I Brought Down The MC5 – Michael Davis (Cleopatra)
“Brutal” was the first word that came to mind after finishing the posthumous autobiography of MC5 bass player Michael Davis and that adjective is still hanging in the air, 24 hours later.
Over 350 skilfully-written pages, Davis shines a spotlight onto the lives of family, friends, lovers, bandmates and associates over five decades, but it’s the glare cast on his own existence that’s the starkest.
By accident or design, “I Brought Down The MC5” only covers Davis’s life up until meeting his last wife, Angela, and moving to California in the late 1990s. It excludes the DKT-MC5 reunion with bandmates Wayne Kramer and Dennis Thompson, his fight with Hep C, charity work and near fatal 2006 bike crash.
All of that, and Michael finding redemption, could have made a dynamite second book, but Davis sadly passed from liver cancer in 2012, aged 68.
If you’re reading this you probably know who the MC5 were. The power of their ground-breaking music is still apparent; it uniquely fused Chuck Berry riffs with R&B, free jazz and politically-charged lyrics, but fell to earth, thanks to a mix of drugs, internal conflict, drift and mismanagement. Just how hard they fell is at the heart of “I Brought Down The MC5”.
But that title. It’s presumably tongue-in-cheek. No single person or element brought down the Five. A band is ultimately the sum of its parts with a finite lifespan and all of them contribute to its demise. Davis did his bit but was he any worse than others? It’s a moot point.
Being older meant he was distanced from the others from the get-go. The internal dynamics of the Five is the most intriguing aspect of the book. As Doug Sheppard’s upcoming Ugly Things review will say, “I Brought Down The MC5” de-mystifies the band, fully and forever.
Perhaps most surprising is the disconnection between Davis and Rob Tyner. Tyner was the artist and grounded family man, Davis the self-taught musical journeyman who was deep into the role of rock and roll hedonist. A shared LSD trip that went bad for the singer seems to have been the catalyst for the opening of a massive gap. Davis’s off-the-rails antics that ultimately got him sacked seem to be at the bottom of them never being able to reconcile.
Their bandmates all had flaws and Davis makes no bones about exposing them. His later bands, Destroy All Monsters and Rich Hopkins and the Luminaros, and MC5 spiritual leader John Sinclair don’t escape either.
But it’s clear that the biggest enemy in Michael’s life was himself. He doesn’t like who he is for most of “I Brought Down The MC5”. He bottoms out many times. Booze, smack and dysfunctional women are never far away.
Much of it is not for the squeamish. At the insistence of one early girlfriend, Davis performs a home abortion. Another partner is assaulted. Even at his most together during the period covered by his book (notably, when he escapes Detroit and moves to Arizona) Davis is an alcoholic.
It would be a pity if the seamier aspects of “I Brought Down The MC5” overshadowed the musical high points. Davis excels at conveying these. Being on-stage with his band in its Grande Ballroom days was a peak experience that could never be replicated, no matter how hard the members tried. It makes the palpable loss when things turn to shit all the more telling.
The ignominy of the one-off reunion of four of the MC5 for a benefit for the family of Rob Tyner in 1991 when Fred Smith was not functioning well is especially sad.
Fans will revel in the finer details of the recording of the band’s three studio albums. All members found themselves emasculated by Jon Landau’s production process for “Back In The USA” but Davis found sidelined for almost half the tracks, with Wayne Kramer playing his parts. That must have hit hard.
Davis is pointed in his criticisms of Kramer and Fred Smith’s leadership, post-Sinclair. He confirms what most fans knew – when the unworkable revolutionary shtick of the White Panthers became bigger than the band, the Five were doomed. Irresistible forces, both internal and external, saw to that.
Even in the band’s post-life, there’s a touch of defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory with the scotching of the “A True Testimonial” documentary. Davis doesn’t go into details (it had more to do with Kramer anyway) but seems unhappy with his own on-camera articulation of the band’s rise and fall.
Ultimately though, there is a happy ending, even if it’s only hinted at in the outro. Michael Davis found a settled life and his role in a seminal rock and roll band has been widely acknowledged. There’s two wins. Don't worry about Hudsons. Fuck the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!