Free The Weed 56 by John Sinclair

April 29, 2016

Hi everybody and highest greetings from the northeast sector of Detroit where I’m recovering from foot surgery with my daughters and granddaughter waiting on me hand and foot to keep me from going stir crazy while I sit here and heal.

While in Detroit for the past two months I’ve been delighted to read page after page of coverage in the daily papers of the proliferation of medical marijuana outlets in the city and several serious think pieces about the burgeoning of the cannabis industry and the imminence of legalization for recreational use as well.

My position is clear: For those like myself who spent 40 or 50 years copping in the shadows from fellow criminals (if you could locate the ones who had the bag), the quick, easy and regular availability of our medicine is a beautiful thing and should be as widespread as possible.

There’s nothing wrong with smoking weed. We should be able to smoke weed wherever we are—in our homes, in our cars, with our friends, in private and in public. There’s nothing wrong with it. The second-hand smoke is not toxic. It doesn’t hurt anybody.

Marijuana is an herb, a simple weed that grows profusely when properly guided and tended. If you smoke it, the smoke will get you high when you take it inside. It won’t get the person next to you high. Sometimes there’s the “contact high” effect where the spectator derives a few giggles from the immediate atmosphere, but it’s usually a pretty pleasant thing.

The alleged dangers of marijuana were entirely fabricated in the 1930s by law enforcement radicals led by Commissioner of Narcotics Harry Anslinger, who created a vast new field of endeavor for police forces, courts and prisons based on the outright lies and deliberate mistruths that were advanced in support of draconic legal strictures against marijuana use and distribution.

Everything they said about marijuana was untrue. It was all a bunch of lies made up in order to give law enforcement total control over marijuana and marijuana users. It was an unmitigated tissue of horseshit swallowed whole by lawmakers, law enforcers, courts, prisons, churches, parents and authorities of every stripe. None of them wanted anyone to be able to get high on marijuana, and they committed every perverse deed they could think of in order to try to prevent the spread of the insidious weed.

Law enforcement bogarted its way into the world of marijuana and prevailed through brutality and sheer force of will until the past 20 years when citizens voted them out of power by legalizing medical marijuana and now recreational use through the ballot initiative process—the backbone of democracy.

The fact is clear that law enforcement has absolutely no business with marijuana and must be completely removed from the marijuana equation. What business is it of the police or state legislators to trace the growing and distribution of marijuana from seed to consumer? To maintain a state registry of marijuana patients and their caregivers? What business of theirs is where we get our marijuana?

With respect to the licensing and regulation of marijuana provisioning centers, it makes sense that a dispensary should be required to have a business license like any other business and to pay sales tax and other taxes assessed on all retail businesses. On the other hand, sales of medical marijuana to marijuana patients should not be taxed at all unless sales of any type of medicine are similarly taxable.

As to where a dispensary may or may not be located, how many feet or yards from a church or school, what hours it may be or must not be open, whether or not there is a drive-in window—these issues don’t have anything to do with the proper provisioning of marijuana. The number of available provisioning sites, their proximity to one another, their profusion or scarcity in a given neighborhood—none of these are legitimate concerns for the authorities.

My favorite bugaboo is the proscription against smoking weed on the premises of a dispensary. This is totally backwards. The Dutch model, which has worked well now for more than 40 years, allows weed and hash to be sold over the counter in amounts of five grams or less to anyone over 18. You buy the weed at the counter, take it to your table and smoke it using the delivery system of your choice. This may go on, depending on the whims of the proprietors with respect to working hours, from 7:00 am to 1:00 am, seven days a week.

The major imperfection in the Dutch scheme is that although cannabis sale and use is tolerated in the coffeeshops, weed is not legal per se. It remains illegal to grow, harvest, distribute and sell cannabis products in bulk to the coffeeshops or any other sort of customers.

So the government must waste law enforcement resources on marijuana growers and distributors, waive the substantial tax revenues that would result from legalizing and taxing such activity, and content itself with accepting the tax filings of the coffeeshops which are, of course, prohibited from keeping accurate sales records because their principal form of sales activity is officially illegal.

