MC5- John Sinclair interview
Wayne and Sinclair- best of buddies
by Jason Gross
PSF: What was the music you were into before you met the MC5?
I grew up listening to blues and rhythm and blues in the early fifties, on the radio. That consumed my interest all through high school up to college in '59. I got turned onto jazz for the next five or six years. Pretty full immersed in that, particular the avant garde end of jazz at that time, which unhappily is still avant garde many years later. John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler.
PSF: You weren't much of a rock and roll fan though?
Rock and roll is a marketing term. Rhythm and blues is a musical form. I had Elvis' Sun records and the first things he did for RCA but he was just another guy to me. He was no king, just a guy who made good records like Carl Perkins or Warren Smith, Billy Lee Riley, Buddy Holly and the Crickets. But predominately, my interest in music is in African-American music.
PSF: When you met up with the MC5, what was your impression of them?
When I first saw them, I thought they were incredible. Just totally fucking great. They were trying to extend rock and roll into something that had more space for creativity and improvisation. They called themselves avant-rock at the time. For about the first year that I knew them, I went to all their gigs 'cause I thought they were so great. I got to be very close friends with Rob Tyner and the others guys.
PSF: What led you to decide to manage them and have them live with you?
In the first place, they desperately need management. They had a couple of relationships with managers who did teenage rock bands in the Detroit area that didn't really lead to anything. Actually, I was inspired by the managers of the Grateful Dead, when they came to Detroit on their first tour in 1967, late summer. I hung out with Rock Skully and Danny Rifkin for a few days. I thought 'man, these guys are just as nuts as I am. They have a band that's on Warner Brothers and they're on a national tour. It must be possible to do this.' Before, I was always completely mistified by the music business, thinking it was the realm of specialists for which I had no qualifications. I was just a music lover and a cultural activist.
Then I hung around with these guys and I realized that it was just a matter of applying yourself to the situation, making things happen and dealing with squares on behalf of the band members. I just kind of assumed... I was never really hired or anything. We never really had an arrangement. I just lept into the fray and took charge of the vacuum that existed. I just thought that things should be better for them since they're so great.
PSF: In the beginning, what kind of things were you doing for them?
Took care of their booking arrangements, supervised getting them to the gig, getting them on stage, organizing the equipment situation (which was very chaotic). Generally, doing the things that managers do. Because we were also good friends and co-activists in terms of the local community and its cultural activities, we started devloping a concept of what the band would be in terms of its impact, its musical development and growth, its stage shows. The band basically wanted to be the best band in the world and they were serious about it. So we set about working what we had from there and working to make it be what we mutually wanted it to be. I was the guy who took care of the business part of it and they took care of the musical part.
PSF: Did you encourage their ideas and musical direction?
They were people that were totally into their music and into trying to make their music more effective and their whole performance aesthetic more complete. This is what we talked all the time and of course ingesting large quantities of... mind-enhancing substances. Tyner and I used to take acid all night and rant and rave about everything that was wrong with the world. You know, that's what people do, still. I know I do! (laughs) That's what makes life worthwhile.
PSF: Do you think the band was in line with your thinking about politics at the time?
Everybody was. I mean... I was a poet. I was a guy who could get a building, get the lights turned on, get the phone turned on, move some people in and made sure they had a place to stay. I could take care of a business on a street level. (laughs) But I wasn't a hell of an idealogue. I wasn't a Democrat or Republican. I was a person who was deeply inspired by Malcolm X and was deeply inspired by the anti-war movement. But then, everybody I knew was like that. Or at least professed to be like that, including the members of the band.
You see, everybody got high. So first off, you were on the other side of the police. They didn't want you to get high, still today and even more so. That was what really drew the line. That's what really politicized us. I think of politics as being involved in actions involving groups of people, not just an outlook. If you have an outlook, you're a philosopher. If you doing something about it, you're an activist. So we wanted to do something about it. The term I used was that we were LSD-Driven Total Maniacs in the Universe. I don't know how that relates to the spectrum of left or right. (laughs) But we thought that that should all be just blown to smithereens by LSD and electronic instruments.
PSF: Was it hard at the time to do your work with the White Panthers while you managed the band?
I didn't start the White Panthers until a year after I started working with the band. We did that together (with the band). It was just us, the roadies and the people that hung out with us in Ann Arbor. Just a bunch of maniacs, sitting around a table and ranting and raving, saying 'why don't we do this?'
