- - Sunday, November 20, 2016

It all starts with Wayne Kramer, guitarist for the legendary punk pioneers the MC5 and onetime prison inmate. His time behind bars inspired The Clash to write  “Jail Guitar Doors,” which in turn inspired British rocker/activist Billy Bragg to start the charitable organization named after the song, which brings musical instruments into prisons for use in rehabilitation. A meeting between Mr. Bragg and Mr. Kramer inspired Mr. Wayne to start Jail Guitar Doors USA, the American cousin to its U.K. version.

Mr. Kramer and wife Margaret Saadi Kramer organize events throughout the year to raise funds for their cause, including a concert called “Rock Out!” This year he was joined onstage by Marshall Crenshaw, superproducer Don Was, Jill Sobule, comedian Bobcat Goldthwait (who hosted the event) and more. Backstage I caught up with many of the musicians to discuss the healing power of rock ‘n’ roll.

Question: How has Jail Guitar Doors grown in the last three years?

Wayne Kramer: We’ve more than doubled the number of prisons we are in; we’re in 65 now. Plus we’ve just launched songwriting workshops in the California youth authority. We’re setting up workshops in four California state prisons: Chino, Norco, Lancaster, and the California Institute for Women.

Q: How do you get these incredible musicians involved?

WK: I doubt that it’s me. With people in general, there is a need to take ethical action. A lot of us are trying to be conscious people — trying to figure out what we can do to make the world the kind of place we want our kids to grow up and live in.

I just ask ‘em. That’s all.

Q: How did you get involved with tonight’s show?

Bobcat Goldthwait: Wayne called me. Or emailed me. I knew a little bit about the cause because I’m a big Billy Bragg fan. I believe that prisons should be someplace where there is some hope. I also believe they should also be a place where laws are in order. Part of the punishment shouldn’t be lawlessness.

Jill Sobule: When Wayne Kramer asks me to do something, I go there. This is my third one. I’ve been to probably six men’s facilities with Jail Guitar Doors. It’s so fulfilling. I feel like I’m actually doing something good.

Marshall Crenshaw: Wayne and Margaret asked me. I’ve known about Jail Guitar Doors since they started. It’s a monumental thing to take on, this crazy incarceration system. This is an attempt to help fellow human beings cope.

Don Was: I’ve known Wayne for 30-some years. We played at Sing Sing prison maybe a decade ago. And it was a life-changing experience for me.

The thing people tend to forget is that these are people just like us. Just like us. They just messed up and their lives took a different course. I think of all the times I messed up. It could have just as easily been me in there.

Q: Bobcat, is doing comedy in front of a rock ‘n’ roll crowd a hard gig?

BG: I did gigs opening for Nirvana. Tonight is fine. No one is throwing M80s at me. I got hit with a teenager once while opening for Nirvana. The [security] threw a kid out of the pit, and he hit me in the legs.

Q: What do you get out of being here tonight?

WK: As a musician I’m incredibly selfish and self-centered and self-seeking. It’s all about me a lot of the time. Sometimes it has to not be about me. The concept of being in service to my fellows in important to me.

And who are my fellows? My fellows are the 2.3 million Americans just like me who are living in American punishment. If I can do a small amount to negate the damage being done by the greatest failure of social policy in America’s history, then that kind goes a little distance to oppose my meaninglessness.

BG: It knocks a couple hours off my community service work. [laughs] I really feel like our culture is becoming more and more “us against them” instead of helping people who are down on their luck. Tonight helps.

MC: I always love a good multi-artist hang. To be around my fellow tribe members is always a cool thing. It’s uplifting for me to be around them. Then the sense that a good deed is being done, and it’s nice to be part of the whole thing.

DW: It’s is really rewarding to do something that is not selfish. [laughs] To give something. And this is easy. What an easy way to give. And it’s fun to play.

Q: Do you believe music has the power to heal and rehabilitate?

JS: Music definitely has that power. Why did all of us get into music in the first place? I was a miserable teen, like most people. I wrote songs as a therapy to myself. And it made me look cool to a couple of people. I could tell my story. Having people tell their stories is therapeutic.

MC: Music can be magical, medicinal. Everybody knows that.

DW: Absolutely. Music helps you make sense out of a life that makes no sense. Music and art take over where verbal communication fails.

Q: Away from the show what are you working on?

JS: If you go to Pledgemusic.com/Projects/MySongIsMyWeapon, I’m having a fundraiser to develop a platform for artists, be it pro or weekend warrior, to upload showcases and find people to collaborate with on their more political and socially conscious work.

We are putting out an album called “Monster Protest Jams.” I’ve got Jackson Browne, Jane Siberry, Tom Morello, Garfunkel and Oates.

MC: I just play. I’m a working musician. I play 40 to 50 [dates] a year. Twelve months a year I’m out there playing my songs. My songs are carrying me into old age and keeping me alive.

DW: I just finished [producing] a brand-new Rolling Stones record. It’s all Chicago blues covers. It’s bad-ass!

For more information check out JailGuitarDoors.org.

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