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John Sinclair

The hardest working poet in the industry

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John Sinclair TV
Radio Free Amsterdam
BLUES, JAZZ & REEFER | KEEPING THE MUSIC ALIVE
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Frank Lutz, Berlin (1998) E-mail
Interviews
Tuesday, 23 June 1998 14:04
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JOHN SINCLAIR
Interviewed by John Miller and Frank Lutz
Berlin, June 1998

John Miller: Maybe you could start by talking about what happened after you got out of prison. At the time your case was highly publicized, but I lost track after you got out.

John Sinclair: I went back to Ann Arbor and turned myself to the cultural work that was going on there. I managed Mitch Ryder and his band called "Detroit" for a while, and other bands who were based in Ann Arbor. We did the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festivals. We produced free concerts in the park every Sunday during the summer. We did a lot of benefits. We started the People's Ballroom of Ann Arbor, which we built into an abandoned automobile dealership. That lasted about a month before some kid set fire to it. It was quite an undertaking, involving a whole lot of people from the community. We published an underground newspaper, the Ann Arbor Sun.

Frank Lutz: And when was this?

JS: I got out of prison on December 13, 1971. So this was between the end of '71 and the first part of 1975. In '75 I moved back to Detroit. But during this period we had a group, an organization, that we called the Rainbow People's Party. It had been the White Panther Party, but we changed the name. On reflection we thought we were scaring more people than we were winning over to our ideas.

JM: The word "white" might send the wrong message.

JS: It wasn't very clear. There were guns and all this stuff. "Off the pig!" and all that violent rhetoric. In prison I started thinking, "Well, perhaps this isn't the best way to organize the broad masses of people, threatening them and frightening them." We weren't going to defeat the police. If there was a war, they would defeat us. It was a foolish thing to do: constantly waving a red flag in the bull's face. AII it was doing was making the bull madder.

JM: Did Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition refer to the Rainbow People's Party?

JS: Not directly, no. We had friends in Chicago who helped organize the Rainbow Coalition, a group called Rising Up Angry led by Mike James, who's still a friend of mine. Rising Up Angry was like the White Panthers. They were proletarian dropouts, high school kids and greasers . . . what-have-you. Greasers turned hippies. They were trying to form a coalition between angry white youths, the Black Panther Party, the Brown Berets, The Young Lords-they were trying to make a rainbow coalition. It was the same idea. I would hate to take credit for something like "rainbow", which has been around for as long as there's been sky and rain. Any fool can look at a rainbow and see that it means different colors existing in harmony. Mainly we wanted to win people over to our ideas, which were that there should be economic equality, cultural equality, social equality of all kinds. The colors, or races, would all exist together beautifully. You know, we were smoking a lot of weed, taking LSD.

JM: Yeah, but the Weather Underground took a lot of LSD, too, and it fed into violence.

JS: But they had no culture. They were squares. They were rich kids, college kids. There's a difference. We used to use the term "set and setting." The set they brought to it was the idea that they would violently purge the rich white kid material out of their systems. With all due respect-they were a courageous bunch of people-but their ideas were full of shit. I never did like the Left-I mean, the academic Left. SDS was like a college debating group. They were great at organizing a demonstration. That was one thing they really had down. But I wasn't a person who lived to carry a picket sign. Our concept was more that if you were going to have a revolution, you start organizing your daily life in a revolutionary way. You practiced democracy in your household. That was what was unique about us and it was why nobody, of our peers on the Left, really liked us-because we were always challenging them. But, you know, we were on acid.

JM: But the way you describe the Rainbow People's Party sounds very pragmatic.

JS: We were hippies, you know, the white lumpen proletariat. We were people without jobs. We rejected the whole idea of the working class and the consumer culture. One of our central precepts was "Everything free for every body." We were pretty far out there on the ultra-Left tip. (Laughter.) We were rock & roll musicians. We listened to jazz and blues. I don't think Bernadine Dohrn would have known a Muddy Waters record if it came up and bit her in the ass. They really liked the Beatles! They just didn't have any culture. They tried to adopt our own tactics in their own twisted way. Weatherwomen would go into a high school, take off their shirts and run bare-breasted down the halls. This was to raise the consciousness of the youth, but the kids thought they were just nuts. The White Panthers would put on a rock & roll dance on Friday or Saturday night, and all the kids would come. They'd have a great time rocking to the MC-5 and the Up and other bands. And we would give them a White Panther button and an underground paper. Then on Monday, you see, their schools and their parents had to deal with kids who'd had their minds blown-they're all wearing White Panther buttons. But, with all due respect, the Weather Underground were the only organization on the Left who tried to live their convictions in a real serious way. They were willing to die or to go to prison. You've got to respect that, no matter how flawed the thinking might be.

JM: What about when you were in prison?

