John Sinclair – Biography (June 2013)

Cultural revolutionary, pioneer of marijuana activism, radical leader, political prisoner by the end of the 1960s, a legend of the imagine nation, the last of the Beatnik Warrior Poets, and a founding father of the U.S rock and roll constitution, John Sinclair.

John Sinclair

John Sinclair was born on the 2nd of October 1941, in Flint, Michigan, and grew from being a rock’n’roll fanatic and teenage disc jockey enthusiast to a cultural revolutionary icon, pioneer of marijuana activism, co-founder of the White Panther Party and a political prisoner, all by the end of the explosive 1960’s.

He first tuned into rhythm and blues radio at a young age, getting his hands on records by the likes of Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. This early exposure to high energy African American music would have a life-altering effect on John. He graduated high school and went on to attend Albion College, University of Michigan at Flint, and then went on to Graduate school at Wayne state University, Detroit for an M.A. in American Literature, and ultimately dropped out of state run academia in 1965 to follow the path of the beatnik poet warrior, independent scholar and cultural organizer.

From 1966-67 Sinclair correspondently founded the Detroit Artists’ Workshop with his partner Leni Arndt, poet/film-maker Robin Eichele, trumpeter Charles Moore and twelve other like minded individuals. Consequently the workshop became part of the ‘hippy revolution: Sex, drugs, rock & roll and fucking in the streets”.

Together with other fine works produced in step with the mimeograph revolution, the Artists Workshop published his first book of poems ‘This is our Music’ (1965) Fire Music; a record (1966), The Poem for Warner Stringfellow (1966), and Meditations: a suite for John Coltrane (1967). John served as a local correspondent for Downbeat (1964-65) and Jazz (New York) magazines, and had his articles, reviews and poetry appear in numerous other publication besides those he edited, including; American Poet, Camels Coming, Coda, Connections, El Corno Emplumade, Incense, island, Jazz (Warsaw), The Journal, Kaleidoscope, Kulchur, Latitudes, Magazine, Move, New Lantern, Club Review, Orpheus, Other Scenes, Out of Sight, the Paper (Lansing), Poetmeat, San Francisco Oracle, Seed, Sounds (Germany), and Sounds & Fury.

In July 1965, John read his works at the Berkeley Poetry Conference together with Ed Sanders, Ted Berrigan, and Lenore Kandel.) In 1966, he began to manage the proto-punk/Avant Rock band MC5, simultaneously, in the summer of 1967 the Detroit Riots broke out. This event along with years of police harassment aimed at the Detroit Artists’ Workshop led Sinclair and his friends to take refuge in the college town of Ann Arbor Michigan. MC5’s first album was recorded “live” at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom in 1968 and “exploded onto the scene like a bomb though a courtroom window” and was released along with the declaration that Sinclair, MC5 and a select few others had formed the White Panther party, in opposition to the U.S. government, the war in Vietnam, the war on drugs, the culture wars and to show open support for the Black Panther Party.

The White Panther Party spearheaded the process of a “rock’n’roll revolution” during 1968 to 1969, and the writings of Sinclair for the underground press helped document and analyse the White Panther Parties “Total assault on the culture” and the mutual opposition to the Vietnam war. The WPP remains the only political party ever formed by a rock’n’roll band. They preached the poetry of an immediate revolution–a sonic rainbow revolution–and carried out their radical political and cultural organising and edutainment work alongside their fellow revolutionaries on the East, and West coasts of the U.S.A. The White Panther Party was referred to by the FBI as “potentially the largest and most dangerous of revolutionary organisations in the United States”, shortly before the FBI were caught illegally wire-tapping the white house leading to the Watergate scandal.

Shortly after the FBI cottoned onto Sinclair and the WPP, he was sent to prison after giving an undercover police officer, two joints of Marijuana in a set-up linked by many to the secret spy operation called cointelpro. It was his third conviction of similar offences and Sinclair received a distorted maximum penalty of 10 years. Sadly, this conviction resulted in MC5 discharging his services and breaking up the growing strength of the WPP.

