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Saturday, May 19, 2012

My Days With John Sinclair ► Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used To Be


John Lennon wrote very few songs about REAL people, and when he did he disguised the name of the subject, like “Sexie Sadie,” who was “Maharishi” in the original version. However, Lennon wrote and recorded a song called “John Sinclair,” about one of Detroit’s a cultural icons. Lennon’s “John Sinclair” was just one protest song on “Some Time in New York City.” a double-record set (filled with political polemic as 3 minute tunes on one LP, and live concert with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention on the other). Lennon was protesting the sentencing of John Sinclair to 10 years of hard time for GIVING an undercover agent two joints. This made the already infamous Sinclair, who only had a regional reputation until then, an international cause célèbre, which is what prompted Lennon to write the song and later appear at a Free John Sinclair concert. However, I knew John Sinclair before he ever became a jailbird.



I first encountered John Sinclair way back in the '60s. I grew up in Detroit on Gilchrist Street (we called it Gilchrist Avenue because that was classier), one block and three houses south of the infamous 8 Mile (aka M-102) and five houses south of David Palmer, the original drummer for the Amboy Dukes. We were all in our middle teens then, but Dave was a year or two older which made all the difference back then. He wasn’t part of our clique, just a few doors down. His clique was far more exciting to us. We thought he was really cool because he was in a real rock and roll band who played real concerts and made real records. However, for some of us there was a more important reason for admiring David Palmer: When the administration threw him out of Coffey Junior High School because his hair was well-below his collar, he responded with a lawyer who argued that this was how Palmer made his living and he would be affected adversely if he had to cut his hair. Those of us who were still fighting the Hair Wars -- and still being kicked out for having long hair -- knew that it was only a matter of time before the rule fell, because David Palmer had already blown right through it.  The school was forced to make an accommodation with Dave: He had to wear his hair tucked in his shirt collar the entire day so that it was no longer than his shirt collar. From then on Dave wore wild paisley shirts, with even wilder ties to hold all the hair in. It was always a bit of a thrill to follow Dave out the door at the end of the school day, see him scoop his hair out of his collar, and watch it cascade down his back. When the Amboy Dukes rehearsed in Dave’s garage, all us neighbourhood kids would hang out at the end of the driveway to listen. They were my first garage band.

I was only 15 and most weekends  and would head to Plum Street—Detroit’s Haight-Ashbury—on weekends, where I’d occasionally get a glimpse of John Sinclair holding forth. He was Detroit’s Top Hippie and I was a weekend wannabe.  On more than one occasion I’d work up the nerve to talk to him. Despite the age difference, and his massive height, he never talked down to me and all these years later I never forgot that kindness. Sinclair seemed to be everywhere: He helped launch the The Fifth Estate (one of ‘Merka’s oldest alternative/underground newspapers) manager of the MC5, and head of the White Panther Party.

Skip ahead many years—through many twists and turns that no one could have predicted at the time. In the new century my nephew became John Sinclair’s merchandising manager. What a thrill it was to learn that.

That’s merely all background to the real story.

It’s Labor Day weekend, 2006 and I’m excited. I am going to the Detroit International Jazz Fest where I am going to see John Sinclair for the first time in about 40 years. More importantly, my nephew is going to officially introduce us, even though we met way back when. John is at the Jazz Fest performing with his band The Blues Messengers.

We get there early because my nephew has lots to do before the show and I'm directed to a little table in the VIP area to wait. I need to describe this VIP section so the story makes more sense. There are 8 stages around the downtown area and each has a VIP section. It's not backstage; it's off to one side or another in front of the stages. It's for audience, but special audience. Like me. The regular audience sits on fold-up chairs or the ground. We get real chairs and small cabaret tables to sit at. How civilized.

I'm killing time and I see John Sinclair arrive and sit at a table a few away from me. When my nephew comes back he says, "So, didja say 'Hi!' yet?" I reply, " No, he's going to do a show soon and I don't want to bother him now." I said that because I saw someone approach him only to be told, "I'm going to do a show soon. Don’t bother me now. I need to concentrate. I'll gladly talk to you after."

My nephew doesn't care about such niceties and drags me over and makes introductions.

John Sinclair says to me, "I've heard so much about you I feel like I know you. Your nephew talks about you all the time."

After I come back to earth I say, "John, I just want to thank you for treating me with respect way back when, instead of the snot-nosed Hippie weekend-wannabe that I was."

With that my nephew starts cackling, "I hear people come up to you all the time and say pretty much the same thing, John. But this time it's my uncle."

It turns out that for all our own reasons, the three of us are all thrilled at the meeting.

Introductions over, I go back to my table. Eventually Sinclair performs. We talk a bit after the set and then head off in separate directions, John to meet up with some musician friends and me to go see a 24-piece Big Band playing all Zappa music with Big Band arrangements. (!)

A few hours later I find myself at the same VIP table alone, rocking out to the Regal Brass Band of New Orleans, which I had seen earlier in the year during Mardi Gras, the first one after Katrina.  I didn't see anyone sit down next to me, but suddenly I was nudged from someone on the left. It was John Sinclair passing me a joint. I have to say that again: JOHN SINCLAIR PASSING ME A JOINT!!!

And, I do inhale.

As I begin to pas sit back he nods, as if to say, “Now pass it to the guy on the other side of you,” so I nudge that guy and he turns towards me. That's when Dr. John says to me, in his gravely voice, "No man, I gotta do a show soon,” so I pass it back to John Sinclair.

So now me, John Sinclair and Dr. John are all dancing in our seats to a New Orleans Jazz band. Amazingly, as we talk and smoke, I learn that Sinclair was also at that very same Mardi Gras I attended—on the other side of the street from where I was watching the parade. Exactly on the other side of the street. I'm amazed I didn't see him.  Eventually Dr. John gets up and leaves because his set’s on soon and the joint goes out. Sinclair rips it open and puts the shreds on the table. Then he starts fishing in his pockets. He pulls out several roaches and starts ripping them apart. He's determined to get one more joint out of this mess on the table and, believe me, I’m rooting for him.

While I’m watching John do his thing I vaguely become aware that the guy on stage has been talking longer than usual. I focus on what he's saying:

“...a really dear friend of ours. We'd like to have him stand up and say "Hello." He's a Detroit native, but now he's a citizen of the world, living part time in New Orleans and part time in Amsterdam. Please, a warm hand for Detroit's own, John Sinclair!”

John is in his own world. He’s on a mission. He doesn’t realize the applause is for him.

I nudge him.

“What?”

“Stand up, John.”

He looks around a minute, sees that everyone is looking at him (at us!!!) and clapping, so he stands up and takes a small bow and then sits back down laughing. “Why did he have to introduce me then? Look at this table.”

"John, there was no other time to introduce you. What are you known for?”

<breathing air> And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my John Sinclair Story. However, I invite you to tune in to listen to John Sinclair at Radio Free Amsterdam, one of the oldest regular online podcasts going and just another one of the cultural touchstones John Sinclair helped create in his long and creative career. And, if you are in Ireland later this month, check out the BREATHIN' AIR - Irish Tour 2012 With Howard Marks.