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John Sinclair

The hardest working poet in the industry

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RAYGUN Magazine - Los Angeles (1997) E-mail
Sunday, 12 January 1997 23:52
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Poet rabble-rouser John Sinclalr and incendiary MC-5 guitarist Wayne Kramer meet Dean Kuipers at a deceptively-conspicuous table at the Silver Spoon diner In West Hollywood CA and openly foment a new wave of free music revolution.

You only have to listen to a few words from John Sinclalr's mouth, really listen to what he's saying to you, to know that this is still a weirdly dangerous human belng. Maybe more dangerous than ever. Even after a trio of busts over the last 30 years, the death of MC-5 vocalist Rob Tyner and guitarist Fred Sonic Smith, and almost a decade of relative obscurity, he's stlll slugging it out with the squares and starting to win. His recent performance at the House ot Blues in Los Angeles made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. His new work is a reunion, of sorts, as Slnclalr reads his paeans to the Delta blues roots of all American music backed by an avant-blues band led by MC-5 co-conspirator Wayne Kramer, now enjoying a revitalized career of his own with two fine albums, The Hard Stuff and the new Dangerous Madness. Which is a perfect descriptlon of the music-based urban revolt they schemed at the dawn of the '70s, when Sinclair was the MC-5 manager and de facto political strategist and the US was tangled in an intractable bloodbath In Vietnam and the MC-5 evolved from all-American rock band to the assault-rifle-toting acolytes ot Sinclair and Tyner's White Panther Party. They drew more attentlon from the Feds than the fans, however, and the band was dropped by Elektra after one now-classic album and similarly dumped by Atlantic after two more, spinning all of their lives into a downward spiral. Sinclair had been sentenced to 9 1/2 to 10 years for possession of two joints of marijuana in 1969, had the conviction overturned after serving over two years, and after the breakup of the band became a NORML lobbyist and journalist for alternative papers. Kramer became a thief and went to prison for possession of narcotics. "Free John Sinclair" buttons were de rigeur for a moment, then became more collectible than practical.

John Sinclair is, and always has been, a historian. He breathes life into the stories of the Delta bluesmen and jazz free thinkers. On his new recordings If I Could Be With You, wlth Ed Moss and the Society Jazz Orchestra, and Full Moon Night with his own band, Ihe Blues Scholars, and the new Full Circle (Allve Records) with Kramer, he seeks the otherworldly mind of Coltrane and Sun Ra and taps the roots of the white intellectual malcontent that made him ache for revolution in the first place. That is, to write poetry. Aren't they the same thing?

Wayne: (watching John light a cigarette and hide it under the table) Once an outlaw, always an outlaw

RG: They're gonna stop the smoking now in bars. As of '97, you can't go to a bar and smoke.

Wayne: A saloon is a civilized place. It's for adults. It's not for kids, and if I had my way people would be able to snort what they want, smoke what thay want, shoot what they want, and fuck whomever they want. [Aside to waitress:] Pardon me.

Waitress: I didn't hear that.

John: Perfect waitress.

Wayne: People need a pill, powder, potion or weed or herb or anything to get through the day, they should.

John: Leave them alone.

RG: You say this even now, after you've been through your own kind of hell with all these substances?

Wayne: Yeah, but I look back at all my funky behavior wlth great fondness. [Everyone laughs.]

John: Man, I don't drink. But I wouldn't take the drink out of the hand of anybody that wanted to have one.

Wayne: You have to make peace with all these substances. They've been here since the beginning of time and they're not going away. So that includes tobacco, alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, heroin, uh, quaaludes.

John: Lobster?

Wayne: Yeah, certainly the lobster. I mean all that other stuff's small time, you know, and it all leads to lobsters.

John: I was thinking of our old pal, Henry Normile. And the late Henry's personal credo was "Cocaine, Pussy, and Lobster in that order." [Both laugh.] He was serious, too. See, you're talking with a couple of libertarians here.

Wayne: Indeed, yeah.

John: Grizzled.

Wayne: Militant.

RG: Grizzled Militant Libertarians. That's something to shoot for. I've gotta make up some buttons.

Wayne: There you go, some buttons. We'll start all over again. "By Any Means Necessary".

RG: You said last night you wished that Sun Ra could've seen some of the things you played last night.

Wayne: We sat in with Nels Cline's band. So it was me and Nels on guitar.

John: It was rough. It was beautiful. It was rising up in the air about 6,000 feet.

Wayne: Yeah, Nels Cline is the only guitar player out in the world right now that I've found that has an actuaI understanding of more than rock guitar, more than jazz guitar.

John: Blues guitar.

Wayne: He knows these musics. He's knowledgable about them and he can certainly play any of them. But he's gone beyond, and he's got a new approach.

John: A certain structure of intelligence out of which this music arises. And it goes in all different directions.

RG: What do you attribute that to?

John: "Starship," by the MC-5.

Wayne: Yeah, stuff we played last night with Nels was the closest to the kind of work we did in the MC-5, in terms of exploring space beyond [p. 2] the beat, beyond the key. Yeah, and still visceral.

RG: Yet stiII rock in its own way.

John: "LIke a rock," as Bob Seger would say. He was a rocker.

Wayne: He was one of the neighborhood cats. He's like Joe Walsh or Ted Nugent, all those guys around Detroit that were they had kind of nice pop bands. They were okay, kind of light-weight.

John: Yeah, singles bands.

Wayne: They all went on to be multi-millionaires and John and I went on to go to jail.

John: Yeah, we were so god-damned smart.

Wayne: Yeah, we were so smart, why weren't we rich?

RG: How did you guys first meet?

Wayne: I met John through [MC-5 vocalist and theorist] Rob Tyner.

RG: What was Rob Tyner's thing and how did he draw all of you In? Was he doing poetry or was he singing right from the start?

John: He was with the MC-5 when I met him. But he was like a beatnik. It was a rock'n' roll band. It was a real interesting period to me, between I came out of a whole different matrix than these guys. It was one where guys who were beatniks or folk singers or folk blues guys playing in coffee houses started plugging in. It was that period when rock'n'roll was beginning to be part of the intellectual matrix, as opposed to bubble-gum music. I used to think the Beatles and Rolling Stones were like bubble- gum music.

Wayne: Pop music.

John: Pop music.

Wayne: John was a part os a loosely incorporated group of artlsts, poets, and musicians called the Artists Workshop. It was kind of a storefront operation.

RG: And what year are we talking about here?

John: '64, '65. I remember in '66, right after I got out of jail, the Detroit House of Correction DeHoCo and I think we met that famous day when you guys got unplugged! MC-5 unplugged! [Laughing.]

Wayne: We had been hearing about this guy John Sinclair, a poet, who was doing all these wonderful far-out thlngs. And that he was being released from DeHoCo where he had been serving six months for possession of marijuana, so...

RG: This was an earlier bust?

John: Uh-huh. Number two.

Wayne: Thls was gonna be a big all-day celebration centered around the Artists Workshop, and dancers danced, and poets read poetry, Charles Moore played with Ron English and them, avant-garde jazz. And the MC-5. We had left home and all started to move into the neighborhood to get away from our parents and kind of strike out on our own. Where did we fit? We thought this could be a good thing here. This sounds like us. They're artists. They're intellectuals. It's forward thinking. These were things that we related to, at least on a gut Ievel, even if we couldn't articulate it, being hoodlums from Lincoln Park, greasers from down-river. And then we waited all day to perform.

John: Waited and waited and waited.

Wayne: Yeah, we finally got to play about.

John: Three am.

Wayne: Yeah, three or four in the morning, and of course, we had these huge amplifiers that were blasting away.

John: Super-Beatles.

Wayne: Yeah, 100-watt Vox Super-Beatle amplifiers, and John didn't know anything about our band then; all he knew was that there were these guys downstairs blasting away at four in the morning.

John: All I can remember is this incredibly huge noise. I lived upstairs over the workshop. I was still wlth my first wife at the time.

Wayne: So Leni Sinclair came down and pulled the plug on us.

John: Then I wrote some kind ol incendiary statement In my column in the Fifth Estate paper. A statement about rock'n'roll, like, "What's wrong with these assholes?"

Wayne: Underground newspaper.

John: And so Tyner and Frank Bach prepared a response.

Wayne: A rebuttal.

