John and Leni Sinclair were leaders of the counterculture movement in Michigan, organizers of radical social, political, and cultural endeavors primarily in the areas of music, poetry, graphic design, and community welfare projects. During the 1960s and 1970s John Sinclair founded or was active a variety of political and cultural groups including the Artists' Workshop in Detroit, the Rainbow Multi-Media Corporation, the White Panther Party and its offshoot, the Rainbow Peoples Party; and had ties to various national radical organizations. He was an organizer of the Ann Arbor Jazz and Blues Festival and concerts and managed several rock bands, most notably the MC5. He was arrested for passing marijuana cigarettes to an undercover agent and was the subject of several significant legal proceedings involving government surveillance and wiretapping. After 1979 Sinclair devoted most of his time to writing, music journalism, hosting a radio program and to live performances of his poetry, generally with the accompaniment of a jazz or blues band. In 1990 Sinclair left Detroit for New Orleans.
John Sinclair was born October 2, 1941 in Flint, Michigan and grew up in nearby Davison where he graduated from high school in 1959. He attended Albion College (1959-61) and the University of Michigan, Flint College (1962-64), where he received an A.B. degree in American literature. In April 1964 he entered graduate school at Wayne State University. He completed course work for an M.A. in American literature (thesis on William Burroughs' Naked Lunch) before dropping out in the fall of 1965 to pursue his activities in the Detroit jazz and poetry community.
On November 1, 1964, shortly after his first arrest for "sales and possession of marijuana," Sinclair founded (with his partner Leni Arndt, poet/film maker Robin Eichele, trumpeter Charles Moore and twelve others) the Detroit Artists' Workshop, which was a local attempt in self-determination for artists of all disciplines. During 1964-1967, under the auspices of the Artists' Workshop and its campus counterpart, the Wayne State University Artists' Society (which he also originated), Sinclair produced countless jazz concerts and poetry readings featuring Detroit talent. He helped organize the Detroit Contemporary 4, the Workshop Arts Quartet and the Workshop Music Ensemble, an experimental group for which he also composed original music. Together with Robin Eichele, George Tysh and Jim Semark he founded (1964) and co-directed the Artists' Workshop Press which published a series of books, magazines, and free sheets by Detroit poets and writers, including his own This is Our Music (1965), Fire Music: A Record (1966), The Poem for Warner Stringfellow (1966), and Meditations: a suite for John Coltrane (1967).
Sinclair served as editor of the Artists' Worksheet newsletter (1965), the poetry magazine Work, (1965-67), the "avant-jazz" magazine Change (1965-66), and (with Ron Caplan) the magazine Whe're (1966), all printed at the Artists' Workshop Press. Sinclair was also music editor and columnist (1965-68) for Detroit's Fifth Estate newspaper, one of the original five members of the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS), and founded and edited (with Allen Van Newkirk) the first issues of Guerilla (1966-67), a newspaper of cultural revolution. His other editorial responsibilities in the areas of music and/or poetry-literature included those with Spero (Chicago, 1963-65), Art & Artists (Detroit, 1964-65) and New University Thought (1965). A very prolific writer as well, Sinclair served as local correspondent for Downbeat (1964-65) and Jazz (New York) magazines, and had his articles, reviews and poetry appear in numerous other publications besides those he edited, including: American Poet, Camels Coming, Coda, Connections, El Corno Emplumade, Incense, Island, Jazz (Warsaw), The Journal, Kaleidoscope, Kulchur, Latitudes, Magazine, Move, New Lantern, Club Review, Orpheus, Other Scenes, Out of Sight, the Paper (Lansing), Poetmeat, San Francisco Oracle, Seed, Sounds (Germany), and Sounds & Fury. In July 1965 he read his works at the Berkeley Poetry Conference along with Ed Sanders, Ted Berrigan, and Lenore Kandel. He taught courses in jazz and contemporary poetry in the self-education program at the Artists' Workshop's Free University of Detroit and his poems were anthologized in For Malcolm X (Broadside Press) and Poems Now (Kulchur Press) in 1966.
Sinclair was sentenced on February 24, 1966 to six months in the Detroit House of Correction for a second arrest (Oct. 1965) on "sales and possession of marijuana." Following his release he became associated with the Grande Ballroom in Detroit (Oct. 1966) but was arrested a third time on January 24, 1967, with 55 other people in a "hippy dope raid on campus!"
