Interview: MC5 Manager John Sinclair on the White Panther Party, Sun Ra and Poetry

The political activist reflects on his lengthy career.

Gary Grimshaw

John Sinclair has always been a poster child for what he calls “outness and defiance and all that kind of shit.” While acting as the manager of Detroit’s iconoclastic rock group MC5, his political collective the White Panther party worked to support the civil rights movement with free concerts and political rallies. After he was imprisoned in 1969 for giving two joints to an undercover officer, artists including John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Stevie Wonder performed and spoke at the John Sinclair Freedom Rally in 1971, which saw him successfully released three days later. The resulting changes in the state marijuana laws contributed to his cred as a lifelong marijuana activist.

In 1992 Sinclair formed his band The Blues Scholars in New Orleans, which allowed him to set his radical poetry to music, and in 2014 released the album Mohawk, accompanied by various performances around Europe. One such show at the Barbican in London reunited his otherworldly and “gruffly exhortatory recitations” with the Sun Ra Arkestra, who he had originally booked alongside the MC5 at a now-legendary concert at Detroit’s Community Arts Auditorium in 1967. Sinclair is a notable long-time supporter of Sun Ra. In this edited and condensed excerpt from his recent interview with RBMA Radio, Sinclair talks extensively about his early Detroit years, Sun Ra, and more.

What was your childhood like?

I grew up in a small town in Michigan, called Davison, Michigan. I had a white, middle class American childhood, in a small town. Idyllic.

Do you think you grew up in a particularly political household?

Well, my parents were Republicans. I guess that’s political. When I was a kid they were enthusiasts of General Eisenhower. They hated Democrats.

Where did you get your sense of social responsibility from? Was it from your parents?

No, not from my parents. My parents’ idea of my social responsibility would have been to become a lawyer. Then run for some sort of political office and end up a Senator or the President of the United States. That would be their idea of a political consciousness. When I was 11 or 12 years old, I started hearing music by black people on the radio. That became the focus of my life from that time until now. Basically. What I learned about things, I learned from people who made music. Rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and then jazz. That was my personal trajectory.

I was a teenage rhythm and blues fanatic, and would-be disc jockey. Then when I graduated high school I went to college and I got turned onto jazz. Then shortly, as I progressed in my studies of jazz, I was introduced to the music of the farther out segments. John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders. I was an enthusiast of this sort of jazz music in the early 1960s. I eventually wrote a column about Detroit for Down Beat Magazine, for eight dollars every two weeks.

When did rock and roll enter your life?

There was this record called “Maybellene,” by Chuck Berry and Chess Records. Came out in the fall of 1955. That was the most exciting thing I had ever heard in my life up to that point. When “Maybellene” came out we used to go to our little hangout after school, and you could play six records for 25 cents. We would put in a quarter and hit “Maybellene” six times. Then do it over again two or three times; we didn’t want to hear anything else. I got in on the ground floor of rock and roll, as we call it.

Could you tell us what it was like at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom for the late 1960s?

His concept was not just to buy his mom and dad a new house, but to try and alter the basic structure of the American economic and political system.

I got involved with the modern rock and roll of the ’60s when I heard a band called the MC5 in Detroit. I had been in prison for six months, and I was released on August 5, 1966. The next day they had a festival at our place in Detroit, the Detroit Artists Workshop. I became friends with the lead singer, Rob Tyner. He interested me in his ideas of having a band that was more than just some kind of bubblegum machine. His concept was not just to buy his mom and dad a new house, but to try and alter the basic structure of the American economic and political system. I thought that was a great idea, so we worked together from that point on. I became the manager of the band. Made sure they had enough guitar strings and drum sticks. A ride to the gig, etc.

You mentioned being in prison just before that point. Were you surprised at the call to arms that your later arrest sparked in 1969?

Not in the least bit. We engineered that response very carefully over a period of two-and-a-half years. I was part of a group founded by the MC5, myself and some other individuals called the White Panther Party. We organized ourselves in that form to support the Black Panther Party. And to also agitate for our own political ideals.

