Friday, May 29, Eagle Rock: BRIGHTBLACK MORNING LIGHT (all ages welcome)

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Friday, May 29th
Brightblack Morning Light
Rio En Medio
William Fowler Collins
@ the Center for Arts, Eagle Rock
2225 Colorado Blvd
LA, CA 90041
$12 / 8:00pm / All Ages
Advance ticket link: http://bit.ly/HghCW

Brightblack Morning Light were interviewed by Trinie Dalton in Arthur No. 31 (Oct 2008), with photographs by Lisa Law. The magazine is available for $10 from the Arthur store. The article is available online here.

Brightblack were also interviewed by Daniel Chamberlin in Arthur No. 23 (July 2006), with photography by Eden Batki. Were almost out of copies of that issue, so it’s going for $100 from the Arthur store.

Daily Magpie – Tonight at The Smell

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It’s a cavalcade of long-form guitar wailing tonight — Tuesday January 20, 2009 — at The Smell in downtown Los Angeles as Fuck Yeah Fest presents the epic heaviness of dopesmoking intergalactic Viking war historians ANCESTORS alongside the equally sprawling winter beach party jams of the LBC’s MAGIC LANTERN*. You can read all about the Magic Lantern guys over at the LA Record, who of course have been down with their “uninterrupted jammage” for some time.

Headliners Crystal Antlers manage to convey their squealy-squally guitar messages in a shorter format, but they make up for brevity with a second drummer who stands up and pretty much only plays a snare. We’re not quite sure what Slang Chickens are up to, but according to their M’Space page they really like ZZ Top, which is maybe a good sign.

As is the custom at The Smell, anybody of any age is welcome, as long as they got $5. Things get going at 9pm.

*While we’re on the subject, we just wanna say that the side project from ML’s Cameron Stallones, Sun Araw, is truly on some other shit with its queasy New Age tropical dub meltdowns and y’all should not be sleeping on that 2008 Beach Head album.

Greg Saunier of DEERHOOF on the ALL-AGES gig ethic

WHERE MUSIC LIVES
Deerhoof dude Greg Saunier on how all-ages is the gig that gives and gives

(originally published in Arthur No. 26/Sept 2007)

Deerhoof are an adventurous art-rock ensemble from the San Francisco Bay Area whose mix of playfulness, technical facility and unpretentious musical/conceptual ambition has gained them an ever-growing (and awesomely devoted) underground following. Not long after seeing Deerhoof play a giddy early-evening set to an all-ages audience of Giant Robotniks, punk rockers, noiseheads, pop geeks, art students and awed musos, I spoke by phone with drummer-keyboardist Greg Saunier about how the band’s insistence on playing all-ages shows has been crucial—perhaps even pivotal—to their continued artistic growth and commercial success. Following is part of our conversation.

Deerhoof ‘s latest album, Friend Opportunity, is available from Kill Rock Stars; a DVD of the Courtney Naliboff-adapted ballet version of Deerhoof’s 2004 concept album Milk Man, featuring students from the K-12 North Haven Community School in Maine, is available from http://www.milkmanballet.com —Jay Babcock

Arthur: What is Deerhoof’s policy regarding playing all-ages shows?

Greg Saunier: Basically we try to play all-ages shows wherever we can. It’s not always possible. I have some friends who have bands that are 100 percent insistent, but by demanding that every show be all-ages, they sometimes go for long periods without playing any shows. Or they aren’t able to play certain cities, period. But wherever we can, we try to do it.

Arthur: Why is it important?

Greg Saunier: Our music, and I think music in general, is not just for people who are a certain age or who have necessarily already experienced certain things. We aren’t trying to make music that’s meant to be an in-joke, just for people who’ve already lived through certain things or already are familiar with certain bands of the past. We try to make music that could have something to say to any kind of person—or at least any age of person. We’ve had quite a few shows where a kid and her parent will come, and both claim to be fans, which is really mind-blowing to me, and really gratifying, because I want it to feel like it’s not exclusive to a certain clique.

Arthur: What were some of the shows you saw as a teenager?

Greg Saunier: I grew up in Columbia, Maryland. One of the first concerts I saw was the Police, at a basketball arena. And it occurs to me that the same is still the case—when Christina Aguilera plays a show, she plays arenas so she play all-ages every time. Within the world of pop music, it’s not even an issue. It’s only in this world of—I don’t even know what this world is, but it’s some other world where music is only associated with bars and with drinking and with people over a certain age and with a certain world-weariness already built in, a certain jaded quality. Of course that’s not everybody, and you can retain that kid-like innocence about new things in music your whole life. But I don’t even drink, so the last place I thought I’d be forging a career would be in bars! I actually don’t mind playing in bars, but if we do it’s always about trying to transcend the surroundings and the normal association with bars and what it’s there for and what it’s meant to do.

