John Sinclair, Detroit poet, cannabis activist, dead at 82


Gleefully proclaiming the joys of rock ‘n’ roll, drugs and sex in the streets, John Sinclair reigned as a nationally celebrated troubadour of youth rebellion during the psychedelic era, playing a lead role in making Detroit and Ann Arbor counterculture hot spots with the MC5 band, the White Panther Party, cutting-edge concerts and flamboyant rhetoric.

Sinclair, who lived in Detroit, died Tuesday after years of declining health. Sinclair had been hospitalized at DMC Detroit Receiving Hospital for two weeks before his death at 7:58 a.m., his longtime publicist told the Detroit Free Press. He was 82.

Sinclair’s utopian dream of a post-industrial society based on leisure and marijuana never went beyond a small group of collaborators. But during the 1960s and early 70s, he made headlines as a cultural whirlwind and bold provocateur, infuriating the establishment while attempting to organize a “guitar army” of young revolutionaries to mount a “total assault” on the “death culture” of America.

“The pig-death machine is anti-life by definition,” Sinclair wrote in 1969. “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.”

While his planned utopia was a naïve fantasy, as he later acknowledged, Sinclair piled up a long list of accomplishments. More than anyone, he led the long battle to legalize marijuana in Michigan. A daily toker, he famously served more than two years in prison in his late 20s for giving an undercover cop two joints. No less a star than ex-Beatle John Lennon came to Ann Arbor to lend support to the powerful “Free John Now” movement that ultimately succeeded in springing Sinclair from behind bars.

In a more consequential criminal case, he and two comrades defeated the administration of President Richard Nixon before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972 after being charged with conspiring to bomb a CIA office in Ann Arbor.

Swaggering and purposely outrageous with a flair for theatrics, Sinclair was a natural-born leader. He had long, bushy hair in his heyday, a raspy voice, a diabolical laugh and a linebacker-like physique that Detroit police once quantified as 6-feet-4 and 250 pounds. Recalling his first encounter with Sinclair, a New York record executive described him as “bursting with charm, vigor and intellect. Just the look and size of him ― he was one of the most impressive people I had ever met.”

In addition to managing the legendary MC5 and leading the White Panthers, later renamed the Rainbow Peoples Party, Sinclair helped build Detroit’s Grande Ballroom into one of the best-known concert venues in the Midwest. He had a hand in launching the long career of Iggy Pop, originally the outlandish lead singer of the Psychedelic Stooges. He made numerous appearances at high schools and other venues, preaching rebellion to wide-eyed students.

At heart a poet, Sinclair was also a music journalist and became a force in the underground press movement, publishing the Warren-Forest Sun, eventually moving it to Ann Arbor. In the mid-1960’s he co-published Guerilla ― “a newspaper of cultural revolution” ― and wrote about music, drugs and other subjects for the Fifth Estate, then Detroit’s unruly alternative paper.

Sinclair also organized Detroit’s first love-in, produced free concerts and hosted a show on popular WABX-FM. In the early and mid-1970’s, he put on the critically acclaimed Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival and booked hip music acts for the Shelby Hotel’s Rainbow Room in downtown Detroit.

While failing to ignite a mass movement toward a new society, Sinclair succeeded in attracting thousands of young people to his projects. Even if they didn’t buy into the White Panthers’ revolutionary 10-point program, many metro Detroit Baby Boomers, coming of age amid a worldwide youth revolt, found Sinclair’s world enticing.

“John was no kid, but he did share the anarchistic spirit and fervency of youth,” said Harvey Ovshinsky, the writer and documentarian who founded the Fifth Estate in 1965. “He was, for so many young people, a standard bearer, a role model for how to ‘stick it to the man,’ relentless in his dogged determination to not just get high, but to defy authority and challenge the rigid, repressive norms of the day.”

Don Was, the renowned producer and musician who grew up in metro Detroit, met Sinclair when he was 15, at the opening of the Plum Street arts neighborhood in 1967. Sinclair was wearing a purple suit and passing out mimeographed sheets of his poetry. Was calls Sinclair “the coolest guy I ever met,” adding he was more important in shaping the worldview of him and his friends than Bob Dylan or the Beatles.

“He was the first kind of cultural revolutionary to demonstrate to us kids here in Detroit that you could free yourself from the world of Brylcreem and “‘Ozzie and Harriet,'” Was said in 2023 on WDET-FM.

For that very reason, many parents, cops and educators reacted to Sinclair with horror; Sinclair derided them as “squares” and “plastic people.” The rebukes intensified when adults heard the four-syllable MF bomb in the first line of the MC5’s most popular song, “Kick Out the Jams.” Detractors also objected to Sinclair’s cheering for the Viet Cong, finding excitement in Detroit’s 1967 unrest and assailing cops as “pigs.”