Sinclair utilized his time in prison fruitfully to read and write, producing the incendiary books, ‘Guitar Army’: a collection of writings for the underground press, and ‘Music & politics’, co-written by Robert Levin. He continued to support some activities of the White Panther Party from his cell, feeding back with the other throughout its transformation into the Rainbow Peoples Party.

The Free John campaign aided Sinclair’s release after a long 29 month campaign and reached its climax in the “John Sinclair Freedom Rally” that took place at the Chrysler arena in Ann Arbor. The now legendary benefit featured Phil Ochs, Stevie Wonder, Allen Ginsberg, Bobby Seale, Archie Shepp, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Lennon composed a song especially to help raise awareness of Sinclair’s case called “John Sinclair” which was featured on the ‘Sometime In New York City’ album. Three days after the rally was held, Sinclair was released and had his conviction overturned.

“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/They gave him ten for two/What else can the judges do? Gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta,gotta, gotta, gotta set him free”–John Lennon, John Sinclair.

After being released Sinclair got back into music management and promotions through the Rainbow MultiMedia Corporation, which was to manage Mitch Ryder, Detroit, and several other bands from Ann Arbor, while continuing the role of Chairman of the Rainbow Peoples Party, its direction, political organising work. He helped produce the historic Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz festivals that hosted Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, B.B. King, Otis Rush, J. B. Hutto and the Hawks, Howlin’ Wolf, T-Bone Walker, Magic Sam, Freddie King, Son House, Clifton Chenier, Roosevelt Sykes, Miles Davis, Count Basie, Sun Ra, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Yusef Lateef, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor Ray Charles, Maceo Parker, Etta James, James Brown, Booker T. & the MG’s, Taj Mahal, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Al Green. He also became involved in radio, hosting popular shows on WNRZ and WCBN, and founded The Peoples Ballroom, The Free Concerts in the Park Programme, The Ann Arbor Tribal Council and took on a key role in the success of the local Human Rights Party that resulted in two city council members being elected and the institution of the $5 marijuana possession fine.

In 1975 the Rainbow Peoples Party disbanded, while the resignation of Spiro Agnew and Richard M. Nixon together with the end of the Vietnam War changed the mass movement in America. Sinclair moved back to Detroit and his poetry, Journalism, radio programming and urban cultural activism. He spent 15 years with a loving family and while working as the editor of the Detroit Sun newspaper. He was also the founder and director of the Detroit Jazz Centre, assistant professor of popular music history at Wayne State University, programme host for WDET-FM, director of the City Arts Gallery for the Detroit Council of the Arts, and editor of City Arts Quarterly.

In 1991, after attending the Mardi Gras festival annually for over a decade, Sinclair relocated to New Orleans and became a member of the volunteer staff at WWOZ radio and won the OffBeat magazine’s reader poll, voted the city’s most popular DJ 5 years in a row (from 1999-2003). He formed a band in 1992 called The Blues Scholars, and in 1994 he recorded his first CD and consequently set out on tour as a performance artist backed by Jazz, blues and rock groups. His collaborations include Little Milton, Jimbo Mathus, the New Orleans Jazz Vipers, Ras Moshe, The Kudzu Kings, Afrissippi, The Pinkeye Orchestra, Wayne Kramer,  and The Dutch Rappers Lange Frans & Baas B.

Several of Sinclair’s poetry collections were published along with his major work in verse, ‘Fattening Frogs for Snakes: Delta Sound Suite’. He has released more than 15 CD’s of his work with Music and Verse which include Volumes 1 and 2 Of ‘Fattening Frogs For Snakes: Delta Sound Suite’, ‘Full Circle’ and ‘White Buffalo Prayer’ with Wayne Kramer. During his time in the musical mecca of New Orleans, John wrote hundreds of original essays and articles along with some new edits of his previous poetry.

