What a little bookshop can do
There was an event called Quiet Revolutions at the Barbican Library last week, celebrating radical bookshops old and new, from Housmans of King’s Cross, Newham Books in East London, New Beacon Books of Finsbury Park and Gay’s the Word of Marchmont Street to Five Leaves of Nottingham. I wasn’t there, but it reminded me of the importance of such places, and in particular the pivotal role played in my own life by two such places, the ancestors of Five Leaves.
The Trent Book Shop was opened in 1964 by Stuart Mills and Martin Parnell, two young men who’d abandoned careers as schoolteachers. It was on Pavilion Road, a little street leading down from Trent Bridge to the main entrance to the Nottingham Forest football ground (which may have been how I first found it). From the beginning it was a local equivalent to Indica and Better Books in London: a place to buy alternative literature, particularly the products of small poetry presses. After a couple of years Mills and Parnell found new and larger premises in Drury Hill, a narrow street running down from the Lace Market near the city centre, which they opened under the name Bux. It was there that I spent many hours until moving to London in 1969, buying the early editions of International Times and the publications they’d imported from the US, including the Village Voice and its rival, the East Village Other. I still have some of the books and pamphlets I bought there, including LeRoi Jones’s Blues People, The Dead Lecturer, The System of Dante’s Hell, Home and Preface to a 20-Volume Suicide Note, Che Guevara’s Bolivian Diaries and Guerrilla Warfare, the screenplays of Godard’s Alphaville and Made in USA, and the English-language edition of Cahiers du Cinéma.
The things I’m happiest to have preserved are copies of the only two editions of a jazz magazine called Change, published in Detroit in 1965 and ’66 and founded and edited by the poet and activist John Sinclair and the trumpeter Charles Moore under the aegis of the Artists Workshop Press, a co-operative organisation. Change was printed on cheap paper in A4 format, $1 a copy. Archie Shepp was on the cover of the first issue, photographed by Leni Sinclair, John’s wife, and Andrew Hill on the second. There were letters from correspondents in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Paris and London. Tam Fiofori and Jim Burns sent pieces from the UK.
There were reviews of concerts (Shepp, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor at the Down Beat festival in Chicago, Mingus at UCLA, Ornette Coleman in Paris and San Francisco) and albums (Hill’s Point of Departure, the New York Art Quartet’s ESP LP, Albert Ayler’s Bells, Shepp’s Fire Music, Coltrane’s Ascension). Sometimes the writers abandoned conventional prose and turned their reviews into poetry, e.g. Clark Coolidge’s abstract impressions, five pages long, of Giuseppi Logan’s ESP debut. That’s also how Sinclair wrote his introduction to the second issue: “We are the products / of our emotions, of our / uncovered lives. Changes/2 / is reflection. Dig your selves / & let them out / into the light. The sun / will never set.” The dateline on the piece was the Detroit House of Corrections, following Sinclair’s arrest for marijuana possession. (In 1969, having played a part in the emergence of the White Panther Party — formed to support the Black Panthers — and the MC5, he would be sentenced to a 10-year term for trying to sell joints to two people who turned out to be undercover cops, thus attracting the support of Abbie Hoffmann and John Lennon, which led to his early release.)
Now, so many years later, these magazines have their own soundtrack, in the shape of an album titled John Sinclair Presents: Detroit Artists Workshop: Community, Jazz and Art in the Motor City 1965-81, containing music recorded at concerts during and in the years after the short life of Change. There’s a spoken introduction by Sinclair from a radio show, followed by two pieces from Donald Byrd in concert with the Paradise Theatre Orchestra in 1978: “Blackjack”, the title track of one of his Blue Note albums, and a lovely version of the immortal “Cristo Redentor”. Three tracks from the Coltrane-influenced Detroit Contemporary 4 in 1965-66 feature Moore’s trumpet and the piano of the young Stanley Cowell. The tenorist Bennie Maupin leads his quartet. Other tracks feature outstanding work from the guitarist Ron English and an uncredited altoist who may be Marion Brown. A 1979 benefit for the altoist “Sonny Red” Kyner yields an invigorating composition for a big band and choir led by Teddy Harris, a pianist who had played on Jackie Wilson’s “Reet Petite” in 1957 and served as the Supremes’s musical director from 1970-86. Lyman Woodard’s Hammond B3 solo with his own band on the funky Latin rhythm of “Déjà Vu” is all too short (Woodard was also Martha and the Vandellas’ MD).
Good luck with trying to find copies of Change/1 and /2. But the album is easy to acquire and well worth it, not just for the music but for the documentation included in the accompanying booklet, particularly the manifesto of the Artists Workshop, written in November 1964 and fully illustrative of the sense of struggle and optimism in the air. Explaining the need to charge members an initial $5 a month in subscription for upkeep of the premises, the principles are outlined:
(1) Each member of the Workshop is to assume an equal responsibility in the project’s success. (2) Members have to go into their already near-empty pockets, thus the project cannot be treated lightly. (3) We feel that any commercial means of support, at least (& especially) in the beginning, would tend to create an artificial community hung together on money. Rather than a genuine community built on mutual need and mutual interest. (4) No ‘outside’ pressures, hang-ups, interferences. (5) The Workship ideal can be maintained, i.e. there will be no pressure on artists to produce work that would result in commercial success, rather than integrity and aesthetic honesty, as its ultimate purpose. We do believe, however, that commercial ventures will come into being as logical and desirable outgrowths of the Workshop as it has been conceived and is now operating. For example, we can see in the future a coffeeshop where musicians would present their work; a gallery for painters and other graphic artists to exhibit their work; a small printing and/or publishing concern through which poets & writers could introduce their work; an operating film society that would enable local film-makers to produce and possibly market cinematic ideas.
Dreams, dreams. And in Detroit, at least, such a dream came true, for a while.
* The CD of John Sinclair Presents: Detroit Artists Workshop is on the Strut label.