A member of the second wave of America’s musical youth in the 1960s, Wayne Kramer has come a long way since he cofounded MC5, a rock band from Detroit known as much for its influence on punk as for its pronounced left-wing politics. The music industry is often interpreted as a battleground dominated by the young, but Kramer doesn’t agree – and he is living proof that a music legend can create art relevant to popular culture over the course of a lifetime. Though much of Kramer’s work today revolves around scoring music for film and television, he recently put the finishing touches on his first solo album in 14 years. Germinated from a scoring project Kramer completed for a PBS documentary about scandalous drug tests performed on prisoners at a Kentucky prison in the mid-1900s, Lexington offers a unique synthesis of rock guitar and jazz that pleasantly compliments the events of the prison Kramer himself served in.
In the weeks before Lexington’s expected release on Record Store Day (April 19), Kramer traveled south from his Los Angeles base to spread the word about his new album. “I’m kind of like Paul Revere, riding through the neighborhood to let everyone know I have a good record coming,” Kramer laughs during a visit to San Diego in early March. “I’m like the guy you see walking on the sidewalk with a sandwich board: ‘Have music. For sale. Will sing for food.’” At a small café in the heart of San Diego’s North Park neighborhood, Kramer spoke with Blues Rock Review about the making of Lexington, the years he spent in classrooms learning the ins and outs of scoring music and his continued work with Jail Guitar Doors.
Over a music career that has spanned over four decades, you have kept busy with multiple projects in progress at any given time. How do you manage to maintain such a brisk schedule?
Life is complex. There’s enough time in the day to do more than one thing. I think today my most important job is as a father – I’m a new father – and as the head of a family, a husband, and then as a professional entertainer. I amuse people; I have the skill to amuse people. Those things are good, but that doesn’t separate me from the rest of the world. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor said the secret to a good life is having something to live for. I think there’s more to it than the family and your work. I think there’s a bigger community to live in. I’ve always had an interest in why things are the way they are in the world, and for the things that seem to be wrong to me, I wonder what can be done to fix that. It’s not enough to just complain about things. I think critical theory requires you to come up with a better alternative. So I spend some of my time trying to come up with solutions for things that I think aren’t dignified, that don’t reflect well on humans and the way we treat each other – especially the weakest amongst us, the sick, the prisoners, the poor people. I don’t think wealth and celebrity are a measure of character.
I understand much of your early work was influenced by literature, particularly by beat poetry. Which writers inspired you as a musician?
With poetry, I think it all starts with Poe. Most modern poetry you can trace back to Edgar Allen Poe. From Poe to Charles Olson, and of course Byron and those guys, but it wasn’t until the coming of Kerouac and Ginsberg…”Howl” was a life-changing poem for me. Poetry is such a living art form. I’m a big Billy Collins fan – I think he’s just spectacular. Bukowski is one of my great heroes in poetry. My contemporaries, Johnson, Blair…they’re pretty good poets.
Let’s talk about your new record. Can you tell our readers a bit about how the album came about?
I make my living today mostly by writing music for movies and television shows. I was hired to score a documentary film for PBS called The Narcotic Farm. It’s the story of an attempt to deal with addiction as a social problem. In the 1930s, the government built a facility in Lexington, Kentucky. They also built one in Fort Worth, Texas. They were designed to deal with America’s drug addicts. They were going to fix it. It was the progressive era, where America could fix everything; they were going to put our best people on it. They tried for a few decades. Ultimately, some scandals hit the program, where the CIA was experimenting with people with LSD to try to get some kind of mind control. It was the Cold War, and they were trying to get mind control over the Russians, the Communists. It all blew up in the newspapers, so they ended the program, but the facility remained and was taken over by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The thing that made the institution at Lexington so unique was that all the great jazz musicians that used drugs went through there. In fact, later in the 1970s when I went to federal prison, I went through there. So I had a connection to this building. I wanted to make the score a jazz score. While I had all these great musicians together, I thought, “Maybe this could be more than just the score for a documentary film.” Because of my personal connection to the institution and my personal involvement in the drug world, this could maybe serve as a narrative for not only what happened to me or what happened to everybody else who went to Lexington, but what has happened in our country with this greatest failure in our nation’s domestic policy history in the war on drugs.
I’ve seen parts of The Narcotic Farm; some of the interviews with former Lexington prisoners really jumped out at me. The stories they tell are just incredible.