After some visits to Amsterdam as a guest of the High Times Cannabis Cup in the late 1990’s  John relocated to Amsterdam in 2003. His grass roots radio show is now the flagship of the encyclopedic Radio Free Amsterdam. He began performing throughout Europe as a solo artist, as a duet with Guitarist Mark Ritsema, in Detroit with the Motor City Blues Scholars and around the world with a variety of Collaborators.

Sinclair was honoured as the International recipient of the prestigious Targa Matteo Salvatore in Foggia, Italy. He made an appearance at the Festival Internazionale della Letteratura Resistente in Tuscany and has been featured at major events in festivals all over the world, examples being Rome, Milano, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Paris, Seville and Santiago, Chile.

In 2006 at the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam, Sinclair was honoured with a prize winning strain being named after him; it was also in the same year that Sinclair published ‘Va Tutto Bene’ another collection of poems through Stampa Alternativa in both American and Italian. March 2006 saw Sinclair join The Black Crowes on stage twice to read his poems “Monk In Orbit” and “Fat Boy” during the instrumental breaks of “Nonfiction” and “How Much For Your Wings.”

On May 1st 2007, and the 35th anniversary of his book ‘Guitar Army’ he celebrated through a re-release of the book, along with 40 previously unreleased period photos, an introduction by Michael Simmons and a bonus CD with rare musical recordings, including cuts by MC5.

In 2008 Sinclair became the editor-in-Chief of Headpress, an apolitical anthology series from the London based Independent publishing house of the same name.

‘It’s all good’ a compilation to Sinclair’s music journalism and poetry was release on the 9th of April 2009 and resulted in him performing at Filthy Macnasty’s Whiskey Café in Islington on the 15th of April 2009. Later that year on August 14 2009, Sinclair also played at the Bonded Warehouse Stourbridge as part of a Poetry and Spoken Word event put on by Iron Man Records. Also in 2009, Sinclair released ‘Detroit Life’ an album of poetry with the Motor City Blues Scholars on No Cover Productions based in Michigan.

In 2010 Sinclair teamed up with the Dirty Strangers to release a “politically charged anthem” ‘Lock and Key’ backing the Green Party, it was release on the 26th of April in time for the UK general election. It was released on the renowned and recently reactivated 60’s label, Track Records, that is also known for releasing records for The Who and Jimi Hendrix. On November 9th Sinclair, along with Planet D Nonet from Detroit released ‘Viper Madness’ through No Cover Productions.

Sinclair released “Let’s go get ‘em” on Big Chief Productions and “Honouring The Local Gods” on Straw2gold pictures in 2011. He also released Songs Of Praise: Homage To John Coltrane. On December of 10th the same year the White Panther Party reunited in Ann Arbour that featured a live performance by John, and surprise special guest set with Wayne Kramer.

Beatnik youth was released in 2012 on Track Records and featured contributions from Howard Marks, Keith Levine, Bobby Gillespie, Brian James, Angie Brown, Zodiac, Jesse Wood, Mark Stewart, Alan Clayton, Steve Fly and bass on all tracks by Youth. He then embarked on the “Breathin Air” tour with Howard Marks in the UK and Ireland. Upon arriving in London, Sinclair was searched and arrested after his medical marijuana papers were not recognised by the authorities, after paying a £50 fine John used the arrest papers, with a little help from Howard and a large projector, as the backdrop for the first show of the tour at E4’s Udderbelly.

January 2013 saw Sinclair sign to Iron Man Records to release a new album of poetry taken from his huge work: Always Know: A book of Monk, with music by Steve Fly. In New Orleans John spent time conducting further research into the beatnik roots of New Orleans and performing with many local characters such as Tom Worrel, Lionel Batiste. He was invited to perform his poetry at the opening of the Tuba Fats square, named after the late great Tuba Fats.

You can find work by John Sinclair in the Iron Man Shop here: