Why the casket…? (for John Sinclair) by Ben Schot

Why the casket…?

(for John Sinclair)

I first met John Sinclair in the summer of 1998. Ronald Cornelissen and I, two artists from Rotterdam, had invited John to a program on the radical subculture and music scene of Detroit in the late 1960s and early 1970s that we were organising in our hometown that summer. We named the program ‘I rip you, you rip me (Honey, we’re going down in history)’ after a line in the song ‘Death Trip’ by Iggy & The Stooges. John, former manager of Detroit’s MC5 and chairman of The White Panther Party, came over from New Orleans to take part in a symposium, do a performance, introduce a film screening and install an exhibition of photographs and ephemera of the period together with his ex-wife Leni Sinclair. Book Beat’s Cary Loren, our main contact during the preparations of the program, had suggested we invite Leni for the exhibition. Her photo archive, he told us, would be a fantastic source for the show. With the exception of Niagara, the original line-up of Cary’s own 1970s band Destroy All Monsters also came over to Rotterdam to take part in the program. Rotterdam, of all places, was where some of Detroit’s finest freaks met for the first time.

In his speech at the Memorial for John Sinclair in Detroit on 9 April 2024, Cary told how John reacted when Ronald and I picked him up from Schiphol airport in 1998 and welcomed him on his first trip to Europe with a joint of the strongest strain of weed that we had been able to find. But listening to Cary and the other speakers as they showered John’s casket with tributes and salutes during the Memorial’s livestream, another story came to mind. I once asked John if he had ever met Captain Beefheart. He said he had. If I remember correctly, at a dinner that had been organised in honour of the Captain and his band around the time of their 1972 album ‘Clear Spot’. John said he had been sitting next to the Captain, while they were waiting for dinner to be served and that he had wanted to start a conversation with his neighbour by politely inquiring how he was. Captain Beefheart – according to John tripping heavily on acid – had answered he was fine, but had added with a bewildered look on his face and his arms outstretched as if he was trying to grasp the situation: ‘But why the plates…?’

‘Why the casket…?’, I couldn’t help thinking during the Memorial’s livestream and imagined that John was smiling with me at the flippancy of the thought. John and I shared many a laugh over the years. We got along just fine. After ‘I rip you, you rip me’ we did several small projects together and I saw him practically each time he had returned to The Netherlands and had set up office behind his laptop and espresso at the 420 Café in Amsterdam. John loved The Netherlands. Rotterdam in particular. I was happy to introduce him to William Levy, former Dutch Provo leader Roel van Duijn, The Soft Machine’s Hugh Hopper, Eddie Woods, Cameron Jamie and a number of other artists, but John hardly needed introduction. I was amazed to see how fast he built a network of friends and fans in Europe – some cannabis related, some music and poetry related, others from a political background. It took him all over the EU in the two decades following ‘I rip you’. Everywhere he went, he broadcast shows on his own Radio Free Amsterdam and, living hand to mouth, somehow managed to survive.

‘I rip you, you rip me’ spawned many friendships, collaborations, publications and releases. One of the people that John met in the course of the program, was guitarist and vocalist Mark Ritsema from Rotterdam. Mark and John performed together in subsequent years and recorded their CD ‘Criss Cross’ in 2005. Now that John’s last performance took place in Paris in February 2024, the CD’s track ‘April in Paris’, strangely enough, makes a fitting salute. Farewell, dear John. I missed you in Paris. I’ll catch up with you later.

Ben Schot
Rotterdam, 16 April 2024.

Photo by Ben Schot: John Sinclair and Hannie van den Hoven, Rotterdam 2015

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