Wayne Kramer of the MC5 was sent to ‘The Narcotic Farm’ in 1975, the same federal facility—part hospital/part prison—where the likes of Ray Charles, William S. Burroughs, Chet Baker, Sam Rivers and Elvin Jones had spent time. When opened in 1935, ‘The Narcotic Farm’ was hailed as a “New Deal for Drug Addicts.” More curative than punitive, the facility in rural Kentucky focused on treating addiction as a medical more than criminal problem. In the course of making the 2008 documentary The Narcotic Farm, filmmakers JP Olsen and Luke Walden sat down with Wayne Kramer, to discuss his time behind bars. The interview appears, for the first time anywhere, on PKM.
For the uninitiated, “The Narcotic Farm” was a 40-year social experiment in drug treatment and drug study that began as an unusual partnership between the U.S Public Health Service and the Bureau of Prisons. The two federal agencies joined together to open a prison largely because prison wardens were demanding drug addicts — seen as a corrupting influence on otherwise well-behaved convicts—be removed from their facilities. At the same time, doctors had been lobbying to open a federal institution dedicated to treating addiction as a medical problem, not a criminal one.
Were addicts criminals? Were addicts sick people? Could they be both? This federal bureaucratic compromise was to build a prison that acted like a hospital; or, depending on your view, a hospital that acted more like a prison. As a result of these separate and often competing forces – the desire to heal and the instinct to punish – “The Narcotic Farm” was, from the start, rife with paradox and contradiction.
Set up to treat abusers of opioids and to find a “cure” for drug addiction itself, this prison/hospital was nestled in a bucolic patch of rolling hills outside of Lexington, Kentucky. When Wayne Kramer arrived in 1975, the institution was in state of transition from a largely curative facility to a punitive one. Today “The Narcotic Farm” is a minimum-security federal prison for terminally ill inmates or those requiring medical treatment while living behind bars.
But when it opened its doors in 1935, “The Narcotic Farm” was hailed in the press as “A New Deal for Drug Addicts.” The federal institution did what it could to transport (and it was hoped, transform) a population of dope fiends from New York, Chicago, Detroit, and other major cities, and to nurse them to health so they could return home as trustworthy citizens and reliable workers.
It didn’t always work out that way. The institution’s “cure” rate stayed abysmally low. Even more discouraging to the staff was that many who walked out of the institution, cleaned up and ready for a new life, would end up overdosing and dying in short order. In fact, there were even reports of inmates leaving the institution and dying within hours of their release. Such is the lure of heroin.
It’s not all tragic stories, however, as “The Narcotic Farm” most certainly – as Kramer relates – saved the lives of many. It also cast a special aura on those who did time there.
Nearly 100,000 people were treated at this institution. The list of inhabitants includes not only Kramer, but Ray Charles, William Burroughs, Chet Baker, Sam Rivers, Elvin Jones, and dozens of other highly regarded musicians, as well as writers, artists, and entertainers. For that reason alone, the place occupies a unique place in drug lore history. As far as drug users were concerned, “The Narcotic Farm” is the “Harvard” of prisons; as such, it remains a source of interest years after its closing.
The Narcotic Farm (2008)- the documentary by J.P. Olsen and Luke Walden:
The prison is the subject of a companion book, The Narcotic Farm, which is based around the archival research conducted for the film and written by Nancy Campbell, JP Olsen, and Luke Walden. After falling out of print for a number of years, Narcotic Farm, is being republished by the University Press of Kentucky.
JP Olsen shares a never released interview he and Luke Walden conducted with Wayne Kramer in 2005.
PKM: You once said you wanted to be the best junkie you could be. What did you mean by that?
Wayne Kramer: There’s a school of thought that I probably subscribed to at one point when I was younger that to play music and to live the lifestyle of a musician is so hard that you find relief in narcotics. I’m not so sure about that today.
PKM: Do you remember your first drug experiences?
