High Times Interview: Wayne Kramer

Guitarist Wayne Kramer is a founding member of the seminal Detroit rock ’n’ roll band, the MC5, and an active solo artist. The title of his latest album, Lexington, refers to the Lexington Federal Correctional Institute in Kentucky where he did time on a cocaine conspiracy beef in the 1970’s. He was also a founding member of the radical White Panther Party in Detroit and Ann Arbor in the late-1960’s. His latest project, Jail Guitar Doors, USA, brings instruments, workshops and concerts into prisons across America. High Times caught him in Detroit as he was getting ready to introduce the program to the Saginaw Regional Correctional Facility.

HT: What was it about Detroit that made it such a hotbed for radical politics in the late 60s and early 70s?

WK: In my humble opinion?

HT: Of course.

WK: The Port Huron statement that Tom Hayden wrote when he founded SDS was kind of a subliminal foundation for my generation, and the fact that Detroit traditionally was a hard-working, hard-playing town, and that industrial workers were unionized and they knew the power of union, they appreciated it. It made for this emerging middle class. So there was this kind of self-determination that existed in Detroit that I don’t think existed too many other places in America. Maybe it was in Youngstown, Ohio or Pittsburgh or Gary, Indiana. Those were heavy-industry steel towns, but United Auto Workers were really on the vanguard of the union movement in America. It may be a stretch to connect these, but it’s what I’m willing to make. When I was confronted with the contradictions, it became clear to me that—based on the Framers’ concept of Democracy, that it was participatory—it was my responsibility to say something about it, to take ethical action, to right so many wrongs. I mean, everywhere I turned as a young person I saw how the older generation contradicted itself, and I just felt in my bones that we could do a better job. But that’s speaking as a 17 year old. Today, my view is a little broader than that. But when you’re young, you’re convinced you’re right about everything and that you will live forever. So those elements combined with the fact that Detroit was not considered cool or hip—London was hip, New York was cool, Los Angeles was Hollywood and Detroit was this gritty industrial city. And I thought that our ideas about the world were as valid as anybody else’s ideas, and I thought that, culturally, we were ahead of everybody else. I thought we were listening to better shit, and we were playing better shit than the rest of my peers were at the time, with a couple of exceptions.

HT: How does that jump to the MC5 and the White Panther Party? That one step further in the radical direction?

WK: I don’t think you can take what happened in Detroit with the MC5 and the White Panther Party out of the context of the larger international stage, where young people were finding a new language, having a new analysis of world events, local events, things that happened in the neighborhood. We stopped seeing the police as the protector and started seeing them as the oppressor when we saw kids being beaten at Belle Isle at a love-in. The MC5 went to play on my birthday, April 30th, 1967, and the Detroit police department were using kids’ heads like polo balls from horseback—riding by and thwacking people in the head. That will radicalize one… I started saying, “What’s going on here?” And that was happening everywhere, the systematic police violence was being exposed for the first time. No one knew much about it as long as it stayed in the black and brown community, but when it hit those white hippie kids, everybody started talking about it—we started writing about it in our newspapers, in our magazines. We started connecting with each other. The Underground Press Syndicate… we started reading underground newspapers from San Francisco and London, and they’re having the same problems we’re having. The police are pulling them over and searching their cars, and we felt the pressure, you know, the intimidation, by police. So our response was a natural one. You can’t keep the boot on somebody’s neck forever, sooner or later they’re going to buck, and we admired the Black Panther Party, and they put out a call for a group in the white community to do parallel work and we said, “Yeah, that’s us.”

HT: And once you formed the White Panther Party, what did the Black Panther Party think?

WK: They laughed at us. They called us psychedelic clowns. Until they met us. Until we started to establish personal relationships with them, and they saw that we were who we said we were. In retrospect, a lot of that thinking was a terrible mistake. And specifically, the question of violence, using violence as a strategy or a tactic for positive social change. It’s doomed to failure. Anytime you use violence against the power structure, they have legitimacy, and they have more tanks and more armored personnel carriers, and more automatic weapons than the people will ever have, so we didn’t think that through. We grew up watching television, we thought a shoot-out was like on TV and in the movies you know, but the reality was not like television. The reality was that Black Panthers were being systematically assassinated by police departments all around the country, and the reality for us was, and what had got us was arrests, court cases, prison, beatings and getting kicked out of the music business. None of us were killed in the process, but we were just lucky.

HT: What do you mean kicked out of the music business. Was there a specific event or…

WK: There was a whole sequence of events. The music business is first and foremost a business, and a business’ first responsibility is to turn a profit, and record company executives found the MC5 to be more trouble than they were worth. Ahmet Ertegun told me one day that they had a concept in the record business called “sending good money after bad,” and that they weren’t going to do that anymore with the MC5.

HT: I’m wondering how marijuana fit in with the aesthetic and the goals of the White Panther Party.

