I was on the overnight shift at WWOZ, the gloriously independent radio station that was so much a part of the fabric of New Orleans that, of course, it just had to be located in the heart of Armstrong Park. This was back in the day (by my standards). That is, 1993. I had just moved to the Crescent City from Manhattan in July of that year and by late August had secured the late-night DJ spot, spinning tunes from 2 a.m 'til 5 a.m. for assosrted stoners, jazz fans, musicians coming home from their gigs and up-all-night tourists and locals still partying hard in the wee hours. My show was called "The Milkman's Matinee" (apologies to Al "Jazzbo" Collins, Stan Shaw, Art Ford, Jack Lazare and others who hosted a top-rated radio show with
the same name from 1935 to 1992 on the Big Apple's mighty WNEW). Of course, I had heard it many times. But I ended up using "The Milkman's Matinee" for the title of my overnight show because of the nickname I had acquired some years earlier. Even to this day, some folks still call me The Milkman.
My first official broadcast of "The Milkman's Matinee" was on Aug. 20, 1993. To kick off that first show, I tried to muster up the lowest, mellowest late-night voice I could, emulating Tom Waits' hipster DJ persona of Lee Baby Sims from Jim Jarmusch's 1986 film, Down By Law.
As the clock ticked down to the appointed hour, I announced: "Well...it's 2 a.m. in the Crescent City and you're listening to 90.7FM, WWOZ. This is The Milkman, makin' my early morning deliveries on the dark side of Friday. And this is Eddie Harris." And with that first tune, "Listen Here," I had launched my late-night DJ career in The City That Care Forgot. That first night I got requests for Clifford Brown/Max Roach, Stanley Turrentine and New Orleans legend James Black, the enigmatic drummer-composer who had played locally with Ellis Marsalis, James Booker and Eddie Bo and also nationally with Nat Adderley, Yusef Lateef and Lionel Hampton before dying from a drug overdose in 1988. One of the other things that I had established that first night of "The Milkman's Matinee" was designating 3 a.m. to 4 a.m. as The Monk Hour. This primarily consisted of interpretations of Thelonious Monk compositions by a wildly eclectic range of artists, from pianists Randy Weston, Muhal Richard Abrams, Barry Harris and Ran Blake to saxophonist Steve Lacy, drummer Paul Motian, guitarists Elliot Sharp and Steve Khan and bands like the Microscopic Septet and the Fort Apache Band, sprinkled in with some well-chosen tunes by the master himself.
Later that first night, during the Monk hour, a call came in. The voice on the other end sounded extremely laid back in that classic after-hours New Orleans fashion. Obviously stoned, I thought. The gruff-voiced caller offered some encouragement: "Hey Milkman! Keep up the good work!" It was John Sinclair, WWOZ's resident blues authority who hosted the Saturday night "Blues and Roots" show. As well as a blues fans and scholar he also happened to be a Thelonious Monk fan and scholar, as I would later find out. While I often tuned into John's blues show in the wee hours of Saturday night, I didn't meet him face-to-face until a few weeks later on the occasion of his 52nd birthday celebration in his Treme neighborhood. We shared a joint outside Trombone Shorty's brass band club, talked about jazz and blues and really hit it off. It was only ater that I learned of Sinclair's notorious and colorful past -- managing the proto-punk band MC5 during the mid-'60s, founding the counterculture White Panther Party in 1968 as a counterpart of the Black Panthers; getting arrested in 1969 for possession of two joints and sented to ten years in prison. His 1972 book Guitar Army chronicles his bust and subsequent imprisonment for two and a half years in the State Prison of Southern Michigan at Jackson.
That was all part of Sinclair's past that I remained naively unaware of, though in the deep recesses of my memory banks I could still recall John Lennon singing: "It ain't fair, John Sinclair/in the stir for breathing air...They gave him ten for two/what else can the judges do?/You got to, got to, got to, got to, got to, got to, got to, got to, got to, got to, got to, got to, got to, got to, got to set him free."
The tall, goateed cat with the mischievous twinkle in his eye who was passing the joint to me outside Trombone Shorty's place in Treme that night 30 years was that same guy John Lennon had sung about on his 1972 Plastic Ono Band album, Some Time in New York City ! Small world.
I got to know John Sinclair as a poet/jazz fan and a blues scholar. Indeed, his New Orleans band at the time was called The Blues Scholars and I saw them perform together many times at coffee shops, record stores and clubs around the Crescent City. A few favorite Sinclair recordings that he made in those mid '90s New Orleans years were Full Moon Night and Fattening Frogs for Snakes with his Blues Scholars as well as If I Could Be With You with Ed Moss' Society Jazz Orchestra. The latter featured several interpretations of Theonious Monk tunes, including "In Walked Bud," "Friday the 13th," "'Round Midnight," and a playful reading of "Rhythm-A-Ning" that depicted Sinclair doing play-by-play of his dream baseball game populated by famous bop players, which he appropriately dubbed "Rhythm-inning."
