Exit interview with JOHN SINCLAIR (2003), introduction by Byron Coley

Originally published in Arthur No. 6 [Sept 2003], available from the Arthur Store….

“Everything is worse than ever”
A conversation with righteous MC5 manager/poet/scholar/activator and great American JOHN SINCLAIR, who is leaving the country

Introduction by Byron Coley

John Sinclair casts a huge shadow across the American underground. The force of his personality and energy of his vision kept the midwest alive for several years. His writings, howlings and example ignited fires in the brains of kids everywhere, and his return to live performance in the last few years has been a cause for elation.

Sinclair was born in Flint, Michigan in 1941. His father worked building Buicks. John would have followed his footsteps had he not been driven mad by hearing R&B. The music—so alive, foreign, transformational—clicked a switch and he was never the same. In high school John became a party DJ and record nut. After graduation, he found affinity with words, especially those of Charles Olson and the beats. He dropped out of college after two years, getting heavily into jazz, writing poetry and doing drugs. Newly illuminated, Sinclair finished his BA, and began graduate studies.

John’s high profile drew lotsa heat. He was busted for pot in 1964, again in 1965. Shifting his wheels out of the academic rut, along with his partner Leni, John founded the Artists Workshop—a collective involved in publishing, presenting readings, film showings and concerts. He also wrote about high energy music for Downbeat and elsewhere. After Cecil Taylor played him the Beatles’ Revolver LP, Sinclair made the pivotal decision to get back into rock music.

Busted again in 1967, John began a long legal odyssey. At this time, the Artists Workshop transmuted into Trans-Love Energies, and he began working with a young band called the MC5. By filling their brains with righteous dope, free-jazz and politics, a quintet that might have been remembered as the American Troggs was transformed into the pinnacle of free-rock perfection. In 1968, the tribe moved to Ann Arbor and the White Panther Party was founded. The Panthers’ stated goal (revolution via rock and roll, dope and fucking in the streets) seems a bit naive now, but at the time it sounded perfect.

By upping his political content, Sinclair got deeper into shit. After producing the first Detroit Rock & Roll Revival in 1969, he got 10 years for having given a nark two joints. Sinclair continued to write from prison (mostly politically charged music criticism). This work was collected into the essential Guitar Army. [Guitar Army was reissued by Process Media in 2007: http://processmediainc.com] The MC5 couldn’t handle his imprisonment, however, and left Trans Love (at the behest of future Springsteen slave, Jon Landau). Fortunately, others took up his cause. There were numerous benefits, culminating in a massive Detroit rally, featuring John & Yoko, Archie Shepp, Stevie Wonder, Phil Ochs, Bob Seger, the Up and Ed Sanders. In 1971 the case was tossed out.

Sinclair continued to mix politics and music, although the Panthers were folded into the Rainbow People’s Party (a less obstinately provocative organization). A full time political activist, Sinclair lobbied for marijuana reform, involved himself in community work and put together the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festivals. Sinclair also had a book of poetry published in 1988, at which time he returned to the live stage. But by 1991, local politics had bogged him down and he headed south to New Orleans.

Sinclair continued to do radio shows, edit magazines, write about music, and do wild-ass performances of investigative jazz poetry. He formed a band called the Blues Scholars, and recorded explosively syncopated albums of music and words. He also rekindled his friendship with former MC5 guitarist, Wayne Kramer, which resulted in excellent new work, fantastic archival releases and the promise of much more of both. His latest book is a blues suite Fattening Frogs for Snakes and many future projects beckon.

Hearing through the underground grapevine that Sinclair was preparing to exit America, Arthur arranged a phoner with the great man. The following Q & A was conducted by Jay Babcock in July [2003].

ARTHUR: So you’re leaving America.

JOHN SINCLAIR: Yes, God willing.

ARTHUR: And you’re going to…?