They had an interesting idea: they would experiment on drug addicts because drug addicts were the only people available who knew anything about drugs. They would test drugs on drug addicts. They would test for the pharmaceutical companies, they would test on the prisoners. In exchange for submitting to this test, you could get the drug of your choice – an amount of the drugs of your choice. Or, you could get time off your sentence. In the entire history of the Lexington facility, no one ever took time off the prisoners’ sentences.
How did your involvement with The Narcotic Farm begin?
They heard that I had served a sentence there, and they asked me if I would sit for an interview. During the interview, I asked them who was doing the music on the movie, and they said they hadn’t thought of that yet. I offered to do the music, so they hired me.
Do you view your scoring of the film as a soundtrack to the experiences gathered there by you and your peers, or does Lexington serve more as a return to the Jazz Age?
All that we’re talking about is fiction. Music itself is amoral: music doesn’t actually have meaning, outside of the fact that we hear it and we enjoy it in an extremely subjective way. We attach meanings to ideas; we attach meanings to things. The meaning I choose to attach is that it’s an intersection between all the jazz musicians who were drug addicts who came to Lexington, the fact that I was a drug addict at Lexington, and what the country has done with us in the 35 years since then. Musically, I’ve reached back into my past to the music that originally inspired me, the free jazz movement, and used that as the energy source to propel new music into the future. But the truth is, there’s no new music on this record. Nobody’s playing anything new, but we’re playing in a form that doesn’t get much exposure nowadays. People are interested in it, but it doesn’t get played a lot. Mostly what we hear is pop music with loops and samples. I’m not knocking it – I think all that stuff can be fantastic, but I wanted to do something else.
I understand you were influenced by jazz long before you interacted with multiple jazz musicians at Lexington. What is it about the style that initially drew your attention?
I think it probably has to do with being young. Each generation is looking for its own voice: its own style of clothes, its own music, its own movies, books, and poetry to make it distinct from the generation before them. To say, “We are not our parents. We are us.” I think that happens in every generation, and I think in my coming of age, when I was 17, 18 or 19 years old, free jazz spoke to me because these jazz musicians were trying to do the same thing with jazz that I was trying to do with rock and roll, which was push it beyond the status quo. Rock music was supposed to have three chords, it was supposed to have a certain kind of beat, and it was only supposed to talk about certain kinds of things in the lyrics. Jazz had a different kind of chord structure, different kinds of beats, and only talked about certain things. All of us who were pushing it forward wanted to talk about other things, with different kinds of beats, with different kinds of chords. I think that’s what appealed to me about it: the fact that it was kind of a rejection of the orthodox and a step off into the unknown.
You have in recent years become part of some nonprofit organizations, namely Road Recovery and Jail Guitar Doors. What is your involvement with these organizations?
With Road Recovery, I go out and get their money. They do good work; they work with at-risk kids in the New York area. Young people are amazingly resilient. They can get into a lot of trouble, and if they get some help, they can turn it around and keep it turned around – they can bounce back pretty well. I think it’s easier to work with young people than it is if I meet a guy who’s been in prison for 15 or 20 years. That presents a whole other set of challenges. For Road Recovery, I’m just their number one fan and great supporter.
With Jail Guitar Doors it’s different because I’m co-founder along with my wife Margaret Kramer and Billy Bragg. There, it’s really to try to work on two levels. One is on the people helping people basis of getting instruments in the hands of prisoners and tasking them with using these guitars as a tool for self-expression that isn’t confrontational, but positive; as a way to understand how they got there and where they might go from here. Art is anger management; writing music is anger management. On the other level, it’s the political goal of justice reform. We lock up too many people for too long in this country. It’s an international embarrassment and it’s a national disgrace. 180,000 Californians are in prison, and almost half of them are nonviolent drug offenders. Prison should be the last resort that we use when somebody breaks the social contract, not the first. We end up being less safe, because if we lock people up for decades in a world of violence and racism, defeat and bitterness, and then throw them back out on the street, they are less equipped to handle life out here. So we think that guitars and art and corrections in general can go a long way towards mitigating the damage.
Art teaches us the secret of how to work: how to stay in one place and commit to a task, see it through and then have the sense of accomplishment afterwards. Nobody can make you do it – you do it because you want to do it.
The name “Jail Guitar Doors” was taken from the 1978 Clash song written about you. What was your reaction when you heard the song for the first time? Were you a fan of the Clash at the time?
My reaction was gratitude. You know, you’re locked up and you start to think you’ve vanished from the face of the earth. It was nice to know somebody cared enough to write a song. I thanked them as soon as I got out and we became good friends; we’re still good friends today. But I didn’t think too much of it, I just thought it was a nice show of solidarity from musician to musician.
