Wayne Kramer: Still Kicking Out the Jams After 50 Years

Wayne Kramer on guitar
Wayne Kramer

by Lyndsey Parker

Wayne Kramer – one of Rolling Stone’s greatest guitarists of all time and co-founder of what many rock historians consider to be one of the very first punk bands, Detroit’s legendary MC5 -- is a true soul survivor. He’s conquered a serious drug addiction, served time for selling cocaine, sadly outlived three of his four MC5 bandmates and, after an against-all-odds comeback in the 1990s, is living his best life at age 70. He regularly composes music for film and television, pays it forward with his tireless activism, and continues to spread his revolutionary former band’s message.

On October 5, Kramer will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the MC5’s incendiary debut Kick Out the Jams, which sounds as vital and relevant as ever, by performing the landmark album in its entirety as MC50. The concert’s all-star lineup will feature Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil on guitar, Fugazi’s Brendan Canty on drums, Faith No More’s Billy Gould on bass, and Zen Guerrilla’s Marcus Durant on lead vocals. Proceeds from the event will go to Jail Guitar Doors, a nonprofit founded in the U.K. by British protest singer Billy Bragg and expanded in the U.S. by Kramer, that provides prison inmates with musical equipment. The organization takes its name from a 1978 B-side by the MC5’s punk disciples, The Clash, which was inspired by Kramer’s incarceration. 

Here, the MC5 legend talks about why the Jail Guitar Doors cause means so much to him, what he learned from his own time in prison and what to expect from this special show.

Lyndsey Parker: What exactly is the organization Jail Guitar Doors, and what is its mission? 

Wayne Kramer: What we do is simple. We find people that work in corrections that are willing to use music as a tool for violence prevention, rehabilitation and reentry training. We provide instruments for correctional facilities and we run programs designed to help people deal with complex feelings, a way to express those feelings positively, and figure out what went wrong and make sure they don't make those mistakes again.

LP: You’ve said the prison term that you got in 1975 would’ve been a much longer, stricter sentence today, with the way the system now works -- or doesn't work. What's changed since you served time? 

WK: Well, the focus on rehabilitation ended in the 1970s. I was told that it came straight from Washington. That rehabilitation was a failure and now we were going to deal with “accountability,” which turned into hyper-incarceration and human warehousing. What happened is politicians discovered there were votes in being perceived as “tough on crime.” And they were able to finance prison building across the country by scaring the bejesus out of people by parading crime victim groups on television, making everybody terrified that criminals were about to break into their house and you know, murder them. Which is a complete and total fantasy that was skillfully orchestrated by prison guard unions and politicians because they figured it was win/win! And what they ended up with was the prison population increasing sevenfold from 1970. When I served my sentence, there were 350,000 people in prison in America. Today, there's 2.3 million of our fellow citizens serving time.

LP: And what are the long-term ramifications of that?

WK: What we end up with is entire communities that are disenfranchised and separated from their families and who are held in facilities that are breeding grounds for racism, violence, resentment and bitterness. And then we throw them back out on the streets and say, "Hey, rejoin us in civic life!" And of course, that's a recipe for disaster. My sense is, if we don't do something to help people change for the better while they're in custody, they will most certainly change for the worse. 

LP: What's the hardest thing would you say about re-assimilating into society after leaving prison? And how does the system fail people in that regard once they're out there?

WK: It runs the entire gamut of human experience. If you're living in an institution for 10 or 20 years and then you're plopped back out on the street, you’ve basically lost all of your ability to function in society. You won't know how to balance a checkbook. You won't know how to open a bank account. You won't know what the internet is. You won't know how to work a cell phone. Every aspect of life has to be relearned. Most people succeed in the transition and I'm certainly not calling ex-offenders heroes, but they need near heroic effort to return to society.

LP: Music seemed to be a positive force for you during your prison stint.

