Surviving the Sixties
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."
In fact, Sinclair's sacking, in June 1969, came on the cusp of his trial for the possession of two marijuana cigarettes. He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to nine and a half years in prison. Because he was refused an appeal bond, he went immediately from the court house to the Big House. But even though the MC5 had basically severed all contact with Sinclair by that time, his situation became a cause celebre, with everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Chicago Seven veteran Jerry Rubin decrying the inequity of his sentence. In 1971 Rubin recruited John Lennon, then embroiled in a conflict of his own with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, to travel to Detroit with his wife, Yoko Ono, to headline an eight-hour extravaganza designed to raise awareness of Sinclair's plight. Four days after the bash, which featured Stevie Wonder, Archie Shepp, Bob Seger and Lennon's debut of a new composition entitled "John Sinclair," Sinclair was freed at the behest of the Michigan Supreme Court. But while Sinclair was sincerely grateful for the Lennons' assistance, he says that his release was not directly tied to the benefit, as so many assumed at the time.
"For years we had been carrying out a three-part tack," he remembers. "One was in the press and the media, one was in the courts, where we were trying to overthrow the marijuana laws through appeal, and the third one was in the legislature, where we were lobbying and trying to get them to change the laws. John Lennon was the one who took it over the top, but for the two and a half years I was locked up we waged quite a heavy campaign."
As Sinclair concedes, it's easier to summarize the time between late 1971 to the present than the years from 1967 to 1971: "So much was going on back then, every day seemed like six months," he says. After walking out of Jackson State Prison, he moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and became a full-time political activist for three years. After returning to Detroit, he established the Detroit Jazz Center and concentrated on writing grants for jazz musicians and other community-based artists. "Then, when Reagan came in, I decided that wasn't going to work too well," he says, "so I began looking around for other things." He ultimately hooked up with a dance-pop group called the Urbations, overseeing its career until its 1987 breakup. But he was not at loose ends for long. Detroit mayor Coleman A. Young appointed him director of the city's art gallery. "I was part of the council of the arts in Detroit, and I edited their arts magazine, called City Arts," he says.
If there's irony in a man seen by many as an anarchist becoming a governmental appointee, Sinclair doesn't see it. "I wasn't working for the government," he insists. "I was working for Coleman, who had been one of my supporters for many years. When I had been in trouble, he was a state senator, and he wrote a letter to the judge for me, and he let my people use his office at the state capitol in Lansing when were doing an action up there. I loved that guy, and I loved the job, because it seemed in line with my goals. I got to pay writers and artists to help me put out 10,000 copies of a slick magazine that we then gave away. To me, I thought this was socialism at work in the arts."
When funding for the art program dried up, Sinclair got a gig teaching music at Wayne State and hosted an R&B show on a local radio station. Then, in 1991, he said farewell to Michigan for good. "Detroit's been stripped," he says. "It's been in a major depression for 25 years, since 1973. Cocaine sales are the biggest economic factor in daily life there and have been since about 1984. So we decided it was time to leave. My second wife, Penny, and I have four girls between us--two of hers and two of mine--and we had to get them through the Detroit public schools, which was not the easiest task in the world. But we did it, and we rewarded ourselves with a move to New Orleans."
Upon relocating, Sinclair decided to get back into the music business, and he has, albeit on a modest scale. He formed a band, the Blues Scholars, to play the R&B music he loves most, and he has since issued four CDs on independent labels like Michigan's Schoolkids Records; included among them are Full Circle (a collaboration with Wayne Kramer), Full Moon Night and If I Could Be With You (credited to Sinclair and Ed Moss, with the Society Jazz Orchestra). He has also issued four MC5 full-lengths featuring live material and a series of recordings from the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festivals he produced between 1972 and 1974. "Once you can reconcile yourself to the 2,000-unit side of things, you can get a lot of stuff out," he claims. "They don't bring in very much money, and not many people buy them, but the people who do are fanatical about them. And I'm one of those."
At present, Sinclair's work is not nearly as propagandistic as it once was, but he does not see it as apolitical. "My feelings and beliefs are pretty much part of my central personality core," he says. "And really, I work with African-American music as a form--and for a white person to commit themselves to the furtherance of this music without really being into it for personal gain is political enough in this racist society." Occasionally, people expecting Sinclair to preach about the overthrow of the ruling class will come to his concerts. "Three or four, maybe, proportionate to their place in the country right now," he remarks. "But we're mainly about making a musical registration, and after working on it for three or four years, we've got a pretty convincing offering."
Does Sinclair still hope for a day when justice is not such a rare commodity? Of course--such dreams are part of his Sixties legacy. "But right now I'm concentrating on getting to the next phase," he says. "The one where you pay the rent on the first of the month."
John Sinclair, with the Rocky Mountain Blues Scholars. 9:30 p.m. Saturday, August 9, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $6, 294-9258.
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