Arthur: Were there shows that you wanted to see as a kid that you couldn’t because you were not of age?

Greg Saunier: This is going to make it sound like as a teenager I was completely obsessed, but actually I remember Andy Summers, the guitar player from the Police, did a solo show one time at the 9:30 Club in D.C., and it was an over-21 show. I remember just being crushed for several weeks that there was no way I was going to be able to go to this thing. I got really involved in starting to listen to classical music a lot, and classical music shows are always all-ages. That’s what I was getting fed by my parents and I gobbled it up and got a lot out of it.

Arthur: That’s a good point, that classical music is not a “beer experience.”

Greg Saunier: In a way, it is another alternative music culture. I was totally dependent on either friends or my parents to get around as a teenager, and there was no place to see a concert in the town where I grew up. Any concert-going required going to D.C. or Baltimore. I felt like a rebel, honestly, in my teen and high school years because of the fact that I listened to classical music. It didn’t really make any sense to any of my friends, and I definitely felt like a real oddball. At the same time in high school, as I just barely started to get a slight awareness that there was underground rock music and punk music, I started to make friends with a few people who were into that and I identified with them in a very strange way. The hardcore scene of the early ’80s and classical music scenes obviously couldn’t seem to be more opposite, but for me and my punk rock friends, it served a very similar purpose. It was something that wasn’t already figured out for you. It wasn’t thrust upon you with the sheen of the mainstream, and the mainstream was the only other choice available to kids.

I remember hearing about this straight-edge music and I was absolutely fascinated. I was very much a late bloomer as far as understanding that there was anything called punk rock. I mean, when Minor Threat was going I was listening to Top 40, I had no idea. I later discovered another band from the area called Void, and they are actually from my hometown. They were just a hair older than I was, and looking back, I bet I knew some people who did go see them. But I was just totally entranced when my friends would describe these Minor Threat shows where kids were going there with the express intent of not drinking, and they would never say bad words and everybody was really nice to each other. I just couldn’t believe it, you know? I never experienced it firsthand, so my mental image of it is untarnished: I have a fantasy of this utopian situation where somebody put the kids in charge and they’re doing so much better than when the adults were in charge. Everybody’s getting along and it’s creative and everybody’s happy and everyone’s accepted. I think that I’ve been kind of seeking the re-creation of that fantasy ever since, you know, when I go to show or especially when we play shows. We want to create that kind of feeling.

Arthur: Was that part of the original impetus when Deerhoof began?

Greg Saunier: In the beginning we were desperate to play and totally innocent of how to set up shows or tour. And we were very shy people; it was just two of us at first and then [vocalist-bassist] Satomi joined to make three, and she didn’t make the band any less shy than we already were. Basically, if another band asked us to play a show with them, we’d be like ‘Yeah!’ and be unable to sleep for the next week or something! So in the first couple years of Deerhoof we didn’t have the gumption to dictate anything or make any suggestions. We basically just followed whatever was handed to us and felt lucky if we got to play at all. But what ended up happening was we didn’t play all-ages shows, and the first several years of the band, we had no kid fans seeing us, it was all people our age or older. Satomi and I realized that there was something not satisfying about this. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life just playing in bars and having the success of the night be judged merely on how many drinks we got everybody to buy, you know? Probably in 1998 or ’99 I started to feel like this was a dead end. It wasn’t a stimulating situation, always playing with the same bands, playing the same songs to the same people just passing time in a smoky little room. My first impulse was to go back to school so I could get back into classical music. So I went to graduate school for music, and felt very frustrated there too. In both cases, it’s a mutual admiration society. It’s an ‘in’ crowd. The people who go to see Deerhoof, or the people who are studying music at music conservatory, both can have the sealed feeling where everybody’s patting each other on the back. That’s their only audience, you know? So that was a turning point for the band, too, where we felt like ‘We need to start branching out.’ And frankly, that feeling has never gone away. We have managed for the most part to be able to play all-ages shows everywhere we go, but even then it can feel … we still feel confined in some ways.

Arthur: Like, why do shows always have to be so late at night? And why do they have to cost $18?

