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John Sinclair

The hardest working poet in the industry

THE BEAT MOVES ON (2003) E-mail
Saturday, 18 October 2003 06:20
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By Frank Provenzano
Free Press Arts Writer

Sitting in Union Street restaurant several blocks south of the Detroit Institute of Arts, John Sinclair paces himself. Adult onset diabetes and age have slowed him down, although he hasn't given up smoking cigarettes or his favorite weed, rolled and twisted or packed in a pipe. Some things, he says, are just part of life.

It's shortly after noon. The lunchtime crowd of buttoned-down professionals and college students wearing jeans fills the art deco main room. Sinclair rolled out of bed about a half-hour ago. It's time for breakfast: steak and eggs.

He has $2 in his pocket and four newspapers tucked under his arm. Can't get enough of crossword puzzles, comics and crime news. "Hey, if you're from Detroit, you got to love a good crime story."

Gone is the floppy mop of shoulder-length dark-brown hair and antiestablishment snarl of a 1960s hippie who wrote the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll manifesto Guitar Army in 1972.

For those unfamiliar with Sinclair's role on the Detroit scene for the past 40 years, he's probably best known as the guy who went to prison for smoking pot; and most remembered as the inspiration for John Lennon's song, "John Sinclair," which includes the line "They gave him 10 for 2," a reference to the sentence of 10 years for possession of two joints.

But Sinclair isn't merely a footnote to the 1960s. He's a cultural touchstone.

He cofounded the seminal Detroit Artists Workshop in 1964, a collective that galvanized the city's visual and performing artists; managed the legendary Detroit rock band MC5, and started the White Panther Party, founded in solidarity with the Black Panther Party.

Instead of the cocky stride of years ago, Sinclair, 62, walks with a slight limp, the result of a fall that damaged tendons in both knees. He wears box-square glasses extending beyond the width of his face. What once framed the intensity of a fiery radical now accentuates the quiet reality of a poet facing something he thought he'd never confront.

"I was 40 years old before I cared about money," he says. "I never looked at life as a career, but never had anything against the establishment either. I just could never make some of the compromises that you have to make.

"But I also know that there's nothing good to! be said about poverty. Being rich, to me, is paying the rent on the first of the month."

Sinclair sits facing the door, occasionally waving to people who recognize him. The maitre d', in dreadlocks, comes by, and they give each a brother-power handshake and a weak hug. Several waiters stop by the table, giving him a wink and a slap on the back, which effectively translates into a hefty discount on the bill. Sinclair has perfected the cigarette-in-the-corner-of-the-mouth-while-talking look, avoiding the smoke curling in his eyes.

"Man, I just never thought I'd make it his far -- living this long."

TODAY, DETROIT'S legendary counterculture icon prepares to move on -- again.

Sinclair has been passing through Detroit since June, preparing for his Nov. 20 move across the Atlantic to the city of hedonistic bliss, Amsterdam. When he moved to New Orleans 12 years ago -- after being fired from his "dream job" as editor of Detroit's City Arts Quarterly -- he came back to Detroit so often that some of his friends didn't know that he had moved south.

In Amsterdam, he expects to lead the bohemian life of a poet and honorary participant in the annual Cannabis Cup event during the third week in November.

The finer details -- like how he will make a living and where he will stay -- are not quite settled. But that's hardly an issue in a life guided by twin hippie precepts: "Go with the flow" and "Get by with a little help from your friends."

There's a sketchy patron who owns a coffeehouse. And Sinclair hopes -- he refers to it as a dream -- that after many years of economic uncertainty, he's found an angel financier who'll cover his room and board while he devotes himself to writing his brand of blues-inspired poetry.

Sinclair is considered one of the country's finest blues and jazz scholars, traveling around the country to perform his poetry, like a Baptist preacher hot on the path to beat the devil.

"I'm just playing it by ear. It's a big gamble," he says. "I was comfortable and really appreciated in New Orleans. But I want to gain recognition for my work. If I don't do it now, I won't have any longevity."

SINCLAIR GREW UP in Davison, a rural, conservative town 10 miles east of Flint, where his father worked in distribution at Buick and his mother taught English to another irrepressible resident, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore.

There wasn't a bustling culture in 1950s Davison, but there was radio. And that arresting sound of rhythm and blues coming across the airwaves was nothing less than the sound of salvation.

"From that moment, I wanted to know where this music came from and learn all I could about the people who made it."