Storyteller Sinclair has redone this tune several times over the years including a raucous and decidedly 'out' version with the Pinkeye Orchestra, and another funky version from 2016 with his Motor City Blues Scholars.
But perhaps most stirring was Sinclair's solo spoken word album, Thelonious: A Book of Monk, a collection of 44 interdependent poems which revealed the poet's keen sense for historical detail ("Thelonious,") and jazz jargon ("Humphf "), his undying sense of romanticism ("Ruby My Dear," "Round About Midnight") and his stylized, theatrical and occasionally over-the-top delivery ("In Walked Bud").
In 2003 Sinclair moved from New Orleans to Amsterdam, where he hosted an early example of a podcast, which took place live from one of the city's notorious hashish coffeehouses. That show became the foundation of Radio Free Amsterdam, where John continues to serve as program director while hosting a new episode of The John Sinclair Radio Show every Monday from locations all over the world, with home base at the 420 Cafe in Amsterdam. One of the enthusiatic reviews of the place posted in Yelp reads: “Come in, grab a coffee or tea or pop and smoke a fatty. If you have a gram, you can use the bong. Highly recommended.” Appropriately, Sinclair kicks off each show with a ceremonial "opening toke":
The following is an interview with Big Chief John Sinclair, who just turned 82 on Oct. 2. It was originally conducted on July 12, 1995 for the Japanese Music magazine and was later excerpted Stateside for the December 1996 issue of Fi magazone. It was later published in my 1998 book, Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries, a collection of interviews that I had done with a diverse list of characters including Keith Richards, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Billy Gibbons, Frank Zappa, Wynton Marsalis, Keith Jarrett, Tony Williams, John Zorn, Milford Graves, Robert Fripp and many others (available for purchase under the BOOKS tab of this website). John, of course, appears in the Visionaries section of the book:
Poet-musicologist-political activist John Sinclair (he prefers to think of himself as an agitator and rhythm-chaser) vividly recalls the day they dragged his controversial ass to the slammer for possession of two joints of marijuana. It was July 28, 1969, the day after astronaut Neil Armstrong's famous “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” An auspicious day for millions of TV-watching Americans who took in the first moonwalk in hushed awe, though not so auspicious for the counterculture icon who would spend the next two and a half years of a nine-to-ten year sentence in the State Prison of Southern Michigan at Jackson.
"The punishment seemed kind of medieval to me," recalls Sinclair, puffing on a joint in his spacious New Orleans home some 25 years later. "My wife was pregnant with Cecilia. My other daughter Sunny was two years old. I was just in the middle of everything and not only in the middle of it, but at the head of a lot of things. But then, that was kind of the idea behind putting me away."
As chairman of the White Panther Party, a radical group of acid-eating counterculture politicos whose ten-point program called for the overthrow of the United States government, Sinclair was seen as dangerous. So he was iced. Simple as that.
As a political activist in the Detroit/Ann Arbor area, Sinclair always kept one foot firmly planted in the music world. His involvement with the notorious proto-punk band MC5 yielded some of the most kinetic sounds of a turbulent decade. And after his incarceration, he managed such Detroit bands as The Up, Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, and The Rockets. Today, Sinclair has re-emerged as a poet and performer, fronting a scruffy band, The Blues Scholars. He’s old enough to be profiled in Mature Times, yet young enough in spirit to tour the country in a
funky van doing one-nighters. Living in New Orleans since 1991, Sinclair has made his mark on the Crescent City scene. Besides his own performances, he hosts a weekly late-night "Blues and Roots" show on WWOZ, and he's a columnist for Offbeat, a local music monthly.
Apart from his activities as poet, DJ, and rock'n'roll rebel, the founder of the White Panther Party also takes great pride and a bit of mischievous glee in programming the taped music heard by throngs of tourists every day in the Riverwalk, New Orleans' answer to every other sprawling shopping mall you've ever been in. Located on the banks of the Mississippi, it contains the same string of Gap, L. L. Bean, Disney, Warner Bros., and what-have-you stores that one encounters in malls all across America. But unlike the somnambulant Muzak generally heard in such commercial shopping venues, when you stroll through the Riverwalk you get a healthy dose of Sinclair faves like Smiley Lewis, Dr. John, Professor Longhair, James Booker, the Dirty Dozen Brass band, and Ernie K-Doe. It's John's way of making a statement, making a difference by throwing a monkey wrench in the mix. Still subversive after all these years.
Tell me first of all about the Detroit music scene as you remember it as a kid?