John: A rebuttal, yes, and they brought it down to the Fifth Estate office. I invited them in. Had a joint or somethlng. We were listening to Cecil Taylor records. The hostility just kind of disappeared, and we became friends right there. It was kicks. They were nlce cats. I liked where they were coming from. I probably apologized for belng a dumb ass. I really liked Tyner. We became really good friends. We used to hang out all the time. All night. Take acid together. Rant and rave for hours and hours and hours. Tyner was just a guy who was totally bursting wlth ideas.

Wayne: Yeah, one of the most fertile imaginations I ever knew. [Tyner dled in 1992]

John: Me too. I really took offense In later years, when Tyner would give these interviews and he'd deny all of this shit. "Sinclair made us do this." I got more than half of my ideas from Tyner.

Wayne: All that stuff happened together. We'd sit around the table smoking joints and it'd be like jazz improvisation. And somebody would come up wlth an idea, and the next person would take it to the next level, and then exponentially. That's where all that stuff came from, the ideas about our show, White Panthers and all of that. That wasn't something that John went and figured out.

John: I was just a fan of theirs. When I finally heard them, I said, Man, these guys are great this is what I'm talking about. They intended to go wlth Coltrane in the context of a rock'n'roll band.

RG: In what context were they trying to deal wlth Coltrane? Just the improvisation?

John: Improvise, reach the skies. Coltrane was really pushing it. This was the period '64, '65, '66, '67. It was about expanding the music and your consciousness. The closest popular reflection of that would've been "Eight Miles High" by the Byrds. Well, these guys played eight thousand miles high. But Coltrane was really pointing the way. These guys, they called themselves "The Avant Rock MC-5". And Tyner had named himself professionally after Coltrane's piano player. His real name was not Tyner. That blew my mind. Some rock'n'roll kid from Lincoln Park is copping McCoy Tyner. That was quite a jump. Me and Tyner, we were like buds. [p. 3]

Wayne: Yeah, they were joined at the hip.

John: We'd just plot and scheme, man. We'd get up and next thing, there'd be the Guerilla Love Fare benefit. We'd issue statements, you know, the 1967 statement....

Wayne: The manifesto.

John: We were totally wigged. We could get up in the morning and then make it happen. We'd go out and do some shit and organize some contrary activity, and the next thing it'd be happening. And then everybody would say, "Man, this is fun." The truth is, it was all so much fun.

Wayne: The humor and the joy get lost sometimes in the telling of the tale. We weren't all sitting around in the warehouse cleaning our M-1 carbines waiting for the firefight; we were having a ball. We were falling out.

John: For the first year I knew you guys, I was like a fan. I just wanted to always be there when they were gonna play, 'cause the shit was so great, and you never knew what would happen because they would do "BIack To Comm" at the end of the evening.

Wayne: Yeah. (Laughs.)

John: Go to a teen dance contest show or something, and the MC-5 would come out and play some Rolllng Stones tunes and a coupla James 8rowns, then they'd turn their back on the audlence and play "Black To Comm" for 45 minutes. Then the people just said, "Booooooo." Then you did the same thing at the Grande and the people would say, "Wow, man, that was really great."

Wayne: We knew that we had a powerful force, because we found we could clear a room In seconds.

John: Seconds.

Wayne: We'd play all of our rock songs for the main course of the show, like a high school dance or something like that. All the kids would have a great time. They'd dance thelr asses off. Then at the end we'd have our secret weapon. We'd whip it on 'em, and then the place would be empty "Foom, shoom." They'd all Ieave. So, we knew we were on to it if we generated that strong a reaction, it was just a matter of educating.

John: It isn't from the first note they can't stand it....

Wayne: By the time we got to the Grande Ballroom we had a context that was appropriate for what we were trying to do. And then everyone understood. "Oh, this is psychedelic, it's mind-expanding."

John: The MC-5 looked like a bunch of fucking thugs. [Everyone Iaughs.] The avant-garde thugs. The teens weren't all that crazy about it. Boy, I was. 'Cause to me, this was the synthesis that we'd been praying for, in a way. Anybody wlth a rock'n'roll background, you always hope in the back of your mind that one day this will be redeemed as something more than just pop music. 'Cause when you were a kid, it was was powerful and shaped your whole life.

RG: When you do your performances and your readings now, you're dealing wlth history.

