December 18, 2014
Highest holiday greetings from Amsterdam and Happy New Year to everybody. I’m writing from my favorite spot, the 420 Café, where I landed a month ago from New Orleans to find that the 27th Annual High Times Cannabis Cup has been seriously disrupted by the local authorities who claimed that the Cup’s organizers had failed to obtain the proper permits for its five-day exposition of cannabis and weed-related products and shut down the affair.
It’s no secret that the Netherlands and its business partners in America and the European Union have been increasingly unhappy with the relatively wide-open public availability, vendition and smoking of weed in Amsterdam and in towns and cities all over the country. Nothing is more repulsive to these powers-that-be than the dread Cannabis Cup and its unbridled flaunting of cannabis freedom for more than a quarter of a century.
Three years ago the Cannabis Cup expo was raided by more than a hundred Amsterdam police officers and the event was severely curtailed. Since then the Dutch government has attempted to bar tourists from the coffeeshops and to convert the cannabis cafes to private clubs whose members would have to be registered with the government.
The latest communiqué from the Ministry of Health mandates a maximum THC content of 15% in all weed sold over the counter in The Netherlands starting January 1. The highest THC content I’ve seen reported was 29%, so that’s like cutting the available potency of your weed in half.
If I understood this shit I’d try to explain it to you, but it makes no sense to me at all. I just know I’ll continue in this new year to take full advantage of any liberties they allow the weed smoker wherever I might be, and if they aren’t allowed I’ll continue to take the liberties just the same. Free The Weed!
* * * * *
When I was in Flint in November to play at the Golden Leaf Social Club I enjoyed a very productive conversation with my publisher, Ben Horner, host of this column for the past 46 episodes since MMMR was established almost four years ago.
I knew Ben was interested in publishing books as well as this magazine and I proposed that he bring out the American edition of my collection called It’s All Good: A John Sinclair Reader, issued by Headpress in London six years ago.
This book started its life in Italy when the publisher Stampa Alternative translated a selection of my poems and prose into Italian and issued it as a book called Va Tutto Bene. Then Headpress wanted to publish the work in English (or American, as I prefer to think of it) in 2008, I expanded the text to 22 poems and 22 stories in honor of my 44 years as a poet and journalist.
This coming June it’ll be 50 years since the printing of my first book of poems, This Is Our Music, by the Artists Workshop Press, and I’ve added six more poems & stories for the American edition of It’s All Good, plus a bonus poem at the end and an opening essay to make 52 pieces so we’ll be playing with a full deck.
With your permission, I’m going to preview the collection over the next several months until its release by presenting excerpts from It’s All Good: A John Sinclair Reader in this column, starting with the introductory essay:
YOU HAD TO BE THERE
You had to be there. The stiff crust of the American social order was cracking open. Black people were moving for social and political equality in a big, inspirational way. The Cuban Revolution was taking place. The President of the United States was gunned down by a hellish collective of CIA agents and Mafiosi. Artists and academics were beginning to speak out forcefully for nuclear disarmament and against the ever-burgeoning war in Vietnam.
You had to be there. White people were discovering the blues. Hippies refused to cut their hair or get a job, smoked dope and dropped acid, resisted the military draft, dropped out of the consumer society and lived together in urban and rural communes, plugged in their guitars and played rock & roll music. American poetry and creative music and art were at an all-time high point and giants of every artistic discipline walked the earth.
You had to be there. Soul music was on the radio. Black people were on the move. Martin Luther King was leading massive civil rights marches and demonstrations and sit-ins all around the country. Students were rebelling. Draft resistance was on the rise. The government was on the defensive. Malcolm X was assassinated in the middle of a sermon. Four little black girls were blown up by white racist bombs placed in a church in Alabama. Voter registration workers from SNCC and CORE were murdered in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South.
You had to be there. The music was everywhere, fresh and exciting and charged with the moment. Freedom Suite by Sonny Rollins. “Haitian Fight Song” and “Better Get It in Yo’ Soul” by Charles Mingus. Freedom Now by Max Roach & Abbey Lincoln. Let Freedom Ring by Jackie McLean. Change of the Century by Ornette Coleman. Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra. Giant Steps and Africa/Brass and “Out of This World” and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane.
