a journal of modern society & culture

Still on the Road

Although I faithfully followed the bardic path for more than 40 years, I waited a long time to hit the road as a poet.  There were so many other things to do along the way, and I did them all. I had directed the Detroit Artists Workshop, the Allied Artists Association, Jazz Research Institute and Detroit Jazz Center. I managed the MC-5, Mitch Ryder & Detroit and other bands. I produced dance concerts at the Grande Ballroom, free concerts in the parks, the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festivals, and countless left-wing benefits, community cultural events, jazz concerts and poetry readings. I’ve booked bands, done publicity for nightclubs, bars and concert halls, developed programs, written grants and raised funds for jazz artists and community arts organizations, and produced records by artists from the MC-5, Little Sonny and Deacon John to Sun Ra, Victoria Spivey and Roosevelt Sykes.

I wrote about jazz and blues, rock & roll and poetry for publications ranging from obscure local papers to downbeat and Playboy magazine. I published poetry books and journals, edited underground newspapers, arts quarterlies and blues magazines, and written liner notes for albums by Louis Armstrong, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Johnny Adams, the Wild Magnolias and the Re-Birth Brass Band. As a political activist I fought the marijuana laws through Detroit LEMAR, the Amorphia organization and a five-year struggle in the courts of Michigan cost me two and a half years in prison before I won my case. I was chairman of the White Panther Party and its successor, the Rainbow Peoples Party, battling Richard M. Nixon and his goons. It was my court case challenging Nixon’s “national security” wiretap program that produced the Supreme Court decision that warrantless wiretaps would no longer be allowed.

Suffice to say that I’ve enjoyed a productive life in the arts and community affairs for more than four decades – and helped raise four terrific daughters in the process. But as a poet, setting my verses to music and performing them with jazz musicians and blues guitarists, it was always my intention to take my show on the road. What performing I did until then was done mostly for fun, and I was well beyond my 50th year when my first album, Full Moon Night, was released in the mid-1990s. I finally realized my lifelong dream of hearing my verses and musical arrangements realized to perfection by a sympathetic team of serious players, cleanly recorded in the heat and clarity of public performance.

Since 1995 I’ve criss-crossed the United States and western Europe, working through a vast network of old friends and new comrades to assemble bands and book myself into funky nightclubs, blues bars, art galleries, coffeehouses, churches, cultural centers, college auditoriums and music and poetry festivals coast to coast to coast. Living in New Orleans I collaborated with great musicians: Earl Turbinton, Johnny Vidacovich, Willie Metcalf and Walter “Wolfman” Washington; guesting with the groups of Michael Ray, the Radiators, Rockin’ Jake, Stavin’ Chain, New Orleans Juice, Brotherhood of Groove and the Jazz Vipers. And doing special projects with Mark Bingham, James Andrews, Tuba Fats, the Forgotten Souls Brass Band and others. I formed my own band of Blues Scholars and we played all over town, from Margaritaville and the Mermaid Lounge to JazzFest and the House of Blues.

There’s not much money in the poetry racket so I generally travel by myself, hooking up with musicians wherever I go. The cast is always changing and the music changes with them, so my texts stay fresh because they sound different every night. Plus I play with a thrilling array of great musical friends and make new connections, and that adds a level of excitement that’s hard to beat. The particular kaleidoscope of music encountered from night to night is the high point of every tour, and the changing sound of my poems helps keep things interesting. When one proposes “An Evening of Music & Verse,” few people have any idea of what they’re going to hear anyway. On top of the music, the other great thing about the bardic path is the community of people who light up the way and see to the poet’s modest needs. These are the people who pick me up at the train station and take me to the airport, bring me into their homes, put me up in their spare bedroom or let me sleep on their couch, feed me and get me high. They help set up gigs, drive me there, introduce me to all the cool people, take me to dinner afterwards and see to my recreational needs.

They’re the amazingly sweetest of friends. They’re also fellow artists and journalists and educators and broadcasters and producers, and their lives pulsate within the nexus of creative activity and social consciousness in the places they live. They’re always making things happen, and they know what’s going on around them as well. I bring news from mutual friends and other scenes around the country and take their stories and concerns along with me to the next stop on the trail. All this activity takes place well beneath the radar of the entertainment industry, in locations only people like ourselves know about, involving music the likes of which is rarely heard on the radio today, never seen on TV or even noticed by the daily press. It’s produced in profusion and joyously shared by people who live and work in obscure neighborhoods and deconstructed urban communities which are shunned by mainstream America and the mass media—important outposts of the vast teeming world that throbs with heat and turmoil underneath the surface of American society and remains unseen and unrecognized by the world of the squares.

We used to call it the underground because we were so far down out of sight that they couldn’t even see us. And as mainstream culture narrows and tightens the boundaries of what kind of life is acceptable in this country, the underground world grows in size and scope. There’s the underworld of the endless African-American ghetto that extends from city to city across the country. There’s the underworld of deviant sexual behavior, the underworld of social protest against the multinational corporations and the complicit government, and the underworld of drug users. There’s also the underworld of outlaw music—punk rockers and garage bands, blues quintets and jazz wailers and wild improvisors, jam bands and funk groups, reggae outfits and folk singers and hammered dulcimer players who are making music in their communities or roaming the country, playing for little pockets of people who are aware they exist from seeing their names in the one little weekly paper there that chronicles their passages. They put out their own records and CDs and T-shirts at their gigs, get out their own publications and manage to survive and spread their message, as I do, by virtue of the kindness and generosity of comrades and friends.

