Wednesday, June 9, 2010

It’s All Good: A John Sinclair Reader

It’s All Good: A John Sinclair Reader

October 18th, 2009 by johnsinclair

Reviewed by Kirpal Gordon

American Book Review, October 2009


Published by Headpress, www.headpress.com, Suite 306, The Colourworks, 2a Abbot
Street, London, E8 3DP, UK / second printing, April, 2009 / 298 pages / ISBN:
9781900486682; US $19.95/12.99 UK 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 America’s 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.

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 talk-walker 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
John 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 alternative 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 Mississippi 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.”

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
Columbia, especially a “hip football player / & would-be sportswriter /
from Lowell … 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 isrooted in the music and no one swings that tale harder than Sinclair. Ditto“We Just Change the Beat.” Hearing the songas it changes tempo
(genre) is worth a thousand pages of musical essay.

As for Sinclair’s musical essays, 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. He is a
national treasure, a vital link in a literary-musical lineage that might be
America’s greatest cultural export ever, and it’s about time we brought this griot
back home where he belongs.


Kirpal Gordon’s latest fiction,
Ghost & Ganga: A Jazz Odyssey, is
forthcoming as an e-book at LeapingDogPress.com. For a taste of his
jazz CD,
Speak-Spake-Spoke, see KirpalG.com.

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thank you for reading, and for your feedback i bow