It’s All Good: A John Sinclair Reader by John Sinclair, published by Headpress, www.headpress.com, 298 pages / ISBN: 9781900486682; with free music-spoken word CD download
Don’t sweat the tautology in the title---It’s All Good: A John Sinclair Reader is a transcendent, philosophically tough-minded journey forged from one writer’s mating the New American Poetics with
blues-jazz tradition and its rock-soul-funk-punk permutations. Published by Headpress (their motto: the
gospel according to unpopular culture) the collection celebrates
Sinclair’s 44 years on
the culture scene with 22 of his poems, 22 of his essays and the ultimate
lagniappe: thirteen works in performance with a variety of bands and great
musicians from a free CD download. America
For those disheartened by the plethora of Sixties-inspired memoirs that are but advertisements for oneself, It’s All Good is powerful medicine. Sinclair (born 1941) is a force of nature, a high-minded, principled Midwestern with the hipster code of a viper like Mezz Mezzrow in one brain’s hemisphere and the political agenda of a leftie like Saul Alinsky in the other. How’s this for chutzpah: while locked up for handing a couple of joints to a narc who infiltrated his poetry class, Sinclair does a lot of his time in the hole for his efforts in organizing black prisoners to advocate for better education programs. Such racial solidarity may seem inconceivable in the slammers of the twenty-first century, but check Sinclair’s roots in “I Wanna Testify”: “I came to Detroit in 1964 as a refugee from white American society attracted to this teeming center of African American culture … the birthplace of the Nation of Islam and the hotbed of bebop, the place where you could hear jazz all night long and cop weed or pills whenever you wanted to. The plight of black Americans was known to me from the street level, as I had the honor of spending a number of my formative years in Flint, Michigan, under the direct tutelage of some of the fastest young hipsters on the set, intense young men and women who held Malcolm X and Miles Davis in equal esteem and who introduced me to the wonders of daily marijuana use as a means for dealing more creatively with the terrors of white America” (p 42).
A tale of such enthusiasms needs historical context, and Headpress has wisely arranged the material chronologically which allows Sinclair’s various responses to unfold their own logic. The first essay opens with John Lennon’s 1971 lyrics---“It ain’t fair, John Sinclair / In the stir for breathing air” (p 12) and Sinclair’s release from prison after serving twenty-eight months on a ten year sentence, thanks to the Michigan state legislature re-classifying pot possession as a misdemeanor only days before Lennon’s sold-out concert brought attention to his cause. While keeping eye and ear on the Big(ger) Picture, Sinclair candidly reports, looks back, updates and muses upon his various tenures as a community organizer, arts advocate, cofounder of the White Panther (later Rainbow People’s) Party, manager of the rock band MC5, director of the Detroit Jazz Center, producer of the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Fest, editor of altie newspapers, reviewer of music, well loved disc jockey at WWOZ in New Orleans and presently an ex-pat in Amsterdam.
That’s a lot of hats to wear to a revolution, and Sinclair has equal but separate gifts in prose as well as in verse. So kudos to Headpress for wisely taking a triple-headed approach: the matching poems enrich the essays and vice versa, and the spoken-word-with-music selections are so real-deal-alive as oral expression that they add another meaning to the written verse. For example, these lines in “everything happens to me” may read maudlin on the page---“race traitor & renegade, / beatnik, / dope fiend, / poet provocateur, / living from hand to mouth / & euro to euro / sleeping on the couches / & extra beds of my friends, / a man without a country”(p 105)---but with Jeff Grand and the Motor City Blues Scholars hunkered into a groove underneath him, Sinclair’s gravel voice bends those vowels so ironically, one can’t tell if, like double-masked Papa Legba greeting you at the crossroads, he’s laughing or crying. That’s Sinclair’s true identity: he’s a signifyin’ bluesman, not a village explainer.
Unmetered, mostly unrhymed (free) verse does not lend itself easily to the American songbook, but Sinclair, with his mind on Monk and Muddy---half in bop and its touch of Sunday, half in the Delta and its electric children---has timing to spare. On “Monk’s Dream,” he emits such joy, wit and wisdom in a manner all-of-a-piece with his accompanists Luis Resto, piano, and Paul Nowitzki, bass. On the upbeat blues, “Fattening Frogs for Snakes,” his variable American foot fits like an old brown shoe as he references Sonny Boy Williamson’s lyric to tell the story of the music coming up from out of the
fields and juke joints traveling
north upriver from spooky acoustic to an even spookier electric sound. With Rockin’ Jake’s encyclopedic harmonica
work shading the same unfolding and Kirk Joseph’s sousaphone playing the bass
line, the band underscores Sinclair’s lament: “nothing would be returned / to
the people of the Delta / … this is what the blues is all about--- / ‘fattening
frogs for snakes’ / & watching the mother fucking snakes / slither off with
the very thing you have made.” Mississippi
He produces such oracular momentum and incantatory brilliance---he “sounds” like William Blake draws or the Book of Jeremiah reads---that on “brilliant corners,” with just a single repeating guitar phrase from Mark Ritsema, he held this listener in rapt attention through six pages of verse celebrating the bebop experiments in
Harlem meeting the writers around , especially a “hip football
player / & would-be sportswriter / from Columbia … so well known at minton’s / …
that the musicians on the set / named a song after him, ‘keruoac.’” Weaving in the lives and works of Ginsberg, Cassady
and Burroughs, Sinclair concludes, “& a road out of the stasis / began to
open up / & out / in front us--- / & we followed it,” repeating the
last line in a haunting shout. Nothing against the cottage industry that has
grown up around these writers, but their actual story is rooted in the music
and no one swings that tale harder than Sinclair. Ditto “We Just Change the
Beat.” Hearing the song as it changes tempo (genre) is worth a thousand pages
of musical essay. Lowell
As for Sinclair’s essays on music, they are documents of respectful brevity, especially his eye to Iggy Pop, his “audience” with Irma Thomas, his love of the MC5 and his manifesto in “Getting out from Under.” Moreover, the range of the musical material the essays cover in It’s All Good, the quality of his poetry and his remarkable gifts as a performer reveal his immense value to us. This griot is a national treasure, a vital link in a literary-musical lineage from Walt Whitman, through the Harlem Renaissance, into Bebop and the Beat Generation, deep in the Black Arts movement and beyond as our jazz trad weds World Music. If this isn't America's greatest cultural export, then what is?
An earlier version of this appreciation appeard in print at American Book Review.