And then there’s the intellectual underground, that ever-shrinking populace of intelligent Americans who pay attention to what’s going on and devise their own ways of registering their responses to it in music, painting, poetry, dancing, writing, photography, plays, films, videotapes. CDs, DVDs, hand crafted objects, whatever forms of expression happen to enter into their minds and issue forth from their hands and fingers and mouths and eyes to reach the rest of us. Creative individuals, people who are grounded in the great social and artistic achievements of the past and steeped in the idioms of the present and future, alert to the tightening of the political and economic noose around the neck of the public and full of ideas about how to slip out of it and maybe even how to tie it around the throat of the oppressor and thus hoist him up on his own petard.

These are the people I look for when I travel, and the good part is that I almost always find them. But you’ve got to go where they are, and seek them out, and cherish them when you find them, and keep coming back to seek them out again, and keep on exchanging energy and ideas as freely as you can. That’s what sustains our creativity and our intellectual life and makes the whole thing worthwhile. The downside to underground life in America, of course, is the relentless economic terrorism that grips our existence and rarely lets up. Nothing ever pays enough to cover the costs of everyday life: we’re behind on the rent, out of groceries, always trying to keep them from turning off the electricity or the phone. Our cars break down, we don’t have insurance and god help us if we get sick. Or else we take precious time away from our intellectual and creative endeavors to exchange for a miserable paycheck and minimal benefits, postponing artistic production in order to bring up our children or tend to our afflicted.

If we get high we worry about the police, pay too much for our supplies, and go through a maze of changes to secure the substances we require. If we make music we’ve got to find people who will let us play and give us enough money for what it cost us to get there. If we’re poets or writers or painters or dancers or fine artists of any sort, we are never allowed to forget that our work is not valued and will not be properly compensated no matter how good it may become. If we publish our magazines or produce our recordings and books we will never solve the incessant problem of effective distribution and thus will always fail to reach all our intended audience.

But as an artist in America, once a person takes the vow of poverty, one may be as creative and productive as one is capable, and it is possible to do great things despite the shortage of sufficient funds to provide for the necessities. We find a way somehow to make a life for ourselves within the economic netherworld to which our work has consigned us, and we keep in mind the promise once delivered nightly by the Rev. Robert Grant in the opening segment of his “Spiritual Sunbeams” program on WGPR Radio in Detroit: If you can take it—you can make it.

At this moment I’m ensconced in the well-worn flat of my friend, guitarist and fellow journalist Mark Ritsema in the city of Rotterdam, engaged in an expedition to determine whether I can make a living here and support a permanent move to the Netherlands. Simply put, I’ve reached the point at my advanced age where I feel that if I have to struggle so hard to make a living doing the work I love to do, I owe it to myself to find a less hostile environment than in the United States. If it’s got to be so hard to get paid what one needs to live, let me carry on my struggle for survival as an artist and intellectual in a society where the citizenry isn’t armed, regular people still achieve a certain level of basic intelligence, the arts are cherished and the police don’t care if I want to get high.

I love Holland and hope that I can stay. But I also come back to the U.S.A. and pick up my travels there. Starting out on the train from Detroit to Chicago, I catch the Amtrak train called the City of New Orleans and travel down to join the Mardi Gras festivities in the Crescent City. Then it’s back on the train from New Orleans to Memphis and on via Grayhound to Little Rock, looking forward to reuniting with my new friend, fearless publisher of the Little Rock Free Press whom I hooked up with at the big table in the 420 Café last December.

The month before I had determined to move to Amsterdam, but I was operating without a safety net and without any housing budget, living on the largesse of my handful of friends here and trying to find a way to remain in this incredible place where I wanted to live out my life. On this particular night I just returned from a week in Florence as a guest of the film festival where Steve Gebhardt’s film 20 To Life: The Life & Times of John Sinclair played. I planned to find somewhere to stay for the night when I got to Amsterdam at my scheduled arrival, but my train had been held up in Italy while we slept, and when it made Central Station the train was seven hours late. When I got to the 420 Café to smoke a big joint and get myself together it was already 11:30 pm. I was getting nervous with my time to arrange for lodgings shrinking with every minute. Now my potential resources in Amsterdam were unreachable and I might even have to spend half of my meager €100 bankroll on a hotel room.

To top it off, I smoked too far into my joint of pure Dutch weed after a week of near abstinence in Italy and I was too high for my own good. The top of my head felt like it was about to lift off. My mind started racing and I was overcome with worry about where I would spend the night. I worried and worried at the problem with no solution in sight. Then I came down just far enough to enter the mental zone where I generally reside, and with a great sigh of relief I realized—as usual—that worry gets one nowhere and has absolutely no effect on the outcome of one’s problems. Now my mind & body began to relax into the positive, expectant state I try to stay at. Everything would be all right, or it wouldn’t, but in any case I could deal with it.

My attention was drawn to the cannabis counter where two Americans were talking with Greg behind the bar while scanning the room for a place to sit. I was by myself at the big table and motioned for them to join me. The woman sat next to me and said she was from the Little Rock Free Press and was looking for John Sinclair. I allowed that I was him. Her companion sat down and introduced himself as president of Skinny Dipping in America Inc. While they toked up I started bemoaning my situation without a room for the night. They said they were staying around the corner in a funky little hotel. Their room had three beds and I was welcome to claim one. That settled everything, and we were free to have as much fun as we wanted.

 

John Sinclair is a poet, activist, radio broadcaster and much else. His website is http://johnsinclair.us.

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook