"When I realized there wasn't going to be a revolution I said to myself 'nice try', and went back to being a poet."
Every revolutionary needs a bible - Marxists had The Communist Manifesto, feminists had The Second Sex, and in the 1960's, hippies had Guitar Army, a collection of incendiary writings by poet and counterculture father figure John Sinclair. In Guitar Army, Sinclair famously urged young people to launch a 'total assault on the culture' using three essential tools: 'rock n roll, dope and fucking in the streets'. Rock, he wrote, was "the great liberating force of our time and place here in the West." On dope: "Don't let old people fool you, there's nothing wrong with feeling good." And on fucking in the streets: "Everything else is about fucking; fucking is fucking."
No-one had ever heard anything quite like it.
Sinclair, an intellectual who spearheaded the White Panther Party and managed legendary proto-punk outfit The MC-5, wrote parts of Guitar Army from jail. He had been sentenced to 10 years for giving a cop two joints. It was a clear attempt by the government to subdue a man whose ideology threatened theirs, and it backfired - John Sinclair became a cause celebre, one of the best-known political prisoners of the era. He was released after serving 18 months, just days after John Lennon, Allen Ginsberg and Stevie Wonder headlined the "Free John Now Rally" in front of 20,000 people in ..:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />
. Ann Arbor, Michigan
Fast-forward 35 years and I'm sitting with Sinclair in a coffee shop in LA. Scruffy and twinkly-eyed, he's twiddling his snow-white beard and holding a copy of Guitar Army as he recalls his time in jail. "My crime was possessing two marijuana cigarettes. I didn't think that would make me too much of a danger to society. I mean, I was trying to change the law - but I didn't intend to go to prison." He remembers the day he was told about the Lennon concert - "I was exhilarated because I knew it would lead to my release. It turned the key."
That was a joyous day for hippies, Yippies, freaks and beatniks, a day that further stoked the fires of their youthful revolution. But within a few years, the dream had died. Music, the lifeblood of alternative culture, had been commodified, as musicians were turned into pop stars who could in turn be manipulated by the industry. Meanwhile, the hippies were strung out on drugs and homeless in doorways. The comedown was rougher than anyone could have imagined. Today, says Sinclair "I ain't got no messages for anyone. I used to think I could save the world - but now I keep my opinions to myself."
He says this with a smile, but clearly, he's a little sad – and who can blame him? This is the man who articulated a complete vision for global change, through love, LSD and music. Today, in an era of global warming and homeland security, it's hard to imagine young people possessing that kind of optimism. Part of the problem, Sinclair says, is that kids are inundated with pop culture, "and it is draining them. Look at 50 Cent with his $150million. It's bullshit! Kids should try turning off their television sets. You want something to happen - turn off your TV!"
Or, you could try reading Guitar Army, which was re-released May 1, having been out of print for decades. It still contains Sinclair's original writings from Jackson Prison, and essays he wrote for the underground press during the sixties, plus two dozen previously unpublished photographs . The language, and even some of the anger may seem dated. Sex, drugs and rock n roll are no longer things we need to fight for (Motley Crue took care of that), but freedom is, and Sinclair's words still carry a potency and clarity that resonates, even in these jaded times. Since starting the American book tour, he's received many emails from supporters - young people whom, it seems, are still enthusiastic about what he represents. Just don't ask him to start another youth uprising – he's really not in the mood. "Do I still think in terms of revolution? Frankly, no," he says. "I can't even see people opposing the war (in
) in a meaningful way." Iraq
Sinclair may have shaken off the mantle of revolutionary leader, but otherwise not much has changed. He is still a prolific writer and poet (he's working on writing one poem for each of Thelonius Monks' compositions), and a broadcaster (Radio Free Amsterdam). And, of course, he still smokes pot. Lots of it. He even sells pot behind the counter at the 420 Coffee Shop in
, the city he made his home in 2004. "I'm a fiend," he says. "I like being lifted up from the reality of life on the street level. That's why I smoke." What about acid, the catalyst for his revolution? "Acid? Now you're talking," he says. "If there was a new wave of acid today, then things would get more interesting!" Amsterdam
These days, he mainly listens to "black music, mostly from the past". He likes Iggy Pop and Sonic Youth, or "the Sonic Youths" as he likes to call them (Thurston Moore is a friend and admirer of Sinclair's). Everything else pretty much sucks, in his opinion. Punk rock? Didn't like it. ("They have that selfish attitude.") Techno is just as bad. "It doesn't have a human heart. It's about deadening people so they don't feel anything." What does he think of Bono, modern-day rabble rouser? "I heard a song by U2 for the first time the other day and I hate that shit. Doesn't have any feeling." Same goes for Sting. "I didn't even like The Police. I mean come on - someone like me is never gonna like a band called The Police." In fact, he doesn't like bands, period. "Bands are for cowards. The idea of a band and a record company and a 'career' is bullshit. In
(where he lived for several years), people just play music because they want to." New Orleans
Then he tells me his baby granddaughter has just been named Beyonce, and I think he might cry.
Mention The MC-5 though, the band he managed in
in the 1960's, and his eyes light up again. If music was the key ingredient in Sinclair's revolution, then The MC5, a group of working-class bad-asses who joined the hippie movement, provided it. Led by Wayne Kramer, whose on-stage battle cry 'kick out the jams, motherfucker!' became synonymous with the counterculture, the MC-5 staged a series of politically-charged concerts that provided Sinclair with the proof he'd been looking for –rock n roll really does have the power to unite, and ignite, young people. And maybe it still does, some place far far away from the Billboard Music Charts (at the time of writing, Maroon 5 was at #1, closely followed by Avril Lavigne and Fergie). "Who knows if it could happen again," says Sinclair. "At the end of the day - we were a bunch of hippies who really cared. That's all. It was good." Detroit
Published in 2006