It’s been said that a 90s conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged, but sometimes experience makes people more radical. Poet John Sinclair had been writing and riffing his personalized brand of blue-eyed soul around the Detroit area for several years when in 1966 he made the mistake of trying to give two joints to an undercover policewoman.

“I challenged the constitutionality of the marijuana laws,” he says. “That’s really when I crossed the line into political activism. Before that I was just kind of organizing in the cultural community, putting on concerts, poetry readings, art exhibits. I was involved in a club called the Artists’ Workshop in Detroit. That was mostly jazz–Charles Moore, Stanley Cowell, a lot of guys who never left Detroit were part of that–and pretty forward-looking jazz at that.”

But after his brush with the law, Sinclair says, he formed the White Panther party with the MC5. “It was the only political party ever formed by a rock ‘n’ roll band. You remember Mike James’s organization in Chicago, Rising Up Angry? We were kind of the same constituency–white working-class youth, lumpen proletariat. Our goal was to bridge some of the gap between hippies and blue-collar kids–just the youth, though; we didn’t care too much about the grown people.”

After Sinclair was sentenced to prison in 1969, celebrities began to take up his cause. John Lennon performed a benefit concert in Ann Arbor and wrote the song “John Sinclair,” which appeared on the LP Some Time in New York City.

As soon as he was released from prison in December 1971, Sinclair set out to make his dream of cultural revolution come alive. But by the mid-70s, he says, “when we finally drove Nixon out of office and finally ended the war, all the things that were compelling young people toward different choices were removed. People just weren’t interested. I was committed to [activism] because I thought we could change things, and then you look around and find that people are more interested in seeking some kind of accommodations with the way things are, and making a life for themselves in a fairly traditional manner. I said, well, if this isn’t what they want to do I’ll just go back to what I was doin’ before.”

Sinclair went back to Detroit and got involved with jazz artists again. As one of the poets who resurrected the Beat-era notion of reading to jazz or blues accompaniment, he helped fuel Chicago’s now-famous performance poetry scene. “My friend, the late Bob “Righteous’ Rudnick, who was minister of propaganda for the White Panthers, settled in Chicago. We hooked up round ’87-’88, and he started bringing me there to do readings. He and I started the poetry thing at Weeds.”

Currently based in New Orleans, Sinclair continues to fuse his rough-edged visions of a better world with odes to the glories of the jazz and blues heritage. “All my poetry deals with music. It’s kind of a missionary thing; I try to paint a picture of the development of the music, just fill them in on what’s behind the music.”

Sinclair will be reading his poetry to blues music at 7:30 PM Wednesday at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division; admission is $7, $3 for open-mike readers. Call 907-2189 for more information. He’ll also make a guest appearance at Weeds, 1555 N. Dayton, along with bassist John Baney, on Thursday, February 29, and will read Friday, March 1, at the Heartland Cafe, 7000 N. Glenwood, where he’ll be reunited with his old comrade Mike James. Sinclair is bringing his own rhythm section up from New Orleans, but Chicagoans Warren Leming and Jimmy T. will handle lead guitar chores.

–David Whiteis

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Micahel P. Smith.