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John Sinclair (poet)

John Sinclair
Born (1941-10-02) October 2, 1941
Flint, Michigan, US
Alma mater University of Michigan
Occupation Poet, writer, political activist

John Sinclair (born October 2, 1941) is an American poet, writer, and political activist from Flint, Michigan. Sinclair's defining style is jazz poetry, and he has released most of his works in audio formats. Most of his pieces include musical accompaniment, usually by a varying group of collaborators dubbed Blues Scholars.

As an emerging young poet in the mid-1960s, Sinclair took on the role of manager for the Detroit rock band MC5. The band's politically charged music and its Yippie core audience dovetailed with Sinclair's own radical development. In 1968, while still working with the band, he conspicuously served as a founding member of the White Panther Party, a militantly anti-racist socialist group and counterpart of the Black Panthers.

Arrested for possession of marijuana in 1969, Sinclair was given ten years in prison. The sentence was criticized by many as unduly harsh, and it galvanized a noisy protest movement led by prominent figures of the 1960s counterculture. Sinclair was eventually freed in December 1971, but he remained in litigation – his case against the government for illegal domestic surveillance was successfully pled to the US Supreme Court in United States v. U.S. District Court (1972).

Sinclair eventually left the US and took up residency in Amsterdam. He continues to write and record and, since 2005, hosts a regular broadcast and podcast, The John Sinclair Radio Show.


  • Early life and education 1
  • 1960s activism 2
  • Involvement with the MC5 3
  • Imprisonment and public support 4
  • Performances, writing and poetry 5
  • Discography 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

Early life and education

Sinclair was a member of the Class of 1960 at Albion College in Albion, Michigan, but he dropped out after his first year.[1] Sinclair attended the Flint College of the University of Michigan, now the University of Michigan-Flint. During his time at UM-Flint he served on the university's Publications Board, school newspaper "the word", and was the president of the Cinema Guild. He graduated in 1964.[2] He currently lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

1960s activism

Born in underground newspaper, Fifth Estate, during the paper's growth in the late 1960s. Fifth Estate continues to publish to this day, making it one of the longest continuously published alternative periodicals in the United States. Sinclair also contributed to the formation of Detroit Artists Workshop Press, which published five issues of Work Magazine. Sinclair worked as a jazz writer for Down Beat from 1964 to 1965, being an outspoken advocate for the newly emerging Free Jazz Avant Garde movement. Sinclair was one of the "New Poets" who read at the seminal Berkeley Poetry Conference in July 1965.

Involvement with the MC5

Sinclair managed the proto-punk-band MC5 from 1966 though 1969. Under his guidance the band embraced the counter-culture revolutionary politics of the White Panther Party, founded in answer to the Black Panthers' call for white people to support their movement.[3] During this period, Sinclair booked "The Five" as the regular house band at Detroit's famed Grande Ballroom in what came to be known as the "Kick out the Jams" shows. He was managing the MC5 at the time of their free concert outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The band was the only group to perform before baton-wielding police broke up the massive anti-Vietnam war rally, calling it a riot. Eventually, the MC5 came to find Sinclair's politics too heavy-handed. He and the band separated in 1969[4] but they are still friends and he has spoken at their recent reunion concerts, including Massive Attack's 2008 Meltdown at London's South Bank. In 2006, Sinclair joined MC5 bassist Michael Davis to launch the Music Is Revolution Foundation, serving as a general board member.[5]

Imprisonment and public support

After a series of convictions for possession of marijuana, Sinclair was sentenced to ten years in prison in 1969 after giving two joints to an undercover narcotics officer.[6] The severity of his sentence sparked some high-profile protests, including an infamous incident at the 1969 Woodstock Festival wherein Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman jumped on the stage and seized a microphone during a performance by The Who. Hoffman managed to emit only a few growling words about Sinclair's plight before he was ejected from the stage by a guitar-wielding Pete Townshend.[7][8]

With a more successful protest, John Lennon performed his new song "John Sinclair" on television[9] and recorded it for his next album, Some Time in New York City (1972).[10] With "directness and simplicity",[9] the lyrics lament Sinclair's heavy punishment: "They gave him ten for two – what else can the bastards do?"[9]

Various public and private protests culminated in the "John Sinclair Freedom Rally" at Ann Arbor's Crisler Arena in December 1971. The event brought together celebrities including Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono; musicians David Peel, Stevie Wonder, Phil Ochs and Bob Seger, Archie Shepp and Roswell Rudd; poets Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders; and countercultural speakers including Hoffman, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, Jerry Rubin, and Bobby Seale.[11][12] Three days after the rally, Sinclair was released from prison when the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the state's marijuana statutes were unconstitutional.[13] These events inspired the creation of Ann Arbor's annual pro-legalization Hash Bash rally, which continues to be held as of 2015, and contributed to the drive for decriminalization of marijuana in Ann Arbor.

In 1972, Leonard Weinglass took on the defense of Sinclair in Detroit, Michigan after he was charged with conspiracy to destroy government property along with Larry 'Pun' Plamondon and John Forrest. The case became United States v. U.S. District Court, 407 U.S. 297 (1972), on appeal to the United States Supreme Court. The Court rendered a landmark decision prohibiting the US government's use of domestic electronic survelliance without a warrant, freeing Sinclair and his co-defendants.