The Black Panther Party told us, “Well, we appreciate this, but really what we’d like you to do is get these white peoples’ feet off of our necks. We don’t really need you to come to the ghetto, we need you to alter these people. Your parents and people like that. The young people, get them to understand what we’re trying to do.” So we were trained on that.

In the course of that, I was sent to prison. That was my second time. I’m a life-long marijuana user. Around 50 years ago I was a pioneering member of the small coterie of Americans who began to challenge the marijuana laws. Marijuana was at that time regarded as a narcotic, and the laws were organized around that. I followed the call from my fellow poets Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders who had formed a group in New York City called LEMAR, Legalize Marijuana.

I got a flier from them in the mail for their first event and I thought, “Wow, this is a great idea, we ought to do this in Detroit.” So we did. We had a mimeograph machine as well. So we ran off some propaganda and called a public meeting, and then the race was on. Unhappily, this race was won by the authorities against me on three occasions. But I didn’t quit fighting. When I was in prison we used that as a way to try to get the laws overturned. I was eventually successful after two-and-a-half years in prison, of convincing through my appeal in the Michigan Supreme Court, and also in our lobbying efforts with the Michigan Legislature.

I was successful in overturning the law, having it declared unconstitutional. We had it determined that marijuana was not a narcotic, that a ten-year sentence for possession of marijuana was cruel and unusual punishment. That thing started in 1964, 1965. Then at the end of 1971 I was out of prison and in March of 1972 my conviction was overthrown by the Michigan Supreme Court.

Ann Arbor Sun

It was true in that time that John Lennon wrote the song about you, wasn’t it?

Oh yeah. Even more importantly, he came to Ann Arbor. We tried to build more and more support, and we were going to culminate with a large rally in Ann Arbor in December of 1971, that was staged to put pressure on the legislature to alter the narcotics laws and to remove marijuana ... to basically do what my appeal said they should do...

In organizing this event, we had friends at the University of Michigan campus, and they were able to secure the basketball arena, 15,000 people. Which in 1971 was a lot of people. Our friend Jerry Rubin in New York City was able to convince John Lennon and Yoko Ono and also his friend Phil Ochs that they should come to Ann Arbor and play this big show. That’s what really put the ultimate pressure on the state legislature when they were considering this law. They had to deal with the fact that John Lennon was coming there to oppose their view. That was like a bombshell. We had this event and 15,000 people came and three days later they released me from prison. Then it was several months after that the album came out with the song he wrote for me. But it wasn’t so much the song, it was what he did. It was his appearance. That was a beautiful thing.

How did you first come across Sun Ra?

I think I first encountered Sun Ra’s name in Down Beat, probably. He was still based in Chicago until 1961, I believe. You heard about this guy and they were supposed to be pretty far out, but there wasn’t any way to hear their records. It was when he recorded for ESP Disk that he merged into a wider recognition.

But I first heard and saw Sun Ra records when a drummer from New York named Roger Blank stayed over at our house. I remember taking Blank to his room and he unpacked his suitcase. He had a little LP or portable player. He had two albums. One of them was Super-Sonic Jazz. Then he went into quite an impressive sermon about Sun Ra and his music, and what it all meant to him.

How did you think to put Sun Ra and MC5 together?

We brought Sun Ra in for a concert at Wayne State University with MC5 and a light show. But we drew about 100 people.

I wanted to figure out a way to present Sun Ra to audiences in Detroit. MC5 loved Sun Ra’s music. We listened to a lot of it together. So I suggested that perhaps we could bring the Sun Ra Orchestra to Detroit and put them on the concert with the MC5, who had an audience. Not that great an audience, but as a local band at that time... I’m talking about 1966 and 1967. We brought Sun Ra in for a concert at Wayne State University with MC5 and a light show. But we drew about 100 people. We didn’t have the fare to send the Orchestra back to New York. One of our guys had a VW Bus, so he had to drive these 10-12 people back to New York. We only had enough for the gas money.

