When I was in High School, our senior class was shown the documentary film Scared Straight, a cautionary tale in which a group of hardened criminals serving life sentences at New Jersey’s Rahway State Prison spend a day terrifying a group of smart ass juvenile offenders in an effort to deter them from pursuing a life of crime. I’m not sure if this film – which probably seems quaint in retrospect – is still part of the curriculum in a day when metal detectors are installed at the entrance of most schools (and I was never in any way what one might consider a delinquent kid) but Scared Straight scared the shit out of me. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would think going to prison was cool or desirable, but apparently there are kids who live with circumstances in which a prison sentence is an aspiration. I don’t pretend to understand that, but I think it’s important to be aware that such a mindset exits.
The teenagers featured in Scared Straight are the kinds of kids that musician and guitar teacher Buzzy Martin was working with – teaching music classes in an effort to promote his “Education not Incarceration” credo – in various Northern California group homes and juvenile detention facilities, when he was offered the opportunity to teach guitar to inmates locked up in San Quentin, one of the country’s most infamous maximum security prisons. Don’t Shoot! I’m the Guitar Man is the daily journal-style story of Martin’s three-year gig teaching guitar behind the walls of San Quentin, and it is not like any book I have ever read.
Before Martin’s episodic storytelling even begins, he devotes a chapter to setting the scenario of what San Quentin looks, sounds and smells like inside and out: describing how it is laid out logistically (which sections of the prison house which degree of offender), emphasizing the unchanging daily routine, explaining what the rules are and detailing the penalties for breaking those rules. For a person like me, who wants to stay as far way from incarceration as possible, his revelations were amazingly informative and engrossing, because what it’s like being “on the inside” isn’t anything that the average, law-abiding civilian would know or could ever imagine, no matter how much TV you watch. By Martin drawing you into that world before he ever starts talking about his weekly teaching experiences, the prisoners he met, taught and whose stories he got to know, the reader is able to easily sink into Buzzy’s world and experience his stories tangibly through his words. I had a hard time putting the book down, and once I did I couldn’t wait to pick it back up again.
During the three plus years that Martin taught guitar to the inmates of San Quentin, he moved between teaching in various units, including H Unit (which he calls “The Land of Lunatics”) housing inmates that will eventually be paroled, and North Block, where inmates serving life sentences will live out the remainder their days. His stories of these men — what they did to get locked up and what they’ve become in prison — are sobering and often as terrifying as any horror story. For those incarcerated who hope to eventually see freedom again, the joy and redemptive power of music that they experience in Martin’s classes might inspire them with to stay straight. For those who are serving life sentences, the music classes lift their spirits and give them something to look forward to. While Buzzy’s writing style is straightforward and very easy to read, it is nevertheless highly colorful and extremely compelling.
Through his descriptive details and his inclusion of the words of those he met at The Q (as the prison is referred to) his stories come alive with the grit, fear, degradation and violence that are part of daily life for these inmates. While some stories are uplifting, touching and even funny, many are also emotionally devastating, heartbreaking and harrowing: revealing the hopelessness and tragic waste of life that comes from ending up in a place like San Quentin. There is nothing glamorous about it. Don’t Shoot! I’m The Guitar Man, is the modern day Scared Straight, for sure. It’s a story I think everyone should read. Not surprisingly, the book is being made into a major motion picture to be released in 2013 (supposedly with Eric Roberts signed on to play Buzzy – woo!). I hope the filmmakers can do Buzzy Martin’s amazing story justice.
The Worley Gig gives Don’t Shoot! I’m The Guitar Man Four out of Four Stars.