AADL Talks To: John Sinclair (March 22, 2010)
Fri, 12/09/2011 - 3:03pm
When: December 9, 2011
In this interview from March 22, 2010, poet, author, and activist John Sinclair reflects on music in Ann Arbor - from the MC5, the free concerts in the parks and the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz festival, to his specific memories of local clubs and musicians. He also talks about the influence of both the Beat generation and black music on his cultural and political awakening, the origins of the White Panther Party, and the importance of newspapers.
- [00:00:05.23] AMY: This is Amy.
- [00:00:06.37] ANDREW: And this is Andrew. And in this episode, AADL talks to poet, author, and activist John Sinclair.
- [00:00:15.10] AMY: Sinclair reflects on music in Ann Arbor, from the MC5, the free concerts in the parks, and the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, as well as his specific memories of local clubs and musicians. He also talks about the influence of both the Beat generation and Black music on his cultural and political awakening, the origins of the White Panther Party, and the importance of newspapers.
- [00:00:38.36] JOHN SINCLAIR: OK, well let's commemorate the fact that the Ann Arbor ensemble called the Stooges was just allowed into the so-called Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That's a milestone for Ann Arbor. Of course, they won't let the MC5 in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
- [00:00:54.61] ANDREW: They need more time.
- [00:00:56.09] JOHN SINCLAIR: Yeah, they need more time. All those people my age need to die.
- [00:01:00.69] ANDREW: That's what more time is.
- [00:01:01.70] JOHN SINCLAIR: 'Cause they hated the MC5, because we challenged everything that they went on to become. Millionaires, you know. And to ruin the music industry, and to make music so awful that you can't listen to it anymore at all. They did all that.
- [00:01:17.71] There Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is really about millionaires. Well, the whole popular culture's about millionaires now. Everybody you read about in the paper is a millionaire, whether they're an athlete, or a movie star, or a singer, or a performer, an actor. They're all millionaires. It's a millionaire world.
- [00:01:36.54] AMY: As long as we're on the topic--
- [00:01:37.88] JOHN SINCLAIR: [LAUGHS]
- [00:01:38.29] AMY: Let's just keep going. What were you trying to do with MC5?
- [00:01:42.61] ANDREW: Overthrow the United States government. Institute socialism. Have a Black president. Things like some of the things we have today. Institute a national health care plan. End the war.
- [00:01:56.46] ANDREW: How did you decide that music was the way to do that? Or did it just happen?
- [00:02:00.78] JOHN SINCLAIR: Well, we were musicians. [LAUGHS] We couldn't help it. We were a band. How did a band decide they wanted to overthrow the United States order?
- [00:02:15.75] Well, I don't know. We thought that's what we heard when we heard Elvis Presley, and Little Richard, and Chuck Berry. We thought that's what rock and roll was about.
- [00:02:25.76] We turned out to be wrong. It's about being millionaires. We missed that part.
- [00:02:33.22] AMY: You seemed at the time, way back in early '60s, to have a unique vision of how media and music and culture could intersect. Where did you get that idea?
- [00:02:43.16] JOHN SINCLAIR: Well, from reality. That's what was happening. What we thought that was different was that you could use this against the capitalist system. We thought that rock and roll, in its essence, was against capitalism in any form of human oppression.
- [00:03:00.73] And so we thought it was only natural to try-- my slogan was, rock and roll is a weapon of cultural revolution. Which turned out to be the opposite. Now it's a weapon of cultural oppression, and it has been for about 40 years now. Since The Eagles. [LAUGHS]
- [00:03:23.53] AMY: I actually read-- you said you thought Woodstock, it all kind of started to go downhill after Woodstock.
- [00:03:29.11] JOHN SINCLAIR: Well, yeah. That was when our movement, our cultural movement, was recognized as a major potential market for consumer goods and the consumer society. Before that, you see, long-haired people were regarded as just weirdos. Just handfuls of weirdos.
- [00:03:51.32] And all of a sudden, there were half a million of 'em in a field in the rain. It was inescapable that something big was happening, that was different. And of course, then all the resources of the dominant society were brought to bear to bring it under its control.
- [00:04:14.87] Which they did, so brilliantly. The people who didn't like it didn't get paid, and people who would go for it, they made them millionaires. II I hate to sound like a broken record. There's another metaphor that doesn't work anymore.
- [00:04:27.63] ANDREW AND AMY: [LAUGHING]
- [00:04:28.56] JOHN SINCLAIR: A broken now goes [IMITATES SKIPPING CD].
- [00:04:34.60] ANDREW: Was that a disappointment? Was that a blow, to find that this generation, who seemed to believe in one thing, all of a sudden would just buy what was packaged for them?
- [00:04:45.32] JOHN SINCLAIR: Well, you know, they tightened the economy up in the mid-'70s, and everybody had to get a job. See, in the hippie era, Lyndon Johnson, our president, had this concept called Guns and Butter. You could have a war and you could still have a booming economy at home. That was the way they posited it.
- [00:05:04.28] So the benefit was that when the hippies emerged in opposition to the consumer society, we were able to exist on the margins. There was a lot of-- and we didn't, we didn't use much. We didn't buy any new clothes.
- [00:05:25.19] I mean, we just didn't use much. We didn't have new cars. We lived in houses with a lot of us in the same house paying on rent. So we were contraindicated, as far as the development of the consumer society is concerned.
- [00:05:43.00] And then in the mid-'70s, they had the first, what they called, the oil crisis, like in '73. When OPEC-- when this thing that they're fighting now began, kind of. Well not began, but it began when they put the Shah in, in 1954. When they partitioned-- anyway, all that stuff in the Middle East goes back to the end of the Second World War.
- [00:06:06.51] But in '73, they had what they called the oil crisis. And at the same time, the little cars were coming out, and all of a sudden, the price of gasoline doubled. And of course that made it $0.58 then. Not $3 like it is today.
- [00:06:24.83] But that tightened up, the whole-- like they're doing now, you know, this whole contraction that they're having. And then all the hippies were getting older, and they were getting out of school, and they're wanted to have babies. And they had to get a job.
- [00:06:40.58] And in order to get a job, you had to cut your hair. You had to quit getting high. And they started the drug-testing. It was a requisite of employment.
- [00:06:54.09] AMY: Your personal memories of Ann Arbor-- music in particular-- I know you helped found the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival. Can you tell us about that?
- [00:07:04.03] JOHN SINCLAIR: There's two back stories to this. Because we did the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival in '72, '73, and '74. First off, they had an Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969 and '70, produced by a student group led by John and Jim Fishel.
- [00:07:26.12] And they put on the greatest blues festivals that had ever been done in America. If you look at the 1970 Ann Arbor Blues Festival lineup-- Michael Erlewine has a book coming out about this. I don't know if it's him and Stanley Livingston, the great photographer, combined to do a book on the blues festivals.
- [00:07:48.12] Well they had the greatest lineup of blues musicians alive that you could possibly-- everybody from Fred McDowell to Magic Sam. Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf were the center attractions. But I mean, they had everybody. I was in prison, so I didn't get to see it.
- [00:08:10.30] At the same time, the hippie element-- that was us-- our thing was free concerts. When the MC5 and I and our commune moved here in May of 1968, we had started coming here the previous summer because our friend Michael McClatchy and other guys like Bill Kirchen had a band called The Seventh Seal. And they were putting on free concerts in West Park. They found out that you could go and give the city $10, and they would turn on the electricity and you could use the Band Shell.
- [00:08:47.52] And so they'd go down there on Sunday afternoons, and a few hundred people would be there rolling around in the grass, and getting high, and watching the band. We thought this was the greatest. We were driving up from Detroit to do this.
- [00:09:05.71] So then we moved here, fleeing the police-state atmosphere of Detroit after the riots. And we saw that it was the beginning of June once we got settled in, and we thought, man, time for free concerts.
- [00:09:21.19] And I sent one of my people, Ron Levine, down to the City Hall to get a permit. Gave him the $10. And he came back and he said, well, they said that they don't allow these anymore in the park, electric music. They passed an ordinance during the winter.
