TEARING DOWN THE SHRINE OF TRUTH & BEAUTY
By John Sinclair
Making these recordings with the Pinkeye orchestra was a magical experience for me. The whole project sprouted from a tiny seed and grew quickly under organic conditions into a splendid blossoming of music & verse in the finest Detroit tradition.
It started in the spring of 2008 when I met a guy named Jeff Howitt after dinner at Mexican Village one night and he followed up with an e-mail to tell me about this experimental improvisational orchestra called Pinkeye and invite me to join the ensemble one night the next time I was in Detroit. Maybe we could even record a couple of numbers together if it seemed like a good idea.
So it’s a Thursday night in the middle of July that year and my pal Hollywood & I are on our way to the Corktown Tavern on Michigan Avenue to meet Pinkeye and see what might happen. I love to collaborate with musicians of almost any sort and I always try to enter the room with an open mind, but I’d never heard the ensemble before I showed up and the musicians equally had little or no idea of what I might do.
The Corktown Tavern is right next door to Tiger Stadium and Tom, the owner, has locked the doors to the public, set out a spread of hot dogs & hamburgers for Pinkeye and its people, and turned the place over to the band for the night.
Pinkeye is a terrific bunch of talented and skilled young musicians from all around Detroit, most of them in their 20s, who play in other bands but get together as Pinkeye to make up the kind of experimental music they want to create together. They’re there for the music and they’re playing out of love and curiosity and they’re comfortable in their skins and, well, it’s immediately apparent that they’re my kind of people.
Coming up to the bar on Michigan Avenue and passing Tiger Stadium you could see where the City of Detroit had begun the demolition of the former Shrine of Truth & Beauty at Michigan & Trumbull, knocking down the beautiful stadium walls and trucking everything out to be sold for scrap by the contractors.
This sight was tearing at my heart as memories of the hundreds of joyful trips I had made to Tiger Stadium to catch some games came flooding over me, and thoughts of the millions of Detroiters who had cheered and booed from the stands for a hundred years, and all the players who’d pitched and batted and fielded and coached within the cozy confines of the old ballpark, and the voices of Van Patrick and Paul Carey and the great Ernie Harwell beaming out with 50,000 watts of clear channel power over WJR radio to carry the play by play into the homes and cars and hearts and minds of countless millions of listeners throughout Michigan and the upper Midwest who hung on every pitch and every swing of the bat.
The new stadium downtown on Woodward Avenue is a nice place to see a ballgame, and it’s generating incredible millions of dollars in profits for the Illitch family and its concessioneers, but you would think there’d be considerable civic value in keeping and maintaining the old Tiger Stadium as a historical site and a place the City could always be proud of for generations to come. The former train station, a once-grand building now totally wrecked, still stands nearby with every window broken out on every floor while the marvelously intact ballpark is torn to shreds and toted away.
Inside the Corktown Tavern the outside world was blessedly absent and I enjoyed the feast and a few tokes with the fellas outside the back door in the very shadow of Tiger Stadium while the many band members drifted in and my daughters and granddaughter came to join me.
After awhile everybody climbed up to the 2nd floor and stationed themselves around the stage for the recording session. Scotty and Phil, the engineers, set me up facing the ensemble from behind a massive jerry-rigged audio barricade that would reduce the impact on my microphone from the sound assault the band would blast from the stage. The musicians would barely be able to hear me through the overhead speakers that would serve as monitors and, stuck out in front of the stage without any headphones, I could scarcely hear myself speak.
But when the ensemble kicked in we matched up at once and everything was lovely from beginning to end—the groove was deep and the music itself was astounding. The first piece they played for me was an original number that came in three sections, and I found a little suite of Monk poems to fit it: “bloomdido” > “ruby, my dear” > “humphf” from my elongated work in verse called always know: a book of monk. That went pretty well on the 2nd time through, and we took a break to go back outside for another smoke.
The musicians were talking about maybe doing another number and, looking up again at the walls of Tiger Stadium looming overhead, I was overcome with the desire to offer a prayer of thanks for everything this place had meant to me since I was a child of 9 watching the game with my sweet little grandmother in Berkley on her tiny round 9-inch television screen while she taught me how to keep score.
One afternoon in 1985 I was at the game with the tenor saxophonist Peter Klaver and drummer Martin Gross and some other regulars in Section 44 of the upper right centerfield bleachers watching the Tigers play the Toronto Blue Jays. They had Alfredo Griffin and Lloyd Moseby at the top of the batting order and we started riffing about Johnny Griffin and Hank Mobley.
I went back to my loft in Greektown and sat down to smoke a joint and relax after the game when this poem descended upon me from above, an account in verse of an imaginary baseball contest between the New York Tenors and the Bebop All Stars for the world championship. I had thought of a story I’d read in downbeat about a Sonny Rollins recording session where the writer said they were cutting a tune called “Rhythm Inning.” Of course it was instead the Thelonious Monk composition “Rhythm-A-Ning,” and that gave me the title and the musical setting for the poem.