You had to be there. You had to be there when the records came out. You had to be there in the little nightclubs and coffeehouses where the music was made. You had to be there where the music was, and the musicians, and the people whose lives were illuminated and reshaped by the music in action. You had to be there to see and hear what was going to happen, and when it happened, and how you could be a part of it.
You had to be there. If you were looking for a way out of the American stasis and a stake in the immediate future, you had to be there. It was all there in the music, spelled out in fiery notes and relentless rhythms with ceaseless intelligence and spontaneous improvisation, and you had to be there to stand under the music and understand what it was telling you.
You had to be there. There was no other place you would want to be. You had to be there to hear and see and feel the message of freedom and immense human possibility blazed across your mental sky by the music of John Coltrane & his compatriots made in America between 1959 and 1967. There was nothing like it then, and there’s nothing like it now.
You had to be there. But since you couldn’t be there, maybe this book of verse and prose will help give you a tiny idea of what it was about, and how it reached us, and what it made us feel and think and do as we received it and figured out how to act on it, and how we acted on it from there well into the 21st century.
You had to be there. I was there. I had to be there. That was exactly where it was at, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
—New Orleans, February 21, 2009 >
London, December 16, 2013
Amsterdam, December 18, 2014
© 2014 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.
December 6, 2014
My first real exposure to the music and legend of Sun Ra came in the fall of 1964, when drummer Roger Blank passed through Detroit with a jazz trio I can’t remember the name of.
We put him up for a few days in our stronghold at the Detroit Artists Workshop Cooperative Housing Project, and I watched Roger open his suitcase and pull out what were obviously his most prized possessions: two weird LPs on the El Saturn label with garish outer space art on the covers and names like Supersonic Jazz and Jazz in Silhouette.
I had read about the avant-garde Chicago pianist and bandleader in downbeat and other jazz magazines, but his music was still so far underground that few people outside the band’s immediate orbit had ever heard it.
By this time the apocryphal Jazz by Sun Ra album on Transition Records was long out of print, and only The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (Savoy, 1961) was currently available.
I knew the Arkestra had moved to New York City and taken the creative music community by storm, but its music was still pretty much only a thing of legend and not something you could put on your turntable and listen to at will.
Blank regaled us with tales of Sun Ra and his fantastic Arkestra—how they all lived together in a tiny apartment at 48 E. 3rd Street on the lower east side of New York City, where at least a dozen grown men crammed into a three-room pad and rose each day for the mandatory noon rehearsal.
They might go for months without an actual gig, working religiously on mastering the uniquely imaginative compositions and arrangements created for them by their leader with no hope of more than a musical reward.
By 1964 Sun Ra and his long-time partner in Chicago, Alton Abraham, had launched their own label, El Saturn Records, but the fledgling company seemed to distribute its products strictly on a hand-to-hand basis.
Seeing two of them now, popping out of Roger Blank’s suitcase in Detroit, sent thrills coursing throughout my being—they were so rare it was like the answer to a prayer.
Soon Sun Ra would release two startling albums—The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volumes 1 & 2—on the new avant-garde jazz label ESP-Disk, which finally brought his music to the attention of the jazz world at large.
On a trip to New York City in the fall of 1966 after I’d been released from a 6-month prison sentence at the Detroit House of Correction, I made a pilgrimage to 48 E. 3rd and spent some time with Sun Ra and the Arkestra, even managing to interview the enigmatic composer for our underground paper in Detroit, the Warren-Forest Sun.
One evening I showed up at the pad with my tiny Opel sedan just in time to serve as the major transport for the Arkestra’s gig that night at the Jazz Arts Society of New Jersey in Newark, where they ended up playing for just about as many people as were in the band—about 15.
In the spring of 1967 I arranged for the Arkestra to make its first Detroit appearance at the Community Arts Auditorium on the Wayne State University campus, a 600-seat venue. They shared the bill with the MC-5 and the Magic Veil Light Show and played to maybe 100 people.
The gate receipts were so miniscule that one of the members of our Detroit commune, Emil Bacilla, ended up driving the Arkestra back to New York City in his Volkswagen bus because we were unable to pay the band’s transportation costs.
