Former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer is lucky to be doing this interview — lucky to be alive. And he knows it. The legendary guitarist went from groundbreaking rocker to drug addict to prison inmate to would-be rock ‘n’ roll casualty in record time. Then, something magical happened. Mr. Kramer rediscovered his purpose in life: music and its ability to rehabilitate and heal.
Today, he thrives with a newborn son, an independent record label and a busy career scoring movies and TV shows. In addition, Mr. Kramer brings the healing power of music to prisons across the United States through his charitable organization, Jail Guitar Doors USA. He reflects on his early days in the MC5, the healing power of music and what “Kick Out the Jams” was really all about.
Question: What was Detroit like to produce the fury of the MC5?
Answer: There was a complete generation of young people who unanimously disagreed with the direction the country was going in. But that was the ‘60s, not just the MC5. If you add the discontent both nationally and internationally to the Detroit environment, you get us.
Q: What was it like to be in the MC5?
A: It was thrill of a lifetime. From the time I was a little boy, I wanted nothing more than to be a professional musician. To work in nightclubs, sleep all day and chase wild women. In the MC5, I had achieved all my goals before we ever even made an album.
Q: How did the song “Kick Out the Jams” come to be? And what does it mean?
A: That song was born out of our inflated sense of self-importance and our Detroit aggressiveness. We used to hassle out-of-town bands when they would come in to play at the Grande Ballroom. If they got up there and didn’t perform at the level we felt they should, we would yell at them, “Kick out the jams or get off the stage!”
Q: How did you go from being a rock star to being a prison inmate?
A: You make some really bad choices. I accomplished a great deal very young on ambition and talent. But ambition and talent are not enough. One day, the MC5 was gone. My way to make money was gone. I had nothing. I found the criminal world romantic. Being grandiose and self-delusional, I thought I could play in that league. As a drug dealer, I was a complete and utter failure.
Q: How did you to start your charity Jail Guitar Doors USA?
A: While I was locked up in prison, The Clash wrote a song about [my] trouble with the authorities called “Jail Guitar Doors.” I heard about it when I got out and went to meet them, and we became lifelong friends. Then I watched as hundreds of thousands — and today 2.3 million — of my fellows were placed under lock and key. I did a slow burn about it. I got angry and said, “I have to do something.” I thought I would get some musicians together and at least perform for prisoners. Maybe that would provide some relief.
For the first concert, I took Billy Bragg with me. He had “Jail Guitar Doors” written on his guitar. I said, “What does that mean, Billy?” He said, “Oh, it’s an old Clash B-side. You ever heard of it?” I said, “Billy, the song was written about me. Do you know the lyrics?” He sang, “Let me tell you about Wayne and his deals of cocaine oh bloody hell!” He then told me about this independent initiative he started in England to honor Joe Strummer, where they would provide instruments to inmates for rehabilitation. By the end of the concert, I went to him and said, “I want to do this here in America.” That day, we founded Jail Guitar Doors USA.
Q: How many prisons are you working in?
A: Our guitars are now in over 60 U.S. prisons. We run songwriting workshop programs in Texas, San Diego, Chicago and here in the Los Angeles County Jail.
Q: Does music really help rehabilitate?
A: If you accept the guitars, then you accept the challenge of doing the hard work of rehabilitation. Writing a song, learning how to express yourself in a new, nonconfrontational way is the first step on the ladder [you climb to] get out of your cell, out of the prison, on to a new life.
Q: How did you get into making music for TV and film?
A: I just didn’t want to get back in the van. [laughs] I love playing music for people, but the idea of getting in the van and doing another tour across Europe in the winter just didn’t have the snap that it had when I was in my 30s, 40s and 50s.
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