Stand! Don't you know that you are free?
Well, at least in your mind, if you want to be . . .
Sly and the Family Stone, "Stand"
Many days, Detroit counterculture legend John Sinclair can be found at the 420 Café in Amsterdam, which he has made his primary home since 2003. He spends his time enjoying the company, the music on the juke, and the plentiful and accessible high-grade marijuana.
"I control 5 to 10 percent of the jukebox in this place, and they're playing 'Mardi Gras Mambo' right now by the Hawkettes," Sinclair says by phone. "I love it when I hear one of my records come on Howlin' Wolf, sometimes you're sitting there and Elmore James leaks out. They don't know anything about that shit over here nor in America for that matter, sad to say."
The frequently controversial Sinclair has held many roles over the years poet, manager of the MC5, journalist, enemy of the state, record producer, saxophone player, philosopher and all-around instigator. But his life's mission has remained unchanged advocating for personal liberty, railing against marijuana prohibition and trying to turn people on to good music. Now, Sinclair's influential 1972 book Guitar Army is being rereleased by Los Angeles-based Process Media. To celebrate, Sinclair will appear at several events locally, and he will perform his poetry with his Motor City Blues Scholars.
Guitar Army covers an impressive swath of Detroit history, from the rise of the MC5 and the Stooges on the local scene through the formation of the White Panther Party to Sinclair's incarceration in 1969 on a 10-year sentence for two joints. That case turned Sinclair into an international cause célèbre of the New Left. He was ultimately released in 1971 after a massive Free John campaign that culminated in a rally at Ann Arbor's Crisler Arena which featured John Lennon, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger and many others.
The original Guitar Army was released in 1972 with rainbow-colored pages (in an acknowledgement of the WPP's successor, the Rainbow People's Party). But the words on the page were even more colorful. Part journalism and part revolutionary screed, it's a relentless and fascinating account of a time when rock 'n' roll culture had a purpose. Aside from cutting the introduction in half to make room for more photos, Sinclair didn't change any text in Guitar Army; he was keen to preserve the book's character.
"It's an artifact," Sinclair says. "To me, the part I like about it is that it's stamped with the heat of the moment. You can go in that book and you can feel what it was like then, in some parts of our society. I feel like I got that part of that down. The worth of the ideas for the contemporary world is a different matter. But the heat, the passion, how much we cared about this stuff that's what comes through to me, that's what I like about it now."
Readers can also hear a little bit of what those days were like. The new edition of Guitar Army comes packaged with a bonus CD that features recordings of the MC5, the Rationals, the Up and other revolutionary bands. Interspersed with those songs are recordings from White Panther Party meetings, a speech by Bobby Seale, and poetry by Allen Ginsberg and Sinclair himself. The CD is illuminating, because so much music from the hippie era has become the soundtrack for TV commercials. What gets forgotten is how some of that movement represented actual danger.
"It was hot. Burning! It was on fire. That's what was exciting about it. And the MC5 was as hot as it got," Sinclair says. "You don't get very many windows on that part of life in America in the '60s anymore. They've kind of erased us."
The dominant idea in Guitar Army is Sinclair's vision that there should be no separation between one's life and work and art and politics. "That was the idea separation is doom," Sinclair says, quoting his original liner notes for the MC5's Kick Out the Jams LP.
Sinclair still believes that separation is doom, but he notes that people today seem even more separated than ever.
"People are united now by popular culture in its most vapid sense, in its modern sense. It's a sad thing, really, isn't it? There's no heat in there," Sinclair says. "America Idol that's your metaphor for today. It's the triumph of the fucking music business the ultimate triumph, where they own these people from the minute they audition."
Given that backdrop, these days, Sinclair is less concerned with creating a utopian world for other people. Nowadays, he works on creating it for himself.
"That's my mission to live the way I want to live more of the time while I'm still here," Sinclair says.
"The turning point for me was when I realized that I gave about 10 years to try and turn everybody on to these great ideas, the thought I had about how you could live better and have more fun and make the world a better place. Finally I concluded, well, shit, if they don't want to do it, I'm going to do it. So I just concentrate on myself."
To that end, Sinclair splits his time between the United States and Europe, where he travels around, performing his poetry with a procession of regional bands dubbed the Blues Scholars (disclosure: this writer has performed in the Saugatuck version of the Blues Scholars since 2001). He has called Amsterdam his primary home since 2003, although the move didn't go smoothly at first.
"I came over here in 2003 thinking that if I had to starve in the United States, I could starve here," he says. "And I proved that for about three years.
"My original intention was to come here kind of like the immigrant in reverse, to come and establish life and bring my wife to join me. In the course of trying to effect this, she decided that she didn't want to come here and so we parted ways," Sinclair says of his estranged wife Penny.
Life seems to be on an upswing for Sinclair these days. He spends time with his new partner, Dr. Dorothy Goodman, who he refers to as his "common-law wife." He has embraced 21st century technology, maintaining a blog of his travels (www.travelpod.com/members/johnsinclair) and running a Podcast (www.radiofreeamsterdam.com).
As he enters his golden years, Sinclair, 65, is far from wealthy, but his life seems to have a rhythm that suits him. He calls himself the "Hardest Working Poet in Show Business." He stays with friends all over this country and Europe the John Sinclair Underground Railroad includes the likes of Wayne Kramer, Thurston Moore, Mary Ramierz from the Detroit Cobras and this writer. He's developing a big following in Italy, where a translation of Guitar Army will be released later this year. He performs his poetry at gigs large and small. He seems unconcerned when plans go awry, as long as he has a couple of newspapers, some coffee and cigarettes, and a place to lay his head. People frequently hand him joints, offering tribute to someone who sacrificed himself for the cause.
"Here's my basic preachment of today," Sinclair says. "You have to take the vow of poverty. Once you take the vow of poverty, then you can do whatever you want, because you know you aren't going to get paid. So you aren't always trying to shake yourself so people will buy it, 'cause they're not going to buy it anyway. Sun Ra didn't have a record contract. Cecil Taylor doesn't have a record contract."
He continues: "My performing arts career is based on how I want to take my work and perform it for people and share it have an artistic experience with them. But there's no market for it, so I just force myself on the public. That's what I do everywhere. I find somebody who I know and I ask, 'Where can I play? Who can I play with? Who would give me enough money to get there? How many books can I sell?'"
Events commemorating the release of Guitar Army include an author's reception at 2 p.m. on Thursday, May 3, at Butcher's Inn in Eastern Market (1489 Winder, Detroit; 313-556-0966). That evening he will give a reading and book signing at 7 p.m. at BookBeat (26010 Greenfield, Oak Park; 248-968-1190) and will perform at 10 p.m. at the Music Hall (350 Madison, Detroit; 313-963-2366) with the Motor City Blues Scholars and M.L. Liebler and the Magic Poetry Band.
He will also give a reading and book signing at Shaman Drum Bookstore (311-315 State St., Ann Arbor; 734-662-7407) at 7 p.m. on Saturday, May 5. He performs with the Motor City Blues Scholars at 10 p.m., Monday, May 7, at the Buzz Bar (546 Larned, Detroit; 313-962-1800).
Brian J. Bowe is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org