I don't know how to stress enough that we were on acid. We were fearfully lunatics. We just didn't give a fuck.
PSF: But at the same time, the authorities saw you as a threat, just for trying to have a good time.
I already spent six months in prison for marijuana possession. When they put you in prison, you know they're pretty serious. It wasn't so much of a shock. What was a shock was that when I started out with this outlook, there was only a handful of people. Then it grew and grew. That was the shock. All of a sudden, there was a lot of people interested in this because they wanna get high. They were getting high and going to dances and having a ball. Then everybody's frowning because they're doing this and attacking us and invading our homes. Then you start to realize is that the thing that's wrong is that these people are running it! (laughs) They got the wrong idea. So then we tried to address ourselves to them.
You saw Malcolm X stand up to Americans and said 'you people are dogs.' That was infinitely inspiring. Other than that, we weren't aligned with the AFL-CIO or any of the traditional left-wing political forums that existed. We thought that they were squares too. We thought that people that didn't get high were on the other side. (laughs) You didn't have to get high but it had to be OK with you. If you didn't mind if someone else got high, then you were alright. You were humane then and not trying to tell everybody what to do.
PSF: How did things change for the band once Elektra got involved?
It changed everybody as it unfolded. It wasn't so much Elektra getting interested that brought about the change but rather (it was) their retreat from their initial interest and committment. Up to then, everything was going beautifully because the ideas we were putting into action from performance was all working in our favor. So it was good and everybody was happy.
Elektra originally committed themselves to fighting any attacks on the band or the record. That was our agreement. They convinced me to put 'motherfucker' on the record and to write whatever I wanted in the notes. So I said 'Jeez, people aren't gonna like this.' (laughs) 'No, they're beyond all that,' Jac (Holzman) told me. 'If there's any problems, our legal department will back you up.' So I thought it was OK 'cause if we were attacked, we could turn it into our favor. In recent years, the same thing happened to Luke Campbell (2 Live Crew) in Florida. Exactly the same thing, arresting clerks.
Well, Elektra just punked out on the whole thing. They said 'the lawyers said this is just too much trouble so we want to take the record back and clean it up so it isn't so much of a problem.' We said 'you can't do that- that would be wrong.' At worst, we just wanted to write this one off and then start on the next one. Then we flew out for a West coast tour that we payed for ourselves. They didn't support or anything. When we got out there, we found out that they recalled all the records.
We went ahead and started recording the second album at the Elektra studios in Los Angeles with Bruce Botnick. Then in the middle of that, I had to fly back to New York to meet with Elektra and find out what was going on. I found out that they were violating their word. They were withdrawing it and censoring it, despite the fact that they promised they wouldn't and we'd agreed that we'd just eat it. The record was racing up the charts- it was 30 with a bullet. It was number two at CKLW in Detroit. It was rolling. They just killed it then by taking it off. Then they also tried to kill us by making us look like chumps. It was enfuriating. We just said 'fuck it, let us out of it.' They said 'great, we'd be glad to get rid of you.' (laughs) So we mutually agreed to end the contract after only about six months (April '69).
PSF: Going back to the first record, do you think that was a good reprensentation of the band at that time?
You couldn't have a more accurate representation of how the band sounds. It was bold to do a live album as a first album but that was our aesthetic. We were a band that put on a helluva show when nobody put on a show, except for the Who. We cut two nights at the Grande. It was a free concert so our fans were there. We wanted everybody to enjoy this with us. We felt they brought us there.
It's too bad that we can't get the tapes from the rest of those shows. They've disappeared somewhere.
PSF: Before, you were talking about sessions that you did for Elektra in California with the band. Did that include some of the songs that wound up on the second album?
As I remember, they did the best songs- "Call Me Animal", "Teenage Lust" and "Human Being Lawnmower". There's no record of these. Nobody's ever found the tapes.
PSF: How would you compare those sessions with the material that eventually came out as Back in the USA?
That was Jon Landau's production. He tried to make them sound like what his idea of rock and roll was, which turned out to be Bruce Springsteen. 'I have seen the future of rock and roll and it is Bruce.' Unhappily, he was right and it's been lame ever since! (laughs) He saw it alright! It was guys like him that turned the music into their image of what it should be really. Lame...
PSF: So you didn't think the second album didn't really sound like the MC5 as you knew them?
