“Poetry never sleeps.”
The best music and art erupts from immense suffering and revolutionaries are guided by great feelings of love. Combine the two and you get John Sinclair, a passionate supporter of blues and jazz music and former manager of MC5, a defiant, charismatic rock band from Detroit, Michigan in the 1960s and early ’70s. Sinclair and Tyner, the lead singer, matured into radicalism together. MC5’s audio onslaught and maniacal stage antics were great performance art and robust music, but their main goal was to overthrow the government of the United States.
John was in New Orleans for Mardi Gras for his annual participation in the celebration with the Mardi Gras Indians–also called the Wild Magnolias–where they have enacted their frenzied street rituals in the most ancient district of New Orleans since the late 1870s. I met John at a friend’s house last year, and we discussed a possible interview.
“I’m so sorry to keep you waiting,” John said. I’d waited for him for over an hour. It was the day after Mardi Gras and New Orleans was slow moving, dragging its heels back to some kind of normal. John showed up with his daughter and a man who was filming him for a documentary. The cameraman said he wanted to film our interview. I asked him not to. John kept apologizing. It wasn’t a big deal to hang out a while at Mary’s, I told him.
“Let’s go outside so I can smoke,” he said. For a tall, grisly man he’s gentle. I followed him out to a table where ivy curled around a fence. We sat under trees where I smelled basil and rosemary. His daughter brought him a po-boy sandwich. “She takes good care of me,” he said. He lit a joint and it glowed hot and orange. It’s all I could see in the darkness. His voice was sweet and gravely like Johnny Cash in his late years.
Sinclair’s been a beacon of optimism since the ’60s, when he was a fixture in the beatnik artist movement in Michigan. He was a jazz poet and worked hard to thrust the revolution forward. While the Civil Rights movement was simmering, the Black Panther movement was formed and the Avant-Garde Jazz Movement was stamping its foot. John was made chairman of the White Panther party, a leftist organization of white people who assisted the Black Panthers. He started the Detroit Artists Workshop (1964-68), did radio shows in the US and Amsterdam. He was the manager for the aforementioned spit-in-the-face-of-god-and-art band, MC5 in 1967-69 before he went to prison for his radical stance on marijuana.
John’s driven by a generous concern for the world in a way I can hardly grasp. At the same time his opinions are void of contempt for those too cowardly to speak up, or who have sold out. Squared-up. Listening to Sinclair talk, it became clear how peaceful and happy he was to be an artist, even though it’s not an easy life to be an agitator, a poet and a piss-poor Marxist. It’s like the decision to be a writer, encounter failure, piss people off, disturb and horrify family members. It’s baffling, but it’s the right choice.
After our discussion, I went to hear John read his poetry from his book It’s All Good, in the Gold Mine Saloon, a tiny bar in the French Quarter. Sinclair’s scraggly silver beard and frenetic hands jerked in the smoky bar. He swayed while he read and a woman in a floral dress danced wildly. I had a maternal urge to fetch Sinclair a napkin for his sweaty forehead, but I figured he probably didn’t give a shit and would be irked by my uptight middle-class tidiness.
John makes grubbiness look distinguished. In 1969 he was sentenced ten years for giving an undercover cop two joints right after Elektra records signed the MC5. He was already a rambunctious participant in the White Panther party. In a culture that’s numb and commercially creepy, where opportunism and moral caprice are normalized, celebrity is valued over intelligence, and fearless commitment to social change and emotive art is considered low rent, John poured forth images of love, cobras, gasoline and sex. In his poetry, I could hear the heartbeat of revolution.
The Rumpus: What was going on in Michigan that sparked your interest in the civil rights movement and particularly socialism and anti-racist movements of that time?
John Sinclair: As a kid, in Flint, Michigan, I listened to rhythm and blues on the radio. Introduced to the concept of black people and art, piped in from another planet. When rock and roll exploded in 1955, there was Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Ray Charles and Howlin’ Wolf. Where does this music come from? Who made it? I had to know. Black people. What was it about them? Grew up in all white farming community. I had to learn about it, there weren’t black people around in my small farming town in Michigan, so I went to the dances and saw their music. That’s where I got exposed to black people and their struggles, their concerns. Interracial sex was going on. I wanted to infiltrate their music scene so I went to their dances. From there, I got involved in the civil rights movement, joined the youth chapter NAACP and the urban league and I picketed with them.