In February 1967 Sinclair organized (with his partner and now wife Leni Arndt Sinclair and artist Gary Grimshaw) a "total cooperative tribal living and working commune," Trans-Love Energies Unlimited, as an attempt to consolidate the energies of organized units of the developing counterculture. Trans-Love produced rock and roll dance concerts, light shows, books, pamphlets, posters, and the Warren-Forest Sun newspaper (founded and edited by Sinclair and Gary Grimshaw), and served as a cooperative booking agency for rock groups the MC 5, the Stooges, and Billy C. and the Sunshine. In August 1967 Sinclair became the personal manager of the MC 5, and his brother David Sinclair began managing Frank Bach's band the UP, as Trans-Love turned most of its attention to a rock and roll "assault" that would turn young people on to the possibilities of cultural revolution. In May-June 1968, after two fire-bombings of the commune, Sinclair re-established the entire organization in two huge homes at 1520 Hill Street near the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor. Despite this move, John Sinclair remained active in the Detroit scene as the main publicity-production-promotional advisor to Russ Gibb's Grande Ballroom operation and as the producer (along with Darlene Pond) of Gibb's Detroit Rock & Roll Revival in May 1969.
Deeply influenced by the Black Panther leaders Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, Sinclair (with Pun Plamondon) founded the White Panther Party in November 1968, serving first as its minister of information and later as chairman. The ten-point program of the White Panther Party demanded economic and cultural freedom. "Everything free for everybody!" and a total "assault" on the culture by any means necessary were the essence of the White Panther program.
The MC 5 and later the UP and UPRISING continued to spearhead the mass work of the now politically conscious revolution, while the other cultural work of Trans-Love Energies was also carried on. Sinclair began to write for CREEM, the original Warren-Forest Sun became the White Panther Information Service's Sun dance, and the Ann Arbor Argus, which had begun independently under the editorship of Ken Kelley, was mobilized as a semi-official White Panther Party organ. Originally conceived as an arm of the Youth International Party founded by Abbie Hoffman earlier in 1968, and organized around local issues in Ann Arbor such as free concerts in the parks, the White Panther Party soon had affiliated chapters established nationwide.
In July 1969 Sinclair was sentenced to prison for 9 ½ to 10 years for possession of two marijuana cigarettes. While in prison he assembled and wrote Guitar Army (a Douglas/World book) and published another collection of writings, Music & Politics (World, 1971), co-authored by Robert Levin. His prolific writings appeared in numerous publications and made him a national symbol more influential than ever before. Two-and-a-half years of legal and political battles culminated at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor on December 10, 1971, when 15,000 people attended the Free John Now Rally headlined by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Just three days later, the Michigan Supreme Court, on its own motion, ordered Sinclair released and later overturned his conviction, upholding his contention that Michigan's marijuana statutes were unconstitutional and void.
Prior to Sinclair's release from prison, the cultural operations of Trans-Love Energies had been inherited by the newly evolved Rainbow Energies, Inc., a Michigan non-profit organization, and its distribution division, the Rainbow Trucking Company. After months of self-examination, on April 30, 1971, the White Panther Party dissolved to form the Rainbow People's Party. Chaired by Sinclair, the Rainbow People's Party embraced Marxism-Leninism as its guide to action and concentrated on building a strong local political organization to promote the revolutionary struggle for a "communal, classless, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, and anti-sexist...culture of liberation..." Sinclair's energies for promoting cultural change, however, were soon to be more heavily channeled through another organization.
Early in 1972, Sinclair founded (with Peter Andrews) the Rainbow Multi-Media Corporation, serving as its vice- president and creative director. A Michigan non-profit organization, Rainbow Multi-Media (RMM) was designed as an alternative music-business company with a community-service orientation. To further its ultimate goal of restructuring the music industry and the entire society as well along cooperative, creative and communalistic lines, the company made its resources available on a cost-or-less basis to community organizations committed to progressive social change. Besides his direct responsibilities in the Rainbow Productions and Rainbow Management divisions (the heart of the RMM business) and for overall coordination of the company's complex business operations, Sinclair had further direct responsibilities in the Graphics, Advertising, Video, Radio Productions, and Press divisions. He was personal manager of the band "Detroit," helped organize and establish the Rockets, and co-produced the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festivals (1972-1974). He handled all booking for the Community Park Program and the Ann Arbor People's Ballroom (projects of the Ann Arbor Tribal Council), managed the Rainbow Room at the old Shelby Hotel in Detroit, and produced a weekly radio program, "Toke Time," on Ann Arbor's WNRZ-FM. During this period he also continued to be active in the areas of prison and drug reform, helping to organize the Michigan Committee for Prisoner's Rights, touring California in 1971 and 1972 (with his wife, Leni) to promote the Marijuana Initiative there, returning to organize the Michigan Marijuana Initiative, and serving on the Board of Directors for the San Francisco-based Amorphia, Inc., a national non-profit corporation for drug education, research and reform.
Following the massive financial failure of the 1974 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival In Exile and the subsequent collapse of the entire Rainbow Multi-Media operation (Oct. 1974), the Sinclairs, along with other principals of the RMM, formed Rainbow Productions, Inc. Subsequently moving to Detroit in 1975, the firm, which Sinclair headed as president and creative director, continued with most of the activities of the defunct Rainbow Corporation including advertising and public relations, printing, photography, graphics, recording, concert production and artist and club management. Sinclair served as Arts Editor and later as Editor-in-chief of the Detroit Sun (moved from Ann Arbor) until publication was suspended in October 1976.
