Exclusive: An Interview with John Sinclair

The Revolutionary Icon Talks About Meeting the MC5, Living in Amsterdam, and Politics Today in the USA

    icon Aug 23, 2007
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Editor's Note: 

On April 2nd legendary poet, writer, activist, and American revolutionary John Sinclair passed away of congestive heart failure at the age of 82. This interview that I was fortunate to secure with him back in August, 2007, summarizes his background, his legacy, and most importantly his sensibilities, which were much more astute than many people realize and far broader than managing the MC5 or fomenting revolution with the White Panther Party.  Indeed, re-reading this caused me to realize in retrospect how prescient Sinclair was about the co-opted state of the political spectrum we find ourselves in today.  R.I.P. John Sinclair - you were one of the few who didn't simply talk about freedom and independence, you lived it.     

- Robert E. Martin, April 2, 2024

For younger readers born during the Reagan years that regard student activism as a foreign concept, allow me to tell you a little bit about John Sinclair - arguably, one of the pivotal forces, along with Abbie Hoffman, Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, and a host of other young American revolutionaries from the 1960s, that forged a fulcrum of opposition to the Vietnam War and helped shaped the reality of a 'counter-culture' as we know it today.

Born in Flint, Michigan, John Sinclair is a poet, walking encyclopedia of American Blues & Jazz artists, one-time manager of the proto-political-punk band The MC5, and leader of the White Panther Party from November 1968 to July 1969. He was jailed in November of 1969 after giving two joints of marijuana to an undercover narcotics officer and his case received international attention, especially when John Lennon performed at a benefit concert on his behalf in 1971.

Sinclair was a pioneering force in the Detroit underground newspaper Fifth Estate, during the paper's growth in the late 1960s, and the paper continues to publish to this day; making it one of the longest continuously published alternative periodicals in the United States.

While managing the MC5, he took the band to the 1968 Democratic National Convention for a free concert. The band was the only group to perform before baton-wielding police broke up the massive anti-Vietnam war rally, calling it a riot. Eventually, the MC5 found Sinclair's politics too extreme and he and the band went separate ways in 1969.

Sinclair's prison sentence made national headlines, as he was slated to be locked up for 9-and-a-half to 10 years for giving two joints to an undercover narcotics officer. While in prison, he wrote two seminal books, Guitar Army and Music & Politics. He was eventually freed on appeal after serving 29 months in prison.

In 1991 Sinclair moved to New Orleans, where he performed spoken-word poetry with a band called The Blues Scholars, and won a poll as the city's most popular DJ five years in a row on station WWOZ.

In 2004 he moved to Amsterdam and continues to host a weekly radio show, The John Sinclair Show, which is streamed live and is also available as a podcast.

I was fortunate enough to sit down for an in-depth interview with this living legend over at Tony's Restaurant, where he ate fish and hot sauce prior to his performance at White's Bar, On September 7th, he is returning to Italy for the world premier of a documentary chronicling his life and times.

Review:  What does it feel like to be a living legend? Someone that actually achieved the goal of staging a private revolution that turned very public and in turn galvanized a generation?

We had no idea that we were staging anything. We just started wanting to be outsiders and have fun and do the things we wanted to do in our neighborhood. We weren't challenged in doing it until the police came after us. They saw us as weirdo's taking drugs so they harassed us and sent undercover agents to infiltrate us.

True independence can be a lonely road. Few revolutionaries exist today because they all sold out or got bought out, and those that didn't live on the other side of the tracks where order and conformity are non-existent and poverty is right outside your window. But at least they're free. Cops only protect the people with something to lose.

Review: When did you first meet or hear about the MC5?

I graduated from the University of Michigan at the age of 22 and went to Detroit in April of 1974, joined the Fifth Estate and tried to change their focus.

As for the MC5, I met them in 1966 and they were simply a Rock 'n Roll band doing mainly covers like I Can't Explain by The Who, though they had a couple of originals like Looking At You.  At the end of their show they played this improvised freak-out, Black Def Com, prefaced with a Ray Charles song that did it for me. They broke their audience and it was different every night. People would go to each show just to see what would happen.

When I first saw them though, they were more static and didn't move around so much. But their music was really great.  By their second album, which I hated, they fired me. I was not happy. They called me out to their place in Hamburg, Michigan and decided to go in another direction and wouldn't be needing me. That was in June 1969. A few months later I went to prison.

Review:  When I was 16 years old I attended the Benefit Concert with John Lennon in Ann Arbor. That was the longest concert of my life. It was like 14 hours and Lennon didn't come on stage until 4 in the morning.  You, of course, were in jail, but had you ever met Lennon or did you know he wrote about a song about you prior to that concert?

I never met John prior to that song. Jerry Rubin became friends with him and Rubin called to say he was going to Ann Arbor to organize a show for me. He asked John if we wanted to come and the rest is history. His presence changed everything.

Getting released from prison was the happiest day of my life so far. The Michigan Supreme Court granted me a bond, so it all came together. First we were agitating to change the marijuana laws based on the contention that pot is not a narcotic. Secondly, we claimed my sentence amounted to cruel & unusual punishment; and finally, there was the entrapment issue.