Rumpus: How did the Detroit Artist Workshop begin initially?
Sinclair: I moved from Flint to Detroit to attend graduate school, but I dropped out. I wrote my grad thesis on William Burroughs: Naked Lunch. You had to have a second language and I didn’t give a fuck. I lost interest in where college was taking me. You didn’t have to square up back then. We didn’t want jobs. We were hippies. It mushroomed over a year or two. When I dropped out and they asked me not to come back. I became an activist. Detroit appealed to me because I’d already been driving there to hear music. I wanted to meet the beatniks and to become a beatnik myself. I knew they were there and I wanted to merge with them. I studied the poets and jazz. I smoked weed and dropped acid. My biggest influences of that time were William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac. Henry Miller was a one-man literary movement. Hubert Selby showed the vivid darkness of the American dream. I loved Edward Merton Dorn (Gunslinger), Coltrane and Miles Davis. I was preoccupied with radicalism and social change. We wanted to make a positive change in the world.
Rumpus: Tell me about the Free Jazz Avant-Garde movement and your role there?
Sinclair: This was very underground at the time. Miles and Coltrane were hits in their field. I got attracted to Pharoah Sanders, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman. LeRoi Jones was my hero because he wrote poetry that had music in it and wrote for magazines. There were only four people in America who were kindly to jazz musicians at that time: Baraka, a crazy guy named Frank Kofsky. We were championing the jazz movement in 1962. Experimentation was considered a threat to mainstream culture, the insidious marketing machine that’s about filling society’s heads full of their own products. They want to package and sell it. It’s a media culture — it has nothing to do with art, creativity and change, so I started the Detroit Artist Workshop to revolt against that.
Rumpus: How did you get involved with the counter-culture Black Panthers and Fred Hampton in the first place?
Sinclair: I dislike the word counter culture. Consider the word “counter” as in buying it over the counter. We were against mainstream culture, especially the consumer/media machine. I was not involved with Fred Hampton per se; I got first involved with Eldridge Cleaver who joined the Black Panthers. My attention was directed to the alternative newspaper in 1966 and the Black Panther leaders. Our circles in Detroit MC5 were followers of the party. We had an epiphany when we were going to release “Kick Out The Jams” with Elektra recorders. We wanted change. We were out to overthrow the government. We formed and supported the Black Panther Party and wanted to protect people who loved jazz and Rock n Roll from the racism and oppression within the government.
Then there was my arrest. I got arrested twice. Once in 1966 and then in 1969. I was an agitator and started the legalization of marijuana and was very public about my beliefs so they thought let’s show these young people they can’t get away with this. So I was the anti-symbol: We must take them on, was my motto. I was in prison for 2.5 years. My first wife and my brother, they organized benefits, lobbied legislature to get me out of prison. I directed my manifesto as much as possible from prison. We were trying to pass new marijuana laws in Detroit. I was saved by John Lennon. He pressured the government to release me. Don’t fuck with a Beatle.
In 1970, the legislature went on vacation. I was desperate to make a change and they took a long vacation as the paperwork sat and collected more dust. It was important to put as much pressure as possible to make them reclassify pot to something harmless. I was just an irritant, a Michigan State political prisoner. My appeal was designed to overturn pot laws and I wouldn’t give up. December 1971, we organized an event in the basketball arena, when we got people to play, peace activist Jerry Rubin came and was hanging out with John and Yoko. He told them about me and convinced them to come play. Three days later I was released on an appeal bond. The Michigan Supreme Court overturned my conviction on appeal in March of 1972, and the state’s marijuana laws were declared unconstitutional. Our strategy was to overturn Michigan laws and we succeeded.
Rumpus: I was also arrested recently for prostitution. Friends of mine have been doing erotic massage with ads up online for over fifteen years and never got stung. Do you think this was deliberate? I’m out about being a sex worker. I’ve written letters to the LA Times. Am I being paranoid to think the LAPD sought me out? I’ve always wondered about women in the Black Panther Party. Were women in leadership roles?
Sinclair: It certainly seems well thought out and strategic. The thing you should know is they hate us. As a militant leftist radical leader, I was a threat. What you’re doing and talking about publicly is a threat. In the Black Panther party, most of the women had leadership positions within the movement. They were powerful and beautiful with their big Afros, leather jackets, and berets. There were as many women as men. But, now that you mention it, men were terrible sexists at that time. They acted in a way that was considered hopelessly sexist by today’s standards. One of their sayings was “political power comes out of the lips of a pussy, not the barrel of a gun.” They also put pressure on the female members not to have sex with anyone who wasn’t a revolutionary.
