Toledo > Detroit > Flint
Trip Start Feb 23, 2007
34Trip End Jun 15, 2007
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When we get to Toledo we're greeted with a front-page feature story by Ryan Bunch in the Toledo City Paper that combines testimony from Citizen Wayne Kramer and myself to make a fuller portrait of the period than either of us are able to provide by ourselves:
Toledo City Paper
May 2, 2007
REVOLUTION, DRUGS AND ROCK 'N' ROLL
Candid interviews with John Sinclair and Wayne Kramer of the MC5
By Ryan A. Bunch
In the middle of 1968 a 27-year old writer from a working class Catholic family in Flint, Michigan packed up six houses worth of hippies from his Artist's Workshop in Detroit, Michigan and moved them to a new base in Ann Arbor, transforming the small college town into the San Francisco of the Midwest and lending it an identity which continues to inspire much of the culture that defines the city today.
John Sinclair, manager of the firestorm avant-rock quintet, the Motor City 5, better known as the MC5, and his community of friends, his Rainbow Brothers and Sisters, founded the White Panther Party that same year to aid groups like the Black Panther Party in championing social justice issues among the white masses. By the end of the year Sinclair and the MC5, along with others in their social circle, like The Stooges, Up, The Rationals, and the Chosen Few had become a powerful cultural force at the forefront of a youth movement that was sweeping the nation.
As the influence of Sinclair and his cronies grew, boasting messages designed to tear the very fabric of American culture, as it was then defined, openly calling for revolution and boasting the power of "rock & roll, dope and fucking in the streets," the White Panther Movement and the Ann Arbor/Detroit scene saw increased pressure to dismantle the community they put together in an attempt to usher in a new era and a new way of looking at life.
By the middle of 1969, The Man got his way. Sinclair had given two joints of marijuana to two narks posing as hippies and was sentenced to ten years in Jackson Prison.
Ever the optimist, Sinclair used his time of forced rest to write new and compile a series of previously published essays that would eventually compose the contents of his cultural manifesto, Guitar Army. After serving just two and half years of his ten year sentence and receiving vocal support for his release from the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman and most famously John Lennon (for his song "John Sinclair"), Sinclair was released and Guitar Army was published, at once capturing and inspiring the heart and mind of a movement that has since defined an entire region's art, music and underground culture, and spread across both coasts and over seas as an inspiring tale of the power and possibility of people hungry for change.
After 35 years being out of print, Guitar Army has finally been republished. With a documentary of his life story-TWENTY TO LIFE: The Life & Times of John Sinclair, a film by Steve Gebhardt-on the horizon, Sinclair will visit Toledo on Friday, May 4 to give a special reading and book signing at Culture Clash Records, 4020 Secor Road, from 2 to 4 p.m.
I had the surreal honor and pleasure of speaking with John Sinclair and MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer about the republishing of this book, those golden and dark days in Detroit and Ann Arbor, modern politics, music, art and LSD.
"This book talks about a lot of different things, but mostly it's a book about rock & roll music and the new life-form that's grown up around the music - the rainbow culture is what we call it ..."
- John Sinclair in Guitar Army
Toledo City Paper: You finally got Guitar Army republished. What took so long?
John Sinclair: Well, there isn't much of a market for this sort of screed anymore.
TCP: Do you think the book is still relevant as a historical document?
JS: Oh yeah, that's definitely what its purpose is. I wouldn't suggest anyone doing this at home (laughs). But it's a very interesting read, it's got some great pictures. It pretty well encapsulates the spirit of that particular place & time. That's the part I like about it.
TCP: It makes Ann Arbor seem even cooler than it is today.
JS: Yeah, back when that was the Dope Capitol of the Midwest.
TCP: In the book the book you boast at length about the power and revolutionary nature of rock 'n' roll, but these days, you're more of a jazz and blues cat. You don't listen to rock that much anymore ...
JS: Not if I can help it.
TCP: What changed?
JS: They bought it out. It became something different and I turned out to be totally wrong about its revolutionay potential (laughs). I'll be the first to say. But at the time we believed it firmly.
TCP: When do you think that happened?
JS: 1972. When it started taking 'em six months to record a rock 'n roll album. That was different and when they started making millionaires out of these hippies and they went right along with it, no problem.
TCP: When you re-read the book, what is your reaction?
JS: I get a kick out of reading it. I thought I captured it all pretty well. I was 30 years old when this came out. I've continued to write and develop and grow as a writer and a poet and a human being. So, I'm a little farther down the road now. But this is, like you said, initially a historical document and I'm reenacting something that happened 35 to 40 years ago. Whereas, if I do a poem, whenever I composed it, if it's still congruent with the way I feel, I can deliver it in a pretty convincing manner because it's me, that's the way I feel. Well, I don't feel that way anymore. I'm not angry and I'm not trying to save the world. It was pretty insistent that it didn't want to be saved. I was like OK, I'll go back to writing poems and listening to music. I was willing to try, it seemed like such a great idea, you know, and then it turned into shit.
TCP: When you first met the guys from the MC5, who do you meet first and how did you meet them?
JS: Oh, I don't know, I started to go and hear them play at their gigs.
TCP: There's some perception that you acted as a mentor to them in some way, at least with drawing them into the White Panther movement.
JS: That's all mythology. There was no White Panthers. We were Trans-Love Energies. We were hippies and beatniks, we had no political reality. We had jazz concerts and poetry readings, published underground newspapers.
TCP: Explain to me what Trans-Love Energies was all about.
