Hard Time: The MC5's Wayne Kramer Goes Behind Bars For New Album

Wayne Kramer
Ivy Augusta
Wayne Kramer
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This spring, singer-guitarist Wayne Kramer – formerly of the Detroit revolution-rock band the MC5 – hit a weird milestone, his first Top Ten album. The weird bits: Lexington (Industrial Amusement), credited to Kramer and the Lexington Arts Ensemble, is an all-instrumental record; it was Top Ten on Soundscan's traditional jazz chart; and it is anything but traditional.

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Lexington is fiercely progressive jazz, recalling Kramer's late-Sixties avant-jamming nights with the MC5. The album is also a soundtrack, Kramer's score to a new documentary, The Narcotics Farm, about the pursuit of creative freedom inside an institution the guitarist knew painfully well: the federal penitentiary in Lexington, Kentucky.

In 1975, Kramer was caught selling cocaine to an undercover officer. The price was two years at Lexington where he played in a prison band with the be-bop-jazz trumpeter Red Rodney, a fellow inmate,and became the opening line in the Clash's 1978 homage "Jail Guitar Doors": "Let me tell you about Wayne and his deals with cocaine."

Four decades later, Kramer was approached by the team making The Narcotics Farm – as a subject. "They were looking for musicians, artists, who had served a sentence at Lexington," Kramer, 66, says. "I asked them who was doing the music for the film. They said they hadn't thought about it yet. I said, 'I'm eminently qualified.'"

Kramer made Lexington with friends and improvisors from Detroit and Los Angeles, including Dr. Charles Moore, a trumpeter and educator who first recorded with Kramer on the MC5's 1971 album, High Time. "He played so beautifully on Lexington," Kramer says. "We collaborated on the compositions and talked about the themes a great deal. In a way, the record gave me a way to express my feelings about my incarceration and mass incarceration in general, in my first language, which is music."

Jail Guitar Doors

Kramer, who lives in L.A., is back in prison there every Tuesday – willingly. He leads a weekly songwriting program at Men's Central Jail, one of the largest prisons in the world, as part of Jail Guitar Doors USA, a rehabilitation initiative founded in 2009 by Kramer, his wife and manager Margaret Saadi Kramer and the British singer Billy Bragg. At a concert with Bragg that year for prisoners in Sing Sing, the maximum-security facility in Ossining, New York, Kramer learned of the original Jail Guitar Doors, named after that Clash song and started by Bragg in 2007 to provide instruments and music workshops for prisoners in British jails.

"The things Billy said he was doing in England connected with me," Kramer explains. "I said I'd like to do this in America. He said, 'Good, because you're the only one who can do it.'" Jail Guitar Doors USA is now a rehabilitating presence – distributing guitars and running songwriting programs – in 50 state and county jails across the country, including Cook County Jail in Chicago and Travis County Correctional Complex in Austin, Texas. One stubborn, brick wall: "The federal system show us almost no love at all," Kramer notes. "We've attempted on numerous occasions to bring guitars and been dismissed summarily: 'Don't call back.'"

In fact, during an extensive interview about Lexington, Jail Guitar Doors USA and the crisis in American punishment, Kramer spoke gratefully of how music saved him during his own federal sentence – a lesson he takes with him every time he goes back inside. "I'm a formally incarcerated person – and a musician," he says. "Maybe I can be a bridge."

Behind Bars

What is it like to revisit your experiences in prison on Lexington and in your work for Jail Guitar Doors?
It has allowed me to give a voice to an anger that has built up from the time I was released, as I watched more and more people like me go to prison – and for more severe sentences than I got. I kept wondering, "How come nobody is saying anything about this? How come they keep building more prisons, locking more people up, and nobody's angry about it? It's out of sight, out of mind. If you're white, American, middle class and above, these things don't affect you. If you're a person of color with limited economic means, you know a lot of people in and out of prison.