Greg Saunier: Yeah. Even when you call a show quote-unquote ‘all-ages,’ obviously if it’s late at night on a school night and it’s really expensive then no kid’s going to be able to go. So we’re always looking for something other than just the prescribed venue, or the prescribed way that we’ve been told our music is supposed to be presented. That’s the crazy thing about kids, and the many adults who have an open mind: they don’t conform to any marketing person’s concept of their target demographic characteristics. They look for something that’s cool, they look for something that strikes them a certain way, and maybe as they grow with it they figure it out in a more sophisticated way. Kids surprise adults all the time, because adults would never have guessed what kind of styles that kids would come up with. You think of clothes as the obvious example, where adults are constantly rolling their eyes: ‘What are the kids wearing nowadays?!’ But it’s the same thing with music, and it’s very exciting. And that’s another great advantage of playing all-ages shows: sometimes we can play with under-21 bands.

A couple of years ago, we played in Minneapolis, and Minneapolis is actually very difficult for all-ages shows, but there’s one venue called the Triple Rock where we have often played that will do all-ages shows early; basically, before the “real” show that they’re still going to have that night. Anyway, John has an old friend, Milo Fine, who does only free improvisation. The guy’s possibly in his 50s … real hardcore. He doesn’t do free improvisation for fun, but has for decades been cultivating this and only this and refuses to play a single note of written music period, you know? Extremely obscure, but in his tiny circle, he is sort of a legend. Basically, ultra avant-garde and not the type of music that you would normally associate with kids liking. We asked him to open for us. He was playing percussion with another guy in an improvisational duo, and we were talking before the show, and he was sure that he was just going to bomb. The place was filled with kids, and de was like, ‘This is not my normal audience, I normally play in bars.’ So he came out and played and you could hear a pin drop. The kids were just so focused, they were just totally taking it in. They didn’t judge things the same way that a mob of adults might. There were just no preconceptions. After the show he was just kind of stunned, and really really happy. And I felt so proud, too, that we had managed to put this bill together.

Oh! Here’s a story that totally illustrates how important all-ages is. We played on a tour opening for Unwound, and Unwound was one of those bands that insisted on all-ages shows. That was kind of our introduction to the whole concept. We played at the J.C. Hall, just a tiny shack of a room in Biloxi, Mississippi. There’s no stage, we just played on this linoleum floor. A lot of kids were there. There was this one 16-year-old kid who came up to our merch table after we played and he’s like, ‘I want everything, give me everything.’ It was the first time in however many years we’d had the band going where somebody had ever come up to the merch table and wanted to buy everything. Two days later, our show is in Pensacola, Florida, and not only does he show up but he’s so excited he brings his kid brother, who’s 14 and sick with the fever at the time! But they still felt that it was enough of a priority that they needed to come see this band again. We ended up keeping in touch. And that was Chris and Steve Touchton who very soon after that, decided to form their own band, XBXRX. Later, they moved out to the Bay Area and they live here now and are quite successful.

The music XBXRX make doesn’t really sound like Deerhoof—it’s their music, that somewhere deep inside he wanted to make but couldn’t find the permission anywhere in his universe to do what he really wanted to do. When you see something that’s not the mainstream shows, which are the only ones you’re allowed to go to, that’s what can inspire you to say, ‘I’m going to do my own thing, too.’ A person can do something that’s really different and creative. All these rules that I thought were there aren’t really there. [Those rules] are just from tired musicians and tired, bored marketing experts who are just going on some kind of endless rote, trying to recapture the success of last year’s successful band and think that there are all these rules of how your music’s supposed to sound and what’s going to make it sell.

You really want to make sure technically that the show can include people under 21, but once you’re there it’s like… You’d have to actually step back and say, well how would this be different if the ‘kids’ weren’t here? I really can’t tell who is above 21 and who’s are under 21 in a lot of cases. But it’s great at shows when I’m chatting to somebody who came to the show, and I can tell by looking at them that they’re quite young, and they’re telling me that they came because they’re a fan of our music and that they’ve been listening to it, and I think back to when I was at that age and what music I was listening to. And I say to myself, ‘Whatever music I was listening to, that music totally just re-wired my nervous system.’ I just know how important the music that I listened to in those years was to me. And when I think, ‘Wait, here’s a real human being standing right in front of me, for whom that music is our music!’ well you can’t imagine the overwhelming joy that I feel. You want to inspire people, you know?

originally published in Arthur No. 26/Sept 2007


CHUCK DUKOWSKI on ALL-AGES SHOWS from the pages of ARTHUR MAGAZINE.