JS: Hippies. Productive hippies. Musicians, Gary Grimshaw posters, he did the light show at the Grande Ballroom. We were hippies, we were pot heads, we took LSD. Just like hippies today, we helped invent that. You got hippies in Toledo, I've seen 'em. They're the ones having the fun.
There was no White Panther party until November 1st, 1968. It was just an idea, if you can call what we did that.
I became friends with Rob Tyner. Rob Tyner was a great singer and great songwriter and he had the over-riding conception of what this band should be. And we became really close friends. We hung out and got high together. We couldn't stand the SDS ... we thought they were squares.
TCP: So it's safe to say Tyner and the guys were already on their own path and you guys joined forces more than ...
JS: Yeah, I started out as a fan. Then I found out later that they were trying to win me over because I was the guy who wrote the column for the underground paper about music and art. They thought if they could get me to like 'em they could get the rest of the hippies to like 'em. They were greasers from Lincoln Park. That was their background.
In Detroit what happened was all these greasers started smoking pot and some of them started taking LSD. And so you had this weird hybrid, that's what Detroit rock 'n' roll was all about - greasers on marijuana. They quit combing their hair and let it grow.
TCP: What were those early MC5 shows like?
JS: They were a great band. And the great thing that made them different from everybody else was that they closed their shows with this free-form improvisation which started out kind of like "In the Midnight Hour" and just went into outer space. Every night it was different. And people that liked the band, they made it so you had to go to every gig because you never knew what they were going to do at the end. That helped create their following.
TCP: What prompted the move from Detroit to Ann Arbor?
JS: We just had so much harrassment from the police. We had the riots in Detroit in '67 and we were right in the middle of that. Because we were on the side of the rioters, they were our neighbors. And we hated the police because they were the ones who started to put us in jail for smoking pot. The police catalyzed the whole thing because eventually the police were after you all the time. They were arresting you, you were in prison, that was a political consequence. If you wanted to do something about it, you had to change things politically, in a macrocosmic way. You had to change the laws. If you wanted the war to stop, you had to get a lot of people to say stop the war.
But it was a very small thing and it all grew organic, not just in Detroit but all over. Then when they had Woodstock, then everybody said 'Wow.'
TCP: Like you say, it started out small and all that broke with Woodstock, when you got of prison how much had it changed?
JS: It was a massive phenomenon. When I went in in July of '69 the hippies in Ann Arbor were a small...a couple thousand of us. When I came out at the end of December in '71, the next night after I got out they had the Grateful Dead at Hill Auditorium for two nights. And they took me down there and this place was like, what's Hill Auditorium hold, 4,000? Well, it was packed wall to wall with hippies. They were dancing in the aisles, they were smoking joints. They all had long hair and colorful outfits on ... they were like us. But, they were students at the college. When I went in, the students at the college wanted to beat you up. They were squares.
TCP: Where you as impressed with the Stooges as you were with the MC5?
JS: Well, I was impressed-the thing that impressed me most about them was that they were completely original. They weren't even a rock 'n' roll band, they were a performance act. They didn't have any songs. If Ig would have set up the Stooges where they had to play a Chuck Berry song they would have had to quit.
They weren't a rock 'n' roll band. They made up the lyrics on stage, they had no tunes, they'd play a drone for 20 minutes that'd change once. They'd only do 20 minutes! They would just come out and Ig would give everything he had that he could pull from a pre-cognative level inside of himself ... it wasn't a thought-out presentation. Ig just got up there and got high enough and got the guys to put the drone in and just dance and make up crazy shit over the mic and play his electric vacuum cleaner and dance with his theramin. Oh, man - they were fantastic. I'll tell you one thing: for 20 minutes you couldn't take your eyes off the stage! And it was different every time, never the same.
TCP: As has been well documented, the 5 didn't play the Free John Sinclair Rally which followed a falling out you guys had ...
JS: Well, they fired me before I went to prison in June of 1969. It wasn't a falling out, they just said we aren't going to do this anymore. We won't be needing you or [the others]. We won't be needing the White Panther Party, we won't be needing any of you. We're going to try and be a hit band and they tell us that this isn't going to work for that. That's a pretty clear cut break I'd say.
They played a few benefits during the next year or year and half or something. But they never contributed anything to my family. I used to say the mafia had more heart than these guys-my wife was pregnant, you know. They were working on this new record contract that I had arranged for them, but I didn't have no paper though. We had a brother arrangement and all of a sudden they stopped being brothers.
So, there's this mythology that they put out that somehow I fucked the MC5. I never did understand that, but they had two and a half years to sell that and I was in prison. I say - Who went to the joint? Who got the raw end of the stick?
It wasn't my fault they started shooting up dope and fucking up their stuff and making terrible records, you know (laughs).
We asked our friends to play in this rally, that was two and half years later, two and a half years of which every day I spent in maximum security in Marquette and Jackson Prison (laughs). So we just asked our friends, and we didn't consider them our friends at that time.
TCP: When did that get reconciled? Obviously you and Wayne are on pretty good terms now.
JS: Wayne and I have been close since the mid-'70s when he got out of prison and he said he was sorry. That's all I ever require.
So we were friends during all that. But he was estranged from the other guys. Rob Tyner turned into kind of a reactionary guy who denied everything that he did. I guess that's where a lot of it came from. Tyner had this kind of really reactionary trip when he talked to the press. Sometimes when I read the things he said it made me literally sick to my stomach. And I felt so bad for him because that was his moment of glory. He should at least be proud of it and take full credit, you know. He didn't have anything going after that.
"Aesthetically, we were enormously successful. Economically... there was no success. It was all about music of the future and unfortunately it was a band that didn't have any future."
- Wayne Kramer
TCP: What was your initial reaction to the re-publishing of Guitar Army?
