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By Jarrod Dicker
New Brunswick, NJ, USA
It ain't fair, John Sinclair
In the stir for breathing air
Won't you care for John Sinclair?
In the stir for breathing air
Let him be, set him free
Let him be like you and me
- John Sinclair by John Lennon
John Sinclair was sentenced to 10 years in prison after offering two joints to an undercover narcotics officer in 1969. The ridiculous sentencing of a known cultural revolutionist sparked a nationwide upheaval, leading renowned left wing fundamentalists to charge to Ann Arbor and form the notorious, “Free John Now Rally.” Above are the lyrics sang by John Lennon at the Crisler Arena in December of 1971 where he stood on a bill with other attendees such as Yoko Ono, Allen Ginsberg, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger and many others. Eventually, the ten year sentence was shortened to three and a half years, and the movement forever now symbolizes the necessity of people to stand against the wrongdoings and persecution by the government, even in these more modern times. But why did a movement form for this specific person? Why did all these “left-wing luminaries” venture to Ann Arbor to protest the sentencing of one man? Who is this, John Sinclair? Well, why don’t we hear the history from the man himself? Jarrod Dicker and John Sinclair...
THIRSTY: What kind of music would you say fed your artistic appetite growing up? Rock and Roll? Classical?
JS: No, it was Rhythm and Blues...on the radio. I grew up in a little country town about 60 miles north of Detroit. What happened was, I grew up in the ‘40s, born in 1941. That was way before television, if you could imagine that [chuckle]. Well, in1950 T.V. started taking over, but before that all the entertainment was on the radio. Variety shows, detective shows, dramas, comedies...all that kind of stuff. When television came along, all that when off the radio and they started just focusing on records. Then around 1948, they had the first black oriented station. A few years later, they had them all over the country. So this was what I listened to on the radio because television never got to me. I didn’t like it...a whole lotta shit [haha]. But, I found these black oriented music stations and started listening to them. It was the greatest stuff I ever heard in my life! So I just stuck with that.
THIRSTY: Great. So your time in the forties and fifties was spent indulged in Rhythm and Blues, then you ended up doing poetry?
THIRSTY: You wrote for an underground newspaper in Detroit called, “The Fifth Estate.” Tell me a little about your time there.
JS: I was a columnist for The Fifth Estate. I wrote an arts column, starting with their second issue. As far as the underground was concerned, it was fairly influential. It was the only place you would get that kind of information. It was jazz, poetry, painting, film and other stuff like that. The paper was public, but underground...they just sold it on the streets. They don’t have the papers now like they did back then. I still remain in contact with Peter Werbe who was editor for most of the time.
THIRSTY: How you got involved in the MC5? Were you guys in a similar Detroit scene?
JS: Well we lived in the same neighborhood in Detroit. They were younger than I. I had heard them play and thought, “these guys are really good.” So I would go see them play every time they were around. I became really close friends with the lead singer Rob Tyner and Wayne Kramer. For about a year we were really close and somehow I ended up handling the affairs because no one else wanted to.
THIRSTY: Did you hold any more responsibilities in the MC5 beside managing? Were you a contributor to their lyrics, music, etc.?
JS: No, not really. I wrote one tune and that was it. We were all growing and developing the MC5 concept. We talked about it all the time. We were totally focused in terms of developing talent and ideas. So I worked with them to help move things to a higher level [chucke]. I also played saxophone on the last number, every night for the last couple of years. They always closed the show with an improvisational number, “Black to Comm,” so they let me play the saxophone on it.
THIRSTY: You were a renowned cultural revolutionist. Did any of these ideas/feelings contradict those of the MC5?
JS: No, not until they fired me.
THIRSTY: Because of your involvement and creation of The White Panther Party?
JS: Well, we all did that together. It just came from them not wanting to do it anymore. The White Panthers came to the call of the Black Panther party to aid them in their movement against persecution. We wanted to say something to young white people that the Black Panther Party was a good thing. It was wrong for the government to harass and attack and persecute them. We responded to the call!
THIRSTY: So it basically did end because of contradicting beliefs about “The Revolution” and The White Panther Party?
JS: After the release of the MC5 album, “Kick Out the Jams” in June 1969, the band decided that this wasn’t what they wanted to do. So that built a lot of confusion amongst the fan base. It created confusion about what exactly a white panther was. What does it mean? The next thing was that the main three people in our organization were in prison. So that had somewhat of a damper, but at the same time it built a lot of national interest because people were trying to get us outta prison.
THIRSTY: Did you ever come in contact or protest with Black Panther leaders, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton?
JS: After a while we spent some time together. Neither of us were really too much about the protest...but we WORKED together, yea.
THIRSTY: In your book, Guitar Army (1972), one of the major quotes is that, “Rock and roll is a weapon of cultural revolution.” What are your feelings on that statement in these modern times?
JS: To what cultural oppression [haha]!?!? Pop culture in general is the main thing they use to keep young people from developing any ideas or activities that would threaten the status quo. It’s a charge into full sale of consumer society. Once they had Woodstock festival and the merchandisers realized that this was a new market and not just a bunch of dope fiends they learned to profit. Everything started to change and become worse. And it gets worse every day.
THIRSTY: Do you think the state Rock & Roll is in right now is a reflection of culture and society?
JS: The fact is that if you give people enough money, they’ll do whatever you tell them to. They bought them off. Now all these musicians are millionaires. It’s not their interest to overthrow the social order...it’s in their investments and making them grow.