Once the verse started flowing I had to stop and construct the appropriate lineups for the contesting teams so I would know who went where and when in the action. I devised the roster for each team and selected the starting players and their positions in the batting order, then worked out a scorecard for the completed game, with Monk on the mound for the All Stars facing the great Tenors hurler Dexter Gordon (29-2 on the season).
The verse play-by-play began in the top of the 5th when Monk mowed down the meat of the Tenors’ batting order: center fielder Sonny Rollins, right fielder John Coltrane, and first baseman Coleman Hawkins. Monk had just gotten out of the inning when my phone rang and I started telling my caller about what I was writing. He wanted to know how the game came out and I had to say I didn’t know—it was only the bottom of the 5th inning.
By this time the game had reached the bottom of the 8th and the All Stars put the game away on a lead-off walk to Miles Davis, a stolen base, an intentional pass to Bud Powell (playing left field, of course) and a three-run homer by Charlie Parker batting 3rd. This gave the NY Tenors a fatal loss in the 7th & final game of the Series and a final victory to the Bebop All Stars at 4 games to 3.
Once completed, I performed this poem in many different settings with many different ensembles, probably most notably with Ed Moss & the Society Jazz Orchestra in the version that appeared on our CD, If I Could Be With You. For three hapless years when the great Allen Trammell was struggling as manager of the Tigers, I offered this poem all over the western world as a prayer for his survival and the eventual success of the team.
Now I wanted to set this poem against whatever music the Pinkeye ensemble could come up with that would fit and perform it with Tiger Stadium still standing outside in the very last days of its earthly existence. Jeff suggested the Mingus composition “Moanin’” from the Pinkeye repertoire and I thought it was perfectly appropriate. We knocked it out in a single take and went home with big smiles, knowing that wherever we heard this recording in the future we would be able to see the Shrine of Truth & Beauty standing in the background.
The 2nd session with Pinkeye took place the following Wednesday night, July 23, 2008—the 41st anniversary of the onset of the Great Detroit Rebellion of 1967—at another great location, the super funky Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit on Rosa Parks Blvd north of the Ford Freeway, kitty-corner across the Wayne State University football field from my old neighborhood by John C. Lodge & Warren, and just a mile or so south of the spot where the riots kicked into life a 12th & Clairmount around 5:00 am in the morning of July 23, 1967.
They tore my neighborhood down in the late 1960s and built up some ugly housing units for married students along the service drive and a shopping mall on the corner of Warren, but when I lived there in 1964-67 the Detroit Artists Workshop and the Artists Workshop Press were in the building on the corner along with the 5th Estate newspaper and the Detroit Committee to End the War in Vietnam, a bunch of us lived upstairs in the former dentist’s office, we took our meals with James Ford at Mona’s on the corner of Forest and at one time we controlled six aged housing units between Warren & Hancock that we kept full of beatniks, poets, musicians, painters, and dope fiends of various persuasions.
Fast forward 40 years and here I am again, in the same neighborhood with exactly the same sort of people I’d grown up with at the Workshop and doing the exact same thing! That I had both my daughters and my granddaughter with me at the CAID made it even sweeter, to share this creative reincarnation with my most loved ones as well as my new friends who were carrying on the struggle well into the 21st century. My daughter Sunny had spent her first year in this milieu but no one else on the set had ever been there—yet here it is again.
I felt this spirit the minute I entered the building, and it clearly informs the music we made that night. The first number from the CAID session set the speech of Hugo Chavez to the United Nations which I had edited and set to verse after I first read the speech in September 2006 against the band’s arrangement of two Fela songs, “No Agreement” and “Lady.” I’d first wanted to perform this piece to Jimmy Cliff’s song “The Harder They Come” but “No Agreement” was even better, and the band plays the living hell out of Fela’s music. I love the final section of the speech when Chavez lays out his beautiful vision of the future as “a world of peace.”
A little farther along that diagonal from the CAID to John Lodge & Warren and then across the expressway is the corner of 2nd & Forest where the ruins of the Forest Arms Apartments now stand. My first residence in Detroit was in the basement of the Forest Arms, before I settled in at 4821-25 John Lodge, and it was a key locus in my development as a poet, writer and arts activist over the next 44 years.
I’d composed the poem called “nutty” this past spring after the Forest Arts was destroyed by fire and had just recorded it with Lyman Woodard & the Blues Scholars for the DETROIT LIFE album, but tonight I wanted to hear it again in the context of this extremely resonant cultural matrix and in this particular geographical setting that means so much to me. It turned out that Jelly Roll Joel could pick out the Monk melody for “Nutty” on his electric guitar, and the orchestra took it from there to make an incredible musical setting for my ode to the bohemian life.