- [00:09:41.09] Well, when we looked into that, we found out this was because the last concert of '67 coincided with the appearance of the Grateful Dead in Detroit at the Grande Ballroom on their first national tour. And we invited them to come up to Ann Arbor and play at the free concert. We brought them up there and they played.
- [00:10:03.69] And they were playing up there barefooted, a beautiful day, and they got a shock. And somebody said, anybody got a blanket or something we could stand on? Somebody threw an American flag up there, and they stood on it and played. Nobody--
- [00:10:16.47] Well, the police and the old people were observing from the lip of the amphitheatre. And they wigged, and this made a big deal amongst the squares. And during the winter, they passed a law saying, well, we aren't going to have this anymore. It's because they have amplifiers, you see.
- [00:10:35.88] So anyway, this started a long battle on our part with the Ann Arbor police. But our goal was clear-cut. We wanted to have free concerts in the parks. We had bands. The MC5 was the spearhead, but all the bands wanted to play for free in the park on Sunday.
- [00:10:55.52] And so we just told the police that this was an undeniable force. We were going to play for free in the park on Sunday whether we had a permit or not, because there was nothing wrong with it. And we wanted to do this. And they couldn't stop us. They would have to arrest everybody and make a big thing out of it.
- [00:11:15.69] Well, they wouldn't give us a permit, so we rented a generator for $8. About $0.50 for the gas. And we set up in the local pavilion. Not the amphitheatre, but there's a little pavilion down there.
- [00:11:31.66] And then they figured, now they're going to have to negotiate with us, because we were determined, you know, that we were going to do it. So we ended up negotiating and trying different places, and we had free concerts.
- [00:11:43.68] And eventually they settled in the space next to-- is it Huron High School, the one out by North campus? Huron, right? Pioneers. I haven't lived here for quite a while.
- [00:11:58.73] So they had this field next to Huron High School, and that was where they said we could do this. Sometime before that, we were in Gallup Park, we were in the Fuller Flatlands, we were down there by the hospitals. Anyway, we were trying to work something out.
- [00:12:13.80] Eventually, we did, and the point is, we did this for years. While I was in prison, they did it. They did it, and then we did it until '74, '75. Every Sunday in the summer.
- [00:12:25.61] Anyway, so this was one strain, and these blues festivals were the other. And I couldn't tell you, even, where they had those, 'cause I wasn't here. But in 1972, I'd gotten out of prison, and I had formed a partnership with a guy named Peter Andrews. He was working for the University, teaching them how to put on popular music concerts and make money off them.
- [00:12:52.21] Now before I went to prison, we used to have to sue the University of Michigan in order to rent a hall to have a dance with the MC5 and the Stooges, you see. So I was thinking about that, in a way, earlier today. We'd have to sue 'em.
- [00:13:07.54] But now they saw that this was big business. This was, like, the end of '71. I guess they hired him the '71-'72 school year. Well, he was the one, by virtue of that job, who was able to stage the John Sinclair Freedom Rally at Chrysler Arena. That was his baby.
- [00:13:25.64] And he also arranged the time when they had the anti-war airplane go over the football stadium. End the war-- I forget what the legend-- I wasn't here, but it was a legendary. But Peter arranged that, too. He was brilliant.
- [00:13:43.88] So we were-- he managed a band called the SRC in Ann Arbor, and I was working with Mitch Ryder in Detroit when I got out of prison. So he said one thing he really wanted to do at the university was revive the Blues Festival. In '71, they want on a-- I hate to go into all these details, but this is a historical thing.
- [00:14:06.40] AMY: This is great.
- [00:14:07.27] ANDREW: Yeah.
- [00:14:07.71] JOHN SINCLAIR: It was in '70 when they had the Ann Arbor Blues Festival. It coincided with the Goose Lake Festival, which was a mammoth pop festival by Jackson, outside of Jackson, about 40 miles away. At least 200,000 people went to this thing.
- [00:14:27.23] And it swamped the little Blues Festival in Ann Arbor, and they lost money on it. The university, of course, is in the money-losing proposition, as you can see by looking around you. While our economy is in the tank, more buildings are going up every day here, you know.
- [00:14:46.96] So the university wouldn't let 'em do this. And I said, well, man, well, they lost money on blues. What if we added jazz? Not just cornball jazz like George Wein has at the Newport Festival. What if we added avant-garde, cutting-edge jazz artists that no one else has ever presented at a festival format?
- [00:15:11.25] Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, Pharaoh Sanders, people like this. Why don't we get Miles Davis to headline this? There's no other choice.
- [00:15:26.48] So anyway, we assembled our ideas for this, and then one day a miracle happened. I was in East Lansing at a free concert to give a talk. They had invited me to give a talk there.
- [00:15:38.97] And a kid came up to me after the thing and said, I just inherited some money from my grandfather, who was an executive at Ford Motors, and I would like to do something really righteous with this money. But I don't know what. I said, why don't I get back to you on Monday?
- [00:16:02.45] [ALL LAUGH]
- [00:16:03.96] And he ended up putting up $25,000, which was a huge amount of money 40 years ago. And we were able to book all the people we want, and we took the free concert territory, and we put a stockade fence around it so you could charge money. But we had the stage, and the sound system. All this stuff had all been developed through the free concerts every Sunday.
- [00:16:32.83] In other words, we had professional-- Pete's brother Kurt had the major sound and staging company in the area. They were the only ones that got paid for these free concerts, but we thought that was-- you had to have professional staging, because the bands were playing for nothing. So you wanted to make it as comfortable and fun an experience for them to come and give their show, for nothing, as possible.
- [00:17:02.92] So we had a stage, and big system, and all that. All they had to do is put up the fence so you could charge tickets. It was like $30 for three days. So that's how we happened to do the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival.
- [00:17:21.58] And it was-- 12,000 people came. It was a big success. We got a record deal with Atlantic Records. They recorded it and they put out a double album. And the next year, in '73, it was bigger, and we had the first national coast-to-coast live broadcast of a jazz festival in America. We had 93 NPR stations. I was pretty proud of that.
- [00:17:55.37] AMY: What happened a couple years later-- how come it didn't keep going for years and years?
- [00:18:01.25] JOHN SINCLAIR: Well, there was this terrible thing that happened at the end of 1973, which mystified us for about 20 years. In the early '90s, we found out what happened. There was a guy, and I won't call his name. But Pete had contracted with him to manage the, what do you call it? Site development, and everything to do with the site.
- [00:18:27.49] So he was in charge of the workers. He was in charge of our security, which was what we called the Psychedelic Rangers. We had our own security-- for the free concerts, we didn't allow the police on the festival site, because it could only lead to trouble. If you want to have a trouble-free environment, keep the police out. We'll take care of it.
- [00:18:52.62] [LAUGHS] I mean, seriously. You got a bunch of kids high in the sun, the bands playing, and everybody's having a ball, and here comes some galoots with helmets on, and guns, and all this stuff hanging off their waist. It just made everybody freak out, you know, so we had to keep them off-- they could do the parking. [LAUGHS] Oh, I have so much fun thinking back to those days.
- [00:19:20.59] Anyway, he hired this guy and he gave him a large sum of money. Five figures-- I can't say, exactly, I think $20,000-- to bankroll this whole thing, so he could hire people and all the people who worked on the site. Kids. They were all kids, they were all hippies, you know?
- [00:19:43.93] Well, we found out years later that he had taken this money and invested in a huge marijuana deal, for some tons of marijuana. And something happened and it fell through, and he didn't have the money. And he never paid anybody.
- [00:19:56.77] And of course, they blamed it all on us, because it was our event. At the end, the site didn't get cleaned because the people who were supposed to work on the site were on strike, because they hadn't gotten paid. So this caused a big stink with the city. Eventually, they had to organize a bunch of people and clean the site. But this allowed them, the next year, to refuse us the permit to do the festival in Ann Arbor.
- [00:20:27.16] And then this little college in Windsor, Ontario invited us to come there. St. Clair College. And so we snapped this up, because we already had people booked. We had plans.
