Interview: Wayne Kramer Opens Jail Guitar Doors

Lead guitarist Wayne Kramer and the MC5, the world's first political punk band, ruled the Midwest rock scene during the late sixties until they flamed out in 1972. In 1975, Kramer was arrested for selling illegal powders to a government agent, and spent more than two years in the Lexington Federal Prison in Lexington, Kentucky. During that time he studied music theory and performed with his cell mate, the great bebop trumpeter Red Rodney.

After his release, Kramer went on to perform with New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders, Was (Not Was), Mick Farren, GG Allin, and other acts. Still a fine psychedelic guitarist, he continues to record and perform both solo and alongside other musical activists, such as Rage Against the Machine's, Tom Morello. Rolling Stone deemed Kramer one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time in 2003, and his swirly, wailing guitar enhances film and television soundtracks, including HBO's excellent "East Bound & Down."

When not performing or making soundtracks, Kramer is committed to the cause of prison reform, and has launched the U.S. chapter of Jail Guitar Doors, a nonprofit started by Billy Bragg in the UK that provides musical instruments to prisons.

Wayne Kramer is as inspiring a person as he is a musician. Hell, how many people have had the Clash write a song about them? It was a pleasure to speak with him recently about causes new and old.

HeadCount: Could you talk me through your involvement with Jail Guitar Doors? It’s an amazing story.

Wayne Kramer: I am an ex-convict, and when I was in prison, playing music was a way to escape. Not physically, but in the artistic sense that I could go someplace that didn’t have to do with incarceration and also do things that would help me in the future. And after I got out of prison and tried to get back into the working world, tried to put a life together, the experience hung with me: What happened to me? Why did it happen? How much did it change me? It did change me, but I don’t know if it changed me for the better, necessarily.

ww-wayne-kramer-sherwoodFast forward to last May, when I had the opportunity to put together a musical program at Sing Sing, the maximum security prison in Ossining, New York. I invited a bunch of my friends: Tom Morello, Jerry Cantrell, Perry and Eddie Farrell, Gilby Clarke, Handsome Dick Manitoba and Billy Bragg, amongst others. I did a talk with the inmates and then played a concert for them. Afterwards, Billy told me about an initiative he had started in England where he was providing instruments, guitars, for those that worked with prisoners for music as rehabilitation. It was called Jail Guitar Doors. The song “Jail Guitar Doors” was a song The Clash wrote about me when I went to prison. And at the time I thought that was a great expression of solidarity for a fellow musician and I was honored and humbled but didn’t think much more of it. But then Billy tied it to this work and I thought, you know, I've spent a lifetime of activism and commitment to not only anti-imperialism but to justice itself, and everything fell into place for me.

I am also a sober alcoholic and part of the way I stay sober is to think about other people for a change. As a musician, I am completely self-obsessed and narcissistic. My shallowness knows no limits. But to get better, I have to start putting effort into doing things for others. And so everything combined to say, “Wayne, this is something you should do.” I find myself uniquely positioned with one foot in prison and one foot in music – because you never really get over something like that. Once I took it on, we started putting an organization together. Billy said, "I was just about to ask you if you’d take it over for America." So we’ve partnered on it. We've worked together in England, we've worked together in this country, and we've worked separately in both countries. We’re just gearing up now. We’re getting our board established and are on the learning curve about figuring out how we actually go about doing this, how we go about making connections with other people who are doing this, and how to find funding.

What kind of equipment do you provide prisoners?

Kramer: Just regular old standard guitars and amps. Whatever we can get our hands on to help people out. We get the "brother-in-law price" from companies like Fender.

What did you do musically while you were in prison. How long were you in for? Did you play with other inmates?