Originally published in Arthur Magazine No. 25 (Dec 02006)

Let the Kids In Too: A History of All-Ages, Part II
By Jay Babcock

For whatever reason, it wasn’t until earlier this year that I realized the best music events in Los Angeles were missing something really crucial: people under 21. That is, under-21s—let’s call them ‘kids’—are routinely excluded from seeing of-the-moment bands and old masters, in relatively accessible and human-sized settings, at an affordable price. These kinds of shows almost always happen in over-21 bars; or in tiny clubs, in sketchy environs, late on schoolnights. Occasionally they happen in Clear Channel/Live Nation-managed venues—amphitheatres, sports arenas, football fields—but even there it takes heavy change ($65 to see The Mars Volta open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the 18,000-capacity Forum?!?), and most of the time all you get is an accountant’s idea of spectacle. Put simply, kids today are deprived of the formative live music experiences that previous generations of human beings—of almost all cultures, from here back to the cave days—experienced as a matter of routine. Music: intimate, intense, performed as something deeper than mere commerce, and received by the community of listeners in the same way.

If music succeeds in connecting to kids today, it is in spite of the music industry, not because of it. How do we know this? Because that’s what some of us have experienced for ourselves, and, more importantly, because that’s what those who came before us tell us—see the comments by blues-jazz scholar/poet/MC5 manager John Sinclair in Part I of this series, published last issue, and see the following conversation with a punk rock legend…

A SESSION WITH CHUCK DUKOWSKI

Chuck Dukowski played bass and wrote several key songs for seminal American punk rock band Black Flag in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Besides being (to quote the writer James Parker) the “attitude engine” of Black Flag, Dukowski played an integral role in the day-to-day operations of California-based SST, the independent record label that was arguably the most artistically and culturally significant label of the ’80s; besides Black Flag, its roster included the minutemen, Husker Du, Meat Puppets, Opal, Saccharine Trust, Screaming Trees and Soundgarden. Today, Chuck rocks the nation as bassist in the Chuck Dukowski Sextet, an acid rock/freakout four-piece featuring his wife Lora, his son Milo, and legendary L.A. reedsman Lynn Johnston.

Arthur: What were the first shows that you attended?

Chuck Dukowski: The very first ones were giant arena concerts. Long Beach Arena in particular. And then shortly subsequent to that, movie theaters being used as the venues that could hold in the hundreds. You’d see bands like Little Richard, Captain Beefheart, Spirit … bands that weren’t filling the arenas. They were all-ages, no booze involved.

Arthur: Was there a rule about where Black Flag would play?

CD: We tried to play all-ages venues as much as possible. Because ultimately, we could play to 3-4,000 people in all-ages here in Los Angeles as early as 1980. We’d play to that many people, and turn around and play a place with an age limit, and we’d be cutting the audience to 250-300—a huge difference.

Arthur: What about outside of Los Angeles?

CD: In the beginning of my touring in Black Flag in the late ‘70s and the early ‘80s, there were quite a few states where the drinking age was 18. And so you’re playing Ohio, where the drinking age is 18, and there’s piles and piles of piles of people there. Once you get to 18, it’s harder to differentiate [laughs], and so things open up. It’s harder to tell the difference between a 17-year-old and an 18-year-old or a 19-year-old, so they kind of let everybody in who wasn’t obviously young, really young, say, 13. But yeah, if you were 16, you were probably getting in.

Arthur: So they were essentially over-16 shows. Now, when the national drinking age was raised to 21 in 1984, bands had to make a choice about which audience to play to: the over-21 bar scene, or the all-ages situation. And nightclubs could outbid all-ages venues to hire bands, so bands would end up playing there to the degree that they needed—or wanted—the guaranteed money.

CD: I can remember booking artists at SST. The bars would have a small room, 200 people, and be able to offer bands thousands of dollars to be there because they could figure on selling so much alcohol. Booze is the vice, the crack, of the live entertainment world. Look what’s happened to jazz. It’s moved into supper houses. They’re technically all-ages, but those places can be expensive situations to get into, which limits that music’s audience to the people who are affluent enough to become part of that. I think it’s rough for young people to get involved in that. At least the punk rock scene and all the offshoots has some more open-ness and more alternative venues, and anybody can play anything. Places like the Smell and Il Corral in Los Angeles today, where anybody can go and hear all kinds of music too. Ultimately, the more vital music is happening in the more open-ended situations. When I play an all-ages show these days, there’s more people there than if it weren’t all-ages, and they’re more involved and open to what we’re doing. They’re people who are interested in learning new things, not just getting what they had yesterday.

