On the surface it doesn’t sound all that cool or glamorous. Spend a 95+ degree California night packed into an old, converted factory space (now an art gallery) with dozens of lawyers, and no air conditioners, to attend an awards show. Sound painful? Yes. Unless you consider the night was the 6th annual “Artistic License Awards” organized by the California Lawyers for the Arts, an organization that fights for the rights of musicians, actors, painters and other artists, and that the guest of honor is none other than the MC5’s guitar god Wayne Kramer. Did we mention that a bunch of Kramer’s rock and roll friends also in attendance played a blistering 4 song set? Not so painful now, eh? Downright amazing!
Kramer should not be alive today, and he knows it. The legendary guitarist of the explosive MC5 went from groundbreaking rocker, to drug addict, to prison inmate, to would be rock and roll casualty in record time. Then something magical happened; Kramer discovered his purpose in life. Music and rehabilitation helped bring him back from the brink, and pushed him to a whole new level of servitude. Today he thrives with a reformed MC5, a series of solo CDs, soundtrack scores and film projects. In 2009, Kramer was inspired by his pal Billy Bragg to form Jail Guitar Doors USA, a charity organization that puts on concerts in prisons and donates guitars to inmates for use in rehabilitation. Kick out the jams indeed.
West Coast Bureau Chief Keith Valcourt spent a sweat dripped night with Matt Sorum (Guns n’ Roses/Velvet Revolver), Gilby Clarke (Guns n’ Rose) and the man himself—Wayne Kramer– for this exclusive round of interviews.
Rocker: How does it feel to be the guest of honor at this awards ceremony?
Wayne Kramer: You know I have to take myself out of the picture and slide the honor onto the prisoners, and my fellow musicians, who actually do the work. It isn’t really about me. I’m happy to be the face of it and piggy back stuff on my story. It’s really about the importance of the work, the hope that the prisoners display when they get the instruments, the enthusiasm. The guitars aren’t gifts. The guitars are a challenge. If you accept these guitars, then you are accepting the challenge to step up and do the hard work of rehabilitation. Whatever you gotta do to figure out how you got here, and what you have to do to make sure you never some back to this fucking penitentiary again.
Rocker: Jail Guitar Doors is now four years old. How has it grown?
Wayne: At this point, we are in over thirty prisons in the United States. We’ve distributed over 300 guitars along with numerous drum kits, bass amps, and stuff like that. We have programs up and running in Texas, and in Cook County jail in Illinois. We are starting a program in the Twin Towers prison here in downtown Los Angeles, and we’re starting to go into some of the women’s facilities now. We’re just growing and growing. As more and more people participate in the conversation, and read stories like this, awareness grows. Then they start to realize that people in prison aren’t all head-chopping, eyeball-tattooed, homicidal maniacs; most are just people like you and me that made a mistake.
Half of them are non-violent drug offenders. They are drug war prisoners. The problem is not drugs it’s drug prohibition. It’s about getting this conversation going so people can see these are our own neighbors, our cousins, our own brothers and sisters. You and I are white. We don’t feel it like people of color. White people use more drugs than people of color. White people deal more drugs than people of color. But who is in prison? People of color. It’s also a really vile political strategy. There was a period in America where crime was used as a political hammer, so they could beat people into submission. They blamed it all on “those black people” and “those brown people”. That’s not working anymore, even with the political right. Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich have formed a prison reform movement called “Right On Crime.” It’s a building process that has to continue to build and build until we can bring enough pressure to bear on legislators to actually undo the damage they have done.
Rocker: Matt & Gilby, what brings you here tonight?
Matt Sorum: Wayne Kramer, and California Lawyers For The Arts. I’ve been affiliated with them a little bit with my own charity “Adopt The Arts.” We were all hanging out together at Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill.
Gilby Clarke: A couple different things, and of course Wayne Kramer is one of them. I’ve been working with Wayne for many years now, just trying to help him support his worthy causes. One of my best buddies, who I know from back in the “Cathouse” (legendary LA metal club) days is one of the lawyers on the board here — Keith Cooper. When Wayne asked me, and then I knew Keith was involved I said, “Alright, alright. I’m in!” Back in the day, Keith wasn’t a lawyer. He was just one of us just looking for an angle. He worked with Rikki (Rachman) at Cathouse.
It’s funny how life goes full circle. You know about your friends. Some are still musicians. Some are lawyers. Some of them don’t so anything and they call you. (Laughs)
Rocker: When was the first time you ever heard the music of Wayne Kramer & MC5? And how did he influence you?