Sinclair could be overbearing and self-involved, and he had critics on the left, too. After he led a group of Ann Arborites to Detroit in the mid-1970’s to restart the Sun, the Fifth Estate, by then a rival, took issue with the Sun’s commercialism and unquestioning support of Mayor Coleman Young. At one point the Fifth Estate published a caustic parody of the Sun, with the lead headline ― “Jail John Now!” ― a sarcastic twist on the recent campaign to free Sinclair from prison.

In rallying young people to revolt, Sinclair set out the details of the new society he envisioned with vague, hyperbolic predictions, as when he encouraged people to drop acid:

“LSD,” he wrote, “was the catalyst which transformed rock and roll from a music of simple rebellion to a revolutionary music with a program for living in the New Age of post-industrial, post-scarcity abundance which will come to flower with the final collapse of western civilization.”

A white man devoted to Black culture

In the late 1960’s, Sinclair, his ally Pun Plomondon and a small band of followers, tired of police harassment and surging crime in Detroit, moved to two mansions on Hill Street in Ann Arbor. They stepped up their revolutionary rhetoric and founded the White Panther Party, modeled after the Black Panthers. Sinclair became chairman.

White Panther members acquired rifles and took target practice in the woods, and MC5 members posed wearing cartridge belts and brandishing long guns as if they were guitars. One member of the Black Panthers reportedly dismissed the dope-smoking Panthers from Michigan as “psychedelic clowns.” But authorities paid attention.

While the White Panthers never used the weapons beyond photo ops, the FBI, conflating their bark with their bite, called the Panthers “potentially the largest and most dangerous of revolutionary organizations in the United States.”

In 1972, after having been freed from prison for his marijuana conviction, Sinclair found himself in more serious difficulty. A federal grand jury indicted him and two other White Panthers, Plamondon and Jack Forrest, for conspiring to dynamite a clandestine CIA recruiting office on Main Street in Ann Arbor in 1968. The FBI maintained Plamondon planted the bomb.

After U.S. District Judge Damon Keith in Detroit ruled against the government for tapping Plamondon’s phone without a warrant, the three hippies squared off against the Nixon Justice Department in a landmark wiretapping case before the high court in Washington. Sinclair and friends won, in a unanimous decision that scuttled Nixon’s national legal strategy against numerous other radicals. It was a major defeat for the self-proclaimed law-and-order president.

“When that case came down, every pending Black Panther, Weatherman, antiwar conspiracy case in the country had to be dismissed,” said Hugh (Buck) Davis, a Detroit lawyer who worked on the Sinclair appeals as a recent law school graduate, with nationally known legal heavyweights William Kuntsler and Leonard Weinglass, fresh from defending the Chicago 7. “They were all based on illegal wiretaps.”

By the mid-1970’s, Sinclair had turned away from revolution and embarked on a career as a writer, producer and performer, churning out poems, essays, articles, CDs and books. He toured widely, reciting his poetry to musical accompaniment, often with his band, the Blues Scholars. He also worked as a disc jockey, in Amsterdam and New Orleans, two cities in which he spent considerable time during the 1990s and early 2000s.

A lifelong lover of African-American arts, especially jazz and blues, Sinclair urged young white people to go beyond the Beatles and Rolling Stones and explore the roots of Black music and the recording artists who set the stage for rock ‘n’ roll. He worshipped Young, Detroit’s first Black mayor.

“I came to Detroit as a refugee from white American society attracted to this teeming center of African American culture,” he once wrote.

John Alexander Sinclair Jr. was born October 2, 1941, in Flint, and grew up in a middle-class home in nearby Davison. Raised Catholic, Sinclair said he enjoyed a happy childhood. His father, John Sr., worked for the Buick division of General Motors Corporation for 43 years, rising from the assembly line to middle management. His mother, Elsie, was a teacher.

In high school, Sinclair discovered Black radio, began hanging out in African-American neighborhoods in Flint and fell in love with the writing of such Beat Generation icons as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. An aspiring deejay, he spung records at dances under the name “Frantic John,” a tribute to Frantic Ernie Durham, a radio deejay in Flint and Detroit who rapped between songs.

Sinclair began his college years as a frat boy (Sigma Nu) at conservative Albion College, where, he said, the only beatnik on campus introduced him to “Dig,” Miles Davis’ classic, and hooked him on jazz. He transferred to the University of Michigan-Flint, and graduated with an English degree in 1964. He immediately moved to Detroit and fell in with a group of musicians, artists, poets, proto-hippies, oddballs and rebels around Wayne State University. He pursed a master’s degree in American literature, but claimed WSU officials expelled him one class short of graduation “because I was a dope fiend.”

Detroit, Sinclair said, “was the place where you could hear jazz all night long and cop weed or pills whenever you wanted to.”

He soon met the woman he would marry, Magdalene Arndt, an East German immigrant. As Leni Sinclair, she became a well-regarded photographer who joined in countercultural adventures and documented them in images that are celebrated today. The parents of two daughters, they divorced in 1988, and in 1989 he married Patricia (Penny) Brown.

