THE DETROIT ARTIST WORKSHOP, TRANS-LOVE ENERGIES, WHITE PANTHER PARTY
AND THE RAINBOW PEOPLES PARTY: THE RADICAL MOVEMENTS AND DOCUMENTS OF JOHN & LENI SINCLAR
life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price
of… slavery?… I know not what course others may take, but for
me, give me liberty, or give me death!” – Patrick Henry
1963 a 22 year old John Sinclair ate a portion of peyote buttons
(it was legal then) and had his first psychedelic experience.
In the moment of the peyote experience he chronicled this trip
in a small student notebook and called the work: THE REALIZATION
OF PEYOTEMIND AND AFTER. Sinclair wrote, “Under peyote I realized
the most profound truths of my life and I know that the realizations
will stay with me and influence the course of my life.”[i] This psychedelic passage would have a profound
effect on energizing his consciousness and forging his self-determined
approach in the arts. Already primed with an appreciation of beat
era poetry, literature and jazz, within the year, Sinclair would
help define the landscape of the unfolding sixties and stake his
commitment within a support group of unified artists, musicians
and writers. Peyotemind became an interior outline
of thought and manifestation.
year later, John and Leni Sinclair became founding members of
the Detroit Artist Workshop, a small bohemian artist colony
near Wayne State University, which flourished between 1964 and
1966. The Artist Workshop produced a series of publications
and free poetry journals such as CHANGE, WHE’RE, WORK, FREE POEMS/AMONG
FRIENDS, COLLECTED ARTISTS’ WORKSHEETS, along with many individual
monographs of poetry. Produced on mimeograph machines in small
numbers, (usually 100-500 copies), these journals were THE important
vehicles of counter-culture dissemination in Detroit at the time.
The journals also reviewed the “free jazz” movement which included
SUN RA, ART ENSEMBLE OF CHICAGO, CECIL TAYLOR, JOHN COLTRANE,
ALBERT AYLER, etc… They included musician interviews, poetry by
the avant-garde and ran free ads for ESP disks (one of the first
artist-run labels of the day)—The Workshop journals brought a
sense of togetherness and purpose to the community.
Sinclair’s first book of poetry was THIS IS OUR MUSIC,
and combined his love for music and black culture into a language
and poetics that echoed the riffs and feelings of jazz and the
blues. This small chapbook was the blueprint of Sinclair’s cross-wiring
of politics and music. Published by the Detroit Artist Workshop
in 1965, this book had the rhythms and pace of beat culture with
the underpinnings of a radical political awareness.
precious love, black america,
I wd have drunk gasoline, &
all I wanted was a little
water. Where I come from
mysterious ofays of the imagin-
ation. why you aren’t here
with me, old gang, beer-
drinkers, bullshitters. Where did
Artist Workshop produced free jazz concerts and poetry
readings every Sunday afternoon and on Friday evenings at their
headquarters on West Forest in Detroit. John Sinclair gave a reading
the day the workshop opened on November 1st, 1964.
They worked in state of innocence and compassion, learning
by doing. Being influenced by Charles Olson’s “Projective
Verse” and the NEW AMERICAN POETRY anthology; they sensed
the comradeship and ideals of a “national community of artists”—these
open community “rap sessions” and poetry discussions would develop
into an identifiable “Detroit School”—but that was furthest from
their minds at the time.
beautiful thing about the whole “movement” here in Detroit is
that we all started equally—we were literally “nowhere,” and we
have somehow been able to make a very precise place for ourselves
in this city, solely through our efforts, making all the “mistakes”
we had to make, taking all the chances we didn’t even know were
To follow the beginnings and roots of the
avant-garde is a difficult task, there are simply too many side
streams and diversions dotting the way. THE BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLAGE
(1931) was certainly an important juncture of experimental education
in the arts. It gathered a strong reputation as a unique environment
where the arts could flourish. In the early 1950s Charles Olsen,
Robert Creely and Robert Duncan replaced Josef and Anni Albers
(of the European Bauhaus). The direction of the college shifted
with art educators such as Buckminister Fuller, Robert Motherwell,
Robert Rauchenberg, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, William DeKooning.
One of the students at Black Mountain was
the poet/photographer and publisher Jonathon Williams, who began
THE JARGON SOCIETY (founded 1951). Jargon published important
and influential literature such as Olsen’s MAXIMUS POEMS, and
authors such as Levertov, Loy, Dawson and Zukovsky.
and artist Dick Higgin’s began THE SOMETHING ELSE PRESS is 1964.
