By Rob Hoffman
Not too long ago, John and Leni Sinclair were comfortably relaxing in the blue padded seats of Ann Arbor's Crisler Arena.
This was where, almost exactly 40 years ago, the biggest night of their lives had occurred.
Back then, the circumstances of Ann Arbor's most famous radical couple were considerably less comfortable. Leni had spent the evening of Dec. 10, 1971, manning a table on the Crisler concourse where she sold merchandise and distributed literature for the political party founded by her then-husband, the White Panthers. By her side were her two young children. Between the table and her parenting responsibilities, she admitted she remembered very little about the music and speeches taking place on the main stage - except for the surprise appearance by one of her personal favorites, Stevie Wonder.
As for John, he was miles away from Crisler on arguably the most famous night in Ann Arbor music history. Along with Wonder, Ann Arbor native Bob Seger, folksinger Phil Ochs and avant-garde jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp had all come to perform at the so-called "Free John Sinclair" rally, an eight-hour affair that also featured a slew of speeches from a who's who of 60 radicals: Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale and many others.
The night, however, belonged to two main attractions: John Lennon, performing live in the United States for the first time since the breakup of the Beatles. And there was Sinclair himself, in a phone call piped over Crisler's PA system,. Sinclair was at Jackson prison, serving an 8 1/2 to 10 year sentence for giving two marijuana cigarettes to an undercover police officer in 1967. It was a semi-clandestine call - one that Sinclair didn't think would happen until he noticed that the prison guards were paying more attention to the game on TV than to what he was doing.
About 48 hours after Lennon closed the concert by singing "Free John Sinclair," a song he had especially written for the event, Sinclair walked out of his prison cell and into the arms of a sobbing Leni and their two children.
John Sinclair was free.
The rally was a success. Never mind that the Michigan legislature, acting independently, had reformed the state's marijuana laws to clear the way for Sinclair's release. And never mind that just a short time after singing the lines “It ain't fair/John Sinclair” on the Crisler stage, Lennon would be targeted by the FBI for lengthy deportation hearings.
It had happened. For once, with the eyes of everyone focused on Ann Arbor, music had changed the world. At least a little slice of it.
Yes, all of the efforts to free John Sinclair may have converged on that crisp December evening. But, as with any interesting slice of history, the story leading up to that fateful night was a long and complex one that covered all sorts of issues of the day: The evolving 60s music scene, radical politics, the decay of Detroit and the effort to loosen Michigan's drug laws.
The story of what led to this fateful day in music history could begin at any number of times. And in any number of places. Let's begin with Sinclair himself. A Flint native who was first introduced to the beatnik counterculture during his two years at Albion College in the late 50s, Sinclair ensconced himself in the nascent Detroit leftist scene while attending graduate school at Wayne State, starting in 1964.
Over the next few years, Sinclair developed a number of different personas that seemed to fit his eclectic personality. As a poet and an artist, he was one of the founders of the “Artists' Workshop,” which would later transform into the more politically minded collective “Trans-Love Energies.” He would compose poetry, perform in an experimental jazz group - and, above all, try to put his hands in almost anything that interested him. Which, for Sinclair, was quite a lot.
It was during these early days in Detroit that John would meet fellow Wayne State student Magdalene "Leni" Arndt, a East German emigré and artist/photographer whom he would eventually marry.
Almost from the beginning, Sinclair and the other radicals attracted the attention of the Detroit police force, which had established special squad aimed at ridding the city of “Communist and Bolshevik influences.” Sinclair's first marijuana arrest took place on October 7, 1964 as a result of a police sting. Another even more orchestrated undercover operation snared Sinclair in 1966 - and this time, he was sentenced to six months in the Detroit House of Corrections. A third arrest - and the one that eventually led to Sinclair's long-term incarceration - occurred in January 1967.
Upon his release, Sinclair became more interested in community organizing - and thus the Artists' Workshop became Trans-Love Energies, a name that was taken from a Donovan song. TLE morphed into both an expression of the counterculture and a multi-purpose organization that offered free housing and promoted events in the Detroit area. It was during this time that Sinclair would meet individuals who would be crucial to the development of TLE.
One was Lawrence Robert "Pun" Plamondon, a Traverse City native who had found TLE the perfect outlet for his desire to both rebel and work for social justice. Pun and Sinclair quickly became good friends, and Pun would shortly ascend to the TLE leadership.
The other group was the five-piece musical outfit known as the MC-5, which first encountered TLE and Sinclair in 1966 when members were looking for a rehearsal space. The band and Sinclair were an immediate match. Sinclair, up until then a jazz devotee. had become attracted to the raw energy of rock. And no band better expressed that energy than the MC-5 with its loud and propulsive sound. The band's five members, in turn, saw Sinclair as someone with enough influence to open doors for them.