During my tenure (1967-69) as manager of the MC-5, I shared with the band my unbridled enthusiasm for Sun Ra’s musical message and his cosmic space philosophy. In 1968 the MC-5 developed a piece called “Starship,” a wild space odyssey in the amplified-guitar-and-rock-drums idiom into which the singer Rob Tyner incorporated Sun Ra’s poem, “There / is a place / where the sun shines / eternally….”
“Starship” made it onto the 5’s first album for Elektra Records, with Sun Ra sharing composer’s credit with the MC-5.
In the spring of 1969 I arranged for Sun Ra and the Arkestra to come out to Michigan for a month-long residency. We rented the house next door to our commune at 1510 Hill Street in Ann Arbor for them and presented the Arkestra in concert with the MC-5 at several area venues, including Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, the Ann Arbor Armory, and as headliners at the First Detroit Rock & Roll Revival festival at the Michigan State Fairgrounds, where they headlined with Chuck Berry and the MC-5 in a bill designed to showcase the past, present and future of the music.
When I had the opportunity to select the artists for the 1972 Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival, I scheduled Sun Ra & the Arkestra to close the first night’s show, following performances by the Seigel-Schwall Blues Band, the Contemporary Jazz Quintet (CJQ), Junior Walker & the All-Stars and Howlin’ Wolf.
Sun Ra completely wowed the crowd of 12,000 with the Arkestra’s spectacular presentation of space-age improvisational music, brilliant costumery and frenzied choreography. On the Atlantic Records 1972 Festival album, the audience can be heard chanting “Sun Ra! Sun Ra! Sun Ra!” for several minutes following the end of the Arkestra’s performance.
Sun Ra’s 1973 appearance was more highly anticipated than ever before. Now he was incorporating his philosophical disquisitions into the stage show itself, casting his views into verse and presenting them via a three-part vocal chorale to stunning effect.
A new suite based on the previous year’s smash success, “Space Is the Place,” had been prepared to introduce Ra’s concept of an “Outer Space Employment Agency” which would put the idled workers of post-industrial America back into a productive mode outside the tired orbit of Earth.
The Arkestra was again a big hit at the 1973 Festival, and they were scheduled to return for the 1974 event when hassles with the Ann Arbor city government impelled us to move the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival to Windsor, Ontario, just across the river from downtown Detroit.
I was trying to shepherd the Arkestra through Canadian customs when I was singled out and deported back to Detroit on the basis of a marijuana conviction 10 years previously.
I went back to my room in the Shelby Hotel and watched myself talking to a television news reporter covering my deportation proceedings.
This experience marked a major turning point in my life when I considered that the farthest-out group of characters I had ever seen in America was allowed entry to Canada, while I was turned back as “too far out.”
“You’ve gone too far,” I said to myself. “It’s time to turn back now.”
That fall I retired from political activism and the rock & roll scene to take up less grueling pursuits, working as an alternative journalist and editor for a couple of years and then opening a small community arts consulting business focused on providing program development and grant-writing services to indigenous jazz artists and organizations.
This led to the establishment of the Detroit Jazz Center in 1979, and by the end of 1980 the Jazz Center was presented with the opportunity to bring in Sun Ra and the Omniverse Jet-Set Arkestra for a week-long residency in downtown Detroit.
Rick Steiger, an aspiring young saxophonist and bandleader (Kuumba, the Sun Messengers, the Sun Sounds Orchestra) from the east side and a regular participant in the Jazz Center’s various activities, came to me with an attractive proposal: He had just inherited a couple of thousand dollars from a dearly departed relative, and he wanted to use this windfall to finance a trip to the Motor City by Sun Ra & the Arkestra.
He would engage the band for the week between Christmas and New Year’s; we would lodge them at the Jazz Center, present the Arkestra in a series of concerts in our after-hours performance space called the Jazz Gallery, and host daily workshops with the band where local musicians could meet, hang out, study and play with the members of the Arkestra.
After a full week of nightly concerts which were carefully taped for posterity, culminating in three shows on New Year’s Eve, Sun Ra ended his residency at 6:00 am January 1, 1981 by sending band representative Danny “Pekoe” Thompson down to the studio where I was packing up the results of our live recording sessions.