Arthur: But those all-ages venues can only be so big, or be so accessible, before they run into trouble.

CD: It’s a tough game. In my experience, the people who tried to have these all-ages places eventually had troubles. Look at the Vex, who had to move several times. Every time things would start to take off for them, they would start to have troubles with the police, and eventually lose their permits or something like that would happen. They’d get pushed out, or the owner of the building would get pressure from the police or the city, and be told ‘Do something about this, or we’ll do something about it.’

Arthur: Urban clubowners have told me that they are reluctant to make many of their shows all-ages, because you’re setting up underage drinking situations, potential rape situations. I can sorta accept that. But on the other hand, Of course, beer is served at baseball games and there’s ten-year-olds there, too.

CD: Sure. Every restaurant in the city with a liquor license will serve beer to a table where there are underaged people present. We have a 13-year-old daughter and I don’t want to see anything happen to her, but I think she’s got pretty good wits, too. I think you’ve got to give people under 21 a little bit of credit and give them a chance to learn about things. The world’s not Disneyland. Ultimately it’s both better and potentially more real, potentially more dangerous, but the dangers are different. Sure, there’s some weirdos out there. So a kid’s gotta learn how to watch out for the creepy people. At some point you need to trust your kids that they can take care of themselves. And if you’re really worried, you can be there, too! You can party with them!

But yeah, it’s a tough game because you’ve got the people in power who don’t want to have places where young people can get together easily in any numbers, to associate and trade ideas and have some community besides the schools where they’re super-segregated and super-repressed. I remember when Chief Davis, our former police chief, said in an interview, ‘What you need to do is bear down on them when they’re young. You break them like a horse and then you can ride them the rest of their lives.’

Arthur: Whoa.

CD: I think it was Davis, maybe it was his predecessor, but I remember reading that in the damn paper! Motherfuck! It was something that I, on the outside of things, had been thinking was going on, and now I realized that that was what was going on. We’d go do our concert, come outside and see the cops beating up all the people who came to hear us. And they would focus in on the young girls to sort of … well, it was a way to attack the masculinity of the boy she was with, and also attack her sense of safety. It was like that picture of the guy from the Middle Class with that girl and they were all bruised up from that thing over at the MacArthur Park Elks Lodge. They’d bust them all up, breaking legs and arms. Just beating the crap out of people. It was all about keeping people down and showing them who’s boss before they get a chance to feel like they can do something with their lives.

Arthur: What do you think happens to a culture when under-21-year-olds can’t go to a show?

CD: I think it becomes more heartless and more, I don’t know … I think everyone loses. I can remember sitting outside a concert and thinking that it was a mistake for those artists to be missing out on my energy and everybody else’s energy.

You know, about a year and a half ago, I went to a friend’s party where he had these Jarocho musicians playing. The music is from the Veracruz part of Mexico, it’s a kind of music that’s African and indigenous. These groups are made up of extended families. So the whole group of this extended family is performing in different combinations and different groups, from the oldest people to the youngest: everybody’s getting their little cameos, everybody’s playing support to everybody else or taking a moment where they’re the ‘star,’ so to speak. What was interesting to me was the breakdown of the ageism. Everybody was participating in it. I started thinking that this is probably closer to where people are coming from, naturally.

The division by age is probably on purpose. There’s always a desire to divide and pit various groups in the culture against one another, and thereby weaken any chance of people getting together and coming up with alternatives to the governmental infrastructure for holding things together, and the giant corporations and things that hire them. It’s like at school, where they line everybody up by age, and then have them line up by height, or make them learn to march in lines: all of this kind of programming and dividing people up, and ultimately pitting them against one another, is so that they’re easier to control. It’s so much easier to take advantage of somebody who is denied the insights of their forebears. It’s so much easier to take advantage of somebody if they are robbed of the energy of their offspring. I think you need to keep everybody engaged with each other, and then the culture is rich, and has the life and vitality of the whole human family that’s there.

JOHN SINCLAIR (MC5, etc) on ALL-AGES SHOWS

originally published in Arthur No. 24 (Oct 02006)

Let the Kids In Too: A History of All-Ages, Part One
by Jay Babcock

After this spring’s ArthurBall, someone posted to our website saying, “Hey, how was Growing? I really wanted to see them, but I’m only 17.” Now, if anyone needs to see Growing—a drone duo who are making a very challenging, contemplative sound right now, not unlike the first Fripp & Eno album—it’s a 17-year-old: talk about raw material for a formative experience. And yet, he—or she—was denied, because ArthurBall was an 18 & over event. Which meant that I was partly to blame.