- [00:20:42.56] So like idiots, we accepted this offer and went to Canada to do this. Then we called it the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival In Exile. And the Royal Canadian Mounted Police just shut us down.
- [00:20:55.27] They wouldn't let me come to Canada. I'd been deported some years before, on a marijuana thing. Just that I had a record, not that I had any on me, going to Canada. I did, but they didn't find it. [LAUGHS] Quite frankly. I can say that now. Yeah. I haven't been in there since '74 anyways.
- [00:21:20.12] So we were just ruined. It just-- we were ruined. So that all came to a bad end. And shortly after that, I just threw in the towel on the whole thing. I just thought we were on the wrong course. Or I was on the wrong course. So I kind of set all these people free to do whatever they wanted, and I went back to Detroit in the beginning of '75. I was there until '91.
- [00:21:52.77] AMY: Did you play music in some of the local clubs here? Do you remember some of them?
- [00:21:57.81] JOHN SINCLAIR: Well, I remember playing at a place called the Woods Club that was run by the bassist Ron Brooks. He used to do sessions there, like on Sundays, and we used to come up from Detroit and play with him. That was in the Artists' Workshop days.
- [00:22:17.62] We were also close with a great group called the Dramatic Arts Center at the University of Michigan, which was George Manupelli, Gordon Mumma, Robert Ashley, Anne Wehrer. They were actually the only people that ever gave a grant to the Artists' Workshop of Detroit. $100. [LAUGHS]
- [00:22:41.61] But they encouraged us. It was very small, what we did in those days. Hippies were very small. I mean, a few hundred. You see, I remember-- you guys are probably too young to remember The Big Chill, this movie that was set on the U of M campus.
- [00:23:03.78] But it was all horse shit, because the U of M campus was all squares. The protesters were squares. I mean, the SDS, they didn't even listen to the Beatles. You know?
- [00:23:20.07] AMY: Were you influenced by the Port Huron statement? Did you--
- [00:23:24.42] JOHN SINCLAIR: I didn't really-- I never had any-- I was a follower of Elijah Muhammad and the Black Muslims, and Malcolm X. That was where my-- I felt this was interesting for these students to say something about the way things were, but they never went--
- [00:23:44.40] Students for a Democratic Society was a great idea, but these people weren't going to have democracy, basically. That wasn't their concept, you know? I was over to the left of that, I think.
- [00:23:59.66] Music places, though. I'm trying to think--
- [00:24:01.94] AMY: Mr. Flood's Party, Joe's Star Lounge?
- [00:24:04.18] JOHN SINCLAIR: Yeah, Joe's Star Lounge, I was there many times.
- [00:24:07.36] AMY: What do you remember?
- [00:24:08.18] JOHN SINCLAIR: The Blind Pig. I remember when The Blind Pig started as a great place. A little place, a blues joint. They'd have piano players-- like Boogie Woogie Red and Roosevelt Sykes would come in and play. It was really cool.
- [00:24:24.26] Well, there was this religious place on Monroe Street, they're probably still there. Hell, what's the name of that? But that was a popular venue.
- [00:24:33.40] The Ark was in a house on Hill Street across from our house, and they had the folk music. Ann Street. There was a place on Ann Street which was like the one-block ghetto of Ann Arbor, for Negroes. I forget the name of the place, but they used to have Washboard Willie, and the Super Suds of Rhythm used to come and play there.
- [00:24:55.66] AMY: The Canterbury House?
- [00:24:57.03] JOHN SINCLAIR: Canterbury House was the one on Monroe Street. That's the one I was thinking of, yeah. They were always-- they were the liberal people and they would let anybody do something there.
- [00:25:06.43] I remember seeing music in the Student Union. The great pianist Bob James, when he was a student here. You wouldn't believe it from knowing his hit records, but he was an avant-garde jazz pianist. Kinda the left of Cecil Taylor. And he was a resident on campus, so I used to see him. I'm telescoping all these into a--
- [00:25:33.10] Pete Andrews had a brilliant series of concerts there. What street is it on? State? Liberty?
- [00:25:41.60] ANDREW: Maynard?
- [00:25:42.82] JOHN SINCLAIR: Maynard. OK, on Maynard, and there was a place where you went in like this, and then there was a-- in the '70s, Mike Brady and a bunch of hippies painted some beautiful murals on that, and I think it became a health-food place. But at one point, they had concerts in there. Blues concerts. Peter Andrews brought people like Mississippi Fred McDowell.
- [00:26:07.02] You know, if you ever want to-- do you know Michael Erlewine? But he's a historian of all this. He has every poster digitized. And he was in a band called the Prime Movers, which was like the Paul Butterfield Band of Michigan, with a young James Osterberg on drums.
- [00:26:27.48] And Bob Sheff-- now known as Blue Gene Tyranny. He's big in the avant-garde in New York. He was the piano player.
- [00:26:38.29] The prosecuting attorney of Brooklyn, Vivian Shevitz, was the bass player. [LAUGHS] And his brother, Mike's brother Dan Erlewine was the guitarist. He's the guy who makes the guitars now.
- [00:26:57.25] Anyway, they were a key development in Ann Arbor. They were Ann Arbor's band. '64, '65, like that. '66. The played at The Grande. Erlewine, he knows everything, and he has the artifacts. To get him to sit down like this would really be a brilliant thing, 'cause he's like a fountainhead of knowledge of Ann Arbor.
- [00:27:24.62] Peter Andrews is another guy you should get. He was born and raised here, went to University High. Because he has-- him and a guy named Jeep Holland, who's dead now, they started out as partners.
- [00:27:36.89] And they had a place called The Fifth Dimension, or the 5D. The Who played there. Jimi Hendrix played there. Those were their first shows in Michigan.
- [00:27:49.96] God, I remember wanting to see Jimi Hendrix so bad, but the tickets were $3.50. And of course, there were 10 of us who went anywhere at any one time, and that would be $35. You could eat for a week on that, you know? I remember, we gave The Who a ride to the airport, but we couldn't afford to go to their show.
- [00:28:13.42] [ALL LAUGH]
- [00:28:18.97] JOHN SINCLAIR: Oh, those things are so funny when you think of them. 5D was a big keystone in Ann Arbor's musical development. And when I was there, when the MC5, when we went there, we used to play a place-- it was in there where-- not Bird of Paradise. What's the other one? The singer owns it. The woman singer.
- [00:28:38.88] AMY: Yeah. Susan--
- [00:28:40.53] JOHN SINCLAIR: Susan Chastain. Anyway, where that place is now, they used to have the Ann Arbor Hullabaloo. The Hullabaloos were a chain of teen clubs across the country based on the TV show. One of the first postmodern reality, a chain of teen clubs called after a television show. But they were gigs, you know? We played Hullabaloos in Ann Arbor, Lansing, Benton Harbor.
- [00:29:15.22] ANDREW: Can we talk a little bit about how you decided to be a writer? When did you decide you were going to be a writer?
- [00:29:23.51] JOHN SINCLAIR: Oh, man. Not in high school. High school, what I wanted was to be a disc jockey. I guess that's why I went to college. I think my first semester in college--
- [00:29:40.30] I went to Albion College, initially. It was the squarest place in the world. There was one weirdo on the whole campus. And I started out there doing a little radio show on the dorm station.
- [00:29:57.93] They called it carrier current. It wasn't on the air. It was like wired into-- much like a modern operation, but very weird then. You'd broadcast to the two dorms, two boys' dorms. I guess they were both boys' dorms.
- [00:30:18.40] Anyway, I got a show on there, and I played my-- I was a rhythm & blues fanatic when I was in high school, and I had hundreds and hundreds of 45s. So I was playing these on this college radio station at 7 o'clock in the morning. My theme song would be Chuck Berry, singing, "Up in the morning and off to school." And then you'd go on from there, you know?
- [00:30:41.04] Well, the weirdo heard this, and he came and sought me out in my dormitory room, and said, was that you on the radio? I said, that was me, yeah.
