich potential. Sometimes you just gotta say yes and then figure it out. If you don’t like it, you can always stop doing it and do something else until you find the things you’re great at and love doing.”
Atomic Battery Studios (Bill’s official Facebook page)
*Special thank you to Book Beat & Street Corner Music for allowing us in your stores*
Wayne Kramer probably shouldn’t be alive right now.
A normal human would’ve folded up and exploded decades ago from a pulverizing combination of “Hard Stuff,” like hard music, hard drugs, hard living and hard lessons. Thankfully, however, Wayne is here with us, alive and well enough to tell the ongoing tale of his fascinating existence.
Wayne Kramer and his Detroit rock band the MC5 changed rock music by cranking the dial to totally immersive no-holds-barred high-intensity levels of DNA-mutating volume and they’re also widely credited with inadvertently creating what was later labeled as the genre of ‘punk music’.
While the band itself disintegrated in 1972 in a cyclone of heroin, revolutionary Sinclair politics, disenchantment and becoming alienated and disconnected from each other, the MC5’s music has withstood the brutal and purifying test of time. They came, they saw, they melted faces with blistering full-body knockout attack music and helped forge Detroit’s enduring sobriquet, Detroit Rock City.
It has been said that listening to the MC5 live was like having an out-of-body experience, like exorcising daemonic barnacles and freeing your soul, like a psychedelic journey to pre-birth regression, a glorious stripping away while being thrashed to the point where you suddenly Wake Up, Fully Emerged.
I’m sitting here right now with Brother Wayne Kramer in the back room at Book Beat bookstore.
Wayne is in town from Los Angeles and bookstore owner Cary Loren, formerly of Ann Arbor arthouse band Destroy All Monsters, has kindly given us a fun space to chat.
We’re discussing Wayne’s life and memoir ‘The Hard Stuff,’ which will be published on August 14th by Da Capo Press.
Later this year, Wayne is going on a 35-city tour with his band MC50 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of MC5’s Kick Out The Jams. Their tour will culminate in an October 27th show at the newly renovated Fillmore Detroit.
Wayne is also a prominent solo recording artist and has done countless collaborations with people like David Peel, Johnny Thunders, Don Was, etc.
“Parts of my life have been written about extensively, especially my time in the MC5. Less so my time in prison and my work with Jail Guitar Doors. Just wanted to have a record from my perspective, straight from the horse’s mouth.”
“I wanted to understand myself better and chronicle the realizations. To sort out the order that things happened in and review some of the stupendously terrible things I’ve done in my life. For years, my friends have prodded me to write a book but I could never figure out how to end it, since the story isn’t finished. The arrival of my son Francis, who is turning five soon, the whole life I’ve lived up to his arrival was one life, so now I can begin the other life. If I die tomorrow, I want my son to have a record of my life straight from me not vicariously from news articles.”
“I started writing the book in 2006. Started just casually jotting down thoughts and memories in a notebook. A lot of stuff was in the front of my thoughts and therefore easily accessible. Then I got about forty 3 x 5 cards and put them on a corkboard and created a chronology of events.”
“After a while I had the shaping of what looked like an actual book on my hands, so we engaged an agent and secured a publisher. I’m a musician. Telling stories is my business and lifelong passion and it’s always a pleasure. The book was completed in November 2017.”
MC5: The Motor City 5
Born April 30th, 1948, Wayne Kramer was the founder and guitarist of rock band The Motor City Five, which was later shortened to MC5 in honor of being more in tune with the Detroit auto industry.
Wayne started the band in 1963 at Lincoln Park High School in Lincoln Park, Michigan, a Downriver suburb of Detroit.
At the time, Wayne was the band leader of The Bounty Hunters. He met Fred Smith of The Vibratones and Fred soon merged his band with Wayne’s band into The Bounty Hunters. They played venues like The Crystal Bar on Michigan Ave & Central in Southwest Detroit until changing their name to The Motor City 5 in the Fall 1964.
The MC5 consisted of:
Wayne Kramer guitar, Rob Tyner vocals, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith guitar, Michael Davis bass, and Dennis ‘Machine Gun’ Thompson drums.