He ticks off some of his early influences: The Clovers' "One Mint Julep," Ray Charles' "I Got A Woman" and Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll." That was just the beginning. Next came his discovery of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and jazz. John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk.

"Everything comes from investigating the roots of R&B and that the music came from black people," says Sinclair. Over the past decade, he's made regular pilgrimages to the Mississippi back roads where the sound of the blues was born, and traveled by Amtrak around the country 20 weeks a year performing poetry in bars, back rooms and festivals, from Seattle to Oxford, Miss., to the Kerouac Festival in Lowell, Mass.

He has lived out of suitcases, stayed at friends' houses or roadside motels, and sometimes made enough money working a gig to get him through the week, and on to the next town.

"I'm not complaining," he says. "I wouldn't have it any other way, except I'd like to get paid a whole lot more."

For the last five months, he's stayed in a second-floor room at Mary Restrepo's house, not far from the Wayne State campus where he first lived when he moved in 1964 to Detroit.

"He's in and out, usually he only stays 4 or 5 days a time," says Restrepo, a guitarist and founder of the local rock band Detroit Cobras. "One day I came home and there were all these 60-year-olds in my living room listening to him talk. That's when I saw what a great motivator John is.

"When I leave the house, I tell him, 'Don't go starting a revolution while I'm gone.'

SINCLAIR DOESN'T RESIST the title of counterculture hero. It may date him to be called a '60s icon, but if it helps to sell another of his poetry books or CDs of his readings set to music, that's fine. Celebrity has a purpose, he says.

On Thursday evening, the Detroit Film Theatre will show MC5: A True Testimonial, about the band managed by Sinclair that combined high-energy rock with radical politics.

Sinclair hopes the attention to the film will attract interest to his own autobiographical documentary, 20 To Life: The Life & Times of John Sinclair. It's Sinclair's overt attempt to be placed in the history of the American avant-garde. Sinclair will travel to Italy for the Nov.29 film debut at the International Documentary Film Festival in Florence. The film is coproduced by Steve Gebhardt, who produced Ladies & Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones.

20 To Life captures Sinclair's working-class hero appeal: uncompromising, charismatic and preaching about the truth of the blues and the power of love. It's a passion that resonates with friends, and makes Sinclair an endearing figure, says Lyman Woodward, who shared an apartment with Sinclair in the mid-1960s. He recalls an expansive record and book collection that took up most of the living room.

"He's like a salesman, sharing things, looking for people with the same joy," says Woodward, who plays keyboard in the Blues Scholars, the band that backs Sinclair when he reads poetry in Detroit. "That's his personality and you just want to enjoy what he's enjoying."

For two decades, Frank Bach and Sinclair were business partners. They met when Sinclair was managing the MC5 and Bach was a rock musician and part-time emcee at the historic Grande Ballroom in Detroit.

"John has always been focused on art and politics that goes against the mainstream," says Bach.

"Now, he says he's realized that America isn't going to change, so he's focusing on his own art. But a lot of things about society have changed since the 1960s. A lot. And John was at the center of it all."

"He was at the vanguard of the hippies, rock 'n' roll as a political force and stood up and made a difference," says M.L. Liebler, poet and creative writing teacher at Wayne State University.

"Who else has been a bigger spark to the local arts scene over the years?"

For Sinclair, life is a series of transitions. Some connected. Some not. And living on the road is more important than where it leads.

As many of his contemporaries are retiring on 401(k)s and pensions, Sinclair stands at yet another crossroad: What does an aging hippie do now that he's old enough to be a grandfather?

The answer: Head east.

THERE WILL BE no mawkish farewell speech before Sinclair heads to Amsterdam. He's already planning to come back for the 40th anniversary reunion of the Detroit Artists Workshop next fall.

Whether he's traveling the South to find where Robert Johnson played his blues guitar, visiting what remains of a scene he helped create in Detroit, or heading across the Atlantic, Sinclair is an excavator. Looking for clues, stepping against the mainstream, plotting his course on what appears as a whim, but resonates from the depths of his soul. For Sinclair, Amsterdam is more than a place. It's a state of mind for an aging hippie who never thought he'd make it this far.



1941: Born in Flint, Oct. 2, 1941; grows up in Davison.

1964: BA in American literature, University of Michigan, Flint; first arrest for sales and possession of marijuana; cofounds Detroit Artists Workshop.

