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John Sinclair Interview

I call John Sinclair at 7p.m. He kindly asks me to call back in ten minutes because he’s riding his bicycle to a coffee shop a few blocks away. I call back in ten minutes and he asks for another ten and apologizes for being a pain. From just those few words I can already tell that he is kind and extremely humble. Afterall, he is giving a complete stranger an hour of his life. Throughout the interview, I had a hard time not putting my laptop down and just having a conversation with him about life. That’s what John does. He makes you feel like he’s always known you. He is one of the most insightful, intelligent, and extraordinary people that I’ve ever spoken with and sixty minutes didn’t seem like nearly enough time.

Ara: Can you tell me when you started writing poetry and what you first wrote about?

John: Well, I never really liked poetry. I was all about music. But I started writing after hearing Ginsberg for the first time. It was my first year of college. 1959. Ginsberg was writing what he wanted. Gary Snyder too. They were writing their thoughts and personal registration. I liked what they were doing.

Ara: I think we all have that one poet or musician that just hits us and changes us. For me it was Charles Bukowski. Before that, I had never read poetry. Who did that for you? Who made you say: ”Damn, that’s good?”

John: Charles Olson, Jack Kerouac with ‘On The Road’ in 1957. And ‘Howl.’ Allen Ginsberg steamrolled me.

Ara: Art museums and symphonies are so clean. Kind of a contradiction. How important is keeping spoken word alive and uncensored? Art in general?

John: Very important. Bottom line. Key. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Ara: Can you tell me about your radio show in Amsterdam?

John: Well I’m a disc jockey. I play the music I love and talk about it. It’s really a jazz and rhythm and blues show. That’s my music. Coltrane, Muddy Waters. The other show, The John Sinclair Radio Show, is a free form show. I just do what I feel. Sometimes it’s spoken word and sometimes I give time to my friends who have their own radio shows because I like what they’re doing. The show was actually inspired by Jack Kerouac who used to have these fantasy baseball teams. He would sit in his bedroom with these brackets and stats for imaginary players.

Ara: I watched your reading of “Excuse Me While I Kiss the Sky” on YouTube and I have to say the line: “Guitar paratrooper dropping from the skies over America with the bomb in his front pocket” blew me the eff away. I think I backed the video up three times just to hear you deliver that line. I’ve heard young poets do poetry about Hendrix, but you just know when someone’s been there. You write about Hendrix in a way that only someone with horse’s mouth knowledge could. Tell me about music during that time? Was it the backdrop to the revolution? Was it the fuel? And can you please tell me how you felt the first time you heard Hendrix preform?

John: Well part of that line was inspired by Ornette Coleman’s ‘Skies of America.’ And of course Jimi landing in America with his guitar.The first time I saw Jimi Hendrix perform I was disappointed because there was very little motion on stage. The energy was contained in the music. No one was jumping around. Of course the music was out of this world and one of the first things I remember is Jimi’s cat-like movements. As far as the music of the time, it was all three. You know, all one thing. It was incredibly powerful, it lead the way. But yeah, Jimi Hendrix set that grenade off in me.  (while John is explaining this, I am picturing Jimi paratrooping into the middle of a field, pulling a guitar pick from his pocket, and burning everything around him the moment his pick hits the strings.) 

Ara: Like I said, I was born in ’71. In the early 80’s I began listening to radio punk. The Clash, the Replacements, the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag. During that time, America was a good place to be. We had 1,000 distractions from the world around us. I think that is when we truly became the generation you see now. A very “me” generation. So tell me about the forefather’s of punk, MC5, the idea behind the band and what you thought the first time you heard their music?

John: Well, the Stooges get the credit for starting punk. That belongs to them. MC5 was a combination of different kinds of music — jazz, blues, rock. They were inspired by James Brown. I first saw them perform at the spectacular Grande Ballroom in 1966. They were jumping all over the stage. Just wild energy. I became good friends with the band. I wasn’t thinking about managing a band. I was a poet. I just wanted to know when they were coming to town again. But, I wanted to see them succeed, I wanted to turn people onto their music, so I kind of put myself in bondage to them. But that’s what we wanted to do then. We wanted to turn the world onto things. It’s what LSD was about. Consciousness and perceptual expansion. LSD is not a recreational drug. It’s not something you take on the weekend so you can get laid. You should use something else for that. It’s a spiritual experience. (I mention that I’ve never tried LSD or read much about it because my father was a Vietnam vet and a Marine. You just didn’t mention that sort of stuff in my house. To my father, the sixties were the death of Elvis and all that was good. The death of the 50’s).  John then quotes Bob Dylan: “When I heard Elvis I knew I was never going to have a job. We were a generation where everything was worked out in front of us. But I had a better idea. I wanted to try something and see what happened.”

Ara: I don’t think my generation can comprehend what the country was like during the sixties. Do you think the country still needs black panthers/white panthers? What does society in 2013 look like to you? What should we be pissed about?

John: Absolutely, we still need them. I’m still waiting for that to happen. I see a world of terror today. Everyone is armed and hostile. Society is brutal and heartless. There’s no music or art. It’s all consumerism and I’m a misfit. Again John quotes Dylan: “If my thought-dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.” It’s all about wealth. Rich people are ruining society.

Ara: Any advice for spoken word poets or writers?

John: Just write and speak. Study your elders. Study music–jazz, blues, and reggae.

Ara: If you could relive one day in your life, what day would it be and why?

John: Not gonna happen. Remember the future. Most people spend most of their time moving backwards, when the future is where it’s at. It’s where you can still change things.

Ara: Who do you love? Who do you admire?

John: I love everybody. I have four daughters, four grandchildren, a woman that I love, and thousands of friends. I love everyone. I admire the people that I write about. Poets, artists, musicians. I write odes to them. I’m an odist.

Ara: Who do you wish would start a fire?

John: Well, I was excited about that occupy thing for a while but it fizzled out. I thought…”How great finally someone is saying I’ve had enough.” I don’t know what happened. It just died. I want the youth of America and Europe to start a fire. Rich people control everything. “Buy our shit”. It’s all consumerism.

(I decide to ask one more question, just out of curiosity.)

Ara: What do you think of film?

John: I’m not a fan of film. Too much time to invest in one idea. ( I see his point and realize why we are both poets. We can say in three minutes what a film takes two hours to convey).

And with that answer my interview with John ends. He does, however, ask to read some of my work which both excites and touches me. There’s just something about sharing yourself with another person that supersedes words. I am no longer a stranger.

About Ara Harris

Ara Harris
Music junkie, Atari 2600 bringer backer, word maker upper, loves to photograph and write about suburban decay. Ara grew up on a corner lot in small town Ohio. She began escaping the micro minds of the Midwest by listening to music, watching b films, and touring the cities in her mind. She wrote poetry on the back of algebra tests and asked Lou Reed to take her to prom. Two decades later she self published a full collection of poetry that one reader described as “a Tom Verlaine riff in every synapse”. She believes that we all have a gift, we just have to find it.

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