“It started off innocently enough with ‘Hey, any kids want to be in a band with me?’ Ultimately, we ended up with the MC5.”
“The MC5 started at Helen and Gregory avenues in Lincoln Park, Michigan. Tyner lived 4 blocks away, Dennis lived 10 blocks, Fred lived 10 blocks in another direction. My Mom’s house was the center for all of us and she kindly let us practice in the basement.”
“Rob Tyner and I could draw. Rob’s friend Gary Grimshaw could draw chrome, the finish on hot rod cars. So, Gary and Rob ending up designing a lot of our handbills and posters, especially the Grande Ballroom ones. Rob was indeed a gifted artist and cartoonist, not many people know that.”
“And yes, it’s true, Rob reinvented everything. He nicknamed Fred ‘Sonic’, shortened our name to the MC5, nicknamed Dennis ‘Machine Gun’, even renamed himself from Bob Derminer to Rob Tyner. He was a very creative man.”
“The MC5 used to play everywhere: school cafetoriums, dances, record hops, bars, clubs, outdoors, indoors, sideways, upside down, you name it, we were there. When you love to play music, it doesn’t matter where you play it. You just establish a good band and put your 10,000 hours in playing your asses off anywhere-anyway you can.”
“The MC5 played 400-500 performances over the lifespan of the band. I was 16-20 years old when all this happened, my formative years. At 19 or 20, you’re pretty crazy since your brain isn’t done growing. You’re basically insane until 30.”
“We all have powerful experiences and changes at that age and to be in the center of larger forces at that time like the youth culture movement, government oppression, phonetaps, the FBI building a file on us (yes, I have a copy of the file), was just overwhelming. I remember when I caught my federal coke case, the officer said to me, ‘Kramer, we got shit on you going back to the Sixties’.
“What set the MC5 apart from our contemporaries is we addressed the audiences concerns directly. Since we all shared the same concerns, we felt it our responsibility to help voice these concerns and voice them LOUDLY.”
“We were a rock band in a time when rock music came of age and we were a part of a community of young people in agreement to reject the established ideas of how life should be. The hypocrisy and corruption we saw was unbearable as a community. We were being forced to fight a war 30,000 miles away when there was no direct threat to the United States. It was illegal, it was immoral and America, which claimed to stand for equal rights, didn’t give equal rights to all citizens, only a chosen select few.”
“And even 50 years ago, we felt and knew that weed was less toxic than the government claimed. We were commenting directly on this stuff and we were the only band doing so heart to heart, face to face. You felt our music, boy, and you could never un-feel it. Hearing the MC5 live touched you deeply and forever.”
“In terms of people considering the MC5 and The Stooges as the “godfathers” of punk music, I can see where you can connect the dots. The Clash, The Damned, The Ramones, etc, when you asked all those early punk bands who they listened to and were inspired by, almost all of them say the MC5 and The Stooges. To me “punk” has always been around, we just didn’t use that expression. Beethoven, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, all those guys were punks in the sense that they had to reinvent music for their generations. It’s important to have your own sound and be original.”
“The MC5 was not frilly, not snobby, not elitist, it’s just in your face, grab you by the throat, rock and roll.”
“MC5 played opening night at the Grande, Detroit’s psychedelic ballroom, thanks to Russ Gibb. The Grande was a magical place.”
“We all lived together in the same house as a band. We lived in Detroit, then we moved to Ann Arbor to a place called the Hill Street House for a while, then we had a house in Hamburg, Michigan on Hall Road. It was not far from Hamburg Lake. Beautiful, remote spread in the middle of 10-acres of wooded land, just absolutely spectacular. We loved it. We were a bunch of maniac musicians. You could run around with no clothes on, shoot guns, smoke weed, do whatever you wanted to do, it was great.”
“Our bassist Mike Davis wrote a memoir about his life and MC5 and many stories in Mike’s book are consistent with mine, at least, the fundamental facts. I don’t blame Mike for some of the stuff that was written. I’m sure I was an absolute nightmare to be around. The bad behavior was rampant and eventually, the MC5’s shared creative vision had disintegrated into drugs. Heroin was all-pervasive in Detroit back then and we were young musicians, so everywhere we went, it was already there waiting for us, in our face, you couldn’t escape it.”
