Freeing John Sinclair: Forty Years Later

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In December, 1971, a twelve-hour concert was held to raise money for the legal fees of a radical poet and rock n’ roll impresario. In December, 2011, the Ann Arbor District Library sponsored several events to celebrate the John Sinclair Freedom Rally 40th Anniversary.

Mike Mosher

On December 7, 1971, a twelve-hour concert was held to raise money for legal fees to fight the draconian sentence given the radical poet and rock n’ roll impresario for sale of two marijuana cigarettes to an undercover cop. “Ten years for two joints is no joke!” read a motto on a flier of the time. Notable radicals like Bobby Seale spoke, and numerous Michigan bands played, with the closing act being John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Lennon had recorded a song about Sinclair on his album of political songs Some Time in New York City.

In December, 2011, the Ann Arbor District Library sponsored several events to celebrate the John Sinclair Freedom Rally 40th Anniversary. As I drove a hundred miles on US-23 to attend them, I found myself listening to Dark Carnival’s Niagara, a Detroiter my age, accusingly sing “Memories are for Losers”. For the 40th anniversary, there was an exhibit of the photographs of Leni Sinclair, former wife of John Sinclair, posters and related ephemera. There was a free concert at the Ark, the Main Street venue that began in the 1960s as a church-sponsored folk music club in a shambling old house, just south of the UM campus, across Hill Street from the two big yellow Victorian houses where Sinclair and the White Panther Party commune lived after leaving Detroit as a result of the 1967 riot. It featured Sinclair, speaking his poetry over a jazz-rock combo, and Commander Cody, whose original band The Lost Planet Airmen played at the December 1971 event. The following afternoon, a panel discussion "Culture Jamming: A Long View Back" featuring several of the White Panthers.

Friday afternoon my wife and I attended the exhibit at the Ann Arbor District Library, the Alden Dow-designed downtown library. Upstairs was a rich selection of Leni Sinclair photographs, depicting everybody longhaired, all guys and some girls skinny and shirtless, sharp-focus black and white newspaper-ready glossies. Downstairs, the showcases were filled with tickets, flyers, campaign statements and manifestoes, buttons, leaflets, t-shirts and my own cartoon of the Bison Boys making mischief with a friend’s fity-pound-test hunting crossbow during the Freedom Rally. We met Kathy Kelly, a teenage White Panther who labored to put out the Ann Arbor Sun underground newspaper. Asked why she was chuckling, she was bemused to discover a glossy photograph of Sheriff Doug Harvey, slated for publication, on which her girlish hand had inscribed “OINK”. The big downstairs meeting room, in which I could glimpse posters by White Panther Party Minister of Propaganda Gary Grimshaw and more Leni Sinclair photos, was closed in preparation for the annual Library sale opening the following morning.

I walked downtown alone to the concert that evening, from the house in northwest Ann Arbor in which I grew up. In the course of the walk I established a personal goal: that in 40 more years I'm still able to make the two-mile walk on a cold December night. In my fedora, my shadow cast by the full moon, I looked like Tokey the Bear, a reefer-smoking comic character whom I drew 40 years ago to scripts written by neighborhood kid Paul Remley, now an English professor. John Sinclair, the White Panther Party Minister of (rhetorical revolutionary rabble-rousing) Information, was sometimes a character in those comics.

At 6:15 there was already a line of 20 people waiting for the 8:00 show. Al Haber, a co-founder of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in Ann Arbor fifty years before and still a peace activist, was in line. The cold air and nostalgia made many people talkative. "I slept with Bob Seger!" cackled a sixty-plus short woman in short dyed hair and white (cat?) fur coat. A dogfaced guy interrupted her with a tale of how his son's girlfriend's English mom sang on the Beatles' "Instant Karma" chorus, "And we all shine on." High school classmate David Swain, leader of the big jazz II-V-I Orchestra, complained of an inability to find a lucrative market for his original Stooges at Forsythe Junior High School (1968) gig flyers. Psychedelic songwriter Paul Kazrin, there with wife Eiko, chimed in with a tale of seeing the Stooges at the once-nearby Fifth Forum cinema on a night like this. We were all shortly given rainbow-colored wristbands for entry, emblazoned with the historic project's URL, so I retreated for 90 minutes to the Starbucks' on the corner.

Shortly before the announced 8:00 p.m. show time, a crowd moved quickly and efficiently into the club, up the stairs to the seating. Beside the bar was a table for merch, including posters signed by seated artist Gary Grimshaw, looking frail after recent serious illness. Onstage, a jazz-rock fusion assemblage started choogling, and John Sinclair came out to applause. Tall, stentorian Sinclair recited his poems from memory, and they generally sound better incanted over musical improvisations, weaving attentively amongst rhythms and chords, than they read on the page. Bald-headed, wide-eyed grey-whiskered MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer soon climbed onstage, plugged in his guitar, and his appearance was apparently a surprise to all (“Sinclair looked as if the sun had just come out”, remembered one audience member). The straight-ahead rocker in a herd of subtle jazzmen, Kramer stepped on the other band members' solos, inattentive towards his co-players as only an Alpha male rock guitarist can be. Sinclair cordially acknowledged the woman who, forty years before, painted the design on Wayne's guitar. Later, introducing his band, I thought he announced "Moe Howard on bass".