Closely associated with the FLUXUS movement, his press produced
some of the first mass-produced ARTISTS BOOKS. Unaware of who
his audience was, Higgin’s often published these imaginative book-works
in large numbers. Many of these artist books functioned as beautiful
objects, sometimes putting into question their existence as books.
scenes like the Detroit Workshop sprung up around bookshops in
other major urban centers. Some of these included: Lawrence Ferlenghetti’s
CITY LIGHTS in San Francisco, THE POETS PRESS, and FLOATING BEAR
(run out THE PHEONIX BOOKSHOP by Diane DiPrima and Leroi Jones
in New York City), THE FUCK YOU PRESS (issued out of Ed Sander’s
PEACE EYE bookstore in New York City) and THE ASPHODEL BOOK SHOP
in Cleveland. The thriving poetic scenes of these cities helped
support the various small presses and journals despite the odds
of difficult distribution and financial instability.
Contributions would flow between these major
city journals, and travelling poetry readings across country were
not uncommon. Radical developments were occurring in jazz as this
exciting period of experimental and free-verse poetry was flowering
and mixing with sound as well as the visual arts and opening up
new possibilities – absolute freedom was colliding with the birth
of a new culture.
Artist Workshop presented a communal MANIFESTO at its foundation,
dated and signed November 1st, 1964. In a statement
of action and support the 16 original members called for a community
of artists to support each other: “(i.e. create some poetry
(read: beauty) “out of the garbage of their lives” (LeRoi) and
communicate it to others)…achieve and maintain the state of consciousness
Henry James called “perception at the pitch of passion…. We sincerely
believe that our Artists’ Workshop can and will succeed: the time
is overripe. The people are ready to convert their ideals into
real action, there is no real reason why we can’t make it.”[iv]
Sinclair’s early photographs documented the avant jazz/rock scene
in Detroit and were first published in the Artist Workshop’s journals.
No other photographer has so well captured the intense, creative,
high-energy spirit and times of Detroit in the 1960s and 70s.
Escaping from communist East Germany when she was 18, Leni made
her way to family in Detroit and fell into the inner nucleus of
Detroit’s avant-garde. In 1964 she met her future husband John
Sinclair, then Detroit’s Downbeat correspondent. She began
photographing the great Jazz musicians of Detroit, and those who
made their way through town; John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, Pharoah
Sanders, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Roland Kirk, etc. She had
a gift for being a sensitive and thoughtful photojournalist.
She was a photographer that her subjects easily trusted, steady
and sure with an energetic, honest eye; an essential ingredient
to her success.
second Artist Workshop MANIFESTO was written in 1965 by Ron English.
This expressed the important idea of community clearly and precisely:
“The real revolution that is forthcoming will be a bloodless
one… Armies of artists and students are invading slum neighborhoods…
should the revolution succeed it will usher in a golden age of
arts and letters… What will be revolutionary about the new community
is that it will be to some extent co-operative and communal… The
possibilities are amazing; all we (as individuals) have to do
is organize enough de-brainwashed people and start DOING IT...”[v]
hotbed Jazz and poetry scene of the early sixties laid the groundwork
and was the template for a new stage and level of creativity.
By 1966 rock and roll had injected the literary based “workshop”
scene with a much larger base of support. TRANS LOVE ENERGIES
became the new name attached to this evolution of expression.
It eclipsed the Workshop by broadening into a more diverse “loving
community” – where artists and the growing youth culture become
further intertwined into a multi-media TRIBAL unit grounded in
spiritual awareness—a rock n roll community. . The connection
to this tribal society or “hippie culture” was an important distinction—
PSYCHEDELIA was fast becoming popular culture.
Where as beat culture was only laughingly
parodied, the wave of the “love generation” was an unstoppable
force. Day-glow posters, love beads, and incense were marketed
on nearly every main street across America and the world. Even
Betty Crocker produced advertisements for her “far-out” brownie-mix.
Leni’s photography turned to primarily documenting
rock and roll and the political climate. Her image of John Sinclair
with the words POETRY IS REVOLUTION made the immediate connection
between politics and culture. Her photographs echoed the movement
and became iconic images in the underground news.