Wayne Kramer: I started smoking reefer at 16 or 17 and then during all my work in the MC5 we championed marijuana. We found it a way to alter your consciousness that wasn’t as toxic as alcohol. We’d take psychedelic drugs, and occasionally speed. But it was really about living and the experience of being alive. These drugs, we felt – I felt – enhanced the experience of living. But there’s a point where I crossed over and I started to acquire the disease of addiction and alcoholism and my world got complicated. I got dropped from my record company. My band broke up. My relationships were falling apart. I didn’t have any money and I’m thinking, “what’s going to become of me?” All of a sudden getting high becomes a way of handling everything, and so all of my problems got processed down to just one problem, which is how do I get high today? It’s a vicious downward spiral. And it opens the door, ultimately, for narcotics, which are the ultimate painkillers. But what we’re talking about here is psychic pain, and for people like me who have more psychic pain than I can handle, narcotics become the treatment for what’s wrong with me. But there’s a great many side effects which are unpleasant in that lifestyle. And it’s against the law and it puts you in conflict with the police. Then your world is a world of judges and courts and jails and your life becomes unmanageable. In my case, I ended up losing control of my life.
PKM: How bad did it get for you?
Wayne Kramer: My days in the depths of my depravity were archetypal. You wake up sick and your mind is immediately focused on what can I do to get money today? It’s a miserable way to live. And it’s very hard work! [laughs] People think junkies are lazy? Junkies are the hardest working people you’ve ever met. They got to get out there and hustle because if they don’t get money, they’re going to get sick. I was always fascinated with the dark side of everything, I romanticized it. I used to admire gangsters. I admired outsiders. I identified with them. I thought I was an outsider. I loved to read novels about people outside the system and people that broke all the rules. It’s one of my fascinations with jazz musicians, that, you know, they lived outside mainstream culture. For me, I become a criminal. My day revolves around what can I steal. Can I deal some drugs? Can I sell a guy a pistol? Can I carry a color TV across town and sell it to a guy? Can I go break into somebody’s house and steal their antiques? Really despicable behavior and that’s because I had no moral center. I was completely driven by my addiction and nothing is going to stop me. It’s a mindset that comes with drug addiction.
PKM: What was your childhood like?
Wayne Kramer: My father was an alcoholic. That got him fired as a father and a husband. My mother kicked him out when I was about seven, eight-years old. Even when he was in the house he wasn’t in the house. And, of course, he couldn’t be there because he was drunk. What that has to do with me being an alcoholic and me being a drug addict, I don’t know. In the end, I don’t think it matters because I am an alcoholic and drug addict because I like the effect that drugs and alcohol have on me. I’d always wondered ‘why do I drink so much’? Why did I have to do the biggest pile of cocaine? Why was I always the last to leave the bar? And when I went into therapy we explored how I was an abandoned child and that that is the source of my pain. And then I went to the bar to celebrate that knowledge. So that insight didn’t help me with alcoholism one bit. I’m alcoholic and drug addicted because I created the character that I am from the time I was 17, when I left home. I started doing things my way, on my schedule, on my time based on my ambitions, and my fears and my needs, and it’s all about me. All drug addicts and alcoholics are selfish and self-centered. That’s what’s wrong with me at my core. I’m selfish and self-centered. Everything I do is self-seeking. That’s the core of alcoholism and that’s the core of drug addiction. It’s all about me. I’m 56 years old on the outside, but inside I’m a baby whining and stamping my feet to get my way. It’s an aberrated mental process and my mind was warped over the course of my life by this selfishness. There’s certain characteristics that, if you’re an alkie, if you’re an addict, that we all share. I’m grandiose. I abound in big schemes and big ideas, you know? I’m a gifted musician! I’m a great songwriter! My work is divinely inspired! I am omnipotent! I think I can do anything in the world, even though my own track record proves that I can’t. But I still believe it anyway. All addicts have a defiant individualism, and this is where I really relate to criminal masterminds. I romanticize the Mafia. And I love to argue. It doesn’t matter if I’m right or wrong. I just like to argue and to prove that I know more and that I’m smarter. I’m also impatient. I can’t sit here and be here doing this now because I can’t wait to get on to the next thing. All addicts and alcoholics share this. Taking drugs calms that down and makes things manageable. I’ve seen this in every addict and every alcoholic I’ve ever met. It’s the same mindset that I just can’t live in the world. Who is that author you turned me on to that wrote about Lexington? Clarence Cooper?
Clarence Cooper’s books are brilliant illustrations of defiant individuality, of grandiosity, of impatience. He was going to settle the score. He was going to get it right. The world didn’t understand him. Nobody got him. And look how he died. He died a lonely crappy drug-addicted death, as most do. Those characteristics are in all of us, and it’s all the same.