Unlike at most rock concerts, the line for the men's restroom during intermission was long, while there was none for the women's. Then I figured it out: men in their 50s, 60s and 70s need more time to pee and button up. Women that age find, in a quick glance in the mirror, that their makeup is just fine.

Out came Commander Cody, another notably gruff voice, whose first song announced he “ain't never had Too Much Fun". I believe he enjoyed four tequilas through the course of the evening, and when he chased them with a slug of bottled water, he clutched the front of his throat. His face both looked like a mask—has he had a facelift?—and also reminded me of UM Electrical Engineering Professor Jack Carey, one of my father’s colleagues in that department in the 1960s. When not at the piano, Cody lurched around the stage, shoulders hunched. Seated at the 88s, he has a powerful right arm, and a skillfully-coordinated left. Boogie woogie piano is hard to pull off well, and Cody does so. Ninety per cent of the songs were some variation of 12-bar blues, the others staid country-western progressions.

When he performed the Coasters' "There's a Riot Goin' On", Cody set the date of momentous events in the penitentiary as " On July 27, 1973.” Maybe he was approximating the date of the Attica prison uprising in September 1971 yet needed to make the song line scan and rhyme with “penitentiary”. Mark Emmerich played a Fender Telecaster guitar, whose playing Kazrin compared to Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown, and Emmerich did "Truck Drivin' Man" justice. When the solo in "Seeds and Stems" approached, Cody asked his guitarist to "make it pretty", and made the spoken part poignant as the pleas of an old man who's a hard-luck medical marijuana patient. Cody picked up the mantle of Phil Harris for talky songs like "Smoke That Cigarette", and did a self-reflexive tale about being "Kicked Out of the Band" that reminded one of plaintive ballads by Mott the Hoople's Ian Hunter.

As is lamentably the case with too many Michigan rock events, here were only three black people in attendance. One was Sinclair's bassist, and one was a stout guy who asked Paul Kazrin where he got his Commander Cody t-shirt. The third was rock musician Hiawatha Bailey, who like Prince, is doomed to always be the coolest, most casually elegant and sexiest guy in the room, a role he played at the Pendleton room symposium the following day too. There was a mixed girl too, maybe Sinclair's daughter from his second, recently-fizzled, marriage.

Wayne Kramer came out to join the Commander for the nondescript rave-up "Rockin'", and those of us in back rows noticed all the male pattern baldness on bobbing heads ringing the stage. Some women who danced did so in enticing moves they made forty years ago, and every move by the few young women in attendance were looked on favorably, admiringly, adoringly, longingly the by mature male elders surrounding them.

On my walk back after the concert, I saw flyers announcing the bands BITCHCO, SUICIDE BY COP, and COUNTER-COSBY (Against everything the Cosby Show family stood for, like respectability, family, education and professionalism? That's Punk!), as well as FUCKIN' A! There's evidently more to Ann Arbor's music scene than nostalgia acts.

The next day, the well-attended symposium at the Michigan Union’s Pendleton Room the following afternoon saw UM American Studies Professor Bruce Conforth introduced the panel. In his initial reminiscence, White Panther Minister of Defense Pun Plamondon was the only speaker to frame anything in a once-familiar-sounding Marxist analysis. He also spoke of the youth hanging around the White Panther Party houses on Hill Street, how the older radicals were "humbled by Kathy Kelly, Fuzzy—16 years old!—who all came to us. There were no homeless shelters, runaway programs then."

Alternative media veteran David Fenton spoke of attending an underground news conference in a field outside of Ann Arbor with "360 degrees of armed police surrounding" the participants. Recently Fenton advised the Occupy Wall Street protesters to negotiate with the City of New York for a permanent encampment; the protesters' response was "We don't recognize their authority."

Leni Sinclair, rarely in front of the camera, somehow made me recall German girlfriends I knew in high school and college. Forever the German emigré, Leni still sounds like a Viennese psychoanalyst. She reminded the crowd this event was taking place on International Human Rights Day, December 10th.

