John Sinclair, Poet, Manager of MC5, and Activist, dies at 82

Liz Filmer
03 Apr 2024

John Sinclair — the celebrated counterculture icon, poet, and political activist who championed cannabis and rock & roll and managed the MC5— died on Tuesday aged 82. A representative for Sinclair confirmed to The Detroit News that the cause of death was congestive heart failure.

The Flint, Michigan native was best known for being a vocal advocate of the "legalise" cannabis movement. and also for being a co-founder of the White Panther Party, the anti-racist social group that functioned as a partner to the Black Panthers.

“He was on the forefront of the marijuana movement, But I don’t think people realized how knowledgeable he was in American music and he was a certified expert in all forms of American jazz and rhythm and blues.” - Matt Lee, representative for Sinclair.

In the mid-sixties, Sinclair became the manager of the MC5, a perfect match as the band's politically driven rock lined up perfectly with his outlook. MC5 (Motor City Five) were first noticed as being the house band for left-wing rallies in Detroit city at the time. 

Following their performance outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, in 1968, the group headed back to Detroit and its Grande Ballroom in October and produced what would become their milestone album Kick Out the Jams. A live LP — with its unifying cry “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers”, which to this day is still listed on many a greatest album of all time list. Sinclair met The MC5 in 1967, and was their manager until 1969.

“He’s an incredibly persuasive and charismatic person, He’s this great big cat and he’s got all this energy, you know, and he just turns it on you. There is something to John’s father-figure effect on the group. I had just left home, and here was this older cat who could explain all these things that I didn’t understand about the world. And he did have a strong effect on everyone else, philosophically strong spiritual attitudes that he instilled in us.” MC5’s Wayne Kramer- Rolling Stone

How Did Sinclair Influence the "Legalise" Movement?

Sinclair went on to be arrested in 1969 and sentenced to 10 years for possession of two joints (his third possession charge). This was a landmark event that served as the foundation for his and others to protest. None other than John Lennon and Yoko Ono were in attendance at a 1971 freedom rally held in Ann Arbor in solidarity with Sinclair. Also, there were legends such as Stevie Wonder, Allen Ginsberg, and Bob Seger and another 15,000 people. Just two days later, Sinclair was free.

“They gave him 10 for two/What else can Judge Colombo do/We gotta set him free,” Sang Lennon in the song “John Sinclair,” that the ex-Beatle wrote, immortalising Sinclair as a hero of counter-culture.

Sinclair lived long enough to see cannabis be made legal in his home state back in 2018 and several other states across the country and wrote for alternative press such as Detroit’s Fifth Estate, and DownBeat as well as being a founder of the Ann Arbor Sun.

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Liz Filmer