Q&A With Rock Revolutionary John Sinclair

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:28

    Now, some people don't understand. They think a blues player have to be worried, troubled, to sing the blues. That's wrong. It's a talent. If every man with a worry could play the blues, why...

    from "Doctor Blues"

    I don't pay much attention to the Super Bowl. Miss more games than I've seen. Never in a million years would I have predicted that I'd be watching this last Super Bowl in a bar/restaurant in New Orleans, working my way through a big boat of crawfish while John Sinclair sat across the table from me, eating raw oysters and making cracks about the commercials.

    But then, it was a weird weekend for John Sinclair, too. Earlier in the week, while he and his wife were out of town, there'd been a fire in the house they were renting on Rampart St., on the ragged fringe of the French Quarter. Their home wasn't totally destroyed, but there was plenty of damage, and it'll take the landlord a few months to fix the place, which was boarded up by the time I checked into my hotel across the street. n Sinclair was taking it all with a sort of old bluesman's resigned grace. It suits the 58-year-old hepcat and former rock 'n' roll revolutionary. In the late 60s, Sinclair was an underground newspaperman, poet, jazz and blues aficionado?plus chairman of the White Panther Party and manager of the Detroit band the MC5. At a time when plenty of rock bands were making up-against-the-wall gestures, the MC5 under Sinclair's mentorship were perceived as the most "radical." Clearly the authorities thought so: no sooner had the band put out the "Kick Out the Jams" single and LP than they were banned from record stores and kicked off their label. And then Sinclair drew a stunning nine-year jail term in 1969 on a minor pot bust, making him a de-facto political prisoner. His book Guitar Army (1972), a collection of articles and rants, was compiled while he was still behind bars. In December 1971, John and Yoko headlined the John Sinclair Freedom Rally in Ann Arbor, which drew more than 15,000 people; Stevie Wonder volunteered to play, Phil Ochs was there, Black Panther Bobby Seale, Allen Ginsberg. Sinclair was released three days later, to find the world much changed. There wasn't going to be any revolution, rock had gone mainstream, the hippies all had jobs. Disgusted with rock, Sinclair in a sense retreated to the past?to jazz, r&b, the blues, genres in which he is an acknowledged expert.

    He moved to New Orleans in the early 90s, and the life fits him so well it's hard to believe he ever lived anywhere else (he was born in Flint, MI). His "Blues & Roots" radio show on WWOZ (90.7 FM New Orleans, available here on Real Audio) has made him a New Orleans celebrity; walk the streets with him in the French Quarter, drop into a bar or club or diner, and all the homies greet him. Fans responded instantly to news of the fire. He and his wife returned to a loaner apartment over the jazz club Snug Harbor on Frenchmen St. Scores of New Orleans-based musicians (including Michelle Shocked, the Wild Magnolias, Coco Robicheaux and members of the Radiators) threw a benefit concert at the House of Blues the Sunday after I met with him, and so many more wanted to play they're scheduling another. There's also one being planned for New York, at Arlene Grocery, on March 4. (Contributions can be sent to the Sinclair Fire Fund, Account: 02318059, c/o Liberty Bank & Trust, 1950 St. Bernard Ave., New Orleans, LA 70116.)

    Sinclair's currently the managing editor of the quarterly magazine Blues Access, but his writing's better known through his relatively new career as a performing poet, a kind of white blues griot, growling histories and legends and plundered archival materials in front of his band the Blues Scholars, which often includes former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer. He's released four CDs, most recently Full Circle (Alive Records).

    I interviewed Sinclair with the help of Don Gilbert, a writer and rocker and mutual friend.

    Barry Goldwater said, "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice." Yeah, that's what we thought.

    from "Cow"

    JS: What happened to "the revolution"? In the late 60s, there was a whole bunch of young people who thought of ourselves as "the counterculture." It was rock 'n' roll, it was hippies, it was the Black Panthers, it was all that. Everyone used to say, "When the revolution comes..." You didn't have to be political. Everybody just assumed that it was coming, a couple of years down the line there were going to be huge changes.

    We believed totally that it was coming. It was inevitable.

    JS: It seemed quite obvious at the time.

    You know, they put the rap on me and the MC5, we were the "radical" group. And it probably doesn't make any sense to them, but I'm always arguing, "We were pretty much like everybody else we knew." We were nothing like the SDS, we were a rock 'n' roll band. We were just?the beliefs were the same, everybody we knew, [even] the Stooges felt this way. They were the most apolitical bunch of people you could ever want to meet. Nobody went in the Army. Everybody smoked pot and took whatever drugs they wanted to take. It was a mass thing.

