Eight Days in Prison

By on Jan 13, 2019 in Essays

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Concert for Change flyer, lighter colors


September 12, 2016, 5:45 p.m. Monday night. I just got back from chow. Soy burgers and plain rotini noodles, overcooked to mush. Vanilla pudding for dessert. Not great. Bad meal aside, it was a good day. Work was uneventful, a little paper shuffling and some light cleaning. The concert in the gym! Classical music arranged by our chaplain. “Music for the Soul” is how it was billed. One guy, a pianist and composer and group leader, and three gals, a cellist, violinist and singer. Opera. The ladies were very pretty, all three, especially the cellist. Hubba-hubba.

I know as a musician, I’m supposed to love all music — and for the most part I really do — but classical music just doesn’t quite do it for me. Sorry, but there it is. The group today were all very talented, though. There’s no denying that.

They did a show in the morning and one in the afternoon, the same way we’re (the prison band) going to do it Wednesday. After the morning performance, our LTS Supervisor introduced “Drummer” and I to the ensemble and volunteered us (without first asking us) to play something for them. We did a couple of off-the-cuff jams, just drums and guitar, very bare bones. The ladies were gracious. They applauded enthusiastically at each of the song’s (and the term “song” is used very loosely here) conclusions. Not having had time to properly warm up, I played very sloppily. Look, I’m under no delusions about my talent. In the world class, I’m an average player, a competent journeyman of my craft. About on par with Ritchie Sambora of Bon Jovi (although I can’t sing), not quite as good as Steve Vai or Joe Satriani, though I have been known to fake my way through a few of the latter’s songs. Today, playing in front of highly-skilled, classically-trained, professional musicians, I was keenly aware of my musical limitations. Still, it was nice to jam in front of some cuties for a change. Yeah, I’m a male chauvinistic pig. Sue me.

Tomorrow morning is orientation for the prison’s new arrivals. I’m going to skip it, because I have to set up in the gym for our concert, do a sound check and all that. Aside from being the clerk in the counselor’s offices and being in charge of the band room, I’m also a volunteer peer educator, certified by the Illinois Board of Public Health to speak about HIV, AIDS, STI’s and Hepatitis to my fellow prisoners, as well as how to prevent one’s self from getting any of the above diseases. In orientation, we peer educators walk the new guys through a slew of paperwork, give them the lowdown on how this place operates, then do a song and dance about not getting tattoos or having sex while incarcerated. That’s orientation. The logic of the peer educator program is that new inmates will be more receptive to information if it’s coming from one of their own. Personally, I’m not sure how true that is — fools aren’t receptive of information coming from any source — but I’m part of the program so… yeah. I first got into it because I wanted to start a music theory class. No luck yet on that front, but not from a lack of effort on my part. I’m glad I got into it, though. Corny as it may sound, being a peer educator makes me feel like I’m serving my community, which (for the time being, at least) this prison is.

Not tomorrow, though. Somebody’s going to have to cover for me. Right now I have tunnel vision; all I see is the concert. I first came up with the idea about a year ago, maybe even further back. They have all these life skills classes here — Anger Management, Lifestyle Redirection, Fatherhood, Substance Abuse, etc. — that the counselors run. Since I first joined our prison band here five years ago, all of our concerts have been 95 percent cover songs. Guns-n-Roses, Justin Timberlake, Pantera, Bruno Mars, Tupac, Carl Thomas… whatever. More, it was all divided into categories. What I mean is now we do a rock concert, then we do an R&B concert. We do Latino music, then rap, so forth and so on. As an okay guitar player, I was recruited into every band incarnation without fail.

But I got to thinking, what if we could write all of our own music? Don’t get me wrong. Those other shows were fun, and we crushed it. But playing cover songs is sort of like playing dress-up when you’re a kid, wearing Mommy and Daddy’s clothes. When you grow up, you wear your own clothes. As an artist, that means creating your own art. In this case, music. We could write something with a story to it, something with a positive message akin to all those life skills classes.  The idea wouldn’t go away. We could use the time-tested three-act format. Act One — Street; our main character is living the criminal lifestyle. Then Act Two — Prison; our guy gets busted and goes to jail. And finally, Act three — Freedom; he gets out and gets his life together. Yay. Happy ending. Each song a chapter in the story. Plus, we would incorporate elements of rock, R&B, heavy metal, soul, hip-hop and rap into the music instead of just sticking to one color. My drummer was on board right away, totes up with it, but there was a lot of skepticism from the guys. Then the music privilege program was shut down when the old LTS Supervisor left in September of 2015. February of 2016 we got a new LTS guy. He put me in charge of the band room. That was it. By June the music privilege program was set to reopen, and I put a squad of different musicians together who I’d worked with at different times, fellas I thought could bring my vision to life. And they did. Those brothers worked their asses off, and we created something totally unique and special. Sixteen songs telling the story in sequence. I’m really proud of what we accomplished.

The first guy on my list was my drummer, of course. We played together in the chapel choir band at another prison from ’07 to ’10. We went our separate ways for a few years, but he turned up in this prison in early 2015. He’s a great drummer, one of the best I’ve ever played with. We’ve always had a good chemistry musically, which — if I’m being honest — I’ve always thought was kinda weird. I’m a 47-year-old white guy from an ’80s heavy metal background. He’s a 30-year-old black guy from a late ’90s gospel music background. Yet we click. Cray-cray.

After my drummer I got the rappers. At the time, the new LTS boss was all like, “Rappers? You want to put rappers in the band? You like working with rappers?”

I was like, “I like working with talent.” Besides perhaps country music, I believe rap is the best genre of music for story-telling. Each rap artist I got for this (four of them) I’ve worked with at one time or another in the past. They’re not just table pounders. These guys can work in a band situation. Can’t say that about all prison rappers.

After the rappers, I picked up the usual suspects: two horn players, a keyboard player, a bassist, and an R&B singer, all of whom had participated in the music privilege program at various times. Then, by sheer luck, a white rock singer got here right at the beginning of this. A savage (a very talented person) and somewhat of a local celebrity. Pseudo-celebrity, I should say, but a lot of the younger C.O.’s know him from his band out there. We put him in the line-up and BAM! Time to make the donuts with a mix-n-match all-star team. The show’s going to be great. I can’t stop thinking about it.

It’s almost 6:30 p.m. I’ve got to get ready for day room. I gotta shave and get in line for the showers. Hell, if I’d known I was going to be playing music in front of pretty girls today, I’d have shaved yesterday. Lesson: you only get one chance to make a first impression.

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Nicholas Chittick is a writer and musician who lives in Danville, Illinois, where he now teaches music theory. He plans to relocate in 2027. Maybe sooner, with a little luck. You can find more of his work at PrisonsFoundation.org.