What we need in Michigan is not a maze of state and municipal regulations limiting access to marijuana and subjecting smokers to undue scrutiny. We need free and clear access to marijuana without any more restrictions on its use and availability than on a cup of coffee. There’s nothing wrong with it. It can be good for you. It doesn’t hurt anyone. There’s nothing wrong with smoking it.

I hate to be a spoilsport with respect to eliminating the police presence from the marijuana issue altogether, but it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee, as they say. Why not eliminate the prospect of years of bitter litigation and struggle over the question of public access to marijuana and simply adopt a rational, socially efficient distribution system constructed to best serve the cannabis constituency?

I’m impressed by the proliferation of provisioning centers in the city of Detroit, but I miss the Dutch custom of relaxing at a table with your friends and a cup of coffee and smoking a joint together after you cop. Presently you’re guided to the counter, make your selection, pay, and split. This takes all the fun out of the transaction and reduces the experience to a fairly crass consumer episode.

To me the very basis of the marijuana experience is getting high with your friends and sharing warmth and smoke in an intimate setting while listening to some good music of one’s choice. I’ll always be looking for a place where we can do this in Detroit and throughout Michigan.

I’m also a fervent believer in the caregiver system that was voted in by Michigan citizens several years ago. Grow it yourself if you want to, get someone to grow it for you if you wish, or cop at a provisioning center if that’s how you want to roll. But forget about the much-vaunted liquor control model—marijuana is nothing like liquor, and the public has no similar interest in regulating its availability.

Okay, these views don’t respect the popular wisdom but they’re my beliefs and they’re based on my own long experience as a marijuana smoker and they’re based in the facts as known to millions of marijuana smokers in Michigan and around the world. End the War On Drugs once and for all. Free The Weed!

—Detroit
October 20-22, 2015

© 2015 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.

Free The Weed 55 by John Sinclair

April 28, 2016

Highest greetings from the northeast side of Detroit, where I’m visiting with my daughter Sunny and granddaughter Beyonce and waiting right now to schedule a required foot operation that promises to restore much of my personal mobility that’s been shackled for most of the present year by a diabetic wound on my left foot that has refused to heal.

My several doctors say that portions of infected bones in my foot—sadly including my small toe—must be removed so that the flesh may heal, and then I’ll be off my feet for another month of recovery time. I’ve had to cancel all my potential performance work and my entire trip to Chicago, Memphis and New Orleans in order to attend to this problem.

I’m hoping to be healed up enough by the middle of November to get back to Amsterdam for what will be the city’s first year without a Cannabis Cup for more than three decades. The High Times entrepreneurs seem to have given up on the Dam after suffering several years of problems with local authorities on venue and licensing issues. One year the site of the exposition was raided by a force of 150 police—a veritable army by Dutch standards—and last year the expo site was shut down completely before the event could open.

Thus the High Times international Cannabis Cup will be staged earlier in November this year in Jamaica instead of Amsterdam. The magazine’s wildly popular Medical Cannabis Cups in California, Michigan and elsewhere, and its new Cannabis Cup festivities with legalized weed in Colorado, Washington and Oregon have replaced the Amsterdam event as profit centers.

With the Cannabis Cup, as with the cannabis culture as a whole, what began as a lark in the face of severe oppression by the authorities has now become Big Business. What was all about getting high and having a ball and being creative and innovative is now about contests between products and how many people will pay how much to attend a cannabis exposition of products after products to be sold to a maximum number of consumers.

My view is not the popular one, but that’s not what they pay me for. I’m an old curmudgeon and an elder who was there at the beginning of our movement, and my job is to point out what’s gone right or wrong as our long grass-roots movement is now beginning to emerge triumphant.

What’s absolutely right, of course, is that very soon we won’t be getting arrested or harassed in any way by the police for smoking marijuana. The hated drug police will be removed from our lives and we’ll be left to deal with the people standing behind them and propping them up—the vicious office-holding politicians who have used the phony issue of marijuana illegalization to create an incredible power base in the law enforcement community and the relentless engine for the War On Drugs.

The dismantling of the machinery of the War On Drugs is a formidable task at the very forefront of our agenda, and as we have seen here in Michigan the legislators and the law enforcement community will drag their heels and resist legal changes mandated by the voters with all their might for as long as they can get away with it. They’ve had a good thing going for themselves ever since they dreamed up the marijuana illegalization mythology some 80 years ago, and they’re not going to give it up until they have absolutely no further choice.

