A long haired man with tinted sunglasses and dog-tags hanging from his neck is one of few who walks behind the walls of San Quentin unchained. His arms are sleeved with tattoos and he keeps a guitar slung ‘round his shoulder.
When he arrives for work he signs his name inside an old tome of signatures, then stands still as an officer wands him with a metal detector and inspects his guitar case. He enters a holding tank and waits to pass through a series of chambers where he politely states to a maximum security officer, “I’m here for music.”
From there an officer leads him into an old musty box where the prison offers educational opportunities. The trip from his car to the classroom requires an hour.
A handful of prisoners dressed in blue denim suits enter the classroom in single file with their wrists crossed behind their backs. The smell of cheap food, cigarettes and body odor hangs in the warm, dead air. He breathes slowly and scans the room for a pulse. He senses he’s walking on pins and needles, that at any second a storm might erupt. Then, lifting his guitar he smiles and suggests, how about an easy song, how about Blue Suede Shoes?
“It’s like going into a cage full of pit bulls and hoping none of them bite you,” he says. “At any second I could be shot or killed.”
Popularly known by his stage name, Buzzy Martin is the lone music trench dweller of California’s penal system. Martin’s job, challenging as it is unusual, is to liberate the spirits of men sentenced to years or life in prison through music and song.
Martin, who’s banged congas and strummed bass lines for more than 18 years with the incarcerated, will recount his experiences at a free lecture at 15:15 pm on Sept. 26 in SRJC’s Newman Auditorium. The lecture will explore Martin’s hallmark philosophy: “education – not incarceration,” and will include live music and storytelling.
When the inmates sit down to jam out they slowly settle into a groove; their cold demeanors soften and melt, then come alive. Their souls are singing. They are free flying above the prison towers. They’re harmonizing and joyriding to the song’s unstoppable heart.
Playing music inside a prison changes the experience of a song, Martin says. “Imagine being an inmate, any inmate; knowing the feeling of freedom and having it taken away from you, [when I sing] it makes me think of every word.”
During one music lesson Martin’s students perform “The Monster Mash.” One man plays Bela Lugosi and another does Frankenstein. In the winter they play “Blue Christmas” and “Silent Night.”
Since his three-and-a-half year gig in San Quentin, Martin has written an internationally recognized memoir titled “Don’t Shoot! I’m the Guitar Man.” Praised by professors, judges, Grammy winners and a Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame member, the book follows his experiences in “The Q” and is being made into a feature film starring Eric Roberts.
Martin’s story begins in the 1970s on the flat dust lands of Grand Rapids, Michigan when a General Motors plant pumped the economic heart of the city. Local kids more often than not graduated from college or high school and went straight into the daily grind of factory life, but Martin couldn’t rest his heart there; he had dreams. Big dreams.
A self-taught guitarist and pianist at 13, Martin longed to travel and see the world. He dreamed of rock n’ roll stardom and felt, as he describes, “the lure of California” calling him with its sprawling wilderness and cities bustling with artists and musicians.
By the early ‘80s he’d left his hometown and set new roots in Sonoma County playing gigs, bar clubs and opening for major artists at the Luther Burbank Center and Konocti Harbor.
A decade later, playing at a local open mic, Martin noticed a group of kids gathered around a table watching the stage. They were interim-housed children up for adoption, also known as “group home kids.” When he asked about their circumstances Martin received a new, unexpected job offer: teaching at-risk youth how to play music.
His classroom, either inside a juvenile hall or court community school, started slow and required patience, but soon he persuaded a child to hit a conga drum and then a teenager to sing a song with him, and his class started making music.
“Most of these kids have been abused or had it rough in one way or another, and every child deserves to be a kid,” Martin said. “And if we can bring them to smile through music or knowledge then that’s a great accomplishment.”
While Martin’s work grew to unprecedented success, a new, undoubtedly more dangerous employment opportunity arrived. The job looked the same, but there was one unnerving difference: his students were lifers in San Quentin State Prison, California’s oldest and most notorious maximum security penitentiary.
By the early summer of ’99 Martin headlined a concert with his city band inside the prison walls three decades after Johnny Cash performed in the same prison to a similar audience. Martin wailed “Great Balls of Fire” to a laugh-happy crowd of more than 1,000 hardened criminals singing and dancing behind bars. The show met with such overwhelming success Martin now hopes to someday pick up where Cash left off.
Outside “The Q,” Martin returned to his music lessons in juvenile hall. Parallels between the two caged worlds appear immediately, he says. Juvenile hall reeks with the same smells of San Quentin and the officers, despite the fact they carry mace instead of guns, work the same.
“We need to look closer at what we’re doing in society. It all starts with the kids,” Martin says. “We’re so quick to throw somebody in juvenile hall and then the next step is prison.” He argues that our country needs a better education plan so America’s youth will understand their country’s laws; what will get them arrested, what will happen and what to do if arrested.
Currently Martin is working on a second book and hopes the 2012 film will help put a face on these kids.
“I want to put a band together and do some country songs, rock songs and incarcerated tunes,” Martin says, and then pauses to lift his sunglasses. “But it’s really important that we don’t forget these people… they’re just wounded kids.”