I'm from Detroit Blow the Reveille [Iggy Pop, "Blah
In an attempt to analyze Detroit's historic avant-garde era with
the celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the
Artists Workshop, my first thought is this: there's a reason the lyrics
don't read, "If you're going to Detroit, be sure to wear some
flowers in your hair." It didn't apply. And no treacly harmonic
"parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme" shit either!
In Detroit, the MC5's MC, Brother J.C. Crawford, exhorted
fans with this mantra: "I wanna hear some revolution out there
brothers and sisters! The time has come for each and every one of
you to decide whether you are gonna be the problem or whether you
are gonna be the solution. You must choose brothers, you must choose!
It takes five seconds, five seconds of decision, five seconds to realize
your purpose here on the planet. It takes five seconds to realize
it's time to move! It's time to get down with it! It's time to testify.
And I wanna know: are you ready to testify?" The crowd's roaring
response was the cue for a thunderous cacophony of eardrum-splitting
guitar music, unlike any other, to erupt. In the simplest of terms,
it was time to: "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!"
band's manager and political advisor, John Sinclair, returned
to Detroit from his home in Amsterdam (legal dope!) this past week
to garner honors in conjunction with the Workshop reunion festivities.
The Workshop was an amalgam of poets, politicos, jazz musicians, and
eccentrics of all inclinations, who lived and worked together with
the common idealistic goal of creating art on the cheap and distributing
it free to like-minded souls. At one event, Sinclair signed his name
on a beam at the historic Scarab Club, so now is in the company
of hallowed artists such as Diego Rivera and Norman Rockwell
(and speaking from experience, Rockwell was not so bourgeois himself).
He also took part in a symposium at College for Creative Studies.
Ed Sanders, infamous as one of the Fugs and the founder
of "Fuck-You, A Magazine for the Arts!" was also
part of the panel discussion, along with photographer Leni Sinclair,
John's ex-wife, who was involved with Detroit's avant-garde before
her more infamous partner happened on the scene from Flint, and who
shot those iconic photos of Detroit rock 'n roll..
According to John Sinclair, what was distinctive about the group
was the "cross-pollination" between art forms that occurred,
and the fact that "the best minds of a generation" had serendipitously
found each other. Breaking the mold of "creative geniuses staying
in their own lairs," he emphasized the importance of the "unity"
they felt with each other, heightened, he added (referencing his notoriety),
by the frequent sharing of joints and other drugs; lots of diet pills,
he said, were needed to stay awake to produce the multitude of mimeographed
items - poetry and revolutionary tracts -- that could so easily today
be produced at Kinko's. Sanders, too, emphasized that the success
of the collective resulted from the freedom of "not being afraid
to reach out to different art forms." Sinclair said of the Workshop's
development: "It was on a real human basis. . . [you'd meet someone]
who turned out to be a hell of a trumpet player, and you'd have a
joint and you'd become friends and then they'd bring a friend,"
and so on. It was, he said, "an organic process." It couldn't
happen today, he opined: "Now we just [sit alone and] watch "American
Idol," and we don't need any fucking poems!"
Sinclair, however, was not content to publish poetry, hobnob with
visiting Beats such as Allen Ginsberg and LeRoi Jones
(Amiri Baraka), and groove to the music of crazed jazz musicians such
as Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Charles Moore and Archie
Shepp. Sinclair injected his radical politics into the movement.
Fraternizing with fellow intellectuals on philosophical, (often) hallucinogenic
planes, divorced from the everyday life of the common people, was
not his thing. He insisted on forging a strong, empathetic connection
to Detroit's large African American population which he recognized
was oppressed by the white culture. This black-to-white relationship
is, to me, Sinclair's singular contribution to the counter-culture
era, and the reason Detroit's avant-garde continues to this day to
influence musical trends. The music of the MC5 and the Stooges,
representative of their common experience of life in Detroit, had
a harder edge and a unique energy found nowhere else at the time,
not even in New York City. (If you don't believe me, see the Ramones'
documentary, "End of the Century," in which they
specifically credit those two bands for inspiring the rise of punk
rock, both in the United States and in England.)
"Mao Tse-Tung on Literature and Art," (1967), the
communist leader wrote: "Revolutionary writers and artists must
go among the masses [and] into the heat of the struggle . . . in order
to observe, experience, study and analyze all the different classes.
. . . Only then can they proceed to do creative work." Sinclair
and his comrades watched the flames of the Detroit Riot/Rebellion
of 1967 burn within close range of the Workshop, and he was prepared
to join in. He said of the experience: "I remember at one point
we were even convinced that we had won. I remember making up a flyer
and running it off at the Artists Workshop that was calling for a
Bastille Day in Detroit: 'Let's storm the Wayne County Jail
and Free the Prisoners'." The lyrics to the MC5 song, "The
Motor City's Burning," read in part, "Your mama and
papa don't know what the trouble is; they don't know what it's all
about; they just can't see what it's all about. Let's get down there
in the streets and check it out. I may be a white boy, but I can be
In 1968, he formed the White Panther Party, based on principles
advocated by the Black Panthers. "Our program, "he
wrote, "is cultural revolution through a total assault on the
culture." In his book, "Guitar Army," (1972),
Sinclair asserted: "The white honkie culture that has been handed
to us on a silver plastic platter is meaningless to us! We don't want
it! All we want is our freedom, and we know we can't be free until
everybody is free!" In tribute, he wrote: "The actions of
the Black Panthers in America have inspired us and given us strength,
as has the music of black America." And using the example of
Malcolm X, who claimed that freedom must be achieved "by
any means necessary," Sinclair wrote: "We will use guns
if we have to." The White Panther statement said, "We demand
total freedom for everybody! And we will not be stopped until we get
it. We are bad."
Today, Sinclair's goal of "total freedom" is as important
today as it was forty years ago. Detroit stands out as the most segregated
city in the country. The drop-out rate in the city's schools is more
than fifty percent, as is the illiteracy rate. While Sinclair has
mellowed as he's aged, now willing to accept honors and accolades
given by establishment institutions, the passion that he exhibited
forty years ago is still needed from all of us who believe in the
cause -- considering the results of the recent presidential election,
this may be true now more than ever. As Sinclair would say, "Get
involved. Power to the people!"