Saturday, January 14, 2012

The chronic heaviness of John Sinclair

The chronic heaviness of John Sinclair

by Christine Metsger

John Sinclair in DetroitPoet, cultural revolutionary and cannabis champion John Sinclair was raising hell long before he was busted in December 1966 after giving away two joints to an undercover police women. One-time manager of the proto-punk band, the MC5, Sinclair founded the militantly anti-racist White Panther Party, worked as a journalist, writer and activist, and got stoned out loud.

The bull’s-eye was drawn. Sinclair did 29 months on a 10-year sentence for those two joints until friends and supporters gathered at the Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, Michigan for the Free John Sinclair Rally on December 10, 1971. They made so much noise that he was released three days later. It didn’t hurt that some of those friends and supporters were musical icons who may (or may not) have been more popular than Jesus.

Four decades later, Sinclair remains an outspoken and implacable thorn-in-the-side to anyone who wants to crush his buzz.

The following is the story of our recent encounter with the man himself.

An almost warm and sunny day in late September is developing into a dark sprawl of clouds over Gratiot Avenue. In the parking lot at Detroit’s Eastern Market, cars are trolling for a vacancy. Although counter trade is brisk at 2 p.m., the handful of booths lining the wall at Zeff’s Coney Island are mostly empty.

John Sinclair answers on the third ring. “I took advantage of another 20 minutes in the tub,” he says. “I’ll be there in five.”

john sinclair
When he arrives, the behemoth with turbulent curls who epitomized all that was conversely deemed either hip and holy or subversive and dangerous in the 60s and 70s, has morphed into something close to courtly. Just a few days shy of marking his 70th birthday, Sinclair looks more now like Shakespeare than Rubeus Hagrid.

“Sorry I’m late.” The voice is a serrated hybrid of metal and fog, and although he is 50 pounds lighter these days, Sinclair still seems to fill every inch of space on his side of the booth.

People walking by the table at Zeff’s stop to welcome him back to Detroit. Here, as a young poet in the mid-60s, he founded the Detroit Artists Workshop and was subsequently taggedthe Angel of Detroit by Allen Ginsberg. He has regularly returned to the city for more than 40 years.

“I’m a confirmed urbanite,” Sinclair said. “I grew up in Davison (Michigan). That was enough small town life. I had that for 17 years. I moved to Amsterdam in 2003 and it was tough, but I really wanted to be there. People in Detroit ask me what it’s like and I say it’s the exact opposite of this.”

After forking up scrambled eggs and grits, it’s a short walk from Zeff’s to Trans-Love Energies Compassion Club, Sinclair’s home-away-from-home in Detroit. Climbing through a sliding window on the second floor, onto a small outdoor sitting area overlooking the roof of the building next door, Sinclair settles into a folding chair and lights a cigarette. He exhales and grins. “You got any questions?”

In August, the Michigan Court of Appeals decreed that patient-to-patient medical marijuana sales are illegal, effectively cock-blocking distribution to registered patients through dispensaries and compassion centers. According to Attorney General Bill Schuette, “This ruling is a huge victory for public safety and Michigan communities struggling with an invasion of pot shops near their schools, homes and churches.”
“Oh, they’re going to continue to oppose,” Sinclair said. “You can count on that. 63 percent of the people in Michigan voted to pass the (medical marijuana) law, and they’re going to have to pass another one. You’ve gotta chase these people out of your issue. Their beautiful playhouse has to be torn down. They’ve built this huge empire on our backs because people don’t stand up and say, ‘You’re crazy – The emperor doesn’t have any clothes on. There’s nothing wrong with this.’”

Sinclair lifts his to-go cup of coffee; offers a toast. “They get high – Why can’t we get high? This war on drugs presents the illusion that it’s dressed in a nice suit of clothes, but it’s just naked aggression. I used to think there was more to it than that, but they just don’t want people to get high and contemplate life like we want to. They don’t want us to live like that.”

