Monday, September 29, 2014

Now, An Intimate Conversation With John Sinclair

John Sinclair might not be a household name, but his story may be as relevant as Abbie Hoffman's or Allen Ginsberg's. While he is best known as the one time manager of proto-punk rockers the MC5, he was an active political voice during the counter-culture era of the late 1960s. 

Detroit was ripe with music during this time and the Motor City produced some of the best music ever made. The Amboy Dukes, Frijid Pink, Alice Cooper, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels,The Stooges, MC5, The Fugitives, The Bob Seger System, and The Flaming Ember were all bands that were part of the Detroit music uprising during the mid '60s. Each of these bands had a definitive role in carving out an anti-authority attitude for the generation.


The MC5
Sinclair was a revolutionary during the '60s, and it was one of America's most tumultuous eras, when young men were being yanked off of their family farms and thrust into a world of violence to fight the North Vietnamese Army in stretches of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Most of these men didn't think twice about being drafted to serve their country. They assumed their duty with a sense of pride, only to return home years later scarred and broken. 

America had become worn down by the chaos of the times didn't seem to have a plan for welcoming it's soldiers home. The glory days of returning home from war to a ticker tape parade were a thing of the past. This was a new era, and things had become strikingly different than they were during the end of World War 2. 


The country was reinventing itself. Amid organized war protests on college campuses, several fronts were in the making. The Black Panther Party, the Hippie and the Gay Rights Movements and the Sexual Revolution began to whip authority into a paranoid panic. Rock and roll, as it made it's leap from sock hop to the psychedelic blues, was the common denominator to the madness

John Sinclair was at the forefront of this cultural change in Detroit: As somebody who spoke out against corruption, violence and racism, he was targeted by the federal police in 1969 and  was caught up in a sting operation where he was set up and busted for selling two marijuana cigarettes to an undercover FBI officer. Now, face to face with the corruption he so gallantly spoke out against, he was sentenced to an unprecedented ten years in prison for selling the two joints. The unfairness of this harsh sentence caused a ripple along the noisy protest movement and it got the attention of John Lennon. The ex- Beatle performed at a benefit in Detroit to bring awareness to the unfair sentencing. For the event, Lennon penned a song called "John Sinclair.".





In 1971 Sinclair was eventually released from prison after serving 2 years, but his case remained in litigation. His case against the government for illegal domestic surveillance was successfully pled to the US Supreme Court in 1972. He has since moved to Amsterdam and isn't as vocal about the government as he used to be. Now his main focus is poetry and music - mainly jazz - and he often performs his poetry alongside jazz and blues collaborations. He currently resides in Amsterdam and he regularly hosts a podcast called The John Sinclair Show on a website called Radio Free Amsterdam where he delves deep into the jazz and blues catalogs. He is also a strong advocate for the legalization of marijuana.

I actually caught up to John Sinclair a year ago and haven't published his interview until now. It's timely in the sense that John Coltrane just had a birthday and that's basically where the interview starts off. So when reading, please note that this interview is a year old.


John Sinclair in the late '60s,


Hi John. How are you doing?

Hi Troy. Everything's good.

Did you do anything yesterday to celebrate John Coltrane's birthday?

Yesterday... I made a radio program for my radio station.


Can you tell me about your radio station?

Well, my radio station is called radiofreeamsterdam.com. Every Monday I do the John Sinclair Radio Show. I'll be going into my (eleventh) year in November. I just posted number 514, a tribute to Ray Charles and John Coltrane on their birthday.


Very nice. 
What time is your radio show on?


Well, it's online so you can listen to it anytime, night or day. But the new ones come on at 4:20 AM on Monday. My shows. Then I've got shows by Tom Morgan of Virginia, I've got a blues show by Bruce Pingree of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, I've got shows from a woman named Leslie Keros in Chicago - blues and jazz... and different people, you know?


Mmm-hmm.


I put shows up every day. Sometimes two a day. There's an hour or two of different music every day. Then you can push the (link) that says "Listen Now" and you can play them one after another, going back for a year.



John Sinclair at work. 

John, what drives your passion? 

Music.

Any particular music?


Blues and jazz. African American music.


In 1968 you introduced the equation that "Music is Revolution." Given today's music, do you still feel that way?

Well you know, I was wrong about a lot of things in 1968. Nothing more wrong than when I said that Rock and Roll is a weapon of cultural revolution. Today it's a weapon of oppression.


Why do you say that?

Because it's so horrible. The access to the music is completely controlled by the rich people. You make some interesting music and they'll give you a million dollars to make you less interesting. Nobody wants to hear what a millionaire has to say... (Laughs).


So would you say as a people that we have retracted, or just musically?


Yeah.

You would say that?