Sinclair and others founded the Detroit Artists Workshop, a loosely knit collective that eventually included several houses and two buildings around West Warren Avenue and the Lodge Freeway that served as venues for avant-garde culture and publications. Sinclair and associates started Trans-Love Energies to manage the growing enterprise, which eventually included a short-lived store.

“Free John Now!”

By 1967, Sinclair had hooked up with the MC5, a bombastic rock quintet originally from Lincoln Park. They were trying desperately to break through in a thriving regional music scene amid the garage-band frenzy of the British Invasion and Motown.

With Sinclair’s guidance, the MC5 rocketed to fame, signing a contract with Elektra Records and winding up on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in January 1969. They became Detroit’s must-see bad boys, with their radical message, cacophonous music, sex-drenched lyrics, on-stage theatrics and constant hassles with police. Novelist Norman Mailer heard them in a Chicago park during the 1968 Democratic National Convention and described their sound as “the roar of the beast in all nihilism.”

Sinclair’s relationship with the MC5 deteriorated, though, and the band fired him in 1969 after some members tired of acting as front men for the White Panther revolution. Moreover, in the liner notes for the band’s first album, Sinclair used the F-word, prompting the important J.L. Hudson department store chain to refuse to carry the record. In retaliation, Sinclair took out an underground newspaper ad that attacked Hudson’s by employing the same word, and Elektra severed ties with the band.

The bungling of the Elektra contract and other miscues “left us believing Sinclair wasn’t able to take the band anywhere but down,” MC5 bassist Michael Davis wrote in a memoir.

Not long after the MC5 showed Sinclair the door, a judge sent him to prison.

The Detroit police narcotics squad busted Sinclair for marijuana three times in less than three years, once sending more than two dozen cops to raid an apartment filled with stoned hippies listening to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” After his second arrest he served six months in the old Detroit House of Correction.

It was the third arrest, in December 1966, that led to Sinclair going to prison in 1969. His crime: giving ― free of charge ― two joints to an undercover Detroit policewoman.

In the three years between the bust and imprisonment, Sinclair and his attorney, Justin Ravitz, the famous legal activist and judge, worked hard to overturn Michigan’s then-harsh drug laws. Their advocacy is sometimes cited as one of the first substantial steps toward decriminalizing marijuana in the United States.

In sentencing Sinclair to a minimum of 9 ½ years, Judge Robert Colombo Sr. insisted it was not for his beliefs, but because he “deliberately flaunted and scoffed at the law.” Citing his “propensity to use drugs,” Colombo refused to allow Sinclair the normal courtesy in non-violent cases of remaining free while he appealed. Police wrestled him into a courtroom holding cell.

“They put Huey P. Newton in prison and it didn’t stop the Black Panthers,” Sinclair cried out through the bars. “They put John Sinclair in, and it won’t stop the White Panthers.”

The spirited campaign to free Sinclair made him a radical superstar. It culminated in the rally before a stoked crowd of 15,000 at Crisler Arena in December 1971. Lennon, only a year and a half removed from the Beatles, sang a song he wrote at 3 a.m., the climax of the 10-hour show that also featured Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger and many others. Ono stood next to Lennon on a crowded stage, beating a bongo drum.

“It ain’t fair, John Sinclair .. In the stir for breathing air … Won’t you care for John Sinclair?”

Two days later, the Michigan Supreme Court released Sinclair on bond, and he never spent another day behind bars. In all, he served 29 months, in Marquette and Jackson prisons.

After the subsequent victory in the wiretapping case, Sinclair gradually moved away from radical politics but remained active in local music and cultural circles. He slowly grasped that most young people, while attracted to his gospel of free love and marijuana, had not been interested in revolution.

“I realized that wasn’t the world they wanted,” he told filmmaker Charles Shaw. “They wanted to have a job. They wanted to have a car. They wanted to live in the suburbs and bring their kids up and have them go to all-white schools. I said, ‘they can do that but I’m not going to.’”

As he aged, Sinclair might have veered away from revolutionary rhetoric, but he never changed his mind about marijuana. He called it a sacrament, and he was almost always stoned.

On Dec. 1, 2019, Sinclair was one of the first people in line to buy over-the-counter weed in Michigan. It was about one year after 56% of state voters approved a measure to legalize the drug and 50 years after Judge Colombo sent him to prison. A friend pushed him in a wheelchair. They purchased $160.35 of pre-rolled joints named Gorilla Glue No. 4 and Forbidden Jelly.

“To me, this is all for other people,” Sinclair told reporters. “I’ve been able to get weed every day since 1962. But I’m glad for the average person, that they don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

He is survived by his daughters Celia and Sonny; his granddaughter, Beyonce; and his ex-wife, photographer Leni Sinclair

Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum contributed.

Bill McGraw is a retired Free Press staff writer and editor.


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