- [00:30:49.84] He said, where'd you get those records? I said, well, they're my records.
- [00:30:54.04] He said, can I come in? [LAUGHS] And then we struck up a beautiful friendship over these Jimmy Reed and Little Walter records, you know? The Flamingos, all this stuff.
- [00:31:07.53] And after two or three hours of this, including skipping dinner-- we were having so much fun we didn't go to dinner. Pretty heavy, for me. I don't miss too many meals, as you can see.
- [00:31:23.54] And at one point he looks at me and says, man, are you hip to jazz? I said, I don't think so. I don't think I've ever heard any.
- [00:31:32.28] He grabbed me by the arm, and he took me to his room and sat me down and played some Miles Davis records for me. Wow, I like this.
- [00:31:41.13] So that was what turned me on. And then he turned me on to Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the Pocket Poets series from City Lights Books. Which there was only one place that you could get those in this whole part of the country, and that was Bob Marshall's Books in Ann Arbor. And you'd have to write-- I used to have to write to Bob Marshall's Books and have them send me Pictures of the Gone World, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
- [00:32:10.05] Anyway, that was how I got interesting in poetry. And then I wanted to write poetry like Allen Ginsberg. When I read "Howl"-- It was all over. It was all over. That was the shit.
- [00:32:24.25] AMY: So how did you get from there to a national leader of the counterculture?
- [00:32:31.03] JOHN SINCLAIR: Well, you know, I was writing my thesis on Naked Lunch. This would be in 1965. And William Burroughs' second novel would be published in the US. It was called Nova Express. And I read that, and then that just changed my orientation.
- [00:32:58.86] Because before that, I thought, well, the only thing you could do, really, would be to be a college professor, and make a living at the person I wanted to be. That was the only thing you could do. So I figured I'd be a college English professor.
- [00:33:17.55] But I read this book and he had the concept of the Nova police. And the Nova police were there to save this ruined planet. And the thing about the Nova police was, they do their work and go. They are not a police bureaucracy.
- [00:33:34.55] And I said, I want to join the Nova police. [LAUGHS] I remember this vividly. And I mean, being a beatnik, you know, I mean-- beatniks. I wanted to be a beatnik. That was my model. And I studied everything I could about beatniks.
- [00:33:53.89] And what beatniks did was turn their back on the social order and did what they wanted, but stayed out of the way because they had a criminal lifestyle, because they used recreational drugs. And that made them serious felons and narcotics addicts. Marijuana was a narcotic at that time, under the law. I changed that.
- [00:34:15.99] So, you know, you gravitated toward other people who were interested in art, poetry, music. All of this was totally outside-- like today. Totally outside the mainstream.
- [00:34:28.35] Well, they didn't have the poseur class that we have now, who get paid a million dollars to pose like beatniks. [LAUGHS] Johnny Depp, for example. Paid $50,000 for Jack Kerouac's raincoat. Anyway.
- [00:34:49.45] But you didn't want to be part of anything. And I started as an organizer, organized the Detroit Artists' Workshop, because we didn't have anywhere to do what we wanted to do. The musicians-- most of the musicians in our group were jazz musicians, and they were cutting-edge players.
- [00:35:11.84] And they were not-- they didn't practice the orthodoxy, which at that time, was bebop. So when they would go somewhere, a session or something, they wouldn't let them play, and all that kind of stuff. The
- [00:35:27.41] Poets-- we were not the kind of poets they were looking for. Wayne State University had this Pulitzer Prize-winning poet named W. D. Snodgrass. He was God. He ruled poetry on the campus. And it was horrid.
- [00:35:46.55] And the Miles Modern Poetry Committee, they worshipped him. The farthest they would go-- they brought Robert Creeley in one time. Before I got there, but they brought Robert Creeley. Must have been '63 or early '64. And he got with all the young beatnik poets on the campus and inspired them.
- [00:36:09.43] And they had had Black Mountain College and these organized efforts to create a different world through music and art and drama. Black Mountain College, you know of that? The staff had Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Charles Olson, my idol as a poet, was the rector. Creeley taught there, Robert Duncan-- all these were there. It was a dream place.
- [00:36:37.06] So we wanted to read our poetry and play our music. And then I ended up doing my poetry with the musicians, which I've been doing ever since. that's what I do now. That's what I've been doing.
- [00:36:50.03] But this was-- we had to have place to do this. We didn't have any money. We couldn't go rent places and put on a concert. We didn't have any money at all. We were beatniks. So we all put up $5 apiece and rented a house, 13 of us. The rent was $65. [LAUGHS]
- [00:37:12.06] AMY: Where was this?
- [00:37:12.53] JOHN SINCLAIR: And we went from there. 1252 West Forest, in Detroit, just south of Wayne State Campus. What we used to call across the expressway from the campus. Our whole area there, now, is Wayne State University married housing projects. They wiped out our whole neighborhood for that.
- [00:37:32.11] ANDREW: That seems like a pretty big switch, though, to go from being a beatnik, who were quietly going about their lives and trying to stay under the radar--
- [00:37:40.56] JOHN SINCLAIR: Well, we were still quiet. I mean, you had to know where 1252 West Forest was.
- [00:37:44.38] ANDREW: But then when did you get loud.
- [00:37:46.21] JOHN SINCLAIR: When we passed out our little mimeographed announcements on the campus, we would only give them to people that looked like you. If you didn't have a beard, mustache, long hair-- you wouldn't get one. We didn't want you there.
- [00:38:02.98] So it was very much a beatnik embassy. We wanted to meet all the people like us, but we didn't want any squares. So, I mean, it was a Utopian concept, but we made it work for us.
- [00:38:17.15] Well, what happened to us was the police. The police kept interfering because we smoked marijuana. It was a basic part of our activity. It was tied in with our artistic activity in a big way, as it continues to be, for me.
- [00:38:34.65] So the police-- we were fair game for the police, and since we were unprotected, and off on our side of society, and nobody cared about us, and we didn't care about anybody, we were easy targets. And they just kept kicking our ass. I was arrested three different times. I did a six-month jail term before I did the two and a half years, so I was a hardened criminal. So to speak.
- [00:39:02.78] But I mean, that was all under the narcotics laws. You were regarded as a-- the formal charge was Violation of State Narcotics Laws.
- [00:39:10.73] AMY: A couple years later, then, you started the White Panther Party.
- [00:39:15.34] JOHN SINCLAIR: Well, the idea of that was the MC5 had just signed a major recording contract with Elektra Records, and we made our first album live at the Grande Ballroom on October 30 and 31 of '68. And so we were going to emerge from being a popular local group to being a contender for the top of the charts.
- [00:39:42.35] And we kind of wanted to make a statement about where we were coming from, that we weren't just some people who wanted to buy our mothers a new house and have a pink Cadillac. We wanted to change the social order from top to bottom to the better, with our vision of the way things should be.
- [00:40:07.40] And we worshipped the Black Panther Party. We just thought the Black Panther Party were the greatest people in America, because they were challenging the police. See, in today's world, where the police rule-- rule hands down, where we have the next thing to a police state as you could possibly dream up. Today, where it's all interlocked with the television, the movies, the pop music-- it's all a police state.
- [00:40:36.37] And the police-- I don't know. This is my view, OK? I hate this country. I just think it's the worst. I mean, look at-- these people won't even-- the nigger can't even get one Republican vote for the health care, to give health care to 31 million more Americans. What kind of society is this?
- [00:40:58.28] So this were the roots, about 40 years ago, and then when Richard Nixon got in, he set off the big charge. And it's been downhill ever since. For me, you know.
- [00:41:10.68] So anyway, we thought the Black Panther Party-- we thought the struggle of black people was paramount in American society. If you wanted to make any kind of positive change in American society, you had to free the black people. You had to give them economic opportunities, educational opportunities.
- [00:41:31.08] You gotta remember-- until 1965, they didn't have civil rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1965 literally gave the civil rights to blacks all throughout America. They could vote. 1965! Until 1965, if you were a Black doctor, you couldn't be in the AMA. If you were a Black lawyer, you couldn't be in the ABA.
