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John Sinclair

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Bob Gersztyn, Portland, OR (2004) E-mail
Tuesday, 02 November 2004 21:12
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By: Bob Gersztyn

During the late 1960's one of the most prominent counter culture icons of the Detroit, Michigan, area, was John Sinclair. Sinclair was the manager of the preeminent political rock group, the MC5, as well as a chairman of the White Panther Party...

He was convicted of giving two marijuana joints to an undercover narcotics agents, in 1966, and served two and a half years before his release from prison. His freedom from incarceration was gained by a public effort, which included John Lennon headlining a 1972 concert in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Since his release he's worked as a poet, professor, writer, musician, and DJ at New Orleans's WWOZ-FM.

Music and religion journalist Bob Gersztyn, who was a member of the Detroit counter culture scene back in the late 1960's, talked to Sinclair about his views, on the impact of the movement in the twenty first century, the war on terrorism, the election, and drugs.

Bob Gersztyn: The 1960s Revolution is a generation in the past. How do its effects look to one of the outspoken radicals, who led and promoted that revolution, in 2004?

John Sinclair: Relatively negligible.

Bob: Really? You don't see any positive effects from everything that happened, or was done in the 1960's, and continuing, or evolving, and influencing today's reality?

John: People look better, and they have more casual clothing. The music's horrible, the culture's horrible, the movies are horrible, television is more horrible, and the government is way beyond imagination. My catchword is, everything is worse than ever. All the people that we thought were going to be the great leaders in culture, and music, are just millionaires. They aren't doing anything for anybody. The drug war is worse. I don't know ... give me a good result, I'm dying for one.

Bob: If you compare civilization to an organism, and history as a whole as a struggle which moves the organism in different directions, then there are movements within the organism, like the Protestant Reformation, or the Hippie counter culture of the 1960s. It moves things in a different direction, but at the same time the organism is still the same organism, and that is civilization.

John: I think that our moment could very well be contrasted, or compared with the Protestant Reformation. Look at how that went too.

Bob: Everything seems to take on a life of its own, and not necessarily fulfill its original intentions. So basically you don't really see a whole lot of positive benefits today, in the twenty-first century, in relation to anything from the 1960s revolution?

John: No. No I don't. I just think that it's increasingly ugly. It's even uglier, because you have all these people who think that they're hip, and they know what's going on, but they're just blinded by popular culture, I guess....I don't know what it is.

Bob: Where do you see the world headed? Where do you see America headed, right now?

John: The toilet, ha, I see them following the course of the Roman Empire and the Third Reich combined. I think that we're in a state that is comparable to Germany in about 1936 or '37. My only hope is that they go so far, that it collapses around them, he, ha.... I don't see any opposition coming from the people.

Bob: Going back to the 1960s, what were the circumstances which eventually resulted in your involvement with the White Panther Party? Also explain a little about the White Panther Party.

John: Well, the White Panther Party was originally formed to organize white youth in support of the Black Panther Party and the black liberation struggle in general. And also to take up our own cudgels against our common enemies, the US government, and the people who own it. That's it in a nutshell. We were the only political party formed by a rock & roll band. But the band withdrew from the WPP and turned their back on it and tried to sell out.

Bob: I remember when I first got out the Army and came back to Detroit in 1968, the MC5 were the top rock band out of the Motor City. Then I remember reading in the local underground newspaper, The Fifth Estate, about their having sold out.

John: Let's just say that they tried to sell out, and unhappily for them, no one was buying. Yeah, it was a sad affair.

Bob: But isn't it pretty hard to really resist that temptation, though?

John: I've never had a problem with it, but then I have a moral and ethical structure, ha, ha, ha, ha. If you don't have one, then I guess it's easy. Of course, no one ever offered me anything. I don't know, maybe it's because I didn't have a chance to turn it down.

Bob: Is there anybody that you would name from that period who is still alive today, that still has your respect, like say Ed Sanders of the Fugs (Ed was on the cover of LIFE in 1966, representing the face of the counterculture, and the Fugs were-and are-a band of beatnik/hippie poets who performed and recorded politically and socially relevant songs and protest music).

