Guitarist Wayne Kramer’s loud, fast and stripped-down rock ‘n’ roll paved the way for the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and the Clash — before he was sentenced to four years in prison for dealing drugs.
Throughout his time behind bars, a guitar was an uncomplaining companion of the former frontman for the Detroit band MC5.
On Tuesday, Kramer, who now composes music for television and films, and a group of fellow musicians visited the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco to perform a Christmas concert and donate 14 new Fender acoustic guitars to inmates.
It was the latest such delivery by Kramer’s nonprofit Jail Guitar Doors USA, which takes its name from a Clash recording that chronicled his imprisonment. Over the last four years, the organization has donated 150 guitars to 25 prisons across the nation.
For Kramer, these guitars are not playthings, they are tools for rehabilitation.
“We know that arts in correctional institutions — be it painting, sculpting, writing or music — can lead to a change of heart and attitude necessary for rehabilitation,” Kramer said. “Being creative is an argument against a sense of worthlessness.”
With this on his mind, Kramer, 64, who has been clean and sober since 1998, stepped to the makeshift stage along with Raul Pacheco, singer and guitarist for Ozomatli, singer Cody Marks and the folk rock group Jason Heath and the Greedy Souls.
Rows of folding chairs were filled with 115 inmates, most of them former drug dealers and addicts who smiled reassuringly as Kramer launched into one of Bob Marley’s tunes, “Redemption Song.”
It was followed by Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” and the Clash’s “Jail Guitar Doors,” which begins: “Let me tell you ‘bout Wayne and his deals of cocaine / A little more every day / Holding for a friend till the band do well / Then the D.E.A. locked him away.”
The troupe played sincerely and forcefully enough to have the inmates singing along and whistling for more.
A few minutes before the musicians took to the stage, one of the new guitars was handed to a 57-year-old inmate named Arthur, who cradled it in both hands. (Prison authorities would not allow inmates’ last names to be used.) Arthur strummed an F chord. He strummed it again, moving from chord to chord. Then the guitar came to life in a blend of lively classical and jazz riffs.
“This is a blessing,” Arthur said, eyeing the instrument with a nod of approval. “Our music program shut down some years ago. Now, all of a sudden there’s 14 new guitars. I teach guitar basics to some of the other inmates. So it feels good to see something like this happening here.”
Kramer sat back and listened with a smile. Then he reached for one of the new guitars. Moments later the men were jamming to one of Arthur’s compositions, a jazz number with a melodic style called “Anger as a Weapon.”
Warden Cynthia Y. Tampkins ended the event by complimenting Kramer’s donation and performance, and issuing a stern reminder to the men in her charge: “You see all these guitars lined up against the wall? You see the condition they’re in? You know where I’m going with this, right?”
“Yes, warden,” several of the men said in unison.
Before leaving, Kramer held one of the guitars over his head and said: “Use these as tools to open your hearts and reconnect with the part of the world that likes to live.”