WK: I think it was foundational, because the day I met John Sinclair, he was released from the Detroit House of Correction after serving a six-month sentence for his second conviction of possession of marijuana. And then he wrote this just fabulous poem called “The Poem for Warner Stringfellow.” Warner Stringfellow was the Detroit Police Narcotics Detective that busted John, and John used the power of poetry to call him out. The poem is a scathing indictment of police tactics, drug war tactics, drug war mentality, and it so incensed the detective that he vowed to get Sinclair. It was a personal vendetta. And he did—ultimately convicting John and sentencing him to nine and half to 10 years in state prison for possession of two joints. So, John’s position on marijuana legalization, or decriminalization, became the fundamental organizing point. For me it made perfect sense. Here was an herb that was less harmful than alcohol and prescription medicines, and yet the penalties for using it were unbelievably severe. And I loved John, so his fight was my fight. I think it was a primary, primary motivation, you know, it was like a core issue. There were plenty of others—civil rights for people of color, the war in Vietnam was a huge motivating factor, you know, oppressive ‘50s Victorian sexuality mores, the kind of… what we used to call the plastic culture of America. All those things entered into the picture. As young people, we found them repugnant and really thought there must be a better way.

HT: Tell me about Jail Guitar Doors.

WK: Well, I’ve made no secret that I served a federal prison term in the ‘70s. I’m an archetype drug war prisoner. And I got a four-year sentence for my offense, which I thought was pretty severe at the time for a non-violent, economic crime. And while I was in prison, I experienced the final days of the era of rehabilitation. We had Pell Grants, we had college courses, we had group therapy, we had study group, we’d use different books, “I’m Ok, You’re Ok,” behavior modification, rational behavior training… The thinking of the era was that, if something’s wrong, let’s throw everything we have at it and see if we can fix it. And I participated in everything. Every opportunity they gave me I took, and I did gain some insight into addiction—not enough to conquer it, but at least I started the conversation, started the journey.

After I was released I started to track more and more people just like me going to prison for longer and longer sentences, under worse conditions, and over the 30 years or so that it’s been, it’s started to really disturb me. I really just couldn’t make it add up. Why were we locking up first tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, and today 2.3 million people—approximately half of them for non-violent drug offenses, economic drug crimes? We know almost half of them are mentally ill today, our prison system is our de facto mental health care system. And at some point, I decided to confront my own nihilism, my own apathy, my own meaninglessness, by taking some ethical action. I thought, I’m a musician, I’m a formerly incarcerated person, what could I do? Well, maybe I could at least play music in prisons for people that live there, I know that would be a benefit on that day anyway.

So I organized an event at Sing Sing in New York. I invited a bunch of my rock star friends to come with me—Tom Morello, Gilby Clarke, Don Was, Handsome Dick Manitoba, Jerry Cantrell, Perry Farrell and his lovely wife Etty… and one of the musicians that I invited was Billy Bragg. We were getting ready to go play, and Billy took his guitar out and had “Jail Guitar Doors” written on the guitar. “Jail Guitar Doors” is the name of a song that the Clash wrote about me. Well, funnily enough, Billy Bragg had forgotten that fact. So I said, “Billy, what’s up with that?” And he said, “Oh, it’s an old Clash B-side, have you ever heard it?” I said, “Billy the song’s about me.” He said, “What ya fookin’ mean?” I asked him, “What are the lyrics?” He said, “‘Let me tell you about Wayne and his deals of cocaine….’ oh bloody fookin’ hell.” I adore Billy Bragg, and so he started to tell me he wanted to do something to celebrate the life’s work of Joe Strummer. A guy had written him from a British prison, said he was trying to use music as a tool for rehabilitation, but they had no guitars, could Billy find ‘em guitars? Billy said, “This is something I could do to celebrate Joe’s life’s work.” It was on the anniversary of Joe’s death, and uh, the more we talked about it, the more it became clear to me that I should take this on for the United States. So, that day at Sing Sing prison in 2009, Billy Bragg, my wife Margaret Kramer and I founded Jail Guitar Doors, USA. Today, our guitars are in over 60 American prisons, and we have a waiting list of about 50 more. We run song-writing workshop programs in the Cook County Jail in Chicago, Traverse County Correctional Complex in Austin, Texas, the San Diego County Jail, and the Los Angeles County Jail in both the men’s and women’s facilities.

HT: And who goes to these programs and does the teaching part?

WK: All volunteer musicians. We’re musician-founded, musician-operated. We have volunteers that want to do something, they want to make a difference, and they know the transformative power of music. We know now through empirical studies that offenders that participate in arts in corrections programming have a 75 percent lower recidivism rates. The guitar can be the key that unlocks the cell, it can be the key that unlocks the prison gate, and it could be the key that unlocks the rest of your life to give you an alternative way to deal with things. I mean, we’re all faced with pressure and grief and stress and art teaches you the secret of how to work, that you can stay in one place because you wanna do this, because you wanna have something come out at the end of it, that’s about you, that says, “hey, I’m in the world.” Prison is designed to tell you that you have no value, you’re a number, you’re a bed space, and being creative, creating something from nothing, writing a song, writing a poem, making a painting, theater, all of the arts, are great arguments against that worthlessness. It’s a way to become somebody in your environment to make a contribution to the world around you and let people know who you are, to make a connection. In the L.A. County Jail, I go in every Wednesday night and we, we team up the homies, with the peckerwoods, with the brothers, and everybody works together because it’s all about the music. This is the idea that there can be a safe place where we can all just play together. It breaks down those gang barriers, class barriers. I’ve had guys tell me, “Yeah, you know, that guy Marty man, I never liked him, you know, I’d see him on the pod, you know, I didn’t like the guy, but you know, I started playing with him. He’s alright, he’s ok.”

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