Prisons are also an industry in this country, an economic engine for many communities.
It's an $80-billion industry. Prisons for profit are the most pernicious of all. It's a large, complex perfect storm, the greatest failure of social policy in our domestic history. And in the end, it's done exactly the opposite of what they intended to do. You can't lock people up, brutalize them for decades, then throw them onto the street and expect them to be fine, upstanding community members.

How did prison change you?
In the end, it may have saved my life, because I was traveling in a very dangerous world in Detroit, at the peak of my drinking and drugging. But I don't think prison helped me. Prison time doesn't help anyone, the way we approach punishment in America. There might be a way, if the entire system was shifted to restoration: what we can do to help people who have made bad decisions and broken the social contract.

All the politicians who wanted to get tough on crime, who passed this draconian legislation – what they ended up doing was making everything worse. We have more people who don't fit into the system, who can't get jobs, who have lived for decades in violence, racism and defeat. And we don't have a place for them.

The Art of Healing

What does Jail Guitar Doors do to correct that?
What we do is pretty simple. We find people who work in corrections who are willing to use music as a tool for restoration. We provide them with guitars – sometimes other instruments but mostly acoustic guitars. It's easy to play chords and melodies. And we task the people living in the prisons with writing songs. I want them to express themselves in a new non-confrontational way. What art does is teach us the secret of how to work, how to sit in one place and pursue one thing, to create one thing of your own and go all the way with it.

Do you experience problems with some inmates, especially violent offenders and lifers who won't or can't let their barriers down?
It's almost never a problem. People have a TV-movie idea of who's in prison and what it's like. They see this horrific, television violence. Those things do happen. But 85 percent of the people in prison are exactly like you and I. Half of them are non-violent drug offenders. The war on drugs has been an incredibly efficient machine for filling prisons.

Men and women in prison are so happy to get guitars and have something to focus on. I know plenty of men serving life sentences without parole. But my role is not to judge them. They've already been judged.

How important was music to you in surviving your time at Lexington?
It was exactly as important as it is today. When I was playing music, I wasn't in prison anymore. I was someplace else. I was in the world of melodies, chord changes and rhythms. I was away from that place.

It also gave me a positive identity in the prison community. I was the white boy who played the wah-wah [laughs]. I didn't have to have a fictitious criminal identity – the dude, the gangster. We had our band that played regular shows. Some of the music wasn't bad. People appreciated the fact that we would play for them.

Kicking Out the Jams

Your high-energy guitar playing, in the progressive-jazz setting of Lexington, is actually a return to roots – the free improvising and avant-garde influences that marked Sixties Detroit rock and psychedelia.
The free-jazz movement, the music of Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, John Coltrane and Sun Ra – that's what originally inspired me and the MC5. What the most advanced jazz musicians were doing was pushing the music forward, and that was my goal as a rock player in the MC5. I thought we were on the same page.

But why was free jazz a central influence on rock in Detroit, as opposed to New York where most of the artists you mention were living and recording?
It was what I needed. I needed a source of inspiration that was unorthodox and provocative on every level. I had reached a point where I could play the guitar okay. I could play Chuck Berry solos and Rolling Stones songs. Sun Ra showed me where to go from there.

You, in turn, passed that inspiration along. The first Sun Ra song I ever heard was the MC5's cover of "Starship" on [1969's] Kick Out the Jams.
It was kind of like a virus [laughs] – but a good one. One could speculate that if Trane hadn't died, if Albert Ayler hadn't died, if Jimi Hendrix hadn't died, we may have never had to endure fusion or, worse, smooth jazz.

Are you going to take Lexington on the road? Or will you do another rock album?
We've launched a PledgeMusic campaign to underwrite a tour. Part of the money will go to Jail Guitar Doors. If I'm out there, we might as well distribute some instruments and play some prisons. So I'm cleaning out the vaults, selling everything I have. I'll probably pimp myself out to do laundry, just to pay for this tour.

I might make it an MC5 tour, have the Lexington Arts Ensemble open for the MC5. We could play a set of free jazz, then play Kick Out the Jams from beginning to end. It'd be fun for me [laughs], because I get to play a lot.

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