Twenty-one years ago today, Rob Tyner took leave of this planet at the age of 47 after suffering a heart attack behind the wheel of his parked car in the family driveway. He left behind not only his longtime wife Becky and three children but an enduring legacy of revolutionary art that he and his band, The MC5, created together between 1964 and 1972.
Eight years is a long time for any rock’n’roll band. But for Detroit’s MC5 (who were not just any rock’n’roll band) those particular eight years must have seemed in equal part both an eternity and the wink of an eye. Change was in the air, happening quickly and those changes can be gauged no better than by the chronology of The MC5 in both sound and image. Just as Tyner (along with the rest of the group) got looser and more out-there with each passing year, so did the group’s music and outward appearances. A proto-beatnik obsessed with jazz, science fiction and cartooning, Robert Derminer adopted the surname of John Coltrane’s pianist McCoy Tyner and transformed himself from a clean-cut American high school student from the early sixties – baby-faced, bespeckled and closely-cropped hair – to a loose, gyrating and costumed maniac in a Hard Rock band sporting an impressively huge Afro while vocalising with a heart just as huge in wild, onstage abandon.
Tyner not so much sang as issued forth stentorian testimonials to his beliefs and visions of change. His voice as an instrument was big and strong enough not only to cut thru the barrage emanating forth from the raucous assault of the twin guitars and rhythm section flanking him, but to remain there and direct it to even greater heights. This in turn also directed himself physically higher when onstage, transforming him into a Rock God channeling from the guts the sweat and strain of James Brown/Screamin’ Jay Hawkins/Ray Charles, the aggression and attack of The Troggs/Who/Yardbirds and the psychedelically-enhanced ruminations of his own fertile imagination all distilled down into only the most soulful and robust of vocalisations. Informed by his longstanding affinity with jazz and R&B, Tyner was more than capable of handling the wild assemblage of cover versions in their early days from a variety of sources ranging from Chuck Berry to Van Morrison’s Them to John Lee Hooker, combined with an intuitive ability for ad-libbing. Every bit as paradoxical as his band, his best-known vocal remains the unaccompanied introduction to “Kick Out The Jams” with its fulminating battle cry of “KICK OUT THE JAMS, MOTHERFUCKERS!!!” This and one of the track’s concluding verses, “Let me be who I am,” were the words of one who stood out and up, by and for what he believed in and didn’t back down, ever.
The gatefold sleeve of The MC5’s third and final album High Time contained a quote by Tyner: “Think of a world where Art is the only Motivation.” As a committed artist, this is what he did long and hard: reflecting on socio-political problems and only coming up with solutions that celebrated life, consciousness and truth.
Two days after Rob’s death, at a Damned gig in New York City at the New Ritz during their second reunion/farewell tour, Dave Vanian dedicated their perennial cover of MC5’s “Looking At You” to Tyner. It was heartening to experience this elegy so soon after his passing, to know that other people were just as moved as myself and not content to resign his untimely passing to just another entry in the rock’n’roll laundry list of deaths with a stifled, short-attention-span yawn. Twenty years later, there are even more who know about and mourn Tyner’s absence and it now seems ridiculous that anybody ever touched by the bursting spirit of this energetic, talented, and compassionate man could disregard, let alone, ever forget him or his forward-thinking achievements.
[Written by The Seth Man]