He was the fearless Detroit protopunk who terrified America with his band the MC5 – and saw busts and jail as all part of a revolutionary's lot. So what's John Sinclair doing today? Writing jazz poetry in Amsterdam
I meet John Sinclair in a canalside coffeeshop in Amsterdam, where the vibes are mellow, the air perfumed, and the soundtrack a stream of vintage rock songs of the more laidback kind. Compared to slightly self-conscious young pot tourists skinning up at a nearby table, Sinclair seems utterly relaxed, an ageing hippy blissfully at home in a city that still retains some of the libertarian values he fought so hard for – a fight that cost him his liberty at the tail end of the 1960s.
"I live here about half the time," he says, his voice a low, gravelly drawl that seems to grow even lower and more gravelly each time he inhales. "I'm not really an urbanite, but I love it here. Everything is close, public transport works, and it's OK to get high." He grins. "It's my kind of town."
It is, however, a long way – literally and metaphorically – from Detroit, the city where Sinclair made his name, and that of the rock group he managed, the MC5, in the most dramatic fashion. Almost 50 years after those culturally heady and politically tumultuous days, when he found himself at the heart of the race riots that raged through Detroit, the 72-year-old now keeps the freak flag flying as best he can in a world that has become more liberal, and paradoxically more conservative, than his younger self could ever have imagined.
He has just recorded an album of jazz poetry, Mohawk. The rhymes, originally written in the early 80s, have been given a kind of post-modern jazz setting by his musical collaborator, Steve Fly, a soft-spoken young producer and multi instrumentalist who hails from Stourbridge, but now resides in Amsterdam, where his day job is managing another coffee shop near Central Station.
"John did all the vocals in one session," elaborates Fly, "and then I spent three months recording and overdubbing the parts. We could just have hired a Theolonius Monk-style piano trio but that would just have made it an exercise in nostalgia."
For all that, Mohawk, sounds out of time, its free-styled beatnik verse dedicated to Sinclair's musical heroes – Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, – and couched in the language of his other big influence, the Beat poets. The words are delivered over a soundscape by his musical collaborator Steve Fly that deftly pastiches the original rhythms and swerves of bebop. It is, on every level, a labour of love. "Man, I worshipped those guys as gods when I was young," he says, relighting his joint. "Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders. That's where I was coming from, not rock or folk."
In 1966, Sinclair and Charles Moore, the jazz trumpeter who helped him found the Detroit Artists Workshop in 1964, headed for New York City. "We knocked on Cecil Taylor's door, then we went to Archie Shepp's house and knocked on his door. They thought we were crazy, but we were two 23-year-olds hungry for wisdom. They didn't have people like that in the white world. You had to go out there and find the cool people."
Sinclair was, and remains, a believer in the transformative power of what he calls "righteous" music. When he met the fledgling MC5 in 1966, he was already a poet, jazz reviewer and activist of some repute. He immediately picked up on their sense of possibility and, though inexperienced, offered his services as a manager. "They were a mess, man," he chuckles. "Not only did they not have a manager, they didn't even have a roadie. They would show up when they were supposed to be playing on stage, and then spend an hour setting up and arguing over who owned what guitar lead. And all the while, the audience was sitting there, waiting. It was kind of tragic. I helped knock them into shape."
As the 2002 documentary MC5: A True Testimonial showed, under Sinclair's guidance the MC5 soon became arguably the greatest high-energy, hard-rock group of that, or any other, time. Their only real rivals in the down-and-dirty stakes were that other great Detroit rock group, the Stooges, but unlike them, the MC5 had a radical political vision that was transmitted through the music. It was delivered with a visceral thrust that, even on grainy, black-and-white YouTube footage, is still breathtaking. The MC5's live sound, described by one rock writer as "a catastrophic force of nature the band was barely able to control", was nothing less than an incitement to revolution.
"We wanted to kick ass and raise consciousness," Sinclair says. "Most performers will admit that sometimes, for whatever reason, you just go out there and do the show. The MC5 never ever went out there and just did the show. They played every gig like it was their last. They wanted to level the audience like rubble. Every night. That's why it was way too intense for the hippies on the west coast. They hated us, man. But in Detroit, we made total sense."
Central to the MC5's difference from their contemporaries, Sinclair says, was their blue-collar upbringing in America's most industrialised city. "A lot of those radical groups of that time, the Yippies, the SDS, didn't know anything about the working class because they didn't know any working-class people. Same with black people – they didn't mix with any black people, didn't have black friends. The MC5 were working class, they knew about life on the streets. And we dug black people cos that's where the great music came from and the great weed and the refreshing concepts of sexuality. All that stuff didn't come from no white people. Are you kidding me?"
The MC5's revolutionary tendencies did not go unnoticed: when Sinclair formed the White Panther party, in solidarity with the Black Panthers, the FBI began to monitor the group's communal house in Detroit. As race riots devastated the city in the summer of 1967, a banner appeared on the exterior bearing the words: "Burn baby burn." The building was stormed by riot police who claimed a sniper had been firing at them from the roof. "We were harassed 24/7," says Sinclair, "busted for incitement, obscenity, possession, whatever they could throw at us." At some gigs, armed police lined the walls, waiting with batons drawn for the band's rallying cry: "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!" Then it was another night in the cells, another obscenity charge.
Undeterred, the MC5 were the only group to show up and play to protesters in Grant Park at the Democratic party convention in Chicago in 1968. This was in defiance of a ban on live music implemented by the city's infamous mayor, Richard J Daley. The event ended in running battles between the police and demonstrators. The following year, Sinclair was arrested after offering two marijuana joints to an undercover narcotics officer. In a verdict designed to send out a strong message to the underground, he was sentenced to 10 years.
It must have been quite a wake-up call. "Well, yes and no. I mean, I was part of the revolution, and that's what authoritarian states do to revolutionaries. So it was part of my job. I accepted it. Plus I had a lot of support from my political comrades on the outside, and I was a hero to the guys on the inside, who hated the pigs with every fibre of their being. Those guys loved me."
He served more than two years, writing daily missives to the outside world and becoming a countercultural cause célèbre, as a campaign to free him snowballed. It culminated in the John Sinclair Freedom Rally in the Michigan city of Ann Arbor in December 1971. Stevie Wonder, Allen Ginsberg and Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers shared a stage with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in an event that sold out in minutes. Three days later, Sinclair was released. The following year, Lennon included the track Free John Sinclair on his album Some Time in New York City. "I heard the song while I was in prison," says Sinclair, beaming at the memory. "I made them bring me in a tape because I didn't believe Lennon had written it and that he was coming to Ann Arbor to sing it. It was a beautiful thing to do."
I ask Sinclair when the revolutionary dream ended for him. He answers without hesitation. "Early 1975. That's when the movement folded. President Nixon was removed from office, the Vietnam war ended, and it seemed everybody went back to their day jobs. I didn't have a day job and I didn't want one, so I became a poet and a community activist again."
Does he miss those times? He pauses for a good while. "I never think of it that way. What good would it do? They sure as hell ain't coming back. I live in the present, and who can tell what will happen in the future? All I know is that if you want things to change, you have to work to make them change. And sometimes, you have to be prepared to go to jail or have your head cracked open. Far as I can see, that's still the case. Look at Pussy Riot. They are the first kick-ass revolutionary group since the MC5. They don't want a record contract, they don't want their own fragrance, they want to overthrow the goddam Russian government. Yes!"
He clenches his fist and raises it in the air, then falls back in to his chair, grinning. "Those girls don't give a shit," he says. "That's what being a revolutionary is really all about."
Mohawk is released on 24 March on Iron Man Records.