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MC5’s Wayne Kramer still sticking it to “the man” with his guitar

MC5 founder Wayne Kramer displays some of the guitars he provides to prison inmates through his program "Jail Guitar Doors." (AP image)

When it comes to music history, Detroit’s legendary MC5 is commonly credited as the godfathers of punk rock and metal as they exploded in the late 60’s. Leader Wayne Kramer and his crew changed the game and many of the rules of rock and roll with their raw sound that would inspire generations to follow.

Over 40 years later, Kramer is still mixing it up, working tirelessly for change through music and activism. He’s coming to Seattle next week to appear on a panel at the annual Seattle Interactive Conference, focusing on how social media, the Internet and technology can help people make a difference in the world.

I spoke with Kramer this week ahead of his Seattle appearance about the early days, his time in prison and how it would change his life, and his tireless dedication to stirring things up.

Kramer told me when the MC5 was starting out in the 60’s, the group fully intended to make a radical departure in music.

“Well, we tried. We were conscious that we were really trying to make a difference and see if we couldn’t open up the dynamic a little bit. We all have traditions and conventions especially in the world of art, and in music we just tried to go post conventional to go beyond the beat, beyond the key and to incorporate influences that weren’t mainstream influences.”

It would be the precursor to punk rock: loud, raw, angry, explosive. And the mainstream definitely didn’t “get it.”

“We’re all part of a great tradition of generation after generation sticks it to the generation before them. You know, people rioted in the streets when Beethoven came out with radical new ideas in music. So it’s a tradition really,” he laughed.

The MC5 would ultimately fall apart in the early 70’s amidst Kramer’s struggles with drug addiction. He got busted for selling cocaine to undercover federal agents and served over two years in prison in Kentucky. While he was behind bars he started a band with fellow inmate Red Rodney, legendary jazz man Charlie Parker’s trumpeter.

“Playing music gave me a way to contribute to the life we all shared there by putting on regular shows. It was a way to participate and be a part of the world there and I knew that the guitar was not only the key to my cell but also the key to my future.”

While he was in prison, Joe Strummer and the Clash wrote a song in Kramer’s honor called “Jail Guitar Doors.” It meant the world. But little did he know several decades later the song would come to mean so much more.

Fast forward 30 years. Kramer, who’d devoted himself to helping prisoners behind bars and after they were released, put together a concert at New York’s Sing Sing prison with a number of his rock star friends. Among them was British musician Billy Bragg, who’d emblazoned his guitar case with “Jail Guitar Doors.”

“He said, ‘oh yeah it’s an old Clash B-side. Have you ever heard it?'” Kramer laughed. “And I said ‘Bill, the song’s about me.’ He was so embarrassed.”

It turns out Bragg had been so inspired by the song and Strummer’s influence, he started an organization to bring musical instruments prisoners in the U.K. It wasn’t long before he convinced Kramer to do the same in the U.S.

“So it came full circle from the Clash writing the song about me being locked up to Billy Bragg’s launching Jail Guitar Doors UK to me launching Jail Guitar Doors USA. When we can put a guitar in a prisoner’s hand and encourage him to tell his own story or her own story, it gives them a new non-confrontational way to express themselves, a way to process their problems,” he said.

Kramer, who still performs regularly along with scoring films, TV show and commercials in Hollywood, continues advocating for changes in the prison system and an end to the culture of incarceration that pervades the U.S. justice system. But his activism and idealism extend far beyond the bars. Just as he did with the MC5, he’s hoping to spark a revolution of sorts and inspire others to make the world a better place.

“I think the solution to that is a commitment to ethical action. And by action I don’t mean clicking a box on the Internet. I mean getting off your ass and going out and meeting with people and making something happen. Making a difference, putting some energy into it. I believe that one person makes a difference. And five people can make a big difference. And 10 people can make an incredible difference.”

You can hear my interview with Wayne Kramer Saturday night at 7 p.m. on Seattle Sounds on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM.

Wayne Kramer appears on the “Game Changers for Humanity” panel Tuesday October 30 at 3:30 p.m. at the Seattle Interactive Conference.

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