How good is this thing they’ve had? I hate to sound like a broken record, but it’s all been sleight-of-hand and smoke-and-mirrors from the beginning. As first instituted by Commissioner of Narcotics Harry Anslinger in the 1930s and then as upgraded by Richard M. Nixon and his gang in the 1970s, the war on marijuana and then the War On Drugs have been conceived and executed as a precise form of attack on people outside the mainstream of American culture: African-Americans, Mexicans, jazz musicians, poets and outsiders of every stripe—exactly the people who introduced us to the joys of marijuana and kept the pipe lit until it could get to us.

Marijuana was targeted as the standard bearer for the next generation of prohibition because that’s what these particular people smoked, and a case had to be made against this practice in order to turn these people into criminals and give the police forces the right and duty to harass and hound them without mercy. Commissioner Anslinger came up with a bunch of non-scientific horseshit to declare that marijuana was a narcotic and its users to be punished under the nation’s draconian narcotics laws.

But Anslinger was just making up shit to serve his agenda. Science had nothing to do with it. Physical harm from smoking marijuana was not even alleged. Here are excerpts from Anslinger’s testimony to law-makers in Congress:

“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others.”

“Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind…. the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races…. Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death…. You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother…. Marihuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing…. Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”

There was never a word of truth in the claim that marijuana was a narcotic. It is not a narcotic. It is not toxic. It has no narcotic properties. It is simply not a narcotic. Yet ever successive groups of lawmakers have created intricate systems of laws and punishments predicated on the myth that marijuana is a narcotic, or if no longer a narcotic then a “controlled substance” the use of which must be severely restricted and its users brutally punished by the forces of law and order.

Now that these asinine laws are being stripped away and a brighter future begins to dawn from the west, we must remain ever vigilant until our rights and freedoms are fully restored and the police completely removed from the cannabis equation. There is a new petition drive shaping up that aims to strip all language about marijuana from the state statutes and start with a clean slate.

This is an excellent idea, but in the meantime the state and local authorities across the state of Michigan are enacting new measures to restrict and stringently regulate the grass-roots marijuana dispensaries that have grown up like weeds in our communities.

Instead of introducing legal medical marijuana with a well-thought-out, comprehensive regulatory scheme that would insure that patients get the best weed for the lowest price, they stalled and hemmed and hawed until the people took care of the question for themselves, and now they want to transform it into something completely different from what the voters called for when they passed the citizens’ initiative to legalize medical marijuana several years ago.

My time has run out for this month but I’ll keep this issue in mind until it’s time to write again next month. Meanwhile I’ll be passing my 74th birthday on October 2 and celebrating the release of my new book, IT’S ALL GOOD—A john Sinclair Reader from Horner Books in my home town, Flint Michigan. FREE THE WEED!

—Detroit
September 24, 2015

© 2015 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.

Free The Weed 54 by John Sinclair

April 21, 2016

I’ve been talking in this space all year about my forthcoming book from the MMM Publishing Company called IT’S ALL GOOD—A John Sinclair Reader, and our hope was to have it available for the Cannabis Cup in Clio. But that proved impossible, and now it’ll hit the streets right around the first  of September. I’ve been running excerpts from the book to try to pique your interest in what’s coming, and here’s an excerpt from the lead number in the book: On The Road….

Although this writer has followed faithfully the bardic path for fifty 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.

As a cultural activist I directed the Detroit Artists Workshop, the Allied Artists Association, Jazz Research Institute and Detroit Jaz 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, bought talent and 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’ve been a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts, a professor of Blues History at Wayne State University, director of the City Arts Gallery for the City of Detroit, an award-winniing community radio programmer and producer of WWOZ’s live broadcast from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

As a professional journalist I’ve written columns, features and reviews centered on jazz and blues, rock & roll and poetry for publications of all sorts, from obscure local papers to downbeat and Playboy magazine. I’ve published poetry books and journals, edited underground newspapers, arts quarterlies and blues magazines, and written liner notes for albums by artists from Louis Armstrong to Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes.

