By Jan Worth-Nelson
Of course, the reading at Totem Books was scheduled to start at 4:20, cannabis lovers’ cocktail hour, but traffic out of Detroit on a rainy Thursday held him up. The crowd, many in ponchos, chunky jewelry, braids, flannel shirts and gray beards, looked like they could have been at Woodstock — that is, like me, they were of a certain age. The mellow group hanging out at the counter, sipping lattes and hot chocolates and, it sounded like, remembering the old days — didn’t seem to mind that John Sinclair, Flint-born pot celebrity of so many years ago, was running late.
But when he did finally arrive, slipping quickly into the men’s room before his reading, the crowd recognized him at once and flooded him with cheers and applause. The fondness of the old hippies — and a few youngsters, sporting their own look of pierced lips and multi-colored tattoos — for their icon of 60s pot activism and all that it brought with it — warmed the room.
For my generation, what Sinclair experienced and what he stood for remains strongly etched in memory. In 1969, after delivering two joints — barely enough marijuana to fit in a tablespoon — to an undercover cop, he was sentenced to ten years in prison. He was 28.
The severity of his sentence sent shock waves through the Boomer generation and drew high-profile attention. Most dramatically, John Lennon wrote a song for him and performed it at a huge concert, dubbed “The John Sinclair Freedom Rally” at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor in December, 1971 as Sinclair listened, glued to a radio in his cell. Three days later, after two and a half years, he was freed after the Michigan State Supreme Court ruled the state’s marijuana laws unconstitutional.
Now Sinclair is 75, now an old man with a still-strong raspy blues voice. His body has changed and he’s been through a lot. But his youthful past is still formidably present, and marijuana — a daily pleasure, a lifetime devotion, that embattled plant inextricably bound up in politics and culture — remains a central, even dominating, feature of his life.
There is, of course, more to Sinclair’s life than that. He was born in Flint but grew up in Davison. His father came in to Flint to work at Buick every day, and Sinclair recalls begging his dad to stop at two North End records stores (Ernie’s Record Rack #1 on Leith Street and Ernie’s Record Rack #2 on St. John St. — both owned by colorful local DJ Ernie Durham, nicknamed “The Frantic One” ) to invest Sinclair’s two dollar weekly allowance on Howlin’ Wolf, the Clovers, Young Jesse, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker and many more.
In his early twenties, he lived in Flint, taking classes at UM – Flint, then called Flint Junior College. He briefly shared an apartment with UM – Flint professor Bill Redhead above a pizza joint at Davison Road and Dort Highway across from what was then the Night Owl Coney Island.
But at 24, he took off for Detroit. (In his 1978 essay “I Just Wanna Testify,” he writes, “I came to Detroit in 1964 for the same reason young men have always abandoned the boondocks for the big city: that’s where the action was, and I was desperate to be in the middle of it.”)
Before the arrest and notorious imprisonment, he was manager of the incendiary rock band the MC-5. He founded the Detroit Artists Workshop and spent much of the 60s doing underground journalism, and organizing free concerts, rallies and radical benefits. Close colleague of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and the Yippies, he was founder of the White Panther party — later renamed the Rainbow Peoples Party — who preached revolution and whose founding documents focused on “total assault on the culture.”
He published two books from prison and since has added poetry collections and 15 CDs. As a deeply passionate jazz performer and aficionado, he has written widely about jazz and blues greats including John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Dr. John, and of course, the MC5. He has been a DJ, an adjunct professor, an arts manager and concert producer. He has performed solo and with his former group the Blues Scholars. And after a lifetime as an itinerant troubadour and activist, he still divides his time between Detroit, New Orleans and Amsterdam, where a potent strain of Dutch marijuana was named in his honor in 2006.
A re-issue of Sinclair’s book It’s All Good: A John Sinclair Reader, came out in 2015 from Horner Books; Ben Horner also is Sinclair’s local agent, publisher of the monthly Michigan Medical Marijuana Report and owner of the first medical marijuana dispensary in Flint.
So Sinclair has not been resting on his five-leafed laurels.
Still, there’s something poignant about it all — about him.
“All my life I’ve paid and paid,” he began, opening his Flint reading with an old poem titled “everything happens to me.”
“All my life I’ve paid
& paid, until my dues card
is punched up
on all 4 sides.
of relative privilege who chose
to ‘take the way
of the lowest’ in most things —
race traitor & renegade,
living from hand to mouth
and euro to euro
sleeping on the couches
& extra beds of my friends…”
Sinclair’s second poem — he asked listeners if they would mind if he sat down for it, and they offered a chorus of sympathetic yesses — also seemed to resonate strongly with the crowd, who along with me sort of sighed with collective memory. It was called “You had to be there:” It’s a big long prose poem, but here is how it starts:
“You had to be there. The stiff crust of the American social order was cracking open. Black people were moving for social and political equality in a big, inspirational way…”
He continues describing how white people were discovering the blues, hippies refused to cut their hair, resisted the draft, lived in communes, how poetry and art and music were at an all time high point and “giants of every artistic discipline walked the earth,” the music of the time “spelled out in fiery notes and relentless rhythms and ceaseless intelligence” and “you had to be there to stand under the music and understand what it was telling you.”
And it ends, “You had to be there. I was there. I had to be there. That was exactly where it was at, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
It was enough to propel a middle-class kid out of Davison and send him on an idiosyncratic journey like no other.
At the 501 Grille afterwards, waiting for a cup of coffee that never seemed to come, Sinclair sank into his chair and pulled out the Freep, gasping at the news that Westinghouse is declaring bankruptcy. I offered up a few tentative questions.
“In that first poem you read, ‘everything happens to me,’ is that still true of you?” I asked.
“It is where I’m at,” he replied. “Oh yeah.”
“So you’ve stood up for justice — it feels like the times are not on our side.”
“We are in Trumpville now, look out,” he said, bemoaning how Obama had been obstructed at every step of the way.
“The people insisted — they wanted this idiot, this know-nothing, to be their leader. What can I do? Nothing. I’ve been through it… It don’t matter so much to me because I don’t know if I can live through it, I really can’t worry about it, because I don’t know how much time I’ve got. I really don’t see myself as being an inhabitant of the future. If I am, I’ll be a lucky motherfucker.”
“Do you feel optimistic about life?”
“For mine, yes, but for the people, no. I feel bad for them.”
“What should the people be doing?”
“They should be doing whatever they want,” Sinclair said, “but they should have something with some ideas in it, instead of the horseshit they’re giving them — the art, music, movies– it’s all so horrible — I’m just glad I know better.”
“I came up in the era when you were looking for something distinctive, original, different — so I’ve concentrated on those things,” he said.
After the java and a bowl of seafood bisque finally materialized, he ate it quickly and settled in to work a crossword puzzle, while the others at the table talked about the medical marijuana dispensary scene in Flint. Maybe he was saving up his strength for a performance at Churchill’s to come — he didn’t have a lot to say. After downing some blackened salmon, he really only wanted dessert. But his manager said it was time to head to the next gig, and he settled for two bites of cheesecake from somebody else’s plate.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at email@example.com.