I thought I was an outsider. I loved to read novels about people outside the system and people that broke all the rules. It’s one of my fascinations with jazz musicians, that, you know, they lived outside mainstream culture.
PKM: Tell me about your arrest.
Wayne Kramer: Being addicted, having a dope habit is expensive. And it caused me to become a drug dealer, and not a very good one. I couldn’t keep my hand out of the cookie jar. I was making some really bad decisions and I was desperate. I met a guy who knew a guy who was looking for cocaine. He was a scumbag white boy hustler type. He said he had these guys that were New York Mafia drug couriers and they wanted an ounce of coke. He opened his bag, and it was full of hundred-dollar bills. I said let me make some phone calls and I set up a deal. Then two big Italian gorilla-type guys showed up in a luxury car and we drove to this spot and got the sample. They came back and said, yeah, it’s cool. We did the transaction and they drove off. Then we did it again. Then they wanted two ounces. Then they wanted four ounces. Then six ounces. The money was always right. Here I am desperate and counting on that money. When you start thinking about the money, caution goes to the wind. We found out the guy that introduced us to these drug couriers was a dope house rip-off man. His thing was, if you had an ounce of coke at your house, he would knock on the door and he would shoot you to get your coke and then go out and party. That was his thing. We found out later the police liked and admired him. The DEA thought he was a cool guy. They said, “yeah, he’d shoot a n***** and walk down his street the next day!” These are the police, you know. So, he introduced us to these agents. I’m dealing all this cocaine and I’ve got a couple of partners and finally we’re going to do the big deal. I’m saying to myself one more deal and I’ll buy myself an eighth of heroin and a new color TV … I’ve got all these plans in my mind. So, the day of the deal comes and the two guys come up and there’s Joe the older guy, who’s like the security guy, and Tony was the leader. They come in and my partner brings a sample and they send it out and then they say “yeah, the sample’s great, we’ll take it.” My partner went and got the coke. I lived on the second floor of a duplex on the near west side of Detroit. They went down the stairs to their car to get the money. The money’s in a briefcase. He comes back up and the two guys are in the living room and I notice they left the door open. I’m thinking, “well, he’s just in a hurry and that’s why he didn’t lock the door.” All of a sudden, I hear, “everybody put your hands in the air, you’re going to get shot!” I look down the stairwell and there’s a herd of guys all bug-eyed thundering up the stairs with guns. I turn to Tony and Joe. They got the briefcase open and there are guns in it. I turn around and there’s this .45 pointed right at my stomach and I’m looking the guy right in the face and he’s just cold-blooded. I look at the muzzle on the gun and it’s about this big and I thought, “man that’s going to make a big hole.” I turn around and put my hands in the air. For a minute I thought it was a rip-off and I said, “don’t shoot, don’t shoot.” But they had a code word, like, Code 6, and then everybody put their guns away and they brought out their badges and said they were federal agents. I thought, great news! The federal system is better than the state system. At that time in Detroit, the prison you would go to is in Jackson, Michigan, which is the gladiator school of all gladiator schools. There’s 3,000 men in there and it’s a bad, bad place. So, I figured I’m going to be alright. Now our dope connection was waiting a couple of blocks away and they took my partner into the bedroom and said, “you’ve got to tell us where he’s at.” And he said, I can’t tell you that and the agent, this guy Tony, he says to my partner, “I’m going to beat you so you’ll piss and shit blood for a month and you won’t have a mark on you in court. I know how to do that and I like it.” My partner looked down he just said, “I can’t tell you that, I can’t tell you.” And the agent said, “okay, take ‘em downtown.” I went to my lawyer the next day and he said, “Wayne, you’re going to prison. This amount of cocaine … let me talk to the U.S. Attorney to see what we can do. Maybe we can tell them you’re a junkie and get you some help.” So, we went to a meeting with the U.S. Attorney and I asked, “what kind of deal are we talking about?” He said, “we want you to testify against the guy who gave you the cocaine. We want you to go out and find three more coke dealers of at least an ounce per transaction. Then we want you to get us 10,000 pills or 500 pounds of marijuana.” I said, “what will the government do for me in exchange?” He said, “we’d be willing to recommend you don’t serve more than three years.” I said, “what kind of deal is that? I risk my life, ruin my career, ruin my future, and I’m still going to get three years? Sorry, I’ll do the time.” I’m in the public business. I’m an entertainer, I’m a musician. I couldn’t live my life hiding in witness protection. Then eight months after that I went to court and tried to convince the judge I was a mess, and he said, “Mr. Kramer, I’d respect you more if you’d taken a pistol and killed a man, but you’re murdering the citizens of Detroit long and slow by selling them hard narcotics.” I thought, this ain’t going well. He said, “well, you negotiated a three-year max and we’re going to give you all three.” Then the clerk says, uh, that was a typographical error. Mr. Kramer negotiated a five-year max. I thought, damn, I just went from three to five. And he said, oh really, five? I’ll split the difference with you, take four. Boom. You’ll be in Milan prison at six o’clock tonight.