- [00:41:56.75] I mean, this is America. The one they took from the Indians, and put 'em on reservations. You know what I mean?
- [00:42:05.18] So we never did like the way this stuff was set up. We thought the Black Panther Party-- and they were being attacked, and persecuted, and murdered, and manipulated, and all these things that have come out in later times, what with the FBI was doing to them. The COINTELPRO program and all this kind of stuff.
- [00:42:24.84] Well, we wanted to say-- and then they were portrayed as racists. That was the worst part of it. They were portrayed as ugly niggers who wanted to kill all the white people. And actually, the Black Panther Party was the opposite of that. And they were not a racist organization.
- [00:42:47.01] So we thought they were the greatest. So we wanted to make a statement that we were different from Cream or The Doors, or the Jefferson Airplane, our contemporaries. I mean, they were all right, but we didn't want to just go to the top of the charts. We wanted to go to the top of the charts and then turn 'em over, basically. [LAUGHS]
- [00:43:14.08] You know, preposterous. But we were on LSD, so we always felt we could do anything. And we're went quite a long way toward this.
- [00:43:25.95] So the day after we recorded our record, we had a press release and said we had formed the White Panther Party. And I still take pride in the fact that it's the only political party in American history started by a rock and roll band. And it was the members of the band, and their management, and their roadies, and their friends in the community, who were the members of it.
- [00:43:54.24] And it was just-- I don't know. We had no intention of starting a political party. It was just an idea. It was just an idea. We put this idea out there, and then it took on its own reality and led to all kinds of things. Prison, for me and two of my cohorts.
- [00:44:12.57] So it went way beyond. I mean, to us, it was just an idea.
- [00:44:17.34] AMY: If you are writing the 10 points for the White Panther Party today--
- [00:44:20.86] JOHN SINCLAIR: And I did. I mean, again, in my generation, when I came up, black people were the moral guidance for us. Well, let's start with the music. We heard their music, and that was it. We wanted to be part of that. That was so much better.
- [00:44:38.48] And then when you associate with black people, they were so far superior to white people. They were smarter, they knew more of what was going on, they had bigger hearts, and they accepted everybody. So this was a beautiful thing to me, because we had been walled out of this by racial segregation on the part of white people.
- [00:44:59.18] What you find out is that racism is a one-way street. There isn't any black racism. First place, you have to be in control and impose your ways on somebody to be a racist. You can't just say-- I hate that guy 'cause of his color. You have to be able to prevent them from getting a job. Or an education. Then you're a racist!
- [00:45:23.28] AMY: Do you still feel the same way today?
- [00:45:25.12] JOHN SINCLAIR: Yes. Amen. Now I have a Black president. I'm happy. I'm happier than I've been since they killed Malcolm X. On that day, to me, political life in America was dead. I just had never had any hope for them.
- [00:45:41.80] I didn't even think John F. Kennedy was that great, you know? I thought he was the guy who sent the people to Cuba. I love Cuba, now more than ever.
- [00:45:55.68] ANDREW: I wanted to ask about the shift from-- when the White Panther Party ended and you started the Rainbow People's Party, you kind of-- I read somewhere that you said that you were moving from being a national radical organization to something that would sort of work within the system, and organize locally, and try to get people elected to office, and make change that way. And that seems like a really big shift in your way of thinking about things.
- [00:46:19.17] JOHN SINCLAIR: Well, yeah. But the shift took place-- I was in prison and Pun Plamondon was in prison. We were the leaders of the White Panther Party. The MC5 left in the spring of '69, after about six months. They decided this wasn't what they had set out to do.
- [00:46:47.68] So we went on, and-- the Black Panther Party was under attack. And we were very militant. We wanted to kill everybody. We wanted-- we want to kill, we wanted to off the pigs, as the saying went.
- [00:47:07.85] And then once we were in prison, we had a chance to think about some of these things. And of course, you weren't taking any acid, so your expectations shrunk down to something a little more reasonable. And then we decided--
- [00:47:24.23] We didn't know anything. We didn't have any political background at all. We thought SDS and all those, really, they were from a different planet or something. We just wanted to do the right thing, as the saying goes.
- [00:47:39.14] So we started studying in prison, and studying the works of Mao Tse-Tung in VI Lenin. We though, if we're going to be revolutionaries, we ought to know something about the revolutionary ideology, and things like this. Of course, the Black Panther Party had stirred us in this direction, because when we made contact with them and they said, well, you know, you gotta have political education. Our members have mandatory political education classes every week. You can't be a member without studying. You have to have a Red Book. You have to know what it says. Wow.
- [00:48:17.90] So we went to their classes, initially, and then we started studying the revolutionary rhetoric, and what have you. So part of was, we didn't want to be the White Panther Party anymore, because it was defeating our purpose. We were just scaring people, who were, especially our own consistency, were hippies. The idea of hippies with guns, well, it's not a congruent image. Nobody wanted to deal with that. Reasonably enough, I might add.
- [00:48:57.10] So we wanted to change, and we didn't want to be-- we tried to merge with the so-called Youth International Party, or the Yippies. We found out they didn't have any structure whatsoever. They had three or four guys who would come around and give a speech if you gave them a couple thousand dollars. Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and those guys.
- [00:49:16.89] But they didn't have an office, so there wasn't any way you could contact.
- [00:49:20.35] There wasn't anything-- we tried to merge. We carried on these merge negotiations for some time before we realized there wasn't anything to merge with. So then we were thrown back on our own devices. We though, Youth International Party, we can live under that. That would be better than White Panthers.
- [00:49:41.12] And of course, the Black Panther Party, during the two and a half years we were in prison, was undergoing a lot of changes internally and they were maturing politically. And well, I don't know, if you study the writings of Huey P. Newton, or the speeches of him and Bobby Seale during this period. They were transforming into an international revolutionary organization.
- [00:50:08.73] Well, I have to say, inspired by the teachings of Mao Tse-Tung, and studying the course of the successful Chinese Revolution, we found-- and also Cuba, and Vietnam, and all these places, we found it started with a small group of people like ourselves. And they developed a program and a course of activity, and they followed that, and they grew and grew.
- [00:50:40.56] And the Chinese Revolution had succeeded on the basis of creating what they called revolutionary base areas. They focused on a certain spot where they happened to be until they controlled it politically and economically. It was a safe place, and then it also served as the example, so they could say to people that were oppressed in an area of congruent to them, well, look at what we've done. We've done this and the people have rights. And that was how they grew.
- [00:51:18.52] So we thought our job would be to try to turn Ann Arbor into a revolutionary base area. and to try-- you know, to win over people who-- when you get into power, and you get from spouting slogans to organizing people, it's a whole different task. And you have to convince people that your ideas are correct for them to adopt them, or else they're going to oppose you. And we had been opposed. And we understood what they were saying.
- [00:51:56.62] So that was what we though. And to have the hubris, the nerve, the chutzpah-- whatever you want to call it-- to think of yourselves as a leader of a revolution on the United States when you couldn't even elect somebody to the City Council in your own town! It was a contradiction in terms. It just became too overwhelming. And we thought, we gotta do something real.
- [00:52:27.14] One day, somebody's gotta write a book about it, because it was just a great period in Ann Arbor, from '72 to '75, when we were the Rainbow People's Party.
- [00:52:40.68] AMY: You did end up getting a couple of people elected to City Council.
- [00:52:44.76] JOHN SINCLAIR: Well, we joined with some other radicals to form the Human Rights Party as an electoral party. And we pledged our support of the Rainbow-- we knew we had a lot of hippies who were seasoned and they would know how to do things. We could put on concerts and rallies. We got people out of prison. I mean, we had quite a track record in that respect.
- [00:53:14.69] Yeah, so we joined the Human Rights Party. And then the Human Rights Party elected two members to City Council in '72, Nancy Wechsler and Jerry DeGrieck, who as it happened were traditional left-wing people associated with the International Socialist Organization.
