High society notes
Loving looks at best buds, old and new
Published: December 8, 2010
Highest greetings from Amsterdam. I'd like to begin with a salute to a pair of dear friends of mine in Detroit who have just passed from our midst: the poet and composer James Semark, a founder of the Detroit Artists Workshop whose early works were published by the Artists Workshop Press and who struggled to revive the Artists Workshop after his return to Detroit in the early 2000s; and my man Bruce Cohen, the well-known viper, music lover, collector of Grande Ballroom and Gary Grimshaw art work, and heroic fighter against the final stages of cancer for the last five years.
When I first met James Semark, shortly after I moved to Detroit in 1964, there weren't many weirdos, but he was definitely one of them. We shared a burning interest in the music of the time and particularly in John Coltrane.
In those days virtually everyone interested in jazz was committed to viping, and I have the most vivid recollection of Semark in the house when the Detroit Narcotics Squad crawled through the front windows at 4821 John C. Lodge in October 1964 to notch their first arrest of your correspondent for violation of state narcotics laws, to wit, selling a $10 bag to an undercover state police officer called Tall Paul.
When the police appeared in our living room, a joint was being passed amongst five of us — two poets, a painter and two musicians— and the game of musical tokes ended as the police entered with the roach in the clutch of drummer Danny Spencer, who ended up taking the bust with me while the other three went free.
At that point I learned that the penalty on conviction for selling $10 worth of marijuana was a minimum of 20 years and a maximum of life in prison. As a graduate student at Wayne State University and a young man of solid white middle-class background not yet distinguished as a poet, writer or cultural activist, I was allowed to plead guilty to possession of narcotics and sentenced to two years probation.
By the time I was sentenced James Semark, Danny Spencer and about 20 of us had rented a house at 1252 W. Forest and opened the Detroit Artists Workshop on Nov. 1, 1964. We staged free jazz and poetry concerts in our living room every Sunday afternoon, offered workshops in poetry, music, photography and underground filmmaking during the week, published a newsletter called the Artists Worksheet and smoked joints together on the front porch.
A couple of months later I opened my mail one afternoon to find a flier sent from New York City by Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders, my poetic and spiritual leaders, which was sort of like receiving a note from God and Jesus Christ in my religion. It announced the formation of a marijuana legalization movement called New York LEMAR and posited the group's first public event coming up later that month.
I smoked a joint, lost in thought for a few minutes, then turned to my typewriter and bashed out an announcement that heralded the formation of Detroit LEMAR, set a date for the first meeting, cut a stencil for the Gestetner mimeograph machine that throbbed at the center of our existence, and ran off a flier calling for the legalization of marijuana in Michigan.
So I entered this picture with Jim Semark sitting next to me on the couch and I underwent many an adventure with my old friend over the years. Now he's gone, but his work continues to be seen at detroitartistsworkshop.com, and his classic poem "John Coltrane Rhythm Ballad For All" may be seen at my website, johnsinclair.us, under Fattening Blogs For Snakes.
Bruce Cohen started out as a teenager sneaking into the Grande and then pushed an ice cream cart (that also stocked a sizable selection of tabs of LSD) at free concerts at Tartar Field. When I first knew Bruce he was managing the Mickey Shorr's outlet on Woodward in Ferndale where I would take him a few joints and he would install a new tape deck and speakers in my road van.
Bruce relocated to Florida in the mid-'70s where he hung out with fellow Detroiters Dave Dixon, Jesse Crawford and Billy Lynn, then came back and started a business marketing custom motorcycle taillights under the label of Motor City products, subsequently adding a line of sound systems for mounting on road bikes.
Bruce was doing fine when the first bout of cancer struck. He began a long and arduous series of treatments and operations and found his pain could be alleviated only by the ingestion of relatively massive doses of cannabis; he finished his life as a Medical Marihuana Patient duly registered with the State of Michigan.
I was always trying to get him to come and visit me in Amsterdam, where he would find a world more to his liking than the one which had deemed him a criminal marijuana smoker, but Bruce enjoyed his life in Detroit to such an extent that I failed to persuade him. Here's a word to the wise: Do it now before it's too late!
Meanwhile, here in Amsterdam, the 23rd annual Cannabis Cup festivities were recently celebrated under the noxious cloud of impending doom emitted by the new far-right government of the Netherlands with its recent threats of persecution and severe diminishment of the cannabis community, starting with the idea that Dutch marijuana smokers must be licensed and only licensed smokers would be allowed to purchase their five grams of marijuana in the coffee shops. No foreigners allowed!
According to local news media, the new cabinet plans to turn all cannabis cafés, known as coffee shops, into members-only clubs to keep out tourists and underage smokers. As a sop, the mayor of Eindhoven, Rob van Gijzel, has proposed the city's cannabis cafés be allowed to grow their own marijuana for members. He also wants to end cash payments and limit sales to 3 grams rather than the 5 grams currently allowed.
Eindhoven is one of 10 cities designated to carry out experiments with different ways of keeping organized crime out of the coffee shop system. The government has given the city EU645,000 to fund the experiments. Meanwhile, some 15,000 households in Rotterdam and The Hague reportedly are being given "scratch and sniff" cards to help them identify the smell of marijuana so they can inform the police and electricity company when they suspect a neighbor of growing. The card also includes other suspicious signs to watch out for, such as the sound of ventilators and closed curtains.
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