But you know, there was very little interest in the commercial jazz industry for Sun Ra whatsoever. They just weren’t interested. These guys had come up putting on their own affairs in Chicago, and putting out their own records. Then they moved to New York, where they became, you know, central figures in the New York jazz revolution that was going on at that time.

All the progressive, cutting-edge players would come and rehearse with Ra. Ra rehearsed his Orchestra every day, every day. Pharoah Sanders, Marion Brown, Archie Shepp. They would come down and rehearse with them, to see what Ra’s music was about. They had a tremendous impact in New York City. They also had a brilliant collective consciousness. Because Ra was like Duke Ellington or Count Basie, he had to have 15 or 16 guys in order to hear what his music sounded like.

But unlike them, there was no commercial demand for Sun Ra. They had to approach it from a voluntary communalistic perspective. Ten or 12 of these guys lived together in a three-room apartment on the Lower East side of New York. That was the only way he could do it. Sun Ra was unstoppable. He had the idea of what he wanted to do and he was going to figure out how to do it. And he did.

With your poetry, was Kerouac an influence?

Kerouac’s work inspired me to embrace a certain way of life, and to try to find the world that he was talking about. That’s the one I wanted to be part of. My mentor idols, though, were Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Amiri Baraka, and Ginsberg. I aspired to master their approach to poetry.

How does jazz influence your poetry?

Well you know, jazz is pretty much at the core of my life. When you write poetry, you write about the things that you care about and that are on your mind. You will always find music on my mind, and that’s where my poetry starts from.

How did you meet Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp in New York in 1964?

We found out their address and went to their home and knocked on the door. [laughter] My partner in Detroit was a trumpet player named Charles Moore. We started the Detroit Artists Workshop together. We used to go to New York for ... I don’t know, I guess today we’d call it research. You had to go to New York to hear this stuff, because they weren’t bringing it to Detroit...

You could see Coltrane. Coltrane had an audience because he came up through the Miles Davis Quintet. So Coltrane had gigs, and he went around the country and played in the jazz clubs. But guys like Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor or Archie Shepp? There was no market for their work. First time I saw Shepp was in a loft. Somebody’s home. They presented them. That was the only way that they could get their music out. Or this Slug’s Saloon place, which was a super dive.

To listen to Cecil Taylor talk was like taking a semester’s worth of college in one afternoon.

Archie Shepp lived at 35 Cooper Square in the same building where LeRoi Jones lived, and where Diane di Prima had the Poets Press. So it was like a nerve center for us. We went and I had corresponded with LeRoi, as he was known then. He was my idol. Then I think he probably took us to the next floor to meet Archie Shepp, who was his neighbor you know. I remember Charles Moore and I sitting around the little kitchen table in their little tiny apartment drinking wine, listening to Shepp.

Cecil Taylor lived not far from there. I idolized Cecil Taylor, so I tracked him down. Introduced myself and he probably read something I had written. So we became pretty good friends. With Cecil Taylor, he was like Sun Ra. Both of these guys could talk endlessly, about what was on their minds. Sun Ra, he was the same on stage, in the dressing room, in the restaurant, at his pad. He had preachment, they call it. You would just be blessed to be able to sit there and listen to them talk and tell you all these things for hours. I have sat for eight hours with Sun Ra before.

Cecil Taylor was the same way. Sun Ra was into all this stuff about the planets and space. The contradictions on earth. He had a really incisive analysis that was unlike anything you had ever heard. Cecil Taylor was like a brilliant intellectual. He was a guy who was up on every development in poetry, drama, art, dance. He was an expert on dance, for example. He was totally engaged with everything going on around him. To listen to him talk was like taking a semester’s worth of college in one afternoon, you know? He just put so much stuff on you.

By RBMA Radio on June 16, 2014

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