“Am I happening?”
It was an innocuous question, but one that had a rather clear answer – an obvious “yes” – as John Sinclair fiddled with his microphone in front of Prof. Bruce Conforth’s Beatniks, Hippies and Punks lecture yesterday. Sinclair, who was in Ann Arbor after speaking at Hash Bash, talked to the class – in which I am currently enrolled – about rock’n’roll, psychedelics, managing the MC5 and a slew of other related topics.
Though he’s most notorious for his 1969 marijuana arrest, Sinclair’s influence and importance are far more widespread. A Flint-born activist and poet, Sinclair was one of the key figures in the emerging ’70s punk movement and a number of other political groups – namely, the White Panther Party. Most of his discussion, though, centered on the music and culture of punk and rock’n’roll.
“Ann Arbor was the center of the movement – Berkeley, San Francisco and Ann Arbor,” he said.
He talked rather extensively about the genesis of rock’n’roll. Though many people believe that artists like Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones were some of the forefathers of the genre, Sinclair spoke about the real origins of rock’n’roll: artists like Little Richard, Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry.
“It’s rooted in the experience of African Americans,” he said. “If you were to ask Janis Joplin where she got it, she would’ve told you Big Mama Thornton.”
Sinclair also talked about Detroit’s involvement with rock’n’roll. Aside from the aforementioned MC5, the Detroit area boasted a number of influential rock’n’roll artists, including The Stooges, Smokey Robinson and Bob Seger. Sinclair offered his explanation: “In Detroit, there was Motown, so there was already that driving force.”
He seemed to relish talking to students, though he lamented the demise of the punk movement’s ideals – most significantly, the drive to bring down the current political state in favor of a more liberal one.
“We hated the government,” Sinclair said. “We didn’t succeed, and now you have to take classes like this at the University of Michigan to find out what happened.”
When asked about a recent Associated Press article that discussed the infamous New York punk venue CBGB and its recent conversion into an upscale retail store, Sinclair spoke more candidly.
“Punk’s been dead for a long time,” he said.
Coming from Sinclair, a man who’s had such significant experience in the scene, the statement hits especially hard. He mocked groups like Green Day and The Offspring who claim to be punk, as well as other big-name acts that have gained inexplicable amounts of fame.
“Rock’n’roll wasn’t big business back then,” he said. “Tom Petty is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What did he do for rock’n’roll?”
But what Sinclair truly tried to do was help the students understand what it was like for the hippies of his generation.
“The only difference between the beatniks and the hippies is that we were taking acid and trying to save the world,” he said.
Inspired by his casual lifestyle and liberal mindset, many students began asking how he believed they should live their lives. To these inquiries, Sinclair had a simple answer – “Do what you wanna,” he said. “Figure out what you want to do and then find out how to do it.”
And when asked why there don’t seem to be any contemporary movements like those of the hippies or punks, Sinclair was blunt: “You’ve got to move. If you’re not moving, nothing is.”