Detroit’s “Cass Corridor” art movement slowly
grew and fed off the energy drumming out of the Artist Workshop
and in Detroit’s first alternative artist space THE RED DOOR GALLERY
which opened in 1963. Leni Sincalir, Harvey Columbus, Carl and
Shelia Schurer, and George Tysh were the founding members of The
distinct raw style of the corridor group was clearly influenced
by music. “I suspect the music scene, particularly the MC5, created
a kind of frenzy that the artists wanted to emulate. There was
a song “Kick Out the Jams.” I think that’s what the artists of
Detroit were trying to do—to kick the bottom from under established
Trans-Love Energies was a conglomerate
of various bands, light shows, artists, underground newspapers,
and headshops based in Detroit. Sinclair saw the burgeoning potential
for rock music as a vehicle for radical change and left-wing political
action. As full-time manager of the MC5, “the most radical
band on the planet”, and with the anti-war movement in
full swing, John recognized this time as being a prime opportunity
to “indoctrinate” “turn-on” and “freakize” American youth. Fusing
a strange brew of politics, poetry, free-jazz, and dope with rock
and roll became Sinclair’s primary focus. His efforts went toward
educating and radicalizing the growing youth movement. The MC5
was the perfect vehicle to express the message.
WARREN/FOREST SUN and later THE ANN ARBOR SUN were weekly underground
newspapers, spreading the word on politics and the counter-culture.
Propaganda and information were both interchangeable, language
was an op-art discotheque of moving images and rapid-fire seduction.
Pop oracle MARSHALL McLUHAN wrote the incantation of the new tribal
rhythms, in his manifesto THE MEDIUM AND THE MESSAGE.
The GRANDE BALLROOM in Detroit kicked the
mid-west psychedelic movement into high-gear. In early 1966 rock
entrepreneur “Uncle” Russ Gibb saw the possibilities of the exploding
hippie movement in a visit to Bill Graham’s San Francisco Fillmore
ballroom. After that visit he commissioned one of the first and
largest strobe lights ever to be built, and brought it to the
Grande. Sinclair saw a partnership in the offing and installed
the MC5 as the “peoples” band. The MC5 played almost every weekend
and would open for many of the national acts, often “blowing them
off-stage.” Gibb supplied the space and bookings and Trans-Love
Energies created the scene and the light-shows, tapping into an
explosion of teenage baby-boomers herding into the city. PLUM
STREET (Detroit’s bid for a flower-power neighborhood) and the
Grande ballroom offered suburban kids an exotic destination –a
place of one’s own. Artist GARY GRIMSHAW was a crucial element
and backbone to the Trans-Love/Grande experience. His artwork
via Grande posters, cartoons and typography was the visual equivalent
to the music.
“The music of the MC5 is the city
The city is meat
and energy in motion
the sound is the MC5”[vii]
trans-love group left Detroit for Ann Arbor soon after the race
riots of 1967- mainly because of the continual police harassment.
KICK OUT THE JAMS, MOTHERFUCKER! –was the slogan and MUSIC
--the cosmic equation.
WHITE PANTHER PARTY evolved out of the extremist,
high-energy, electric madness of the MC5 and their manager John
Sinclair. The idea came about during meetings at their Hill street
commune. Their “ten point program” and statement of November 1st,
1968 included: “We demand the end of money… Free food, clothing,
housing… free access to the information media—free technology
from the greed creeps! Free the people from their phony “leaders”…
Total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including
rock n’ roll, dope and fucking in the streets.”[ix]
This high-powered, LSD-fueled, red-hot guerilla fighting rock
‘n roll unit used dadaist technique, satire, rants, situationist
detournement, and post-modernist terminology in their all-out
BLAST to crush the rancid walls of hypocrisy and the repressive
war-mongering authority control.
shocking antics and revolutionary message of the WPP made Ann
Arbor, Michigan a central locus for this wild ride and futurist
ballet. Ann Arbor had a large and active youth contingent thanks
to the University of Michigan. The electronic revolution of WILLIAM
S. BURROUGHS saw its “wild boy” ideal in the White Panther Party.
Their soft-machine commune was a big house at 1225 Hill street,
filled with music, pot and a beehive of activity. The story is
as compelling as science fiction, more real than reality, and
well told inside GUITAR ARMY, but it soon became a movement too
extremist for its own good, a party with no direction, and soon
lost its support base. John’s incarceration helped to dilute the
energy and effectiveness of the White Panthers, and the end of
the Vietnam war fractured the united protest movement into various
elements. The Women’s movement and environmental concerns moved
to the forefront.