Wayne Kramer: Well, anything that helps tell the story of these people and these events and that time I think is a good thing. It's an important time in our national culture and it's a not talked about ... at all. It'd be different if it was talked about a little bit, but it's been erased from the national memory. It's as if what happened with John and the MC5 never happened. Believe me, it happened.
TCP: Have you gotten a chance to re-read any of Guitar Army? Were there any parts that stood out to you? I was interested to know if looking back there was anything you forgot or sort of shake your head and laugh?
WK: Well, you have to shake your head and laugh, 'cause you can't take all this stuff very seriously. We were pretty grandiose. But it's a great snapshot of what was going on then, it's a great slice of a time and a place. That's one of the things good literature can do sometimes. A good book can give you a sense of what it was. An inkling, you can scratch the surface on it. It's a good read, it's a hoot, it's fun.
TCP: It's interesting that the memory of that time seems to revolve around the San Francisco scene. Which is fine, but it seems much more light-hearted than what was happening in Detroit and Ann Arbor.
WK: That and it was also successful. They all sold lots of records and were able to successfully transition from a regional scene to a national and international basis. They had great commercial viability. Very little that we did in Detroit, that we did ... other people found commercial success, but we didn't find it.
TCP: Well, you were kind of purposely not pursuing that, weren't you?
WK: No, we were pursuing it. Absolutely. We wanted to be mainstream and we wanted to be part of the over-ground culture, but once they realized that we were who we said we were, they backed off of us. We became too much trouble, we became too dangerous for them.
TCP: I think that's easily the most militant movement in rock music that's happened to date. How much of the cultural landscape of Detroit - the automotive, factory-based mentality - influenced the art and movement of the MC5?
WK: Detroit and the Industrial Midwest was the realization of the American Dream after World War Two. The Great Promise - 'We've won the Great War and there's manufacturing and full employment and we're going to build all these wonderful new cars and we're going to build the interstate highways and we're going to see the USA in our Chevrolet.' That prosperity came with it-the idea of Unionism which came from the European idea of the Communists and the Union organizing, all of that took firm root in the Detroit area. So, there was a sense of activism without even calling it activism.
By the time of the '60's, when it became clear, at least to young people, that the direction the country was going in was wrong - was morally wrong - we all were already prepared to take an active role in changing it. We came from the point of view that this was our country and being a citizen of a community is to protest when you believe something is wrong.
It was the intersection where in all other aspects of American life - the civil rights movement reaching a point of critical mass, culturally with the coming of a whole new generation of young people reaching critical mass and the anti-war movement reaching critical mass - we felt that our cultural agenda was the voice of that critical mass.
The kind of music that we were listening to, the free jazz of Sun Ra and John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman fit right in with what was the next step in rock music, with the British first wave and the hard-edged more experimental music that was coming out of England, we kind of put all those ideas together and it came up in the poetry and the literature and in the music and in the dance and in the graphics. It was almost as if what happened in Detroit was meant to be on the cutting edge of an entire cultural sea change.
TCP: Do you think the other side won?
WK: I don't think they won in one regard, because all of this was kind of a mustard seed, at least in my world and the world of popular music there's a whole bunch of MC5's out there today. There's a Bruce Springsteen who quietly goes about the business of fighting and participating in the same struggle, Tom Morello and Rage Against the Machine. And even guys like Sting and other artists around the world, African artists and Middle Eastern artists are all ... there's a sense of political connection that is overt today that wasn't overt then. And, as always in literature and art. I think there's a strain of activism.
But, on the other hand (laughs) here we are with an administration that is scary in their agenda and absolutely unwilling to learn from the mistakes of the past, or the present. and are repeating the disaster that was Vietnam. Corporations continue to get bigger breaks, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This is the nature of struggle for civilization. That you fight and you lose, you fight and you lose, you fight and you lose, and then you win one, then you go back to fight and lose ... that's just the nature of the struggle to rise above our worst instincts as humans and gravitate to our best instincts.
"It was all too perfect to believe, but we wanted to believe it so bad that we over-looked the contradictions that had been developing all along until it was almost too late to do anything about them. We just kept urging people to "drop out" in greater and greater numbers until we looked up one day to see kids sleeping in doorways and begging on street corners ...."
- John Sinclair in Guitar Army
TCP: Is it a little bit of bummer that it went the way it did?
John Sinclair: Oh, it's a big drag. It was a big dissapointment. But on the other hand, you see, we were trying to turn people on to a different way of life and a different way of approaching life. And I've followed that way ever since, so it's worked for me (laughs). I wasn't going to become like them when everybody cut their hair and got jobs and started buying property and all that kind of stuff, that's not for me. So, I don't know, I followed the same ideas through life and it's been very rewarding. And I've had a long and productive period here on Earth so far. I love every minute of it.
TCP: Do you think any of the cultural spirit of the mid to late '60s era could return?
JS: Well, I don't know. It could if that's what [people] wanted. I think people can do pretty much what they want, within the framework of Earth life. If you wanted to make a change in your life and get some other people together to make a bigger change, it can always be done. It's been done throughout human history. It's just a matter of what the people want.
Now they want to be entertained and amused and they want to drive big cars. And they want to spend a lot of money. They got to live with it.
One thing I love about Amsterdam and in Europe in general is that they have old things. They have things that have been here for a long time and they aren't going to get rid of them. They don't have strip malls. Nothing like that. It isn't run by developers like the US. It's a much more interesting, comfortable and intelligent way of life. And you wonder why do these people [in America] want to have the way of life that they have ... it's so ugly. The whole thing, the suburbs, the television, the terrible movies, the horrible music, 50 Cent, Eminem, Beyonce, American Idol ... why do they want this? I don't get it. What do they get out of it? It's just disgusting to me. I don't think anybody is going to get anywhere until they turn off their television set, to put it in so many words.