Matt: I got turned on to him when I was in The Cult. Ian (Astbury) was playing them a lot. I knew of them before that, but wasn’t super into them until about the mid-1980s. I discovered and got into them later in my life. Like a lot of kids do. A lot of kids, even younger kids now, look at that band as an iconic band. They wear the MC5 t-shirt, or The Ramones t-shirt,… it’s just iconic cool. The MC-5 were very against the grain, and they pushed it hard. They were very experimental with psychedelic punk mixtures with acid jazz flavors. Hard stuff for the 1960s! Lyrically they were social activists. In my opinion, a lot of the punk guys look to the MC5 as the grandfathers of punk. Bands like The Clash, Sex Pistols and The Ramones,… they all give MC5 credit.
Gilby: I honestly don’t remember the first time I heard the MC5. I was born and raised in Cleveland, so I probably heard the MC5 a lot more than people on the West Coast did. Bands like the MC5, J Geils and Michael Stanley band were bands I thought were as big as Kiss and Led Zeppelin at that time. It didn’t really connect with me until the early 1980s, around the same time I got into the New York Dolls and bands like that. When I started learning more guitar stuff and trying to understand what my style meshes with and what turns me on. For me, the MC5 was one of those bands.
Rocker: Gilby, when did you first meet Wayne and start working with him?
Gilby: Jeez, I think it was the early to mid-nineties. We were doing an all-star band with a bunch of Chicago guys and Wayne was playing with them, and we just sort of clicked. Guitar players usually don’t play nicely with others (laughs) but Wayne and I play nicely together. When he had some other things come up, he asked me to join him and I started doing the MC5 gigs with him. It’s been wonderful ever since.
Rocker: What was it like stepping in to play in the MC5?
Gilby: As a guitar player, it was heaven. Once again it’s a style thing. I was never the shredder guy, I was never the Van Halen guy, or Randy Rhodes,… I was always more the bluesy, seventies kind of guitar player. The funny thing is, when I learned to play the MC5s songs, I thought they went one way, and then Wayne showed me how they really went and that blew me away. On some of those records from the seventies it’s hard to pick out the little things. Playing it in a live situation you go, “Wow! That is why they were so great!” I connected to music that for me, as a guitar player, felt extremely natural and powerful.
Rocker: Have you played any of the Jail Guitar Doors concerts?
Matt: I played the Lancaster, California prison with Wayne. It was cool because it was great to see that prisoners could have a moment where they could actually be human, and that we could connect with them on that level musically. There was a female singer that came in with us. She played a ballad, and some of the prisoners were crying. It really touched them. Music and art do that to us. It’s the one thing in life we can all agree on
Gilby: I did the original Sing Sing gig, when Billy (Bragg) and Wayne really connected. Billy already had Jail Guitar Doors going, but that was when Wayne brought it to America.
Rocker: What is it like to play in prison?
Matt: I felt like Johnny Cash for a minute. It was heavy. The idea of the “Honor Yard,” and the way that business and society have to work within the rules of the prison for them to have a little extra activity and embrace being a non-violent person living in a situation like that is heavy. The idea of bringing music into the honor yard for the guys is pretty cool, to give them to have a way to calm those inner feelings. Music does that for us. It’s very cathartic. The whole idea is for them to have an avenue to express themselves works for everyone. It works with prisoners. It works with kids. It works with everyone.
Gilby: It was a very sobering experience, and there are two sides to every story. It fucked with your head a little bit. You ask “Why do we have to entertain prisoners? What’s the point?” Getting into it changed my mind about a lot of things, especially prison reform and rehabilitation. I honestly didn’t know anything about that stuff. I had no connection. That was something that Wayne brought to me from him. It really opened my eyes.
Rocker: Do you believe in the power of music rehabilitation?
Matt: I do, I truly believe in the power of rehabilitation through music. I believe that music and arts are important. Sadly it’s been downsized in America, more than any other place in the world. 25% of the prisoners in the world are in prison in America. And we are only 5 % of the world population. We have a massive prison system, but Wayne and I are working to help change that. My charity “Adopt the Arts” is for kids K-6 and focuses on keeping arts and music in schools for kids, to keep them from ending up in prison. We can go into the backstory as to why the public school systems are failing. It’s been scientifically proven that kids go on to college if they have music and art. 52% of kids do. I’m trying to find them early and Wayne’ gets them later.
Gilby: Absolutely. I believe in the power of music in so many things. My brother just got into a motorcycle accident and holding a little music up to his ears while he is sitting in a hospital bed makes him feel better. Music is a positive thing we all need in our lives. It’s a small thing, but it’s important.
Rocker: Matt, Apart from tonight, I know up you were working with Cherie Currie on her new solo CD.