“Rob tried quitting the MC5 for 2-3 years. Every year, he’d make a declaration that he didn’t want to be in the band anymore, but he never left. Finally, he and Fred got into a fistfight, and he said he’d had enough. Our last show was New Year’s Eve 1972 at the Grande. I walked off stage mid-show and that was that. The end of an era.”
The MC5 Eat LSD with Timothy Leary at Tim’s House in California
“On March 23rd, 1969, we played a free concert in Provo Park. Timothy Leary was there, he liked our show and invited us back to his house in the Berkeley Hills.”
“He had all this liquid LSD that we poured into a big bottle of dark red wine and we drank LSD wine with him in front of a roaring fire in his living room, while his mother-in-law was there!”
“The band wanted to go out carousing. I wanted to stay with Leary and have the total LSD experience with the guru and then the funniest thing happened.”
“Machine Gun Thompson and I are sitting in front of the fire with Tim’s mother-in-law, Tim walks in with his wife Rosemary and announces “welp, we’re going to bed, you guys have a good night.” He walks away, Machine Gun and I look at each other and I’m thinking, ‘Whoaaaa. I’m tripping my brains out with Timothy Leary’s mother-in-law’. Then I say to Dennis, ‘Maybe we should go back to the hotel.’ Dennis agrees and he somehow drives us back to the hotel.”
Wayne’s Favorite Authors
“Dozens of favorites. I read a lot. They run the gamut: Philip Roth, Christopher Hitchens, Bukowski, William S. Burroughs, Hemingway, Sam Harris, Luc Sante, etc. My son is going to be five soon and he’s reading some elemental stuff already. I told him that the whole world will open up to you through reading. Plus, you can travel in time through books.”
“The MC5 was formed during our teen years when we were young and trying to break out and establish our own identity beyond our parents, which is important.”
“I had a father that abandoned our family when I was little. I was an angry little boy who grew into an even angrier young man. I thought changing my name to “Wayne Kramer” was the perfect revenge, since he would never share in my glory.”
“Later, in my 40’s, I met my father. He was a community activist in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania and he was in the hospital. We built a relationship, I mean you can’t dial it back and recover what was lost to time, but I got to have a more mature perspective on this man whom I was biologically connected to.”
“He had been a U.S. Marine in the South Pacific during WWII. He came back profoundly damaged and treated what we now called “PTSD” with alcohol, which he said kept the daemons at a distance. It didn’t stop the endless horrors, but it helped create a cloudy buffer.”
“The hole in my development as a boy, not having a model of what manhood is, being left to deal with challenges, responsibilities, dangers without a father was very difficult.”
“My Mother did a great job as a single working mom. She’s my hero to this day. I also had 2 younger sisters. My Mom raised us three kids on her own. Single working mothers are the hardest working humans on planet earth.”
Wayne Helps Iggy & The Stooges Get Signed
“I was responsible for getting The Stooges a record contract with Elektra Records. Danny Fields asked me if I knew any other group like the MC5. I said ‘No Danny, there’s nobody like the MC5. But, you should see our brother band The Psychedelic Stooges.’”
“We loved Iggy and The Stooges, all of us hung out together, got high together, listened to the same free jazz music. Before then, Iggy was a drummer in a great blues band called The Prime Movers.”
“I actually tried recruiting him into the MC5 one time but he left for a brief stay in Chicago with The Prime Movers. Iggy and I are still great friends to this day and I’m proud of how successful he is.”
Wayne Gets Arrested During the Detroit Riots
“In July 1967, we were living on Warren and Forest in Detroit by Wayne State University and we had a telescope in our upstairs window. The Riots kicked off and the cops saw the telescope and thought we were snipers.”
“Next thing I know, my doors being busted down and there’s a U.S. Army tank pointing its canon at our house! It’s in the street, right outside our front door! The cops swarmed in, slammed us down and took us to 1300 Beaubien Street, the Detroit Police HQ. They eventually let us go but it was an experience that stuck with me.”
On Being Incarcerated in America
From 1975-77, Wayne Kramer did time at Lexington Federal Prison in Lexington, KY for selling cocaine. The experience had a profound and negative impact on him.