After final tokes in the funky garden outside and final goodbyes from all the characters in the band and their crew, I left the gallery filled with joy and a glowing feeling of emotional completion. This chance meeting with Jeff Howitt at Mexican Village had turned into a thing of great beauty—a tremendous artistic experience deeply rooted in my own personal geography and brought to bloom through the robust energy and intelligence of these young musicians out of the old bohemian tradition.
Thanks, everybody! They can tear down the shit around us, but they can’t destroy the life we have inside of us, and they can’t stop us from passing it on.
—Amsterdam, August 19-20 >
London, August 24 >
Amsterdam, September 22-23, 2008
© 2008 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.
ADDITIONAL NOTES FOR CD BABY RELEASE
I made a number of subsequent recording dates with the Pinkeye Orchestra during 2008-2009 including sessions at the Park Bar and at the Bohemian National Home, where I celebrated my 68th birthday in October 2009. The LP and CD of the Corktown Tavern and CAID sessions had been released by the LocoGnosis collective organized by Jeff Howitt, and I thought I’d add a couple more cuts from these later sessions for the CD Baby digital release.
Pinkeye took over the 2nd floor of the Park Bar at Park & Elizabeth Streets downtown on the night of November 1, 2008. As I remember it was scheduled as a release party for the vinyl edition of the album we’d titled TEARING DOWN THE SHRINE OF TRUTH & BEAUTY, and we played some of the material from the album as well as a long version of my suite of poems called Homage to John Coltrane, included herein
I don’t think I ever did a poetry performance during the period I was working across the street from the Park Bar in 1979-81 as Executive Director of the Detroit Jazz Center. Representing a stellar assemblage of Detroit jazz composers, musicians and educators, the Jazz Research Institute had gained the use of the former Women’s City Club, one of the city’s most beautiful buildings and the clubhouse of the wives of wealthy automobile executives for many years until it was abandoned following the upheavals of the 1960s.
The building’s owner in 1979, Mike Higgins, was persuaded to let us develop the use the building as the Detroit Jazz Center, where we based the Pioneer Jazz Orchestra and its educational wing directed by saxophonist Sam Sanders; a Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) program administered by the City of Detroit that provided paid slots for 28 jazz musicians and music students; an emergency housing wing for homeless and visiting musicians; a grant-writing, project direction and production collective headed by Frank Bach and myself; and a vigorous music performance presentation program that took place in our two concert venues: the after-hours Jazz Gallery and the small concert room called the World Stage.
I spent two of the happiest years of my life working at the corner of Park & Elizabeth: designing projects for jazz artists and composers who were not only friends but highly respected colleagues; writing grants and raising project funds from the Detroit and Michigan arts councils and the National Endowment for the Arts, which I served during the period as an Expansion Arts panel member; producing concerts, tours and live recordings with artists like Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Harold McKinney, Faruq Z. Bey, Sam Sanders, Lyman Woodard and many others; recording every note ever played at the Jazz Center and archiving the tapes, papers and activities that took place there.
What fantastic memories I have of those days at the Jazz Center, and now at the Park Bar I’m back just across Elizabeth Street from the scene of the crime with the opportunity to perform on stage with the Pinkeye Orchestra on a gigantic piece inspired by the works of John Coltrane— and once more, so deeply rooted in my own life geography that I can almost feel the spirits of the past years in the air around me.
On the final cut in this collection the spirits in the air are those of Sun Ra & His Arkestra at a concert with Pinkeye staged at the Bohemian National Home on Detroit’s west side, where I was given a room as Poet in Residence when visiting Detroit between October 2008 to October 2010. I celebrated my birthday there on October 2nd each of those years and in 2009 enjoyed the benefit of Pinkeye’s incredible musical support.
I was shocked when the orchestra lurched into the relatively obscure Sun Ra composition called “Nuclear War” with Ra’s profane vocal reenacted by one of the guitarists and chanted by the ensemble. I’d always thought of my poem “Fat Boy” as rotating In the same orbit as the Sun Ra opus, and I stepped up to fit my verses into the mix. When I played back the results I took the editing scissors to the elongated performance and fashioned this sort of “single version” for the album.
Further, affiant sayeth not.
420 Café, Amsterdam
November 23, 2012
PINKEYE ORCHESTRA @ July 23, 2008:
[Clockwise from 12 Noon:]
Alto saxophone: Ray Thompson
Trumpet: Derek Woodman
Guitar: Paul MacCloud
Accordion: Frank Woodman
Guitar: Mike Roy
Acoustic Bass: Pierce Reynolds
Guitar: Drew Bando
Drums: Brandon Moss
Bass & Sitar: Jason Worden
Timbales: Frank Stephens
Tambourine: Jeff Howitt
Lead Guitar: Jelly Roll Joe
Keyboards: Dustin Leslie
Clave: Justin Walker
Tambourine: Adam Fuller
Recording Engineer: Scott Iulianelli
Assisted by Phil @ Corktown Tavern
© 2012 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.