Just a few weeks ago, Billy Bragg got together with Mick Jones andTopper Headon of the Clash to record an old song. It was an historicoccasion, the first time Headon and Jones had been in a studio togetherin 27 years.
Just a few weeks ago, Billy Bragg got together with Mick Jones and Topper Headon of the Clash to record an old song. It was an historic occasion, the first time Headon and Jones had been in a studio together in 27 years.
Things hadn’t been going well for Headon the last time in 1982. He was addicted to heroin and tossed out of the band.
Headon was looking good this time around, though. Just being in the presence of these two Clash alumni made Bragg glow. A 1978 Clash concert is what had inspired a 17-year-old Bragg to become a songwriter. He’s since become somewhat of an institution himself among Britain’s leftwing punk intelligentsia.
The song these three aging rockers chose to record was Jail Guitar Doors, a very early Clash single, written about Wayne Kramer, notorious lead singer for the MC5. Like Headon, Kramer fell victim to his addictions and did prison time for selling drugs.
The session was being filmed for a documentary called Breaking Rocks about Bragg’s latest social cause — prison reform. Bragg figures prison inmates can be rehabilitated by giving them something creative to do, like playing a guitar.
So he’s formed a charity with the goal of placing five or six donated guitars in every jail in Britain. The charity is called Jail Guitar Doors, just like The Clash song about Wayne Kramer.
In the last two years, Bragg has distributed more than 300 guitars to British jails.
“I just took delivery of 24 guitars last week which are now sitting in my hallway waiting to go out,” Bragg says from his home in southern England. “I get ’em 24 at a time. Each one of them is spray-painted with a Jail Guitar Doors slogan.”
The guitars seem to be working. Bragg gets fan mail from inmates telling him how much a difference they have made. He stays in touch. Two members of the band that backed Headon, Jones and Bragg on the recording session were graduates of the Jail Guitar Doors.
Bragg, who performs Tuesday at the Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto, hopes to spread the idea to North America.
While on tour, he’s been asked to meet with musicians in Alberta and Toronto about setting up local chapters.
Bragg already has Wayne Kramer — yes, that same Wayne Kramer from MC5 — on side in California.
As a matter of fact, Bragg got a fully rehabilitated Kramer on stage with him and Jones at the Oct. 1 premiere of the Breaking Rocks documentary. The three performed Jail Guitar Doors, of course.
“We did Kick Out the Jams as well,” Bragg beams. “Yeah, it was great. We had the best time.”