John: For me, it's my personal history. If I'm talking about Elmore James I had Elmore James on RPM all those records were the beacons of light. That's what keeps it from being some kind of dry pedantic lecture on the blues or something. Because to me, this is my heart. When I think of my work now, I don't think of myself as a guy wlth a message. I felt, in the White Panther days and in the Trial of Love days, I had a message. And I was determined to communicate this message to the masses of people so they could be uplifted and join us in the thrilling world that we lived in. But now I'm just talking about the shit that's on my mind. I'm here to get my nuts off. That's what I like about performing with music. I can do this stuff by myseIf, but that ain't no fun for me.

RG: [To Wayne:] Do you feel similarly when you write the spoken word pieces that you do?

Wayne: Well, in a way it's probably like a safety valve. It keeps me from going out to a shopping mall with a AK-47. If I can tell these tales, it helps keep me sane. I want to be true to the form and do some things that maybe deal with the idea that we can be grown up, that we could do this with some dignity and grace. And it's not all for teenagers, and there's a sense of redemption in all this.

RG: This idea of dealing with history. Was that a personal passion of yours or was it something that you picked up later in life?

John: For quite a Iong time I just wrote propaganda press releases and manifestos and once in a while they would crawl into verse. But only by accident, really. Maybe take the period from '67-'82; all the time I was doing my research, 'cause that's what I do for kicks my research on music people, periods, and big trends. Listen to them Little Walter records. And I read this thlng that [the Fugs'] Ed Sanders had written. Ed Sanders is a very dear friend of mine and always was a major Influence on me. I got my ideas from him really the ones me and Tyner developed together basically came to me from Ed Sanders. I don't know where Tyner got his. But I know where mine came from Total Assault on the Culture.

Wayne: Yeah! Total Assault on the Culture!

John: Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts.

Wayne: There's a Iine from Ihe Fugs to the MC-5. Not many people know about it, but yeah, that was a huge influence.

RG: How did the idea of calling yourselves the White Panther Party and the White Panther program how did that go down with people in that community? Because it was modeled after the Black Panthers, right?

John: Well, yeah. We were responding to the call by Bobby Seale. Pun Plamondon had just come out of 90 days in jail in Traverse City, Michigan, where he had read some Black Panther papers or something. How the hell he got those, I don't know. I probably sent them to him. [Laughs.]

Wayne: It came from the frustration about the slow pace of change, and we knew this shit was fucked-up. These people that were driving the ship of state were out of control, and we..

John: We'd sit around talking, and the things that were on our minds could be what they were doing to the fucking Black Panthers or what they were doing to this group over here. Everyone we knew felt that way. Even Iggy. Iggy wasn't political, but Iggy wanted to be a blues drummer. Anything that had to do with black people in a positive sense helped weld us people together, because everyone else hated "niggers" so much. And we got through it with the music.

Wayne: And this was a real culture. There was a real identity with real voices. [p. 4]

John: It was a real identity. It was intergenerational. I remember when I first started going to the black dances and the black rock'n'roll shows. There would be Iike 30 white kids and 3000 black people of all ages little kids, grandmas, all dancing together. The only people that were hip where we lived were people within one year of your age and only the ones that had these certain kinds of pants and these kinds of records or this kind of car and this kind of guitar or whatever. Everyone else had no sense of solldarity or community whatsoever. But then you'd be looking for models, and you would see the black people and they had a whole thing going on. It was really groovy and the muslc was just out of sight and your parents would fucking vomit and throw up, shoot each other before they would sit down with the Midnighters or something. [Laughs.] And try to have you arrested. To me, it was always just like heaven.

Wayne: And this was the time the Vietnam was building up, and this was something all young men had to face. This would politicize you instantly, because there was no way you could not be involved. The government was telling 18-and 19-year-old young men that you are going to have to go. Period. Our friends started coming back from Vietnam in body bags, and insane, out of their minds for what they'd gone through. One day they're 17-year-old kids on the block and the next day they're in Dante's Inferno, and nobody could justify it. Nobody could make sense of this. The Viet Cong weren't coming through the Windsor Tunnel. We couldn't justify it. So when you combine the cultural forces and the political forces, we were mandated to take some kind of action, and one form it took was: "We'll form the Whlte Panther Party and we'll be aligned wlth the Black Panthers and we'll do separate but parallel work."

