I was sent a freebie CD of John Sinclair’s newest spoken-word disc, Mohawk, courtesy of my pal and fellow M.L.A.-alumnus, Fly Agaric (or Steve Pratt, to his folks) and the good people at Iron Man Records. Going by the title, and groovy cover art (by digital artist Chu – the “Mohawk” cover seems a clever post-techno hommage to Thelonius Monk‘s “Underground” album cover) – I reckoned the ‘theme’ would be one about the punk explosion in the 1970s and beyond. You see, Sinclair, for those not familiar with him, was the manager of the legendary MC5, the Detroit psychedelic rock band in their glory days. Sinclair got the ‘5 into radical politics via his own “White Panther Party“, a kind of more trippy version of the Black Panthers. The White Panthers weren’t really into setting up a state to replace the old one, they were more into free dope, fucking in the streets and just generally having a good time.
Eventually, John and the MC5 parted ways. As a result of a drug bust – Sinclair was handed a draconian sentence: 10 years in prison for selling an undercover cop two marijuana joints. A cry went out across the counterculture and with the help of luminaries like John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Abbie Hoffman, Sinclair was freed from prison. Lennon included a song with Sinclair’s name on his 1972 double-album, “Sometime In New York City”. Sinclair wrote, around the same time, a classic rock-and-roll manifesto called “Guitar Army“, which is still influential to this day.
Getting back to “Mohawk” – I indeed thought it would be about punk, which to some, meant a revitalised return to rock as rebellion in the mid-1970s, after glam and progressive and singer-songwriters and the fluff of the charts, had appeared to remove much of the sexual energy and tension from rock music. Now, I don’t agree with that assessment 100%, but that’s been the popular media image of the 70s. Many point to the MC5 and The Stooges and many other garage bands in the U.S. and the UK in the late 1960s for sparking the punk explosion, particularly the MC5’s first album, a live document of one of their intense 1968 concerts at the famed Grande Ballroom in Detroit, called “Kick Out The Jams”. Sinclair wrote the liner notes to the original pressings of the album, which were later removed by the band’s label, Elektra Records, for being ‘too controversial’.
With that in mind – my first listen to the new disc wasn’t what I expected, at all. It’s really a tribute to Sinclair’s jazz heroes, like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach and Monk. He spins tales of smoky jazz clubs in New York City in the 1940s and 50s – when even he was a youngster. Sinclair’s now-raspy voice suits the topic perfectly and you can almost see him in the crowd back then, marvelling at the musicians’ ability to create a new form of music almost from nothing. One track, “My Melancholy Baby“, is a touching story about a friend of John’s who lost just about everything he had in Hurricane Katrina and John remembering a visit to his friend’s house to look at a rare jazz manuscript.
The poetry readings are anything but dry and academic and Fly provides some great jazzy drum licks and double-bass phrases bouncing around the soundscape. It reminds me a lot of those great Ken Nordine albums, especially the 90s albums (released on the Grateful Dead‘s label) like “Devout Catalyst” and “Upper Limbo” and the 2001 “Transparent Mask” album, on the Asphodel label. While Ken’s voice seems a bit more lugubrious than Sinclair’s – the aim seems the same, however, trancing out on some well-written poems, which are mixed with funky backing tracks.
The album ends after 35 minutes, nice and economical and ensures that it doesn’t lose your attention. A nicely hidden bonus track then appears – a phone call from Yoko Ono and John Lennon to Sinclair on the day of Sinclair’s release from prison in 1972. It’s a great listen – everyone sounds high and Sinclair, at one point, just says “beautiful” over and over. It doesn’t feel voyeuristic listening to it, it’s a celebration.
John Sinclair’s “Mohawk” will be available from Iron Man Records on 24th March, 2014