John Sinclair—Activist, Writer, Manager of MC5, Subject of Lennon Song—Dead at 82

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John Sinclair—who wore many hats including political activist, poet/writer, manager of the MC5 and counterculture hero—died today (April 2, 2024) in Detroit. Sinclair recorded his written works, including poetry and essays, prolifically, and was himself the subject of a song written and recorded by John Lennon, which appeared on the 1972 Some Time in New York City album.

Sinclair’s death, reported the Detroit Free Press, followed “years of declining health” but no specific cause was cited. He was 82.

Born in Flint, Mich., on Oct. 2, 1941, Sinclair became a poet and activist in the early ’60s, also contributing writings on jazz to Down Beat magazine. In 1967, he founded the Ann Arbor Sun underground newspaper with his wife Leni Sinclair and artist Gary Grimshaw.

By that time, Sinclair had already aligned with the Detroit rock band MC5, managing the group from 1966 to 1969. Sinclair was responsible for booking the group around the Detroit area, particularly at the city’s Grande Ballroom. Sinclair was involved with the band when it performed outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and was instrumental in getting the group signed to Elektra Records, for which it released the controversial proto-punk live album Kick Out the Jams in 1969.

That same year, Sinclair was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the possession of two marijuana joints. At Woodstock, Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman interrupted the Who’s set to protest Sinclair’s imprisonment, causing the group’s Pete Townshend to whack him with his guitar and have Hoffman escorted from the stage.

In December 1971, the John Sinclair Freedom Rally took place in Ann Arbor, at which Lennon and Yoko Ono performed (as did Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, Phil Ochs and others). Among the songs Lennon and Ono performed was “John Sinclair,” which was included on the couple’s next release. Sinclair was released from prison three days after the rally.

In later years, Sinclair became a pro-cannabis legalization activist, performed with his group the Blues Scholars, served as a jazz disc jockey for New Orleans’ WWOZ and continued to write both poetry and essays, which he often performed live and/or recorded.

Watch Sinclair perform “Monk’s Dream”

In 2004, he launched the John Sinclair Foundation, which states as its mission (according to its website), “to support the artistic and cultural projects of John Sinclair presently and in perpetuity, to insure the preservation and proper presentation of his creative works, to preserve them for posterity, and to make them available to the public in perpetuity.”

Watch John Lennon perform “John Sinclair” live in 1972

Jeff Tamarkin

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