SINCLAIR: Amsterdam. I have a patron there and they said if I came over they would take care of me until they could get me set up and then I could call for my wife. That’s an offer I’ve been waiting for all my life. Now I’m old and I can really use it. [laughs] I wanna get the hell out of here. [laughs]

ARTHUR: You’ve been traveling around the last couple of months, so you’ve been getting a good look at the mood of the country. And you can remember when the resistance to the Viet Nam war was starting. Is the current situation—the state of the country now—worse than it was back then?

SINCLAIR: Oh yeah. The people are so much dumber now. They’re just…painfully dumb. They love this guy Bush, they love all this stuff that’s going on, and they’re gonna return him to office in a big way, and it’s gonna get worse and worse. That’s what I see. And except for the occasional glimmer of light like that new issue of Arthur, [laughs] it’s hard to even find people who have any inkling of what they’re doing.

ARTHUR: How did Americans get so dumb?

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Byron Coley and Thurston Moore’s “Bull Tongue” column from Arthur No. 29 (May 08)

BULL TONGUE by Byron Coley & Thurston Moore
from Arthur Magazine No. 29/May 2008, available from The Arthur Store

Great new LP by Portland’s Jackie O Motherfucker may be our fave of theirs since Flat Fixed. Spaced out jabber and float with casual/urgent female vocals that almost sounds like certain moments of Fuzzhead at their most blues-wailin’est, interspersed with Velvetsy volk moves, and overlaid with swabs of smoke & jibber. The slab is called Valley of Fire (Textile) and it’s a monster. Also out from Jackie O is a sprawling 2 LP set, America Mystica (Dirter Productions), which was recorded in various caverns by the touring version of the band between ’03 and ’05. Not quite as precise as Fire, but its muse is savagely crunchy in spots and never so formal as to appear in a bowtie. It’s an open-ended weasel-breeze you’ll happily sniff in the dark. Is that a hint of Genevieve’s crack?

This young noise dude from Minneapolis named Oskar Brummel who records and performs under the name COOKIE has released his first entry into the new new American underground noise forest and it is frothingly balls-deep: good n’ harsh. It’s a cassette titled Ambien Baby and it flows with both a FTW sexual undertow and a strange-feeling/shit-coming rejoice. There should also be rejoicing over the fact that Times New Viking seem to have made their transition to Matador with their instincts intact. Their new LP, Rip It Off, is as grumbly and fucked sounding as any blast of gas they emanated previously. Nice thick vinyl, too. I guess you need it heavy when the needle’s buried this far into the red. Smooth!

It has taken a little while to actually read the bastards, but now that it’s done, there can be little doubt that Process Books has blasted out three of the best music-related tomes to have been peeped by our tired eyes. First up is the new edition of John Sinclair’s Guitar Army. This is one of the great American underground revolutionary texts—ecstatic, naïve, visionary and powerful. It’s a little funny to glom a few of the embedded old (old) school opinions about what is happening, but it’s still a wonderful read, and a doorway into eternal truths, if you can stay open to its music. The new layout is pretty good. We miss a few visual aspects of the old one (like, where’s the Frantic John flyer?), but the new pics more than make up for it, and the bonus CD—music, interviews, rants, poetry—is fantastic. As is Paul Drummond’s Eye Mind: The Saga of Roky Erickson. We’ve read endlessly about Roky over the last 30 years, but this book is jammed (JAMMED) with new facts, reproductions of fliers, posters, photos and ephemera we never even imagined, and Drummond really covers the subject the way he deserves to be covered. It’s really an overwhelming effort. The same is true of Robert Scotto’s Moondog: The Viking of 6th Avenue. The writing can be a little sere, but the story is juicy enough to mitigate this dryness. We finally get to read the story of how the collaboration album with Julie Andrews came to be. There are meetings with Arturo Toscanini and Edgar Varese. It’s quite a tale, and Scotto has done his homework. The only frustrating note is that there really isn’t a comprehensive straight discography. If there’s a second edition, it would be a welcome addition. Also, while the CD tracks are bitchen—especially the early recordings by (one presumes) Steve Reich—some notation there would be cool, too. Other’n those quibbles, we couldn’t be more celebratory ‘bout popping our corks. Buh!

