We all shared a love of hot rods and big-assed engines.
—Wayne Kramer, Please Kill Me
I’m a regular guy, ya know. I want to find a pretty girl. I want to play great music. And I want a fast car.
—Dennis Thompson, Detroit Rock City
I. HOT RODS
Cars are sex: Pistons, oil, leather seats, grinding gears. Glass, steel, electricity. Gas up, turn on the lights, top down, an orgasmic screech of tires. Cars are America: Industry, chaos, and speed. Some of the greatest American songs about cars are not about cars at all, but about sex (“Little Red Corvette”), some of the greatest American songs about sex sound like they were written to sound like cars (“Lust for Life”), and some of them are quite unapologetically very much about both (“Paradise by the Dashboard Light”).
I don’t know how you could listen to MC5’s Back in the USA and not hear two things: sex and automobiles. The music coming out of Detroit in the late 1960s and early 1970s was conceived in the back seat of a Cadillac; it was the sound of rubber tires on asphalt, hubcaps shining and spinning: the automobile and the road and the slick of oil, dark and foreboding. This is a cleaner album than its predecessor, Kick Out the Jams, more compact and self-contained. Jon Landau’s heavy production hand is obvious, and the band ended up sounding like the engine of a Corvette shoved into the body of a Chevette. It belies the music at its heart, that powerful engine and thrust of the distortion at its lowest end. Listen to live versions of the same songs that appear on Back in the USA—“Tonight” or “Teenage Lust” as recorded at the Saginaw Civic Center, January 1970, for example, or Wayne Kramer’s guitar wailing on “Looking At You”—and you can hear the release, the shift to fifth gear, the cracked glass, the bending steel. Listen to the live versions and you can hear the entire engine-revving soul of Detroit blowing up and burning out.
The whole album is only 28 minutes long: fast and furious. Like a hot rod. Like a drag race. Like an assembly line. Like a quick screw in the backseat of a car. I mean, holy shit, that’s Detroit.
Holy shit, that’s America.
II. THE AMERICAN RUSE
The American dream being sold in the mid-20th century was the ideal of a family, a house, and an American-built car. Detroit fed that dream off the assembly line, and as MC5 (which, fittingly, started as Motor City 5, the most Detroit of Detroit band names) had front row seats for the exposure of the man behind the curtain as they watched the auto industry crumble around them.
In the 1950s, automobile jobs started to be shipped overseas, and the mostly white middle class fled the city to the suburbs. They left behind a city they considered to be broken, and the remaining citizens were considered to be casualties. This, when combined with the civil rights movement (culminating in the 12th Street riot in 1967, during which 43 citizens were killed and more than 7,000 arrested) and growing frustrations with politics and war, left a city scarred by fear and destitution throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s. The country was on the verge of deficits, industrial meltdowns, inches away from an oil crisis that would put the final nail in the coffin on Detroit’s industry, and the weakening of unions during the 1980s. Detroit was a microcosm of American issues, the canary in the coal mine. And “The American Ruse” was that canary’s song.
“The American Ruse” is about civil rights and war and awakening, but it was fed directly by the Detroit metamorphosis from capital of industry to impoverished rust belt city.
Sixty nine America in terminal stasis
The air's so thick it's like drowning in molasses
I'm sick and tired of paying these dues
And I'm sick to my guts of the American ruse
Phony stars, oh no! Crummy cars, oh no!
Cheap guitars, oh no! Joe's primitive bar, nah!
Rock 'em back, Sonic!
MC5 themselves would eventually be swallowed up by the ultimate loss of the American dream: the heroin epidemic, that potentially deadly hangover from the drugged-up 1960s that would eventually tear the band apart.
The wheel well was beginning to rust, eating away at that beautiful hot rod left out in the rain.
III. BACK IN THE USA
The album is notably flanked by two covers: a fast, balls-out rendition of Little Richard’s romp “Tutti-Frutti,” and Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA” closing out the album. It’s an odd song to end the album: a feel-good song, jingoistic. Though I can’t help but think that it’s tongue-in-cheek: Rob Tyner singing I’m so glad I’m living in the USA amidst the riots and the poverty and the corruption is a giant sad wink at where the country seemed to be headed; listing those cities that had been duped by the American dream - Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge - was like calling out the names of the dead or dying.
Underneath the wink, however, these songs are driving the band’s engine: to MC5, they're the classic cars, the rides they coveted as kids. When MC5 made a little money, they all bought themselves the dream: a classic American-made car. According to Wayne Kramer in Legs McNeil’s account of the birth of punk, Please Kill Me, Fred "Sonic" Smith “bought a used Corvette, Dennis [Thompson] bought a Corvette Stingray,” and bassist Michael Davis “bought a [Buick] Riviera.” (Kramer’s own dream car was a Jaguar XKE; obviously, he didn’t buy into the ideal enough to deny himself a British import.) This act got them tossed out of the White Panther Party, the anti-racist, socialist party the band belonged to, which had been co-founded by the band’s manager, John Sinclair; buying fancy cars went against the party’s socialist beliefs.
But they wanted their classics, their very own “Maybelline.” To deny them that would be un-American.
IV. KEEP ON ROCKIN’
The city of Detroit partially left behind its car obsession, but it’s still humming underneath the hood: Detroit’s not dead. Detroit today, depending on who you talk to, is a once-vibrant city trying to climb back again, an urban prairie, a blank canvas for foreign investors, home to a revitalized stretch of hipster restaurants, an experiment in urban development, a haven for artists and writers, the carefully tended garden plot of a community of volunteers, a rainbow of colorful paintings on abandoned houses, the hardened and determined faces of those who stuck around.
Detroit is being rebuilt. You can still hear the roll of the wheels out there on the road, like a heartbeat, its soul, not yet lost, not yet rusted away on cinderblocks in the front lawn. Still purring away.