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R.I.P. John Sinclair: Poet, Activist and MC5 Manager Dead at 82

The counterculture icon battled Richard Nixon in court, helped launch the Stooges, and counted John Lennon and Yoko Ono among his supporters.

john sinclair
Source: Susan Montgomery / Alamy Stock Photo

The longtime counterculture icon has died at age 82.

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John Sinclair, the poet, activist, and counterculture icon who first found fame in the music world for serving as the manager for the Detroit proto-punk band the MC5, has died at the age of 82. Per the Detroit Free-Press, Sinclair died on April 2 in Detroit, the city he called home, after years of declining health.

In addition to his work with the MC5, Sinclair helped launch Iggy Pop and the Stooges, and once managed Mitch Ryder. His imprisonment for marijuana offenses in 1969 made him a cause celebre, with the likes of John Lennon and Yoko Ono performing at rallies calling for his freedom.

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Born on October 2, 1941 in Flint, Michigan, Sinclair – who wrote for The Word while attending the University of Michigan (now the University of Michigan-Flint) – played a major role in the reorganization of The Fifth Estate, the underground newspaper based in Detroit that remains one of the longest continually published alternative periodicals in the US. Among other journalistic endeavors, he also worked as a jazz writer for Down Beat in the mid-1960s and founded the biweekly underground newspaper the Ann Arbor Sun in 1967.

Just prior to beginning work with the latter publication, however, Sinclair took on one of the most notable gigs in his career: serving as manager for the MC5.

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Source: MEGA

Sinclair managed the seminal proto-punk band the MC5,

“John Sinclair was the only person that we respect and whose direction we would accept,” said the band's Wayne Kramer, in an interview with Perfect Sound Forever. “We had a long series of second-rate music business hustlers and penny-ante music business entrepreneurs that were trying to manage the MC5. We were not manageable. We were barely sane.”

Although Sinclair and Kramer had a falling out for a period, they managed to reconcile at some point in the 1970s and remained friends thereafter.

“He remains one of my dearest friends and kind of a touchstone for me, remains a mentor, a sounding board,” said Kramer. “We conspire, we exchange ideas. We work together. What I get from John a lot is his resiliency. We all have it hard, nobody has it easy, and sometimes John has it even harder than some. His spirit is indefatigable.”

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Source: MEGA

John Lennon and Yoko Ono advocated for Sinclair after he was imprisoned for marijuana offenses.

Sinclair was arrested in 1969 for allegedly giving two cannabis joints to an undercover police officer. After his conviction, he was given the maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. His case attracted considerable attention in the rock world, with activist Abbie Hoffman even storming the stage at Woodstock during a performance by the Who to advocate for his release. (Who guitarist Pete Townshend was infamously less than pleased by the stage invasion.)

By 1971, however, his case had attracted more high profile advocates, including Lennon, who wrote the song "John Sinclair" to plea for leniency [Readers from the grunge era may remember the song for having been covered by Blind Melon. Or not.] Lennon and Ono were joined by names like Stevie Wonder and Phil Ochs at the "John Sinclair Freedom Rally" in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in late 1971. Three days after the rally, Sinclair was freed, with the Michigan Supreme Court finding that the state's marijuana laws were unconstitutional.

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Sinclair was also at the center of a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court later in the decade.

An admirer of the Black Panther Party, Sinclair co-founded the White Panther Party as a sort of sympathetic counterpart in 1968. Per Sinclair, the group's official "program" involved racial solidarity, "rock and roll, dope, and f---ing in the streets." In a manifesto Sinclair drafted, he explained: "Rock and roll music is the spearhead of our attack because it's so effective and so much fun. We have developed organic high-energy guerrilla bands who are infiltrating the popular culture and destroying millions of minds in the process. The MC5 is the most beautiful example."

Though it's unclear how much actual subversive activity the White Panther Party was responsible for, the group attracted the attention of the FBI, and in 1969 Sinclair and fellow White Panther Party co-founder Pun Plamondon were indicted in connection with the bombing of an Ann Arbor CIA office. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the cases against both men, on the grounds that the evidence against them had been collected with the use of wiretaps that did not have proper warrants. The ruling was considered a significant blow to President Richard Nixon -- whose attorney general John Mitchell had authorized the wiretaps -- and it stood as precedent for future cases.

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In the mid-1990s, Sinclair kicked off a recording career of his own, joining forces with a collective of musicians known as the Blues Scholars – including his old pal Wayne Kramer as well as folks like Brock Avery, Phil DeVille, Joe Drake, Doug Lunn, Charles Moore, and Michael Voilker – and began performing and recording spoken word pieces. Their debut album, Full Moon Night, a live LP recorded at Kaldi’s Coffeehouse in New Orleans, was released in 1994, and he kept on issuing new ones for the next few decades, including a multi-volume series entitled Fattening Frogs for Snakes.

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In 2006, Sinclair popped up at a few Black Crowes shows in Amsterdam, each night reading a different poem during instrumental breaks, and in 2009 he commemorated the inauguration of Barack Obama by reading a series of poems with a live band at Café OTO in East London. Perhaps most appropriately for mention in his obituary, however, is that Sinclair can also be heard on a song from the View’s 2011 album, Bread and Circuses: "Best Lasts Forever."

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