"We believed it with our entire hearts and souls. We really felt that we could influence the youth of the world with these thoughts about music and this new way of living."
- Wayne Kramer
TCP: What was it about John that drew you in? When did you first meet him?
Wayne Kramer: The thing that attracted me most about John was his analysis and perception. He was on a higher level than anyone else I'd met in my life up until that point. He's an extremely smart guy.
I met him when I was 17 or 18 and it was very illuminating. Here was a guy who could explain things on a level where it all made sense. People don't realize what an intuitive, smart guy he is.
He'd written something critical of us in one of the papers and we wanted to answer him. At that time he was running the Artists Workshop in Detroit and we needed a place to practice. So, I went over to his house and knocked on the door and said "Hey, we're artists, we want to use the Artist Workshop space." "He said come on in, let's smoke a joint and work it out, and we did.
TCP: The MC5 was a rock band first, so when it came time to participate in the White Panther portion of it, it seems like that became the root of a schism that caused some of that to fall apart.
WK: Our participation and involvement in being White Panthers and wearing the uniform was all part of who we were. The White Panthers was a way to express our real frustration with the slow pace of change. We wanted change and we wanted it yesterday. And then, there's a natural cycle to movements and bands. Any time a group of people band together for common purpose, especially young people, but any people, by combining their energies, they can achieve the goals for which they set out. Once they achieve them, everything has to change. Just like anything in nature - it's born, it grows, it lives and it dies. So, most bands follow that arch and most co-operative efforts follow that arch. When they fall apart, it's pretty easy to look around and say this is the reason and that's the reason, it was the politics. Oh, it was the drugs. But there's a larger principle involved and it's just that the center never holds.
TCP: The last non-MC5 band I'm aware you were in was Gang War, with Johnny Thunders. Which is about the time you moved to New York. That was a pretty short-lived project, when you got involved with it had you planned to continue for a while?
WK: After that I joined Was (Not Was). Gang War was a brief descent into rock 'n' roll madness. Coming out of that was the beginning of Was (Not Was), which was really exciting and productive and creative ... as opposed to Gang War, which was (laughs) predictable, negative and destructive.
TCP: When the three of you re-united, was it or is it odd not having the other members? Do you miss the energy of the whole group?
WK: Only if we happen to be talking nostalgically. To go out and tour and to play music and be in a band, it requires a lot of effort. There really isn't a lot of time to be drifting off into yesterday or what might have been. You know, I'm up there playing, my plate is full. So, no, I'm not really thinking about something I did 30 years ago. I'm trying to stay in the moment I'm in to do the best job I can do in that moment.
I don't really live in my yesterdays. I have no regrets about the past, but I don't close the door on it either. I don't live there. Having done something good 30 years ago does not pay the mortgage today.
Having been in the MC5 has not left me independently wealthy. I've got to work like everybody else. I've got to come up with some music for a movie. I've got to come up with some music for a TV show, I've got to mix a new record, I've got to set up some rehearsals, I've got to set up some shows. I've got to work like everybody else and I'm grateful for it.
TCP: You're famed for the MC5 being the only band to show up to the '68 Chicago Convention. Do you still participate in protests and demonstrations?
WK: I do what I can. Sometimes it's manning the barricades, sometimes it's telling a story and going to talk to people, and sometimes it's singing a song. There's plenty of work that needs to be done. In my community, in my neighborhood, in my world, there's things I can do and those are the things I can do, you know? I want to put some effort into improving things. So, I do what I can.
I believe that an individual makes a difference. It's not something that you out-grow; once you realize how things work in this world you realize that your efforts are important. One person could start a magazine, one could make a film, another could organize a group to put the spotlight on an injustice.
Social justice issues require participation and they don't get better by themselves, they get better when people take action. Once you know that, you don't reach a point where you say, 'Well, I used to do that, but I don't do that anymore.' Anyone that I know ... Sinclair is still Sinclair. He still champions art and culture and revolutionary change. Once you're in, you're in for life.
"We started out from where we were then, which was almost nowhere, and we built up our new culture from the ground, basing it upon our new dope-opened consciousness which told us we had to get together and love everybody right now."
-John Sinclair in GUITAR ARMY
TCP: I know you still write poetry, where do find your inspiration from? What's a continual theme in your work?
John Sinclair: My poetry basically praises great people, artists and musicians. Musicians mostly. What I do is try and tell people about the greatness of Muddy Waters, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, so that's where I get my inspiration, right from them. Then I try to turn it into something else, add something.
TCP: In Legs McNeil's oral history of punk rock, Please Kill Me, one of the girls around the White Panthers says that while the guys were living all these ideas, the women were made to stay home and clean.
JS: Oh, that was Ron Ashton's sister. That's not true. Look at the pictures. We were committed to that everybody should be in this equally. I think if you look that up it's a typically ignorant statement by Kathy Asheton.
TCP: Do you think the rest of that portion of the book was accurate?
JS: Well, it's all ultimately accurate because different people said it. It was their perception of what happened in talking about that experience. To her that was real, but I mean she never went there. She was part of another set, part of a decadent set that wasn't into any kind of social action at all. So, that was her reality.
TCP: Was there any interaction between the White and Black Panthers, hostility, cooperation? Did they feel you were mocking them in some way?
