For the legendary Motor City
band’s bassist, music was – and is – revolution.
BY BRIAN J. BOWE
Michael Davis, who played bass in the extraordinarily influential Detroit proto-punk outfit
The MC5, died Friday at the age of 68.
Davis died of liver failure after a month-long
hospitalization at Enloe Medical Center near
his home in Chico, Calif., according to media reports. He is
the third member of the MC5 to pass away, following the deaths of singer Rob
Tyner in 1991 and Fred “Sonic” Smith in 1994.
The MC5 mutated the possibilities of what rock ‘n’ roll
could be by combining incendiary revolutionary rhetoric, ear-shattering volume,
feedback, free jazz skronk and R&B precision. The band’s three albums – Kick
Out the Jams, Back in the U.S.A. and High Time – sold poorly but left a legacy that inspired
countless other musicians.
Davis was born June 5, 1943 and grew up in Northwest Detroit. He was a folkie art student when he
joined the fledgling MC5 in 1965. “Michael was at that time
a rebellious young folksinger; he used to play acoustical guitar and sing
Bob Dylan and I knew if he was into that he was a heavy dude,” MC5
singer Rob Tyner told CREEM Magazine in 1969. “We got Mike in
the band and we continued on our program of playing the weird jams.”
history was quintessential 20th century American Dream. His father Milton came
to America from Yugoslavia in
the steerage of a freighter when he was around six years old. Davis’ mother Edna was
Irish. His father was a big be-bop fan, and Davis constantly listened to his parents’
jazz and swing 78s. This early exposure to jazz not only shaped Davis’ musical consciousness, it also shaped his political
consciousness at a time when racial tensions in Detroit were nearing a boiling point.
“I grew up in a time when racism was a common thread in middle-class
society. All the clichés that you’ve ever heard were common in my
said. “And my little friends in the neighborhood would mimic things
their parents said constantly. I felt like an outsider in that world
because in my upbringing in my household, everybody was equal and the
That sense of alienation and
devotion to social justice fit well within the MC5’s program of total assault
on the culture by any means necessary. The band, which was affiliated with the
revolutionary White Panther Party, coupled its hard-driving music and flashy
stage presentation with uncompromising political rhetoric. This created a
compelling package that also brought the band pressure from record labels, promoters,
police, and ultimately the FBI.
The pressure took a toll on the band. Davis developed a heroin addiction and was
fired from the MC5 in 1972. The band finally disbanded at the end of that
year. Davis battled
addiction and served time in prison following a drug bust. Between 1977 and
1985, he played with legendary Detroit art-punk
outfit Destroy All Monsters, which also included Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton
and singer Niagara.
At the turn of the millennium, the MC5 was the focus of
increasing attention. Davis
was featured prominently in the powerful MC5 documentary A True Testimonial, though that film remains unreleased after legal disputes. But in 2003, Davis teamed up with his
surviving bandmates to Wayne Kramer and Dennis Thompson to tour as DKT-MC5.
That reunion, which happened around the same time as the reunion of The
Stooges, allowed Davis
to see the just how influential his band had become.
“It’s surprising to me and
it should be surprising to Iggy and those guys how much influence and effect
our two bands have had on music now,” Davis said. “I’m kind of in awe of it.
We’ve had this kind of effect. And it’s one thing to do something that people
admire a lot, and go, ‘That was really cool stuff,’ but to have this much
influence is really surprising to me.”
In recent years, Davis
battled hepatitis and the aftermath of a motorcycle crash. But he also
recommitted himself to his work as a visual artist which he curtailed when he
began playing with the MC5, collaborating with Shepard Fairey and working
toward a bachelor’s degree in art. His devotion to the arts led him to found
the nonprofit Music is Revolution Foundation, which supported the teaching of
the arts in public schools.
A reflective Davis
contemplated his own mortality when he wrote on his blog (http://svengirly.blogspot.com/2011/03/armageddon.html)
last March: “As I stand here, looking down the last stretch of my own
path, I still see the greatness of being alive. I still see the things that
made it an overwhelming mystical trip. That I played in the MC5 was only one
part of it, but what a part it was! Music is revolution!”
is survived by his wife Angela, three sons and one daughter.
Go here to view a
selection of MC5 video clips.
[Photo Credit: Leni