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Stephen K. Peeples: 'Guitar Man' rocks the joint

Book about teaching guitar to San Quentin inmates to be made into a movie

Posted: February 25, 2011 1:23 a.m.
Updated: February 25, 2011 1:23 a.m.
San Quentin officers pack heat and keys. In his book, Martin writes about the fearful sound of jangling keys as officers rush to subdue an unruly inmate at California's San Quentin maximum security prison. San Quentin officers pack heat and keys. In his book, Martin writes about the fearful sound of jangling keys as officers rush to subdue an unruly inmate at California's San Quentin maximum security prison.
San Quentin officers pack heat and keys. In his book, Martin writes about the fearful sound of jangling keys as officers rush to subdue an unruly inmate at California's San Quentin maximum security prison.
San Quentin maximum security prison is viewed from the bay in this undated file photo. San Quentin maximum security prison is viewed from the bay in this undated file photo.
San Quentin maximum security prison is viewed from the bay in this undated file photo.
The front gate to San Quentin prison in San Quentin, California is heavily fortified, as seen in this photo taken Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2010. The front gate to San Quentin prison in San Quentin, California is heavily fortified, as seen in this photo taken Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2010.
The front gate to San Quentin prison in San Quentin, California is heavily fortified, as seen in this photo taken Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2010.
Musician/author/youth advocate Buzzy Martin's "Don't Shoot! I'm the Guitar Man," published by the author in 2007, was reissued by Berkeley/Penguin in September 2010. A movie adaptation shoots in April in the San Francisco Bay Area. Musician/author/youth advocate Buzzy Martin's "Don't Shoot! I'm the Guitar Man," published by the author in 2007, was reissued by Berkeley/Penguin in September 2010. A movie adaptation shoots in April in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Musician/author/youth advocate Buzzy Martin's "Don't Shoot! I'm the Guitar Man," published by the author in 2007, was reissued by Berkeley/Penguin in September 2010. A movie adaptation shoots in April in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Musician/author/youth advocate Buzzy Martin's "Don't Shoot! I'm the Guitar Man," published by the author in 2007, was reissued by Berkeley/Penguin in September 2010. A movie adaptation shoots in April in the San Francisco Bay Area. Musician/author/youth advocate Buzzy Martin's "Don't Shoot! I'm the Guitar Man," published by the author in 2007, was reissued by Berkeley/Penguin in September 2010. A movie adaptation shoots in April in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Musician/author/youth advocate Buzzy Martin's "Don't Shoot! I'm the Guitar Man," published by the author in 2007, was reissued by Berkeley/Penguin in September 2010. A movie adaptation shoots in April in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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Most guys entering the gate into San Quentin Prison in San Quentin, Calif., expect an extended stay.

When musician and guitar teacher Buzzy Martin walked into the infamous maximum-security joint in Northern California the first time in 1998, he hoped he'd be going back home in a few hours.

All he knew was that he had a gig: Have guitar, will travel. State prison officials had hired him to teach inmates at "The Q" how to play the guitar.

He found out the Q bosses had heard about his work as a music teacher with at-risk minors after he hosted a number of his students on an open-mic night at a local club. Officials thought the hard-core prisoners at Quentin could benefit from music lessons, too.

Martin's assignment -- teaching guitar to some of the scariest-looking, most violent criminals behind bars anywhere -- was to last three months.

"I had the impression of going in for 12 weeks, possibly getting a song that I could write out of it, and taking that message back to the kids I had been working with at the juvenile hall," he said. "Some were as young as eight. They wanted to go to prison because they think it's cool." He hoped recounting his first-hand experiences to the wanna-be Q-mates would convince them otherwise.

Still, Martin had little clue what would happen when he walked into the Big House.

"The first time is burned in my mind," said Martin, 55, a Grand Rapids, Mich., native and Sebastapol resident who's lived in California since the late 1970s and has volunteered as a music instructor for Sonoma County's Juvenile Hall for the past 17 years.

"You can see freedom and beauty in San Raphael Bay, then you see all the prison's ugly barbed-wire fences and catwalks and gun towers. It just takes your breath away," he said.

Martin admits he was terrified the first time those huge steel doors clanged shut behind him, and officers (never "guards") escorted him through the yard full of cat-calling inmates to a safe room designated for his guitar class.

"You could smell the sweat and body odor and cheap prison food," he said. "It was very powerful and very scary, every moment. I kind of knew what ‘freedom' meant, but after that, I really knew."

The first music course led to another, and then to a series of sessions lasting several weeks each. Martin taught weekly lessons to bad-ass inmates in various sections of the prison. The prisoners played joint-issued instruments and loved the classic rock songs he showed them how to play.

What started as a three-month gig stretched to sessions over three and a half years.

Martin survived that long by immediately learning the prison visitor's strict protocol, and by quickly earning the inmates' and officers' respect. They nicknamed him "The Guitar Man."