I grew up in a little bitty country town called Davison, Michigan, 10 miles east of Flint. The only other prominent Davisonian is Michael Moore, the documentary filmmaker. So my urban frame of reference was Flint. My whole experience with the music was from whatever was on the radio. I was born in 1941 and when I was seven I got my first radio. That's when radio was still the primary entertainment medium. I got interested in pop music when I was about 10 or 11 — shows like “Your Hit Parade" and that kind of stuff. I used to listen to this guy Bill Lamb who was a disc jockey on WBBC in Flint. He played the Top 10 every Saturday morning and I used to tune in every week to see what they were gonna be. It was Frankie Laine and "Mule Train," Guy Mitchell’s "Shrimp Boats Are Comin’,” "Wheel of Fortune" by Kay Starr," How Much
Is That Doggie in the Window" by Patti Page, "Sixteen Tons" by Ernie Ford...All the things that were pop music in the late-1940s and early-1950s. And as a kid, I actually thought that all those artists were there in the studio performing these tunes live. So I was excited about this Top 10 thing and always wanted to go to the radio station to see this, because it was so
huge in my mind. It was just what life was about. All the interesting shit came from the radio. Finally one Saturday morning my Dad took me to see the Top 10 with Bill Lamb. So we go down to the studio and it was just two guys sitting in there playing records. No audience, no performers. That was a big disillusionment of my young life. I can still feel the sinking feeling when I looked in and saw that this was what it was gonna be.
When did you find R&B on the radio?
In Flint, there was this great disc jockey named Frantic Ernie Durham. He was on WBBC and I must've picked up on him just about the same time he came to town, around 52. The Frantic One. He was my idol. He was the thing that I looked up to and aspired to be in life. This was right at the beginning of when white kids started listening to black radio stations. And I was kind of in that number because this other pop stuff was just so boring and lame. I was getting a little bit older and wanted something more. And then I'd hear something like "One Mint Julep" by The Clovers or Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman” and all those kind of really hip records. And I beamed in on that. I had no idea where this music came from, it was just pure aural information. And I got involved with it from that point on, all the way through high school.
Were you aware of what was happening on the Detroit music scene at the time?
No, I was pretty oriented toward Flint. The basic form of entertainment for us was disc jockey dances. When I was in high school I was a fiendish collector of 45s and I was also a fiendish dancer, and I also wanted to be a disc jockey. So I used to do little disc jockey hops after the football game on Friday night in the gym.
What would you play?
I was in the 10th or 11th grade…had to be around '57, '58. I'd just play all the hip records of the day, just like I play now on Saturday night. They were just good records, to me.
No Pat Boone?
Oh, no, no, no, no, no! All records by Negroes. Maybe two percent of what I might play or want to collect might be by white artists.
What about Elvis?
Yeah, I liked his stuff on Sun Records, and maybe the first three on RCA. Carl Perkins, too.
About anything on Sun was cool, up to Johnny Cash, which was a little too country for me. And Buddy Holly & The Crickets I liked. I was a freak for Bill Haley when I was about 13. I had all his records. But other than that it was all Negroes. I used "Walkin' with Mr. Lee” by Lee Allen as my theme and I'd play stuff like "The Big Wheel" by Clifton Chenier on Argo. And I used to close with Paul Gayten doing "Drivin' Home."
Sounds like your show on WWOZ now.
Exactly. I'm playing the same records. To me, frankly, the best records I play are the ones that were made in the '50s. That's when they really made the great records, just magnificent records. To me, 1945 to 1960 was the golden age of music on earth for jazz, blues, R&B, gospel. Everything was hittin' like a ton of bricks, man! Besides that, you had guys around from the earliest periods. Guys like Ellington and Louis Armstrong were still in their prime. Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge from that generation were still at the top of their game. Bird and Dizzy and Miles, Trane, Sonny Rollins. You just had everything. I could preach on the cultural superiority of the '50s forever. Not America, per se. Not in terms of popular culture, just in terms of African-American culture. That was the highpoint of Western civilization and it's just been downhill from there. To me, that was the shit. And I just felt tremendously blessed to be able to have this in my life. As a teenager, it helped define my whole view of life. So it was a big influence. I mean, after you hear Billy Ward & His Dominoes, The Moonglows, and The Flamingos, any Caucasian ideas of beauty just completely disintegrate. You know what I'm saying? It just redefined everything for me.
How were you regarded by your schoolmates? As a renegade?
