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John Sinclair, Former MC5 Manager and Activist, Dies at 82

John Sinclair, Former MC5 Manager and Activist, Dies at 82

A few years back, as he released one of many albums combining his poetry and music, John Sinclair explained that, “I’m trying to do that while I’m here so when I go, I’ll have the feeling I left it behind the way I wanted,” he said. “I’ve always approached each thing I do like it’s the last, just like every day like it’s the last. I’m kind of a practicing existentialist in that way.”

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Sinclair — who died Tuesday morning (April 2) from heart failure at Detroit Receiving Hospital at the age of 82 —honed that existentialism throughout a storied career. A poet, writer, author, critic, scholar, activist, recording artist and performer, he was beloved as a raconteur and an iconoclastic personality, and best known as the original manager of rock band MC5 and a marijuana proponent who was championed by John Lennon.

“(Sinclair) is one of those ‘a lot of things to a lot of people’ kind of guys,” MC5 co-founder Wayne Kramer, who himself passed away on Feb. 2, told Billboard in 2018. “He has a lot of passions, a lot of interests, a lot of causes that he maintains … Not always a saint or the easiest guy to get along with, and sometimes we hated him. But I would say he was a mentor and a friend … and he was as a very important part in what the MC5 became.”

Grammy Award winning-producer and Blue Note Records president Don Was, who recorded and performed with Sinclair on a number of occasions, adds that, “To me he was as important and influential as any activist, any politician or any musician, doubling as a voice of a generation…as such he made the world a better place.”

Sinclair was born in Flint, Mich., and studied at Albion University and the University of Michigan’s Flint branch, from which he graduated in 1964 after working for the school’s newspaper and serving on its Publications Board and Cinema Guild. He went on to the Fifth Estate, Detroit’s counter-culture newspaper, and the Detroit Artists Workshop Press. He wrote about jazz for Down Beat magazine, read at the Berkeley Poetry Conference during July of 1965 and co-founded the Ann Arbor Sun, another underground newspaper, in the spring of 1967 with his first wife, photographer Leni Sinclair, and psychedelic poster artist Gary Grimshaw.

Was, who considered Sinclair “one of my heroes,” tells Billboard that “in the 60s, culture — art, music, film and poetry — was weaponized in part of a global struggle for all different kind freedom. And in Detroit, John stood in the leadership position in the intersection of all that. I don’t think every city had their own John Sinclair. He was a unique character who had this combination of coolness and vision and a kind of principled energy — along with a sense of playfulness that made it fun as well as serious.”

During the mid-60s, Sinclair met the members of the MC5, who hailed from the Detroit suburb of Lincoln Park. Kramer credited Sinclair with helping to expand the band’s musical horizons further in the direction of R&B, free jazz and blues. “They were very ambitious, more sophisticated than the usual rock ‘n’ roll guys in what they were trying to do,” Sinclair remembered earlier this year, when Kramer passed. “And they were willing to work, as hard as they had to, to be great.”

Sinclair managed the MC5 through 1969, helping the group score its contract with Elektra Records. Working with the White Panther Party, Sinclair also steered the band in a political direction, including a performance at an anti-Vietnam War rally that was broken up by police. The group eventually found Sinclair’s politics stifling, however, and parted ways with him.

In 1969, Sinclair was arrested for marijuana possession, after offering to joints to an undercover police officer, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Abbie Hoffman invoked his name during The Who’s performance at Woodstock that summer, and Lennon wrote a song “John Sinclair” to champion his cause. (It appears on his 1972 album Some Time in New York City). Lennon and Yoko Ono also performed at the John Sinclair Freedom Rally during December 1971 in Ann Arbor, joining a lineup that included Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, Phil Ochs, David Peel and others; Sinclair was freed three days later after the Michigan State Supreme Court deemed the state’s marijuana statues unconstitutional.

“He was the Nelson Mandela of pot, he really was,” says Martin “Tino” Gross, a longtime friend and musical collaborator in Detroit who produced Sinclair’s last two albums — Mobile Homeland and Still Kickin’ — for his laebl Funky D Records. “He took the fall, man — 10 years for two joints. There’s a whole (cannabis) industry now that owes him a debt.”

Sinclair also faced charges of conspiracy to destroy government property in 1972, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and resulted in a landmark decision that prohibited the government’s use of electronic surveillance without a warrant.

After those cases, Sinclair spent time living in Amsterdam — where he established the John Sinclair Foundation to promote arts and media — and New Orleans, where he continued writing and performing. He formed bands, including several iterations of his Blues Scholars, and recorded a litany of albums, including the highly regarded Guitar Army in 2007. He also hosted performances at the Detroit Jazz Center in the city’s downtown and launched the Radio Free Amsterdam channel online.

“John was my mentor in the 70s self-determination music,” says Detroit musician and label operator RJ Spangler, whose Planet D Nonet collaborated with Sinclair on the Viper Madness album in 2008. “John really turned us onto New Orleans music and culture; we had grand times together in the Big Easy. It will not be the same without him.”

Gross — who like many in Sinclair’s circles refers to him as “The Chief” — adds that, “If you could hang out with the guy, it was incredible. To experience his love for jazz and what he could teach you in an hour was amazing.” And, Gross notes, “He never for one second veered of his path of pushing back against The Man. John stood up for the downtrodden, as cliché as that might sound. He would champion black culture and blues and jazz music, and anybody who seemed oppressed, John was in their corner.”

Sinclair had been in poor health for a number of years, including diabetes, and was admitted to the hospital during the weekend to treat a leg sore that had become infected and turned into sepsis. He’s survived by two daughters, Marianne and Celia. Memorial arrangements are pending.

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