Genie Parker (formerly Genie Plamondon, a fact never mentioned that day) has piercing Karen Black eyes. "If you weren't around for the 1950s, you don't understand the sixties. The fifties were the golden age for the white man." John Sinclair countered "What about the '80s?" "They're still around!" Genie replied. She went on, "At first it was a cultural thing, not political. We didn't get political until we were attacked (by the police)." She added, "The Black Panther Party contacted us, helped us." John Sinclair called the Black Panthers "the firm hand of guidance...made us read (Mao Tse-Tung's) the Red Book." John Sinclair went on to declare another lesson discovered in the 1960s: "Cut your head off—quit thinking, follow your body. White men with a lot of money thinking, who wanted to make a perfect world" was what fucked everything up.

After all the panelists had given their opening statements, Prof. Conforth offered that John Lennon had his own reasons for coming to Ann Arbor: a concert tour was planned, he wanted to test the sound system, and needed to be convinced to participate in the Sinclair benefit by Jerry Rubin. John Sinclair perked up, offended that Lennon’s motives would be called into question, then added "Jerry Rubin was one of the biggest egotists of all time!" On the economics of the concert, Fenton noted how producer Pete Andrews said they'd charged too little for admission—$3 for 12 hours of music and speakers. "If we'd charged $10, it might have changed our lives. We might've taken over the world!" Sinclair replied. Continuing interrogation of the economy of the time, David Fenton remembered having to ask Dave Sinclair for five dollars for new pair of jeans, for the White Panther communards had "no private property, (which was) hard for a kid from New York's upper east side."

John Sinclair grew morose pondering the powers that be. "Wake up—they've ruined this country. It's not the one we grew up in. Where I stay in Detroit, it's a different world. They don't even have computers. Three generations of black people who don't even know what a job is. We're in Ann Arbor, our little white faces smiling, but in Detroit it's FUCKED!"

David Fenton attempted a reply, and was interrupted by John Sinclair, so gently chided him for time to speak. John huffed "You're doing this in my name. If you don't like it, throw me out! A John Sinclair Freedom Rally without John Sinclair!"

Fenton wisely changed the subject, and went on to point out that, regarding the United States of America's financial situation, "We are not broke. In the past, the country spent twice as much on infrastructure. Now it all went to the one per cent."

To counter the general impression of Panthers' hippie frivolity, Sinclair remembered the Party was "serious as cancer...(we had) 18 million hours of debate. We wanted to make Ann Arbor a revolutionary base, the revolution in our own community. Then went on to do the next day's agenda. Sure, we fucked a lot, got high, listened to great music."

Sunny Sinclair, the cute naked hippie baby in our old copies of the Ann Arbor Sun and now a stout middle-aged woman, asked her mother Leni Sinclair to highlight the importance of artists, musicians and poets in the campaign for John's freedom. "Ve helt off the twial" Leni affirmed. Later the biracial woman I took to be John's daughter from his now-estranged second wife spoke, and she too was fat. Despite my own girth, I couldn’t help wonder: does this--now a major class signifier--reflect macaroni-and-cheese financial status? The former Panthers up front who remain slim, they must be doing all right for themselves.

John Sinclair made the Sign of the Cross whenever dead friends, including lawyer Justin Ravitz, were mentioned. Morrie Gleisher, Fenton noted, organized the "white people" campaign to free John.

One of the last speakers was someone I knew in high school, local jazz DJ Arwulf Arwulf (Ted Grenier, b. 1957), who pointed out that he had an F.B.I. file at age 15—which he saw when the Freedom of Information Act was passed—for attending White Panther-run Tribal Council meetings. He commended the White Panthers as great role models, both as examples what to do, and sometimes what not to do (to general laughter). They kept us, the younger kids, off needle drugs and pharmaceutical pills, and got us paying attention to African American and minority culture.

When he stood to add an affirmative comment, John "Fuzzy" Backus was recognized and acclaimed by John Sinclair as "Hero of the South University riots!" Seated near me, Backus then remembered the late Dave Sinclair as an important role model, "who did all the dirty work, managed the Up, took charge to make sure there was food in the house, equipment set up, said GET UP at noon. We used to call him Righteous Dave." Dave Sinclair graduated Dartmouth College prior to his return to Michigan and the White Panther community, the college to which I was exiled precisely to avoid the Panthers’ influence on Ann Arbor youth, but I regret I'm too late to learn from him firsthand about his own experience there.

The event wrapped up, and on the way out, Backus cordially invited me to the reception—"the White Panther reunion!" he chortled—in a room upstairs, but I needed to walk home, as my wife and I had dinner plans. We were headed to a gathering organized by some high school colleagues, one retiring from years working at the boys’ reform school just north of Ann Arbor, the other a former Assistant District Attorney who served eight years in prison on a dubious felony charge.

On the way out the door I greeted John Sinclair, smoking a joint on the Michigan Union steps. He smiled, puffed, said "Baby...!"

The Man ain’t busted Michigan Bad Subject Mike Mosher, who interviewed John Sinclair at his Saginaw Valley State University public appearance in November, 2009. Graphics @ Mike Mosher 2012.

Copyright © Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.

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