MC5 bassist Mike Davis, Stooges roadie Hiawatha Bailey, writer William S. Burroughs, actor Peter Lorre, musicians Red Rodney, Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, etc, all did drug time at Lexington.
“Going to prison is a traumatic experience. You are discovering for the first time what it means to not have liberty, to not be free, to be totally under the control of systems and people.”
“You never feel safe. You’re surrounded in very close quarters by dangerous people with mental health issues constantly. You have no power over your own life. The sort of helplessness and hopelessness you experience in prison is impossible to accurately communicate unless you yourself have experienced it directly.”
“The prison experience is embarrassing and shameful and I don’t know anyone whose come out better. Prison has never helped anyone, myself included. It’s a medieval concept that just lives on and on and on and on. 90% of inmates can be held accountable for breaking the social contract in their communities but imprisoning people runs against a sense of fairness, which really doesn’t exist in America.”
Jail Guitar Doors USA
In 1978, London punk band The Clash wrote a song about Wayne Kramer called ‘Jail Guitar Doors’. That song title served as inspiration for Wayne Kramer, his wife Margaret Kramer and his friend Billy Bragg in naming his non-profit Jail Guitar Doors USA in 2008.
“Jail Guitar Doors is a non-profit with a mission to help rehabilitate prison inmates by teaching them to express themselves positively through music.”
“Since my release, I’ve watched the prison population rise for over 40 years. There were 350,000 people in state and federal prisons combined back then. Today, in the United States, we have 2.3 million people in prisons.”
“This tragedy has deeply affected every single community in the country. Sending people to prison is not a deterrent. You come out worse, not better. With Jail Guitar Doors, we try to mitigate the damage by helping the individual rehab through music and change for the better.”
“Just think about it: 600,000 prisoners are released every year. Who do you want standing in line with you at the store? Someone bitter, defeated, revengeful or somebody who has hope and music?”
“Earlier today, we took some local musicians to the Ryan Reentry Center in Detroit to establish a songwriting workshop. Today we wore a song about freedom, we helped inmates there talk about childhood trauma and forgiveness. Doing the work itself is the reward.”
“I don’t ever expect to see true justice reform in my lifetime. It’s like turning the Titanic away from the iceberg. But we will continue doing what we can to help.”
Detroit to Los Angeles
“I’ve been in L.A. for 25 years, it suits my activities. I pay the rent by writing film and TV music. You have to go where your job skills are marketable.”
“Most of the year the climate is spectacular, but it’s been very hot lately. Great community in L.A., lot of friends there.”
“Jail Guitar Doors is based there. We’re on 10 prison yards in California and we have acoustic guitars in 120 prisons in America.”
“I visit Detroit often to see family and friends and play gigs and the city will always be in my heart forever.”
1963-Wayne Kramer forms The Bounty Hunters. Fred Smith merges his band The Vibratones with Wayne’s band.
1963-Gary Grimshaw moves to apartment building 633 Prentis St, Detroit. Michael Davis moves to the same building and Rob Tyner’s girlfriend lives across the hall from him. Mike meets Rob and gradually becomes the bassist for the MC5.
December 1963-The Bounty Hunters play The Crystal Bar (Michigan Ave & Central St, Detroit)
Fall 1964-The Bounty Hunters are re-named The Motor City 5
May 1965-Rob Tyner shortens the bands name to MC5
1966-MC5 move to the Warren Forest neighborhood in Detroit’s Cass Corridor near Wayne State University at apartment (659 W. Canfield)
September 1966-Plum Street (Detroit’s Haight-Ashbury psychedelic district) opens
October 7th, 1966-Russ Gibb opens the Grande Ballroom. MC5 plays opening night.
October 1966-LSD made illegal
November 20th, 1966-MC5 & Velvet Underground play ‘Carnaby Street Fun Festival’ @ Michigan State Fairgrounds, Detroit
1967-MC5 move to Detroit Artists Workshop building and live upstairs (1252 W. Forest) and The Lodge at Warren
1967-John Sinclair morphs Artists Workshop into Trans-Love Energy Collective
April 30, 1967-Trans Love produces Love-In concert on Belle Isle @ Remick Music Shell. MC5 plays for 6,000 people. The Outlaws motorcycle gang starts riot.