And, he asserts, this contemplation could lead to “a glimmer” that there’s another way to be.

johnsinclair4“They’ve got nothing to do with what goes on inside our heads” Sinclair said. “That’s the bottom line, for me. It’s none of their motherfucking business. The war on pot is really a war on the people who smoke pot.”

“20 to Life,” the documentary that chronicles the events surrounding Sinclair’s 1969 arrest and its aftermath, focuses primarily on the Free John Sinclair Rally. In one clip, the crowd of 15,000 had grown quiet when Sinclair’s voice emanated from the sound system. Seemingly overwhelmed by this outpouring of support, Sinclair stumbled on his thanks, ending with a plaintive, “Say something to me, man!” that triggered an eruption of cheers and applause.

“I was scared out of my wits,” he said. ”It was just my weekly call home to my wife, but they’d rigged it through the speakers (at the rally). I live through it all again every time I see that thing. I was so terrified. To me, that was one of the bravest things I ever did, because I was sure the guards were gonna grab me and throw me in the hole. But then I thought, if they pull me off to the hole in front of 15,000 people, it couldn’t be more dramatic – I’ll take it!”

Sinclair is a showman. As a vocal and highly visible advocate for legalization and civil rights, and an overt purveyor of personal freedom, many believed that the harsh sentence he was handed had more to do with removing him from the scene than anything else. In a line from his song “John Sinclair,” John Lennon wrote, “Was he jailed for what he done, or for representing everyone?”

And he did represent. An early indoctrination into blues and jazz had already influenced Sinclair’s social and musical direction, galvanizing into a political epiphany – “the possibility of being a white liberal” – when he heard Malcolm X speak at Flint College.

“Our kids don’t know the history of the civil rights movement because the schools don’t teach it,” Sinclair said. “They don’t want you to know you can fight back and do something to change the way things are. (Laughs) Okay, maybe it’s not gonna happen tomorrow, but you have to take part in the process. Because the other people are using the process to kick your ass.”

john sinclair guitar armyFrom the front lines of the emerging counter-culture, Sinclair recruited a guitar army during a time when sex, drugs and rock and roll dovetailed with the belief that change could be realized through protest and political activism.

“Democracy is a hell of a thing, in my view,” Sinclair said, “because you can vote. One person, one vote. We could get together and elect the people we want, like we did in 2008, but you’ve gotta do it. Nobody’s gonna do it for you.”

“There’s this myth of America that they sell you from school until you die that’s totally horseshit,” he added. “America’s an awful place. They’re warmongers. They’re bullies. They killed the people who owned this country and then brought the black people here to do their work for them. Then they want everyone to tell them how great they are. White people. They’re just unbelievable to me.”

He concedes that there was a time when this inequity occupied his thoughts more often. But now, it is what it is.

“I try to estrange myself, in everyday life, from the square world. It would be exhausting trying to live like that for even one day,” said Sinclair. “I have this beautiful mental world, and I try to live there as fully as I can. I get cranky when I’m dragged out of it to deal with this shit. Like going to the airport. It’s like going to another planet for me, and it’s not a friendly planet.”

Part of Sinclair’s beautiful mental world is the radio show he hosts. The John Sinclair Radio Show is exactly what he wants it to be, and it holds rank as the job he likes best.

“It’s just old-style radio. The guy talks and plays records and tells you what they were. Free form, they used to call that, remember? They hired guys who knew music and they played the records because they liked them.” (Recent and archived broadcasts can be accessed at, or at

johnsinclair2wdaughtceliaBesides spinning tunes for his listening audience, Sinclair is the front man for a diverse-but-interconnected series of live and recorded musical projects he describes as an ever-evolving concept.
“Being onstage is like being in a warm shower for me,” Sinclair said. “I feel at home onstage. And once it starts, I don’t even have to think.”

In 1995, Sinclair issued “Full Moon Night”, the first of what became a more or less annual release of CDs. “Beatnik Youth” is number 17, and will be out on Track Records in early 2012.