JS: I don't think so. If you listen to the CD that comes with the book, there are these spoken passages, most of them taken from White Panther Party Central Committee Meetings, with guys like Bob Rudnick, Skip Taube and Jesse Crawford and myself, Frank Bach, my brother David, my wife Leni-a lot of these people are talking in here and a lot of what I selected for this album was to show how we were trying to relate to the Black Panther Party. And then there's a statement by Bobby Seale, where he characterizes it pretty well. He says at first he thought we were just nuts. The Black Panthers said, 'Well, we smoke weed too, but that ain't got nothing to do with the revolution.' Then we took instruction from them. If you listen to that, you get a pretty full picture. It's pretty baffling shit to just listen to out of nowhere, but it points at this question.
TCP: Is it flattering when you think that guys like John Lennon and Allen Ginsberg composed art especially for you and your situation?
JS: Well, I wouldn't say 'flattering.' I was a public figure and I was in trouble, so they were trying to help the best way that they knew how. I wouldn't say it was flattering, but I was totally overwhelmed with appreciation. I thought it was a beautiful thing. But, like, I didn't know John Lennon when he wrote that song. So, it wasn't something he was doing for me as a person, we didn't even know each other. He was relating to my situation and trying to be helpful. Later, we got to be pretty good friends. But, I being in prison and somebody comes to help, that's way beyond flattering, that's like being comrades, you know.
TCP: Did you ever meet Ginsberg?
JS: Oh, yeah, yeah. Many times. He was my idol. That was a great American if there ever was one.
"LSD was the catalyst that transformed rock & roll from a music of simple rebellion to a revolutionary music ... LSD opened the road into the future as wide as the sky and we were soaring!"
- John Sinclair in Guitar Army
TCP: There was an idea that LSD was going to save the world. As an older man, what do you think about that now? Were you misled?
JS: Well, it didn't save the world because we couldn't get enough people to take it. But it did a lot for us. I mean, the insights that I gained through my use of psychedelic drugs are still the basic part of my life today. I took peyote in 1963, how long ago was that? 45 years ago? But I mean I'm still, every day, trying to manifest the things that I learned from peyote and LSD and mescaline and all the different psychedelic drugs I took. They're not recreational drugs. You take 'em for recreational purposes and you're likely to have an unpleasant surprise (laughs). Sometimes it ain't no fun. It just resensitized people. I can't help but think that if people started taking LSD today it might make for some interesting developments. Especially now that they've got the Internet.
TCP: There's a part in the book where John either says or alludes to LSD saving the world. How do you feel about that now?
Wayne Kramer: Acid is an interesting substance and it's an interesting experience. Today, I'm not sure what the real benefit of it is (laughs). We all took it ... well, let me put it this way, I took it. Lots. And, people have taken psychedellic substances for millenia. It seems to alter neurochemistry and consciousness itself in a way that there might be something to learn there, but in the end, I'm not sure how usable it is. I mean the experience, if you look at the way American Indians take peyote, and they have the visions and the dreams and it seems to connect them with the Earth and their history and everything. When I took it, it's all just stuffed in my brain, in my mind and it all became manifest in different forms. Obviously, people still enjoy it (laughs) because they still take it.
In general I'm probably skeptical about its actual practical use to mankind, of course, with the caveat that people have been using it forever and they seem to enjoy it. It's certainly not in a category with methamphetamines or alcohol or tobacco.
TCP: I think it's an interesting and important question to ask. For people discovering music from that era, the first thing you learn about is LSD and psychedelic music. I think it's interesting and important to get a reflection on that.
WK: Yeah, I'm just skeptical of its real value. I think there are other drugs you could take that are way more damaging. I think there are other people whose psyches are fragile and they're given to extreme thoughts or emotions and I think acid is a bad thing for them to take. It's a pretty risky drug to start playing around with. I wouldn't want my kids taking it and I definitely wouldn't want my bus driver taking it (laughs).
Somebody sitting in a cabin up in the woods with their good friends ... I don't know. I can't recommend it one way or another. I took it, it was interesting but I don't think I'd recommend it to anybody either. I think they'd be better off taking a college class.
TCP: Do you think it was important at the time? Do you think the MC5 or the White Panthers or even the San Francisco scene would have happened or had the same energy or had the same position without it?
WK: No, I don't. Because the experience added a mystical component to everyone's existence. It made us all feel like we were on the verge of some great evolutionary breakthrough. And, you know, I think we might have over shot on that (laughs).
TCP: You forgot to get off the bus?
WK: Yeah. I remember the feeling and the sense that we knew something that the rest of the world didn't know and this LSD thing was so mind-expanding and consciousness-expanding that everyone needs to take this acid so they'll know what we know. But that doesn't hold up so good over time, in terms of practical application and real-life situations. I mean, the best I came out of it with was that-I have a great imagination, and I came out of it with a spiritual cosmology that if you take everything in the universe apart down to its smallest elements, you can only go down to energy itself. So energy was the key ingredient in everything. So that propelled me to high-energy music, high-energy art, high-energy life-style ... which, you know, was all good stuff, but as time goes on, you realize you can't be high-energy all the time.
"We had created an alternative culture which was as free and open and unorganized as we were, that was what we considered its strength, and all we wanted to do was give it all away to everybody who wanted to share it with us so they could be free too, just like we were."
- John Sinclair in Guitar Army
TCP: It's kind of wild that the MC5 just reunited a few years ago, you're getting your book republished, the Stooges put out a new album-all these things are happening at the same time.
John Sinclair: Yeah, it's like I saw Iggy in December at All Tomorrow's Parties in England and he ended this incredible Stooges set - which they totally killed, Ig was out there refusing to quit and making 'em give 'em more encores - and hanging from something, he finally says, "You can't get rid of us!" I've adopted that little slogan. You can't get rid of us. Here we are. Yeah, man, that's right. You can't get rid of us that easy.