MC5 is often credited with being one of the first bands in the U.S. to launch the punk rock movement. Do you agree with this accreditation?
I agree with that. I think that MC5’s uncompromising stance is the same stance that the punks took. We get the credit or the blame – I’ll take either.
How would you say your musical style has changed over the years?
Music is not something that’s tied to being young. With music and most things in the arts, if you’re conscientious and you put in the work, you can continue to develop your technique and your ideas can become more stretched out, your work can become more vivid and compelling as time goes on. Look at Picasso – he did his greatest work in his sixties and seventies. I think that’s one of the benefits in art: you continue to get better if you work at it. I’d like to think that I’m a better musician; I certainly know a little more about music. I still study; I still go to school. When I started scoring, I realized pretty quickly that a career in rock bands didn’t prepare me for writing for the orchestra, and that I’d better do what all composers do, which is go to school and learn the language of the orchestra. So I started taking classes at UCLA and the Musicians’ Union and wherever I could. I still take them, if I have time – I love school, I think it’s a great idea. I encourage everyone to go to school. Go to school, stay in school!
Who are some of your favorite actively recording artists?
I like what Prince is doing. He always does good stuff. I’m not a big fan of retro music; in fact, I have retrophobia. I suffer from retrophobia – the fear of going backwards.
Why is that?
I think the unknown is more exciting than the known. I appreciate the Dap-Kings, Sharon Jones and what they do with that authentic sound. Every now and then, I’ll hear a production that I think is really good. I’m more excited about what I hear in film. There are a few people who are writing stuff that I’m excited about. The last band that really moved me was the Dirty Projectors.
Do you have a favorite recent film score?
Sure. I like the score to Drive. With Cliff Martinez? I think he was in the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He really did a nice job on that film.
Which artists do you think are currently carrying the torch for political activism through their music?
I think there are a lot – there are new bands like Rise Against that take a stand on things, and there are a thousand artists no one’s ever heard of. One woman I just did a show with in Washington is Afghan American, and so she’s very involved in the Afghani cultural and political process. I think there are a lot of artists that strive to be more than just amusement for people. Not everybody has to – if somebody doesn’t want to take a politically active position, that’s all right with me. I don’t criticize people; if that’s what they want, to just be rich and famous, it’s fine with me.
I have to put that on the doorstep of the artists; bad art is bad for the revolution. The music has to be good; the art has to be good, or nobody’s going to give a damn what you’re talking about. Your personal allegiance is to your art; if the art is good, then people will listen to what you’re saying. You might have a brilliant political analysis, but if you suck, nobody’s going to care. Rage Against the Machine rocked; that’s why people loved them. The fact that there was substance to their message was a benefit.
Is there a music-related experience from your past that had an impact on you as a musician?
When I was a boy, I must have been 16 or 17 years old, the British first wave had hit, and the second wave of bands started coming across. There was a band called the Yardbirds, and I was a big fan of their guitar player: Jeff Beck. I heard they were coming to Detroit, so I bought a ticket and I drove out to this roller rink outside of Detroit. The Yardbirds played two sets. Jimmy Page was in the band – he played bass – and Jeff Beck played lead guitar. I stood in the audience with about 25 other boys, all guys I knew from other bands. We all sat there and watched the Yardbirds play two sets and just had our minds blown. They sounded so great – Jeff Beck played so well, and still does, I might add; he plays greater than ever. They looked great, they dressed snazzy, they were very clever. It was an important night for me as a young guy just starting out in a band.
I had the same experience with the Who. The Who played a club called the Fifth Dimension in Ann Arbor, and there might have been 50 people at that show. The stage was about 12 inches high, and I stood right in the front; I stood face to face with Roger Daltrey for the whole set. It was magnificent.
What’s next for you?
I want to do some touring with Lexington. I’m going to South by Southwest – I’m curating a concert for the U.S. Postal Service in commemoration of the new Jimi Hendrix stamp. We’re going to have a guitar extravaganza. Then I’ll come back to begin the score on the Evel Knievel documentary.
Is there a mission statement for Lexington that you’d like to share?
Fans that are rock guitar fans may not like it. That’s okay. I think if people give the record a listen with an open mind, they might hear musicians playing together in a way that is enjoyable. There are no loops, no samples; it’s all actual musicians playing in real time, together. It’s sloppy and it’s messy and it’s imperfect; the musicians that played on this record are people who are playing at the highest level of accomplishment on their respective instruments. They’re literally the best in the world, and they’re all humble guys, open-minded guys, brilliant musicians and dear friends. I’m lucky to have been able to pull them all together in one place.
Interview by Meghan Roos