I didn't like it at all. I still don't like it. He got into the band's minds in a pretty good way. I don't know if you read the Fred Goodman book (MANSION ON THE HILL). I learned a lot of things from there that I always suspected but I could never confirm. He just constantly worked on poisoning their minds against the people that had brought 'em up to there. He kinda specialized in that. He did the same thing with Mike Appel (Springsteen's first manager) as I recall. He just told 'em that they weren't gonna get anywhere if they were with us so he told 'em to fire me and J.C. Crawford (MC5's 'religious leader and spiritual advisor' who does the intro on Jams). Not that we were hired... We were discharged! This was around the spring of '69, after we left Elektra.
Danny Fields left them too and he kinda sold Jerry Wexler on signing the MC5 (to Atlantic). He and I negioated the deal, which was better than the one with Elektra- it was a step up, we thought. We didn't wanna be with some people that were gonna fuck with us! We got a lot more control over the product, the packaging, the publishing than the high-mindedness of Jac Holzman, which always seemed to include getting the publishing. So that's why he's rich and I'm not.
I'm made out to be such a bad guy but what have I got? Jesus Christ, I went to prison! Gimme a break! I went to prison in July so it was some time around June (when the band fired him). It was just really ugly. I could see what was happening. It's like somebody's fucking your wife. Pretty soon you get to meet him and she says 'well, I'm going with him.'
But I brought the guy in so I was kind of cynical. I found out from the Fred Goodman thing that there was more to it than that- I thought it was my idea. I was kinda relieved not to have full responsibility! (laughs) But on the other hand, from what he said, I was shoe-horned into it by Wexler and Danny. But so what...
What I thought was that for the first record, people liked it but the critics did everything they could (to stop it) because we were claiming to be revolutionaries, going against the grain in the music industry. It was dead set against becoming what it is now- a source of infinite wealth for the people that run the record companies and concert production agencies. They were in their infintile state as far as this was concerned when we were active so we were on the other side. We wanted to have a socialist music industry! I know I did.
We thought that if we had Landau and Marsh pushing them up...
PSF: Wasn't Dave Marsh living with the White Panthers?
Oh yeah, he was a (MC5) fan. One of my favorite pictures is him standing in front of a 'Free John' poster, outside the Federal building. One of my favorite pictures of the biographer of Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen, some of the more important figures of our time. Whew, what a cornball...
Even Marsh turned against us after I got out of prison. He thought 'these people are getting too powerful and they're manipulating these young people in left-wing postures and this is like facism.' We were like 'no, the music industry is facism and we're the freedom fighters!' Let's get that straight.
But with Landau, he put his stamp on them. He couldn't hurt them musically because they were pretty well developed. He just went in and undermined their confidence in themselves in every way. He was saying about us that 'these people are ripping you off, taking your money.' They had only started making more than 250 dollars a night within the last couple of months. From two years before that, we carried them and did all the work for them. We were all in it together, we thought. We had a commune from some 20 or so people and with everything we did, all the money went into a single economy.
When they got their Atlantic deal, they moved out in the country and got a house and fast cars and all that. But this guy was out there with them, doing pre-production for the record and brought in some kind of hip accountant (David Newman). So the two of them were saying 'they're ripping you off, they're dragging you down, look at what happened with Elektra...' They were living there with them. I went to prison right after they started the production on the album so I didn't have a hand in it. When I heard it, I thought that this guy brow-beat 'em and convinced them that they didn't know how to play right. He didn't let Michael play on the record so it doesn't sound like there's any bass on the record. The guy just didn't have a clue. I mean, Bruce Springsteen... What's lamer than that?
PSF: What did you think of their last record, High Time?
I thought it was magnificent. I thought that was really the MC5 at their best, in the studio with a chance to do the stuff right. I thought the live album was a great representation of what they were then, except for that terrible cover from the art department at Elektra. But I thought High Time was a SERIOUS record. They should be proud of that forever. The tunes were great and the playing was great. Little touches like the Salvation Army band. I just loved it. Geoffrey Haslam (producer/engineer) was a motherfucker.
When it came out, I couldn't stand these guys 'cause they kind of left me in prison. Didn't even help take care of my pregnant wife. Even gangsters do that! (laughs) I kind of hated them. But I heard the record and as a music lover, I thought 'this is really a good record.'
PSF: What did you think about their break-up after that?
I thought it was inevitable. Nothing happened with the record. Most of them had dope habits and they were trying to travel around the world and getting in trouble. They were just deteriorating. By that time, I didn't have any first person involvement with them for almost three years.