Well, there was a crossover thing happening. Our school was divided into farmers and people who went into town. So there were kids who were into being hip. Commercial wide scale mass TV was in its infancy and it wasn't really aimed at the young people like it was later. I was like 10 or 11 when we got our first TV set and it just didn't interest me very much. They would take shows that you listened to on the radio and put 'em on TV and they just seemed really stupid, like “Superman” and shit like that. You listened to it on the radio and you could fill in all the pictures in your mind. Of course, most people were squares, but I remember some hip people that I went to school with. We would all go to somebody's house for lunch hour and listen to Little Richard records and "Gee" by The Crows and records on the Specialty and Chess labels. When Chuck Berry’s "Maybelline" came out, all the people that I knew were just
leveled by that record. Their minds would just be shredded when they heard "Maybelline" for the first time. We'd go to this place where we hung out and played "Maybelline" on the jukebox six times in a row. You got six for a quarter. Then you'd put another quarter in and play it six more times. You just didn't want to hear anything else, it was just so far out. So I ran with a group of really hip white kids who were really attenuated to the Negro cultural imperatives, just in terms of the records and clothing and styles. It was a small group but it was very hip, and we were all fantastic dancers. We'd go to all these huge rhythm and blues revues at the IMA Auditorium. They were basically like black dances and there would be like 25 or 30 white kids there, and that would be us. And we would be trying to dance with the colored girls or we'd bring our own girlfriends and show off. The pinnacle of life would be to clear the floor at the IMA Auditorium so that everyone else stopped and stood in a big circle while you did your little thing. I did that two or three times. That was the pinnacle of achievement, like winning the big football game or something.
But my teenage years…I just had so much fun in my teenager years when I think about it. I wasn’t into jazz at the time. I didn’t know anything about anything except rhythm and blues. And every week at that time a number of records would come out that were just the baddest records you ever heard. Every week! And next week there’s be five more. There were on lab els like Chess, Vee Jay, Specialty, Aladdin, Imperial. And when you saw something with the Atlantic label on it, you wanted to hear that motherfucker right now! If it was on the Atlantic label, you knew it was going to be tough. Same thing with Chess or Checker.
And the radio was playing all this great music?
Yeah. You’d drive around in your car at night and you could pick up this great station out of Nashville, WLAC— 50,000 watts pointed in all directions. They had the greatest rhythm and blues program imaginable. The shows were sponsored by mail order record shops and I used to send away for the records. This great disc jockey named John Richford, who went by the name of Jumpin' John R., would pitch you on one of these from Ernie's Record Mart, 1719 Third Avenue in Nashville, Tennessee: "The Blue Star Blues Special — six records, 12 big sides for the low, low price of $2.79 plus packing, mailing and COD. Send no money, just
your name and address to me, Jumpin' John R, WLAC, Nashville, Tennessee." And the six records would be like "Lonely Avenue" by Ray Charles, "King Bee" by Muddy Waters, maybe "Congo Mambo" by Guitar Gable. There'd always be something on Excello, always something on Vee Jay, like "Baby It's You" by The Shirelles, maybe a Jimmy Reed record. And there'd be something on Atlantic, something on Chess by The Moonglows or Willie Mabon. You could order either 78s or 45s. Man, I get emotional thinking about it.
But they'd service the rural areas of the South, that was their primary function. Because once you get outside of Jackson, Mississippi, you are hard pressed to find a record shop, at least until you get to Clarksdale. So there's all these people in Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi, that was their primary audience. And because they ran 50,000 watts, people picked it up all over the country. And John R. had this thing: Every night he would number the records. So if you had a record you liked, you didn't even have to remember the name of the record or the artist. You could just say, "Send me number 5 that was played today, July 12." And they would send it to COD. I thought that was fantastic. And a lot of these people couldn't write anyway so they just had to put the 5 and the date, you know? And you could get the fuckin' record you heard. It was a great system.
What eventually brought you to Detroit?
I went to graduate school at Wayne State University. That's kind of when I came of age in my own mental outlook, which has served me so favorably for so many years. [uproarious laughter] Far more than I had any reason to anticipate. But by the time I got to Detroit in ’64, I was a jazz fanatic. I had already gotten to know the jazz scene pretty well from driving over from Flint. You could drive to Detroit from Flint in those days on 50 cents worth of gas. I remember driving in to see Cannonball Adderley at Baker's Keyboard Lounge just after Yusef Lateef had joined his band, and they had just a ridiculously high cover charge — something like $3.50! And the place was so stiff that we left. We caught one tune and drove back to Flint. So I didn't go to Baker’s much at all. The Minor Key was the place. I saw Miles Davis there with J. J. Johnson and Philly Joe Jones. The cover charge was also $3.50, but you didn't have to buy any drinks. You could sit there all night and hear three sets of from 9 PM until 5 AM. for $3.50. That's the place where I got up and walked into a pole after 45 minutes of Elvin Jones. It was a great place. I used to see Trane there a lot playing hour and a half sets, half of which would be just him and Elvin blowing the roof off. There was another place called The Drone Lounge and Jimmy Smith would play at a place called The Grand Bar. So I was a jazz fanatic and, increasingly, an avant-garde jazz fanatic.