I tore through the story and sat down at the Thai restaurant across the street from the new location of Culture Clash to do an interview for Blogcritics.com with a writer named Connie Phillips. My old friend Jay Harrington from Traverse City was on hand for a while, taking time out from his studies to have a few laughs with me. Connie conducted a good interview based on her knowledge of and research into the issues under discussion.
May 9, 2007
http://blogcritics.org/archives/2007/05/09/024350.php (part one)
INTERVIEW: GUITAR ARMY AUTHOR JOHN SINCLAIR
By Connie Phillips
John Sinclair, author, poet, and activist, spent the sixties embracing the ideal of love and peace, and drugs and rock 'n' roll. He was a jazz poet, founder of the Detroit Artists Workshop and manager of the MC5. With the release of the first MC5 album also came the declaration they had formed the White Panther Party, in support of the Black Panther Party and in opposition to the U.S. Government.
In July 1969 he found himself sentenced to nine and a half to ten years in prison for giving two joints to an undercover policewoman. While the movement he started, along with much of the rock world, protested for his freedom, Sinclair began compiling the columns he had written for the underground newspapers and writing the resulting book Guitar Army.
He was given his freedom 29 months later, three days after the expansive "John Sinclair Freedom Rally" at the Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, Michigan (Dec. 10, 1971). Guitar Army, which became known as a manual for revolution, was re-released May 1, 2007 by Process and includes previously unreleased photos as well as a CD of recordings of the MC5 and other Detroit area bands of the time.
John Sinclair sat down with me last week at a local restaurant near the record store where he would later sign copies of Guitar Army and read from its pages. We found most things in life are circular - to move forward you have to look back. We talked about the ideals of the time, those he expressed back then, and how it all relates to the social and political state today. The conversation drifted from music, to baseball, to the effect of the media on the youth of today, and back again.
Connie Phillips: Is there a reason, other than the 35th anniversary, that you are re-releasing the book Guitar Army?
John Sinclair: I got a publisher (laughs). It's been available for 35 years but no one has had the good taste to want to put it out again. Finally they did and it coincided with the 35 years. It rings a bell with journalism of today.
Right. I've been active for these past 35 years, but since I wasn't in trouble, and I don't call major press conferences, they don't know. They ask, 'Where you been?' Well, I was in your town six months ago, but you didn't pay any attention. Now I have a product and a publicist and it's about the old days, so it's safe to talk about.
Because enough time has passed?
If I brought this out now I couldn't get a review. On the basis of the content I mean.
Do you think there is a significant relevance between what was going on then and what is happening now? I mean, we're once again a country at war.
It's an unbroken line. It just keeps getting worse from my perspective.
Do you mean from the political perspective?
Well everything, it's the culture - the deteriorating degenerate culture. I don't mean that in any particular way. It's the trading of intelligence for dollars. It's all because there are a lot of greedy people who are making a lot of money off of this. They have no compunction to elevate or educate; they just want to take their money and throw them on the side. I hate that.
I live in Holland where we don't have people sleeping out on the street. You know, it's all what a society wants. It turns out this is what America wants. They wanted to discard all of their values to have a bigger car that takes $3.50 to the gallon for gas.
I'm pretty unremitting in my critique (laughs). It doesn't matter who the politicians are. They've proved that. They have a mechanism that works for the rich people, and they get richer and richer as statistics prove.
You look at big business with its millions and millions...
I'm a big baseball fan. But why does Pudge Rodriguez have to get 10 million dollars a year? Or Ordonez get 15 million dollars each year? What are they going to do with that? How much money do they need? So if someone wants to take their family to the ballgame it costs $100, or more than that.
I was going to say, when was the last time you were to Tiger Stadium? It costs more than that to take a family of four to a pro ball game.
We used to go all the time and sit in the bleachers for three dollars. I don't say that to dis these guys, but god damn. 50 cent is worth a hundred fifty million dollars. What kind of world is that? I don't live there mentally.
There's one tier of extremely wealthy, but then there is also high unemployment.
Oh yeah, and you have the underclass that they don't even want to acknowledge until they turn out, 20,000 of them in the Superdome waiting for a bus. That was the first time they saw people like that on TV in a long, long time. Americans didn't know they still existed. I don't know; I hate this society. I'm sorry, let me stand right up.
It's okay, if that's how you feel. Do you think the things you wrote in Guitar Army are still relevant? Are there things people today can draw from to change the human condition?
I don't know. That would be for them to say. I did my bit. I didn't put the book out to influence people today.
Well, no. You put it out 35 years ago.
Back then I was trying to take over the world. Now, I'm just trying to get my words in print, because I am a writer.
Do you still look at your poetry and writing as a way to express political and social unrest?
I express whatever I think or feel at the moment. That's what I like about writing. You can say whatever you want; and I do. If you read something I wrote it's pretty much what I wanted to say.
You only write about what you care about?
I really do. That's why I don't make a very good living as a journalist (laughs). I only write about music I like. I only write about books I like, anything like that. It has to give me satisfaction because they aren't paying me enough, so you have to have your fun.
You say you only write about music you like. You went from being a rock 'n' roller to a blues and jazz guy.
Well, I started in the blues, R&B, in the '50s and then moved to jazz and then to rock, and now I've come back.
So you've come full-circle?
Yes, thank you.
Do you think the decline in the music industry has anything to do with the content?