- [00:53:41.30] But that's what happens when you have to make alliances on the left. You get into bed with people that maybe you shouldn't have. [LAUGHS] But anyway, it was a good thing for Ann Arbor, and it opened--
- [00:53:55.68] The beautiful thing was, the two members of the Human Rights Party on the seven-member Ann Arbor City Council represented the swing votes on any issue. Neither Republican nor Democrat could pass a law without the support of the Human Rights Party. So they used that.
- [00:54:19.27] That's how they got the $5 marijuana Law. That was our payoff. That was the payoff-- in the political sense, that was the payoff to the Rainbow People's Party. We get our $5 Marijuana Law.
- [00:54:32.05] But you know, they'd go after landlords. In order to pass a budget for the year, they would have to give something to the Human Rights Party on the left-wing side. So it was a beautiful kind of a thing, a basic American political reality that was confronted and mastered. It's pretty exhilarating.
- [00:54:54.17] We fell out with the Human Rights Party when we wanted-- our original premise, when we joined, was that we wanted to run a Human Rights Party candidate for sheriff. We thought the key to development of this area would be to control the sheriff's office. And at that time, it had been run by this guy Doug Harvey, who was like Bull Connor. He was like a redneck-- ah, he's a horrible guy. Horrible.
- [00:55:29.36] And we thought, if you had the sheriff's office, then you could talk about developing things in a left-wing way because you wouldn't have to worry about the sheriff coming in and taking you to jail. If you had the sheriff, you had the jail. And we knew the jail. Believe me. So we didn't want that.
- [00:55:50.24] And then the campus radicals that were part of this were freaked by the idea of confronting political power so directly. To them, it had been kind of an intellectual exercise, if you could debate the sewage and stuff like that, that was OK.
- [00:56:09.77] But to have guns, again, that was a horrible concept. But we thought, if somebody's going to have the guns, why shouldn't it be us? Why should we be cowering in fear over these people who were elected to office? Why don't we just elect one of ours to office?
- [00:56:26.94] Well, that's where we kind of fell out. But it was a beautiful experiment in social organizing when it happened.
- [00:56:40.41] AMY: So is it easier to be a poet and a musician and to have a radio show than it was to be a political activist?
- [00:56:48.38] JOHN SINCLAIR: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, the hours-- I'm involved in a group right now. We're attempting to organize the medical marijuana movement in the city of Detroit, and we intend to open the first compassionate care center in Eastern Market.
- [00:57:09.32] And I went to the first meeting with these guys, who are my pals. I used to live with one of them, and the other was my organ player. And we had a meeting, and I just was transported back to sitting around that fucking table on Hill Street, arguing with these people about little tiny points and everything. And of course, these guys had no background in organizing whatsoever. They just had some lofty ideas. And I went-- [HITS TABLE] --you've got to do-- And I just said, man, am I glad I'm out of this.
- [00:57:47.98] Because see, it's easy to do the right thing on your own. You just decide what the right thing is and then you figure out to do it. You don't have to convince anybody. That's the hard part.
- [00:57:58.94] I just did it because I wanted to change society and I didn't know any other way. That's how I get into all that. I was just trying to do the right thing, and this is all I could think of.
- [00:58:12.27] And you had some successes, so then you were encouraged. It's like being enabled or codependencized. You get a little victory, and then you think, aaaah! The world is ours! But no. [LAUGHS]
- [00:58:31.99] ANDREW: Can we talk about the creation of the Ann Arbor Sun? How did that come about?
- [00:58:35.66] JOHN SINCLAIR: Yeah, there's another longer st-- I mean, all these stories have little trails. The Ann Arbor Sun goes back to-- well, one of the first-- well, let me go another step.
- [00:58:52.29] One of the greatest things about the hippie movement, and the anti-war movement, and the anti-racist movement, and the women's movement of the period in the '60s '70s was that we had the underground press. And every campus in every city, in every enclave of hippies, or weirdos, or left-wingers, published a tabloid newspaper, starting around '65. '64 or '65. This had never existed before. And it was a remarkable thing, because as this moment spread, then we had the same--
- [00:59:32.85] My friend Bob Rudnick, who lived in Ann Arbor for some time, was the original coordinator of the Underground Press Syndicate. Then it was taken over from him by a guy named Thomas King Forcade, who was the guy who ended up starting High Times. So really, the only element of this left is High Times magazine, which is not the same thing.
- [00:59:54.87] And then these shopping newses that they called-- like the Metro Times and the Real Detroit. I guess you don't even have a newspaper in Ann Arbor anymore, do you? Boy, that should be a mark of shame. How you all let them do that, I don't know.
- [01:00:11.04] ANDREW: We've got a couple online.
- [01:00:11.36] JOHN SINCLAIR: In our day, we'd have blown up their building, you know? [LAUGHS] If they said they weren't going to publish a newspaper, they would have been over. [LAUGHS] Excuse me. [LAUGHS]
- [01:00:24.12] I'm a newspaper fiend. You can see I got my daily three right here. If they had an Ann Arbor News, I'd buy that.
- [01:00:32.41] No, I mean, they got these formats now, but they're all corporate. And all the ads are for movies and strip clubs. You read the Real Detroit magazine, it would make you sick to your stomach, seeing the pictures of the scantily-clad women.
- [01:00:47.17] I don't know. Some like that. To me, it makes me sick. I can't stand it. Take your clothes off, you know, but don't charge somebody for it. Do it 'cause you love them, you know? [LAUGHS] We don't wanna fuck 'em now--
- [01:01:05.38] So you had the Underground Press Syndicate. And do the beautiful thing was, every paper that was in the Underground Press Syndicate could exchange copies with every other paper. So every week or two weeks, if you had a-- I worked for the Fifth Estate. No, I wrote for the Fifth Estate. Work, you get paid. I didn't get paid.
- [01:01:26.83] But I wrote for the Fifth Estate, which was one the first five underground newspapers in the country. They were one of the original founders of the UPS. And I joined them on their second issue, so I was in on the ground floor of this. I wrote an arts column for them.
- [01:01:45.67] And then of course as things progressed, me and Gary Grimshaw, the artist, we both worked for the Fifth Estate, but we were in our own collective. And we decided that the Fifth Estate was too stodgy, and too much politics, and not enough art and culture. So we started our own paper, the Sun.
- [01:02:11.00] And we did several tabloid issues in Detroit, and then we moved to Ann Arbor, and then we thought we should have the Ann Arbor Sun. And we put it out as a mimeograph. You got those? The original ones? We were mimeograph-- we were on the forefront of the mimeograph revolution from '64 to about '67, when we went to tabloid.
- [01:02:34.94] So we had mimeograph copies starting in May of '68. And then I was in prison. Let me see-- then they had the Ann Arbor Argus, by Ken Kelley. The late great Ken Kelley started that here.
- [01:02:47.50] And so then I wrote for the Ann Arbor Argus, and we affiliated. We recruited Ken Kelley, who was like 18, into the White Panther Party. And that was our organ. We wanted to have an organ, you know? Should have just got a Hammond B3. [LAUGHS]
- [01:03:08.90] So somehow-- when I was in prison, I think they started this somehow. You'd probably know better than I would. This is kind of fuzzy in my mind, exactly, when that started. But I wrote for the Sun when I was in prison.
- [01:03:23.42] And when I got out, it was like-- was it weekly or biweekly? Probably biweekly. Well, no, it was a magazine. It was a national magazine. That was congruent with the idea of the White Panther Party being a national radical organization.
- [01:03:39.93] Although Ken Kelley, to do SUN/DANCE, I think he wanted to make some money on it. And it took a lot of money to do it. Of course, we were pre-money. Our whole existence was pre-money in the economic form. We just needed enough money to feed everybody every day, our 35 people in our commune. And get around, and get to the gig, and stuff like that. We were not motivated by money at all.
- [01:04:13.61] I think Kelley wanted to make some money with this magazine. He had a partner named Craig Pyes. And they started-- have you seen it? Very impressive magazine. Slick, glossy, big format. Like life, you know? I thought it was a valiant effort on his part.