    JS: And then at some point in the early 70s it...

    Right. I think we're on the same track.

    JS: ...for, I think, maybe for a whole lot of reasons, it just dissipates and fades away and it's gone.

    By '75 it was gone.

    JS: The war had been a piece of the motivation for a lot of guys...

    Big piece. It created the context.

    JS: Now the war moved on and they got rid of the draft. Now it's only black guys and poor guys who are going.

    Don't forget the economic thing in the early 70s. That was a big factor, I think. The so-called oil crisis and the inflation of the early 70s, when gasoline went from 38 cents to a dollar. That's what set the pace for the modern world... You know, there's all these subtle methodologies that are developed to keep people in line. [One is] you've got to scuffle so much harder to eat and to pay your rent? [T]hey just keep raising the price of everything without giving you any more. You buy a house and two years later it's worth $100,000 more. Well, somebody's got to pay that $100,000, but they're not getting any more?the house isn't getting any bigger. You're not getting any more rooms...

    William Burroughs really had his finger on what was going to happen as early as 40 years ago. The idea of the junk pyramid. Algebra of need. The idea of simplifying and degrading both the consumer and the product. I mean, nothing fits more in terms of an analysis of today's world. You've got people who will wait all night in the snow to buy a ticket for $65 to see the Smashing Pumpkins in a hockey arena. I mean, Jesus Christ, you know? There it is. P.T. Barnum must be dancing in his grave...

    So many things in modern life, if you'd thought about this in the 60s, we would have killed ourselves. If you would have told me Ronald Reagan would be president, followed by the head of the CIA, phew. I would have been outta there, man. And the crazy thing is, we believed the opposite would happen. We believed it, man.

    JS: Everybody knew it.

    I went to prison, you know, and it didn't faze me in the sense that this was just part of the things that had to happen for their shit to fall. So I wasn't there feeling sorry for myself, I didn't sit around and mope and all that, I just felt... Not that I enjoyed it, mind you, but I just felt this is what you had to do, our revolution meant that people had to go to prison, and that's what they had for me and I took it...

    I think Ginsberg came up with the greatest line: "The name of yesterday's newspaper is amnesia." There's that whole amnesia-producing effect of popular culture. The newness. The new things are good, and this other stuff is bullshit, I don't even know what we liked about it. Somehow you get to the golden oldie category. Preserve that like a fly in amber...

    JS: I think another piece of it was the "Clean for Gene" and McGovern campaigns, where people gave up the radical notion, they gave up the hipster notion, they cut their hair short...

    Nah, I never thought about that.

    JS: ...and became Democratic Party volunteers.

    Right. Eight years after that, we didn't even have Democrats anymore.

    JS: Of course, the other explanation is that we all just grew up, started families, got jobs and straightened out.

    I guess that's what we hate about growing up...

    But see, 10 years before that we were trying to demonstrate the difference, that you didn't have to do that. I remember electing to have children, to show that you could have children and [not] have a proper job. It was very important to me. I didn't know if you could or not. I mean, you really didn't know, because everything was so experimental in the early, mid-60s. You'd take this acid which had never been there before and all of a sudden everything was different. You felt different, you saw everything different and then you tried to tell everybody about it. Before that we never cared to tell anybody about it. I remember this so well. Was like in '63, '64, '65, in there, everything transformed. Now you had the idea that you could change the shit. Before that, in the beatnik era, it was still beat. "We're beat, man," and the best you could do was to get underground and find a place to live with some other weird dope fiends and musicians and poets and what-have-you. And no one gave a fuck about what you were doin'. If they found out they might try to stop you. But if they didn't find out, if you didn't pull their chains, they didn't even know you were there. There was never any idea of proselytizing.

    DG: What made you think you could change the world then?

    It was the acid, man! [laughs] Whenever people ask me to talk about the 60s, all I have to say is, "Don't forget, we were on acid." That was what made all the difference. Before acid we didn't want to turn anybody on. When you were smokin' joints you wanted to smoke joints with other people who knew what a joint was. Or someone that you liked very much, that didn't know, you'd turn them on like this... [He holds an imaginary joint to Gilbert's lips.] Doin' that. But it wasn't no big, 'cause you really didn't have any hope that things could change.