You also started to write around this time?
Yes, by the fall of '64 I got a gig with Down Beat as their Detroit correspondent and also had my first reviews published in Jazz magazine. And then I met Charles Moore, this trumpet player from Alabama, and I also met my first wife. All this was going on the first six months I was in Detroit. I had a weed connection through the black jazz places that I hung out at, and I got some of the campus business, which led to my first arrest.
You were the Mezz Mezzrow of Detroit?
Much lower scale than Mezz. Mezz was a hero of mine, for sure. Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsburg….All those characters were my heroes -- Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammed, Fidel Castro...I liked him a lot. I was really into an avant-garde kind of thing and got totally unplugged from popular culture from '61-'65. For those four years I never read the newspaper or watched TV or listened to the radio except for jazz programs. So like all the time that Kennedy was president, I missed the whole thing. You know, after they had the Bay of Pigs, I just wasn't even interested anymore. My attitude was,”Fuck these people!" I was into a kind of urban withdrawal during that period. So my perspective on Detroit was more from a jazz point of view. And the more I met people and talked, the more I learned about the glorious history of jazz in Detroit in the '40s and ‘50s, when it was like the Second City of Bebop. In fact, when I came there it was just after that era had ended and it was pretty slim pickings. They didn't have hardly any work for jazz around town.
Was there an avant-garde scene?
No, there were two or three guys who were interested in doing things beyond the norm. But there wasn't even a bebop scene as far as steady work; maybe three things on the weekend and that was it. And that's when we started this thing called The Artists Workshop. That was more an outlet for Charles Moore and the people he was associated with. A group of musicians from Upstate and around the area eventually coalesced into a group around Charles called The Detroit Contemporary Five. And that's when I started writing poetry and I used to perform with these guys. Charles Moore and I used to live together and all we did all day was listen to records, smoke joints, and fantasize different things that should be happening, and then try and figure out how to do them. We'd read our Down Beat and beatnik publications from the West Coast and New York, like the Village Voice, and sit around going, "Man, this shit looks great! How come we don't have no shit like this?" So we were trying to figure out how you could do this, without having any idea of anything, which was a very interesting process. We had these templates from San Francisco and New York. We'd hear about something people were doing somewhere and we'd say, "Yeah, we should have this in Detroit." And we'd make some raggedy approximation of what it was supposed to be like. But we had pretty clear-cut models that we wanted to emulate. And somehow out of all this we came up with this unique thing called The Detroit Artists Workshop.
You mentioned an arrest?
Yes, I went from The Detroit Artists Workshop into a six-month prison sentence at the Detroit House of Corrections in 1966, from February to August. And when I came out, everything was different, everything had changed. Everything was hippie, drug-oriented, rock'n'roll, light show, posters, long hair. All this had emerged in these six months that I was away. I hadn't seen much sign of that before I went in. And so I kind of responded to this because it was a fresh thing. People you didn't know were trying to do something different. And so, from a base of The Artists Workshop I tried to relate to this new movement, and that's how I got to know the MC5 and pretty much became 100 percent involved with that thing.
What was your role with the band?
When I was with the MC5 our entire focus was on equipment — getting equipment and keeping it in repair. As their manager, my main job, besides getting them the gigs and getting the money, what little there was, was to then take that money to Joe Massamino's store and use that money to get more equipment. Always more, always bigger, always blowed out. So we were always in and out of the shop.
What had they been doing before they met you?
They had developed into a very interesting band that considered themselves avant-rock. The lead singer was a guy who had taken the name Rob Tyner to express his admiration for McCoy Tyner. His real name was Robert Derminer. Rob's best friend was Gary Grimshaw who developed into the poster artist of the group. They were pals at Lincoln Park High School and were like the school beatniks. And then Wayne Kramer and Fred Smith were like a year under them and they were best pals and they both played guitar. And so they kind of came together from this idea of creating a band. Rob Tyner was a rock'n'roll beatnik. He wanted to be in a band. It was the medium to which a kid could think of expressing himself. I guess when I came up five years earlier it was poetry and writing about music. But when I met 'em they were into long improv things and feedback as a musical tool and loudness as an aesthetic unit. They played opening night at the Grande Ballroom and I said, "Jesus, these kids are great!" It wasn't like a rock'n'roll band singing, "Baby I want to hold your hand." I was a little too old for that. What I was really listening to at this time was Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra, Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman. Then I heard these guys and they were trying to relate to that same kind of energy, trying to tap into that thing that was bigger than them. And I related to that right away. And it seemed like this was something that was really going to be exciting. It wasn't Top 40, it wasn't pop, it was something different. These people were gonna be different. So I kind of invested everything that I had into them for about ten years, and at the end of it I realized they weren't going to be that different...I had been wrong. But I was really convinced until around '74.