Totally. It's worse now than ever. It's twice as bad as it was ten years ago. 


Is there any hope for it?


I have no hope. The people, you know... The people are always going to be OK.


I've noticed a trend that the roots are coming back... Like you mentioned, the blues and jazz, and the folk scene seems to be growing again, and I wonder if it reached a point where it's just re-creating itself.


Well there's always going to be folk. It's... They continue to exist, it's just that they took them off of the radar.


Okay...

It's like poetry, you know. They just don't let the people know about them. I mean you have to dig. Now they have the internet, the wonderful Google and the Wikipedia, and you can find out about a lot of things you didn't know about but you still have to somehow develop a curiosity to look for them. Because if you look in the mainstream media as they call it, you won't find anything.



John Sinclair as he appears today.

I wonder why that is. 

Why?


Yeah.


Well this system is dedicated to making people dumber and dumber so they'll buy more and more products and pay more and more money for them. Duh! (Laughs.) 

I think you nailed it, John.


That's what  it's all about in a nutshell. So intelligence of any kind is scorned and spurned except for military intelligence which isn't all that good ever. They didn't even know the Soviet Union was going to collapse (laughs). So the military intelligence isn't so good you know but generally speaking they used to reach art and music and stuff like that in the schools in all the cities of the country. Now they don't and (the kids) don't know anything about music. 

Well, it's nice that people like you are still making an attempt to keep it alive, and dedicate radio shows to it. 


Well, it's all I can do. I don't have any money. If I was part of the zero point one percent that controls everything in our country and owns all the media, I'd like to do more (laughs). 


Well yeah. I think we are all getting by just doing what we can. 


Yeah. And of course you are, or we wouldn't be talking right now.



Fred Smith of the MC5 with John Sinclair, in custody in 1968.

Absolutely. John, would you say that racism is worse now than it was in the '60s? 

Yeah.


You would...


Yeah. It's a different form. But it's worse. Just take the music. I mean in the '50s before they even knew that this stuff existed they had the greatest music in the world of all time. Coming from black people in America. Blues, jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues and soul music. And now they have this anti-music and it's kind of like a modern day minstrel show and they give them a million dollars. Stick a black face in there and they call it black music. That's what I call it. 

Yeah. Crazy. 


If you take the music of John Coltrane and put it against the music today it's immediately apparent how far it's degenerated.


I agree! You'll get no argument from me.


Well no. There's no arguing! You are either for it or against it (laughs). The reality is the reality.There's no arguing with anything, If you listen to it, it's right there in your ear.


How were you able to get the MC5 to play at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago?


Well we drove there in our van.


Was there a bunch of red tape to jump through?


We were the only ones who showed up to play!


Well, was there a stage set up, or how exactly did it go down? 


No. They had no permit, they had no stage... We borrowed electricity from a hot dog stand with a long extension cord. We didn't have it together at all, because they wouldn't give them a permit. They played on the grass. We had our own sound system, we set up in the grass and we played until the police came swarming in with their batons. We had just finished our set so we packed up and split before they could beat us up.



The MC5 

When is the last time you spoke with Wayne Kramer?

Oh, a couple weeks ago. 


And you guys are obviously still good friends?


He's one of my best friends. Yeah. 


What did you think of the later incarnation of the MC5 with Handsome Dick Manitoba?


Well, I didn't see that one but I saw him with different people singing. I enjoyed the hell out of it. It really made me realize how great their tunes were. There's a woman from Los Angeles from a band called the Bellrays... Lisa (Kekaula) or something... I could never pronounce her last name. But she sang with them sometimes when I saw them and also Mark Arm from Seattle. Mudhoney, I think he plays with - I saw him sing with them. I saw the legendary Evan Dando sing with them. But none of them were Rob Tyner. Rob Tyner was a brilliant one of  a kind genius guy. A great singer and a great front man. You'll never see that again.  But they sang the songs well. I really liked Mark Arm. And Lisa was great too.


What would say are the three most essential albums one can have right now?


Well, Kind of Blue with the Miles Davis Sextet with John Coltrane and "Cannonball" Adderley, Oh I don't know... Crawfish Fiesta by Professor Longhair, and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane. That's three... Lady in Satin by Billie Holiday. I could name you 500 off the top of my head.


 If you could go back and do it all over again, would you change anything? 


Well sure! (laughs.) Of course! Wouldn't you? 


I think that's an easy answer. Yes!


I'd try not to make the same mistakes! The point is of course that you CAN'T go back and change anything ever. You can only change the future. I think a lot of people are hung up on what they can do to change what happened. They look at the future like it's something that's destined for them, and it's the other way around, really.


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Links:

John Sinclair Official

John Sinclair Radio Show

Radio Free Amsterdam Official


RFA on Facebook



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