    The other big thing [was] the Civil Rights movement. You can't overestimate the effect of the Civil Rights movement in the early 60s. Here were the most downtrodden people in our society, and they were standing up and saying, "Fuck it. I'm not taking any, I'm not going to the back of the bus, I'm not gonna go drink out of this water fountain, kiss my ass. You have to put dogs and hoses on us and drag us out of here, we ain't going for it no more." And the moral example of that had such a tremendous impact on everybody. People like us, white people, when you saw this you just said, "Jesus Christ, these people." They set a moral example, an example of courage and an example of standing up to the fucking racist dog-eat-dog type of society and said, "We want it to be different."

    "At night," Muddy Waters says, "In the country, you'd be surprised how that music carries. The sound be empty out there... from "Country Boy"

    JS: And there's the influence of the music. There's jazz first and then rock 'n' roll starts. Just by opening up an appreciation for this sexy music, it implicitly goes against the uptight Eisenhower-era mainstream.

    Right. Ain't no more Guy Mitchell and Patti Page. It's Wynonie Harris. I had the privilege and the blessing of growing up in this. I bought "Maybellene" when it came out, "Tutti Frutti." These were landmark events in my youth, and for everybody I knew that was the least bit hip. The Future Farmers of America at our school didn't want to go into Little Richard too deep. But there was a small group of people where this became the motivating force in their lives, this music. It was so exciting, and we didn't have any idea where it was coming from. When I first started hearing it, I didn't even know that they had Negroes, in a sense. You know what I mean, there was like one family in our little farm community way out in the country. We didn't know anything about anything, then all of a sudden you had a record by Amos Milburn, you said, "Jeez, this is the best shit I ever heard in my fuckin' life." The first record I remember hearing was "One Mint Julep" by the Clovers. "Maaan, this is the shit." My whole development was trying to find out where these records came from, who was making them. And why. And why wasn't the rest of the world like this? You know what I'm saying. That was one of my intellectual developments.

    DG: Then in '62 you've got this culture of protest forming. Edie Weinberg is ironing her hair and going down South and singing "Michael Row the Boat Ashore."

    Let's not forget about Fidel. Fidel was a big influence on my generation. This little tiny country that won. Said, "Fuck you," came to New York and put the chickens in his room and stayed in Harlem. I mean, that was powerful. The man had a beard. They didn't have beards then, man.

    DG: And of course he had Che as his face boy.

    Che was workin' for him, big time. "As his face boy." [laughs]

    DG: You've got this point where rock 'n' roll becomes the propaganda, or the propaganda is gonna be the rock 'n' roll, after this enlightenment of '63, '64. It's not the Beatles, it's something else entirely. Was it Bob Dylan?

    Bob Dylan, of course. This guy was huge. And Dylan turned on the Beatles. Allen Ginsberg, Dylan and the Beatles, that's kinda the succession.

    DG: Didn't you write something back then like, "What's up with these jive rock 'n' rollers?"

    Oh yeah, I hated it. I just thought it was lame, you know. Someone came up to me with a Rolling Stones record. "Man, this shit is great." And you'd play it and it'd be these watered-down versions of Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley tunes and Chuck Berry, and you'd say, "Man, haven't you ever heard of Muddy Waters?" And they hadn't.

    JS: But that's an important point, these pasty-faced little English guys, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds...

    Listening to Howlin' Wolf.

    JS: ...and doing their imitations...

    They were totally different from the Beach Boys.

    JS: ...and that's the first time many of us ever heard...

    Absolutely. Ever. And when they went on Shindig they made them bring Howlin' Wolf on with them. Or they wouldn't go. I love the Rolling Stones.

    JS: You've gotta give them credit for that. That was extremely important. They weren't very good at it...

    But they got much better. They weren't saying, "I Just Wanna Hold Your Hand," they were saying, "I Wanna Make Love to You." "Let's Spend the Night Together."

    JS: Though they made it "Let's Spend Some Time Together" for The Ed Sullivan Show.

    A way to bowdlerize it. Well, we did the same thing. [The MC5 song "Kick Out the Jams, Motherfuckers" was changed to] "Kick Out the Jams, Brothers and Sisters." Learned it from Mick. [chuckles]

    JS: And that's another strain, the self-censorship. If you want a hit record...

    And you do.

    JS: ...and you want to make a zillion dollars, it became clear that you can't do that and be, say, the MC5.

