John Sinclair says he has left the 1960s behind to become a 21st-century man.
‘I’M A 21st-century man,” declares John Sinclair, poet, political activist and one-time manager of Detroit proto-punk band The MC5. His name may be forever associated with an era of free love, anti-Vietnam protests, Woodstock and the underground press, but Sinclair doesn’t want to join the ranks of burnt-out hippies still living in the 1960s.
Sinclair may not be as well-known as some of his contemporaries from that era, such as Abbie Hoffman, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey, but that doesn’t make him any less of a luminary. He was a linchpin of the Detroit counterculture of the late 1960s, a leading anti-establishment figure who formed the militant White Panther party and turned local band The MC5 into one of rock’s most riotous, incendiary combos. When he was sentenced to 10 years in jail for possession of marijuana, an army of top artists rallied around his cause, including John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Stevie Wonder. You don’t get that kind of high-level support for just sitting around growing your hair long.
Today, Sinclair is embracing a new revolution online. He broadcasts a music show on his own internet radio station, Radio Free Amsterdam, playing a mix of jazz, blues, gospel, reggae and rock’n’roll. He has released several albums featuring his own poetry set to jazz and psychedelic beats. His latest album, a collaboration with legendary producer Youth, comes out in June. Its title? Beatnik Youth.
Born in Flint, Michigan, 70 years ago, Sinclair moved to Detroit in 1964, and became fired up by the Motor City’s jazz and blues scene, hanging out at the jazz clubs where he saw the likes of John Coltrane and Art Blakey perform. He currently lives in Amsterdam, spending his time flitting between there, Detroit and New Orleans, and performing poetry readings wherever he can find a willing audience.
“I live in coffee shops. I’m the poet-in-residence at the 420 Café, and I go there every day with my laptop, do my work, answer my mail, smoke joints. That’s my way of life.”
He’s been married twice, has two daughters and two stepdaughters, all in their 40s, and is a proud grandfather. He lives alone, and, since he was diagnosed with type-two Diabetes 20 years, tries to live a healthier, less hedonistic lifestyle. “I manage it pretty well. It’s so easy to live with, taking my medicine, watching my diet, it doesn’t feel like being sick at all.”
This weekend, he teams up with “Mr Nice”, aka Howard Marks, for a series of two-handed performances around Ireland, starting in the Button Factory in Dublin on Sunday. The shows promise plenty in the way of choice anecdotes – between them Marks and Sinclair have been there, done that, and have the tie-dyed T-shirts to prove it.
“He invited me to his one-man show, and I just thought, wow, the kids love this, this old guy up there telling stories about being a doper and an ex-convict, and I said, jeez, I could do that, and the next thing he was inviting me to join him.” Sinclair won’t be short of stories – about his time working for such underground papers as the Fifth Estate, organising free concerts, and managing one of the greatest rock’n’roll bands around – the MC5.
“We were in the forefront [in Detroit], we sort of made it that way, and other people followed suit. We were just opposed to the status quo, in every way.”
Sinclair was considered enough of a threat to the status quo that he was sent down for 10 years for giving two joints to an undercover cop. “They were out to get me!” he laughs.
The subsequent two-and-a-half-year campaign to have him released sparked a challenge to the constitutionality of the Michigan drug laws.
Don’t expect much in the way of proselytising, though. Sinclair’s days of stirring up mass protests are long behind him. “I’m not one for telling people what to do, but I can assure them that if they don’t do anything about the way things are, it’s just gonna get worse. I can guarantee you that.”
FATTENING FROGS FOR SNAKES 2012