John: "They'll love us!" [Laughs.]

Wayne: We had a great vision for the future!

John: We were on acid. I mean, that's the important thing. It's the key to understanding that whole period. The people who were my friends and fellow activists and into poetry, jazz, and 8mm films and all those kind of weirdos. We kinda merged with these weirdos and then you had a big bunch of fucking weirdos and you take acid with like 12 people and 15 people would all be on acid together and you would all have the same idea. And then Tyner would just incorporate it into the whole worldview. And you'd say "Wow! Yeah, man. We got to do that. We're punks if we don't do that." 'Cause you got these visions and then you'd just feel like you're an ant or a worm if you didn't actually go out and pursue them.

RG: How do you feel about what's goin' on now with both of you putting out good new albums? It seems like thlngs are pretty gratifying.

John: I hate pop music and pop culture. And I haven't had anything to do with it since about 1974. I 'm not gonna hold anyone else accountable for my view, but I don't have anything to do with it. It's a big mistake to me. I feel probably like how Burroughs felt toward women a biological error. [Laughs.]

Wayne: I have to deal with it, you know, being an Epitaph recording artist today. There's a spirit at Epitaph that has to do wlth a Iot of what we started off in the MC-5. To me Brett Gurewitz is kinda the realization of one of the things that we dreamed of. Here's a young cat. He's a musician. And he has a vision. And he has ethics. He's honest. He's takin' responsibility. Like we were talkin' about: get up in the morning, have this crazy idea and then go do it. Well, that's' what Brett's done. Henry Rollins is another good example of taking responsibility to make it happen. It's this concept of self-efficacy. 'Cause you can't depend on the outside world for anything. All they'll do is beat ya down, wear ya out.

John: I've been doing what I do for 30 years. And this is the first time I've gotten even a glimmer of the idea that people might like it. I did this in Detroit for 25 years before I left, and I felt like one of those clowns. [Punching the air:] Pow! They go down and they bounce up.

Wayne: I don't have any illusions about selling out sports arenas and being a huge MTV celebrity. That's not what I'm interested in.

John: Although it's acceptable. [p. 5]

Wayne: And this kind of stuff isn't like being an athlete where you have two or three peak years and then it's all over.

John: Our models are Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.

Wayne: Yeah. And great jazz musicians. Miles Davis played his ass off to the end. Louis Armstrong was starting a new band at 75, and was getting ready to go back out on the road. To me that's a realistic way to look at existing.

John: And then you go on the oldies show.

Wayne: Perry FarreII's a guy that I think is on the right track.

John: He's a genius. He's innoculated that whole generation with dope-fiendism. That's not his proudest achievement, I'm sure, but..

Wayne: How come he ain't called me for no gigs? I wonder about all those aIternative bands that say they were influenced by the MC-5? Well, give me the opening spot on your tour! Kick out the tours, motherfucker!

John: I should say something that I started to say about Ed Sanders. Because it was in 1982 when I read this piece by Ed Sanders called Investigative Poetry. And that's when I started writing poetry again. And that was when I realized that instead of writing all this shit down in my little notebooks my research and my notes that I could make it Into verse. I was actually writing things in my notebook from Bob Palmer's book Deep Blues that had so many great things, 'cause he had all the primary sources.

RG: Yeah, yeah.

John: Bob Palmer had gone over to Muddy Waters' house and got these guys talking and I'm writing this shit in my notebook. So the things they're saying start falling into verse patterns. And I said, Man, the way these guys talk, it's just as musical as their songs.

Wayne: Uh-huh.

John: And in some cases it's deeper than the songs when you get them talking about their experiences.

Wayne: Uh-huh.

John: But, man, these things were so powerful. And I got this idea from Sanders, 'cause Sanders and I have the same idol and mentor: Charles Olson. And my verse from the beginning was trying to emulate Olson, what he said about writing about the things that are cosmic: you wanna know something about the world? Learn everything you can about one thing. And then you can turn that glass here and there and things come into focus, because you know how to find out about somethlng. "HIstory," he said, "is to find out for yourself."

© John Sinclair/Wayne Kramer Interview RAYGUN, January 1997