We'd been agitating within the legislature and working on different Senators and Representatives, and then when the rally happened on December 10th, mainly to put pressure on the legislature, and Lennon announced he would be coming to Michigan, that changed everything. The spotlight was on them and they were scrambling. I wasn't something they could brush away anymore.

Review: To me that period epitomized the power of political action, getting the Court to reverse their position on something they decided to maintain just a few days earlier.

It proved that the premise worked

Review: When you look back at our generation and future generations, don't you find it disappointing that people pretty much gave up on agitation and political action?

They gave up. It's that simple. Nixon was out of office, the war was over, there were no more rallying points.

People have too many things to distract them than worrying about social issues. What we did in the sixties was unprecedented because we took 'em by surprise. Now we're surrounded by all this 'popular culture'. We've got terrorism and Guantanamo and what we championed the powers-that-be turned against us. They co-opted everybody. Pop culture bought all the revolutionaries out. Most of them became millionaires.

Abbie Hoffman always used to tout the writings of Herbert Marcuse who warned that the biggest danger to any movement was getting bought out. We thought he was nuts, but that's exactly what happened.  Popular culture bought out peoples' sense of outrage.

Review: So what's it like living in Amsterdam?

It's great. The culture is completely different. First, nobody is armed with weapons. They wouldn't even think of packing a piece. In America its so pervasive nobody talks about it. I'm a city person and know wherever I go in the USA, somebody is going to be strapped because people are scared.  The Dutch don't think like that. They had Hitler in their country and don't want to see that happen again.

They have liberal drug laws in Amsterdam. In the USA the corporations, the media, the state, the Supreme Court are all aligned together, working against personal preference.

The Dutch respect personal preferences. They don't have people sleeping on benches because they take care of them. They don't want them breaking into their house and taking their TV. They're proud and take care of their people. They call it the Dutch way.

It's very comfortable for me. If you get sick, they take care of you. They have a way of life that they cherish. There's no strip malls, no SUV's. People drive bicycles and rely on public transportation.

Review: What's your take on American politics today? Apart from Bush, do you see any hope for the future?

Sinclair:  Now politics is a big industry, as noted earlier, with all these interests aligned together - the media, the politicians, and the corporations.

18 months after 9/11 seventy-two percent of Americans thought Iraq was responsible, which is just plain stupid. You saw on TV who did it. Sixteen of the guys were Saudis and Pakistan was backing those guys. So what does the United States do? They go after Iraq.

It disturbs me that you never see anything in the American discourse about these basic facts. They've managed to get people to forget all the facts, so they don't understand anything.

As for resistance and solutions, the solution is simple. People need to organize and fashion the government they want to have. The people in charge aren't going to give it to us. They're creating the world they want - the world for rich people. They got it going big time. Murdoch just bought the Wall Street Journal and they own all the record companies, all the radio stations, news publications. Before Reagan a corporation could only own 7 radio stations in the U.S. Then the lid got lifted and now they own 1700 of 'em. This reduces the range of opinion in this country.

Review: Rolling Stone just published a 40-th Anniversary issue on the Summer of Love and Iggy Pop wrote a bit in there about you and the MC5.  What's your take on that? 

Also, do you get along with any of the remaining members of the 'Five' today?

Iggy is a brilliant artist but his memory is bad - what he writes in that article didn't happen that way at all; but I guess that's part of creative license.

As for the 'Five', Wayne Kramer and I go back a long way and I love him like a brother. I never forgave the other guys, though. Two of them died and I was on hostile terms with the others for years. But Wayne has been bringing everybody together the last ten or 12 years. I'm friends with Mike and Dennis again. It only took 30 years.

Review: I read Norman Mailer's book Miami & the Siege of Chicago, and he has some great passages in there about the chaos that occurred when the MC5 played the Democratic Convention in '68. Do you have any impressions from that?

Sinclair: I remember it pretty well for being so smashed! (laughter)  There was this guy from Montreal that called us up called Jim Morrison (not the same one from the Doors). Abbie Hoffman was leading him around and he was supposed to be responsible for getting permits and everything set up, but he was just whacked. It wasn't very organized. There was no PA, so we used our own. There wasn't a stage, he didn't get permits, the police were advancing, so we just played and got the hell out of there and made a clean break. We're from Detroit, ya know!

Review: So what's next for John Sinclair?

This filmmaker named Steve Gephardt has made a biography of my life spanning 30-some years that will be premiered September 7th in Italy at a major film festival. He filmed the Lennon Rally and over the years has documented different parts of my life, so I'm very excited about that.

I lost about 20 pounds between the last ten years of filming because I quit eating French fries and bread. The last time I looked like I do today was back in 1959, so there's symmetry there, going back to the beginning. I've got kids and grandkids and now I want to stick around on the planet a bit longer.

I'll be coming back to Michigan in October to premier the film in Flint, so I'm very excited.
It is sad, though, for filmmakers and bands and artists today. It's too hard to break out and the truth is you won't get any commercial exposure unless you buy into the garbage and pay a hundred grand to get your record played on the radio.

The genius of rock 'n roll was that it was a tremendous democracy. You could put out a record for $500 bucks and make it big.

It's like I say during many of my shows: 'We ain't gonna be watching no news hereŠand see what the government has to say to you today.'

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