Pekoe asked if we’d like to co-produce an album from the tapes with them, and I was curious as to what that would involve. When he mentioned that they would want us to pay for issuing the record, I explained that there was nothing in the Jazz Center’s pitiful budget for such a project.
“Oh, man,” he sighed, “Sun Ra says just reach down in that oil money and pull some out—they won’t miss it.”
And there it was: for something like 15 years, while I had sacrificed all available funds, energy, and even my reputation at times to present the Arkestra in Michigan as often as possible, Sun Ra had taken me for an heir to the Sinclair Oil Company fortune!
I saw Sun Ra after that many times over the years and never failed to recall that shocking conversation. I would continue to appreciate the music and performances of the Arkestra as long as Ra lived, but the avid idealism which had driven me to pursue these great feats of derring-do would never again return.
From “Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth” in IT’S ALL GOOD: A JOHN SINCLAIR READER (London: Headpress, 2009) © 2009, 2014 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.)
December 5, 2014
A witness statement from Iron Man Records 2014.
I didn’t get much sleep the night before, I had been working on the release of the new John Sinclair record “Mohawk.” By the time I climbed into the car and started the engine it was 10am. I drove to London and dropped the car in Brentford, West London. I picked up the keys. I had a 9 seater VW Splitter van on hire from DYC Touring and headed to Shepherd’s Bush. I wasn’t due to meet the band until 3pm so I had a bit of time to park up and make phone calls.
If I was applying for a job I’d probably tell you I’m a tour manager, a music manager, I can drive a splitter van and tow trailers, and I have a clean driving licence. I could tell you I’ve been running a record label called Iron Man Records for 18 years, I play in a couple of bands, I run a few websites, I work freelance and so on. In reality, I don’t apply for jobs, employers find their way to me on personal recommendation because no one else, in a right mind, will take their work on. The day was looking no different to any other. The phone was ringing.
I have to do many things on a daily basis just to keep things moving, some of it for money, some of it for free, some of it because I have no other choice and some of it for reasons of pure nonsense. Don’t ask me to explain.
Gimpo was due to start the 25 hour M25 Spin at midday, so by now he should have completed a lap and be half way round the next one. The time was 2pm and my phone was lighting up with messages from people asking if I was on the Spin this year. No, I wasn’t on the Spin, I was driving a band called “Tenterhook” to Hereford for a gig at The Jailhouse. They needed a driver and had a small budget to work with. I had no money, and on that basis I was “available” to do the work. Gimpo was planning to do the M25 Spin solo this year. You can’t reason with someone like Gimpo. He thinks things up and goes and does them. No Discussion. No Explanation.
I had decided to leave him to it for now. For various reasons Tim, who usually drives the van for the whole 25 hour M25 Spin, was unable to make it this year. Sharon, who handles Navigation and supplies while Tim is at the wheel, was stuck in Guatemala with no money for a plane ticket. Todd, who looks after the website www.GimpoGimpo.com was in New Jersey, I already had several messages from him asking “What the fuck’s going on?”
Did I know what was going on? Can anyone know what’s going on in Gimpo’s mind? I managed to speak to Tim, he had been in touch with the man himself. Gimpo had made a start, but had only got half way round. Tim was worried about progress. Gimpo hadn’t got very far and Tim had been questioning Gimpo at length. “Half a lap? What are you doing? Selling Ice Cream? Get a move on, there’s work to do” It seemed to me that Gimpo was having technical problems. Gimpo was driving his own car this year in an attempt to do the M25 Spin solo for the first time. This might all sound pretty good, but the reality was a little different.
The CD player was broken in Gimpo’s car and the radio doesn’t really do it these days. Gimpo had fixed up the video camera with cable ties, and had a stock of blank mini DV tapes at the ready. But, there were a few other issues that hadn’t been thought through. You cant drive and text can you? You cant drive and take pictures can you? You cant drive, take pictures, text, answer the phone, send emails or reply to requests can you? So what was Gimpo to do? He was already on the M25 spin. Solo. No support. And how was he going to document the event? He had stopped at Clacket Lane Services to discover this was going to be a long and complicated day. He had an iphone, with a SIM card, which gave him free internet access but the camera on his Nokia phone was better. For some reason the Nokia wouldn’t send emails so Todd wasn’t going to get any picture updates for the website.