THIRSTY: So now to your infamous imprisonment. You were sentenced ten years for two joints, correct? Did you hope this would further propel the cultural revolution?
JS: I hoped this would indeed. We fought back hard. That’s why I got out in 3 ½ years instead of 9 ½. We fought tooth and nail. After I was released, it was about 1975. I knew what was going on inside the prison, that there was a huge gathering and movement taking place outside.
THIRSTY: Did you have contact with any of the White Panthers while incarcerated? Or any of the musicians such as John Lennon?
JS: The White Panther Party among the principle persons were my brother and my wife. So they were also the people that were allowed to visit me and correspond freely with. So even in prison, I was active in the organization, I sort of directed everything. I was the stereotypical Mafioso in prison, directing the criminal “underprise” from his cell. It was different back then also in prisons. They didn’t have the millions of people locked up for weed and drugs. They were mostly criminals who hurt other people and took their stuff.
THIRSTY: Yea, now America jails are filled with culprits of petty and stupid crimes.
JS: It’s all under the control mechanism. Like Disney Studio and MTV...Rolling Stone...controlling their branch of the media. It’s sickening.
THIRSTY: So once you were released, where did you center most of your time?
JS: Ann Arbor is where I spent most of it. We kind of morphed from the White Panther Party to the Rainbow Peoples Party. We decided that rather be a national radical organization, we would rather organize in our local community and try to take over and reform institutions. The ultimate goal was to gain elective office like the sheriff or city council, stuff like that. We eventually elected two people to the city council in the Human Rights Party, but everything fell apart when we tried to campaign for sheriff. The most academic campus based leftists had a moral dilemma with that...being sheriff.
THIRSTY: Ahh, c’mon. We needed a change!
JS: I know. We were psychedelic Marxists/Leninists. Maoists on ACID! [chuckles] So I thought controlling the sheriff’s office would be the best possible place to start. We’d be able to arrest the landlords! We were trying to be revolutionary, so we were studying Lenin and Maoism and figuring out how to make it work in America. Of course, we didn’t figure it out, but we definitely tried pretty hard. We might have been wrong but we tried pretty hard.
THIRSTY: John Lennon made his voice clear in coming to your aid while you were in prison. Did you maintain a relationship with John after incarceration?
JS: We were going to do a big project together in 1972. He got into trouble because he came and helped me out in Ann Arbor. After that, we were going to have a coalition and put on concerts all around the country. And kind of follow Nixon around. We planned to have free concerts outside wherever he was going, ending with a 3 day outdoor festival in front of the Republican National Convention. That was the idea. But they [management] put so much pressure on him and drove him out of the plan. He was all for it, he just couldn’t sustain it because he didn’t have any rights. He was a British subject. Eventually we lost touch. He retreated from public life for quite a few years.
THIRSTY: You currently reside in Amsterdam. When did you decide to venture overseas?
JS: I was in the states until 2003, then I left for Amsterdam. After the Rainbow Peoples Party folded, some of us moved back to Detroit. There, we were active in support of the administration for Coleman A. Young, the first black mayor. Then I went back to the Detroit artistic community and worked with jazz artists, poets and people like that. We would develop projects, produce concerts, record, do radio shows, all that kind of stuff for the Detroit Jazz Center. When Ronald Reagan (1980) came in, that was all over [haha]. Then I worked with a Rock and Roll band for a few years. I was with my second wife at this time and had two daughters...and she had two daughters...so I worked in the music business in Detroit to feed my kids and get them through school. I managed bands locally, booked clubs, etc. Later, I worked with the Detroit Council of the Arts. I edited the city’s arts magazine and was on the radio at WDET. And then, in 1991 I moved to New Orleans.
THIRSTY: Wow. That must have been an exciting move for such a music enthusiast. What did you do there?
JS: Well I moved there in ’91 and ended up being there for the next twelve years. I loved it there and was on the radio at WWOZ. I formed my band, “The Blues Scholars” there. We performed a lot. I also spent time writing for music magazines and newspapers.
THIRSTY: So since you left in 2003, you weren’t lucky enough to escape the Bush-era.
JS: Bush came in. That was what made me think about leaving. I always liked America, until then. But then, you could see that it wasn’t going to be right after they stole the election and nobody said anything. That’s what blew my mind. I happened to have been in Amsterdam for the Cannabis Cup during the 2000 election. We watched it on television. We watched them take the election and saw Gore pitch away to the Republican goons who were doing the same stuff they’re doing now with healthcare and energy. You know...the phony town meetings. And in 2000, the Republican Party sent all these operatives down there [FLA] to pose as irate local citizens. They stormed the place where the recount was going on and demanded that it stop. So then Gore just said, “ok” and that was it. I said, “wow, this isn’t gonna be fun after this. It’s gonna get kind of ugly.” Then they had the 2002 congressional elections where the right wing took over every fucking institution in the country, After that...I was terrified. I was in New Orleans having a ball but I was starving. I couldn’t make a living properly. And I finally concluded that if I’m gonna starve here, I might as well starve in Amsterdam [chuckle]. So I did.
THIRSTY: How are you liking it over there? Easier to make a living?
JS: I write, I perform, I travel a lot. I’m a popular informant for documentary films. I’m not just about the ‘60s but am also a first class expert on New Orleans and R&B music. So I often perform and do poetry (John recently joined The Black Crowes onstage in Amsterdam to read his original poems) and a lot of writing. My new book, “It’s All Good,” is out on paperback and my new CD from Detroit, “Detroit Life” just released. I maintain a blog regularly and have a free radio station in Amsterdam. So as you can see, my time is being spent well.