Taking It Big Easy
John Sinclair on Panthers, poetry and popular radio programming
Poet, producer, promoter, manager, musician, amateur archivist, John
Sinclair has seen a lot and done a lot. On his new album of musical poetry,
Steady Rollin' Man (TriPup), which he recorded and produced with local music
critic/guitar god Ted Drozdowski, Sinclair takes a moment to talk about his
passions and those who have instilled them within him. Though ever the novel
thinker, Sinclair recently took a few moments with me to do more of the
[Matthew] So, John, how did you first get into "The Movement?" What got
you into the Beat culture? The jazz culture? The drug culture? The
[John] That's a lot of culture! Even for a poet! But I got into
things listening to blues records when I was 12, 13, 14 years old. That was
my initial window to the world in which I grew up - a small town outside of
Detroit. So after listening to these records - from people like Ray Charles,
Muddy Waters and Bobby Blue Bland -and having no idea form where they had
sprung, I began to want to find out what they were from. They were must so
wonderful, they reduced everything else around me to nothingness. And then
when I found out where they came from, I wanted to find out why And this
search led to my interest in Afro-Americanism and that led to an interest in
the Civil Rights Movement which I got into not long after "Maybelline" came
out from Chuck Berry.
[Matthew] Who were your early and most lasting influences?
[John] Well, those people...and about a hundred others.
[Matthew] But who stuck with you?
[John] Well, when I went to college, I got into the jazz scene - Miles
Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and the like - to the exclusion of all
[Matthew] Are you a completist? Do you latch on to something and do it to its
[John] I'm a fiendish mental patient when it comes to records...and other
[Matthew] Do you see yourself as a hero in the way that these people were
heroes to and influences on you?
[John] Nah! I mean, I can fit the category. I'm a historical figure,
[Matthew] How did people like Abbie Hoffman and John Lennon come to know who
[John] Well, Abbie was a colleague and Lennon got wind of me through a poem
by my mentor Ed Sanders which was given to him by Jerry Rubin, who was
supposed to get [John] into the culture once he and Yoko moved to America.
[Matthew] What was Lennon's effect on you?
[John] Well, I was a Beatles fan, if that's what you mean. But actually it
was Cecil Taylor who turned me on to them. He introduced me to "Tomorrow
Never Knows." That was what got me really into Lennon and The Beatles. But
John wanted to be involved with issues here, so it was natural for us to
know of each other.
[Matthew] You were also very much into the rock scene at the time, weren't you?
[John] Yes, well, I was working with The MC%.
[Matthew] How did you come to work with them?
[John] We lived together. We were a collection of people centered around the
band. In fact, the White Panthers were and still are the only political
party centered on a rock band.
[Matthew] What was the initial intent of the Panthers?
[John] We were pissed at how the Black Panthers were being treated. So on
November 1, 1968 - the day after The MC% recorded their album - we announced
that we were starting the White Panthers. It was about more than the music,
but it was centered around the band. There was this myth that I was some
sort of svengali, but the truth was that we were all in it together. [Lead
singer] Rob Tyner was brilliant and he was as much an influence on me as I
was on him.
[Matthew] Has music always been a big influence?
[John] Oh yeah! I mean, it's what I've followed all my life. Music and
poetry. That's what I do!
[Matthew] And how did that lead you to New Orleans?
[John] That's a long story!
[Matthew] Alright, well why did you end up there?
[John] To quote the Emperor of the Universe, Ernie Kato, "I'm not sure, but
I think that all music came from New Orleans." New Orleans is the last place
in America with its own regional identity, especially in regards to music. I
can go for my daily errands and, as I bike down the street, I can hear four
of five bands and musicians at any time of day. It's a community of music.
People play together because they like each other. The style doesn't matter.
You can see a guy play rock one day, blues the next day, jazz the next day,
then on the weekend, he's out with a tin can and a stick. It's just a
[Matthew] How has it been working in radio in New Orleans?
[John] It's amazing! When I started in radio in Michigan, it was fun, but
radio is unpredictable out there. In New Orleans, I can play what I want and
people still dig it, so it's been great working there. And that I've been
named the favorite disc jockey in New Orleans for two years running is an
honor I do not take lightly because the music scene there is so good. It's
like the only place I know where you can turn on the radio any time of day
and completely avoid pop music and where chances are better than not that
you'll hear something you dig right off. And working at WWOZ is great
because I can play what I want. It is like Oz, you know? It's old time radio
where the songs matter. It's hip and free and all the cool people listen. I
broadcast live from the Jazz and Heritage Festival and- When I started that,
we didn't have the rights to the broadcast, but we'd sit nearby and just
comment and stuff. But working there is cool because that's what they're
about- The thing at WWOZ is to turn it on.
[Matthew] Where do you see radio headed? Do you like where it's going?
[John] I like our station, but like I said it's very rare to turn on the
radio and find something you like. When I was in Detroit working on public
radio WDET, there was some great programming, but it was surrounded by other
programs. At WWOZ, I sometimes find that, even if I have other work to do, I
sometimes have to wait for two programs to end before I find something that
allows me to go listen to something else. That's what radio is about. I
don't like too much pop music. It doesn't rule- at least not in New Orleans.
Other places, it's all rock and stuff, but at home, it's different. It's
nice to have station to listen to that you can avoid it.
[Matthew] How did you meet Ted and get the new album together?
[John] I was just lucky (laughs). I guess it was when I was coming to speak
at The Freedom Rally in '96. I got interviewed by one of Ted's associates
and we got together. He was into what I was doing, and when I saw him again
the next year at the Clarksdale Blues Festival in Mississippi, I asked him
if he would be interesting in helping out and he said 'Yes!'
[Matthew] Where did you get the idea for your band The Blues Scholars?
[John] I'm a poet of the old school and setting my stuff to music has
advanced it a lot. I mean, I love people like Charles Olson and Ed Sanders
and Robert Creely, but you listen to their albums once and that's about it.
You might put them on to make a reference, but it's not something that you
listen to for pleasure. My stuff is meant to be fun. We call it 'Poetry you
can dance to' (laughs). And that's why I enjoy performing so much. It's
difficult from a commercial sense because it doesn't fit any category. It's
not 'rock' or 'pop,' and if you put it under 'spoken word,' that's like a
graveyard (laughs), so we just sell them at the shows and people seem to dig
it. It's also hard to book us because we can't describe exactly what we do.
We're not just 'poetry.' But so far we've been very well received.
[Matthew] What's next for John Sinclair?
[John] I'm very active. Right now is like my second childhood. I'm just
doing everything I can. I'm touring. I got the new album. I got two others
coming out, in addition to a maxi-single. I also am working on a book of my
prose called "Fattening Frogs for Snakes" which should be out by the end of
this year - I missed last year (laughs!). I am also working on other
people's records and working with my archives - I got a few MC5 albums in my
archives. I write liner notes and write for magazines. I edit Blues Access.
I also work with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. So I'm plenty
busy! But as far as the music goes, I want to make it listenable 'cuz that's
what you gotta do.