The biggest door may have been the newly opened Grande Ballroom, a concert venue modeled on San Francisco's famous Fillmore West where the MC-5 became a fixture, opening for the many acts that passed through Detroit during their nationwide tours. The MC-5 - and the ballroom - allowed the TLE to spread its message to thousands of others getting caught up in what would become the country's “Summer of Love.”
In fact, influenced by what was going on in San Francisco with “Be-Ins” and other hippie gatherings centered around music, Sinclair and the MC-5 staged a “Love-In” on Belle Isle on April 30, 1967.
Meanwhile, outside of Sinclair's sphere, events were transpiring that would have a profound influence on his political direction and where he chose to live.
Much of it came to a head in 1967. In Detroit, the week of July 24-31 would yield some of the worst rioting in the nation's history. A raid of an after-hours club that resulted in the arrest of all 82 people present would unleash eight straight days of violence and wind up with 43 dead, 467 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. The riots would eventually transform the city, as some of its most productive citizens (both white and African-Americans) fled to surrounding suburbs. But it also revealed a deepening schism between Detroit's citizens and its police force, in which 45 percent of the beat cops assigned to the city's mostly Black neighborhoods were “extremely anti-negro,” according to President Johnson's Kemer Commission.
As a result of the riots, Sinclair shifted the TLE base west to Ann Arbor - in large part because of a Detroit police curfew, which hampered the organization's ability to make money from MC-5 concerts.
If anything, however, Washtenaw County authorities offered an even chillier reception to Sinclair and his colleagues. Over the next year, there were marijuana busts, police interference at MC-5 concerts and several high-profile arrests - including one where Oakland County deputies charged Sinclair and MC-5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith with "assault and battery on a police officer" in July 1968.
Writing increasingly vitriolic articles for the alternative press, Sinclair continued to press for a change to the status quo. He also wanted the TLE, through the MC-5, to educate young people about the cultural revolution that he viewed as underway.
Cultivating relationships he had tentatively developed with key figures in the Yippie movement. Sinclair managed to get the MC-5 invited to the “Festival of Life” event occurring in Chicago that August, simultaneous with the 1968 Democratic convention.
As it happened, the MC-5 were the only band to play during the convention, which saw the police beating hippie protestors in the streets in scenes that were televised nationwide. Shocked by what he saw and determined to do something about it, Sinclair created the “White Panther Party,” (WPP) - ostensibly Trans-Love Energy's political arm.
The quasi-affilation with the Black Panthers was in part influenced by Plamondon, who had read the writings of Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seals during one of his prison stays. When the two Black Panther leaders asked for white groups to join their cause, it was Pun who lobbied Sinclair to align TLE with the Panthers.
The WPP issued a 10-point program, a partially incendiary and partially tongue-in-cheek manifesto that, among other things, called for the “end to robbery by the white man of our black community.” No doubt about it: The rhetoric coming out of Hill Street, where the TLE had set up camp, was becoming more strident and militant.
Amid this militancy, tensions were worsening between Ann Arbor's radicals and the local authorities - most noticeably seen through a wave of bombings that included the local CIA office. The Panthers were indicted after a man named David Valler confessed to the crimes and claimed that he did so in cahoots with Sinclair and Plamondon. The latter went into hiding after landing on the FBI 's “10 Most Wanted List.”
But the FBI, who had been monitoring the situation since 1968, did not take an active interest in the WPP until the so-called “Ann Arbor Riots” of June 16-18, 1969, where rock-throwing radicals squared off against police in riot gear for three days. Angered by reports of the WPP's involvement in the riots, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered his agents to launch a campaign of surveillance and disruption.
Yet it was not the riots that landed Sinclair in jail. It was that third pot possession arrest in January, 1967 when Sinclair gave two joints to undercover officers. The court case, which Sinclair's lawyers had successfully delayed for a number of years, wound up with Sinclair being declared guilty on July 28, 1969, and being sentenced to nine and a half to ten years in prison by Detroit Recorder's Court Judge Robert J. Colombo. Denied bail, Sinclair was immediately put behind bars.
Even without their leader, and with the MC-5 splitting from Sinclair to record less incendiary music, the White Panther Party soldiered on. Chapters were formed nationwide and even abroad. The group talked with the Yippies and other national figures of the radical movement to try to coordinate their efforts. While talking to these figures, Leni and John's brother David continued to raise awareness about what they saw as John's bogus imprisonment through rallies, benefits and other special events. They also talked to the imprisoned John, who first raised the possibility of a benefit concert in the summer of 1971.
For all and intents and purposes, Sinclair's imprisonment coincided with a bad time for the radical movement. The 1970 riots at Kent State had left four students dead and raised doubts about the impact of “Flower Power.” The non-violent change once espoused by the Yippies and the Students for a Democratic Society had given way to the violence propagated by the Weather Underground. President Nixon, the target of so much ire during the late 60s, appeared as strong as ever. And the Vietnam War continued, unabated.
