GUITAR ARMY: ROCK & ROLL REVOLUTION
On May 1, 2007 revolutionaries (and hippies) around the world celebrated the 35th anniversary and re-release of John Sinclair’s book Guitar Army (Process Media). Originally published in 1972 following Sinclair’s release from prison after serving two and a half years of a 10 year sentence for possession of two joints, Guitar Army served as an entire generation’s handbook for revolt. So popular – and controversial – the book quickly went out of print and developed into a cult classic. Thanks to Process Media, the new expanded 35th Anniversary edition features 40 previously unreleased photos from the heyday, a new intro by Michael Simmons and a nifty bonus CD with rare recordings from MC5, Uprising, John Sinclair, Allen Ginsberg, Black Panther Bobby Seal, Up! and more.
As a young man growing up in Detroit in 1966, Sinclair became the manager of the hugely influential band MC5 (Motor City 5). “The Five,” as they were often called, would not only help set the stage for punk and hard rock, they would become the house band of the revolution. In 1968, the MC5 recorded their first album, Kick Out The Jams, which would help ignite a fire that raged against the political and social climate of the day. Coinciding with the album, Sinclair released a statement of the declaration of the White Panther Party. Sinclair, along with the members of MC5 and a select group of fellow revolutionaries, created the White Panther Party to oppose the U.S. government and support the Black Panthers through a “total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock & roll, dope and fucking in the streets.”
“I just started smoking joints and taking acid and peyote and it lead me into something completely different from where I started from” says Sinclair. “Between that and the black music, I was in a different world. And I’ve been there ever since, and I ain’t leaving!”
Inside this world of mind-expanding drugs and black (blues and jazz) music, Sinclair was transformed. He became a beacon of light, “the leading intellectual of long-haired people,” he claims. And that’s exactly what opened up the MC5 to his influence. “John Sinclair was the first guy who wasn’t a music business type guy. He was like us, and we respected him,” says MC5 guitarist and co-founder Wayne Kramer. “He agreed to join with us to try to see if we could combine our efforts to push our various interests to a higher level.”
These were the seeds of the rock & roll revolution. The years that followed are chronicled in Guitar Army. Although Sinclair says, “It’s not something I’d write today, but I thought I got my hands on the moment,” the book is a necessary record of a movement that changed America.
In a true testament to the power of rock & roll, The John Sinclair Freedom Rally at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, Michigan on December 10, 1971 would be the final step in setting Sinclair free. The eight hour event featured John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Stevie Wonder, Allen Ginsberg, Phil Ochs and many others speaking and performing in front of 15,000 people. Three days later the Michigan Supreme Court released Sinclair and overturned his draconian conviction.
35 years later, both Sinclair and Kramer are appalled at how little has changed. “We’re really going backwards,” says Sinclair. “It’s mind-boggling how the lessons of Vietnam have been absolutely, totally ignored” adds Kramer. “He’s [President Bush] trying to find a place in history and the place the he wants so badly he can’t have, which is to be remembered as a great leader. He’ll be remembered as the great chump, the guy who almost destroyed the country.”
“They have to turn off their TV sets for a while and try to feel something,” adds Sinclair. “They have to develop a heart because they’ve got everything else. They can communicate. They have the World Wide Web. We didn’t have anything as great as that. We used to have to print things on a mimeograph machine and hand them out on the street. It’s the passion that’s missing. They’re surrounded by this horrible [mainstream/radio] music and horrible movies and TV and the news and all that shit. It’s just created to cocoon people inside.”
The answer is unclear but in the meantime Sinclair and Kramer aren’t going quietly into the night. They still perform together regularly; and on the day I spoke with them, Sinclair read his poetry with Kramer supporting him. Although Sinclair says “rock & roll is not going to be a weapon of culture. I couldn’t have been more wrong on that,” he still uses music to open minds. Since his release from prison, Sinclair has gone on to become the founder and director of the Detroit Free Jazz Center, a professor of popular music history at Wayne State, worked as the editor for the Detroit Sun newspaper, managed bands, produced concerts and is a revered freelance journalist, poet and bandleader. In 1991, Sinclair moved to New Orleans and became a disc jockey at WWOZ radio, where he was voted the city’s most popular DJ five years in a row (1999-2003) by OffBeat magazine’s readers’ poll. Following a visit to Amsterdam as High Priest of the Cannabis Cup, Sinclair moved to the Netherlands in 2003 and created his influential internet program, “The John Sinclair Radio Show,” which is part of RadioFreeAmsterdam.
Following the ’60s and ’70s, Kramer faced his own struggles. “There was certainly a high point in being in the MC5 and a great sense of possibilities and camaraderie and mutual respect of being part of a community,” he says. “There were great low points when all that was gone and the whole downward arc where I ended up an alcoholic, drug addict and convict.”
35 years later, Kramer and Sinclair are still fighting the good fight. They love music and are passionate about social justice. Jail time, oppressive governments and years of struggle couldn’t keep them down. Today, we’re looking for leaders. Perhaps the reissue of Guitar Army can serve as fodder for the next revolution.
“If they had some acid today things would be different,” says Sinclair. “It was a catalyst. All of the sudden you penetrated the bullshit and the popular culture and life and you thought, ‘This isn’t real. The universe is real. The stars are real, the trees are real, but this is horseshit.’ That was a great revelation. I’m still working off of the things I learned 40, 45 years later.”
It ain’t fair, John Sinclair
In the stir of breathing air
Won’t you care for John Sinclair?
In the stair of breathing air
Let him be, set him free
Let him be like you and me
They give him ten for two
What else can the judges do?
Gotta, gotta… gotta, set him free
If he had been a soldier man
Shooting gooks in Vietnam
If he was the CIA
Selling dope and making hay
He’d be free, they’d let him be
Breatthing air, like you and me
They gave me ten for two
What more can the judges do?
Gotta, gotta… gottta set him freee
Was he jailed for what he done?
Free john now, if we can
From the clutches oof the man
Let him free, lift the lid
Bring him to his wife and kids
They gave me ten for two
What more can the bastards do?
Gotta, gotta… gotta set him free…
JamBase | San Francisco
Go See Live Music!