PKM: How did getting arrested affect your career?
Wayne Kramer: My life had been the MC5. I was totally consumed with it from the time I was 15, 16 years old until, up to when the band broke up in 1972. It was a terrible, acrimonious, bitter break-up. There was great resentment amongst the members and guilt and blame. It was very painful. And my drug addiction was the perfect solution for it. After the MC5 broke up, it was hard to get work. I mean, I continued working. I found other musicians that I enjoyed working with and we had a band. We could find club dates around Detroit. We worked in nightclubs and we’d do the odd, you call them casuals, special events. This was at a time in Detroit when there was no focus on the rock scene. The auto industry had collapsed. The days of the ‘60s had come and gone. There wasn’t the bar scene like there was in the middle of the 1960s. It was very tough, and hustling became almost a full-time job. You know, stealing, fencing goods, that’s the kind of stuff I did. I was a burglar and I dealt in pills. Whatever I could turn to to make money. Now I’m not a violent guy. I’m not a killer. That’s why I wasn’t such a good drug dealer. [laughs] To be a successful drug dealer you have to be a killer, and I’m not a killer. But I was a sneak and a thief and a burglar and a liar and a cheat. Those were my skills. So, music was very hard. It was hard to get work and keep work. And I justified a lot of the things saying I was financing my career. I justified dealing cocaine because studio time costs money and photos cost money and band gear costs money and tape costs money. That’s the way I justified it. I don’t know if reality was in line with my justification. It was on a level way below what I’d been used to in the MC5. I went from being a concert attraction, touring the world, playing huge crowds to great acclaim, and controversy, to being a guy working in a corner bar trying to make 50 bucks to survive for the next three days until I found another bar gig. It was spirit crushing. It really did crush a lot of my enthusiasm for the world of art and music.
My life had been the MC5. I was totally consumed with it from the time I was 15, 16 years old until, up to when the band broke up in 1972. It was a terrible, acrimonious, bitter break-up. … It was very painful. And my drug addiction was the perfect solution for it.
PKM: Can you describe your first day at Lexington?
Wayne Kramer: After I was sentenced in federal court, four years for conspiracy to traffic in controlled substances, cocaine, they shipped me down Milan, Michigan. The FCI [Federal Corrections Facility] at Milan was cool for me because it was close to Detroit where I lived. I figured I could get visits and stay in touch with my girlfriend. But I found out I was too old for Milan. Milan was set up for guys like 18 to 24, or something like that. I was a little bit concerned because there are prisons in the federal system that are gladiator schools and I didn’t want to go to one of them. Terre Haute had a really bad reputation. My name came up and it was at Lex and I said, great. They shipped me out and we spent a couple of days in a van with the U.S. Marshals. Here I am shackled at the waist with ten or fifteen prisoners and it’s just a merry band of fellows traveling down the highway giving the finger to citizens and scaring mothers and everybody’s telling a little bit of their stories, you know, and stopping to eat a cheeseburger or something. Got to Lexington late in the afternoon on a rainy day, springtime. It was in April 1975. It was humid. I remember walking in and one of the guys on the bus was saying “you got to be careful that you don’t get shot here”. I thought, you mean they are shooting inmates here? I found out that’s an incident report. So-and-so got a shot, they found marijuana on him, so he got a shot. Anyway, I was intimidated by the look of the place. It’s a gigantic brick structure built in the kind of 1930s Federal style. And it’s huge and way out on an estate. You can see it looming and as you get closer. So, they took us downstairs to the R and D [Receiving and Discharge] and printed us and photographed us with our numbers and everybody makes their hardest criminal face because you’re getting your mugshots. There I met the lieutenant and the lieutenant was going to school us right then and there. He said, “you guys did pretty good coming to Lexington. You can do easy time here.”