JS: I was in prison from July 1969 through December 1971 on a 9-1/2-to-10-year sentence for possession of two marijuana cigarettes. I challenged the constitutionality of Michigan's marijuana laws and eventually overturned the laws on appeal, but I spent 29 months in prison before that happened. Pun Plamondon was in prison at the same time.

JM: Who was Pun Plamondon?

JS: In the scheme of things, he was the Minister of Defense in the White Panther Party. He and I and another guy, Jack Forrest, were charged with conspiring to blow up a CIA office just off the University of Michigan campus. Pun was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. And he was captured and imprisoned. He did about as much time as I did. So we were in prison, and our people in Ann Arbor were trying to figure out how to get us out. These people included rock & roll bands, roadies, people who did light shows, people who made little handcrafted roach clips and strung beads-these were the members of the White Panther Party. We all lived together as a commune. We had a communal economic system. There wasn't any individual money. We were trying to be communists in real life. Except we were on acid. Kind of a volatile mixture. (Laughter.) We had 35 adults in three houses. Without having any political background or ideological indoctrination, we were just a group of people trying to change things because it was so bad we just couldn't stand it anymore. We were followers of Huey P. Newton, Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, and guys like Robert F. Williams, who wrote the book Negroes with Guns.

JM: But almost all those guys were self-educated, too.

JS: Well, the Black Panther Party identified themselves as the party of the lumpen proletariat. And that's who we modeled ourselves after. And then we had all these goofy ideological ideas like "youth is a class." That was one of my timeless contributions to the dialogue-which, of course, is full of shit. But, at the time, we thought we were a mutant race that had broken with the past. And there would be this whole new thing, and all the youth thereafter would be like us. We were wrong, you know. (Laughter.) All of our actions were predicated on the idea that it was inevitable we were going to win. What a concept!

JM: Do you think there's any political viability left to the notion of a youth culture?

JS: No! They're just young consumers. It's just "narrow-casting." They see different things on MTV and pick one from different things projected as life choices they can buy.

JM: But youth culture started out as making money, too. It was only politicized for a brief time. In the '50s was the first time teenagers became consumers.

JS: Right. I was one.

FL: What was your first record?

JS: It was "Ruby" by Harry James on 78 rpm. That would have been 1952. Shortly after that I discovered rhythm & blues on the radio. The first 45 I got was "Hard Hearted Woman" by Big Walter Horton on United Records-that was when I turned 14, in 1955, when I got a 45 player for my birthday.

FL: One thing I didn't get: Here's Coltrane. Then there's these rock & roll guys. I saw this poster in Guitar Army with Sun Ra for an MC-5 concert. It's like two different worlds. How do they fit together?

JS: What we related to was their energy and the way they had created imaginative new forms of high-energy self-expression.

FL: Did you turn the MC-5 on to jazz?

JS: Not really. The lead singer, when I met him, had named himself after McCoy Tyner, Coltrane's piano player. His name was Bob Derminer, but he called himself Rob Tyner. He said, "McCoy Tyner, you dig?" I was a Coltrane fanatic. He was the romantic hero of the saxophone. He was out there wrestling with it, trying to pull stuff out of himself he didn't even know was there. My dream with the MC-5 was always to control the means of production, to make big money in the popular music industry and bring it back to the community to finance left-wing schemes and communal enterprises, like buying a radio station. Then you could play good music all the time and tell people things you want them to know, just like these other creeps do.

JM: What do you think about the way the Grateful Dead self-produced themselves?

JS: Well, I admired what they did. I was no big fan of their music. I exercised my right as an American not to go see them and not to buy their records. But they went into the record industry and they were thrown back, so they figured out a way to produce and market their own records. They were old-time hippies who combined hedonism and getting high with thoughtfulness.

JM: They were astute businessmen, too.

JS: Right, because they sat around and talked about stuff like that. They started with compiling a mailing list. That was their genius stroke. They always paid attention to their fans. They let them tape the shows. I always thought that was great. It wasn't a capitalist product. The Grateful Dead realized people were into the music and that they could never make enough records within the commercial idiom to satisfy them. If they could, their fans would buy a new Grateful Dead record every day.

JM: They'd buy different versions of the same song over and over again.

JS: I like that part of it. They held together and expanded on the communal ideal. You know, I was initially inspired to manage the MC-5 by meeting Rock Scully and Danny Rifkin on the first Grateful Dead tour when they came to Detroit. Because these guys in the MC-5, who I thought were the greatest fucking band on earth, were just stumbling around like any band that doesn't have any management or anybody directing their affairs. They'd always be late. The equipment would always be fucked up. Gigs would never be advertised properly. They would never be paid enough money and/or wouldn't be able to collect it. After I met these guys from the Grateful Dead, who were in fact their managers, I just thought about it for a few days and said, "Shit, I could do this." I just demystified the job in my mind. I realized that somebody who totally had no background in commercial entertainment, no background or professional status as an artistic manager, no license, could do it. Just somebody who thought he could do something. The managers were just two other guys out of seven. The roadies were three other guys out of ten. There was no hierarchical thing.

