Play Guitar, Go to Jail

By Robert Patterson

America has many problems. And not enough people (myself included), especially our artistic, cultural and entertainment figures, are doing what’s needed to alleviate and maybe even help solve them on a true grassroots and human basis.

Guitarist and songwriter Wayne Kramer is one of the notable exceptions to the rule. Hardly a household name, he is something of a living (and still active) legend in the rock’n’roll world from his time as guitarist for the 1960s rock’n’roll band The MC5, whose ethos was creating music that was politically, culturally and artistically revolutionary.

His new organization, Jail Guitar Doors (, is a stellar example of ’60s-style activism in contemporary action. Its premise is basic, yet with far more to it as one explores its context and what effect the effort might have in both the micro- and macrocosmic realms.

“It’s a simple idea: We find people that work in prisons, both juvenile and adult, that use music as a path to rehabilitation. And we facilitate them by providing guitars and other instruments,” Kramer explains. He knows well how liberating and enlightening (and more) a guitar can be from both sides of the prison wall. In 1975, he was arrested for selling cocaine and did more then two years in a federal lockup. (Today Kramer is also an exemplar of addiction and substance abuse recovery who works to help others struggling with such issues.)

And while incarcerated, his guitar “was a way to escape prison, of course not in a physical sense, but in a mental and psychic, emotional and maybe even — who knows? — a spiritual sense; that you could do something that was totally engrossing and only was of benefit to me,” Kramer observes. “When somebody sits down with a guitar and figures out to write a song and figures out how to say something complex in a new and non-confrontational way, it opens the door for the possibility of connecting with other people in a new way. People in prisons are constantly reminded that they’re failures and losers and they have no value in the world. And being able to create something on your own — a song — is a great argument against worthlessness.”

There’s a larger context about which Kramer is well informed if not an expert. “I’ve struggled with what happened to me for 30 years, and I’ve watched for 30 years as more and more people went to prison,” he notes. “And America today is the most jailing country in the history of the world. We lock up more people than anybody. Either we’re the most evil people on the face of the earth, or we’re doing something terribly wrong in regards to how we administer what we call justice. Half of the two million Americans in custody are non-violent drug offenders. So something is incredibly out of sync here.

“I have a legislative agenda that goes along with the volunteer work that I do in the prisons. And as a citizen I have a personal stake in justice reform in America.” He points to the efforts of US Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) on this “zero political-capital issue,” as Kramer rightly sees it. “So far he’s been brilliant at it because he’s very quiet, he frames the issue in a way that makes it digestible for people that he needs to co-sign it, and he’s got a number of conservatives co-sponsoring a justice commission bill in the Congress.”

Kramer speaks to the issue with similar sense. “I believe in safe streets, and I’m speaking as an ex-offender,” he says. “I believe in accountability. If you break the social contract, there is a price to pay for that. But I think the punishment should fit the crime, and I think we have a distorted sense of that in America.”

There’s even a slight taste of fiscal conservatism plus concern over out-of-control government spending in his views that tea party types should find appealing, though it’s really just logic and good sense from a longtime Leftist who has simply grown wiser and held firm to his values and commitments. “These right-wing conservative politicians that have successfully used fear to win votes by demonizing a certain segment of the population, mostly brown and Black people — and they’re very good at it — are now starting to realize that we actually can’t afford it. And it’s a failure. The streets are not safer. And city, county, state and federal governments can’t afford it. You can’t build enough prisons. You can’t successfully manage the problem by locking more people up.”

Once they are locked up, as Kramer was, Jail Guitar Doors seeks to inculcate both personal and interpersonal change that promotes true rehabilitation and positive growth. The group’s name comes from a song that musical activists and revolutionaries The Clash wrote for Kramer when he was jailed, and which fellow musician Billy Bragg adopted as a fitting rubric when he started the effort in England. Last year Kramer invited Bragg to participate in a prison outreach he put together at Sing Sing, and then Bragg asked him to head up this initiative the US. Of course, how could Kramer resist?

“I thought, maybe I could be useful at this, and maybe I was uniquely positioned because I’m in music, a great many of my friends are musicians, and yet I still have one foot in prison,” he notes. Plus well more than a foot in the genuine activism that drives actual change on many levels, and a cause that decent and right-thinking Americans across the political spectrum can sing along with. And maybe create a chorus that brings down the unfair and senseless laws and walls.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2010

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