At that moment in time, you could do anything you could rise to do. If you wanted to do something, you could do it. They didn’t have to support you, but they couldn’t stop you.
Rumpus: In this social media landscape, marketing has become more and more invasive. People are encouraged to brand themselves, to have a platform. It’s all about moving product. Can a revolution happen in this age? If so, how? How do you remain principled in such a climate?
Sinclair: I spent ten years trying to convince people to do the right thing. It doesn’t matter what anyone else does, what matters is what you’re doing. Making good art takes nerve, sacrifice, and talent. It’s not an easy life. The government hates us. They got everyone else duped. I don’t care what they do. All of the musicians from my generation were given shut up money to go away. To stop being edgy. Once you’re a millionaire, you’re not interesting anymore. The thing that makes people great is need, desperation, and depravity. People have to suffer to change. After the mid 1970’s, many artists squared up and went to college, and their priorities changed. That’s okay, too. But, music no longer drove them to go for the throat with their creative intelligence and audio onslaught. It’s corrupted now. It’s about getting rich and famous now. I decided I didn’t want to do that. I decided to keep going with poetry and cultural agitating. Poetry never sleeps.
Rumpus: What you said about the artist as a creative engine stemming from need reminds me of this excerpt from Neela Banerjee’s blog on the Jaipur Literature Festival. The excerpt is “What Junot Diaz Said” regarding failure:
Anyone who works as an artist, there will be a moment when you will be deeply tried, where you will be challenged to your core self. I always say this and I will repeat it to the end of time: You don’t discover you are a good artist because you are awesome. You discover you are a good artist when everything goes wrong and it keeps going wrong, and you hang in there. And you hang in there, because you are driven by two things, your love of the form – I mean, how would you suffer years of “failure” other than you love the form? I love literature, … but also the knowledge of what we do as artists is the ultimate faith-based initiative. You are already assuming anything that you write, and anything that you do as an artist, will somewhere in the future encounter someone that will need it. You are putting your hand out into the darkness, with the faith and the hope that another hand will come back. You are already lost in the deserts of hope; you might as well hang in there. The nature of what we do is about believing beyond all possibility: I’ve come through to the other side, and I can safely tell you, the only thing that matters when you’re utterly lost in the desert as an artist, is that you keep going. That’s when you discover you’re strengths as an artist. To touch your strength as an artist is far more useful to an artist than success.
Sinclair: Make art that is about our humanity: anything that pulls on our heart is a good thing. Anything that makes us feel more is great. It can be a struggle; it ain’t no bullshit. They used to call it transenergy. Oh, and stop buying shit. Anything that’s against consumer culture and consumerism is helpful.
Rumpus: Do you still drop acid? How long have you been living in Amsterdam? What authors inspire you?
Sinclair: No acid. Not anymore. I’ve been living in Amsterdam since 2003 and I have a poet’s residence at the 420 Café. I love Amsterdam with the old canals and the movement of huge amounts of weed. For fun, I read murder mysteries. But I also read Jane Cortez, Sonya Sanchez. Language is musical. I love Lorca. Toni Morrison is our greatest living writer. Specifically, Jazz.
Rumpus: You’ve won awards for the best radio DJ and you have shows in Detroit, Amsterdam, and New Orleans. What is your direct connection to jazz and particularly Coltrane? What do you hope to accomplish now as a radio personality and through poetry?
Sinclair: From 1991-2003, I volunteered on the radio; for the last 5 years I was celebrated as the world’s greatest DJ, Radio Free Amsterdam. I have Detroit Life Radio and I have a lot of fun making the shows by myself on my laptop: The John Sinclair Radio Show — Radio Free Amsterdam. I’m doing what I can do. We can’t do very much without any fucking money. I’m doing what I can do to express my feelings and thoughts about culture and play music that I’m deeply in love with: blues. I’m 69 years old. I don’t even have a housing budget. It’s easier than paying rent. I make young people take care of me. I’ve got to put out a query to raise $1,200 to buy a new computer. Mine was stolen while traveling from Spain. My pile of wealth is my friends and children and I’m head over heels in love. I didn’t think I could feel this way again, but I do.
All photos by Lexie Montgomery unless otherwise noted.