JM: With recent music, don't you think here's still some attempted resistance on a subcultural level?

JS: It isn't real resistance. Take punk rock. They missed the whole point. All of these cultural movements haven't had any content against the existing order-except to deface, to mar or to uglify it. The punks didn't come out and say, "We want everything to be free for everybody. Work is obsolete." They said, "Give me a blow job."

JM: They didn't even like sex! (Laughter.)

JS: It was the antithesis of what we were about. Part of the punk thing grew out of The Stooges, who were friends of ours. But they were nihilists.

FL: It was also a reaction to the bad music of the '70s: Pink Floyd, Pink Floyd, Pink Floyd . . . Boston, Kansas. . .

JS: Maybe I'm wrong, but there hasn't been any cultural advance in twenty-five years. Does anybody play better than Jimi Hendrix?

JM: Well, now it's more like DJ-ing. It's not so virtuosic.

JS: That's what I'm talking about. It's a degeneration. Rap music is a serious degeneration of black popular music. It mirrors degeneration in the social order. So, in that way, it has artistic merit, but content-wise, what it sounds like. . .

JM: Some of it sounds pretty good to me, especially if you think of it as poetry.

JS: Listen! I'm a poet. I don't think of it as poetry. I think of it as doggerel, grade-school nursery rhymes, schoolyard boasts. I know there's supposed to be progressive ones, but it's just recycled music. They haven't raiscd it to a new level. I'm an old-fashioned guy. Louis Armstrong started playing solos and Coleman Hawkins adapted it to the tenor saxophone and raised it to a new level. Then Lester Young raised it to another new Ievel. And then Charlie Parker raised it to a new level. And John Coltrane took it over the top. And there hasn't been a new one since. Jimi Hendrix-you know, you had Charlie

Patton, and Son House, and Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Elmore James before him. I can't help it. I'm a historical guy. I don't believe that history is over. I think that whole post-modern thing is just right-wing horseshit. It's just a way to keep things static. That's why I work hard-consciously-to live in a world outside of mainstream American life. I don't want any part of it. And I've been blessed to maintain my lifestyle . . . by starving, which is what they have for poets and artists and people like us in America.

FL: When did you move to New Orleans?

JS: Seven years ago, in 1991. Despite the poverty, it has neighborhoods where people have lived for three, four, five, six generations, and the music is still a vital part of everyday life. There's still people with heart and indigenous forms of expression to make art out of their feelings, which relate to the experiences of the people around them.

JM: Part of that has to do with economy. In affluent commodity culture, people don't need each other so much. In poor communities, you see extended families.

JS: Because they have to. Otherwise, they'd starve.

JM: Yeah, it's not just an idealistic thing. Could you say something about your poetry? I heard you read in Berlin at the Quasimodo Club and listened to some of your CDs. I'm interested in the mode of address, or the voicing. It sounds like a combination of black preaching, oral history and Beat poetry. Doesn't that whole thing of reading in front of a band start with the Beats? Also, there's always a note of excess in your voice, as if it's threatening to spill over into hysteria. Maybe that's not the right word.

JS: Maybe passion would be a better one. That's what I'm trying to express in my work, the passion and intensity of feeling for the music that inspires my writing. I come directly out of the Beat poetry matrix-Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones, these are the poets who turned me on to the possibilities of verse and performance. And the great "projective" poets Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, who taught me about form and rhythm and the dynamic organization of verse as a means of intense personal expression. But my basic influences are the blues and R&B singers and composers I've been listening to all my life-Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Dave Bartholomew, Eddie Bo, the whole panoply of African-American popular music.

When I started writing poetry I was also directly inspired by my idol and mentor, the great Eddie Jefferson, who crafted verses to jazz solos by Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and James Moody. I took music and its makers-jazz, blues, R&B, African-American music in general-as my "subject," because that's what's impassioned me as a person since I was 11 or 12 years old. I've been performing with musical accompaniment almost since the beginning of my work as a poet-since 1964, in fact-and I've concentrated during the past 15 years on devising appropriate musical settings for my works in verse, so that now I can present them the way I've always wanted them to be heard: as part of a musical statement which gives the poems their fullest definition and returns them to the source of their initial inspiration. I'm kind of proud of what I've accomplished so far, especially the work I've been doing here in New Orleans with my band, the Blues Scholars, working regularly with my guitarist and musical director, Bill Lynn, and my drummer, Michael Voelker, to create original musical frameworks for my poetry. I think we're doing something that's fresh and new, yet fully connected to the tradition-an extension of the music into a new area where the lyrics are composed by field rather than in a rhymed song form. That's the way I think about it, and it's gratifying to get the kind of consistently positive response from our audiences that we enjoy. It's kind of a hard sell as a concept-poetry and music as a form of popular entertainment-but once you hear it, it's pretty easy to take. And you can dance to it!

-Edited by John Sinclair
New Orleans
August 11, 1998

 
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