I rang Gimpo, as time was moving on, to find out what he was up to. Gimpo would not be stopped by anyone. Gimpo was doing the M25 spin and he would do it solo with or without anyone knowing about it. I had to go, it was nearly 3pm, the band needed to be in hereford for 6pm. I told Gimpo I would come and find him when I got back after the gig. He would have to go it alone till then.
3pm arrived and I found myself collecting a band, who are being managed by one of the few capable music management companies I know. They look after Madness, so no joke, they are going to do good things with this lot. The band are actually a singer and songwriter with a great voice who plays the guitar and goes under the name of “Tenterhook,” he’s 19. He works with some other musicians who play drums, guitar, bass and keys. The van was loaded and by 3.15pm we were on the road, to Hereford. The gig was just like any other I’ve been to. Headliners took for ever getting their soundcheck done, they didn’t really speak to anyone and then vanished. The lot I was with sound checked and agreed last details like set order, start and finish time, and made a start on the limited rider provided by the venue staff.
By now there was a long list of messages and emails asking what the fuck was going on? Where was Gimpo? Was he ok? What did I know? Had I heard anything? The Spin was on, nobody needed to know. Gimpo was at the wheel and with that thought in mind, it’s probably better not to know what’s going on.
“Tenterhook” didn’t go onstage till much later than planned. The band had a good one, it was their first gig and the applause gave the band the endorsement they were hoping for.
Outside the band members gathered to load the van while people came out of the the venue to chat and find out who they were, and where they had come from. It was their first gig together.
On the way back to London the beers opened, and the talk poured over the gig and what had just gone on. The band knew how much work was ahead but it seemed like a good start to the process.
I dropped the band back at 5am and taxis were waiting to take people home from the meeting point. “Where are you going now, where are you staying?” came the inevitable question. I unloaded the gear and handed it to the exhausted band members. “Don’t ask, you don’t want know” was my reply. I could see there were a load of messages that had come in on my phone while I was driving back from Hereford. I dared not even look till the van was parked, the gear unloaded, and the band already gone.
The phone was full of madness. I called Gimpo and found him at Clacket Lane Services. He had just pulled in to try and send some pictures to Todd. No change there then. I suggested we meet at Cobham services, only 30 minutes further round, to talk through what was going on.
I arrived at Cobham around 6am having dropped the splitter van back to DYC Touring on the way. The parking at Cobham is free for 2 hours then its £25 for up to 24 hours. As I despaired at the parking situation Gimpo arrived, “Don’t worry about parking Mark, lets book a meeting room for £8 the parking is free with that” I wasn’t about to try booking a meeting room at 6am on a sunday morning. Neither of us looked in any way believable and if we booked a meeting room and then vanished it may generate suspicion. We defaulted to the only option available, a cup of tea from Greggs and a meeting in the comfy chair area to work out what sort of plan might be possible under the circumstances.
Gimpo started emptying his pockets of leads, head phones, charger cables, car keys, phones and assorted other items. He explained the problem. “Ive got this iphone but you need two hands to work the camera. This Nokia has a better camera, and you can work it one handed, but I can’t get it to work. I can’t send emails to Todd.” I looked at both and tried to have a go at getting the Nokia to work. It was full of pictures, but no, the internet wasn’t working and I couldn’t work out how to get it to send and receive.
We finished the tea and returned to the vehicles. Gimpo spoke first. “Lets drop your car off on the A3, I know a place where Bill and Jimmy took a load of Journalists in the middle of the night. Ockham Common, It’s where we showed the money nailed to a piece of wood”. Back to reality, that sounded like a great idea even if no one would even remember or believe the basis upon which the suggestion had been made. I digress. I refused to pay £25 to park my car, that’s a waste of money isn’t it? I followed Gimpo back onto the M25 and just one stop further on we turned off onto the A3 and headed south for a few minutes. On the left is Ockham woods and there’s a car park with free parking. I parked my car and took what valuables I had with me. The early morning doggers looked on as Gimpo explained at length and in detail about his previous visits with Bill and Jimmy. I listened with interest as the story poured out and I transferred my stuff to Gimpo’s car. I didn’t have to time to think about the rest.
