Charged with “16 counts of possession with intent to deliver, conspiracy to deliver, possession and sale of cocaine,” the onetime leader of Detroit’s rock ’n’ roll pride The MC5, Wayne Kramer, was prison bound.
Having previously escaped the inevitable fate for a lying, thieving, dope sick junkie, by the mid-‘70s, with his band in the toilet and his addiction at full tilt, the jig was up: Even his own mother was done.
“Wayne, you know I would help you if I could, but I can’t. Besides, you deserve to go to prison,” Kramer writes in his new memoir, The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, The MC5 And My Life of Impossibilities (Da Capo Press).
The guitarist went ahead and served his time: Two-and-a-half years in federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky, an institution once known for housing and occasionally rehabbing drug criminals, many of them jazz musicians. Kramer writes of his fear upon entering the facility, the terrors he saw there and the changes it put him through, though at the time, he never once considered quitting drugs as an alternative.
“I quickly discovered any drug you wanted was available if you had money,” he writes. “Reefer in particular was abundant.”
Forming a bond with incoming inmate Red Rodney, the jazz trumpeter of some renown (not only for his considerable skill as a musician, but for being among the few whites who toured with mostly black ensembles throughout the Jim Crow era), the pair convinced the warden to let them teach music theory to the inmates. If the book was a movie script, hilarity would ensue, but Kramer’s telling of prison life and the musical mentorship and fathering he received from Rodney resists laughs and reliance on rock and recovery jargon and emerges as the most sober and interesting segment of what would otherwise be a fairly standard issue music memoir.
Kramer’s prison term has partly identified him: Most casual listeners of the MC5 know that it happened; Joe Strummer even wrote it into a Clash song. Prison is the big event on which Kramer’s story turns, gives his life its ballast, and a logical middle as he moves toward the beginning of his long final act.
Operating with a new knowledge, some of it passed on from Rodney, Kramer emerges not quite as mixed-up as he had been and a few steps closer to transformation. There would be more drugs, sure, and more opportunities to mess up, but his drive to hustle is still intact. Never having to live behind bars again, these days he goes back to jails as a performer and advocate with Jail Guitar Doors (named after the Clash song about him) an international organization he runs stateside with Billy Bragg in the UK, assisting prisoner rehabilitation through music.
Kramer’s time under lock and key also gave him the unique opportunity to observe America’s prison system up close and to report on it: His confinement was back in the day when rehab was still conceived as part of the process, as opposed to today’s standard of mass incarceration and warehousing people for profit and abuse.
“We are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment,” he writes.
Some years ago, I interviewed Kramer on the matter of his life coming full circle: Clean from drugs, he was working on the soundtrack to The Narcotic Farm, a documentary about Lexington (his collaboration with trumpeter Charles Moore ultimately landed them on the Billboard jazz charts). By the time we spoke, he had more than reclaimed his recording career, was on the road again, and was candid about revisiting the past.
“You pick up the phone and you hear click, clack, clackity, click,” Kramer told me, of the wiretapping he and his band experienced at the height of the FBI’s counterintelligence program in effect to ensnare not only political leaders but cultural changemakers like rock bands.
“You’re sitting in a house where we all lived together working out a song with Rob Tyner, and a police car shines its spotlights on us and runs a siren. You’re driving to a gig and funny, the police just happen to pull you over and want you to tear out all your band gear, empty everyone’s pockets and put everything back. They were in our face. And we had ugly confrontations, violent confrontations with them,” he said.
Some of that interview was published in my book, Keep on Pushing (Lawrence Hill Books) which took on the history of music with a message and the wages paid by the people who made it. Kramer and the MC5 were perceived by law enforcement to be a threat, but then that’s nothing new for musicians with a point-of-view. From the time when people sang gospel and abolition songs until the launch of the Occupy Movement, everything that Kramer reported as a musician who took a political stand in the ‘60s and ‘70s has happened to musicians before him and after: Lost careers and lost minds are the idea when free thought and expression is oppressed.
Now 70, and making his way toward the end of his road, Kramer’s the father of a small child and a devoted husband; his time is spent committed to helping others in the prison system and reaching out his hand to recovering drug addicts. He’s also still playing rock ‘n’ roll on the road again, celebrating 50 years since his first album with the MC5 (John Swenson also writes about Kramer and the band in his column this month).
As influential, anthemic and pure rock ’n’ roll as a song like “Kick Out The Jams” is, it doesn’t really stand up to lyrical scrutiny — far from it. But Kramer’s ability to wear his imperfections, own his discomfort, his foibles and addictions, his dysfunctional family of origin, and his at times awkward musical expressions are points of connection with his humanity and that of others. If his story helps just one reader contend with their own difficulties, Kramer’s devotion to writing it all down will be his ultimate redemption song.
9/25 – Milwaukee, WI @ Turner Hall Ballroom*
9/26 – St. Louis, MO @ The Ready Room*
9/28 – Austin, TX @ Mohawk*
9/29 – Dallas, TX @ Granada Theater*
10/1 – Phoenix, AZ @ The Marquee
10/2 – Las Vegas, NV @ Brooklyn Bowl
10/3 – San Diego, CA @ House of Blues^
10/4 – San Francisco, CA @ The Regency Ballroom^
10/5 – Los Angeles, CA @ John Anson Ford (A Benefit for charity Jail Guitar Doors)
10/15 – Portland, OR @ Roseland Theater^
10/16 – Seattle, WA @ The Showbox^
10/17 – Vancouver, BC @ Commodore Ballroom^
10/19 – Salt Lake City, UT @ Metro Music Hall^
10/20 – Denver, CO @ Gothic Theatre^
10/23 – Minneapolis, MN @ Varsity Theater*
10/24 – Chicago, IL @ Metro Chicago*
10/25 – Cincinnati, OH @ Bogart’s*
10/26 – Detroit, MI @ St. Andrew’s Hall*
10/27 – Detroit, MI @ The Fillmore*
#w/ Man Or Astro-Man?
*w/ Detroit Cobras
Denise Sullivan is a California-based author of books on music including Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop, The White Stripes: Sweethearts of the Blues and Shaman’s Blues: The Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors. Follow her @4DeniseSullivan and at her blog.
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