1965: Marries Magdalene (Leni) Arndt. They have two daughters, Marion (Sunny) (b. 1967), and Celia (b. 1970); second arrest for sales and possession of marijuana.

1966: Cofounds Artists' Workshop Press; music editor and columnist for Detroit's Fifth Estate; local correspondent for Downbeat, Jazz; contributes reviews and poetry to many publications; completes course work for M.A. in American literature (thesis on William Burroughs' Naked Lunch); sentenced to six months in Detroit House of Correction.

1967: Arrested a third time with 55 other people in a "hippie dope raid" on Wayne State campus; organizes Trans-love Energies Unlimited, a cooperative of tribal living; booking agent for MC5, the Stooges, Up; serves as promotional adviser to Russ Gibb's Grande Ballroom.

1968: After two fire bombings of commune, reestablishes cooperative in two houses on Hill Street near U-M campus in Ann Arbor; creates White Panther Party, founded in solidarity with the Black Panther Party.

1969-71: In July 1969, sentenced to 9 1/2 to 10 years for possession of two marijuana cigarettes. While in prison, writes Guitar Army and Music & Politics, cowritten by Robert Levin.

1971: 15,000 people attend Free John Now Rally, headlined by John Lennon and Yoko Ono; three days after concert, Michigan Supreme Court orders Sinclair released.

1972-74: Produces Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival; organizes Michigan Committee for Prisoners' Rights and Michigan Marijuana Initiative.

1977: State coordinator of Michigan Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws; starts a consulting-marking firm.

1978-91: Serves on many boards, including Friends of Belle Isle, Founders Society and African Art Gallery Committee of Detroit Institute of Arts; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Motor City Cultural Association.

1979: With Leni Arndt, donates papers to U-M's Bentley Historical Library.

1980-89: Editor, Detroit City Arts Quarterly; hosts jazz radio program; publishes We Just Change the Beat, his first book of Selected Poems  (1986).

1989: Marries Penny Brown.

1990: Fired as editor of City Arts Quarterly

. 1991: Moves to New Orleans.

1991-2003: Hosts jazz radio program; writes poetry and criticism of jazz and blues; travels country performing poetry and researching blues and jazz artists.

2002: Publishes Fattening Frogs for Snakes: Delta Sound Suite, a book of poetry.

2003: Plans move to Amsterdam in November.

SOURCES: Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan; Detroit Free Press.



* 7:30 p.m. Thursday: MC5: A True Testimonial. Premiere of the documentary film about the legendary Detroit group that became the house band of the Grande Ballroom during the late 1960s. Sinclair was the band's manager. Detroit Film Theatre, Detroit. Sold out.

* 7-11 p.m. Nov. 6: Detroit Artists Workshop 40th Anniversary. A panel discussion and screening of excerpts from 20 To Life: The Life & Times of John Sinclair, a documentary. Free. C-Pop Gallery, 4160 Woodward, Detorit. 313-833-9901.

* 4-5:30 p.m. Nov. 18: "Judge Keith, The Constitution and National Security: From Sinclair to Haddad," a symposium. Spencer M. Partrich Auditorium, Wayne State University Law School, Detroit. Free. 313-577-3968.

Photo Captions: "Man, I just never thought I'd make it this far -- living this long," says John Sinclair, 62, at Agave in Detroit. He's been a fixture on the city's counterculture scene for four decades.

John and Penny Sinclair take a break in the back room of the Music Menu in Greektown, a favorite hangout.

John Sinclair signs an MC5 8-track for Tim Caldwell of Hamtramck during a break at his poetry reading at Agave in Detroit.

1959: John Sinclair in his Davison High School yearbook photo.

1967: Sinclair achieved fame for his pro-marijuana stance. His arrests garnered attention.

1971: Sinclair is hugged by his first wife, Leni, as he leaves prison. A rally led the state Supreme Court to order him released.

1986: In the '80s, Sinclair was editor of Detroit City Arts Quarterly, his "dream job," and hosted a radio show.

2003: Sinclair has spent the last decade traveling, performing and writing about music. He's shown in Greektown, one of his favorite Detroit haunts.

Sinclair heads to an uncertain future in Amsterdam where he hopes to cement his place in history.

Photos: MARY SCHROEDER/Detroit Free Press; CAROL PUCCI/KRT; FABRIZIO COSTANTINI/Special to the Free Press.

Copyright (c) 2003 Detroit Free Press
Record Number: 0310250418