“But,” he said, “it’s however you want to play it. You want to play it rough? We have something for you.” He said, “I just shipped a handful of guys outta here today. They were booty bandits and we sent them to Terre Haute, and we have a space on the bus for you. If you act right, we’ll treat you right. Act wrong, you’re gone.” Then it was just, man, it was just a blur … You get to change out of your transit clothes – into olive drab federal green – because in transit they’ve got you in blue pajamas so if you run away, you’re wearing blue pajamas that say “federal prisoner” on the back. That would probably be a good fashion statement today. But that began the long adjustment to life in an institution.
PKM: Tell me about your job at Lexington, what did you do?
Wayne Kramer: My first job was as a janitor in the hospital administration offices. In the morning, I would empty wastebaskets and run the vacuum cleaner, wax the floors. It took me probably 15 minutes and then I was off. Then I’d go out into the yard and hang out. Then I’d come back after lunch and do the same thing. Do the floors, sweep, vacuum, empty the trash baskets. It was a little trouble for me having to get up in the morning because, you know, I’m a professional musician and I work at night. Plus, I’m a junkie and a degenerate so I sleep all day and all of a sudden, I am thrown into the world of prison and this regimented life, and everything happens on a schedule. It took adjustment. I didn’t like being a janitor. I didn’t like all that free time. It’s, uh, you start to obsess, and it makes your time hard. It makes your day painful. Later on, I met some of the staff on the prison newspaper and I found out some were from Ann Arbor and were into all kinds of lefty politics. They said, “Wayne, why don’t you come to work with us? What can you do?” I thought, well, I write a little bit. I can draw and, uh, I don’t know, I can do layout or something. So, we told the administration I had worked on underground newspapers out on the street and I had a lot of experience in the newspaper game and magazines and they hired me. [laughs] I went to work on the prison newspaper. I was a graphic artist. I did the paste-ups. It was real primitive technology, Exacto knife and rubber cement. That was a much better job. I enjoyed going to work in the morning and it allowed me access all over the prison. If we were working on something, I’d go with the writer and we’d go interview somebody and I’d take pictures. It was a cool job, and it was one of the highest-paying jobs. I earned 20 dollars a month, which is great money.
PKM: How did you deal with being in prison?
Wayne Kramer: I tried to prepare myself for the prison experience. I tried to anticipate what it would be like to lose my freedom. And nothing that I thought of or read, no conversation, prepared me for the experience. It was devastating. It was a loss of power. If the authorities don’t want you to eat, you’re not going to eat. If they don’t want you to sleep, you’re not going to sleep. I mean, you have no control over your own life. For a guy like me, growing up in America and, you know, white and in affluent Detroit where everybody had a nice place to live, pretty much, I was used to doing what I wanted and then, being in a rock band and that sense of entitlement to all of a sudden: I get nothing. That was crushing. It crushed me. Early on, when I was at Milan, three or four days into it, an older convict was my cellmate. He was a tough old guy and had been around a lot. My anxiety level was just out of control. My mind was on the street. It was on my girlfriend. I couldn’t sleep. So, I asked him, “what do you do because I can’t stop my mind.” And he said “you got to stop thinking about the outside world because you’re not in that world anymore. You’re here. You have to keep your mind in here. You got to let all that go because you’re not in the street anymore.” It was the beginning of learning how to live in an institution and that I had no power over the street anymore. It didn’t help me completely, but it was the beginning.
PKM: Where were the people you met in Lexington coming from?
Wayne Kramer: The prison was full of federal offenders from east of the Mississippi, people from Detroit, Chicago, New York. There were a lot of dope dealers and bank robbers. We were all city guys, and we had a thing together, you know. You were from Detroit, I’m from Detroit. It didn’t matter if you were black on white. This was a time in the ‘70s when there was a unity amongst black people and white people. You know, we were cool. It’s different today. A lot of Vietnam vets too. Lot of guys went to the war and learned how to handle weapons and got huge heroin habits and came back to America with gorillas on their backs. So, they did what they were trained to do, which was to use weapons and tactics to separate banks from their money. Average guys put in extraordinary circumstances. There was also this whole Dixie Mafia thing where people stole farm equipment because there were hundreds of thousands of dollars to be made doing that. But generally, they were alcoholics or junkies.
PKM: Were there a lot of musicians there?
