The Artists Workshop:
John Sinclair and others Sound Off

by Christina Hill

I'm from Detroit Blow the Reveille [Iggy Pop, "Blah Blah Blah,"1986]

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!"

The 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.)

In "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 bad too."

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!"

© 2002