WHITTINGTON – Two men known throughout the world for their gripping, propelling poetry recently brought their beat to Southern Illinois with a tour stop at Pheasant Hollow Winery in Whittington.
John Sinclair and ML Liebler appeared with Detroit musicians RJ Spangler and Jef Reynolds as part of the Fall 2008 Beats at the Local Library Tour and Rend Lake College’s fall cultural events lineup through Professor Peggy Davis.
Sinclair is the man who has been called “The Last of the Beatnik Warrior Poets” and who John Lennon was talking about when he sang “You gotta set him free” in the song “John Sinclair.”
When Lennon wrote the song, Sinclair was serving a 10-year prison sentence for possession of two marijuana cigarettes. As the song goes, “They gave him 10 for two, oh what else can the judges do?” Lennon performed the song as headliner of The John Sinclair Freedom Rally in December 1971. Three days later the Michigan Supreme Court declared the state’s marijuana statutes unconstitutional and Sinclair was released. He served 29 months.
Nearly 27 years later, the Detroit native-turned-Amsterdam resident appeared before a packed house at Pheasant Hollow where he and widely-traveled populist poet Liebler showcased their work – beat poetry set to jazz and blues classics.
“We compliment one another,” Sinclair said of either Liebler, the music, or both.
Liebler opened with some of the work this “working class son of a factory worker who travelled the world” has written and read in cities from Detroit to Israel. He is now the senior lecturer in the College of Liberal Arts and Science at Wayne State University in Detroit.
Liebler’s set started with one of his better known works, a poem titled “Stick This Up,” which he said is a “little history lesson.” With names like Cronkite, Kennedy, Kent State and the KKK; “Stick This Up” told that history lesson with an ungovernable “I can forgive, but I just can’t forget.”
He moved on to “The Undertow” which segued into “Blood and Moon.” From there, Liebler transitioned to “Rock ‘N’ Roll,” a poem about his grandma in Detroit. She gave him his first Elvis Presley album, he said.
“She loved Elvis. She bought the album when I was four and, hence, here I am at Pheasant Hollow Winery reciting poetry.”
He talked about his recent book, “Wide Awake in Someone Else’s Dream.”
“I have no idea what that means,” he joked.
Liebler closed with a poem titled “Evangeline The Ghost.” He said he was “sitting in Jerusalem, thinking about New Orleans” when he wrote it.
Sinclair, who is the current resident poet and radio disc jockey at 420 Cafe in Amsterdam, opened with a well-known piece from his collection, “The Screamers.” He dedicated the performance to his brother, David, who died two days before the tour started.
“We were very close,” he said. “I won’t see him again on this planet. My brother was a beautiful cat.”
He continued with “Hold Your Horn High” and “All Alone,” which he said was written on a Sunday afternoon in Amsterdam.
“All the ones about Detroit were written in the middle of the night because that’s when all the good s--t happens in Detroit,” the former late-night DJ said with a husky chuckle.
The foursome “drove a lot of miles to get here in a Ford Econoline van,” Sinclair said. Pheasant Hollow Winery was the final stop on the tour before the group pointed their ride back toward Detroit. The format of the show takes Sinclair’s “great-big-world outlook” anywhere people will have him, he explained.
Those who had him Friday night had questions. One audience member asked if Detroit was known for poetry. Liebler replied that it is a “hot bed” of writers and performers. Predictably enough, Sinclair was asked about his relationship with Lennon. He said “John” wrote a song about him and it helped spring him from prison.
“That’s all it took was a John Lennon song to get you out of prison?” a college student asked.
“All it took!?” Sinclair responded. “How many John Lennon songs are written about you?”
He offered some advice to young writers looking to bloom.
“Just write,” he said. “Please yourself. Take a vow of poverty. Then, you can write whatever you want without worrying about what anyone thinks.”
He was asked about the politically-charged atmosphere today, particularly a presidential race featuring Barack Obama as the frontrunner in the polls. He mainly expressed his disappointment in the Bush administration and offered some advice for young writers trying to think outside the box.
“Popular culture is there as a weapon,” he said. “Turning off the TV set is an extremely radical act for a young person in today’s world. Use your intelligence as a filter.”
John Sinclair can be found online at www.johnsinclair.us and at www.radiofreeamsterdam.com/420-cafe-amsterdam.
ML Liebler can be found online at www.mlliebler.com. Jef Reynolds has a site at www.jefreynolds.com. RJ Spangler has profiles on MySpace.com and Facebook.com.