An interview with musician Wayne Kramer, frontman of the MC5, a storied punk band, and operator of the nonprofit Jail Guitar Doors.
You’d think that once music had reached post-post-post-punk, and he had reached the storied age of 64, Wayne Kramer would mellow the heck out.
His street cred is well established, having fronted the late-’60s seminal sonic sandblast known as the MC5. Their distortion-and-anarchy sound influenced everyone from The Clash to Mudhoney to Sonic Youth to The White Stripes.
You work is done here, sir. Haven’t you heard?
There’s still a fire, though, in the Detroit native’s belly. There’s still work to do. Because there are still people in American prisons, serving long sentences for minor offenses — a state of affairs Kramer abhors.
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“I want to try to get the conversation going about the disgrace of our prisons and the inhuman policies of incarcerating two and a half million Americans for such a length of time,” Kramer said the other day.
“It’s beyond the pale. We lock up more people than China, Russia, North Korea … and no one talks about it. So I view that as my job. To get people aware.”
Kramer is coming to the Seattle Interactive Conference this week to speak about his nonprofit, Jail Guitar Doors (JGD), which puts guitars in prisons so that inmates have a way to express themselves, and evolve.
Kramer will speak about it on a panel called “Game Changers for Humanity,” which will focus on how social media, the Internet and technology can be used to make a difference. He will appear with Eric Stowe of Splash and Lesley Mansford of Razoo.com.
JGD was founded by musician Billy Bragg, and named for a song written by The Clash’s Joe Strummer — about Kramer, who spent two years (1976-78) in the Federal Medical Center in Lexington, Ky., on drug charges. Strummer, a fan of the MC5, was moved to write about him.
“When I could play music in prison, I wasn’t in prison anymore,” Kramer said. “I was in the world of chords and melodies and that’s a much bigger, freer world. It gave me a chance to participate in life, in the institution.
“I was the white boy who played the wah-wah.”
Kramer now lives in Los Angeles and makes a nice living composing music for television shows like “Eastbound & Down” and movies like “Almost Famous” and “Talladega Nights.”
“I have my foot in a couple of different camps,” he said. “I am a musician and a film and TV composer and I can get around on the Internet, but I also have my foot in politics and activism. So maybe I can show how these things all seem to work together.”
He has rallied political musicians like Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine to perform in prisons like New York’s infamous Sing Sing to help raise money to buy and donate guitars. JGD finds those who work in corrections willing to use music as rehabilitation, and local musicians willing to teach songwriting workshops at the prisons.
In Austin, Texas, JGD had 10 guitars and 10 slots for the program; 270 people signed up.
“When we can get a guitar into a prisoner’s hands and make them able to play a melody, or encourage them to tell their story into a song, it puts them in touch with their humanity,” Kramer said. “And if one can connect to their own humanity, they can connect with someone else’s.”
On the day we spoke, Kramer had just returned from the Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles, where he participated in a National Day of Protest against mass incarceration.
“The policies are unconscionable,” he said. “They have served politicians well, and they have served the powerful prison-guard unions well, but it’s the human damage. The people, the families paying the price.
“I am not a prison abolitionist, but I think the punishment should fit the crime,” he said. “It’s our duty to try and help them improve. If your car breaks down, you don’t beat your car, you fix your car. Maybe we should try that with people.”
The guitar is Kramer’s tool — his famed Fender Stratocaster, painted with the stars and stripes and bearing a steel panel with the phrase, “This tool kills hate.”
Kramer was still in high school in 1964 when the MC5 (it stands for the Motor City Five) was formed. They released their first album, “Kick Out the Jams,” in 1969, blowing the petals right off the peace and love sounds of the ’60s.
Decades later, “I feel pretty good,” he said. “I have the usual garden-variety complaints. Sore joints, and I go to the dentist a lot.”
At home with his wife, Margaret, Kramer is “pretty good on the grill” and makes a mean omelet.
But you can’t talk to Wayne Kramer without talking about music. He listens to all kinds and is aware of the influence he’s had over the bands that came after the MC5.
“But I’m not much interested in ‘retro’ anything,” he said. “I have retro-phobia.”
The band that “knocks me out,” he said, is the Dirty Projectors.
“I can hear the roots of the music, but the roots are so broad, and it’s so original,” he said, then paused. “Originality to me is everything.”