This writer is very pleased to report that 20 TO LIFE: The Life & Times of John Sinclair
, a feature film by Steve Gebhardt, was finally completed this month after 13 years of hard labor and enjoyed its premiere screening at the Oxford Film Festival here in northern Mississippi last weekend.
The title refers to the prison sentence I faced - 20 years to life - for giving two joints to an undercover Detroit policewoman in December 1966. I challenged the constitutionality of Michigan's marijuana laws, was convicted of possessing the two joints and sentenced to 9-1/2 to 10 years in prison, served 29 months and was finally released on appeal bond in December 1971 after a mammoth John Sinclair Freedom Rally in Ann Arbor brought my incarceration to an end. My conviction was reversed by the Michigan Supreme Court in March 1972 and the weed laws were declared unconstitutional.
The title also refers to the period between my release from prison in 1971 and the point 20 years later when we started making this film in 1991. By that time I was leaving Michigan after almost 50 years of residence to resettle in New Orleans and begin a new life there, and Steve started shooting my last few days in Detroit to begin work on our new film. Production proceeded in fits and starts as funds were raised to cover the costs of shooting interviews and performance footage for the movie.
For the first seven years everything was shot on film by a three- to five-person crew, sent out to be processed and then transferred to videotape for viewing. In 1998 Gebhardt acquired a first-rate digital video camera and started shooting with that, cutting his costs way down and gaining instant access to the images. The interview footage with me, my family, friends and comrades was cut and stitched together by editor Tom Hayes to form a basic narrative line, and Steve selected filmed performances, archival footage and still photographs he would use to illuminate and actualize the narrative.
Gebhardt filmed me in concert with Ed Moss & the Society Jazz Orchestra in Cincinnati, with my Blues Scholars in New Orleans and at the 1998 Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam, with Moss and a hot swing quintet, and in the recording studio with Andre Williams and Mark Bingham while the Blues Scholars cut our album Fattening Frogs For Snakes
in 2001. The album was released the next year by Rooster Blues Records on its Okra-Tone label, and Rooster proprietor Robert A. Johnson signed on to the film project as executive producer when he agreed to advance us money to cover the costs of completing the film.
The last major shoot for the movie followed the Blues Scholars on our Fattening Frogs For Snakes
Amtrak tour from New Orleans through the Mississippi Delta to Chicago, with a side trip by van to Clarksdale, Tutwiler, the Dockery Farm, Three Forks and Moorhead ("where the Southern cross the Dog"), plus Blues Scholars performances at Ground Zero in Clarksdale, a downtown festival stage in Memphis, and on the Amtrak train itself. 20 TO LIFE
also has performance footage of John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Allen Ginsberg, Ed Sanders, Bill Kirchen, the Up and the MC5, plus news footage of the 1967 Detroit riots (cut to "The Motor City's Burning" by the MC5) the police riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. and festive hippie gatherings from the 1960s shot in Detroit, Ann Arbor and Buffalo, NY. The soundtrack has plenty of music from the MC5, plus selections by Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Detroit Artists Workshop Music Ensemble, Cecil Taylor, The Kingsmen, The Youngbloods, Sun Ra, Sly & the Family Stone, Thelonious Monk, Charles Neville & Diversity, the Wild Magnolias and the Re-Birth Brass Band.
There's also relentless marijuana advocacy throughout the film, culminating with a joyous gathering at the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam to celebrate Thanksgiving Day by smoking a one-ounce joint of Dutch marijuana. There are history lessons and laughs galore, lots of fantastic music and flashes from the psychedelic past, a generous sampling of my poetry in performance in a variety of contemporary musical settings, sessions in the radio studios of WDET and WWOZ, and even a cameo appearance by Big Chief Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias.
The movie zooms along at a terrific pace, unfolding a brilliantly woven tapestry of personal testimony, music and poetry, mad images unearthed from the historical files of the American counterculture, news film and documentary footage-all streamed, cut and layered together to tell the story of my life so far in just 86 minutes. Maybe I shouldn't be the one to say it, but Steve Gebhardt and his editor Tom Hayes have done a hell of a job here.
It isn't every day that an American poet gets a movie made of his life and work, and for someone like myself who has labored so long beneath the radar of the popular culture industry, the completion of 20 TO LIFE
is something to shout about. Now the process of clearing the music and copyrighted film footage, finding a distributor for theatrical screenings, arranging television showings and making a DVD deal is upon us, and I'm asking that your thoughts and prayers be with us as we begin the arduous task of marketing our hard-won movie.
Steve Gebhardt first entered my life in 1971 when he accompanied John Lennon & Yoko Ono to the John Sinclair Freedom Rally to document their appearance and, as it turned out, the entire concert and rally at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor. He completed the film 10 FOR 2: The John Sinclair Freedom Rally
in 1972 but it has yet to be released. Steve's other films include Ladies & Gentlemen The Rolling Stones, Bill Monroe: Father of Bluegrass Music, Carla Bley: Escalator Over the Hill
and the yet-to-be-released If I Could Be With You: John Sinclair with Ed Moss & the Society Jazz Orchestra
After the Oxford Film Festival Gebhardt drove our rented car back to Cincinnati while I stayed over a couple more days to make a recording session with Afrissippi at Jimbo Mathis's New Africa Studios in Clarksdale. When his platinum-selling band called the Squirrel Nut Zippers broke up, Jimbo retreated to his native Mississippi and rented the former studios of historic WROX Radio in funky downtown Clarksdale to use as his musical headquarters. He's got a nasty little blues band, the Knockdown Society, that plays around Mississippi, and he's been touring with Buddy Guy since they collaborated in the recording of Buddy's new album, Blues Singer
I met Jimbo a few years ago when he invited me to contribute a Charly Patton poem, "Some of These Days," to the album called Songs For Rosetta
that he made to benefit Ms. Rosetta Patton, daughter of the great early Delta bluesman. I ran into him again last month at Joe's Original Crawdad Hole in Jackson, MS, where the Knockdown Society was playing on a Sunday afternoon with the Cary Hudson Band from Hattiesburg and the Taylor Grocery Band from Oxford, who'd invited me to join them for the show.
