Surviving the Sixties

How John Sinclair went from being a White Panther to a blues scholar.

By New Year's Day of 1970, a hefty number of baby boomers were already nostalgic for the Sixties--and since then, they've kept their myth-making machines working overtime. The romanticization of the period has become a cottage industry, with everyone from rock stars to onetime protest leaders profiting mightily by creating the illusion that the decade was an unfettered explosion of good will, enlightenment and joy.

Of course, the truth about this supposedly golden age is considerably more complicated, as the story of John Sinclair demonstrates. As the manager of the MC5, among the era's most overtly political musical groups, and a major player in a revolutionary organization called the White Panther Party, he tried to reshape the country according to his own views and wound up imprisoned and reviled for his trouble. However, his past has not left him embittered. Today he's a poet, a musician, a producer and a performer, but he's also something more: a survivor. "It's taken me a long time to get here, but I'm enjoying it," he says from his New Orleans home. "Except for the economic terrorism of everyday life, everything is lovely."

In many quarters, Sinclair's ordeal had been all but forgotten prior to the arrival of The Mansion on the Hill, author Fred Goodman's recent tome about the changes in the recording industry between the Sixties and the Nineties. In Goodman's view, the treatment of Sinclair epitomizes the shift from relative idealism to blatant greed that began taking place as soon as corporation executives realized how lucrative rock and roll could be. Sinclair doesn't go quite that far, but he admits, "I enjoyed the hell out of the book. The whole thing pretty much reflects my views of the whole business. And it was nice to read about what happened to me. Because it was the first time it was actually confirmed."

Sinclair grew up in Flint, Michigan, and by the time he received his master's degree from Wayne State University in Detroit, he was the very image of the hippie intellectual--a visionary journalist and wordsmith whose Artists Workshop, a performance space near the campus, served as the nexus for the area's creative community. Given the tensions of the era, this in itself would have been enough to bring Sinclair to the attention of local authorities, but his mania for proselytizing for the legalization of marijuana exacerbated the situation. Prior to the founding of the Workshop, he had been put on probation for possession of marijuana; afterward, in the summer of 1965, he was arrested for giving a joint to an undercover cop and wound up serving a six-month jail sentence.

Around this same time, Rob Tyner, lead singer for the MC5, became a regular at the Workshop, and he and bandmates such as Fred "Sonic" Smith and Westword profile subject Wayne Kramer ("The Revolution Lives," June 13, 1996) saw Sinclair as a likely managerial candidate--or at least an easy mark. At first Sinclair balked at becoming associated with the band he refers to as "the Five," but he was eventually convinced that its music was capable of catalyzing a powerful youth movement and threw himself into promoting its cause. He landed the act a standing gig at Detroit's Grande Ballroom and was at the musicians' side during innumerable run-ins with police. Then, shortly after signing the outfit to Elektra Records, he formed the White Panther Party, whose platform argued for the abolition of the draft and all legal currency and the release of every prisoner in the United States. The MC5 supported these proposals, too: All its members were labeled White Panther Ministers of War with the exception of Tyner, who was designated Minister of Culture.

Such extremism soon turned off Elektra, which let the MC5's first and best album, Kick Out the Jams, die on the vine after a strong start, then dropped the band's contract. Shortly thereafter, Jon Landau, a rock writer who would become the driving force behind Bruce Springsteen's rise from critical darling to popular favorite, decided that the MC5 could serve as his ticket into the world of record-making. From the beginning, Sinclair questioned Landau's taste--and he feels that Back in the U.S.A., the platter the band eventually made under the tutelage of this interloper, proves his point.

"I thought that record was awful," he allows. "Landau didn't have any idea who they really were. The really great thing about the Five was the music's bottom: It was big and fat and wide and moved forward at incredible speed. It wasn't about playing each note precisely; it was about getting a roll going. It was a power thing. But Landau thought they needed to be cleaned up, so he made the drummer play real simple parts, and he didn't like the bass player at all. And as a result, the record is really tinny. To me, anybody could have made that record. It just wasn't the MC5."

According to Goodman's narrative, such disagreements soon convinced Landau that Sinclair had to go, and he manipulated the performers into firing him. At the time, Sinclair wasn't privy to these machinations, but upon reading about them, he was not surprised. "I suspected that Landau came in there and put the ax to me and slandered me and what have you, because I saw what he did with Bruce Springsteen later, and I knew what happened to me," he reveals. "But the problems I had with the Five ended quickly, because within a month, I was in prison." He laughs. "Landau convinced them that I didn't have a future, and when that happened, it kind of proved his point."

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