As a political activist I fought the marijuana laws through Detroit LEMAR, the Amorphia organization (“We want free legal backyard marijuana!”) and a five-year struggle in the courts of Michigan that cost me 2-1/2 years in prison before I won my case and got the old laws thrown out. I was the chairman of the White Panther Party and its successor, the Rainbow Peoples Party, battling Richard M. Nixon and his goons from the beginning of his administration to the bitter end.

It was my court case challenging Nixon’s “national security” wiretap program that produced the historic Supreme Court decision in U.S. vs. U.S. District Court that warrantless wiretaps would no longer be allowed.

There’s much too much more to mention, but let it suffice to say that I’ve enjoyed a full and productive life in the arts and community affairs for fifty years … and helped raise four terrific daughters in the process.

But I started my adult life as a poet, setting my verses to music and performing them with jazz musicians and blues guitarists, and it was always my intention one day to take my own show on the road and pursue my performing arts career in earnest.

So for the past twenty years I’ve criss-crossed the United States and western Europe, working through a vast time-tested network of old friends and new comrades to assemble myriad bands of Blues Scholars and book myself into funky nightclubs, blues bars, art galleries, coffeehouses, churches, cultural centers, college auditoriums and music and poetry festivals from coast to coast to coast….

The great thing about travelling the bardic path is the incredible community of people who light up the way and see to the poet’s modest needs while I’m in their town.

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 me set up my gigs, drive me there, introduce me to all the cool people they know, take me out to dinner afterwards and help see to my recreational needs.

They’re the amazingly sweetest of friends, but 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 which obtains in the places they live. They’re always doing things themselves, making things happen, and they know what’s going on around them as well.

And all this activity takes place well beneath the radar of popular culture and the entertainment industry, in locations only people like ourselves know about, involving music the likes of which is only rarely heard on the radio today, never played or seen on TV or even given notice by the daily press.

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 continues to grow in size and scope and to encompass an ever greater diversity of denizens.

The downside to underground life in America is the relentless economic terrorism that grips our existence and very rarely lets up, even for a week or a month at a time. Nothing ever pays enough to cover the costs of everyday life in an appropriate time frame: 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 any insurance and god help us if we get sick.

If we get high we’ve got to worry about the police, and pay too much for our supplies, and go through a maze of incredible changes just 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 to pay 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 our intended audience.

But as an artist in America, I always say, 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 many great things despite the ever-present shortage of sufficient funds to provide for the necessities of daily life.

And if we can continue to have easy access to our medicine, our creativity and productiveness can continue to bloom. Free The Weed!
—Detroit
August 20, 2015

©2015 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.

John Sinclair – It’s All Good: A John Sinclair Reader

February 18, 2016

24479334283_ed24e20cc8_k

It’s All Good: A John Sinclair Reader

Writer/Poet John Sinclair takes readers on a journey through time through music lyrics, poetry and stories from songwriters themselves. It’s All Good features stories of tragedy and triumph, musical and poetic inspiration that takes readers on a trip through the Wonder Years.

John Sinclair has been many things to many people—founder of the Detroit Artists Workshop and the White Panther Party, manager of the storied MC-5, producer of the legendary Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festivals and of records by artists from Deacon John to Sun Ra, political prisoner and implacable opponent of the marijuana laws since 1965, popular radio broadcaster at WDET and WWOZ and originator of the live coverage of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, pioneer of podcasting and proprietor of his own internet radio station at Radio Free Amsterdam for the past ten years.

But first and always John Sinclair is a poet and journalist with 50 years of the written and spoken word behind him. His work in adapting the blues and jazz idioms to verse forms with musical accompaniment is without parallel, and he’s produced more than 20 albums of his music & verse creations.

IT’S ALL GOOD collects 25 of Sinclair’s poems and 25 prose writings into one handy compendium of selections from his books of poetry Fattening Frogs For Snakes—Delta Blues Suite, always know: a book of monk, and Song of Praise—Homage to John Coltrane, plus excerpts from his underground classic Guitar Army and features on Jack Kerouac, Dr. John, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sun Ra, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Irma Thomas, and the Wild Indians of Mardi Gras.