In a few minutes Gimpo was back on the M25 and the Spin continued. Gimpo looked worn out but determined. This was his M25 spin, he was the artist here, and no one was going to stop him. This was his first solo M25 spin. The phone rang and Gimpo activated his hands free set, it was Tim. Tim sounded like he was checking in to be sure that nothing had gone wrong, Gimpo passed the phone across. “Hi Mark, is everything all right?” he asked. Tim and I chatted a while longer and I handed the phone back. Gimpo continued on with the story about the phone, versus camera, versus driving solo problem. And then Tim was gone, and the spin continued.
Next up was “Give Peas a Chance” Bridge, just north of J16 where the M25 crosses the M40. We headed North while Gimpo endlessly flipped from one radio station to the next, attempting to find anything worth listening to, whilst broadcasting his irritation at the fact the cd player was broken and he had no “modern music” to listen to.
Gimpo drove at a steady 56 miles an hour. “The price of bloody fuel these days Mark, it’s a rip off” He said. “The spin gets more and more expensive every year, the only thing I can do is drive at what the car manual says is the most economical speed. 56 miles an hour. It’s not a race.”
Gimpo turned off at J23, South Mimms, he wanted to get some fruit juice and have a driving break. He parked up and as we both walked into the services he spotted four “Beat The Street” double decker tour buses parked up. “That’ll be Elton John or some other shit I bet” he said. “Who do these people think they are?”
Once inside I got a dissertation on the pros and cons of Krispi Kreme Donuts and Gimpo’s theory on who buys them, how, and why.
Back outside Gimpo showed me how he had stuck his signs to the roof of the car with gaffer tape. Only the truck drivers or bus passengers would see. We got back in the car and Gimpo set to work labelling and loading the next tape to go in the video camera. We headed back onto the M25 and I got the full account of Spin Island, the only island on the M25. Gimpo wants to plant an Argentinian Flag on it. He says he’d like to buy it and give it to the owners of Stott Hall Farm, between J22 and J23 on the M62. The story goes they refused to sell up and move house when they built the M62 Motorway over the Pennines so by rights, they should have spin Island too. Gimpo says there’s a hot spring on Spin Island. That’s why they had to split the motorway to go around it.
Onwards through a couple of tunnels then it was up over the Queen Elisabeth Bridge. Traditionally the spin starts at midday on the Saturday, top dead centre on the Queen Elisabeth Bridge. Descending on the other side Gimpo only uses Toll booth number 23. Gimpo paid the toll and as the barrier went up it was almost exactly 9am.
Next stop was Clacket Lane Services, “Doggers Delight!” Gimpo declared. “They put a rat trap in the hedge just there but the rat dug a hole underneath it.” More fruit juice and a quick driving break before moving on to Cobham and the lap was completed. Gimpo still couldn’t find anything to listen to on the radio. He switched it off in despair. “Where’s Tim?” he shouted, “He always has the music, we need Tim here to put the music on.”
Gimpo explained he wanted to do the last lap by himself so he dropped me back to my car. A committed artist. I collected my car and followed Gimpo back onto the M25. Some things just can’t be explained. Gimpo is making the worlds longest road movie. He wants to know where the M25 goes. His plan is to drive round the M25 every year on the closest Saturday night/Sunday morning to 21 March each year for 25 years. Gimpo has 7 years left to completion.
I looked across at the other drivers as they passed by on their way to nowhere, circling the nation’s capital. Another ruin of a world city. Gimpo was ahead at a steady 56mph, unmoved in his commitment to the work. Who would know who was in the car in front? An artist alone at work. An artist without a name or a country. An artist who has nothing in common with you. An artist filming the world’s longest road movie in an attempt to find out where the M25 goes. An artist with no gods and no masters. The M25, the London Orbital Motorway, 117 miles of open road where Gimpo is the artist. One man, just getting into it for himself.
Mark – Iron Man Records. 2014