    Not gonna allow it. You could be as debauched as you want. But if you want to say something... I mean, we were the whipping boys for that lesson, the MC5... [To this day, people say,] "When are they gonna put the MC5 in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?" And I say, "They aren't. Those are the people who drummed them out of the business. You think they're gonna come back around and recognize them now? No, they represent everything that's wrong with rock 'n' roll."

    ...I went to the Rock Hall over the last year for the first time. I went for Phil Ochs, Phil Ochs' sister invited me. For the Phil Ochs memorial. I didn't really know Phil, but he helped me get out of prison.

    JS: He was at the Sinclair benefit, right?

    Oh yeah. He adapted this wonderful song, "Here's to the State of Mississippi," to be "Here's to the State of Richard Nixon." That was great. But the Rock Hall, pshew. It's like a monument to Ahmet Ertegun. And Ahmet Ertegun is the progressive edge of rock, you know, as far as I'm concerned. He used to make the greatest records ever made. Before he got into Led Zeppelin and all that.

    JS: There's the 70s again.

    Well, that's when they changed it all. Everything busted out in the mid-60s, all these factors came together in about '65 and just exploded, and it took 'em until '72 [to regain control]. Woodstock was like the dawning of the idea that this was hip. Before that they just tried to say it was just these weirdos. And all of a sudden there was half a million of 'em there, and they just transformed the concert business. And of course the marketing forces also transformed the record companies. Transformed the whole approach to things. Within three years they had it all encompassed...

    JS: My point is it wasn't like "The Man stole our music." We were The Man. Richard Nixon didn't ruin rock radio. People my age who'd been smoking dope in college listening to rock got jobs as A&R men and radio station managers and figured out how to turn it into easy units of sales, discrete genres...

    And keep it the same.

    JS: ...and that's when you start to get people who are only listening to country rock, or progressive rock or whatever.

    Yeah. Narrowcasting.

    DG: And then you had disco.

    Yeah, then Studio 54. Then the beautiful people started taking over...

    I mean there was a period where it was really exciting, from the early to mid-60s to '71, '72. I remember the end starting when ABC bought seven underground rock stations?back in the days before Reagan, when you could only own seven?in different markets [around the country]... That was when they started to homogenize everything. The hegemony of rock. Because the thing was, the movement, the mass movement, in its various [incarnations] was fueled by rock 'n' roll. The popular movement. And once they got a grip on that, they put the Eagles and the Fleetwood Macs in place, they installed them in the leadership. Elton John and all this kind of horseshit. It's never gone anywhere since. They froze it.

    DG: Putting Springsteen on their playlists. He was the guy that was gonna take rock back to the corporations.

    Well, he did, too. He did a great job.

    DG: That's how they were gonna derail all that punk stuff. Plus they were worried about all that fag rock. That New York Dolls, David Bowie, Alice Cooper. That wasn't good for the kids.

    JS: They needed some good basic family rock 'n' roll. Thus Springsteen.

    I remember going to see Bruce Springsteen on his first tour when he came to Ann Arbor. Man, that was like a Broadway show about rock 'n' roll. I was just shocked. He'd go like this [dramatic rockstar gesture] and the spot would hit him, you know. And everything was all choreographed and staged, and the music was so lame. They quit rocking?or they quit rolling. They took the roll out. The roll is the African part.

    And they really segregated the music and the radio. It's been like that ever since. Top 40?which was regressive [enough] because it was so limited, 40?still it was culturally diverse. If you look at those playlists you'll find Tommy James and the Shondells, followed by the Four Tops, followed by Acker Bilk. I mean, everything would be in there. It wasn't this narrowcasting. So even just trying to hear hit tunes that you liked you were exposed to soul music. If you wanted to hear Tommy Roe, you also would hear Aretha Franklin.

    JS: Exactly.

    And they got rid of that... They just made radio so you didn't want to listen to it because it was all white people. I mean, let's face it, [white people have] never really been on the cutting edge of our musical advances. That's not really their thing, you know. David Duke just started a new organization, I can't remember what the letters stand for, but the acronym is NOEAR. I thought, this is perfect?badass white people, NO EAR! National Organization of European American Redress or something. [The organization is actually called NOFEAR.]

    My rap is pretty simple: The interesting things that happen in American life really come from black people. To me. And then they make inroads into the popular world and good things happen, and when they shut 'em out it gets dull and ugly.