In May 1977 Sinclair was named State Coordinator of Michigan NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), taking a leave of absence from Rainbow Productions to work full time in that capacity. In August 1977, Sinclair, with partners Frank Bach, Peggy Taube, and other principals of Rainbow Productions, Inc. and the Strata Corporation, formed Strata Associates, Inc., where as its president and creative director he specialized in servicing the entertainment industry, minority business enterprise, publishing consultation, and special marketing. Among the non-profit music cooperatives served were the Allied Artists Association, Jazz Development Workshop and Jazz Research Institute.
After leaving Strata in 1979 Sinclair served as Executive Director of the Detroit Jazz Center, a non-profit organization which held performances and classes, produced a radio show and attempted to record and document Detroit's jazz music heritage. After financial struggles led to the dissolution of the Jazz Center in 1981, Sinclair, along with partner Dominic Morda, established Morda, Sinclair and Associates (MSA), a music management, booking and production company. MSA served as the management company for local musical acts, most notably the Urbations, and performed talent coordination for local area clubs. Sinclair served as Vice President and Creative Director of MSA.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s Sinclair also served as a board member and project director for the Allied Artists Association, Inc. of Detroit, and hosted several radio programs on community based radio stations including WCBN-FM, Ann Arbor, and WDET, Detroit. He was honored for his design work and promotion of jazz in Detroit. Long active in community arts and political circles in Michigan, his other associations included: Friends of Belle Isle Board of Directors, Founders Society of the Detroit Institute of the Arts, the African Art Gallery Committee of the DIA, the NAACP, the Michigan Advertising Council, the Detroit Press Club and the Motor City Cultural Association Board of Directors.
In 1982, after several years of inactivity, Sinclair returned to poetry writing. Influenced by Ed Sanders' concept of "Investigative Poetry," in which the author attempts to investigate and document the human experience in an almost journalistic manner, Sinclair began work on two volumes of poetry. Thelonious: A Book of Monk, is a book of intensely personal poems inspired by, and sharing the same titles as, the works of Thelonious Monk. In Fattening Frogs For Snakes: A Delta Sound Suite, Sinclair documents the lives of legendary Mississippi blues musicians, often transcribing the blues men's quotes into verse. Sinclair also began to perform his poetry in solo performances and with a backing band, the Motor City Blues Scholars. A book of Sinclair's collected poetry, We Just Change the Beat, was published in 1988.
In 1988 Sinclair began work as the editor for City Arts Quarterly, a magazine published by the Detroit Council of the Arts. His journalism pieces appeared in City Arts Quarterly as well as the Detroit Metro Times and other newspapers and magazines. Sinclair also began to teach classes on the history and development of popular music at Wayne State University and continued to host and produce radio programs on community-based stations. In 1990, he was fired as Editor of City Arts Quarterly and filed a lawsuit against the city of Detroit, alleging that he was terminated as a result of an attempt to print a story advocating a plan for the renovation of Tiger Stadium, which Detroit Mayor Coleman Young opposed. Several months after losing his job Sinclair announced that the firing had reminded him of his clashes with the Detroit and Michigan political establishments two decades earlier, and that he planned to move to New Orleans.
Once settled in New Orleans, Sinclair continued his artistic pursuits. He continued work on Thelonius: A Book of Monk and Fattening Frogs for Snakes, as well as other poetry projects, and began performing with a New Orleans version of the Blues Scholars. Sinclair also continued writing liner notes for record releases, and columns and other music related pieces for local and national publications. He became involved with WWOZ, one of the country's leading non-commercial radio stations, producing blues and jazz focused radio shows and serving on the station's board of directors. Sinclair also became involved in community groups such as the White Buffalo Day Foundation, a group which attempts to raise awareness of Native American issues in New Orleans, and The Professor Long Hair Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of influential jazz musicians.
Sinclair also established his own independent record label, Total Energy Records, along with a production company called Big Chief Productions. Total Energy Records, in conjunction with other labels, released recordings of Sinclair's own poetry as well as live recordings of the MC 5 and formerly out of print material from the UP. In addition to promoting Sinclair's own work, Big Chief has supplied master recordings of many Detroit area acts and live musical events, including performances from the 1970s Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festivals, to record companies in various parts of the United States, Europe and Japan
Throughout the 1990s Sinclair has continued writing and performing. He has released four recordings of poetry, and in 1996 and 1997 undertook tours of the Midwest, and East and West Coasts of the United States, as well as several European countries. He continues to produce weekly radio broadcasts for WWOZ radio. Sinclair has also continued his journalistic pursuits, and was recently named managing editor of Blues Access magazine.
John and Leni Sinclair were married June 12, 1965. They have two daughters, Marion Sunny Sinclair, born May 4, 1967, and Celia Sanchez Mao Sinclair, born January 17, 1970. They were legally separated in 1977, and divorced in 1988. In 1989, Sinclair married Patricia (Penny) Brown.