Clang clang, open the jail guitar doors
It would be hard to think of a person who more embodied the spirit of Detroit rock and roll. I don’t mean Jack White. I don’t mean Bob Seger or Ted Nugent. No, I’m talking about Brother Wayne Kramer from the MC5. I confess that I don’t have any of their CDs, but their influence is seared into a lot of the music I’ve loved. My friend, Ron Whitehead used to quote from the band’s testimonial: “It takes five seconds, five seconds of decision, five seconds to realize your purpose on the planet. It takes five seconds to realize that it’s time to move, it’s time to get down with it.” Their music sounded like the roar of muscle cars. They played rock and roll with brutal intensity that was punk almost a decade before anyone knew to call it that. They were explicitly down with revolution and the Black Panthers and played at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, but they also played songs with titles like “Teenage Lust.” So when I saw Kramer dressed in a white suit jacket waiting for his introduction during a session in the Venetian Ballroom at the Westin Book Cadillac earlier this month for the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies in Detroit, I was intrigued. The man who once sang, “There’s nothing like Ramblin’ Rose,” and tossed his guitar in the air and played a slashing chord as he caught it, did not disappoint. “I injected heroin into my veins, snorted cocaine, drank gallons of wine, and had sex with dozens and dozens of young ladies,” said the 64-year-old activist, songwriter and film and television composer. The speaker paused to let the message sink in and someone in the audience half-heartedly cried, “Kick out the jams!” Kramer raised his fist in a militant salute and said, “I thought that would get your attention.” He spoke of his idealism and grandiosity in the late 1960s, and his radicalization during a police riot that disrupted the innocence of a 1967 love-in at Belle Isle and the movement to end the Vietnam war. He talked about his descent into nihilism and drug abuse as the MC5 fell apart, and about an eventual four-year federal prison sentence. All that was to build to Kramer’s primary point. “Today in America we’re facing the greatest failure of social policy in our domestic history,” Kramer said. “And that is mass incarceration. And this mass incarceration mostly falls on people of color and people of limited economic means.” Kramer founded Jail Guitar Doors USA after recruiting friends such as Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine, Jerry Cantrell from Alice in Chains, Gilby Clarke from Guns N Roses, Handsome Dick Manitoba, Don Was, Perry Ferrell and Billy Bragg to play a concert at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York. Bragg had written “Jail guitar doors” on his guitar. He founded Jail Guitar Doors in England in 2007 to honor the late Joe Strummer of the Clash. Unbeknownst to Bragg, the Clash had written the song “Jail Guitar Doors” for Kramer. Let me tell you ’bout Wayne and his deals of Cocaine A little more every day Holding for a friend ’til the band do well Then the DEA locked him away Clang clang, go the jail guitar doors Bang bang, go the boots on the floor Cry cry, for your lonely mother’s son Clang clang, go the jail guitar doors “We find people that work in corrections and see if they’re willing to use music as a tool for rehabilitation,” Kramer explained. “And we provide them with guitars. The guitars aren’t gifts. We don’t give them just to while away the time. The guitars are a challenge. People that donate the money to pay for these guitars are sending a message to people in prison. And that message is that they believe in you, that they believe you want to rehabilitate, that you want to rejoin your friends and family out here, that you want to come back and participate in the world and engage in the world in a positive manner, and that these guitars can be a first step.” Kramer found in prison reform a commitment that fit with his personal history and core convictions. “And I found that it seemed to line up perfectly with my radical activism from the sixties, my sense of an ethical commitment to positive change and it fit in with what little we know about alcoholism and drug addiction,” he said. Like a lot of people at the convention, Kramer proved to be generous with his time and energy. My colleague, Eric Ginsburg, told him about the opening of the new Guilford County Jail in Greensboro, and Kramer immediately offered that anyone interested in providing guitars to inmates should get in touch with him. He seems like a fitting role model for our abandoned, post-apocalyptic age — a man who has inflicted his share of damage on himself and his community who survived and found his core again. “We need to engage with the world,” Kramer told upwards of a hundred journalists, editors and publishers in the Venetian Ballroom. “So how do we meaningfully oppose meaninglessness? I think we do that with an unlimited ethical commitment. An effort without limit on it to make something happen for the better. My aim fundamentally is to leave this place a little nicer than I found it.” To learn more about Jail Guitar Doors visit jailguitardoors.org.