That's part of it, I'm sure. But it's also caught on to what we were talking about before and the change of media. They'll figure out a way to control the digital domain. But they're mostly... To me 95% of the best records that have been turned out since they switched to digital media are the reissues, reissues of the old LPs with the outtakes. Like Chess records, when you look at the discography of Muddy Waters -- great records -- but they only put out half of them, or maybe less, on singles. That was all the market would bear. You could put out three Muddy Water singles a year, but you couldn't put out four. So those other sides went without being issued and now they are putting them out with these reissues.
But as far as the new stuff, it's hard for me to find a record I like.
They're saying now, with iTunes and the like, artists are thinking more in terms of the single and not the album, so-to-speak.
It's gone back to what it was like when I was growing up. Songs came out as singles and it was very exciting. At first, the singles would come out -- the 45s -- and then an album would come out and it would be a collection of singles. It was like that until the '60s when bands started conceptualizing the album.
So that's coming full-circle too?
Mostly they concentrate on the technological change because that was a challenge to control the stuff on the Internet. Which, to me, iTunes and that whole thing is the greatest thing to happen in my lifetime. I've been collecting music since I was 10 years old, but now you can get all the tunes you want on your electronic desktop and it has the name and the date, and it's labeled with where it comes from. I used to spend countless hours writing all this down on cassette boxes. I have thousands of them.
So have you taken all your boxes of cassettes and digitalized them?
No, they're all in my archive [at the Bentley Historical Library of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor]. Eventually, the University of Michigan will allot the funds to transfer it all to digital media, then I'll go back and put them on my iPod.
Early in Guitar Army you talk about the sense of restlessness you feel at that young age you were. Don't you think that's a pretty universal feeling across generations?
Young people don't have the reflection today. We were trying to reflect in the music, through rock 'n' roll. That's what rock 'n' roll is all about, intrinsically. In reality it's about that coming out and the industry smothering it. It just hasn't busted out in a long time. There isn't a target. The charts, the radio, it used to be you put a record out and you try to get it on the radio. Now [with the decline of radio], everything is just so scattered.
The other side of this is you can do whatever you want. You don't have to wait for some A&R guy to discover you. To go into the studio to record a record, it used to be you had to wait to be signed by a record label through your work. Now anyone can make whatever record they want.
You just have to build a website, and a myspace and you're all set?
Yeah, you can do the promoting yourself, but you can also record it by yourself at home with your computer, or get some friends together and form a band.
http://blogcritics.org/archives/2007/05/09/041818.php (part two)
If only you were 20 now with the current technology that now exists.
Yeah, I always say if we had the Internet in the sixties we would have taken over the world. They could do that now. I just saw the most encouraging story yesterday in the New York Times. The people in charge of coding the DVDs to keep you from copying them, their lawyers sent out a stern warning to these people about disseminating this information on the Internet, that it was not to be done. So they revolted and now this code is everywhere.
One of our writer's just wrote about the story last week.
Look at what MoveOn did. You see, part of getting a culture to not make things happen is making them believe it can't happen. In the academic world, all the people who went to college since the Reagan and CIA era started in 1980, or even before that, have been taught that history is dead. That there is a new world order and this is the way it's going to be. Then they have this massive wiretapping and this kind of stuff, and you're supposed to feel like you can't do anything.
So a lot of people feel that way. There's still a lot of stuff going on, but they don't give it the same weight as they do the other stuff. I'll give you an example. I used to go to this thing in Boston called MassCann. It's sponsored by Massachusetts Normal. Cann - Cann is short for cannabis. It's a huge legalization rally. It was huge because the FM station endorsed it and it was their major promotion of the year, because all these guys could harken back to the day when you could say these things publicly. Well the DEA and the state police and all these people came to the station, because they were getting 80,000 kids at the Boston Commons. And they said, 'We really wish that you wouldn't do this.' And they said, 'Are you crazy? This is our most popular event. It's working for us commercially.'
But when they would have it they would have the counter-rally down the street, the people who supported the laws against marijuana, and even though there were 80,000 people at the other [MassCann] event, the coverage would be "fair and balanced." So they would show somebody here, and then they would have an equal amount of time from the counter-rally and there were maybe 50 people there. It was totally bizarre. Wayne Kramer was talking to me the other day about going to this thing in Washington against the war, 300,000 people there. You don't get any sense there is that kind of opposition.
You never got the sense that the Democrats could win a congressional election. Now that they have, you don't get any sense of the tremendous change taking place, even in the last two years of the Bush administration. Nor did you get a full report on the impact of having all your branches of government lined up in a row and how ugly that is. The President, the Supreme Court, both the Senate and the House, there was no checks and balances. It was all the same party, which was all set in motion by a vote of the Supreme Court against the vote total - don't count the votes - against Al Gore. We're not going to count the votes. So for six years they had this power, especially after the 2002 congressional election. We had four years of-I call it fascism. I read some books about history and they said when all the governmental forces, industry, the church and the media are all lined up together, that's what the definition of fascism is.
Anyway, you have this false veneer of news. It's not really news; it's propaganda. Roger Ailes was the guy who was Ronald Reagan's ad man. Roger Ailes is now the head of Fox News, the same guy who had the doves released when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated; he's the same guy who told the Iranians to hold the hostages until after the inauguration ceremony. This is the guy who runs Fox News.
And then you don't have any continuity and you don't have any history anymore. Now we're reaping the effects of these kinds of policies. People have no idea of what's going on or what happened, not only in the past but even now. My favorite is that 18 months after 911, 72% of Americans believed Saddam Hussein was responsible for the attack. Three out of four Americans believed that. This guy [Hussein] was nowhere in the picture. They all watched it on television and this guy was nowhere in the picture. The guys who did this [Al Queda] hated him. He wasn't their boy at all.
