Rock standout moves on from stomping holes in Delaware stage
DOVER, Del. (AP) — Which former Newark rock standout has gone from stomping holes in The Deer Park’s stage to singing alongside Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam?
That would be Marcus Durant, the dynamic 6-foot-7-inch former singer of Zen Guerrilla, a ’90s rock act that grew out of the University of Delaware music scene.
He was the unmistakable, big-haired frontman rocking with Pearl Jam and legendarily influential Detroit proto-punkers MC5 in July at the Rock Werchter music festival in Belgium. Durant delivered a rousing version of MC5′s best-known song, “Kick Out the Jams,” and trading verses with a bopping, smiling Vedder.
The moment came as MC5, dubbed MC50 for the act’s 50th anniversary tour, performed at several European music festivals over the summer ahead of their 55-date world tour, which lands at Philadelphia’s Union Transfer Sept. 15. (Tickets are $35 for Durant’s homecoming, which will be crowded with Durant’s friends and family).
So how did Durant go from playing UD basements 25 years ago to jamming with iconic rock bands in front of 80,000 people?
A former manager of his was contacted by original MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, who had heard about Durant. He was in search of a fire-breathing frontman since MC5′s singer, Rob Tyner, died of a heart attack in 1991 at the age of 46.
Soon, Durant and his head-turning showmanship was brought in to jam with Kramer and the two hit it off. Now Durant is fronting the politically-driven, counterculture act best known for its howling rallying cry, “Kick out the jams, motherf--kers!”
“We had a blast the first time and it’s only got better and funner,” Durant, now 50, tells The News Journal. “It all happened very organically, the way it should be. Like when you’re putting a band together when you’re a kid. It’s a divine intervention sort of thing where the universe creates that serendipity.”
Kramer and Durant are joined by an all-star line-up for the tour: Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil, Faith No More monster bassist Billy Gould and Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty. Tour guests will include Pearl Jam’s Matt Cameron, The Afghan Whigs singer/guitarist Greg Dulli and musician/producer Don Was on some dates.
If your plan is to go to the show and spend time comparing Durant to the gritty Tyner, it would be easy.
Both are topped with giant mops of hair and once on stage, each are known for immersing themselves in the music, delivering raging, must-see performances that make you want to shake your fist in the air. (Or at someone’s face.)
Instead, Durant suggests you go to the show and leave your critic’s notebook behind — join the band in an ear-blasting party honoring the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-nominated act, which helped lay the groundwork for punk’s rise.
“This is a celebration of Wayne and the MC5, so if everybody comes with that same thirst for celebration and passion for music, we’re all going to have a great time,” says Durant, who lives in San Francisco, but still visits Delaware to see family. (His mother and brother live in Dover and his father is in Lewes.)
Bring up the word pressure and he quickly dismisses it.
“It’s not a competition. I’m going to give people a great show, perform honestly and rest on my abilities,” he adds. “I’m a fan, too. So I want the songs to sound as good as they can because I’m an audience member as well as a performer on that stage. It’s black magic out there.”
He grew up as an MC5 fan. In fact, he first heard them on a compilation 8-track (“Heavy Metal — Superstars Of The 70s Volume 2”), which opened with the live version of “Kick Out the Jams.”
He distinctly remembers buying it in the basement of the old Woolworth’s in Newark Shopping Center and can’t shake the memory of hearing the thunderous tune through his headphones for the first time.
“That song was so powerful it just jumped out of the speakers,” he says. “It was very honest and guttural.”
Durant visited campus and downtown Newark just a few weeks ago, stopping to see Ray Nichols, a former professor of visual communications and material culture studies at UD.
While on Main Street, he noted that the town has certainly morphed over the past quarter of a decade. The town’s gritty original music scene that had thrived until recently is all but gone. Even so, he still felt the magnetism.
“The ghosts, the spirit and that youthful energy is still there. Undoubtedly, there’s still some magic happening there right now,” he says.
“I have really fond memories of the University of Delaware. It was the perfect environment for a young group of musicians to get together and hone their craft. The university was a great thing to rebel against.”
Zen Guerrilla lorded over the Newark music scene in the early ’90s before moving to Philadelphia and then San Francisco, eventually landing on Sub Pop Records, the original home to Nirvana. They broke up in the early 2000s.
They would play anywhere they could while at UD, whether it was a house party off campus, The Stone Balloon or the aforementioned Deer Park, leaving wide-eyed music fans in their wake.
They also performed at UD buildings such as Pearson Hall and Bacchus Theater. One show got so out of hand that UD student newspaper The Review reported that they had been “black-balled from campus” afterward.
Durant’s father, who grew up in the Bronx, was in the service when Durant was born in Turkey. In his younger years, he lived in England with his father and British-born mother before heading to Dover to live while his father served in Vietnam.
The elder Durant eventually got a job as a security guard at UD, allowing the family to afford for Durant to go to college there.
In the years after Zen Guerrilla’s demise, Durant has continued following his muse, learning to play many instruments, including piano, guitar and bass — things he didn’t do as Zen’s roving singer.
“And I’m constantly singing. It’s part of my DNA,” he says. “Along with exercise, singing is the best cure for depression I’ve ever found. It stimulates something there in the medulla oblongata and gets me up in the morning.”
Durant keenly remembers the final show he played on the elevated downstairs stage that once stood on the main floor of the Deer Park’s back room.
That’s because he was thrashing so hard, his foot went right through it. It’s a story that has become legend over the years.
“I was bummed about it. That stage hosted George Thorogood,” remembers Durant, a Caesar Rodney High School graduate, having been raised in Camden.
It was especially memorable because Durant was working at the Deer Park at the time as a dishwasher and prep cook. It was his job to deal with the mess the next morning.
“I had to clean up the remnants of the stage,” he says of the bar where he would sneak in underage to perform with blues bands. “I was the one who had to carry it to the dumpster.”
Contact Ryan Cormier of The News Journal at firstname.lastname@example.org or (302) 324-2863. Follow him on Facebook (@ryancormier), Twitter (@ryancormier) and Instagram (@ryancormier).