Wayne Kramer: There was a fair collection of musicians. I think there always has been at Lexington. In fact, there’s an auditorium there and off the auditorium is a series of rehearsal rooms. I would go in there and somebody had written chord changes on the walls in pencil. But they weren’t ordinary chord changes. They were slick substitutions. They were very sophisticated, I thought, man, I wonder who wrote this, did Gene Ammons write these chord changes? Did Charlie Parker write these chord changes? [laughs]. When I was there were a few rock musicians. There would be a little contingent of guys that wanted to play country music. A lot of David Ruffin R&B singers [laughs]. We had vocal groups, doo-wop type groups and me and Red and the band would accompany them. Red and I had a jazz group with regular gigs. We would play every Sunday on the big yard and do special event, like a dinner for the Jaycees. I don’t know that we played to his standards because his standards were so high. But I worked hard for Red and to play what was appropriate to bebop. You know, I’m a rock player and to learn how to play bebop changes was a stretch. It stretched me out. I know for a fact I got respect for it because gangsters would come by my house and they’d say, “you’re the white boy with that Wah-wah. You’re cool, you’re all right, man.” So, nobody messed with me.
In the end, I was exposed to a way of thinking and a way of living that taught me what was wrong with me and what could be done about it. That there’s a treatment for it. I don’t mind saying it’s AA. I’m proud to be a member of AA.
PKM: Tell me about Red Rodney.
Wayne Kramer: When Red arrived – Robert Chudnick, aka, Red Rodney – we knew throughout the grapevine that Red Rodney was coming and a lot of junkies, hipsters, are jazz fans. Really knowledgeable jazz fans. They knew who Red was and they would check in with me, you know, “hey Wayne, Red’s coming, Red’s coming.” When I approached him one day and introduced myself, I said, “I’m a musician and so maybe we can play some music some time”. He gave me a kind of, yeah, maybe, and I thought, fuck this guy, he’s giving me attitude here. So, anyway, every day after lunch, for about 30 minutes, I’d go back to my house and practice scales. Prison was a great environment for practicing things like scales. It’s not creative and it’s not fun to do. But it’s how you develop a language in music and how you make your muscles do the same thing over and over to do it right. One day I was practicing, and Red showed up at my door with a fakebook and his horn. He opened it up and said, “can you read these chords?” And I said, “yeah, I think I can read those chords”. He said, “can you play them?” And said “yeah, I think I so.” He said, “okay, here, we’re going to play that one, ready, one, two, three, four.” And I’m oh, Jesus. I mean this was four chords to the bar, you know, so I struggled. But I knew the chords and I guess I got through it so he said, “oh, you can play, all right, all right.” And then he opened up to me. I passed the audition [laughs] and I started to develop a relationship with him. I think he was 54 and I was in my late 20’s and he would tell me the truth about things, and he knew better than I knew. I learned a lot about being a human being from him. He was a very generous man, a very kind man.
PKM: Did you know anything about the place before you were sent there?
Wayne Kramer: When I became certain I was going to prison and started to do research on where I might go and what I might have to face, I knew that Lexington was a possibility. I had known other people that had gone to Lexington. I remember reading about it. William Burroughs talked about it a lot. I knew it was built in the ‘30s and that it was the United States Public Health Service Narcotic Farm. In fact, that’s still inscribed on one of the entranceways around the side of the prison. I knew it was a place that in the ‘40s they were experimenting with alcoholism and drug addiction and treatment programs and lobotomies and the whole gamut of the state of the art of experimenting with chemicals and the mind and behavior. In my humble opinion, it was a noble idea to try to find a way to help people with this problem because clearly there was a problem in the legal system with people that were drug addicted because they weren’t criminals, like a criminal “criminal.” They weren’t violent bank robbers, although maybe some of them robbed banks. But, generally, they were people trying to support their habits. And it was pretty altruistic of the government to say, geez, how can we help this? Let’s look after our citizens. I think they probably had a hidden agenda too in how they could help themselves. Maybe learn about controlling people. Maybe learn about getting into people’s minds, the Cold War mindset of getting secrets out of people. Sodium pentothal experiments, that kind of stuff. So, I knew a little bit about the history. I knew all the great jazz musicians had gone there [laughs]. Everybody had gone to Lexington and I knew it was still functioning and that it had been swallowed into the Bureau of Prisons. In the 1970’s when I was there, it was what they termed a programming institution. In other words, they still believed in rehabilitation. And there were two schools of thought. There was accountability, which meant, you did a crime and you’re going to do the time. That’s all there is to it. But there also, you did a crime, and if you’re willing to help yourself, we’ll help you to try to change. They were giving an effort. During my time there, they ceased that program. They stopped rehabilitation and gave up on it. Politically it wasn’t palatable anymore and we were entering the era of The War on Drugs and they just thought it was like a war where you shoot the enemy, and you don’t have a problem anymore. They couldn’t have been any more wrong.