IT’S ALL GOOD is accompanied by a free album download of Sinclair’s poetry & music collaborations corresponding to the poems in the book and featuring accompaniment by Wayne Kramer, Jeff Grand, Mark Ritsema, Charles Moore, Lyman Woodard ,Tom Worrell, Afrissippi , Ed Moss & the Society Jazz Orchestra and others.

Buy It’s All Good: A John Sinclair Reader

Product Details
Copyright The John Sinclair Foundation (Standard Copyright Licence)
Publisher Horner Books
Published 16 September 2015
Language English
Pages 416
Binding Perfect-bound Paperback
Interior Ink Black & white
Weight 0.27 kg
Dimensions (centimetres) 15.24 wide x 22.86 tall

Free The Weed 46 by John Sinclair

December 18, 2014

John Sinclair at 12 Bar Club, London, Sunday 11th May 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.

Sun Ra Memories by John Sinclair

December 6, 2014

John Sinclair at The Barbican 31st May 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.

John Sinclair at The Barbican 31st May 2014

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.

John Sinclair at The Barbican 31st May 2014

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.

John Sinclair at The Barbican 31st May 2014

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.

John Sinclair at The Barbican 31st May 2014

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.

John Sinclair at The Barbican 31st May 2014

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.)

The Sun Ra Arkestra and John Sinclair – Barbican, London by Michael Horovitz, 4 June 2014

June 4, 2014

Detroit jazz poet John Sinclair, counterpointed by inventive British post-bop quartet The Founder Effect, whom he’d only just met, filled the first half hour of this marathon gig with echoes and premonitions of the Arkestra and of its visionary originator-captain Sun Ra, who died in 1993. Sinclair’s finale ‘Another Order of Being’ drew extensively on Ra’s pronouncements, notably that ‘A band can demonstrate unity among men more than anything else in the world’, and that ‘In some far place, many light years in space, where human feet have never trod! where human eyes have never seen! I’ll build a better kind of world’.

John Sinclair at The Barbican 31st May 2014

Then on ambled a dozen amiable all-black Arkestrans, exotically clad in flowing raiments and headgears of multinous shapes and colours, led by biblicly bearded, Popeishly mitred alto sax, flute and kora maestro Marshall Allen, who has directed the band’s various line-ups since 1995. What followed over the next two hours was pure Saturnalia, qua unrestrained merry-making – as came super/naturally, given it was just a few evenings after Ra’s 100th birthday – consolidating his lifelong insistence that he’d been delivered to Earth from Saturn to spread universal light.

The nonstop musical euphoria this edition of the band generated was one supreme generating factor, itself swathed throughout by another, the ebulliently bubbling psychedelic triple-screen liquid light-show laid on by ex-Pink Floyd illuminator Peter Wynne-Willson’s ‘Mystic Lights’. The band consisted of four saxes, two trumpets, trombone, french horn, guitar, two streams of percussion, Tyler Mitchell’s walking bass, the infinitely lyrical pianistics of Farid Barron and gospel-tinged songsprays from Tara Middleton.

Their repertoire included wild ‘inter-galactic’ Ra/Allen hits like ‘Sunology’, ‘Angels & Demons’, ‘Space is the Place’ interspersed with straight melodic, parodic, improvised/squealy-squawked variations on ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’, ‘Sometimes I’m Happy’ and the early Coleman Hawkins’ ‘Queer Notions’, plus unison and free-form honking’n’hooting’n’blurting’n’chanting, Swing Era riffing, with the marching band tradition recalled every so often by the horn-players taking off-stage sorties to every unoccupied foot-space in the jam-packed auditorium, whilst still blowing their (and many of our) arses off.

The kids’ playground/circus electricity were further recharged by Pucklike altoist Knoel Scott periodically erupting into nimbly balletic somersaults, flying handstands and joyously whizzing cartwheels, and a couple of times getting one of the other saxophonists to play vigorous physically-back-to-back duets with him.

The memory of this fantastic spectacle and its wondrous soundscapes will go on uplifting my spirits for many a moon. Should Ra himself have chosen to revisit that little bit of Earth for this party, he too may still be smiling these bits of his legacy’s work and play to have witnessed – and mayhap even deliver whatever he likes of it back to Saturn . . .

Michael Horovitz, 4 June 2014