That wasn’t a happy thing to realize. I’d been 17 once. I still haven’t recovered from my own formative experience back in 1988 when I saw the Mirage/Huevos-era Meat Puppets at Variety Arts Center in L.A. I was a teenaged square amidst 1500 freaks of the universe at a cheap, all-ages gig headlined by true goners: enduring the Kirkwood brothers’ 20-minute encore cover of the Beatles’ “She’s So Heavy” left a much deeper, richer impression on my tender, gradually opening mind than seeing U2 and the Pretenders at the Coliseum a couple months before. That was a painfully loud, stage-managed spectacle, a queasy mix of overwhelming power, machine precision and mass audience; the pajama-clad Meat Puppets, on the other hand, were… well, they were fun. They operated on a scale that was recognizably human. They seemed genuinely off-the-cuff, in-the-moment, willing to misfire. Their single stage prop, a pair of Playboy bunny ears spontaneously draped on a microphone, resonated with me in some deep, pleasantly weirdifying way. That Meat Puppets show pointed to a way out: a different way of leading one’s life—of embracing your idiosyncrasies and weird visions and interests rather than supressing them. It was like some beautiful rite of passage, an initiation into art and imagination and other people—a sideways welcoming into a more creative, fertile, vibrant, rich way of being. Years later, I’d find out that, of course, I wasn’t the only one who’d undergone such an experience: almost everyone I know who is involved with music as a performer or enthusiast or whatever can point to some bizarro show that changed their life when they were a teenager, that lit up new paths.

I wonder if that kind of experience is readily available anymore to those who want it. I mean, Mars Volta are amazing, but you have to pay $65 to see them open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at a basketball arena. Growing are cool, but Arthur Ball is 18 & up. And so on. The sad truth is that although exciting music is regularly performed all over L.A.—at backyard barbecues and loft district rent parties, dive bars and supper clubs, nightclubs and art galleries, high school football games and homecoming dances, city parks and Sunday morning church services, street corners and subways, outdoor amphitheaters and baseball stadiums—maybe the only time when a good number of people of all ages can gather together to witness quality music, at an affordable price, with a good sound system, is when an artist plays an in-store set at Amoeba Music on Sunset Boulevard. Kudos to Amoeba for providing this basic public service to arts-starved Angeleno teenagers, of course—it’s more than the public schools and mainstream broadcast media do—but surely it’s not a positive indicator of a culture’s health when the best venue for all-ages music is a record store. ‘Dancing in the aisles’ should mean something more than grooving politely in the Used Funk/Soul section as cash registers ring in the distance.

We lose something as a society when we don’t allow our youth to experience music—by which I mean real, living, breathing music, as opposed to commerce-driven pop—in a decent, accessible, affordable, relatively intimate setting where music is given the opportunity to be truly experienced as music. Something has gone wrong here. But what has happened, exactly, to get us to this point? And is it just Los Angeles, or is it nationwide? What can we do about it? What did they do in the past?

I decided it was time to call John Sinclair.

A Visit With John Sinclair
During the 1960s, John Sinclair founded the Detroit Artists Workshop, managed the MC5, headed the anarchist White Panther Party and got thrown in jail for 10 years for giving two joints to an undercover cop. He was freed after serving two years due to the intervention of John Lennon, who wrote a song for him and appeared at a 15,000-plus arena rally to bring attention to Sinclair’s case (check out the “The US vs John Lennon” documentary for more details). He is a renowned poet, scholar, deejay and journalist, and at 64, still a towering presence. We talked about all-ages shows outside a brandname coffeeshop in Culver City over half-finished crossword puzzles.

John Sinclair: Here’s a point I want to make about this right off: This whole ‘age’ thing is a function of the whole white American culture—it isn’t a universal thing. When I was coming up, you had no congress with anyone more than two years older or two years younger than you, unless they were your brother and sister. You had no congress with adults, with anybody but your own age peers. Everything you did was around that; we were alienated from all the others.