We reported a while back how the horn has become a significant sound source in basement noise life with the weirdo bleat/junk processing of John Olson’s reed kill with Wolf Eyes, Dead Machines etc., and certainly Slithers, and to a mighty free jazz extent the always amazing Paul Flaherty. Furthering all this way hep ghost-trance-sense improv is Dan Dlugosielski’s new(ish) project Uneven Universe. Dan oversees the EXBX Tapes label and has recorded great gunks of noise-jam as Haunted Castle, plus he’s spooged out a few Uneven Universe documents. The one we keep going back to is The Rattling Caverns, on sweet Ohio label Catholic Tapes. It will make you wanna huff smoke-think and drink brews and maybe get some arm-around. If you’re lucky.

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Jan 15-Feb 25, NYC: Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal #10 at White Columns


(above: cover of sold-out Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal No. 7)

From White Columns:

Edited By Thurston Moore with Byron Coley and Eva Prinz

White Columns is proud to present Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal, Issue #10: an exhibition, publication, and a series of readings and performances.

Artist, musician, poet and publisher Thurston Moore began editing and producing Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal in 2001 as a forum to publish poetry by individuals who intersected the worlds of poetry, music and art. A dynamic range of writings, with various pages of visual work by Gerard Malanga, Richard Meltzer, Chan Marshall, Dennis Cooper, Kathleen Hanna, John Sinclair, Richard Hell, Jutta Koether, Gus van Sant, Rick Moody, Kim Gordon, Anne Waldman, Bill Berkson, Anselm Berrigan, Gary Panter and many others were published in eight issues in as many years.

Moore was inspired to publish Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal after years of appreciation, study and relentless archiving of post-war poetry publishing focusing on the activity of the “mimeo revolution” of the ’60s and ’70s. The stapled mimeo poetry journals produced from the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, Peace Eye Bookstore in New York City, and Asphodel Bookstore in Cleveland, Ohio, as well as a myriad of other subterranean centers of shared post-beat writing, rage, meditation and experimentation continues to inform the publication of Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal.

Issue #10 of Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal will be published and presented at White Columns as an expanded event/exhibition. A stapled issue will be created during the show. Pages from each of the ten journals will be exhibited as enlarged wall pieces, including the heretofore unpublished issue #9, [in keeping with the journals every-third-issue a theme issue, i.e., #3 was themed “cunnilingus,” #6 was “punk,”—with #9’s theme “pot”]. The main gallery space will feature a selection of historical poetry publications from the last fifty years culled from Moore’s own library, including original editions of Amphora, Change, Coldspring Journal, Copkiller, Fervent Valley, Free Poems Amongst Friends, Gaslight Poetry Review, Kauri, Klactovedesteen, LA-BAS, Outburst, Stance, Sum, The Willie, Trobar, Yowl and more.

Working as co-editor on many aspects of Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal, including this exhibition is writer Byron Coley, formidable musicologist, essayist, poet and producer of music and literary arcana, ephemera and beyond. Select pieces from Moore and Coley’s catalogue will be reprinted in limited states for this exhibition. Eva Prinz, editor, co-publisher of Ecstatic Peace Library and curator of Radical Living Papers: Free Press 1965-75 (2007) brings additional organizational and creative force to Issue #10 as a gallery event.

Reading and performance schedule:

Friday January 15th:
6-8pm. Opening performance: Northampton Wools (Thurston Moore, Chris Corsano, Bill Nace)

Saturday January 23rd
7-9pm. Reading: John Giorno, Byron Coley. Performance: Thurston Moore

Friday February 5th
7-9pm. Reading: Edmund Berrigan, Anselm Berrigan. Performance: Thurston Moore

Friday February 19th
7-9pm. Reading: Richard Hell, Dorothea Lasky. Music: Thurston Moore + guest

Thursday February 25th
7-9pm. Reading: Thurston Moore and Anne Waldman accompanied by musicians Ambrose Bye and Devin Waldman

All performances and readings are free, admission on a first-come basis.