“This one is a pop record I did with the Beatnik Youth Orchestra in London,” he said. “I cut a lot of my favorite poems, but the music’s all different.”

Sinclair sings without actually singing. He looses his rumbling drawl like a saxophone lead, swooping and punching in the cadence of a compulsive communicator. A revolving cast of musicians, each one so hot they could singe the hair off your arms, backs him.

“With music, you’ve gotta have a few rough spots in your life to feel something, y’know? You’ve gotta have room for some thought,” Sinclair said. “If you’re on Facebook telling everybody where you went to the bathroom, if you’re perpetually bombarded with prepared information, it’s hard to have any of your own thoughts. You’re thinking about who’s going to win American Idol, or Dancing with the Stars. Life’s too short to listen to a Madonna song.”

I speculate that, with the emergence of punk, rock and roll at least got dirty again.

“There weren’t any punks – none who approached the majesty of the MC5,” Sinclair says emphatically. “Those were fun times. That’s as fun as it gets, I’m afraid.”

I tell him I was grounded when my parents found the MC5 album, “Kick Out the Jams,” in my bedroom.
“Rightly so,” he says. “That was the idea.”

A case could be made, I say, that kids aren’t having that kind of fun now.

“They aren’t. They don’t have a chance at it. I feel bad for them, but what can you do?”

He narrows his eyes for a few seconds, then says, “This is my advice to kids: If you’re going to be in the arts, take the vow of poverty. Forget about getting paid, because you’re not going to get paid for doing something interesting or intelligent. So there’s no point in trying to shape your product into something they’ll buy, because they’re not going to buy it. They don’t have to. They’ve got somebody else who’ll give it to them. They’ve got people bending over the table dying for it, y’know?

Sinclair sits back to deliver the punch line. “But if you don’t pay any attention to that, you can do what you want. It’s easy, you just don’t get paid.”

One might consider that the weirdness and weight of doing two-and-a-half years in prison before overturning draconian laws and – finally – winning a righteous and long-overdue victory to the soundtrack of a Beatle’s anthem could capsize anyone’s perspective. The “Rocky” movies don’t deliver like that. What happened once Sinclair was finally free?

“I went back to work,” Sinclair said. “I managed bands. I was in Ann Arbor and we tried to make Ann Arbor a model community. We had free health care, free concerts … We had our own ballroom. We put on the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival and changed the marijuana law so it was only a $5 fine. We did all this because we wanted to.”

Does Sinclair think this sort of community brio is likely to resurface in the face of opposition to the fledgling medical marijuana laws? Or ever?

“I don’t like to speculate-I’ve been wrong too many times,” he said. “It’s whatever people want.

“We hated it the way it was. That was my motivation. I had no idea what I wanted, but I didn’t want to end up at Buick, like my dad. I didn’t want to go in the army.”

Sinclair shakes his head and looks out over the grey roof at the grey sky.

“I think the remarkable thing is that we didn’t know anything.” “There was no precedent; no role model you could call up. We had to read poems by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and that would give you an idea. That was the fun part…figuring it out.”

In the poem, “brilliant corners,” Sinclair lauds these hipster saints who broke the world open with words, music and vision. He ends his ode to their heaviness with the way it began for him.

john sinclair
“& ‘howl’ was arrested
& tried for obscenity
& the beat generation
was in ‘time’ magazine
& young people in America
suddenly wanted to know
they could get some marijuana---
& a road out of the status

began to open up
& out
in front of us---
& we followed it
& we followed it”

We say goodbye in front of the Trans-Love Energies building and I walk the half-block back to my car, digging keys out of my pocket. I fumble, dropping first my notebook and then the keys on the sidewalk. Clamping the gnawed apple core I’ve been holding in one hand between my teeth, I retrieve the spillage and continue on like an over-burdened and ambulatory roasted pig. Juggling to open the car door, I’m surprised to see Sinclair has trailed along and is standing on the curb a few yards behind me. The Angel of Detroit is stationed at the corner of this ally off Gratiot Boulevard, flashing me the peace sign.


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