Now, I grew up listening to blues and R&B on the radio in the Fifties. I’m not into country music. I avoided it like the plague. I came from a farming community, and I didn’t want no part of that! Once I heard black music on the radio, I wanted to be where those people were. They were having a lot more fun than anybody I knew, and then when I started going to their dances. It was a beautiful thing. They had big shows in Flint, Michigan. Rhythm and blues shows. I saw everyone that came to Flint between 1955 and 1960. I went to these rhythm and blues shows and there’d be 3,000 black people and 20 white kids who were music freaks and liked to dance. The thing that hit me the hardest about these shows was that there were people of all ages there: little kids, grandmas, and most of the crowd was young adults who were older than us. The teenagers like us were only a stratum. There were people in their 60s, people in their 40s, the finest women you’d ever seen in their 20s just dressed to the nines, red dresses and shit. Knock your eyes out. And there’d be little kids running around and it was no big deal. And the people who wanted to have a drink, they had a flask in their pockets. If they wanted to smoke a joint, they had a joint. It was just like going to a different planet. It was so much hipper. And they were also so accepting. It wasn’t like you would be nervous about being there. They’d let you have your fun, you’d dance with the black girls. It was just like being in heaven for me, man. Because where I lived, I hated everything.

Arthur: Who did you get to see at these sorts of shows?

JS: I vividly remember seeing guys like Larry Williams, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, of course. I remember Alan Freed’s “Big Beat Show of 1958. They opened with Screaming Jay Hawkins climbing out of a coffin. That was the opening act, and there were seven more acts to come, ending with Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. These were revues, they had one band, Paul Williams or Choker Campbell or someone like that would lead it, and they would be the backing band for all the featured performers. If you had one hit, you played it, and you did your next record. If you had two hits, you did both and played your next single, you know. I saw James Brown once, and he did ‘Please, Please, Please’ and one other, and that was it. But the shows were great because, you know, what’s awful is these bands that are coming up only have a couple of good tunes, and they have to play an hour? You just get bored. But, man, when you see someone do those two tunes, you’d think they were the greatest fucking act in the world. So those were all-ages shows, and cost only three bucks!

Where were these held?

JS: 3,000-seat auditoriums. I don’t remember a lot of the details, I can’t even tell you how often these would come through. When they started these things in ’56, when rock and roll ‘hit,’ the shows were all black. In ’57, they started adding people like Ricky Nelson and Buddy Holly. By ’58 you started to have shows that were half black and half white in terms of the attractions. The music had crossed over enough where there were 3,000 white kids in the Flint area who would pay three dollars to see a show. And it was headlined by Jerry Lee Lewis who was a white act, of course. By ’59 and ’60 they killed all the black stuff off; it was all Paul Anka and Bobby Vee. Chuck Berry was in a penitentiary. Jerry Lee Lewis was under approbation for marrying his 13-year-old cousin. Little Richard was a preacher. Of course Fats Domino steamed on through, making great records.

What about jazz musicians? Did you get to see live jazz in the Fifties?

JS: I didn’t know anything about it. I heard some of it on the radio, after the R&B show went off the air, jazz would come on as I was going to sleep. But I didn’t know who the artists were or what it was about or anything. It was a different world. I went to college later and a friend turned me on to jazz.

When did you start seeing jazz guys?

JS: 1960. I would see them at the Minor Key coffeehouse in Detroit. I lived in Flint which was 60 miles to Detroit, and I’d drive down there, a ticket was $3.50 which was huge money then. But you could stay until 5 a.m. and you could buy one coffee or one Coke and just fake it the rest of the night. I saw Coltrane there, and Miles Davis, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver, playing three sets! Me being from Flint, I would study all the characters there. What they were wearing, how they held their cigarettes, all that kind of shit. No drunks, no pressure, the hipsters just hanging out. I saw Cannonball Adderley at this bar, this upscale jazz bar, and it was so lame, the setting. We left during the first set after driving all the way from Flint and paying $3.50. It was too stiff, but the coffeehouse was just so cool. Today I’d much rather play in a coffeehouse than a bar, ’cause I drink coffee still.

When you started working with the MC5, those guys were younger.

JS: They were teenagers, yes. They were just out of high school. We had a house, and the living room was the performance space. We did them every Sunday afternoon, and they were open to everyone, and there was no charge. It was so much fun, man. There was no drinking. Rock and roll in Detroit in the ’60s was strictly in teen clubs, high school gymnasiums, the rare college … and even then, not a real concert, just some fraternity party. And the Grande Ballroom, that was the class venue.

What about bars?

