LOS ANGELES — He spent two years in a federal lockup for trying to sell cocaine to undercover agents, and all Wayne Kramer can think about these days is trying to find a way to get back behind bars.
This time, though, the guitar god for rock music’s seminal pre-punk band, the MC5, wants to bring his ax with him — and a few dozen others for the inmates to play.
With a little help from friends like the Foo Fighters’ Chris Shiflett, former Guns ‘N Roses guitarist Gilby Clarke and others, Kramer has formed Jail Guitar Doors USA.
He runs the nonprofit charitable organization with his wife, Margaret, out of the Hollywood studio where he makes a comfortable living these days composing music for movies and television. Over the past two years, Jail Guitar Doors USA has delivered scores of instruments to prisons and jails in Nevada, California and Texas.
“He’s a great man. He’s taken his skill, his talent and he’s putting it to use, giving back to society,” says Deputy David Bates, who has worked with Kramer in bringing guitars to several jails run by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Bates, who calls music “the universal language,” says he’s seen the positive impact it has had on inmates.
So, Kramer says, has he. In his case, first hand.
“When I played music in prison, I wasn’t in prison anymore,” he says, as he sits in his studio over a lunch of vegetarian Thai food.
“And that’s what we’re trying to accomplish with the instrument donations,” he continues. “That this is a way that you can get through this time, that you can go someplace else, you can get involved in your guitar.”
Kramer, who is 63, is dressed in blue jeans and a plaid flannel shirt over a white T. Although he still looks about as thin as he did in the days when he was tearing up tunes like “Kick Out the Jams,” the huge white-guy Afro that once nearly defined him as much as his guitar has given way to thinning close-cropped hair.
He was still in his 20s when he arrived at the federal prison in Lexington, Ky., in the 1970s, scheduled to do four years for trying to sell $10,000 worth of cocaine.
The place was bleak and dispiriting, especially for someone who had been a rock star just a few years before. But Kramer would soon discover there was a music class there. It was taught by the legendary jazz trumpeter Red Rodney, who was doing time himself for a heroin bust.
“He’d been to Lexington three times. … He was kind of like the mayor of the prison,” Kramer recalls, laughing. “He taught music theory.”
The guitarist studied with him and, after he was paroled early, returned to the music business. But he still struggled for years to keep from going back.
The MC5, which had helped define punk rock with its screaming guitar chords and intense lyrics, had long since broken up, and Detroit’s music scene had died along with the city’s economy. Kramer, meanwhile, was still drinking heavily and associating with drug users, a prescription for violating parole.
So he moved to LA, got sober and began to do music for films like “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”
He also put together a reconstituted MC5 and took it on a world tour, subbing in people like Clarke and Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators for founding members “Fred “Sonic” Smith and Rob Tyner, who had died of heart attacks in their mid-40s.
Throughout the tours and other projects, however, Kramer kept yearning to give something back to those he’d left behind in prison. Many of them, he says, were similar to him: young guys looking at years behind bars for doing something stupid involving drugs.
“Clearly I knew I was doing wrong,” he says of his own bust. “But these guys had briefcases full of money, and I’m out of work, and I look at those hundred-dollar bills and say, ‘Hmmm, let me make some calls.’
“I’m not Pollyannaish about it,” he says of prison life. “There are some people who aren’t going to change, aren’t interested in changing and need to be locked up. I would put it at maybe 15 percent.
“But,” he quickly adds, “that leaves 85 percent.”
That thought led him to start visiting prisons, and it was at a concert he put on at Sing Sing in Ossining. N.Y., that Jail Guitar Doors USA was born.
One of the musicians he’d invited to take part was old friend Billy Bragg, and the British rocker arrived with the words Jail Guitar Doors written across his guitar.
He told Kramer he’d recently formed a group to help prisoners in his native England, taking the name for it from an old Clash song.
“Maybe you’ve heard it,” Bragg told him.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I know the song, Billy,” Kramer recalled with a guffaw. “It’s about me.”
He reminded him of the opening lyrics: “Let me tell you about Wayne and his deals with cocaine.” The Clash had written it for Kramer when he was in prison. Thirty years later it would connect him to the cause he’d been looking for.
He began rounding up others to help. Finding them turned out to be relatively easy for a guy who had influenced a generation of guitarists.
“There aren’t many people you can’t speak too highly of, but Wayne is one of them,” says Clarke who has gone behind bars with him. “The challenges he had in his life, the things he’s overcome and the successes he’s having now. And he’s just one of the greatest guitarists there is. So when Wayne calls, I have to get involved.”
Another was Shiflett, who first heard of Jail Guitar Doors through Bragg’s website and visited a prison with him in England. When Kramer started his USA chapter, he quickly signed on. At one prison stop he taught a music workshop.
“We played a Bob Marley song,” he recalled recently. “One of the most moving things about it, for me, was when we talked music there was no dissension at all. It was just a bunch of guys in a room talking about music.”
Two years after its founding, Kramer would like to take Jail Guitar Doors USA nationwide. He knows that will take much more time, money and phone calls to people like Clarke and Shiflett.
But it’s something he’s committed to.
“I figure if maybe I can get a guitar in a kid’s hand he can start to see himself as more than just a kid from the ‘hood in trouble,” he says.