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MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer boldly stated if he wasn’t making positive impacts than all he was doing was wasting valuable air. As co-founder of the non-profit group Jail Guitar Doors USA, Kramer works daily to make his statement ring true. Founded in 2009, the organization works tirelessly to raise awareness of criminal justice issues while promoting prison reform. Jail Guitar Doors USA seeks to provide incarcerated individuals opportunities to explore music as a possible beacon for spiritual rehabilitation and a creative outlet to promote non-violent solutions.
Kramer continues giving prison performances across the U.S. with Perry Farrell, Jerry Cantrell, Tom Morello, and Gilby Clarke. Working to provide inmates instruments as additional coping tools Kramer makes it a point to focus on how emotionally and financially costly the current prison system is.
“Today, our country puts away roughly 2.3 million people. California spends about $47,000 a year per person to lockup inmates. This is a deep, complex problem and the issues surrounding all of this could make it the biggest disaster in U.S. social policy history. I think it’s an embarrassment,” stated Kramer.
MC5 remain one of the most politically incendiary groups of all time and Kramer’s message hasn’t wavered. It’s evolved. The group’s political convictions ultimately led to FBI interventions and arrests. Their uncompromising support of the Black Panthers and raucous performances provided complimentary soundtracks to the race riots that plagued Detroit during the 1960’s. Kramer reflected on his federal stint for drug offenses.
“I went away in ’75 and was released in 1978. Three years may not seem a lot by today’s standards but it severely impacted me. When you go, it’s very embarrassing and emasculating. It’s not like how our media portrays it. The ultimate loss of freedom is something not everyone understands. It’s a world where you feel unsafe 24/7. Prison is where you’re sent as punishment, not for punishment,” clarified Kramer.
He added that the majority of officials working within corrections are the worst suited individuals for such occupations.
“Oppression oppressors the oppressor and guards just get worse over time.”
Kramer reflected that his relationship with Jazz musician Red Rodney ultimately saved him during his sentence. He still values this friendship and shared how the chance meeting impacted him.
“The idea of meeting such a musician meant everything to me. It was a way to escape and I feel I got a world-class music education while serving time. He was just an extraordinary cat and I’m forever grateful. I did get to see what extended drug use would get me as he returned to prison three more times. He died of cancer in 1994 and I do think about him,” sighed Kramer.
What affected Kramer even more were the difficulties surrounding his release and reintegration. Before Kramer’s sentence MC5 dissolved due to creative and political conflicts. Ongoing substance abuse certainly contributed. Failure to effectively settle conflicts with executives left the band without label representation and the arrest of manager John Sinclair had the proverbial dark clouds hang lower. The initial Punk rock explosion left MC5 without well-deserved media recognition and Kramer’s career fizzled. He reflected on his transition back to daily life routines and his career.
“When I got out my relationship with MC5 members was distant and a little acrimonious. Transitioning back to everyday life was overwhelming and tough, though I considered myself fortunate because my line of work as a musician can go unaffected with regards to having a criminal record. After a few months I was able to gig as a guest in a Detroit bar and later, I went on to form a group with Johnny Thunders,” laughed Kramer.
The partnership resulted in Gang War. Due to the extensive drug history of both guitarists, Gang War failed to prosper. The group adopted the slogan snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory. According to Kramer, Gang War failed miserably.
“I knew he (Thunders) was still using but my ambition to play overrode my recent experience behind bars. This is the trouble with unrestrained ambition. I really thought it would improve my status as a musician but the band was a terrible joke. You cannot partner with an opiate dependent person because they will choose drugs every time.”
Kramer’s so-called rock bottom experience did not come immediately. While he relentlessly grew his rock n’ roll resume he didn’t earn sobriety until 50. Kramer turns 67 this year. He shared the process of sobriety, stating each journey varies with the individual.
“I was living in a halfway house when I was released. After doing Gang War I left New York for LA. During that time in New York drugs were so rampant it’s like heroin came out the faucets. In LA I knew some guys that ran a support group but I wasn’t ready yet. While on a plane for a show the flight attendant informed me that once we landed I could be arrested. I was drinking a lot those days and I finally saw what I was; a drunken asshole. I was no guitar whiz from MC5 and it was a tough thing to finally face.”
As Kramer evolved he learned to further combine his passion for the arts and fiery politics to create more positive outcomes. Countless talks within communities and during gigs gave him pause and the ability to re-approach his convictions. To date, Jail Guitar Doors USA has provided instruments to over 60 prisons and its performances have contributed to Kramer’s spiritual evolution.