he was 54 and I was in my late 20’s and he would tell me the truth about things, and he knew better than I knew. I learned a lot about being a human being from him. He was a very generous man, a very kind man.
PKM: Tell me more about the shift in the policy there, the new era when you arrived.
Wayne Kramer: I got there in 1975 and the count was about 600. We had a TV room. Sometimes there would be a piano in there. Or a pool table or a ping-pong table. There was a day room. But, in the two and half years I was incarcerated, the count almost tripled and there were no more day rooms. And at first you could take correspondence courses, college courses. I took a ton of them. PMA, Positive Mental Attitude. I took that. I took RBT, Rational Behavior Training. I was involved in study groups where we’d find a book on corrections or a book on behavior modification. I was part of the TA community, as in transactional analysis. This is the time of books like I’m OK, You’re OK and Games People Play. So, we had a whole community that functioned using these guidelines as a way to change our behavior to try see we don’t come back again. But, halfway through my bit, all that stopped. The climate in the nation changed and the attitude in corrections became accountability and accountability only. They didn’t give a damn if you took courses or not. The judge gave you this much time and that’s how much time you’re going to do and that’s all they cared about. And that’s how it is today.
PKM: What happened when you get out of Lexington?
Wayne Kramer: Yeah, you know, I came out of Lexington and I was so determined to be straight. I’d been locked up for 26 months and I had a lot of time to think. They give you time to think and I thought, I can stop. I can’t be an addict anymore. If I just pulled myself together and get serious and bear down that I could do it. This is a message of America: you can make it if you try, just get in there and give it your all … I find out with drug addiction that that ain’t true. I meant well. I meant it in my heart, and I couldn’t do it. My girlfriend still used. She said, “I know you’re not using now Wayne, but if you ever do decide to use, this shit’s really good.” For me it was a further downward spiral. Lexington was the bottom. I’ll tell you this about Lexington, it saved my life. It saved my liver. It saved my kidneys. There was a two-year period where I wasn’t drinking a quart of vodka a day. I wasn’t injecting who knows what into my body every day. It saved my life. Not to mention my lifestyle and the people I hung out with and all the activities that had a fatal component to them. For me, it was a long road to learning how to live a life where drinking and drugs isn’t necessary. I had human help along the way. Because why else am I breathing in and out and partners of mine, other musicians I know, are six feet under? Guys that I came up with and I did more drugs and alcohol than all of ‘em. Why are they gone and I’m still here? I used to try to take credit for it, like, I’m tough or I’m smart. That didn’t have anything to do with it. I had human help. I had a great many counselors. I was in a lot of pain, but I never wanted to consciously destroy myself and at a point I really wanted to live. I knew I wasn’t going to live forever, and I lost some real close partners. My guys from the MC5. That really made me realize life isn’t forever.
I’m down with AA. It’s shown me how to live and what I need to do to produce a good life. And today I have a good life.
And then I was on a road and once you start looking for help. You know, when the student is ready, the teacher appears. I had help from a lot of guys who traveled this same road ahead of me and I could go to them and say, how did you do this? And they could show me how to change. This is all about change, because if I don’t change, I’m going to just repeat over and over again. In the end, I was exposed to a way of thinking and a way of living that taught me what was wrong with me and what could be done about it. That there’s a treatment for it. I don’t mind saying it’s AA. I’m proud to be a member of AA. That the thinking in AA and the methodology is hammered out over the anvil of experience. It’s helped millions of people recover from this disease, and, you know, I’m a Big Book thumper, man. I’m down with AA. It’s shown me how to live and what I need to do to produce a good life. And today I have a good life. I’ve had a good life for a long time now. I have good relationships and good activities and great enjoyment of my life and a lot of gratitude.
More on Wayne Kramer’s life can be read in his autobiography The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities.
Special thanks to Brooke Raby and Jackie Wilson.