‘A John Sinclair Reader’ — 50 years of poetry, prose

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

It took 50 years of scratching out a life as a jazz poet, rock band manager and marijuana advocate to produce “It’s All Good: A John Sinclair Reader” (Horner Books). The book is a compendium of John Sinclair’s poetry and music journalism that includes a card that buys you audio recordings of the poet declaiming his works to jazz.

The author is pleased.

“I made this whole thing from scratch, and got these guys in Britain to put it out,” Sinclair, 74, said last week. “Then I wanted to make an American edition. This is 50 years of writing. Twenty-five poems and 25 pieces of writing. I said ‘OK, now I can croak!’ ”

The author/poet will appear at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Book Beat bookstore in Oak Park to read and sign copies. He divides his time between Amsterdam, where he is the figurehead on a line of marijuana; New Orleans, where Celia, one of his two daughters lives; and Detroit, where his daughter Sunny and granddaughter Beyonce reside.

He’s kidding about croaking, but at 74, he reflects on a life that started when he was born into a middle-class family in Davison, a suburb of Flint.

There was no predicting his life path, Sinclair insists. “You couldn’t put a tracer on this kid in Davison, Michigan, and say he’d be the head of the White Panther Party,” he said. “No way! It was just a fluke, I don’t know how these things happen.”

He was a happy teenager growing up in the 1950s. As a teen, he reckons he went to see every black entertainer at the Flint IMA Auditorium, starting in 1955.

“When you went to a show at the IMA Auditorium with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins or Larry Williams, there’d be 20 white kids. We all knew each other, we were all in one spot, and we all wanted to dance. It was pretty far out for white kids to be dancing at a black dance, but that’s what I lived for. ... The Mt. Morris Roller Rink on Friday nights, the Catholic Youth Organization on Tuesday. There were planned activities to keep young people out of trouble.”

How did that work out?

“It just turned you on to a different kind of trouble,” Sinclair said, laughing. “We were so free.”

Sinclair wasn’t into jazz or poetry until he went to Albion College. With jazz, it was the only other beatnik on campus who pulled him into his room to hear Miles Davis. After he discovered Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, he fell in love with poetry.

He didn’t study poetry. “Poems come from heaven, as far as I’m concerned,” Sinclair said.

Along with the poetry, Sinclair has a passion for radio broadcasting. He started out on a campus radio station at Albion, and currently has his own show at RadioFreeAmsterdam.com.

Growing up, his biggest radio hero was “Frantic” Ernie Durham, and he still laments losing his “Midnight Funk Association” membership card from The Electrifyin’ Mojo.

In 1964, Sinclair founded the Detroit Artists Workshop in the Cass Corridor. Later he managed the MC5, one of the most celebrated of Detroit rock bands, and possibly one of the unluckiest.

He pulls no punches about how he feels the rock establishment treated them.

“How are you going to have a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame without Mitch Ryder, or the MC5,” Sinclair scoffed. “Patti Smith is in (the Rock Hall) and (the MC5’s) Fred Smith ain’t, that’s how I look at it.”

Sinclair gave up poetry in the MC5/White Panther Party years. “Wasn’t any poetry in that,” he said, laughing. “When you’re telling people to overthrow the government, you want to go right ahead and tell them about it. ‘Off the pigs,’ you don’t want to mask that.”

There have been many 50-year anniversaries lately. A year ago it was the Detroit Artists Workshop.

“As my granddaughter (Beyonce) said to me a little while ago, ‘Grandpa, a lot of 50-year things going on this year, aren’t there?’ ” Sinclair said. “One day she realized that me and her grandmother (his former wife, Leni Sinclair) were both historical characters. When we go places, all these people would talk to us because we were ‘out there.’ She really liked that. I heard her say to her girlfriend, ‘My grandparents are awesome.’ I felt pretty good about that one.”

Sinclair Book Signing

John Sinclair will read from “It’s All Good: A John Sinclair Reader” and sign books at 3 p.m. Sunday at The Book Beat, 26010 Greenfield, Oak Park 48237. This event is free and open to the public. For information, call (248) 968-1190.