Do you think the fear from 9/11 was a catalyst that caused people to allow new measures to restrict personal freedoms like the Patriot Act?
There're all these conspiracy theories, you know. I don't know enough about it, but you hear it's the CIA. They've done all kinds of rotten things all over the world, they could have done this. I don't know. Is it possible Al Qaeda or the guys in Al Qaeda were contracted by the CIA? I don't know. When the Russians were in Afghanistan, and the Taliban was known as the Heroic Islamic Freedom Fighters. Saddam Hussein was our ally for ten years against Iran. Even today you don't see this. It isn't part of the story.
So, what's the story? We used to back this guy and then he didn't agree with us so we took his country. We threw him out of office. We executed him. We put in some puppets. They aren't working out, so we've precipitated a civil war. When I read the story, that's what I see.
It's all about how they spin the story. We got a little bit away from my original question - which was about the fear in this country and the limiting of our freedoms.
It's the fear of 'the bomb.' That's why were dropping all these bombs on Afghanistan. What happened was a terrible thing, but what are we getting from this? Do they feel better that we're dropping all these bombs on people who didn't do it, or these people in Iraq that didn't do anything to us?
That's what I hate. You don't hear anybody say we should get out of the war because it's ugly and it's immoral and it's awful. [They're not saying] we're gangsters; we're thugs. Nobody says that. They say we aren't winning so we better cut our losses. What are we going to win? What were we going to win in the first place? The right for Halliburton to get these big contracts? We sell them the bombers, the bombs, and the fuel. They drop the bombs, and then we sell them new ones. It's a pretty good deal for these companies. These are the people who have also controlled our foreign policy since World War II. And the whole oil thing is so everyone can have their big cars.
So we can pay $3.00 a gallon for gas?
$3.00 would be a cheap gallon. I paid $3.48.
Up in Michigan? Is it that much?
Yeah, up in Michigan. It's working for somebody, but it's not working for me.
I guess what it comes down to is I feel the same way now as I did back then about all this stuff. Back then I was young and we'd take LSD and we thought 'people just don't know.' And I thought we'd turn them on to these ideas. We could have a different kind of world where people loved each other and got along. Things could be solved by cooperation - pretty good ideas. I'm still behind them.
They are good ideas still today.
The part I don't relate to is we got so pissed off, and then we got reactionary. Some relied on violence and it wasn't really a solution, it was just reactionary. We just got so angry. I mean, hippies with guns is not really a good idea, as it turns it out.
And again - you're getting the same arguments today with violence and hip-hop music and how it's translating.
Oh yeah. The movies, I don't know. They got this whole culture of ugliness. There's this Korean kid who shot these people [Virginia Tech Shootings] and he's made a movie of himself. Except the people he shot won't be able to get up and collect their paychecks.
And all the pontification, they all were asking 'how did this kid go wrong?' He watched the wrong movies.
But don't you think part of it is when the media puts it in terms of records - largest mass killing to date - and glorifies the act?
That's the way they compete with the violent movies, is by having violent crime. I don't watch TV. But if you do watch an evening of TV, as I have done on occasion in my life, you see more violence and ugliness concentrated into four or five hours than I've seen in my whole life of 65 years. You can't show tender love scenes of people having sexual congress, that would be wrong and that would be immoral, but to blow your face off - that's entertainment.
It's disturbing. Isn't it?
But you can only do this kind of stuff for so long, and then you start paying for it. And we're paying for a lot of this stuff now, but they still don't get it. They don't understand why the Arabs and Muslims are upset. 'Why are they so upset with us? We're nice people.' The CIA has been working for us since they threw over Mossadegh in 1954. If we don't give them the history, they can't understand why what's happening is happening.
Look at Europe: they remember Hitler because they had him right there in their face. There were some people who really liked him. He represented their views on Jews and other people, but they remember what happened. So they look at this and they see what it is. There is no love for America, no love at all. Plus there is no respect. They all think we're idiots.
Maybe that's a good reason for your book to be coming back out. Maybe the youth will read it and be inspired to change things.
It was definitely written for kids, that's the other thing. It was a book that was put together for people who didn't read. It wasn't written as a book, you know. It's a collection of columns for the underground papers.
One of the things I like about it is it shows the progression. And the thing I like about coming out and doing these interviews is I get a chance to say what really happened. There's this whole mythology about what really happened, and in particular my role in it.
They say 'Well, how did you get the MC5 to support your political agenda?' I say we both stumbled into it. We had no agenda beyond rock 'n' roll, dope, and fucking in the streets. It's a paean to the slogan. And then it goes through the MC5 playing the shows and the people liking it, but the police didn't. So then it progresses and you tend to see how it happened.
And all the small steps that happened along the way?
Right, and you get my final conclusion on how it all worked.
Culture Clash was a lot of fun, and we milled around with the characters there for a while before hopping back in the Caddy and pointing north toward Detroit, arriving just in time to meet Sunny, Celia, Beyonce, VW Frank and Justice at the Butchers Inn for our birthday dinner. Then it was a swift trip on I-75 60 miles north to my home town of Flint and my gig with Glowb at Churchill's Pub downtown, right across Saginaw Street and the Flint River from where I used to hear and see all the traveling R&B revues at the IMA Auditorium.
I read the passage from the Preview to GUITAR ARMY that starts, "I was born in Flint, Michigan," took a break, and came back on with the band for a typically happy and satisfying show. We smoked a few joints with Tim and Kotar and Corey and L.B. and all the cats from Glowb and then climbed back into the Caddy for the drive back to Detroit and a welcome night's sleep before the shit would start again at noon the next day.
June 9, 2007