Summer 1967-The Stooges live at first Stooge house (1324 Forest Ct, Ann Arbor)
June 9th, 1967-MC5 blow main act Cream offstage at the Grande.
July 1967-Detroit Riots
August 1967-John Sinclair becomes manager of the MC5
Halloween 1967-The Psychedelic Stooges first show ever @ UofM Student Union
November 22nd, 1967-The Who play Southfield High School
November 24-26, 1967-The Fugs & MC5 play the Grande
January 4th, 1968-Russ Gibb finances the MC5 recordings of Looking At You and Borderline @ United Sound System studios (5840 2nd Ave, Detroit). Gary Grimshaw designs the cover. Jeep Holland’s A-Square label releases only 500 copies.
February 23rd, 1968-Jimi Hendrix, MC5 & Soft Machine play the Masonic in Detroit
March 3rd, 1968-The Stooges first play the Grande
April 11th, 1968-MC5’s first-ever show with The Stooges @ UofM Union Ballroom
May 1968-Trans-Love move from Detroit to Ann Arbor’s Hill Street House (1510 and 1520 Hill Street). MC5 join the commune.
July 1968-MC5 play free concert at the West Park bandshell in Ann Arbor
August 25th, 1968-MC5 play Lincoln Park, Chicago during riot
September 7th, 1968-JC Crawford first introduces the MC5
September 21st, 1968-Danny Fields sees MC5 live at the Grande
September 22nd, 1968-Danny Fields sees The Stooges @ the Union Ballroom, Ann Arbor
September 1968-Danny Fields gets Elektra Records to sign both bands: MC5 sign to Elektra for $20,000 and The Stooges sign for $5,000. Elektra is known as the label of The Doors.
October 30-31, 1968-MC5 record debut live album ‘Kick Out the Jams’ at the Grande Ballroom. The Stooges were the kicker act. Free show.
November 1st, 1968-John Sinclair creates White Panther Party based on idea from Pun Plamondon
November 1968-The Stooges move to The Fun House (2666 Packard rd, Ann Arbor). MC5 hang out here frequently. Nico lives here for a bit.
December 12-14, 1968-MC5 plays on bill with Velvet Underground for 3 days in Boston
December 23rd, 1968-MC5 opens for The Crazy World of Arthur Brown @ Olympia
January 4th, 1969-MC5’s Rob Tyner is on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine
February 1969-Detroit’s famous Hudson’s department store refuses to stock MC5’s albums. In response to this, MC5 runs a full-page ad entitled ‘Fuck Hudson’s’ in local magazines The Fifth Estate, Ann Arbor Argus, The Sun. As a result, Hudson’s department stores pulls all Elektra Records albums from their shelves.
March 1969-Creem Magazine debuts
March 1969-Elektra Records drops the MC5
May 1969-John Cale brings The Stooges to NYC to produce their first album
June 1969-MC5 sign to Atlantic Records and get a hefty $65,000 advance
October 18th, 1969-Led Zeppelin, MC5, Grand Funk play Olympia in Detroit
January 15th, 1970-MC5 release their 2nd album ‘Back in the USA’
May 1970-MC5 move from Hill Street House (Ann Arbor) out to Hamburg, Michigan
August 3rd, 1970-MC5 @ Mt. Clemens Pop Festival in Sportsman Park
August 7-9th, 1970-MC5 and The Stooges play Goose Lake Music Festival (200,000 people)
April 1971-White Panther Party dissolves
July 6th, 1971-MC5 release ‘High Time’ album
1972-Rob Tyner and Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith get into a fistfight
December 31, 1972-MC5’s last show ever. Grande Ballroom. Wayne Kramer is so disgusted, he leaves mid-show.
MC5’s proposed 4th album, ‘Live on Saturn’ never comes to fruition.
1975-Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith starts Sonic’s Rendezvous Band
1975-77-Wayne Kramer does time at Lexington Federal Prison. Fellow inmates include Mike Davis and Hiawatha Bailey