Brothers and Sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are gonna be the problem, or whether you are gonna be the solution. You must choose, brothers, you must choose. It takes five seconds, five seconds of decision. Five seconds to realize your purpose here on the planet.
Brother J.C. Crawford makes it sound really easy, doesn’t he? Makes it all sound really simple. And I don’t know, maybe in 1968, it was. Maybe you could just look out and see which direction revolution was coming from. Maybe you could just jump into the fight and know which side was which. The old heads I know tell me you could feel revolution: in the sounds and in the streets, in distorted guitars and dropped-acid dreams, in gunshots and soul claps, in zombie kids eating their parents and Rosemary’s devil-born brood, in Tommy and John Carlos’ raised fists, in the Panthers’ growls as they became “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” in people’s tears after the bullet stole away Martin’s dreamy get-down, in the Godfather’s hips when he saved Beantown, and just maybe, you could feel it crackling in the air at the Grande Ballroom on the witches’ sabbath with some crazy white boys from Detroit.
Could be that all of this is bullshit too. Could be that everybody then was just as confused and disillusioned as we feel now. Could be that everybody was too high to remember most of what really happened and so they told the best version of it. Could be that as simple and as sexy as Crawford makes it sound, we don’t really choose in five seconds. We choose and then we choose again, all of the time, sometimes without even knowing. And every one of those small choices takes us a little closer or a little further away from the revolution we think we want.
It’s hard to listen to Kick Out the Jams without nostalgia, without romanticizing it all to hell. And that’s weird because it isn’t even my own past I’m fantasizing about. I’m not old enough to truly claim the MC5 as my own. I’m playing make believe in someone else’s history. I’m stealing someone else’s glorious moment of revolt. Part of me feels guilty for that. Then I think that there’s nothing special about it really. Americans do it every July fourth. Parents hold on to old records usually hoping that their kids will hear a little bit of what they heard when they were younger. Record companies put out reissues betting that they can rope in a whole new audience for what’s essentially an old product. Nostalgia for shit you didn’t actually experience yourself or for things that never existed at all might be the greatest American commodity. In fact, that’s kind of how I discovered the MC5.
I wish I could say that someone passed down a dusty vinyl copy of Kick Out the Jams that I learned to love and cherish, but I’m pretty sure I first heard about them from one of those lame VH1 countdown specials they ran all of the time when I was in college. “The Greatest Hard Rock Songs of All Time” or whatever new reminiscence they were selling that week. I think I watched almost all of those countdowns—really exercises in canon building—because I thought it might educate me more about music. But that was the point, right? They wanted to remind the people old enough to actually remember that their old, beloved stuff was still worth paying attention to and let everybody my age know what they needed to be up on to earn those older folks’ respect.
I ended up back home with my parents for a year after college, working as a line cook in the same small town I had planned to put far in my rearview. I was desperately in need of some rebellious sounds. So you bet your ass that when I saw Kick Out the Jams at the local record store—they still had those then—I grabbed it and cranked the shitty speakers in my ‘93 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera as loud as they would go without rattling the windows too badly.
But as I listen to the record now, with my thirty-sixth birthday rapidly approaching, it feels haunted. Not just by that earlier version of myself or by the sense that I’m appropriating the language of somebody else’s insurrection, but also by doubt about whether I’ve become part of the problem or part of the solution—about whether I have realized my purpose here on the planet. When I hear the righteous recklessness of Brother Wayne Kramer’s guitar or the searing conviction in Rob Tyner’s voice, I’m not so sure.
In a 1994 interview for a Swedish radio station, Tupac Shakur offered a stark proclamation about the prospect of becoming an old revolutionary in America:
In this country, a Black man only have like five years we can exhibit maximum strength, and that’s right now while you a teenager, while you still strong, while you still wanna lift weights, while you still wanna shoot back. ‘Cause once you turn 30, it’s like they take the heart and soul out of a man, out of a Black man, in this country. And you don’t wanna fight no more. And if you don’t believe me you can look around, you don’t see no loud mouth 30-year-old motherfuckers.
I should admit that I was never that big a fan of Pac while he was alive. That was in part because I bought into the corny east coast vs. west coast beef and also because I was never really blown away by him as an emcee. Still, when I heard him talking on Kendrick Lamar’s “Mortal Man,” his words hit me flush on the chin. He got me thinking about how much fight I have left in me, about which battles are even worth fighting, about how much of my heart and soul are still intact. Some days all I want to do is rage, but a lot of the time—more of it than I’d like to admit—I just feel tired and numb.
I watched the video of Eric Garner’s execution by police. I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch any of the others. It’s not because I worry that I won’t be able to handle it. I’m worried that I can. I’m terrified that I’ll be able to sit comfortably behind my computer screen, watch someone else who looks like me die, and then go on with my day like this is the way it’s supposed to be.
After I marched in a Black Lives Matter protest, my mom said it reminded her of the sixties, but I’m not really sure what she meant. Was she just talking about seeing black folks in the streets again with picket signs and raised fists? Or maybe she was lamenting that we are still fighting the same fights she did plus a whole bunch of new ones? Probably both. I tell myself that it’s more complicated now. That we know more about how our intersectional identities shape the contours of existence under neoliberal capitalism, that power is really more of an amorphous social construct than a centralized force, that current antagonisms between repressive state apparatuses and the people are just the latest manifestation of tensions inherent to the American experiment in democracy and freedom. And then I think, “What would Pac Say?” I feel like he’d probably say that there’s still “a lotta talk, by a lotta honkeys, sittin’ on a lotta money, telling us they’re high society.”