Sinclair on Detroit
John Sinclair, the Flint-born poet, activist, and now radio show host, is known around the Motor City for his involvement in forming the Detroit Artistsí Workshop, Rainbow Peopleís Party, White Panther Party, Trans-Love Energies, and managing the punk prototype band, the MC5.
One of Detroitís cultural mavens and now a resident of New Orleans, he was back in town recently to see family and appear in this yearís Detroit International Jazz Festival, held over Labor Day weekend.
Sinclair is a jazzman and a jazz aficionado. He spent his youth hanging out in all the old great music joints around the city. Not one to hold back in any way or be stingy with his opinions, he talked recently with Model D about his favorite haunts and impressions of Detroit today.
Model D: What is one of your favorite places to eat in Detroit?
John Sinclair: The Cass Cafť is one of my favorite places. Because I can smoke, drink coffee and read the paper at the same time, itís a civilized place. Most places you canít do that anymore. Itís my neighborhood, atmosphere. Iím just a patron. Itís cafť society like it used to be. Everything I like is in this neighborhood. I moved into the Forest Arms in 1964.
MD: I see the new generations moving back Ė the 20- and 30-year-olds Ö
JS: They are going to have some reasonable places to live down here. All this building Ė itís amazing! You know, they donít say anything about that, either, they just talk about the bad parts of the city. Ever since Coleman Young came in, itís been a constant bashing of the city.
MD: I drove around downtown yesterday by Campus Martius, and I couldnít believe it. People were everywhere.
JS: I had the same experience yesterday. While in town to visit, I go downtown every day on the bus. I saw people there in the park there at Campus Martius on Friday morning. I said ĎWow! What is this? People, downtown in the middle of the day!í It blew my mind. Iím looking at Woodward and there are people. You know, all it took was one white rich person to say ĎIím gonna put my Compuware here,í and it turned everything around. One! One! Do you know what Iím saying? What if they had never done that? It wouldnít be like this.
If I can say it so many words, if they had not taken everything out, it would still be happening. Chicagoís still happening, they didnít take it outta there; they let people live everywhere eventually. Campus Martius, it was amazing. Ö Although, you know thatís what they do, they drive everything into despair, drive the prices down, and then buy it all up and then they make people live there. Ö Itís a developerís world.
You know what, my favorite irony is these people who came here from Compuware. You bring in new people to work; well, then you gotta service them. Thatís how they injected new growth. They all moved here from out of state or the suburbs and they were like well, we need a place to eat, to live, to walk. So they built it.
You know Detroit had a great neighborhood in Paradise Valley. Then they put a freeway through it. It stretched 15 blocks. It was everything. Billie Holiday would be singing here and Charlie Parker would be playing there, later on John Coltrane. It was urban life at its highest.
MD: Speaking of John Coltrane, ĎTraneí was your street name years ago. And speaking of trains, you know one thing missing in the city of Detroit is a mass transit rail to get downtown from outside the city, what do you think?
JS: Well thatís been the hardest thing to build in Detroit since 1914. They set up to build a rail, the subwayÖthen, when Jimmy Carter was in the White House, Coleman got the commitment of the government to build a rail out to 10 Mile, and they would not let us do it.
MD: Who wouldnít let them do it?
JS: The suburbs. They thought it was a ďthug remover.Ē Their idea was youíd have the subway, and the black people could get on and get to 10 Mile and rob somebody and get on the train and go back. Seriously, that was the level of discourse!
Thatís why we got the People Mover. You see the People Mover was the downtown terminal for the main rail from 10 Mile on the Woodward way rail line, so youíd get into town, stop at Grand Circus Park and take the people mover to go to any part of downtown. Yeah!
MD: (I shake my head in frustration)
JS: You know. You see. I like to talk about the good things in Detroit, but I mean itís like talking about an elephant. We can talk about the big gray elephant and how cool it is, but they donít talk about the big pile of elephant shit sitting in the back! The rail system would have been brilliant. It illustrates about what itís all about Ė itís all horse shit. Itís just segregation, itís about keeping these people down.
MD: Itís the 40th anniversary of Coltraneís ďA Love Supreme.Ē I can only imagine what it would be like to see that performed live. Can you name some of your favorite Detroit hangouts for live music?
JS: Theyíre all gone. The bars that I used to frequent in Detroit are all gone. The Music Menu was the kind of place that had an atmosphere. It was warm. It was the kind of place you could hang out. It was a continuation of Cobbs Corner.
The Music Menu was in that same vein Ė you had great music, you had a great time, and your friends would be there, get something to eat. The music was always top notch. Now you have to go to Hamtramck to see Thornetta Davis. Sheís at the Attic Bar.
(Later we drive down Dexter Avenue to look for the neighborhood of the old Minor Key and the West End.)
