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John Sinclair

The hardest working poet in the industry

Friday, 23 May 2003 08:25
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1960s Radical Now Spreads His Message Through Jazz
Kalamazoo Gazette Friday, May 23, 2003
By Mark Wedel
Special to The Gazette

John Sinclair, 62, of New Orleans, looks like a kindly Southern gentleman, with gray hair and Col. Sanders-style goatee and mustache.

Sinclair, as a 26-year-old in Detroit, looked like a trouble-making radical, with long frizzy black hair, droopy hippie mustache and White Panther buttons pinned to his shirt.

Sinclair, manager in the late '60s of Detroit's revolutionary rock band the MC-5 and one of the founders of the radical White Panther Party, is now a blues DJ, historian and poet who will be giving his "preachments" on the blues at the Kraftbrau Brewery on Sunday, backed by his Saugatuck Blues Scholars.

Sinclair is a Michigan native famous for causing trouble (see sidebar) in the 1960s. "That was our intention," Sinclair said with a jolly laugh from a tour stop in his old radical stomping grounds of Detroit, "to inspire people to do something 'wrong.' 'Wrong' with quotes around it. To go against what was handed to them."

Though he's mellowed some, he still likes to be a bit of a corrupting force. "Now, more than ever, it's important. Lots of kids told me over the weekend-- well, not kids, they were grown people -- last night when I played the Music Menu in Detroit, they said they worked for General Motors and they didn't want to go to work the next morning. I said, 'That's good, I've done my job!' "

In the past, Sinclair spread revolution as White Panther "minister of information," using loud and energetic rock 'n' roll as part of an assault on mainstream culture, as well as with his Trans-Love Energies Unlimited, a commune/counterculture media business. Now he's happy to play the blues on the radio and do his spoken-word presentations.

Sinclair's first love is music -- blues and jazz -- and all his other passions seem to follow in a musical groove. He remembers being a kid growing up in Flint, obsessed with rhythm and blues radio at the dawn of the 50s. He heard the music, but he also heard disk jockeys like Frantic Ernie D and Jumpin' John R announcing on the mic in hipster rhyme. "That's what I came up on, that's my original influence," he said.

That led to a love of beat poetry and prose. Sinclair wrote books of his own poetry in the '60s and was prolific on the subjects of music, culture and politics in the underground press.

Later in life, Sinclair became more focused on writing about jazz and Blues in magazines like Playboy, Living Blues and OffBeat, and he was also the editor of Blues Access magazine. In the political realm, Sinclair, having been arrested and imprisoned a number of times on marijuana charges in the '60s, has worked with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and written for High Times.

It was natural for Sinclair to move from Michigan to New Orleans in 1991, he said. "Well, I'm a music lover, and that's the music center of America, if not the world." He went directly to community station WWOZ-FM (heard over the Web at, where he's played blues and New Orleans music for 12 years now.

In New Orleans Sinclair found the creative energies to get back into Writing poetry and doing spoken word performances. He's performed at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and recorded six CDs.

Sinclair isn't one to look for the slickest production facilities. He recorded his latest CD "Fattening Frogs for Snakes" (Okra-Tone), at the home of musician Mike West in the city's notoriously crime-ridden Ninth Ward.

"I just love the Ninth Ward," Sinclair said. "There's nothing wrong with a little roughness. Ha! In our increasingly smooth-edged massive consumer society, a little roughness goes a long way, I'm sure."

His producer was Andre Williams, a former Detroit bluesman whose spoken word delivery in the '50s and '60s is considered one of the roots of rap. They'd take breaks at The Saturn Bar, a junk- and art-filled dive with "mummies hanging from the ceiling."

Sinclair [has] established various Blues Scholars bands to back his performances. The Saugatuck Blues Scholars, who will be with him at the Kraftbrau, is led by guitarist Brian Bowe (editor of the rebirthed Creem, the Detroit rock magazine for which Sinclair used to write).

What Sinclair does live,  he said, "It's hard to describe because it sounds so contrary. I'm a poet, and I set my verses to music. And I get guys to perform them. ... We'll be playing some blues, but I also do other kinds of things. Jazz, rhythm and blues oriented -- all my poetry is based in the music. A lot of what I do is sing the praises of great musical artists and other great artists of America."

But is he still driven to subvert mainstream culture? "Well, there's that. But that was more concentrated years ago. And you know, I think if you're going to have some change now it's going to have to come from young people, like always."