John Sinclair, poet, 1960s countercultural leader and manager of the MC5, one of the first bands to mix hard rock and protest politics, will give a reading and performance based on the re-release of his rainbow-colored 1972 counterculture classic, Guitar Army, at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 27th, at Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd., Venice. Admission is $5 to $7.
Guitar Army is the book that proclaimed “rock íní roll is a weapon of cultural revolution.”
Sinclair began as a poet, writing verse with a heavy Beatnik influence in 1964. In 1966 and 1967, he fell in love with a loud, energetic and bluesy local Detroit rock band called the MC5. Sinclair and MC5 singer Rob Tyner became close friends and when it became clear to Sinclair that the MC5 needed someone to organize its affairs, he stepped in as manager.
“I didnít know the first thing about managing a band,” says Sinclair.
But the bandís appeal was undeniable in the age of student activism. As the band began to write its own material, it took a fiery anti-establishment slant, finding solidarity with and inspiration from protest groups like the Yippies.
The band wound up recording two studio albums on Atlantic Records, Back in the USA and High Time.
“Nobody in rock íní roll joined the army in those days,” says Sinclair. “We smoked weed, took acid and did dope. And we opposed the government.”
“We would get together and come up with crazy ideas and see which ones of them we could actually make happen,” he adds.
The ideas included the formation of The White Panthers political organization, a protest group similar in ideology to and in solidarity with the Black Panthers; and a collective that promoted tribal living called Translove Energies.
The MC5 wound up being the only band to play at what was supposed to be a Yippie-organized demonstration and music festival at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 in Chicago. The Yippies had gathered, intending to nominate a pig named “Pigasus” for president. The pig was eventually confiscated by police. The event later turned into a riot and one of the most brash displays of police brutality occurred against the protesters. The dayís events led to the famed Chicago Seven trial in which Yippie leaders Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and others made a public spectacle out of the trial.
Sinclair recollects his experience at the event:
“It was a very chaotic day. I was running around figuring out how the band was gonna perform, trying to arrange a sound check and electricity. It was supposed to be like this big festival with Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead and Country Joe and the Fish. None of them showed up, just us in a van from Detroit. Country Joe had gotten beat up in the elevator at his hotel. Everyone was scared to play. We got out of there as fast as we could. Abbie Hoffman was inciting everyone to riot.”
In 1970, Sinclair was arrested and sentenced to 9‡ to ten years in prison for giving an undercover officer two marijuana joints. After 18 months in prison, John Lennon, Allen Ginsberg, Stevie Wonder, Phil Ochs, and others demanded his freedom with a televised benefit concert attended by 15,000 people. Three days later, Sinclair was released.
Asked how he looks back on those tumultuous times, Sinclair responds, “with a sense of humor. It was great fun. I have no regrets.”
Sinclair says he wishes he saw nowadays more of the type of vibrant and enthusiastic counterculture that he saw in the 1960s.
“We need it now more than ever,” he says.
And he laments that there are not more socially-aware big-name anti-establishment bands today.
“If Muddy Waters were around today, he would have never even been signed,” he says. “And rock íní roll is the music of millionaires. Theyíre not even on our side.”
“And the ones who are anti-establishment are so obnoxious, nobody can even listen to them,” he says, making a joke about the extreme abrasiveness of many political punk and hard-core bands.
In recent years, Sinclair has released several records with his group the Blues Scholars, where he reads his poetry to a background score of freaked-out blues.
The re-issue of Guitar Army, published by Process, an imprint of Feral House, contains a bonus CD of rare recordings of the MC5 and other Detroit-area revolutionary bands, Allen Ginsberg, Black Panther Bobby Seale talking about the White Panthers, and original White Panther Party meetings.
Information, Beyond Baroque, (310) 822-3006.