Performances, writing and poetry

Since the mid-1990s Sinclair has performed and recorded his spoken word pieces with his band The Blues Scholars, which has included such musicians as Wayne Kramer, Brock Avery, Charles Moore, Doug Lunn, and Paul Ill, among many others. He also performed as a distinctive disc jockey for New Orleans' WWOZ Radio, the public jazz and heritage station.[14]

On March 22, 2006, Sinclair joined The Black Crowes on stage at the Paradiso in Amsterdam, and read his poem "Monk in Orbit" during the instrumental break in the song "Nonfiction".[15] Two days later, he went back onstage at the Black Crowes show in the Paradiso, reading his poem "Fat Boy" during the long instrumental jam following the Black Crowes' song, "How Much for Your Wings?".[16]

On January 20, 2009, to mark Barack Obama's inauguration as the 44th President of the United States, Sinclair performed a series of his poems accompanied by a live band, featuring Elliott Levin, Tony Bianco and Jair-Rohm Parker Wells at Cafe OTO in Dalston, East London.[17][18]


John Sinclair has recorded several of his poems and essays. On these albums blues and jazz musicians provide psychedelic soundscapes to accompany his delivery:

  • 01 John Sinclair: thelonious: a book of monk (1996) – New Alliance Records
  • 02 John Sinclair & His Blues Scholars: Full Moon Night [live] (1994) – Alive/Total Energy Records
  • 03 John Sinclair with Ed Moss Society Jazz Orchestra: If I Could Be With You [live] (1996) – SchoolKids Records
  • 04 John Sinclair & His Blues Scholars: Full Circle (1997) – Alive Records [Choice Studio Album]
  • 05 John Sinclair & His Blues Scholars: White Buffalo Prayer [live] (2000) – SpyBoy Records
  • 06 John Sinclair: Underground Issues [compilations] (2000) – SpyBoy Records
  • 07 John Sinclair & His Boston Blues Scholars: Steady Rollin' Man Live [live] (2001) – triPup Records
  • [BOX-1] John Sinclair & His Blues Scholars: Fattening Frogs For Snakes, Volume One: The Delta Sound (2002) – Okra-Tone Records/Rooster Blues
  • 08 John Sinclair: KnockOut (2002) – D-Men Records
  • 09 John Sinclair & Monster Island: PeyoteMind (2002) – Future Is Now Records
  • 10 John Sinclair: It's All Good [compilation] (2005) – Big Chief Records
  • 11 John Sinclair: No Money Down: Greatest Hits, Volume 1 [compilation] (2005) – Big Chief Records
  • 12 John Sinclair & Mark Ritsema: criss cross (2005) – Big Chief Records [Choice Studio Album]
  • [BOX-2] John Sinclair: Fattening Frogs For Snakes, Volume Two: Country Blues (2005) – No Cover Records
  • 13 John Sinclair: Guitar Army (2007)- Feral House/Process Books [Album Inserted In Feral House Printing Of Book]
  • 14 John Sinclair & Pinkeye: Tearing Down the Shrine of Truth & Beauty [live] (2008) – LocoGnosis Records
  • 15 John Sinclair & His Motor City Blues Scholars: Detroit Life (2008)- No Cover Records [A Choice Studio Album]
  • [BOX-3] John Sinclair & His Blues Scholars: Fattening Frogs For Snakes, Volume Three: Don't Start Me To Talking (2009) – Big Chief Records
  • 16 John Sinclair & Planet D Nonet: Viper Madness (2010) – No Cover Records [A Choice Studio Album]
  • 17 John Sinclair: It's All Good: A John Sinclair Reader (2010) – No Cover Records
  • 18 John Sinclair & His International Blues Scholars: Let's Go Get 'Em (2011) – No Cover Records [A Choice Studio Album]
  • 19 John Sinclair & Hollow Bones: Honoring The Local Gods [live] (2011) – Straw2Gold Records
  • 20 John Sinclair: Song of Praise — Homage to John Coltrane [live] (2011) – Trembling Pillow Press
  • 21 John Sinclair: Beatnik Youth (2012) – Track Records [Choice Studio Album]
  • 22 John Sinclair: Conspiracy Theory [compilation] (2012) – Big Chief Records
  • 23 John Sinclair: Viperism [compilation] (2012) – Big Chief Records
  • [BOX-4] John Sinclair & His Blues Scholars: Fattening Frogs For Snakes, Volume Four: Natural From Our Hearts (unissued)


  1. ^ Albion College Yearbook 1960; Albion College Yearbook 1961
  2. ^ University of Michigan-Flint Yearbook 1964
  3. ^ Burgess, Kaya (January 21, 2009). "Obama's inauguration hailed by White Panther founder John Sinclair".  
  4. ^ "MC5 Timeline". Retrieved 2012-11-07. 
  5. ^ "Meet the Board". Music Is Revolution Foundation. Retrieved 2011-02-10. 
  6. ^ Cadogan, Patrick (2008). The Revolutionary Artist: John Lennon's Radical Years. Lulu.  
  7. ^ Wilkerson, Mark (2006). Amazing Journey: The Life of Pete Townshend. Louisville, KY: Bad News Press. pp. 132–133.  
  8. ^ Carson, David A. (2006) [2005]. Grit, Noise, and Revolution: The Birth of Detroit Rock 'n' Roll. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. p. 213.  
  9. ^ a b c Urish, Ben (2007). The Words and Music of John Lennon. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 41–42.  
  10. ^ "John Sinclair" at AllMusic
  11. ^ Agis Salpukas, "15,000 Attend Michigan U. Rally to Protest Jailing of Radical Poet," New York Times, December 12, 1971, p. 76.
  12. ^ "Twenty to Life: The Life and Times of John Sinclair". New York Times. Retrieved 2010-02-14 
  13. ^ Meyer, Stephen. "The John and Leni Sinclair Papers, 1957–1999 at the Bentley Historical Library". Bentley Historical Library. Retrieved May 4, 2011. 
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^

External links

  • Official website
  • The John Sinclair Radio Show at Radio Free Amsterdam
  • "Marijuana Revolution", a 1971 essay by John Sinclair
  • Interview with John Sinclair at Woodstock Story
  • Interview with John Sinclair at Stay Thirsty
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