John: Ed Sanders is one of our greatest living Americans. There's quite a few individuals, but I mean as far as a movement is concerned, I don't see it. You've got the Naderites, who pop their heads up every four years and say that they want to be President. I didn't see Ralph Nader leading the charge against the war that they have now. I just don't see it. I'm a very acute observer of what's going on in our country, and I try to figure out what's going on in the world, but I just don't see it. I see these people running roughshod over everything that we hold dear.

Bob: What is your analysis and response to September 11, 2001?

John: Oh, I don't know. I mean,' its all pretty much on the surface, a bunch of Fundamentalist religious fanatics who represent people who are politically oppressed in many places. They're striking out the only way that they can against this monster of America, and its satellite Israel. I don't have all that much sympathy for them, because anybody who doesn't want you to listen to music, is out with me from the beginning. Anybody that wants to put women in burkas, we're not on the same side, but I understand where they're coming from-politically, not culturally. Ha, I don't get that part.

Bob: They don't drink alcohol, but they do smoke hash and weed.

John: So they say that they do.

Bob: What were the circumstances that lead to your arrest, conviction and incarceration in 1969.

John: I gave two joints to an undercover policewoman in December 1966. I tried to establish that the marijuana laws were unconstitutional in the state of Michigan from that point until 1972, when I finally won. I spent two and a half years on pre-trial bond, and two and a half years in prison. It took five years out of my life.

Bob: Where did the original incident take place, at what specific event?

John: It was just everyday life in Detroit. There were these male and female undercover agents, who infiltrated our activity center called the Detroit Artists Workshop. So they would come around to our events.

Bob: What were the events that led to your release?

John: We fought tooth and nail against the government of the state of Michigan. The legislature, the courts, the court of public opinion, in every possible way, tooth and nail, for two, and one half years. Finally people like John Lennon, Stevie Wonder, and Phil Ochs, were moved to support our positition. That tipped the scale eventually. That as well as our successful lobbying efforts in the state legislature, to have them throw out the old marijuana laws, and create new ones. Recognizing that marijuana was not a narcotic.

Bob: Exactly why do you feel that marijuana should be legalized?

John: In the first place, I don't see any argument for why it should be illegal. It's just a repressive thing championed by people who don't think that you should get high on marijuana. The benefits are that you get high (ha, ha, ha), pretty much in a nutshell.

Bob: How would you tell somebody that you are trying to convince, what being high will do for you?

John: I would ask a more pointed question. Why do they think that we should be persecuted for getting high? You're not persecuted for being high on alcohol. You can get high on prescription narcotics. You can get high on damn near anything except marijuana, cocaine, and heroine. For some reason they think that these don't fit in the paradigm. I've never understood it, and I don't understand it any better now. Perhaps the pharmaceutical industry has a lot to loose? It's the most profitable industry in America. Then it effects some people who are high in the work force, using their creative intelligence. They're trying to eliminate that. So now you have to pass a drug test, to get a responsible job. I don't get it, but they just use force of arms to keep this in effect. Even when the voters passed laws in nine states, saying that people who suffered illnesses which could benefit from the use of marijuana, they don't allow those laws to take effect. The Federal government persecutes doctors, and growers, and patients. They're just cruel, and vicious, and heartless people, that's all I can understand, heh, heh, ha. I don't get it, what's the big deal? You smoke a joint, you get high. So what?

Bob: What are the religious, and social effects of the blues, on both US, and world culture?

John: In terms of the culture, it's reshaped popular music, in every way. I don't know? It's just good stuff. I'm not much of an ideologue on the blues, I just like to listen to it.

Bob: Did you see the Blues series that Martin Scorcesee did, on PBS last fall?

John: Nah! I saw a few flashes of it, but I really don't watch TV, it's all bullshit. It didn't look all that interesting to me.

Bob: You probably already knew everything that they were talking about. One of the things that I found interesting was how they traced the roots of the slaves to the particular areas, or villages in Africa, that they came from. At one point, Keb Mo, the contemporary blues singer.