Did you also produce their records?
I produced their second single. I started out being a fan of the band and then Rob and I became very close friends. We used to take acid together and then stay up all night ranting and raving about the way the world should be. This was like the fall of '66 and going into '67. I would go to their gigs at teen clubs and I would always just be struck at how un-together their whole operation was. But I didn't know nothing, I was just a beatnik. I liked to hear 'em, once they got all their wires untangled and their little bitty equipment set up, which was always blown to shreds. They had this concept of being very loud long before they had the equipment with which to affect this vision. When I first heard them they were already using Vox Super Beatle amps, then they graduated to a Shure four-channel mixer. We were always trying to get more equipment to realize that big sound that they were after. They had a very clear mental concept of what they wanted that shit to sound like.
So I hung around with them for a year. I’d go to the gigs, hang out with them. And then in August of '67, the guy who ran the Grande Ballroom decided to start bringing in national acts. Up until then it was all local bands. And the first act he brought in was The Grateful Dead. Now, these were guys who were basically beatnik dope fiends, and I thought, "Wow, this is interesting. They got a record out on Warner Bros. and they're touring the U.S. and they're just guys like us." And that was where I really decided, "Well, shit, I could do this with the MC5. It would do 'em a lot of good." Up until that point, I hadn't thought about it because I thought people in the music business were guys with cigars and sleeve garters, you know? Or earnest fraternity assholes, like Bob Seger's manager. They weren't very appealing either. But The Dead's management was cool. So that's when I started acting like the MCS's manager. We never signed a contract or had any discussion or anything. One day it was like this and the next day it was like that.
And you had other activities going on simultaneously?
I was a kind of a cultural activist and writer and cultural organizer through The Artists Workshop. We used to do jazz and poetry at Wayne State University. So I had a little organizational ability. Plus, we had developed The Artists Workshop Cooperative Housing Project, which was a big name for the fact that we took over six buildings on this one block and ran them all so that everybody we knew could have a place to stay, where you didn't have to turn their shit down. My poem called "The Drum Thing" is about those days, when there were three drummers practicing every day in the house and a trumpet player upstairs. So I had these little organizational skills. Plus, we put out our own poetry pamphlet series. We were in the early stages of the mimeograph revolution. My wife at the time worked at Wayne State University and she had the key to the office. We would go in there at midnight, purloin boxes of paper, and run off poetry on the mimeograph machine until 6 A.M. So that was our publishing venture. And I was associated with this little underground newspaper called The Fifth Estate, which came out every two weeks. So these were the things I was doing when I started dealing with them. I just tried to apply the different organizational precepts that I learned by trying to do things to this band.
When I first started seeing MC5, they'd get to the gig 45 minutes after they were supposed to start playing. And then they would take another 45 minutes to an hour trying to sort the wires out and get this shit set up. And then they'd play two James Brown tunes and "Black To Comm" for 45 minutes. This wasn't real popular. I mean, this would be at a teen club where the kids would come to dance. The other thing I'd start doing was getting the equipment together, making sure they were on time, getting more gigs. I knew everybody on the scene already so I knew who to fuck with about the gigs and everything. But I think the most important thing then was we just started working on developing repertoire and presentation. And they were an exhilarating bunch of musicians because they were totally fucking focused on what they wanted to do musically on stage. And they had some pretty advanced concepts musically.
When we started hanging out I had them listening to more various forms of energy music like Archie Shepp and Coltrane. And also more blues. 'Cause around '65 I had started listening to blues again and I was kind of struck by how the energy content corresponded between a Muddy Waters and a John Coltrane, which wasn't a real popular view at the time. 'Cause if anything, the music in the '60s was even more pigeonholed than it is today. There was jazz, and then avant-garde jazz over here and it wasn't even connected to jazz. That's the way they thought about it. They called it anti- jazz. "That shit isn't music, it's just noise. It doesn't have any principals. How can you tell if they are any good or not?" When I started writing about jazz I soon became embroiled in all the polemical disputes that were arising at that time. I was kind of lined up with Leroy Jones and A. B. Spellman, Frank Kofsky.
So MC5 was just one of many things that you were involved in at the time.
It was the '60s, man! Every day was like six months is today. There was so much going on. And at the same time it was small enough that you could hook up. As part of what we did at The Artists Workshop, we put out a poetry magazine starting in '65 called Work and later that year we started an avant-garde magazine called Change, which was a 150-page mimeographed magazine, ass in "Change! Motherfucker!" It was in the imperative.
Sounds like incredibly busy, productive times.
