Ann Arborite Hiawatha Bailey
by Matt Thompson
From the July, 2014 issue
At the Blind Pig, Hiawatha Bailey says, "they know how to treat a rocker right." When he's not crooning behind the mic or listening to other acts in the bar's main room, you may find him downstairs in the 8 Ball Saloon, playing darts or pool, or commiserating with other rockers. Over the years he's shared a drink and conversation there with the likes of Scott Morgan of the Rationals, Ron Asheton of the Stooges, and Dee Dee Ramone.
Asheton and Ramone are both gone now, but thirty-six years after founding his own band, the Cult Heroes, Bailey, sixty-six, still has a rocker's swagger. He waves at a few regulars as he enters the 8 Ball, a dimly lit room off a driveway, through a yellow door and down a steep flight of stairs from First St. "I like dark corners," Bailey says approvingly.
Tall and nimble, he wears black pants, a black T-shirt, and a black wool hat. The skin on his face is uncommonly smooth, his smile hints at mischief, and the timbre of his voice testifies to his role as a lead singer. But even before he stepped in front of the microphone, Bailey was something of a local celebrity. As a young volunteer helping out at a communal house on Hill Street, he was the only African American member of the White Panther Party.
Born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1948, Bailey was named Hiawatha by his father, who was inspired by the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem. Sickened by the racism in Georgia, the elder Bailey moved the family north, where work was plentiful and the racial climate more agreeable. "Hi" attended elementary school in Hamtramck, middle school on Detroit's east side, and high school in Belleville, where his father moved the family to escape growing racial tensions in the Motor City.
After graduation, Bailey moved to Ann Arbor, where he worked at Casey's Gas and Appliance at Fourth Ave. and Huron and spent his off
hours at Mark's coffeehouse on William (currently NYPD).
The town's ambience grew politically charged, he recalls, "as the Vietnam War pushed our local culture to the left." Bailey was drawn into the ferment by his friend David Sinclair.
Sinclair's brother, John, a musician and marijuana activist, had founded the White Panther Party as a gesture of solidarity with the Black Panthers. In 1969, John was sentenced to ten years in prison for giving away two marijuana cigarettes, and freeing him had become a cause celebre in Ann Arbor.
"Dave said something like, 'You can continue just hangin' out on the Diag smokin' pot, or you can be a part of the change,'" Bailey recalls. And so he joined the White Panthers.
Bailey "was always in the forefront of everything," recalls Leni Sinclair, John's wife at the time. Sinclair remembers a chart on the wall at the WPP headquarters at 1520 Hill where members signed up for "Free John" activities, publicity projects, or child care at the Children's Community Center--the last a favorite of Bailey's.
When he wasn't babysitting the children of Ann Arbor's revolutionaries, he volunteered for a food-buying collective: "People in various communes throughout Ann Arbor would contribute money," he recalls. "And then members would drive off to Detroit Farmers' Market, buy up a bunch of produce, and deliver it to people." That evolved into the People's Food Co-op.
Bailey also worked as a roadie for the bands The Up and Destroy All Monsters. "White Panthers would send out dictates to hold Sunday concerts at public parks, play music, circulate petitions, and educate the masses," he recalls. "The idea was to bridge cultural gaps. It didn't matter if people were liberal, conservative, black, white--the idea was to unite."
That culminated in the legendary "Free John Sinclair" concert at Crisler Arena in December 1971. Bailey helped look after John Lennon and Yoko Ono while they waited to perform at the end of a show that also included Bob Seger, Allen Ginsberg, and surprise guest Stevie Wonder. Three days later, John Sinclair was sprung from Jackson State Prison.
As the counter-culture movement waned during the early Seventies, Bailey had his own run-in with the law. Arrested on a drug charge in 1974, he landed in a federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky. Founded in 1935 as the United States Narcotic Farm, "it was the country club of prisons," Bailey says, describing rows of Art Deco buildings arranged in a square surrounding a vast lawn. Inmates were treated, not just warehoused, and were assigned to different units based on their addictions, "the heroin users in one and cocaine addicts in another."
Bailey wrote an article for the prison newsletter, The Flack, on "positive mental attitudes"--and found himself appointed its editor, with free run of the facility. One day, he rode a freight elevator down into the bowels of the prison, where he discovered a cavernous chamber with a small performance stage and theater, an assemblage of old instruments, and a microphone gathering dust. Someone had scratched the names Billie Holiday into the microphone and Gene Krupa into a drum set.
Later, he learned that the room had once been a therapeutic workshop for jazz greats in rehab--the ghosts of "Narco" also included Chet Baker, Sonny Rollins, and Stan Levey.
Bailey says with regret that none of their performances were ever recorded. But he did team up with two fellow inmates--guitarist Wayne Kramer and bassist Michael Davis, both veterans of the John Sinclair-managed MC5--to perform a few gigs in the Lexington basement.
Freed in 1978, Bailey returned to Ann Arbor, formed the Cult Heroes, and jumped into the punk rock scene. They performed their first gig at the Hamburg Pub with a playlist of just eight songs. From there, they built a loyal following in Ann Arbor and beyond. The Cult Heroes toured for a while and had some brushes with fame, including a good review in Variety, which called Bailey a "riveting lead singer."
Band members have come and gone over the years, but Bailey remains the front man. Single and childless, he calls the current lineup--guitarist James Conway Jr., drummer Nikki Savage, and bassist Terry Ivan--"my tribe." They'll be at the Blind Pig on July 11 (see Nightspots, p. 56), playing their own songs plus a few classics from the MC5 and the Stooges.
While he lives cheaply in a small house on the West Side, Bailey reminds you he's doing what he loves: "I'm a rocker, and I'll rock till I drop."
[Originally published in July, 2014.]
On July 3, 2014, Allan wrote:
Great article! Glad to see Hiawatha is still rockin'!
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