“I want to tell you about Wayne and his cocaine deals. A little bit more every day,” the Clash sang in 1978, “Keep it for a friend until the band is well. Then the DEA put him away.”
The song “Jail Guitar Doors” was about guitarist Wayne Kramer, who at the time was serving a prison sentence in Lexington, Kentucky, for selling cocaine to an undercover federal agent. Kramer played “Red Rodney” with trumpeter Robert in the local band on Sundays. Chudnick, who was famous because he was the only white member of Charlie Parker’s bebop quintet.
Kramer is now in prison again for 42 years and hundreds of guitar picks later – but only on Tuesdays. He teaches songwriting at the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail, one of the largest prisons in the world.
“Prison is there to rob you of your humanity. We fight this. In prison they say you have no value. We do not believe that. Racism, bitterness, violence – that is what prison teaches you. We fight that,” says Kramer about his volunteering in a program named after the Clash’s ode to him.
Jail Guitar Doors USA has distributed guitars and taught music in more than 140 American prisons and dungeons, giving the men the same lifeline that saved Kramer.
“The prisoners all have a story to tell, and we encourage them to express complex, sometimes painful feelings in ways that bring beauty to the world [that]they can be proud of,” he says. “Most people in prison never have someone to say, ‘Man, that was a great idea’. For everything and forever.
“When you hear that, everything changes,” he says. “Being encouraged to tell your story and express what’s going on changes everything,” he says.
Kramer’s claim to moderating fame came from a 1960s Detroit proto-punk group called MC5. Despite a sound engineer who worked on the Doors albums and a guitarist who married the fast-rising Patti Smith, the group never managed to compete nationwide with the Bob Seger system. Or with the Amboy Dukes, the group of Ted Nugent, who fought with them for stage time in the 1960s.
The anti-authoritarian MC5 single “Kick Out the Jams” reached its peak at number 30 in the charts. A commemorative plaque hangs in Kramer’s L.A. studio, commemorating Blue Oyster Cult’s cover of the song on their 1978 platinum-selling live album Some Enchanted Evening.
For Kramer, life after his band broke up was a revolving door of addiction and robbery that put him behind bars and eventually led him to sobriety. After his narcotic haze had cleared, he saw prisons like the one in which he had processed his pain with music, and saw a dramatic shift away from rehabilitation – and towards harder times.
“In the decades after my release, I saw that people who committed the very crime I committed and for which I got four years, were now being sent to prison for life for the same crime,” he says. I thought, “Somebody has to do something about this.
He continues: “The people in prison are just like you and me. They have the same hopes, the same fears, the same ambitions, the same relationships with others. And if we continue as we have been doing, we will create an underclass that is disenfranchised from its friends, family and community and that serves no one but the people who benefit from the prisons.
Kramer had a stable life – a marriage, an income and a direction – when he played at a concert for inmates of the infamous Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York, in 2009. Between sets with Iggy Pop, founder of Alice in Chains, Jerry Cantrell, and Steven Van Zandt, guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, he asked British singer-songwriter and progressive activist Billy Bragg for a “Jail Guitar Doors” logo on his instrument case.
Bragg said it was the name of a program he had started in the UK to bring music into prisons. He named it after the Clash song, but did not know that the introductory text of the hard driving song was about the man he was talking to.
Bragg told Kramer that his past and his passion made him the only person capable of replicating the work of the British group in America.
Kramer and his wife Margaret knew in 2009 that the number of prisoners in America was skyrocketing, with the world’s highest incarceration rate and more than 7.3 million people under surveillance by law enforcement agencies – 2.3 million of them behind bars. In 2018, the let