Kramer: I was there for a couple of years. It’s interesting. I thought I would do a lot of writing, but I'm also pretty goal-oriented, and once I got there I realized I may not be making records for a while. I was sentenced to four years and I didn’t know how much of that four years I was going to have to do. I wrote a couple of songs. But what it was really good for was studying music. I had the great fortune to be locked up with a wonderful jazz musician, Red Rodney, a formidable trumpet player who replaced Miles Davis in the Charlie Parker Quintet. Red was a classic dope fiend jazz musician and I was a typical dope fiend rock musician. He became like a musical father to me and we studied together. He taught a Berklee College of Music course in theory, so that became my first theory training. We also had a prison band and played bebop all the time. We played bebop. We played regular Sunday-afternoon concerts in the big yard and other regular events, like holiday shows. Anything we could do, we did. When we both got close to release, and our custody was lowered to “community custody,” which meant you were eligible for community programs and could go on work release or study release, we played jobs in the community. Playing music was huge for me, and I know it's huge for people in prison today. There's something deeply profound when you sit down with a guitar and try to figure out how to say something in a new and nonconfrontational way, something complex; maybe something that's hard to say to your family, to your wife, or maybe even to yourself about how you ended up there.

After you donate equipment what’s the next step?

Kramer: We try to find people in each local area who already want to do music as rehabilitation, oftentimes people already in the prisons, but they just don’t have the instruments. In California, especially, they don’t have money for anything. In fact, we’re in a corrections crisis here in California. The federal courts have taken over the Department of Corrections because they can’t manage it and the prisons are so overcrowded. We’re always looking for coalition partners to help us, because I can’t do everything. What I can do is lead, inspire, provide instruments, and bring in shows. But we want to inspire others to take up this kind of work, too.

What was playing in Sing Sing like?

Kramer: Prisoners really appreciate hearing live music because it tells them that not everybody has thrown them away. When somebody goes into a prison and – whether it’s theater, wiring workshops, whatever – it tells prisoners they matter, that they actually count in the world.

Did you play any music that was specifically inspired by your prison experience?

Kramer: We played Thin Lizzy's “Jailbreak.” We thought that had some irony. We played “Wish You Were Here.” Billy played “Redemption Song,” which was very powerful because the men sang along to the chorus.

I understand you also work with Road Recovery.

Kramer: That’s the New York group that organized the Sing Sing event. They’re a nonprofit I’ve been working with for the last few years. We do a big fund raiser for them every year. It was founded by two former tour managers. After burning out from traveling around the country for decades, they wanted to do something that would have more substance to it. They use their entertainment-industry contacts to help young people with substance-abuse problems.

Are you involved with any other causes or organizations?

Kramer: I work with Tom Morello and the Axis of Justice. We do tours where we combine music and activism. In every city, we do a day of actual activism where we get out in the street and participate in things, and then a day of a concert. Our motto is “Feed the homeless, fight the power, and rock the fuck out.”

As an activist anti-imperialist, what's your take on the likely Afghanistan escalation?

Kramer: The point is that we have no interests in the Middle East. We’d be better served by trying to nation-build Mexico, which is on our border. My hope is that Obama listens to his ambassador and that we not spill another drop of blood over there.

Do you still have family in Detroit?

Kramer: I have a little bit of family there. I have a complex relationship with Detroit. I was born there, raised there, and I achieved a great deal there as a young man. But I also went straight into the sewer and just fucked off my life there. And to watch what’s happened to Detroit over the last thirty years, especially during the last ten years… I was back there this summer and it’s heartbreaking. It’s Katrina-level, without the storm. It’s so bad; the heart’s been ripped out of the city. The big three automakers got away with murder for a couple of generations. They just sucked the lifeblood out of the city. And after they made their fortunes, they just left and the workers pay the price. Now it's a city full of leftover people and there’s nothing for them to do anymore. It’s unbelievable. I'm working with a group out there called the Power House Project to put together some programs. It’s a group of artists trying to approach it as pioneers. You can buy buildings for next to nothing, and artists can move in – because it’s always the artists that move in first. Artists took over Soho in Manhattan when the manufactures moved out to Jersey, Brooklyn and Queens, and took over the lofts.

It's fascinating how so many cities are kind of relying on artists to move back in and make things humane again.

Kramer: Either that or green technology. We could take all those workers and put them to work building solar panel, windmills, and technologies we haven’t even thought of yet.

Maybe HeadCount and Jail Guitar Doors could work together sometime.

Kramer: What you guys are doing is terrific and it inspires us to keep our activism alive and reject cynicism. The enemy is not the Republicans or the free marketers or the religious right. The enemy is apathy, the enemy is cynicism. Critical theory requires that we come up with a solution.