Freedom News

John Sinclair (1941-2024)

John Sinclair, poet, author of Guitar Army, manager of the MC5 rock band, White Panther Party co-founder, and early Fifth Estate writer, died of heart failure in Detroit on April 9. He was 82. He was heralded far from his Motor City base as a counterculture icon, marijuana legalization campaigner, and rock and roll enthusiast who was immortalized in a John Lennon song.

Although slight mentions were made of Sinclair as a political activist, a radical perspective formed the matrix through which all of his other work flowed. In a 2005 interview in the Detroit News, a mainstream daily, he replied to a question about the MC5, the hard-rocking, Detroit-based band he managed, “What was our world outlook? Everything must be free for everybody — that’s a good place to start. Total assault on the culture, by any means necessary. . .”

Sinclair was widely known for his campaign to legalise marijuana, for which he suffered two prison sentences, including one in 1969 of 9.5-10 years given by a vindictive Deroit judge for giving two joints to an undercover cop. He famously was released following a Free John Sinclair Rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in late 1971, headlined by John Lennon and Yoko Ono and also featuring Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, Phil Ochs, jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp, and others. Among the speakers were Jane Fonda, Allen Ginsberg, Black Panther Chairman Bobby Seale, and Ed Sanders from the Fugs. Lennon sang the song he composed for the event titled, “John Sinclair.”

Sinclair was a legend in the rock and roll world. Between rom 1966-1972 he was instrumental in shaping and promoting Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, which first featured local bands from the city’s rich music scene, but later saw the greatest classic bands of the era on stage including The Who, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Cream, Grateful Dead, as well as blues artists such as Howlin’ Wolf, BB King, and John Lee Hooker. He was instrumental in bringing saxophonist John Coltrane and the Sun Ra Arkestra to the venue.

John became the manager of the MC5 as the group gained international fame for playing “high-energy rock and roll” that reflected the energy of the era and the subculture that defined it. Many later rockers and music critics defined the band as proto-punk, typified by their wild on-stage performance and high-decibel sound. Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello said the MC5 “basically invented punk rock,” a description denied by Sinclair. He told the Detroit News in the 2005 interview, the MC5 described their music as “avant rock,” and ascribed the origin of punk to another immortal local band, Iggy and the Stooges.

Sinclair, his wife Leni, a renowned photographer who documented much of the Detroit cultural and political scene in her photographs, and several others, founded the anti-racist White Panther Party (WPP) in 1968. The MC5 band was part of the milieu and often posed for promotion photos hoisting rifles. Sinclair said the point of the music  was “to drive you out of your mind and into your body.”

But the emphasis on marijuana and armed rockers didn’t impress the official left in Detroit. The late Pun Plamondon, a WPP co-founder, addressed the fact that much of the Detroit left during the 1960s dismissed the Party and the band as apolitical hippies who were only interested in getting high and listening to rock and roll. At a 2017 retrospective on the White Panthers that I hosted at the city’s Charles Wright African American Museum, which also featured John and Leni, Pun said, “To the left, we were counterculture clowns, but we went out every weekend and gave out revolutionary literature including the Fifth Estate to hundreds and hundreds of young people while the left was arguing about Mao.”

John’s poetry was recognized internationally. He wrote thousands of poems beginning in early 1960s, published along with his compatriots’ work in a seemingly endless stream of mimeographed books and broadsheets. His last public appearance, just several weeks before his death, was in Paris at the exhibit of artwork by Detroiter Mike Kelley. Although confined to a wheelchair, he made the journey from Detroit to Paris to read three poems with rock accompaniment to a wildly cheering crowd. One couldn’t ask for a better final gig.

In his bestselling 1969 manifesto for revolution, Guitar Army, Sinclair wrote, “Our culture is a revolutionary culture, a revolutionary force on the planet, the seed of the new order that will come to flower with the disintegration and collapse of the obsolete social and economic forms which presently infest the earth.” Let’s make it so.

~ Peter Werbe

Werbe is a long-time staff member of the anarchist Fifth Estate and lives in Detroit. He is author of Summer on Fire: A Detroit Novel and the essay collection Eat the Rich.

Discover more from Freedom News

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading