Sunday, 1 November 2009
Jail Guitar Doors
Occasionally among the countless gigs, long journeys, delayed flights and repetitive days of bitter disappointment and frustration, there are exceptional moments which shine like gold in the river mud. Days which take you out of yourself, remind you of your good fortune and help you to treasure the things that are so often taken for granted. There isn't going to be the usual bathos or failed witticism at this point, just a rare instance of sincerity.
A few weeks ago I was invited to play a few songs for some inmates at a Young Offenders Institute in Wetherby, Yorkshire (alright, insert your captive audience gags here if you must but let's move on swiftly) as part of the Jail Guitar Doors scheme, by which prisoners and young offenders are given access to guitars, as a means of self-expression, self-respect and rehabilitation. You can read up on the scheme by clicking the link, it was set up by one of my heroes, Billy Bragg, to honour the memory of one of his, Joe Strummer.
When you're asked to do something like that, it doesn't take a second to say yes and how soon? Music means more than the X Factor and its evil twins (I mean similar shows, not the current Frankenstein's monster that is Jedward), and it has a much more vibrant place in life than the clogged I-pod or bored Guitar Hero would currently suggest.
Music is at it's most visceral and raw when it's played by people solely for their own amusement, as they come to grips with learning an instrument, or jamming alongside other people for the first time. So seeing these teenagers play their own songs, after they'd politely sat through mine and even performed their own version of How The West Was Won, (complete with additional middle 8 rap) - is easily one of the most extraordinary experiences in my life to date. It's not a good look, by the way, for a 40 yr old to be choking back the tears listening to his own song performed by a bunch of teenagers in the recreation area of a Yorkshire prison, so that's something else I've learned.
I played a few songs, we talked about songwriting, they played some recordings they'd made, questions were asked from both sides, and I was given a tour of the prison by my amazing hosts. More of them later. And for any Daily Mail readers who may have strayed here, it is a prison. The cells are small, the doors are locked and there are bars on the window. It's not a holiday camp funded by the tax payer. It exists for a reason, but Wetherby also wants to give these kids (for kids they are) a chance at something more. Music may not be the most practical of careers these days, but anything that makes you more self-aware and self-confident informs every other aspect of your life, as well as having the more immediate rewards of having made something from nothing, carved sound from silence.
Whatever it has become for me over the years, this was reaffirmation of what music is in it's most basic form. It's the perfect way to express the inexpressible. And if you think that sounds like the worst solecism, you have clearly never sung at the top of your voice or tried to wring a tune out of an instrument by sheer force of will.
I can only tell you what I got from the experience, I'm not about to speak on behalf of the inmates. I hope they got something from it. They're inside for many reasons, none of them my business, and whatever solace can be gained from playing guitar, or perspective achieved from writing a song, I hope it's theirs for the taking. But they gave me something, and they re-ignited something inside me, a pure passion just for playing, just for hearing the notes, just for feeling the strings under your fingers - no other outcome attached, no expectation, and no reward other than sound.
Thanks then to Stephen Bielby and the staff who took great care of me, and whose dedication has meant that music classes are now an every day part of life at the prison. It's people like this that you rarely read about in the press, we only get the horror stories, not the news of good people, doing good things every day to improve the lives of others. And giving young offenders a chance at something more than a life of crime may not be the most glamorous profession, but that day, with those lads felt like the most rock and roll thing I've ever done.
P.S And those of you who came to the show in Sheffield the other day, your ticket money contributed to buying 6 more guitars for the scheme. So thank you.