WK: Yes, the best thing that happened to me was the friendship I made with an older musician, Red Rodney, a jazz trumpeter -- the experience of meeting him and becoming his student and seeing a version of myself. He was in his fifties then; I was in my twenties. He was coming back to prison for the fourth time and I just didn't want to go back to prison again. I thought, “At the rate I'm going, I will be back. So I need to change.” And the fact that I could improve my job skills and I could do something positive in an otherwise negative environment added to not only my life but added to my fellow prisoners’ lives. We were able to do regular musical performances throughout the institution and provide high-quality live musical entertainment for people. It allowed me to be part of the community.

LP: During your Jail Guitar Doors visits to different facilities, do you see yourself in any of the young prisoners?

WK: I see myself in all of them. I am those guys. And we have success stories, dozens and dozens of them. I've worked with groups of men in our workshops. We do not recognize gang affiliations or racial barriers or class barriers or neighborhood barriers. Everybody in our workshop is an artist. Prison politics are left out on the yard. There can be no threats and no intimidation. We have to treat each other with dignity and respect. There's no racist humor. There's no sexist humor. There's no banging on the mic. And there's no disrespecting women. Based on those guidelines, we have a safe environment for people to open up their humanity, look at their own lives and go inside and see where things started to go wrong. 

LP: What touching stories do you have about the prisoner interactions you've seen on those visits?

WK: Well, for example, I've had guys tell me, "You know that guy over there? I never liked him. But man, we worked on that song together and you know what? He ain't so bad. He's kind of cool. I like him." So, in the transformative power of art and music, we can touch people's humanity, and if they can touch their own humanity they can begin to touch each other's humanity. And that's the definition of rehabilitation.

LP: So, now that you are here, more than 40 years after your prison experiences and 50 years after the MC5, with MC50. How did you go about recruiting the people that are in this touring lineup, to recreate the MC5’s music – since obviously, most of the people who created it aren't with us anymore? 

WK: My criteria started with they had to be good people, genial people who enjoyed each other's company … I wanted to be sure that I had people that were confident in their own identities -- no primadonnas, no alcoholics, no drug addicts. Just really good musicians and good brothers. From there, I started to think who amongst my friends might be available, that would think this might be fun? And I started calling people up, and I got really lucky. 

LP: When you guys play at the Ford, will you have any other collaborators?

WK: We’re going to have special guest of Greg Dulli [of the Afghan Whigs]; Starcrawler, our support band; and the great Jason Heath & the Greedy Souls. And the Jail Guitar Doors teachers are going to do a number too -- we put everybody to work!

LP: Is it bittersweet performing Kick Out the Jams without your original bandmates? Is it ever difficult for you, or is it cathartic?

WK: It's both. At each performance, I try to recognize [singer] Rob [Tyner, who died in 1991], [guitarist] Fred [Smith, who died in 1994], [bassist] Michael [Davis, who died in 2012], and [drummer] Dennis [who is alive, but stopped touring six years ago]. I make sure that nobody forgets them. I mean, they were my guys. We were all in it together. I didn't do it all by myself. They were, in most ways, more creative than I am, and it was my great honor to be in a band with them. They're not here now, and the best I can do is get good guys to go out there and honor them every night by playing their music, true to the spirit.

LP: You have such an inspiring comeback story. What do you think other troubled people can glean from your experiences?

WK: Well, I'll tell you, with all the terrible things that I'd been through, I've hurt people and I've been hurt and I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of, but I wouldn't change anything. Today, what used to be my worst shortcomings and my worst defects of character have become the most valuable things I have. Because if I meet another guy and he's going through the same kind of trouble I went through, I can say the one thing to him that no one else can say, "I know how you feel because I did that too. And I found a way to change for the better. And if I can do it, you can do it."

LP: That’s an amazing way to sum things up. I’m looking forward to seeing you and the Jail Guitar Doors teachers play the Ford in October.

WK: Yes, it’s going to be a whale of a show. The John Anson Ford Amphitheatre is the greatest venue in the world to perform at. It has the best sightlines, the best sound, the best atmosphere, and I'm thrilled about being there every year for Jail Guitar Doors. I'm looking forward to seeing all my hard-rocking, mainline mellows out there. Show up and join with us to send a message to Washington: They should clean up their act.

MC50’s "Kick Out the Jams" 50th Anniversary Concert will be presented on Friday, October 5 at 8:00 PM. For more information, please click here