PSF: What do you think they left behind?
They're like John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra. They were in a class by themselves and no one's gone any farther than that. A lot of people watered it down and made a lot of money selling knock-off's on the street! Heavy metal. Millions and millions. All these things they blame 'em for are reductions of the MC5. The MC5 was a hell of a fucking band. They were beyond a band. They were... musical artists. Artists of high energy music. One facet came down as heavy metal. Another facet came down as punk rock. I guess the thing they liked about the MC5 was that they were colorful and loud and had a lot of energy. But punk rock... that's kind of like a dime store knock-off of the whole diamond as far as I'm concerned musically.
Other than that, they fused jazz and rock, like the fusion music that came (later). But they fused with jazz instead of fusing jazz into rock. So there's all these different aspects of them that have come down in history. But they never had a hit record. They were reviled by the people in the music industry and their hand servants in the music press. You know, REVILED. They didn't want something like that to happen, and of course, it hasn't. (laughs)
They had the attitude of punk and the people of today but they also had a mass following. They built a mass following in their home town. In Detroit, the MC5 was as big as the Rolling Stones. We headlined an all local (bands) show at Olympia Stadium and drew more people than the Beatles. It's amazing when you think about it. You couldn't think of something like that happening today. 'Cause everything's so fragmented.
So there you had one audience established for top 40 pop records and you had us coming up underneath that, saying 'we want something else.' We were getting the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish on the one hand. They were getting Jeff Beck and Cream and all that stuff from England. But they also had the choice of the MC5, which was trying to say something about the life of people but also about their life in relation to the world in which we live.
PSF: So you think the MC5 and their ideals didn't win out then?
WE LOST! (laughs) Our attempt to establish hegemony for our point of view was decimated. I was imprisoned, the band was driven to nothing. Those ideals existed but... I haven't seen it. You got some people that have some left-wing ideas. I don't really listen to pop music so I can't really speak with any expertise. But I read about it all the time. I figure that I need to know what's going on but I don't have to hear it. I just don't see it. People have left-wing ideas but they don't have a mass following. You have heavy metal but it's just corny, a reduction. You have punk rock, punk pop or whatever that's selling records on Wayne's label (Epitaph).
PSF: In the last few years, you've been working with Wayne, right?
Yeah, we made a record together. I'd seen him in a few bands before that. I went to see Wayne after he went to prison and he was contrite. In life, if someone fucks with me and says 'I'm sorry' then I'm OK. So we got to be pretty good friends. When I would go to New York in the '80's, I would always stay with him there. We always talked about things. We teamed up to release some of the MC5 albums that are on Alive and Total Energy. The same company put out my first record, which was a live tape that was cut down here (New Orleans). Then me, Wayne and Patrick Boissel (Alive/Total Enegery label) ended up making up a record together and had a ball with it. Whenever we can, we do dates together.
PSF: What kind of bond do you and Wayne share nowadays?
We're the same guys we were then, only we're older. Smarter. Don't hurt ourselves as much! Learned to try to share our ideas with each other and not force them on the world. You won't see me on the soap box, offering these views. I feel lucky (that) they just let me walk around out here. This is a rough world out here today.
PSF: Any other MC5 releases planned?
Yeah, there's a new one that just came out. It's the same one that was out in England before. It's called Starship- it's from the Sturges Armory in '68 (live show in Michigan). It's nasty sounding. It's about four months previous to the Jams shows. The thing I like about it is that it shows them developing as a band and into the band that they were when they cut the first record. They went through a lot of growth that summer. With Total Enegy records, 'great music, terrible sound' is kind of our motto. I'm so happy that he puts it out. If 2000 people have any interest... That's the same way it is for any interesting music today. You got a jazz record, a folk record, a blues record, there's about 2000 people you can interest if you're lucky.
PSF: I'm one of them.
PSF: I heard that there's a movie being put together about you.
Steve Gephardt is making the movie with me, called 20 TO LIFE. We're just about done with it. Wayne will be in it and other people from that period. There's an extensive part in their that covers the Detroit/Ann Arbor/MC5 period. We're going to cut in MC5 performance films from '68 and '69. It's the same stuff that we made the Kick Out the Jams promotional film from. Steve's a really good friend- used to be John and Yoko's personal film maker and did LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE ROLLING STONES.
NOTE: See the Alive/Total Energy web site for info on John Sinclair & his Blues Scholars.
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