Amid this environment, four different figures would see their paths merge: Sinclair, Hoffman, Rubin and a new figure, former Beatle John Lennon.
During his last few years with the Beatles, Lennon himself had dabbled in social change with such events as “Bed Peace” and the recording of “Give Peace a Chance.” So long beleaguered by his celebrity, Lennon now hoped to use his very fame as an agent for social and political change.
Having moved to a brownstone on Bank Street in New York City's Greenwich Village, Lennon kept his door open to figures on the political left - most notably, Hoffman and Rubin. Future Patti Smith Group guitarist Ivan Kral, who ironically would later join the band that included former MC-5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith and his wife Patti, got his first job out of college as a “go-fer” for the Lennons. Kral, the son of an exiled Czech diplomat who had several political discussions with the ex-Beatle, described Lennon as “incredibly politically naive” - and all too eager to listen to Rubin and Hoffman. The two radicals were hatching an idea for a nationwide concert tour shadowing President Nixon's presidential campaign when they heard about the benefit concert the White Panthers were trying to put together for John Sinclair. According to several historians, they convinced Lennon that this is where the effort to undercut Nixon should start.
David and Leni had hired Peter Andrews as the promoter of the concert, which would take place in the University of Michigan's newly constructed Crisler Arena. Though several bands and speakers had committed, Andrew was convinced that the event would be a complete bomb. Then having returned from a trip, he got an excited phone call from Leni: John Lennon had agreed to play the concert.
Not believing for the longest time, Sinclair finally went to New York where he was greeted by Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono. Lennon not only wanted to play the concert, but he had composed a special song that he wanted Andrews to hear. At the end of their meeting, Lennon recorded a message, affirming his commitment to play at the so-called “Free John Sinclair” rally.
The commitment of Lennon led to others joining the concert. For example, the political folksinger Phil Ochs was a friend of Lennon's and also agreed to perform, according to Ochs' biography.
The Committee to Free John Sinclair played that tape on Dec.8, 1971, two days before the concert. Tickets, priced at $3 apiece, sold out in just a few hours. Andrews no longer had a bomb on his hands.
Though it has come to be ranked as one of the top rock concerts of all time, if only due to its scale and the presence of an ex-Beatle making his first American solo performance, the event itself was disappointing to many attendees - and more than a little bit anti-climactic.
Concertgoers were mostly there to see Lennon, who would be the last performer of the night. They clapped half-heartedly for a parade of speakers that included Allen Ginsberg, Ed Sanders, Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale and Rennie Davis. The freeform jazz of saxophonist Archie Shepp seemed out of place. Hometown boy Bob Seger - then a relative unknown - was received politely. As was Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, a group that included several former University of Michigan students. Ochs got a few chuckles with his set, which included rewriting the 1965 Civil Rights ballad “Here's to the State of Mississippi” to become “Here's to the State of Richard Nixon.” The concluding line “Richard Nixon, find yourself another country to be part of” drew loud cheers.
One of the evening's two highlights may have been the surprise appearance of Stevie Wonder, who had called Andrews just days before the concert. His set had people dancing in the aisles - and even garnered the attention of Lennon, who persuaded Andrews to let him watch the Motown legend perform.
The other high point was the phone call from Sinclair, whose voice choked up as he expressed his hope that he would be free soon.
As for Lennon, concertgoers expecting a rendition of the Beatles' “Come Together” or even the solo hit, “Give Peace a Chance,” were to be unsatisfied. Taking the stage at 3 a.m. with a “band” that included Ono, Rubin and musician David Peel, Lennon was on stage for only 15 minutes and sang just four songs - all of them unfamiliar, including “John Sinclair,” a simple ditty that included these lyrics:
It ain't fair, John Sinclair
In the stir for breathing air
Won't you care for John Sinclair?
In the stir for breathing air
They gave him ten for two
What else can Judge Colombo do?
Gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta set him free
Yet somehow it worked. Or at least it appeared to work because less than 72 hours after Lennon stepped onto the Crisler stage with his acoustic guitar, Sinclair was released from the Jackson state penitentiary, reuniting with Leni and his children in a teary scene that was broadcast statewide.
Though the rally may have had some influence, the true reason for Sinclair's release was the Michigan State Senate's decision on Dec. 9, the day before the concert, to reduce criminal penalties for pot possession. Armed with the new legislation, Sinclair's lawyers requested bail for the seventh time - and this time, the Michigan Court of Appeals granted it on Dec. 13.
Lennon's performance wound up being the only one of Rubin and Hoffman's planned anti-Nixon tour. As the author Jon Wiener wrote in his book Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon Files, FBI agents were all over Crisler taking notes and even writing down the lyrics to the songs Lennon sang. Four months after the concert, the federal government began deportation hearings against the British citizen - a long-standing struggle that would only end after Nixon resigned in 1975.
It was over.
But John Sinclair was free.