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CALVIN JOHNSON (K Records, Beat Happening) on the importance of ALL-AGES gigs, and the secret history of age segregation in rock n roll


photo: Danielle St. Laurent

“What’s Wrong With Having Fun?”

A History of All Ages: A conversation with Calvin Johnson

by Jay Babcock

Calvin Johnson is the founder of Olympia-based K Records. He was in Beat Happening, Halo Benders and Dub Narcotic Sound System, and recently toured the USA in tandem with Ian Svenonius. His influence on underground American music in the last 25 years is enormous; read more about him at wikipedia.

I spoke with Calvin by telephone in early 2007, following on an interview I did with former MC5 manager/poet/historian John Sinclair, published in Arthur No. 24, in which we tried to figure out how rock n roll music went from being an all-ages thing to what, all too often, it is today: age-segregated. Calvin had some ideas about that…

Arthur: Where did you see your first shows?

Calvin Johnson: I was going to some stadium shows. When I was 12 I saw Paul McCartney & Wings. That was in the Kingdome, which is like 75,000 people. I was like, This is different than the Casbah Club in Liverpool. This isn’t the same. I kind of view that as more… Having read this biography of the Beatles and their whole world in Liverpool just seemed really exciting. Very little of that excitement existed in the stadium. And I’m like, Hmm. Something went wrong here. Just shortly after that is when I started reading about punk rock and I recognized that as being within the spirit of that local scene that the Beatles came out of.

It was about two or three years later that I went to my first punk rock show which was… A band from Seattle called The Enemy played here in Olympia. Then I started attending shows in Seattle. There was an all-ages club called The Bird that was in an old warehouse, then it moved into an Oddfellows hall. They had shows twice a month at this Oddfellows hall. That was really exciting.

Arthur: How did age segregation in rock ‘n’ roll music performances start, do you think?

My knowledge is second or third-hand on these things, but in reading rock n roll histories or biographies, it seems like some of those people, like Little Richard, was playing in nightclubs and juke joints that were serving alcohol and they were mostly oriented towards adults, meaning people in their 20s and 30s.

So live music was divided in a demographic way: there were these teen-oriented events and then there were adult-oriented events, and rock n roll was viewed at first as teen-oriented music. It seemed to have been normally in these environments that are dance-oriented—the armory, the school cafeteria, gymnasium, the local union hall—might be rented for these teen events.

When people like Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis became rock stars, and they were playing at those kinds of shows where there’s 10 or 15 acts on the bill and they each do their one or two songs that are well-known, kids were still trying to dance in the aisle. [in faux announcer voice] “Can’t stop the kids from dancing! They’re dancing in the aisles! Crazy! Bedlam has broken out!”

You look at films like Charlie Is My Darling—the Rolling Stones on tour in Ireland in ‘65—and you see it’s sort of a transition to this more concert-type situation, where it’s not necessarily a dance, kids are still dancing, and the set-up seems so nascent, they don’t have huge P.A.s or amps, they just have their regular amps and drums, little vocal public address system, and it’s …very quaint.

But it seems as though in the Northwest here, there was a circuit more or less of all-ages teen dances, which were held at various either hall-type situations or clubs that catered to teenagers and…

Arthur: How is that different from a sock-hop?

A sock-hop is more like high school dance where people are just dancing in their stockinged feet. It seems like the demographic is what divided things rather than a legal situation. The demographic was, ‘only kids would want to go to that show.’

Arthur: ‘Who else would want to?’

Yeah. It’s difficult to say, because I’m just piecing this all together, I didn’t live through it, but it appears that it had this vibe that as the audience for rock n roll starts to age into the ‘60s, and people were in their 20s and still interested in rock n roll, the focus changed. I blame the Beatles for that, because they created the atmosphere for where every rock band was suddenly Beethoven, and was creating “Great Works.” So it was more like when you go to the concert symphony orchestra and everyone is paying attention in this way and dancing is almost like an insult. It’s not that the Beatles had that attitude, but I think that the way that their music developed, people started to view music that way, and then these more serious prog rock bands came along and people suddenly forgot all about having fun. What’s wrong with having fun?

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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.