He kept a journal of his experiences and wrote a book, "Don't Shoot! I'm the Guitar Man."

"My wife Laura bought me a handheld tape recorder," said Martin, who called her after each session to let her know he'd survived. "Then I'd sit in the parking lot outside looking at the bay and throw up (from the stress and relief). I'd tell these stories into the tape player so I wouldn't forget them. I did that continually. I'm not one with a computer, so I wrote it all up by hand."

When I picked up the 190-page trade paperback just to check it out, I wound up reading it in a single sitting. It ain't Hemingway, but Martin's down-to-earth, unpretentious style takes the reader with him inside the prison walls, and conveys the terror of the experience with the jolt of an electrified fence.

Cameras roll in April on Prodigy Motion Pictures' movie adaptation of his story, starring Eric Roberts in the title role, and, co-starring as Martin's wife, a well-known actress who will be announced as soon as the contract is in hand.

There was never a "typical night" or moment in juvenile hall or prison, Martin said. "Every second is different and you just never know what's going to happen. Sometimes it could be mellow, which I really was hoping for 100 percent of the time at San Quentin. Fortunately for me, they were all really, really nice." In fact, they were even protective of him.

Martin usually had 13-15 guys signed up for each class, but fewer if some of his "students" were in lockdown for various transgressions.

"I would always have four songs ready, and I'd say, ‘OK, we're going to learn ‘Stand By Me' and ‘My Girl' tonight," he said.

He'd show them the chords until they got the music down, then teach them the words. In the last hour, they'd sing and play what they learned.

"I always tried to keep it about music, never talked about my family, but I was their outside connection to the free world, giving these guys a little gift of hope and music and a breath of the free world," Martin said.

The guitar classes at The Q ended abruptly when a couple of the inmates tried to get too friendly to him.

They'd found out where he lived, and his wife's name. While they made no threats, Martin said, "I couldn't go back, because the (officers) just really couldn't guarantee that somebody wouldn't do harm to me or my family."

The experience behind him, Martin and his wife spent the next six years developing his journal into a book. Meanwhile, he took very opportunity to share the terror with the juvenile hall kids he worked with in his day job.

"What I brought back to these kids was real honest information and knowledge -- not what they're getting from their gangster rap music or videos or TV or movies," he said. "I brought back the fact that when they go to prison, they will be fought over like a a pack of gum. They will have to do things you can't even wrap your mind around. 

"I made them understand that they will get hepatitis, get AIDS, get beat up, get shanked, get prison-raped -- that will happen. They will join gangs. They will be sleeping with one eye open. And that's what they didn't understand."

Martin finally self-published "Don't Shoot! I'm the Guitar Man" in 2007, and devoted as much time as he could over the next three years trying to promote it -- and his mantra of "education, not incarceration" -- to youth groups, educators, students, prison officials and just about anyone else who would listen.

"I've been trying to get people to understand that we lock up too many kids, that we have too many juvenile halls -- it's just ridiculous," Martin said.

"Everybody has heart, and they're not monsters, they're just people," he added. "Eighty-five percent of people who go to prison in the state of California are there for non-violent drug- and alcohol-related crimes. And we're mixing them up with pit bulls that are there for really major, bad stuff. So when you really break that down, 15 percent of the people in prison should be incarcerated. But the other 85 percent should be in programs."

In March 2010, Martin's prison break came: His book found its way to an independent film company whose producers contacted him.

"We met with Prodigy Motion Pictures and shook hands on a movie deal," he said. "The following week I made a connection at Penguin Books, sent them two copies of my book, and 48 hours later they offered me a publishing deal."

Penguin reissued "Don't Shoot! I'm the Guitar Man" on its Berkeley imprint in September. "The first pressing sold out in six days, and it went on (Aamazon's) Kindle within two weeks," Martin said. "Three weeks later they leased it to the German division of Random House so it could be translated to German. The second U.S. pressing came out in January."

The book is now available in 40 countries and can be heard around the world.

"Finally, somebody is listening," he said.

Martin's still amazed that a movie is being made of his story, more than a decade after the events he recounts in the book.

"But my wife and I read the script and it's just really amazingly kooky," he said. "Everybody will be stoked on the movie and the characters and the actors."

What's he think of Roberts, a Golden Globes nominee, playing him on the big screen? "He's a serious actor, and I know he'll do a really good job of it," Martin said.

The film adaptation, written by Laurie Lamson and to be directed by Rocky Capella, starts shooting in April in a San Francisco warehouse converted to look like the inside of San Quentin, Martin said.

The 19-day schedule also includes four days of shooting at San Quentin, and a few more days of location filming around the Bay Area for his scenes with the "throwaway" kids he worked with during the day.

"Then it's like seven-eight weeks of post-production.Prodigy wants to get it out by the end of the year.I've learned how these people work. It's crazy." he said.

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