Sunday, February 22, 2009
My Town Monday: Detroit's John Sinclair
John Sinclair reading at WSU in the 1960s.
It is difficult to sum up John Sinclair and his place in the Detroit's sixties-seventies art, writing, and activist scene in a short web post. He was, and is, one of those true impresario types who is impossible to define quickly. Yes, he's a poet; yes, he's an activist; yes, he's a producer. He was both a product of his times and a producer of those times.
John Sinclair was born in 1941 in Flint. He dropped out of graduate school at Wayne State University to become an integral part of the local jazz and poetry community, founding the Detroit Artists' Workshop. The group produced a huge number of concerts, readings, books, etc, putting Detroit on the map creatively in the sixties.
He managed a band (MC5). He helped organized the FIFTH ESTATE, a counter culture newspaper that still exists. It is impossible to list here all of the publications, groups, concerts, communes, etc. Sinclair led or was involved with. He became particularly active in the music scene, believing this was the most effective way to influence the country's youth in sixties' causes. He organized the White Panther Party in 1968, a group demanding economic and cultural freedom and fashioned along the lines of the Black Panthers.
Drugs, of course, were a big part of the counter-culture and Sinclair ran into repeated trouble with the police for his drug use (pot). In July 1969, Sinclair was sentenced to prison for ten years when he offered an undercover cop a joint. In prison, he wrote Guitar Army and published prolifically. He began his lifelong interest in prison reform.
After two years in prison, a huge demonstration on his behalf called the Free John Now Rally was headlined by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Fifteen thousand people attended the event in Ann Arbor's Chrysler Arena. Three days later, the Michigan Supreme Court, on its own volition, overturned his conviction, reaffirming Sinclair's contention that the state laws regarding marijuana use were unconstitutional and void.
Sinclair's activism continued after his release. The White Panthers became the Rainbow Multi-Media Party. Sinclair managed rock groups, produced a weekly radio program, helped to institute prison and drug reform.
John Sinclair is a sought after performance poet thirty years later. In 2005, he founded Radio Free Amsterdam, an experimental internet radio station (http://radiofreeamsterdam.com
He shows up on the station every Monday for his personal podcast from various locations.
In 2008, he became editor-in-chief on the anthology series Headpress. He continues to perform regularly, marking the Obama inauguration by performing a series of poems accompanied by a live bad at Cafe OTO in London.
A documentary 20 to LIFE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JOHN SINCLAIR recounts the events of his life. His radio show can be found here.
And his website here. John Sinclair is a Detroit original.
Tribe reminds me that annual Ann Arbor Hash Bash began due to John's interment. Also there is apparently a documentary about MC5 available.
(Thanks to Woody Haut for reminding me of John Sinclair. Please correct anything I got wrong.)
One thing interesting to note here and already evident from the comments, you will find as many nay-sayers in Detroit about Sinclair and his accomplishments as proponents--much like Michael Moore or even Tom Hayden. But he's an interesting fellow and worth remembering as a Detroiter.
As always, check out more My Town Monday posts at the site of new home owner, Travis Erwin.