- [01:04:35.46] I think they did three issues of that. He moved to San Francisco. So I can't tell you when exactly the Ann Arbor Sun tabloid started. Jeez, I feel stupid. I'll have to read your reports. Try and learn something.
- [01:04:53.79] Well, one of our main people was a guy named David Fenton, who came here from New York. He was a photographer. He was a movement photographer who was well-known by 18. He published pictures of demonstrations. He's got a book of photographs called Shots, I think they just reissued it three years ago or so.
- [01:05:15.90] But he came from New York to join the White Panther Party and to help get me out of prison. And Gary Grimshaw did all the work, the layout and design. And they had other artists, like Mike Brady. Oh, God. I'd have to look at them. Linda Ross was active in this as a writer and reporter. I don't know, it was mostly people from the White Panther Party and then the Rainbow People's Party.
- [01:05:51.31] But one of our thrusts, as the Rainbow People's Party part of our concept of how to proceed, was to form-- it's another Communist thing, United Front organizations-- was to form public organizations for specific purposes with other elements in the community, who didn't necessarily share your political beliefs or commitment but believed in and committed to providing housing for runaways, poor people. Drug Help was a group we aligned with. Ozone House, Free People's Clinic. We thought everybody should have free health care. Today!
- [01:06:44.41] AMY: Yay!
- [01:06:45.65] JOHN SINCLAIR: The beginning! It's not going to be that yet, but that's the beginning. Boy, I can see some people jumping out of the windows of insurance companies tonight. [LAUGHS] I hope. I hope it's about 50,000 of 'em.
- [01:07:01.61] That's the one think I miss in this Depression, you know? You read about 1929, the bankers jumping out the window. Now their parachutes are so heavy, they'll never come down.
- [01:07:13.80] So our impulse at all times was to try and draw more-- during the Rainbow People's Party, when we had a little bit of political maturity, we wanted to draw more people into the movement. And we wanted to create institutions. Alternative institutions-- that was one of our basic concepts, the Sun being the most visible as an alternative newspaper.
- [01:07:40.96] We created a People's Ballroom. We built from the ground up and it was destroyed by fire about six months later. But we thought there should be a People's Ballroom, where the bands got paid fairly, the price was right, it was perfectly staged and lit. So we made one.
- [01:08:01.75] We thought there should be free concerts, so we developed these little free concerts into what they called the Ann Arbor Community Parks Program.
- [01:08:10.24] I mean, we were trying to create institutions to replace the ones that we felt were failing us. So that was our-- not that we succeeded, but I mean, that was our concept. So I say that to say, the Sun was made to reflect these different things. We didn't want to do just-- we wanted to make sure our point of view was represented, because we were doing the work, and selling the ads, and making the thing go.
- [01:08:38.75] So that was our motivation. But we also wanted to make it carry the range of things that people were doing in the community that we felt was within our purview.
- [01:08:50.43] ANDREW: And then the Sun lasted for-- it didn't last for too long. Do you remember when it ended? Do you remember why it ended?
- [01:08:59.40] JOHN SINCLAIR: Well, you know, we moved it back to Detroit. During this time, a young woman came into our organization named Barbara Weinberg. I just saw her the other night for the first time in 25 years. But she came in and she was-- her family had money. I think her grandfather invented a better dog collar or something like this, but they had a lot of money.
- [01:09:29.67] She came from the University of Michigan. She fell in with us. She was with David Fenton. And she was a true believer, and she decided to draw on some of the funds she had available for the Sun. She worked on the Sun. She was a photographer. Great photographer, still.
- [01:09:51.11] Oh, and of course, my first wife, Leni Sinclair, she was the main photographer. Don't let me leave her out. So she made sure that this-- and my brother David, he was the Chief of Staff of the White Panther Party and the Rainbow People's Party. And he was the tall oak tree that made everything-- he made sure everybody was fed, and the cars were running. My brother just took care of everything. He's was a brilliant man. He's dead now.
- [01:10:22.94] And he ran for City Council in Ann Arbor as a second-- first Genie Plamondon and then my brother David ran for City Council in the Third Ward, where we were located. Which was a stone Republican ward, so they were like sacrificial candidates with no chance of winning, but the Human Rights Party wanted to run a full ticket in all the wards.
- [01:10:50.73] My brother-- there's a great poster for my brother when he ran for City Council. He's striding across the Diag, smoking a roach. This was his City Council campaign poster. [LAUGHS]
- [01:11:09.86] So anyway, at some point in late ' 74-- well after the collapse of the Blues and Jazz Festival, which was an economic engine-- not that we made a profit from it, but in the course of putting it on, everybody had a job. And if you were hired, our people would get the same pay. So we were kind of flush, in our way. We had a little work to do.
- [01:11:37.80] After this collapse, and it all collapsed, kind of my will-- I thought, Jesus, Ann Arbor. We want to do this major international artistic event and they won't let us. Maybe I'm in the wrong place. [LAUGHS] Maybe I'm barking up the wrong tree! Jesus Christ, Ray Charles and the Raylettes were here last year. What's wrong with these people?
- [01:12:12.24] So I decided to move back to Detroit. Well that was the culmi-- we decided to have a series of self-examination sessions, where we tried to figure out what we were doing wrong, and blah-blah-blee. We put to question to people, well, is this what you really want to do?
- [01:12:34.34] Or do you really want to do something else? Because the results are as if no one really wants to do this. We aren't getting the results we need.
- [01:12:45.55] And basically, most people decided that they wanted to do something else. And about seven of us decided we wanted to remain together but we wanted to go back to Detroit. So we did, and we took the Sun with us. And two of those people were Barbara Weinberg and David Fenton. Genie Plamondon, by then known as Parker, Leni Sinclair, Frank Bach, Peggy Bach, and me. Seven.
- [01:13:18.04] And so we moved to Detroit, and then we revived the paper as the Detroit Sun. And that went from '75 to the end of '76. We tried to become a weekly paper, and we just couldn't sell the ads.
- [01:13:36.28] I mean, the horrible thing about paper is, you gotta sell the ads. That's what's so ridiculous about not having a paper in Ann Arbor. All they got here is money. Think they could hire a couple of high-powered ad salesmen from another paper or something.
- [01:13:53.02] It's shocking to me. The home of the University of Michigan doesn't have a newspaper? Ooh. That's not a good omen.
- [01:14:01.26] AMY: You had a remarkable number of successes and some failures in Ann Arbor. But you seem to have a very fond memory of Ann Arbor.
- [01:14:12.28] JOHN SINCLAIR: Oh, yeah. I had a ball here.
- [01:14:15.08] AMY: Should we be nostalgic in general about the late '60s, early '70s?
- [01:14:19.55] JOHN SINCLAIR: Well, I don't think nostalgia solves anything. I think there's lessons to be learned. And they should try and do some-- the same problems are still here. They're bigger now.
- [01:14:33.08] I keep waiting for people to-- see, we just hated the way things were. I just wait for people to develop a-- I hate modern life. I hate television. I hate popular music. I hate movies. I don't like any of it.
- [01:14:49.39] And I don't participate. I just read the papers. I do that more out of self-defense. And then I do my crosswords every day, which I learned from my mom.
- [01:14:58.57] [ALL LAUGH]
- [01:15:02.03] JOHN SINCLAIR: But I mean, if I was young today, I would be trying to destroy this place. And that's what I keep waiting for. I was excited last year when all the people got behind the colored guy for president. I thought, wow, this is a rebirth of America I never thought I'd ever see. And then he got elected! And I just thought, man, isn't this great.
- [01:15:22.61] But then everybody just went back to their games. Their Facebook, their Twitters, telling everybody when they farted. When are they going to get tired of this? It's an empty-- I don't know. I guess you gotta see something different.
- [01:15:38.11] See, they block out great art from people. You can't get inspired by great art anymore, because you don't even know it exists. The average American doesn't know who Miles Davis is. Never heard of him, never heard a not. Black people have never heard a Muddy Waters record.
- [01:15:55.85] So to me, this is what I'm grounded in. I'm grounded in this music, and the art, and the poetry, and the whole beatnik thing, which is about art. And art ruling life, and life dedicated to creating and producing art. You got this horrible world of Britney Spears, and 50 Cent.
