“To be literate in today’s world is a political statement.”
- John Sinclair
At 69 years of age John Sinclair shows no signs of slowing down. Besides touring the world with a loose and ever changing aggregation of Blues Scholars, Jazz Masters and Rock & Rollers, Sinclair continues to release CDs, books, articles and programs while producing podcasts and internet radio programs.
John has performed in Saginaw several times and possesses a historic grasp of Michigan culture from an international perspective. Sinclair is a sweet man of peace who is also a realist. From his early days at Trans Love commune, managing the MC5 and befriending John Lennon, Sinclair has kept his hand on the pulse of our crumbling empire.
He is quick to point out that that America, like ancient Rome, has lost sight of its democratic principles and given the ruling class carte blanche to rob our coffers. He is also a man of the earth; a happy and contented grandfather who values love and friendship above all else.
John will be performing at White’s Bar on Saturday, April 23rd with guitar wizard Jeff Grand, The Bearinger Boys, Rustbucket featuring John Krogman the Laverty/Torres Band and other special guests. His DVD Twenty to Life will be screened throughout the evening.
This interview took place on December 29, 2010 with John responding from his outpost at 420 Café, Amsterdam.
John – what have you been up to since 20 to Life was released?
The film was released in 2007 and quickly faded into media oblivion. Since then I have continued my travels, performing around the USA and in London, Amsterdam, Paris, Genoa, Rome, Santiago, Tokyo, Seville, Barcelona, Madrid and wherever they will have me. I’m based in Amsterdam and London when I’m not in Detroit, where I just completed a two-year Poet in Residence term at the Bohemian National Home and am now based at the Trans-Love Energies Compassionate Care Center at 1486 Gratiot in Detroit. I now write a bi-weekly column for the Detroit Metro Times called HIGHER GROUND.
It must have stirred up renewed interest in your life and times?
Not so much. The filmmaker made a bad deal to get it completed and the distribution was a big let-down, plus there were no theatrical screenings & very few festival screenings, so not much notice was attracted to the film nor, by extension, to myself.
Have you released any new music, poetry or writings?
As a performer I continue to work with diverse bands in Amsterdam, London, New York City, Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Mississippi. Some of them play my arrangements, some improvise jazz to my texts, some play straight-out blues to my poems.
In the past three years I’ve performed in ensembles with David Kimbrough, Afrissippi, the Black Crowes, Marshall Allen, Elliott Levin, Daniel Carter, Ras Moshe, Sabeer Mateen, 101 Runners, Pinkeye Orchestra, Planet D Nonet, Carlo Ditta, Dr. Prof. Barry Kaiser, Tom Worrell, Vincente Pino, Leslie Lopez, Steve Fly, the Dirty Strangers, Gary Lammin, Charles Shaar Murray, Jair-Rohm Parker Wells, Primal Scream, DKT/MC5, Youth, Mark Ritsema, Angelo Olivieri, Raskolnikov, and people I can’t even remember right now. I have bands of Blues Scholars in Amsterdam, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Oxford, Mississippi.
I’ve issued two books—IT’S ALL GOOD: A JOHN SINCLAIR READER and SUN RA INTERVIEWS & ESSAYS with Headpress in London. SUN RA has just been translated into Spanish and issued by Libertos Editorial. My “underground classic” book, GUITAR ARMY, was reissued in a 35th anniversary edition by Feral House/Process Books in 2007 and has been translated now into Italian, Spanish and French.
BookBeat in Detroit will be bringing out my poetry & prose collection SONG OF PRAISE: HOMAGE TO JOHN COLTRANE, and Ecstatic Peace Press is planning to issue the completed first half of my Monk work in verse, always know: a book of monk. And Dotty Oliver in Little Rock is publishing my New Orleans prose collection, MARDI GRAS TO THE WORLD, later this year.
As for the music, I’ve issued three CDs since 2007—TEARING DOWN THE SHRINE OF TRUTH & BEAUTY with the Pinkeye Orchestra (LocoGnosis Records); DETROIT LIFE with the Motor City Blues Scholars (No Cover Records); and VIPER MADNESS with the Planet D Nonet (No Cover). My new record is called LET’S GO GET ‘EM by John Sinclair & His International Blues Scholars and will be released by No Cover in March, and I’m just now completing a new album project with a producer in London known as Youth that I’m calling BEATNIK YOUTH.
