by W. Kim Heron
Music critic, convict, manifesto writer, journalist, music fest impresario, pot propagandist, radio host, editor, municipal employee, rock 'n' roll manager, poet, bandleader — John Sinclair's traveled a long way from his 21st year (1962), when, having moved to Detroit from Flint, he ensconced himself in the basement (Room B2) of the Forest Arms apartments (Second and Forest) where, he explains on his new record, the likes of the trumpet player Charles Moore taught him "to live the way I have lived." And in contrast to the grand schemes and grand ambitions of his public life, Detroit Life often succeeds thanks to modest aims, like rendering a Detroit day — April 15, 1982, to be exact — as a certain kind of heaven: the Tigers won 4-2; poet Jayne Cortez (cq) performed at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Texas bluesman Clarence Gatemouth Brown made his Detroit debut.
Sinclair originally formed his Blues Scholars in Detroit in 1983, and though the band never suggested ivory towers, there was something scholastic at work. Sinclair, for instance, took the oral histories of bluesmen that author Robert Palmer had mined in his book, Deep Blues, and declaimed them to hard-stomping accompaniment. After Sinclair moved to New Orleans in the early '90s, reconstituted editions of the group recorded Full Moon Night and Fattening Frogs for Snakes. Full Moon was largely an homage to the spiritualized jazz of John Coltrane; Fattening Frogs was the lives of the blues-saints to musical backing.
So the new disc comes full-circle, back to poems about Detroit as subject matter and back to old cronies for jazz and blues accompaniment. The poems, he explains, were composed over 25 years or so, and if they're short on self-reflection, they're often pictures of Detroit in his personal frame. And if his voice isn't the most musical, he knows how to work with great musicians. The dozen-plus cronies here include saxophonist Johnny Evans and drummer Martin "Tino" Gross of the Howling Diablos, keyboard ace Phil Hale and guitarist Johnnie Bassett. Organist Lyman Woodard took part in the sessions last April at Greektown's Jazz Loft in what's believed to be his last recorded work.
And Woodard is there on the opener, "Screamers," a Sinclair staple — a shout-out (emphasis on shout) to the legacy of rock and R&B, conjuring the image of Johnny Ace backstage after his losing that game of Russian roulette, quoting liberally from Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love?" The poet Bob Kaufman once claimed "way-out people know the way out," and Sinclair is hot on the trail of the way-out musicians. He sings the praises of the obscure Big Red in "Hold Your Horn High"; he does a roll call of Detroit jazz's famous and forgotten in "Bags' Groove." "Street Beat" is a praise poem to the great swing-to-bop drummer J.C. Heard, and "That's All," salutes the Detroit singer Dave Wilborn, who died of a heart attack onstage as a performance finale.
As good as the April sessions were, the killer track is from Lyman Woodard's classic Live at Cobb's Corner, recorded in 1979 (and what a band that was!). Over the sounds of 30 years ago, Sinclair intones "My Buddy," his paean to Henry Normile, the legendary club's coke-, women- and lobster-lovin' proprietor who was shotgunned dead not long after.
In "all alone," Sinclair is just that, waiting for his babe to call while listening to the late Legendary Coachman on back-in-the-day WDET (hey, the disc might be worth it for the tape snippet of that improbable, gravel-voiced DJ saying you'll miss him when he's gone). "I'm daffy as a motherfuckin' duck to be so deeply in love with you," confesses the poet. Sinclair's also a guy who chases love across Eight Mile, only to go back to a lover in the city where he "sure enough" belongs. In other poems he's the guy back in town (from his current home in Amsterdam), hankering after a 25-year flame (who's beyond hankering back), a guy at the altar, a father of four behind on the bills firing up a joint to get away from it all.
After 2008's Forest Arms fire, Sinclair's poem "Nutty" connected the young boho he was to the old boho he is and the bohos like People's Records' Brad Hale, who were burned out of the building. Sinclair may not have brought down the state — though he still hopes Hugo Chavez is the zeitgest — but he knows his "bohemian tradition" trundles on.
That's his poem and he's sticking to it.
John Sinclair's 68th birthday gets celebrated Friday-Saturday, Oct. 2-3, at the Bo House (Bohemian National Home), 3009 Tillman (22nd) St., Detroit; 248-787-1038. Sinclair is with his Blues Scholars on Friday, sharing the bill with Planet D Nonet, Woodman, the Space Band and others. Sinclair is with Pinkeye on Saturday, with Electric Lions, Duende, Dark Red and others.
W. Kim Heron is the editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.