The rise of the RAINBOW PEOPLES PARTY,
was organized while John was in prison doing ten years, railroaded
for possession of two joints. The idea was to coalesce all the
various “tribes” across the country into one strong, vibrant,
united front. WOODSTOCK NATION via Abbie Hoffman had been in common
usage, but it was decided that the term RAINBOW PEOPLE was the
most inclusive and descriptive of the new inter-tribal band of
brothers and sisters.
legendary “Free John Now” concert in Ann Arbor brought John Lennon
and Yoko Ono together with a large coalition of supporters including:
Archie Shepp, Bobby Seale, Jerry Rubin, Allen Ginsberg, David
Peel, Bob Seger the Up and many others —all there to demand Sinclair’s
freedom. This historic concert was largely responsible for springing
Sinclair out of prison, who walked out three days after the rally
of 15,000 people in Ann Arbor. The power of music was grand. THE
RAINBOW PEOPLES PARTY was an experiment with large aspirations.
It included a bakery, food co-op, walk in clinic, band booking
department, graphics department and various other subsidiaries.
It reached too far with too little capital and folded its colored
tent as the last of Sinclair’s collectives.
was a fundamental force in putting together not only the Free
John concert, but the collection of John’s writings which would
become GUITAR ARMY. This is a phenomenal, hip, irreverent book
of reviews, politics, rock and roll, photography, and cartoons,
wonderfully designed by GARY GRIMSHAW. Printed in 1971 on stunning
multi-colored paper, GUITAR ARMY is easily one of the most beautiful
artifacts of the era. Filled with Leni’s vast archive of photographs,
the book tells the complete story of the revolutionary MC5, and
the early history of this root Midwest alternative culture.
Leni’s work has been well documented from
stories in the Fifth Estate to record albums, posters, CDs, the
book Guitar Army, and in her own book, The Detroit Jazz
Who’s Who. Her work was featured recently in a small retrospective
at the Boijman’s museum in Rotterdam, Holland in 1998. The Book
Beat gallery held a successful exhibition in 1999 and is currently
putting together a limited edition portfolio and book collection
of her best images. In addition a DVD of Leni Sinclair’s MC5 footage
is soon to be released, and she is now working on a film history
of the White Panther Party. She now resides in Detroit.
Sinclair now lives in New Orleans where he hosts a radio program
on the blues, and is also editor of Blues Access Magazine.
For the past three decades he has released recordings of his poetry
on various labels and has also released many archival recordings
of the MC5 on his TOTAL ENERGY label. John travels incessantly,
spreading his blues scholarship through poetry readings across
country and internationally.
and Leni were both dead-center in the sixties maelstrom, and carved
out the movements that helped define not only Detroit culture,
but what we identify and define as “alternative” culture today.
It is hard to believe all the magic and creativity that have occurred
around Detroit, and this couples dynamics, but thanks to the documents
they helped create, we can celebrate their vision and freedom
quest in all its fullest expression and beauty. The Bentley Library
at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor now houses the papers
and documents of THE JOHN AND LENI SINCLAIR LIBRARY. It is overflowing
with gems and treasures, and the richness of this vast archive
is now accessible to the public. I would like to thank the Bentley
Library and especially John and Leni for making this legacy available.
[i] John Sinclair, PEYOTEMIND, The End is Here CD 2002
also PEYOTEMIND (booklet) Book Beat Gallery/The End is Here
2002, from the original text dated October, 1963, poems on
peyote, a student notebook/manuscript.
[ii] John Sinclair, THIS IS OUR MUSIC Detroit Artist
Workshop WB/3 1965, reprinted facsimile, Book Beat Gallery,
2000 edition of 500
John Sinclair, editor THE COLECTED ARTISTS’WORKSHEET, p- 1965
Detroit Artists Workshop, 1967,
[iv] THE ARTISTS WORKSHOP SOCIETY MANIFESTO, signed
November 1st, 1964 by John Sincalir, Charles Moore,
Larry Weiner, James Semark, Gayle Pearl, Ellen Phelan, Bill
Reid, Joe Mulkey, Robin Eichele, George Tysh, Danny Spencer,
Richard Tobias, Allister McKenzie, Paul Sedan, David Homicz,
Bob Marsh, ibid,
[v] ibid, Ron English, p.17-19 Artists Worksheet #4
[vi] Sam Wagstaff, p.17, KICK OUT THE JAMS: DETROIT’S
CASS CORRIDOR 1963-1977, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit,
David Sinclair, editor WORK /5 Quote by John Sinclair,
p.94, Detroit Artist Workshop/ Trans-Love Energies, 1968
[viii] A collection of sixties speeches,
rants, White Panther Party meetings, etc.. was released
on the spoken word CD, MUSIC IS REVOLUTION, 2000 The End
is Here/Book Beat Gallery
[ix] John Sinclair, Minister of Information,
first printed in the Fifth Estate, Nov. 14-27, 1968, reprinted
in GUITAR ARMY, A Rainbow Book, 1971 p. 105.