MD: Back to this big gray elephant concept we spoke of. Why do you think we only see the elephants of the world and not the ugly parts?
JS: You know, itís what the world does. This! They just block it out, the ugliness. Thereís no TV shows about it, thereís no movies about it, thereís nothing about this. (He points out the window.)
We need to reintroduce the idea of social responsibility. If a company does something good and is socially responsible, it stands out, because you know you have this ugly backdrop.
MD: Speaking of backdrops, do you have any favorite beautiful Detroit backdrops?
JS: Well, there are places like Belle Isle and Tiger Stadium. How can you not like Belle Isle? Itís gorgeous. Anyone can go there, even if youíre from another planet. Itís where I go to think.
MD: Which Tiger stadium? The new one or the old one?
JS: I like the old one much better, but you canít get a game there! They gave me a hard time about going to the new stadium because I was part of the group wanting to keep the old one. So I went to Michigan and Trumbull, but they werenít playing. I had to see a game, so, I had to go over there on Woodward.
MD: And, are there any other favorite beautiful backdrops in Detroit?
JS: The Diego Rivera Courtyard (at the DIA), thatís one of my favorite places in the whole world. And, of course the Heidelberg Project. You know, Iím the poet laureate of the Heidelberg Project. I dedicated the Heidelberg Project with my poem ďMonks Dream.Ē
Tyree man, heís the greatest. Baby doll house, man, that was the greatest. Heís a genius. They cannot stop him.
I was over there the other day and it just blew my mind. Itís like four times what it was the last time I saw it. Oh man, heís got one lot of vacuum cleaners, you know the old kind, standing at attention in a row. It looked amazing.
MD: The Minor Key, what was that like? I mean the Minor Key scene could probably have not occurred anywhere else in the world but where it occurred. You know what I mean? And now itís gone.
JS: The Minor Key! That was one of my favorite places. There you would pay $3 and sit there from 10 to 5 a.m. with a cup of coffee or a Coke. Thatís what they used to pay the artists. It was more like a coffee house than a bar. It was out on Dexter, on the West Side. The Hobby Car, the Grand, on Joy Road. The Grand might have Jimmy Smith sometimes. The Minor Key, I saw Coltrane there a number of times, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Art Blakey and the Jazz Masters.
MD: What was it like to see Coltrane there?
JS: Overwhelming. I cannot even verbalize it. The Key! (He pauses.) There was another place, an after hours place where everybody used to go over by the Cadillac Plant. The West End Hotel on West End Avenue. Yeah, they had a jam session. Yusef Lateef played there. It was top-flight musicians who would be playing there starting at 2 a.m. until the sun came up.
MD: We donít have that scene or building anywhere now, do we?
JS: No, nowhere.
MD: Why do you think we donít have a scene like that now?
JS: People in Detroit now like Eminem, D12. In todayís world, people donít get exposed to a good record. Somebody playing a saxophone, well it seems they donít want to hear that. Itís part of what theyíve done to strip people of their culture. Ö Itís all 50 Cents for $90 now.
MD: We do have people like Ed Love who educate and play jazz for us at night.
JS: Yes, thatís the oasis. He was giant 40 years ago when I was coming up. The problem with music today is somebody has to market it and somebody has to make a dollar off of it. Ö Itís the entire 4.5 million population metropolitan area, and Ed Love is the only thing happening.
MD: Youíre going to be appearing at the Detroit International Jazz Festival, which this year has a ton of old and new acts, what are some acts you are looking forward to checking out?
JS: Man, Iím thinking about just going in there and camping out. Thereís so many good artists, you know, Dr. John, my personal physician, Randy Weston and T.S. Monk, Thelonious Monkís son. McCoy TynerÖ
MD: What else about the jazz festival?
JS: Well theyíve got this new thing of 10 Detroit roots artists, of which I was proud to be one. I want to see Johnny Bassett, Alberta Adams, Nathaniel Mayer, Odessa Harris. All the suspects, you know. Ö It will be mostly on that stage on front of the Spirit of Detroit and also on the Campus Martius stage.
You know, I liked the idea of the Spirit of Detroit statue before they welded the loincloth on it.
MD: The what?
JS: The loincloth. Yeah, they covered it up like covering up breasts with Ashcroft in the Department of Justice. Only permanently. I mean, how do people think they got here? Werenít they breastfed as a baby? Itís sick. Itís a sick world.
Some links to Sinclair and his favorite places:
The Cass Cafť:
Ed Love and WDET:
Tyree Guytonís ďHeidelberg ProjectĒ:
John Sinclair at the Spirit of Detroit
Scott Fountain on Belle Isle
Spirit of Detroit
All photographs copyright Dave Krieger