    JS: So Jon Landau [rock critic who hated Jimi Hendrix, talked the MC5 out of their political stance and went on to create the Springsteen phenomenon] is the devil?

    Him and Leon Russell. Don't forget Leon Russell. He was the devil to me. Because Leon Russell was the apotheosis of the studio musician taking over rock 'n' roll. Leon Russell was the bandleader on Shindig, the corniest, squarest shit imaginable when he was on. That was worse than American Bandstand. And then when he took over the Joe Cocker tour, Mad Dogs and Englishmen. That was Leon Russell, Carl Radle, and then they took over Eric Clapton, and sent him on the Delaney and Bonnie ruse. And by then the standard in rock 'n' roll is studio players. You didn't have bands no more, you hired Leland Sklar, or whatever these guys' names are. Jim Keltner was god. All the Eagles were guys in a rock 'n' roll band who decided that they'd emulate the standards of the great studio players. So they'd cut one tune for six months. They would punch in a note. Make it perfect... They represented the rationalization of making music. Four sides in three hours. They used these guys because they could read and they could play the shit and they'd bring the wild man in and have him sing...

    Fred Goodman [in his book The Mansion on the Hill, with a chapter on the MC5] told that whole story pretty well, I thought. That there was this unruly thing and then these guys tamed it and made fortunes. Been jammin' us for 25 years. That's a long time, when you look at the history of American music.

    DG: I was always curious about the Five's commitment. On the one hand it was fun taking target practice with the Black Panthers, but once [the police riot in] Chicago and [White Panther Party member] Pun blowing up the CIA recruiting center happened, it was kind of like... [He mimes a sheepish, frightened look.] "Oh. Right on."

    Well, they were afraid it would impinge on their chance for success. Because first and foremost, they were rock 'n' rollers. Or else they wouldn't have been in a rock 'n' roll band. Basically, they wanted to buy their mom a new house. And a new Cadillac. Everybody wants to be Elvis. Buy new Cadillacs for your friends, you know. So here they were, they had a record contract, and there was the big chance that as rock 'n' rollers they had hoped for, they were on a major label, they had some success?and then the shit hit the fan because of the content of what they were doing. So they censored the album. Stores refused to sell it. Elektra fired us...

    The Delta Sound.... "Ain't too many left..." "Ain't too many more left..." Ain't too many left at all.... from "The Delta Sound"

    JS: It's been just the last five years since you started performing your poetry with the band?

    Yeah, since I made my first record. I was 53 when it came out and I thought, oh, can't really take a leisurely approach to this. If I want to get anywhere as a recording artist I have to start now... People aren't interested in interesting characters anymore. Poets or people who make interesting music.

    JS: It's like your notion of "the World of 2000." That there are only 2000 or so people around the country who buy all the poetry, all the good records, get the good ideas.

    That's what I mean. There's 2000 and that's it. I've never been on television, in my own time. I mean, I've performed on old jukebox-type shows, but as far as someone interested in what I have to say or what I did 35 years ago, 30 years ago?never. Never. Not the least bit interested. Now, if I had a record that was on the charts or something. But they don't wanna know.

    But there isn't any [interest] in the intellectual things anymore at all. I was in Holland, I was at this thing in Holland, [to] be on a panel discussion of three Dutch philosophers. And I laughed. And they said, "What are you laughing about?" I said, "We don't have philosophers anymore in America. We haven't had any for at least 20 years. I've never heard anybody called a philosopher since Eric Hoffer. He had a bestselling book, so he was a 'philosopher longshoreman.'" I said, "If you want to be a philosopher in the United States you've got to be on television programs."

    In Holland they pay these guys to think and then tell people what they think. [In the U.S. the attitude is] "Philosophers. Um, very good. Yeah, yeah. We don't need 'em here. We got two casinos going on now. A lot of redevelopment."

    DG: I think that guy who wrote All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten is considered a philosopher.

    That's what I mean...

    Yeah, so what happened to the revolution? We got beat. And then we went home and took up our plowshares, or typewriters or what-have-you. Licked our wounds and hoped that there weren't reprisals. [laughs] Hoped that they wouldn't come after us and pummel us some more, even though we weren't causing them any more problems.

    JS: It's hip to be square.

    Yeah, it's hip to be square, man. Amazing thing is, Huey Lewis was in a band called Clover. They opened for the MC5 at the Street Theater. [laughter] Fifteen years later it was hip to be square. That's heavy, huh? The nation's paradigm in a nutshell.