It was. I also wrote a column for The Fifth Estate that focused on poetry and jazz and avant-garde. I was quite a polemicist. And I was also a polemicist for the legalization for marijuana. From the fall of '67 to the fall of '68, The Artists Workshop kind of faded out. We also tried to do our own nightclub. It failed because we didn't have any money. We were scuffling, always trying to do a lot of wild stuff with no money but with a lot of people and a lot of energy. We had quite a few people that used to take acid together all the time. That's my standard disclaimer about this period: We were all on acid! And that's one reason why we were able to do so many things. We had so much energy and it was focused. There'd be a group of 20 or 30 people of whom maybe 10 took aid together once a week, for several months. And we kind of developed a group mind. We'd have these wild fantasies and others would understand them. It wasn't like you were just a nut, these other people would see the same thing. [laughter)
Your progress was interrupted by another jail sentence.
Yes. From the end of July of '69 to December 13, 1971. They sent me to prison for possession of two joints of marijuana the day after the guy [Neil Armstrong) walked on the moon.
Was MC5 still together when you got out?
Briefly. They broke up shortly after I got out. They had gone through different things of which 1 have no firsthand knowledge, Between '67 and September of ’68, the MCS kind of created themselves as this monstrous high-energy performance ensemble. They developed their own music, their own compositions. They developed a stage show. They created outfits, bought more and more equipment. They became tighter and tighter until the fall of '68, which is when we got the record contract with Elektra. And by that time they were an awesome thing to encounter in live performance. They were just fucking awesome! I heard them every night, and every night they blew me away, I've never seen anything like it. And to hear it on records, sometimes you can get an idea of the musical excitement. But their concept was beyond just playing tunes. Their model was James Brown’s Live at the Apollo (King, 1963). That was our bible. That and Coltrane's Live at Birdland (Impulse, 1961). We had one of those early four-track in-car players and we used to play these tapes at full volume on the way to the gig, smoking 15 joints along the way. So that when you arrived at the place to play, your state of mind was informed by this fuckin' ride and you were ready to just…Roar! Oh, they were fun days!
When you'd go see the MC5 you didn't know what was going to happen, but you knew that your mind would be blown. The whole trip was just so exciting. I've been in the music business for a long time since then, I’ve managed different bands and done promotions and productions, but none of it was like the MC5. That was like being on a religious mission. And as the manager, I felt my job was to lay down the boards in every way so they could just get up there and do their show and I could enjoy it. The exciting thing was they gained more and more followers. Legions of followers. It was all very localized and very fresh and exciting. Once we got a record contract and started traveling around, all that receded. It lost that real exciting part.
What happened with the record?
Elektra had called them in and were going to censor them.
Because it had the tune "Kick out the Jams, Motherfucker." We had a single version as well, "Kick out the Jams, Brothers and Sisters" that we did for radio. The idea was: You hear that on the radio, you get the album, and you hear the real thing. Also, there were incendiary liner notes that also used the word "motherfucker" once or twice. And it also encapsulated our slogan: “Rock'n'roll, Dope, and Fucking in the Streets, the motto of the White Panther Party.” So they pulled our record off the market. So we're on the West Coast at our own expense and we didn't have any records. What an experience. I'm blown away just thinking about it. We got so popular and we hated the authorities so much and they hated us so much. And that was a constant subtext that often rose over the text and became an overtext. Sometimes the shit would get so thick that the police would come in and pull the plug on us. And then you wouldn't have anything but a bunch of pissed off kids who were ready to tear the police apart, egged on by us, of course. [laughter] Oh, we hated the fuckin' police, man.
So many of these things in rap music today — apart from its utter lack of musical interest for me and emotive power — the context rings so familiar. The Luther Campbell thing a few years back when they were giving him all that trouble for his 2 Live Crew reminded me of when "Kick out the Jams" came out. They were arresting clerks in stores for selling our record. Certain record store chains refused to carry our record. I was with another underground newspaper at the time called The Ann Arbor Argus and we made Elektra buy a full-page ad to kick back some money to the paper. And so we laid out the ad and it said, "Fuck Hudsons," the main record store chain in Detroit, which refused to carry our record. Some say that was the contract-breaker. Whatever the case, our contract with Elektra only lasted six months. So we presaged so many things that have become clichés in the music business. We kind of had the initial Sex Pistols experience in the sense that we sold this thing to Elektra, they fired us, and then we sold it for more money to Atlantic Records. The cover was submitted to Elektra, which they bought from Gary Grimshaw. We mutually agreed with Elektra to end the contract. They insisted that we take out "Kick out the Jams, Motherfucker." We wanted this as our artistic expression, so they pulled it off the market. I had to go to New York and argue about it. And we decided, "Let's just withdraw."