- [01:16:22.11] ANDREW: But you're still waiting for the change to happen? You haven't lost hope?
- [01:16:24.42] JOHN SINCLAIR: I'm not waiting for anything.
- [01:16:26.82] ANDREW: Do you believe that it can happen?
- [01:16:28.34] ANDREW: No, my thing was, what, in '75, when everybody went to get a job and became Americans, I didn't. I never have. I never will, God willing.
- [01:16:39.76] I'm the same way. I live my life the same way. I just gave up on trying to turn people. We tried to turn people on to it. I did three years in prison as part of my effort trying to turn people onto a better life. Well, if they don't want it, I'm going to have it.
- [01:16:55.37] So I have it, in my friends. I'd rather stick with my friends, and I got friends everywhere, and I'm kind of borne aloft by my friends from one place to another around the world. They take care of me.
- [01:17:08.16] I don't have a home, I don't have a car, I don't have any bills, I don't have anything. I had a fire in New Orleans around 2001, and I lost my record and book collection, which was the only thing I had.
- [01:17:25.09] So since then, I don't even want to own anything. If I read a good book, I'll give it to you. If I think you'll like it, I'll give it to her or him. I don't want 'em. I don't want a library.
- [01:17:36.17] I got all the records. I got a 360- gig hard drive in there. I plug in there and I've got 300 gigabytes of music on it. I can carry around with me. I don't have to have walls with records on 'em anymore.
- [01:17:50.42] So I enjoy life exactly as much as I did then, living the same way. It's just I realized it wasn't up to me. That, as the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can'y make him drink. You can lead a whore to culture, but you can't make her think.
- [01:18:17.15] So I don't worry about 'em. If I see somebody trying to do something, I encourage them. I'll go anywhere. I'll talk to anybody. I regard myself-- I'm an elder. I'm here to help.
- [01:18:32.78] If you were trying to start underground newspaper or something, you could call me. You could write to me. You could email me, and I would help you to the best of my ability. Or I'd tell you who to-- I mean, I'm always looking for things.
- [01:18:48.74] And I'm alive with all kinds of younger people. Most of my friends are much younger than I am. And whenever I see somebody trying to do something interesting, I try to look them up and affiliate, because I see my world as a constantly-shrinking world.
- [01:19:07.24] AMY: But you've been able to use Twitter and MySpace and Facebook and your radio show. I mean, it's diff--
- [01:19:14.51] JOHN SINCLAIR: Well, I make the radio show, and I got my young guys in Amsterdam who do my websites. And now they do my Facebook, and Twitter, and MySpace. They do all that to try and spread my shows.
- [01:19:29.48] I make my radio, so I don't care if anybody listens to 'em. And there's how many listening? I don't even want to know. That's not what I'm doing it for. I'm doing as a form of self-expression, and because I feel it's incumbent--
- [01:19:44.39] I've learned all this about music. I know all the great music of our fucking country for the last 100 years. I got it right at my mental fingertips. I got a lot of it on my hard drive. I think it's incumbent upon me to share this and make things so if people wanted to know where some good music was, they'd listen to one my shows.
- [01:20:03.81] And whatever it was-- each one's different. It's got all different kinds of music, but it's all good music. So I make 'em.
- [01:20:12.66] I regard myself in the modern world as a content provider, and when I make a book or a record anymore, I don't even worry about what's going to happen to it. Maybe somebody will put it out. Maybe they won't. But they aren't gonna stop me from making another one. [LAUGHS]
- [01:20:32.93] ANDREW: How does it feel to have a song written about you?
- [01:20:37.13] JOHN SINCLAIR: Well, it really felt good then, because it got me out of prison. Best thing that ever happened to me. But I took more pride in being in a Bob Seger song, I must say. "Highway Child," I'm in there. When I was in prison, he put me in there.
- [01:20:55.35] I know who I am, so you aren't going to be bothered with me trying to tell you who I am. I already know. Most people are trying to figure out who they are when they're telling you who they are. I already know. I'm comfortable with myself.
- [01:21:10.58] ANDREW: So what was it like to have a great concert that was all for you, that you didn't get to go to?
- [01:21:16.66] JOHN SINCLAIR: Well, it was frustrating. But I mean, it was exhilarating. See, it was the culmination of two and a half years of concerts like that. This one just happened to have John Lennon and Stevie Wonder.
- [01:21:27.10] But that was by design. We wanted to do a huge concert, actually, to put pressure on the legislature to pass a new drug legislation. Which they did, so it was a great success. And the idea that I would get out wasn't even-- it was a big bonus. It was no idea that that would be a result.
- [01:21:53.05] But what we wanted to do was to change the law so that marijuana was no longer a narcotic, so that you couldn't get 20 to life for selling some marijuana or giving it away. You couldn't get 10 years for possessing two joints.
- [01:22:07.75] We waned to change that. That was what my appeal was about. That was why I went up against them.
- [01:22:13.93] I never intended to go to prison. It was a constitutional challenge, and it's clear in our jurisprudence that you get an appeal bond for something like that. For possessing two joints? If you get five days you should get an appeal bond. So they wouldn't give me an appeal bond. They said I was a threat to society.
- [01:22:35.62] So when John Lennon came along, they really couldn't hold me anymore. The Beatles were coming to Ann Arbor. So they look after this guy, and they couldn't hide it anymore.
- [01:22:47.08] It was a bullshit rap. The whole thing was bullshit, and they had to let me off. And then three months later, I won my appeal, and my sentence was overturned, and so were the laws. But by then, they had already passed the new laws.
- [01:23:03.21] That's why we have the Hash Bash, because the new marijuana law, which they have now, statewide, was to go in to effect on April 1. I think my case was decided on March 9 or 12. I gotta look that up. But from that point until April 1, there were no marijuana laws in the state of Michigan, and of course, here in Ann Arbor.
- [01:23:31.18] We took full advantage of this. We had public-- we'd have dances where we offered the sacrament on the altar, and all this kind of stuff. We had a church, the First Ann Arbor Church of Zenta, which psychedelic substances were our sacraments.
- [01:23:50.00] So all of this culminated with April 1, having the Hash Bash to say, you might be putting the new laws into effect, but we aren't going to pay any more attention to those than we did to the old laws. And then shortly after that, we passed the $5 Marijuana Fine, which is still the most progressive thing ever done in America, I'm proud to say, as far as marijuana is concerned.
- [01:24:19.10] I mean, the medical marijuana thing is OK, but it's basically-- I won't say it. Basically a ruse. I don't know. On the other hand, I agree with the great Dennis Peron, who says all marijuana use is medicinal. So I subscribe from that point of view.
- [01:24:37.57] But that was a real-- to recognize it, they had to have a law. It's like in Holland. Marijuana isn't legal. They're bound to the Single Drug Convention of Richard M. Nixon of 1972, so they can't legalize it.
- [01:24:57.75] And until we go to grow, until we go to dispense it to a retail outlet, until we go to transport it-- but when it gets to the coffee shop, it's all legal from then on, as long as you only have 500 grams on the premises. Then the user can buy it over the counter.
- [01:25:17.17] Well, that's what we thought here, you know? What can we do? They aren't going to legalize it. How about reducing the penalty as far as it could possibly be reduced? How about if you get a ticket that costs $5? We could live with that. [LAUGHS]
- [01:25:35.22] I understand they've adjusted it for inflation over the years, but I have a patient card now, so I don't even worry about it anymore. I'm a patient. I might be a sick motherfucker, but I'm not a criminal.
- [01:25:52.47] AMY: On that note--
- [01:25:53.43] JOHN SINCLAIR: There you go!
- [01:25:58.27] ANDREW: To learn more about John Sinclair, go to freeingjohnsinclair.org.
- [01:26:06.13] AMY: "AADL Talks to John Sinclair" has been a production of the Ann Arbor District Library.
December 9, 2011
Copyright: Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)
Rights Held by: Ann Arbor District Library
Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival
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