JS: If you played rock and roll in bars, you had to play all Top 40 cover tunes. There were bands that did that, but we didn’t want anything to do with that. When the Grande opened, the owner had been to San Francisco and saw bands who were playing all their own music, and he realized that this was what it was going to be like, and he was right. So the MC5 were the only ones, along with Bob Seger. The fact that they could get a gig and headline, and get their names on a poster, set an example for a lot of other bands. It gave them something to aspire to. It was a beautiful thing in that respect.

When I first heard the MC5, I thought ‘Man, these guys are the greatest,’ but their shit was totally un-together. But once they got all their chords unraveled and started playing, it was just magnificent to me. They were improvising, and their lead singer was named after McCoy Tyner! I thought ‘This is my cup of tea!’ The first gig I went to with them, I probably had to give them a ride, was at a teen center in Plymouth, Michigan, in the western suburbs, and they played a battle-of-the-bands against called the Unrelated Segments that had a hit record on a 45, and [the other band] won. I just thought, ‘These guys aren’t going to go too far with this kind of a crowd.’ But at the Grande, you’d start with a hundred people there, and they were like ‘Hungry Freaks, Daddy.’ They would be the hundred people that smoked pot or took some acid once, hung around Wayne State or lived around the campus. We were the core audience for the Grande, because we knew about the Avalon and the Fillmore. We were just doing backflips that there was going something like that here in fucking Detroit. So, that’s who they played for in the first months.

The other thing is, in those days, it wasn’t in the popular consciousness at all. It wasn’t like today where they cover rock bands in the papers. I bet if you went through the Detroit Free Press and News, the only things you’ll find are bits about this ‘freak gathering place’ and these weirdo hippies at the Grande Ballroom, and this schoolteacher who runs it. Weirdo stories, you know? Never anything about ‘Jeff Beck slayed Friday night.’ Never. I don’t think you can ever find one story about it, which is pretty refreshing. All this shit now is written about, but it’s not any good. But everybody knows about it.

What killed that situation?

JS: It got big. It got bigger and bigger. It opened up in October of 1966, and in the spring of ’67 ‘White Rabbit’ by the Jefferson Airplane was a top 10 hit, and by July, ‘Light My Fire’ by the Doors was the number one hit, and that opened the doors for popular acceptance. There was money in it all of a sudden. Woodstock was the watershed. Before Woodstock, people thought that this hippie rock and roll was just a fad. Then all of a sudden, there’s a half-million people sitting out in the rain listening to all these artists that America had never heard of. Columbia sat up and started signing people after Monterey, but after Woodstock…! The majors took over the underground after Woodstock.

See, when we played the Grande Ballroom, we were the top band there for years before they started bringing in touring bands. We made $125 a night, it wasn’t a lot. The Grande usually held 1,000, but he’d put in 2,000 for the Who or Cream, and it would be packed wall-to-wall. There wouldn’t be an inch of space. On Sundays you had all-ages shows, otherwise you had to be 17 or something. That’s how we ended up with Blood Sweat & Tears with the Psychedelic Stooges on Sunday. One time the MC5 played a Sunday afternoon show with Blue Cheer … the ‘loudest show in the history of rock and roll’! [Laughs.]

What happened to the spaces where a band as young as the MC5 at their beginning could play to their own people?

JS: In ’72 they passed the 18-year-old voting law, and the drinking age was dropped to 18, and so then everybody played in bars because if you could draw 100 people to a bar, you’d get 500 bucks. If you wanted to go beyond a bar of 200 [capacity], you had to have a record deal, and you had to open for the Allman Brothers or somebody. It was like that from that point on until when I was done working in the Eighties. Same thing. That’s as much as you could do, and of course there weren’t any kids there because they weren’t allowed in. The kids went to arena shows to see Alice Cooper or KISS. I’d say since the mid-Seventies, they’ve all grown up in that space, which is of course totally unsuited for music.

So, a lot of the punk stuff in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was about rebuilding those original spaces from the ground up.

JS: You had to do it yourself, whether you were punk or not, if there was any future for you in the music business. You get a van and somebody would let you come to their city and play in their place for nothing. You’d sleep on the floor of some ugly girl somewhere, and then you’d get out of her life.

See, the thing about what they gotta do now, if the kids wanna have some fun, is they just gotta ignore the music industry. Because in our day, when I was coming up, the ‘music industry’ was on a whole ’nother planet. When I met the MC5 and started hanging out with them, they were five years younger than me, and they were all wanting a hit record and everything, and we had that big flirtation period where the major labels signed weirdos for a while, and Elektra signed the MC5. And then, as Fred Goodman so beautifully detailed it in his book (The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce), the majors ruined it all.