Afrissippi had played the day before on Mud Island in Memphis, opening a terrific outdoor concert that also featured Cary Hudson, Duff Dorrough & Friends, Alvin Youngblood Hart and the North Mississippi All Stars. Augmented by legendary Memphis saxophonist Herman Green, Afrissippi had sounded extremely good on stage, and we were eager to capture the band on tape as soon as we possibly could. When I talked with Jimbo in Jackson the next day, he urged me to bring Afrissippi over to Clarksdale so he could cut some tunes at his place, and now we've got seven finished pieces in the can.
* * * * * (Detroit, June 25)
- A long train ride later and I'm back in the Motor City for a week or so, then another long train ride to our nation's capitol for the 4th of July and a week at Common Ground on the Hill in Westminster, Maryland, where I'll teach my annual Poetry of the Blues class and participate in the incredibly rich communal life of this adult folk music camp.
Founded and directed by hammered dulcimer master Walt Michael, the 10th annual Common Ground on the Hill convocation brings together a stellar faculty of folk music professionals with music-hungry students of all ages to investigate the varied delights of traditional musical forms and instruments together. Faculty and students are housed and dine together on the campus of McDaniel College, participate in classes and workshops through the days and perform in divers combinations at campus venues at night.
The Common Ground experience culminates with the American Music & Arts Festival held on the grounds of the Carroll County Farm Museum on the weekend of July 10-11, featuring performances by Arlo Guthrie, Etta Baker, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Tom Chapin along with Common Ground faculty members like Guy Davis, Lea Gilmore, Brian Bower, Scott Ainslie, Bob Lucas, Sparky & Rhonda Rucker, Wale Liniger, Harry Orlove, Cary Wolfson and many more. The Common Ground website is at www.commongroundonthehill.org
, you can write them at
or call (410) 857-2771.
Before we go on into the summer, though, I'd like to revisit a few highlights of this past spring not previously mentioned. I spent a couple weeks on the West Coast before JazzFest in New Orleans, visiting with my Cannabis Cup pal Jim Epstein in San Francisco and the Honorable Eric Labowitz up by Boonville. One of my life's ambitions was realized on April 14th when I gave a reading at City Lights Books, something I've wanted to do since my first visit to this historic San Francisco literary landmark in 1960. It took fully 44 years to make it happen, and it was big kicks to celebrate the occasion with old friends like Michael & Michelle Aldrich, Ken Kelley and Emil Bacilla in attendance. It was more kicks to visit the Berkeley Patients Group headquarters and hang with people who put medical marijuana into practice.
Then there were several thrill-packed days in Los Angeles, where the great writer, guitarist and singer Michael Simmons put me up and my old comrade Wayne Kramer let me play with his magnificent band at the Baked Potato and the Cat Club. Simmons backed me up on guitar for a reading with Michael Ford and comrade Rex Weiner (newly appointed West Coast editor of High Times) at the incomparable Beyond Baroque in Venice, and one night we had dinner with Adam Parfrey, publisher of Feral House Books. I visited the headquarters of my little record label, Total Energy, at the Bomp/Alive Records complex in Burbank operated by Patrick Boissel and Suzy Shaw, where I raided the storeroom shelves for CDs and LPs I've produced for them by the MC5, Sun Ra & His Arkestra, Roosevelt Sykes and Victoria Spivey, the Motor City Blues Revue and other artists.
I also spent some quality time with Wayne Kramer and his partner, Margaret Saadi Kramer, at the new offices of MuscleTone Records in Hollywood, where they were finalizing their plans for the DKT/MC5 world tour and DVD release (Sonic Revolution: A Celebration of the MC5
, on the stands July 6th). DKT stands for surviving MC5 members Michael Davis, Wayne Kramer and Dennis Thompson, now touring with guest members Marshall Crenshaw on guitar and vocalists Mark Arm (ex-Mudhoney) and Evan Dando (ex-Lemonheads). There's a story here too big to tell in the space I have left in this installment, so I'll save it for the next edition of On The Road.
Before I close this time, I'd like to express my thanks and appreciation to brother Willie King, the great blues guitarist, singer and composer who was kind enough to bring me to his annual Freedom Creek Festival in rural northeastern Alabama. My guitarist, Eric Deaton, and his wonderful lady Lee drove me over from Oxford to enjoy a beautiful day at Freedom Creek with music by Willie King & The Liberators, Little Lee and a variegated cast of musical characters, playing for a wildly diverse audience of Willie's friends and neighbors and visiting blues lovers from all over the place. Fantastic food was made available, cold refreshments were at hand, and the event was enveloped in an irresistible atmosphere of warmth, friendship and intimacy on an intensely human scale. Thanks again, Willie King, and we'll see you somewhere soon. (c) 2004 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.