Danny Fields had been at Elektra and he was our champion. He left the company at the same time we did. And he provided an entrée to Atlantic. So we went and made a deal with Jerry Wexler, one of my childhood idols. And we got a $50,000 advance, full control, half the publishing — a much better deal than we had with Elektra. But then we made this terrible mistake of hiring Jon Landau to produce it. That led to the band rejecting its former direction and going in the direction that rock critics said they should. And they completely changed their whole approach. That was after I was gone.
And at that point you stepped out.
They stepped me out. I went to prison. I had my trial on a Friday afternoon, I was planning to go to the gig that night. Instead, the jury went out and came back with a guilty verdict and they remanded my bail and put me in right then and there. And of course, I didn't have any idea how long it would last. And then they brought federal charges against me — conspiracy to blow up the CIA office in Ann Arbor, which I really wasn't involved in but I was proud to have been charged. [laughter] I wish I had. I was proud to know the guys who did it. I was proud of them. But I wasn't really the military arm of the White Panther Party. I was more of the legal arm. Oh man, it's really a helluva fuckin' story. The problem is, the more years you get away from it and try and tell the story, the more implausible the whole thing seems because the whole context is missing.
Sounds like a kind of social disobedience that certainly doesn't exist today.
People were on acid—not at any given moment. But that’s what the prevailing attitude was. That was the context of reality for quite a few months — people dropping acid, talking about all kinds of wild shit about how “People should get together! Why should we have these wars? Why should we put up with this shit? Let's fuck with these people! Let’s make it hard for them to keep this shit up!” Seems like every 30 years people get a chance to act up like that. Maybe it'll happen again soon. Not so much for me. I had my fun. These kids today, wandering around aimlessly with these expensive tattoo jobs. You just wish they had something more interesting to occupy their time — like fuckin' with the government. It's good for everybody! [laughter]
And the MCS was part of it.
The MC5 existed as part of two scenes that overlapped. One was rock'n'roll bands and one was hippie acid heads. And that was when the shit got interesting, when it started to overlap. There was a real interesting dynamic that took place between '66 and '69, where these kids who had been in rock'n'roll bands started to get high and take acid and adapt to the hippie lifestyle and worldview. And the music got more interesting. There was a spirit of competition and camaraderie between the bands. They'd always be trying to blow each other away. When I worked with MC5 our whole idea was to just blow everybody away. If we had a special gig where we'd be opening for Big Brother & The Holding Company, we'd spend the whole week —like a football team working on secret plays—trying to figure out a set that we could do that would destroy the audience to the point where when Janis Joplin came on with Big Brother & The Holding Company it was "ho hum." Or Cream. We tried to blow them away. You just try to get in there and just fucking blow people away. We wanted the audiences to just sit there with the tops of their heads flat back. That was our goal! That was what we lived for. That's why I loved these guys, man. They were so focused. They did not give a fuck about anything else. They had this aesthetic with the sound, how to make it different. It wasn't just a tone. They wanted to just invade people and get inside them with the sound. Oh, man! That was kicks! So that's how we got our reputation, getting on these bills with Cream and other bands. That's where that term ‘kick out the jams’ came from — from taunting these English bands from the wings.
Did you have some success with that first Elektra album before it was pulled?
The first album was number 30 with a bullet. It sold about 90,000 copies right out of the shoot. Then they just killed it. It was such a fragile thing to keep this whole juggernaut going with everybody at the proper mental and emotional pitch. A serious setback like that created the stage for more bad things to happen. I dunno, I guess we thought we'd take over the world or something. We were on acid, you know? We were out there! We'd do shows with Sun Ra. We played a lot of benefits because I thought it was important to play as much as possible. I thought that what they had was so dynamite, they were stupid not to have people hear it. So we played all the time.
And the Atlantic album that followed was a detour in direction for the band?
Oh, I thought the second album [Back in the U.S.A., Atlantic, 1970] was really a craven betrayal of all the things they had once stood for. When they made their second Atlantic album, High Time [Atlantic, 1971], this guy Jon Landau, who went on to take Bruce Springsteen from his former management and make him into a huge star, he ruined the band. Now, of course, he's a multi-millionaire. Bruce Springsteen is the opposite of MC5. I went to see him on his first tour and I thought it was a Broadway show about rock’n'roll — the precise cues, slick lights, songs about people and cars and working men. The MC5 was more about carrying a bomb up to the front door of the White House and knocking on the door and handing it to 'em!
What are some of your more recent activities?
I formed Big Chief productions and am putting out some of the MC5 board tapes and rehearsals tapes from 1971. I've been clinging to those things for 25 years hoping that one day I'd get some of them out. So far we've put out two albums, Power Trip [Schoolkids, 1995] and American Ruse [Schoolkids, 1995]. I've also done some recent performances and recordings with Wayne Kramer.
And what are your future plans?
I plan to stay in New Orleans and have fun.