An Audience With… John Sinclair

The renegade jazz poet and one-time MC5 manager on John Lennon, surviving jail and kicking out the jams

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It’s almost 60 years since John Sinclair co-founded The Detroit Artists Workshop, hoping to stir up some radical jazz action; a terrific new compilation on Strut is testament to his efforts in that field. But by 1968, Sinclair had achieved greater notoriety as manager of the incendiary rock group MC5, affiliating them with his White Panther Party and proposing a “total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock’n’roll, dope, and fucking in the streets”.


Sinclair spent two years in prison on trumped-up marijuana charges before a freedom rally headlined by John Lennon and Yoko Ono hastened his release. Since then, he’s recorded more than 20 albums of jazzy beat poetry, as well as almost 1,000 shows for Radio Free Amsterdam. But now he’s back in downtown Detroit, feeling glummer than ever about the prospects of cultural revolution.


“They’re bringing in new white people!” he complains. Gentrification? “Call it what you will. Ugliness is what I call it. They aren’t doing anything for the black people who went through years of awfulness. This used to be a dope area, now it’s all white people with big cars. I preferred it when the whores and the dope fiends were here, they had more character!”

What was the first record you heard that made you think that music might be the ideal vehicle for social change?

Phil Lister, via email


No idea. I listened to music to listen to music, I didn’t give a fuck about any of that. I was 14 years old, what did I know about social change? [I liked] Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson. When I was 15, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard came out, rock’n’roll started. I was a kid, I loved it. Everything was changing with the music, you know? It didn’t have any external purpose. Just by virtue of its existence it was changing the world.

As a jazz cat, what first attracted you to the MC5?

Brian Lawson, Dublin

They sounded so good. I saw them on Labor Day Weekend 1966, at the Michigan State Fair. Most shows in those days, the band came on in their matching outfits and their matching hairdos, and they lip-synced to their record. But there was a disc jockey called Jerry Goodwin who brought actual bands into the State Fairgrounds, and that’s when I heard the MC5. I had no intention [of managing them], I just wanted to hear them every time they played – I was a fan.

MC5’s outdoor concert ahead of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was meant to “redirect youth culture and music toward political ends”. How successful do you think that was?

Joe Thomas, Penarth

​​That wasn’t really the idea; the idea was to play some music. I know it sounds radical, but that was what we were about: playing music and moving people with the music. It was several years later when we got involved in the political aspect, and that was because of the police attacking us for being marijuana addicts. Constantly busting in your house, taking your shit. They made life miserable – they put me in prison twice! Was there a political mission at the outset? No, we were a band. The fact that all other bands don’t do anything except get rich doesn’t make [MC5] less of a band. They wanted to do something, they wanted to make things better, simple as that. I liked what they were doing and I wanted to help them.

What did being a White Panther involve?

Julia McFadden, Cornwall

Putting on a button. It had a white panther on it and it was purple. If you wore one of those, you were a White Panther. If you didn’t, you weren’t. We had no organisation, it was an idea. It wasn’t a political party, it was a hippie commune. What was our mission? To get high, fuck, have a good time, write poetry, make some music, dance. We weren’t bothering anybody. What we did, we went and played and people got ecstatic and had a great time. So they came back the next time and told all their friends.

How did you survive in prison?

Mike Fawcus, via email

How did I survive? I went to bed, I got up in the morning, I had breakfast… Why didn’t I blow my brains out, you mean? I didn’t have a gun! Every moment, millions of people throughout the world are surviving their time in prison. You just get up and go through another day until they let you go, the criminals that have you there.

What did you think of Abbie Hoffman coming on-stage at Woodstock during The Who’s set [to protest your imprisonment]?

Paul, Worthing, via email

I appreciated it. He was trying to help me, he was a good friend of mine. But he was on acid – he didn’t have any idea of what was going on around him. Instead of going out in between the sets, he went out during their set and took the mic away and started talking during their song. I would have blown him off the stage too. I would have beat his ass! You don’t do that.

How did it feel to learn that John Lennon had written a song about you?

Raj Sinhara, via email

It felt good. Not his best song! But I have to thank him for getting me out of prison. I was there for two-and-a-half years and then John Lennon came to Ann Arbor and three days later I was released.

What broke your tight connection with MC5? Why didn’t they headline the Michigan rally for your freedom?

Jaime Guerra, Spain

They fired me! They fired me, Jesse [Brother JC] Crawford and Bob Rudnick [MC5 propagandist] at one meeting. Said they didn’t wanna be like this any more and they didn’t need us. A month later, I was in prison, mostly because of my association with them. So you can imagine how I felt. It was a mistake in my book, but it was obviously something they thought was important to do, ’cause they did it. I thought their second album sounded like The Monkees. That was all produced by Jon Landau, who had the new Monkees, Bruce Springsteen, after that. He tried to make them sound like Bruce Springsteen, when they’re the opposite of Bruce Springsteen. So it was a failure. I never reconciled with the MC5 per se. Wayne Kramer and I are very good friends. He went to prison also, then he understood how I felt. Rob Tyner I never became friends with again, or Fred Smith. I can’t stand Dennis Thompson. The MC5 were a great band, but they let people talk them out of their greatness and they became a mediocre band. Then they sold out without getting paid – you got to really be stupid to do that.

MC5 are often described as ‘proto-punk’. What did you make of the actual punk movement?

Mary O’Keefe, via email

I thought it ate shit like a dog. I hated it, still do. It’s not about music, it’s about getting rich without learning how to play. You listen to The Clash, they sound like The Monkees, they don’t sound like no MC5. “Should I Stay Or Should I Go”, what kind of song is that? The Sex Pistols is just a joke. But they got a million, so it wasn’t so funny. I resent the MC5 being identified as punk rock. We had nothing to do with punks. In our day, a punk was a snivelling, cowardly, lying, rat-fucking motherfucker that told the police on what you were doing. So I didn’t see how they glorified this. Never made sense to me.

In 2019, you became the first person to legally buy marijuana in Michigan. Why was that so important to you?

Adrian McMahon, Sefton, Lancs

Which planet is this person from? I did three years from smoking marijuana. What does it mean to me? What are you talking about? Get on the fucking planet. This is what I fought for for 60 years. When you’re high you do all kinds of interesting shit. High up in the air, you know? You look down on things; you see it better.

What is the next revolution that needs to happen, and have you seen any signs?

Lukas, via email

It’s the same one that still needs to happen, and no, it’s not happening. They need to take the shit away from the capitalists and give people everything they need, like education and healthcare, without any cost to them. Democratic socialism, that’s the revolution we need – the Bernie Sanders revolution. It’s not gonna happen. Can music play a role? Well, music and art can be about whatever you want it to be about. That’s up to the artist. The point of today is that the artists don’t give a fuck. They’re happy with the way things are, as long as they can get paid or get a lot of likes or whatever it is they’re after.

Your poetry albums have employed some interesting musical collaborators. Which current musical artist would you most like to work with?

Alex Dunstan, Norwich

Whoever calls me up! I’m open – my mind is wide open.

On your last album, Beatnik Youth, you reveal that your chosen path – “poet, provocateur” – means that you’re still “living from hand to mouth”. Any regrets?

Oliver Frankel, via email

How can you regret living your chosen path? There’s no room for regret, unless you chose the wrong path.


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