“I realized that substance abuse and the justice system are politically-motivated issues. Locking people up doesn’t necessarily prevent crime but community-based policing and social opportunities do prevent crime. In the 1980’s draconian laws were passed and the atmosphere of fear was used as a political tool,” reflected Kramer.
According to Kramer, two major figures can be linked to the passage of the aforementioned draconian drug sentencing laws. He cites the tragic death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias and former United States House of Representatives Speaker Tip O’ Neill. Thomas Phillip ‘Tip’ O’Neill was oftentimes dubbed an outspoken liberal democrat but he earned infamous national attention when opposing parties deemed democrats weak on crime. Kramer began an overview that today,many still support .
“Len Bias was a fabulous athlete and everyone loved him. During the NBA draft in the 1980s he was picked number two overall. He was very athletic but died of a cocaine overdose before he ever had a chance to prove his talents professionally. His sad death was used by the media to spread the ‘crack baby myth’, which led to allegations that certain political parties were soft on crime,” he angrily stated.
Bias was drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1986 and was found dead only two days later. His friends were indicted for possession with intent to distribute cocaine but the trial proved messy once prosecutors dropped the charges against two individuals in exchange for their testimony against Brian Tribble. Tribble was sentenced in 1993 on unrelated drug charges. According to Kramer, communities were in shock due to the high-profile case, which ultimately lead to the resignations of coach Lefty Driesell and athletic director Dick Dull. State’s Attorney Arthur A. Marshall Jr. stated Driesell directed Bias’ teammates to remove drugs from Bias’ dorm room.
“You have to understand how freaked out people were. You had a promising young man that had died and the case was high profile. This forced the hand of democrats because republicans deemed them soft on crime. O’Neill and the democrats had their bluff called by republicans and the media. The result was republicans passing even tougher drug sentencing laws. Non-violent offenders were being locked up en masse and nobody knew it would lead to such mass incarceration and the destruction of communities,” said Kramer.
When challenged to delve deeper into drug sentencing laws, Kramer affirmed the offenses and penalties were not administered equally. He also agreed that government officials had a role in poorer communities plagued by drugs, an opinion confirmed by Pulitzer Prize journalist Gary Webb as highlighted in his Dark Alliance newspaper articles. Webb’s 2004 death remains contested by some individuals. Kramer stated racism undoubtedly plays a strong role in drug laws which continues clouding the real issues surrounding criminal justice.
“There’s a big difference between the incarceration of people of color and whites. There isn’t a difference between how they sell or use drugs and I think we lost a generation or two because of mass incarceration. Unquestionably, people of color are treated unfairly. I visit LA County Jail every week and see the proof of institutional racism.”
Jail Guitar Doors USA is more than famous musicians giving concerts and then returning to their privileged lives. Kramer sees to it that lip service isn’t part of the equation. He continues his work with or without cameras rolling. Asked what particular experiences impacted him, he chose to focus on the initial reactions of his band mates.
“There have been so many meaningful interactions between me and inmates but it really profoundly affected my fellow musicians. Many had done similar things as the individuals we were performing for yet their wealth and privilege protected them. The idea that they were giving a performance and then returning to a luxury hotel or whatever really impacted them and made them think. I’m very proud of them and it’s a privilege to be playing with them.”
Kramer doesn’t fail to see the irony with his work in Jail Guitar Doors USA. He must partner with prison personnel and government officials that have yet to provide positive solutions. He willingly works to get inside institutions that many struggle to stay out of, including New York’s infamous Sing Sing prison.
“We have a golden opportunity to correct the past and some prison officials understand this. I have seen firsthand how once people get involved with us their attitudes and overall views begin to change,” said Kramer.
The overall media views toward Wayne Kramer have undeniably changed. He’s currently recognized by Rolling Stone as one of the top 100 guitarists of all time. Fender released a signature Stars & Stripes stratocaster to honor the guitar slinger in 2011.
“That is the highest honor a guitarist can accomplish. It took a long time to be completed but it just blew me away!” exclaimed Kramer.
The MC5 have since been recognized as a pre-cursor to Punk and go heralded by many artists as inspiration. For Kramer, his ongoing work in Jail Guitar Doors USA reaffirms his daily belief that the power behind music doesn’t have to be relegated to stages.
“There is plenty of inspiration and encouragement to keep going. I see firsthand the power of music and how it transforms. I do battle apathy myself but I am encouraged every time I walk into a prison,” declared Kramer.
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