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Invisible Jukebox: John Sinclair

Edwin Pouncey, The Wire, January 2003

John Sinclair — poet, journalist and former manager of 60s revolutionary rockers The MC5 — was born in Flint, Michigan in 1941. His father worked in the automobile industry, a trade that could have easily sucked the young Sinclair under had he not been introduced to R&B. At high school he became a college radio DJ, and was drawn towards writing poetry after reading the work of such Beats as Allen Ginsberg and, in particular, Charles Olson. After two years he dropped out to explore the highs of modern jazz and narcotics, the combination fuelling his consuming interest in music and 'alternative society'.

In 1964 Sinclair began studying at Wayne State University, after managing to complete a BA course at the University of Michigan. In the same year, after several brushes with the law for drug possession, one of which landed him a six month sentence at Detroit's House of Correction, he and his partner Leni set up the Artist's Workshop, later known as Trans-Love Energies, a communal arts collective through which he published his early volumes of poetry. Following another drug bust in 1967, Sinclair agreed to manage The MC5. Like fellow Detroit rockers The Stooges, they were eventually signed to Jac Holzman's Elektra Records, who released their debut album Kick Out The Jams in 1969, but they were soon kicked off the label after placing an inflammatory ad for the album in the underground press.

In 1968 Sinclair moved to Ann Arbor, where he began the White Panther Party in support of the Black Panthers. He organised the first Detroit Rock & Roll Revival in 1969, but his entrepreneurial activities were abruptly curtailed when he received a ten year prison sentence for passing two joints to an undercover cop. The severity of the sentence prompted a successful campaign for his release, involving a Freedom Rally in 1971, which included an appearance by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Undeterred by his spells in jail, Sinclair continued to champion his musical and political beliefs by putting together the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festivals, which hosted landmark appearances by Sun Ra and his Arkestra.

Sinclair now lives in New Orleans, where he does radio work, gives readings and produces music with his group The Blues Scholars. His latest publication is a poetical tribute to the language and music of the blues called Fattening Frogs For Snakes: Delta Sound Suite (Surregional Press). Elsewhere, Sinclair's work with The MC5 has been documented on his Total Energy label, the most recent chapter being Human Being Lawnmower: The Baddest & Maddest Of The MC5. The Jukebox took place in London.

Total word count of piece: 4063

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