John Sinclair

John SinclairI’m still waiting for a reply to the letter I wrote John Sinclair ten years ago. Sunday, July 13, 1997. Late Saturday night – around 1:30 AM which makes it Sunday – I heard his voice for the first time in thirty-three years, hosting a blues show coming in via the internet from radio station WWOZ, New Orleans. I looked up the station phone number, dialed it, and chatted with John for about half an hour during which time he never did remember who I was. Not surprising. It was a long time ago and no doubt he’s met a lot of people since then. Later that day I wrote the letter, hoping to jog his memory and also to inquire as to the fate of others in the John Sinclair circle of which for a brief time I was a part.

Detroit was never a place I’d expected to visit. But you know me – never pass up a free ride. I’d been in Toronto about a week or two, staying with Victor and Elizabeth Coleman. Victor and Tom Jackrell had been invited to read their poetry at the Detroit Artists Workshop and I tagged along just for laughs. I was trying to get to Vancouver anyway and Detroit seemed to me to be in the right direction. I guess it’s about a five hour drive from Toronto. By the time we arrived and the boys read their poems the next day and packed up and went home I’d decided to stick around.

I remember two communal houses – one at 4825 John Lodge and another around the corner at 1252 West Forest. There may have been others. I’m guessing now that there were about a dozen or more artists, poets, and musicians, etc., living and working there. In the house on Forest the living/dining area had been converted into a performance space for readings and jazz concerts. There were others who didn’t live there but were regular participants in the overflowing of non-stop creative ferment. John Sinclair may not have been the main man – it was a collective – but he did seem to be a spiritual and political ringleader of some sort. He had great energy, political smarts, he inspired everybody, and on top of that was one of the nicest guys I had the good fortune to meet in my life.

I slept on a cot in the basement, in a room right next to Sinclair’s. He was away much of the time and invited me to make free use of the desk in his room, the typewriter, and the bottle of bennies in the right-hand drawer, which I put to good use. That got me started on my one and only attempt at a novel, Hair, abandoned when I left Detroit. That’s right, Hair. I beat the famous proto-hippie Broadway Hair by about a year. Entirely different story but I own that title. It was undoubtedly crap anyway, extremely influenced by Terry Southern and William Burroughs – but who knows? – maybe it was brilliant. I read some chapters at one of the Sunday afternoon public readings, on a double bill with the ingeniously funny and tragic Bill Hutton who later published two books and then vanished, apparently a suicide.

The weekly jazz sessions were led by the great Charles Moore on trumpet and flugelhorn and included John Dana, Ron English, Lyman Woodard and others who fell by on occasion to sit in, most notably a young student from Ann Arbor who’s piano playing startled everyone with its advanced brilliance. This was Stanley Cowell, whom you should all know by now. Jim Semark gave little illuminating musical talks. He worked for Motown Records but his musical knowledge was pretty broad. One evening he gave a little talk on Debussy. Martine Algier conducted life art classes during which I doodled nonsensically on sheets of foolscap just so I could look at her. (A year or two later we became friends in San Francisco where she wound up after hiking the Oregon mountains with Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg. She was Snyder’s girlfriend for a time and it was Allen who gave me her address on Downey Street and told me to visit her. A couple of years ago we reconnected via email.)

But back in Detroit, some of those I spent time with and remember are Jerry Younkins, George Tysh, Robin Eichle, Judy Warner, and John’s wife, Leni, a recent arrival from East Germany (and a great photographer). I especially got to know Tysh and had dinner at his parent’s place a couple of times. Meanwhile I was taking Sinclair’s bennies and writing crazy shit. I got occasional day-jobs through the Manpower daylabour office, something I did in other cities, as well, to get a few bucks here and there. One day on the bus home from a job at an auto parts factory I spotted a movie theatre marquee advertising a stage show in addition to whatever movie was playing so I hopped off the bus and paid two bucks to check it out. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight and the Pips, a couple others I forgot, plus topping the bill, The Temptations! All that and a movie for two bucks and if you stuck around you got to see the whole thing again. That theatre was rockin’. Kids danced in the aisles, in their seats, danced all over.

Sinclair was writing poems, essays, manifestos, liner notes. Of all persons and events in Detroit, John Sinclair stands out for me as a personal hero in the long march towards a future of Art and Freedom that has yet to materialize. He was open and welcoming to everyone, including a couple of guys to whom he offered two joints for which they busted him. He was sentenced to ten years hard time. You might have heard about this. None less than John Lennon wrote and recorded the song “John Sinclair” which may have had some effect in reducing the sentence, despite not being one of Lennon’s better efforts, in my opinion. John was freed after 29 months.

The movie TWENTY TO LIFE: The Life & Times of John Sinclair, a film by Steve Gebhardt, premieres in Italy today.

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