LITTLE VILLAGE — They say music can soothe the savage beast.
But can a guitar and a couple of lessons do any good for the drunken drivers, drug dealers and deadbeat dads locked up at Cook County Jail?
Middle-age punk rocker Wayne Kramer — the guitarist formerly known as federal inmate No. 00180190 — thinks so.
Last month, Kramer showed up at Cook County’s medium security lock up armed with 10 guitars and a commitment from Sheriff Tom Dart to give non-violent prisoners jailhouse guitar lessons.
Kramer told the collection of inmates that he once was like them — a jailed drug dealer. He spent four years in prison. The Clash wrote a song about him called “Jail Guitar Doors” — the namesake of Kramer’s guitar-donating charity.
“Let me tell you about Wayne/ His deals of cocaine/ A little more every day,” the song goes. “Call over a friend/ ‘Till the band comes in/ But the DEA locked him away.”
The acoustic axes, Kramer told the inmates, were not gifts or just something pass the hard time.
“These guitars are a challenge to you,” he said. “If you accept these guitars then you accept this challenge to use these as tools to process your problems. You can sit with a guitar and work it out by yourself. "
"That’s how we use music to process our problems it gives us another way to deal with how complicated the world can be.”
A week after Kramer's presentation, South Siders Mike Vanier and Stephen Keating headed back to Division 11 to teach guitar lessons to a captive audience.
First, they showed the guys how to hold a guitar and then strum the steel strings — down, down, up, down. Then, where to press their fingers hard on the fret board to play chords. In no time, the soulless jail auditorium where they practiced filled with noise that almost sounded like music. Just after they learned to play E-minor — the saddest chord — something magical happened.
The inmates wrote their first song.
When Keating asked the men to suggest lyrics inmate Edwin Myer laughed. Then, he explained himself.
“I’m laughing, life is tough,” said the alleged deadbeat dad being held on $21,000 bail for contempt of court.
Keating wrote the words on a whiteboard and asked for more suggestions.
“Cuz the weight gets rough,” said Manuel Perez, who has a Dec. 17 trial date on drug charges.
Keating wrote that on the board, too. And with little prompting, the captive students offered up lyrics close to their heart.
Before the corrections officer could cut the lesson short the nameless song had a second verse:
“Doing time for the past/ Life on the outside moving fast/ Doing things that wouldn’t last.”
Keating smiled as his inmate students packed up the guitars — and the guard collected the plastic picks that crafty prisoners could be tempted to file into a sharp point for use as a weapon.
“It was cool to see the looks on some the guys faces when it just kind of came together and just how easy it was,” he said. “Got a couple ideas and before you knew, wow. I can’t believe you just did that.”
Varnier, who teaches guitar at The Music Station in Beverly, said that the lesson wasn’t much different for the ones he gives on the outside until the song, well, happened. Then he could tell that his incarcerated students didn't only learn to play a few chords, they seemed to take Kramer’s “challenge” to heart.
“Wayne made it pretty clear … The guitars were from people … you don’t even know putting their faith, their belief in you,” Varnier said. “They get it. They got it.”
For Lucio Delgado, a 30-year-old awaiting trial on cocaine dealing charges, said the lesson was a reminder that he still has a future.
“Sometimes I lose hope, you know,” he said. “We get a positive thing. We go back to our cells and instead of being depressed and all this helps a lot … We get encouraged.”
Perez, a lefty who didn’t have a left-handed guitar to play, said he believes that maybe he was supposed to be in jail for these lessons.
“I believe that nothing is in vain or a coincidence. My son plays the guitar and maybe someday I’ll do a duo with him,” he said. “That’s why this lesson is coming up as such a good thing for me. [Jail] is very hard but at the same time it’s a beautiful learning experience.”
Myer said the lessons are a chance to develop a new discipline; a good habit that's hard to break.
"This will defintely improve a certain focus and committment," he said. "Because you become what you're committed to."
Even though class was finished, Myer kept writing lyrics for their unfinished song.
“I wanted to say the law don’t make me fast too hard. I would put that in the next lyric,” he said. “We are fasting in a sense and regretting for our past. But we have to move on and build the future … I’m not saying some better future, but maybe a more inspiring future.”
That was just the sentiment the guitarist formerly known as federal inmate No. 00180190 had hoped for.
But it's OK if you don't believe it — or anything you hear from a guy in jail. Chances are that a six-string and a song won't inspire change in a gang-banger, drug dealer or a deadbeat. Too often nothing can.
And that was easy to see after class was dismissed and the pack of inmates paused for a class photo before heading back to their cells.
They put their arms around each other and smiled. Then, one of the guys threw up a gang sign — a symbol of his commitment and what he had already become.