Matt: I finished my part of the record close to three years ago. Since then, I know they’ve went through some trials and tribulations, making sure it was the right record. I helped her put together about 13 songs. Last I’ve heard they’ve added a couple of new ones.
Rocker: I was told they wanted to add a few covers to remind the folks of her past.
Matt: Kenny Laguna (Joan Jett/Cherie’s manager) has been a genius of that with Joan Jett’s career, with “Crimson and Clover” and even “I Love Rock and Roll” which wasn’t written by Joan, but both of which were massive hits. They pulled little gems out of the old. I recorded two covers with her. We did “Air That I Breathe” which was an Albert Hammond song. We did full orchestration on it and I thought she sang it really well. Then we did the Nick Gilder tune “Roxy Roller.” Suzy Quatro did it too but her version was a little rough in my opinion. Cherie just has a great voice. She is a natural singer. Even though there was a whole period of time where she just disappeared, she has such style. If you see her on stage she’s still cool. I think the bill that would work would be Cherie and Joan Jett together.
Rocker: What do you guys have going on musically?
Wayne: I just finished a feature film, a stop motion animation called “Hell & Back,” a fantastically wicked, funny movie. I’ve got a new album called “Lexington” that I’m going to put out in January, 2014, which is a free jazz album. We just did a new distribution deal with Fontana, so I’m gonna re-issue all of my solo catalog. I’ve never did a digital deal with anyone on my solo stuff. So I’ll reissue that stuff, all available for download with some prizes and unreleased MC5 stuff too.
Matt: I have a solo album coming out in September where I play guitar, piano, and sing. It’s very different, more the musical stylings I like outside of hard rock. I’m into bands like Massive Attack, Wilco, Tom Petty,… It’s a very organic album. I have strings on 4 or 5 songs. I have horns on the album. I’m putting it out independently. I have my own label Rock Dock Recordings. It will be out on 200 digital download domains. We’re gonna start dropping videos. I made some webisodes that will be all over the internet. We’re talking about going to triple A radio with a song. It’s more David Gray meets Tom Petty. We’re gonna do most of it digital with some cool vinyl and groovy stuff for fans.
Rocker: Do you worry that because people associate you with hard rock and metal they might not get it?
Matt: I’m not concerned. There is a growth factor involved and the new CD showcases a different side of me. I’m not concerned about being trapped in what people think I should do. I want to create some art. Do it for myself. I think music has always been like that. I try to play first for me, and then if people like it that’s cool too. But I was in some pretty big hard rock bands, so people might think “What is this?” For those fans I have another band that I put together with Gilby called Kings Of Chaos. That’s a hard rock outfit. We just played South Africa. Slash and Duff came with me to play. It’s like a super group. I’m just gonna do what I want. I’ve had a great career.
Gilby: I have always had my own band, just Gilby Clark, I go out and do dates and things. Matt just told you we started this thing called Kings Of Chaos. I’ve been a part of that, and that has been fun because it’s re-connected me with some of my old friends, playing music that really fits a part of my life right now. I just produced a band from Canada called Riding Shotgun. Their record is coming out in the fall.
Rocker: Wayne, would you ever have imagined, back after the MC5 ended and you ended up in prison, that you would be receiving an award from a group of lawyers for helping prisoners?
Wayne: No, never did. My life has turned out so much different than I ever imagined it would. I’m constantly amazed. In the last 48 hours I’ve gone from a recording session in London, to a club date in London, to playing the Glastonbury Festival in front of 150,000 people, to being here 24 hours later having a group of attorneys pat me on the back. God damn! Somebody flipped the script on me! I didn’t think this was in the cards for me. My attitude is gratitude.
More info on California Lawyers For The Arts, I spoke to Alma Robinson, Executive Director of CLA.
Alma: We started in 1974 in the Bay Area to help artists with legal and business issues. Since then we’ve been involved in a variety of things, including housing issues, intellectual property, and advocacy for artist rights. Right now, we are working on advocacy for artists in corrections, which is how we met Wayne Kramer and learned of his wonderful work. We are about lawyers who help artists, and artists who help the arts community. We are statewide and very involved in advocacy issues nationally as well as on a state level. Try to protect artist rights and get them more support through the state arts consul.
We have an affordable membership for artists, which is just thirty dollars a year. It gets you discounts on educational programs as well as our referral service. You can have a half hour consultation with an attorney for twenty dollars if you’re a member. If you are low-income, we have pro bono services available. We have a broad vision about how artists contribute to society, and we want to help grow that dynamic so that people are more respectful of the work artists do, and that the arts can be more involved in education and their community.
For more information – check out: WWW.CALAWYERSFORTHEARTS.Org.