I’ve also completed a work begun in 1982: a book of blues verse titled FATTENING FROGS FOR SNAKES that’s in four sections, each one set to music and recorded with a different ensemble in New Orleans, Detroit, Oxford and Clarksville, Mississippi. I’m assembling the package into a box set as we speak
Are you still involved in radio? Do you see radio as an effective medium to get your message and your poetry and music to a wider audience?
I also program & produce regular podcasts for two internet radio stations, Radio Free Amsterdam and Detroit Life Radio, including weekly installments of the John Sinclair Radio Show, Sinclair On The Air and Jazz from the Hempshopper. I also collect and edit for broadcast blues & jazz programs by deejays present & past that I enjoy. I post one one-hour program each day on each of the two stations.
With the advent of file sharing do you see a shift in the relationship between record companies and artists like yourself?
Yes: basically there is none in terms of what used to be, i.e., with the possibility of getting paid. My best experience is to be able to make the records and get someone to press some of them at no cost to myself.
Last time we talked you seemed to paint a bleak picture of our future based on the ascendance of powerful business-led coalitions and the financial Institutions that control our government. In the past year Matt Taibbi, a contributing editor to Rolling Stone Magazine, has written several articles and a book Griftopia that has exposed Wall Street’s culpability in destroying America from within. Are you familiar with Taibbi’s work? Why aren’t people in an uproar over the theft of our country?
That’s a question I’m unable to answer. I know exactly how fuC#d up this country is, but the white people love it this way and they won’t change for anything.
You had a bleak outlook on Detroit's recovery in the BBC documentary Requiem for Detroit. Do you still feel there is no hope for Detroit and other cities that were built on the auto industry?
I don’t know about the other ones, but Detroit is not going to come back. It’s over. What becomes of the fabulous ruins of Detroit may be something interesting but it will not be economically viable again.
What keeps bringing you back to Michigan?
I have a beloved daughter & granddaughter in Detroit and hundreds of friends made over the past 50 years. My estranged wife Penny Sinclair lives in Detroit and I like to see her when I can. Also, I can work in and around Detroit and use it as a base to tour different parts of the country and make enough dollars to maintain my very frugal lifestyle while I’m in Amsterdam & London.
What role could music/poetry play in the recovery of Michigan….the country? Are established artists important to our culture? Should they look for success elsewhere? Can our artists, poets and musicians be heard over the din of mass produced and disposable music that dominates the corporate airwaves?
Over the past ten years, Europe has shown an interest in the downfall of Detroit and the auto industry. Documentaries have been filmed, photographers have come to document the urban decay. Do you feel that their interest is based in aesthetics, or are they sincerely concerned with what seems to be the end of an era? Are they infatuated or concerned?
(A) Aesthetics. (B) They are documentarians.
Do you keep in touch with any of your friends from the days of the MC5 and Trans Love?
Yes. An astonishing number of us are still alive, although we’ve recently lost people like James Semark of the Artists Workshop, Stanley the Mad Hatter of the Grande. Eastown and Second Chance Ballrooms, Bruce Cohen and others. I consider Wayne Kramer of the MC5 one of my closest friends, ditto for Charles Moore of the Detroit Artists Workshop, Pun Plamondon of the White Panther Party, Marton Gross and Johnny Evans of the Urbations, Cary Loren of Destroy All Monsters, and many others whom I see in Michigan and around the country on my travels.
Do you see any signs that our counter culture/peace movement is growing and establishing a wider base of support?
Do you still collaborate with your ex-wife Leni?
I remain a terrific fan of her photography and often recommend her work to people publishing various projects of mine.
Any last comments?
I’m happy to be alive in an old age I never anticipated nor expected, I’m ecstatic to be a grandfather, I only do the things I want to do and don’t do the things I don’t want to do, I’m borne along in life by my hundreds of friends all over the western world and generally speaking I’m happy as a clam. Further, Affiant sayeth not.