John: You mean pop blues singer. I really wouldn't call Keb Mo a blues singer. Now he's singing songs about making too much money, ha, ha, ha, ha.

Bob: Ha, ha, ha, ha! Anyway, Keb Mo was in this village in Africa, and a musician there was playing an indigenous instrument, unfamiliar to American culture, but he was playing this riff, that sounded like Muddy Waters. At that point many people realized that this was ancient music, pre-dating slavery.

John: We brought these people here as slaves, and that was their music, they had it, they brought it with them. They clung to their music. They tried to beat it out of them. They tried in every way to suppress them, but they weren't successful. Then they developed the modern way of doing it, which was just expropriating it, and ripping them off. Then giving the rewards to people who did that, rather than the ones who created it. That's my outlook anyway.

Bob: So you really don't think a whole lot about the rock & roll revolution, and all the rhetoric from the 1960's. You don't think that it has any impact?

John: It lost. It was a revolution, and it lost. It lost by about 1972, and there's nothing revolutionary about it since then, is there? The people who got rich haven't done anything. They all got rich.

Bob: I know that you don't watch TV, but a few months ago I was watching Larry King interview Paul McCartney.

John: Sir Paul McCartney.

Bob: Okay, Sir Paul McCartney. He also had the first Russian DJ, a college professor, and a journalist, who began writing about the Beatles in the early 1960's. They all agreed that the Beatles were instrumental as one of the factors in the fall of Communism. How do you feel about that?

John: I don't particularly regard that as a good thing, but go ahead, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. That used to serve as a check, and balance system. As opposed to this unmitigated thuggery, that they have now. They wouldn't have been able to invade Iraq then, ha, I don't think.

Bob: I'm sure that they wouldn't have.

John: They wouldn't be able to send rockets into Palestine, and kill people in their cars, quadrapelegics, blind people, but I digress, ha, ha, ha.

Bob: Do you think that music can have a part in the peaceful unification of the human race?

John: Oh, I don't know. I guess if the musicians were armed, and attacked the White House, ha, ha, ha, then it might have an effect.

Bob: That sounds like that independent Mexican film that came out a while back, called El Mariachi, where a guitar player had a machine gun built into his guitar.

John: Ah yes, I believe in that. That's more like Woody Guthrie's guitar, "This machine kills Fascist's."

Bob: That's what I mean, every so often there is somebody, who comes along, and has something that they'll present musically, that will create some kind of movement, and often at the lowest point, like Woody Guthrie, during the depression. Let's say Dylan, or someone of that caliber.

John: Dylan is doing commercials for Victoria's secret.

Bob: I saw one about a month ago.

John: Not that I'm opposed to that, I like Victoria's Secret too. I'd do one too.

Bob: What do you think about Dylan, at this point in his career.

John: I rarely think about him. He's just a pop star. I like the fact that he plays for people all the time, other than that, I don't know. What's the difference between him and Sir Paul, or Sir Elton.

Bob: Or Sir Mick. John: I like Sir Mick better. He makes more interesting music generally. I've always liked the Rolling Stones

Bob: You were involved in the anti-war movement back in the 1960's, are you involved with any part of the anti-war movement today?

John: Such as it is. A year ago, when I was here in L.A., I was at a big parade we had here, against the war. It was fucking terrific. I never thought that I'd see that again, but as soon as they started the war, everyone stopped protesting. Ha! Now a year later they're starting to do it a little bit again. I don't know, if it wasn't for John Dean, not John Dean, Howard Dean. Well John Dean's come out on the right side though too. If it wasn't for Howard Dean, they wouldn't even be offering any opposition. John Kerry, and the rest of those guys would be supporting the war, like they did in the Senate. I loved Howard Dean. I thought that was the greatest thing that's happened in a long time. He held the shoes of Kerry, and them to the fire. I loved it when either yesterday, or the day before, when he attacked Dick Cheney, and Carl Rove for being draft dodgers. Ha, I just thought that's good, if they attack these people on the basis of who they are, and what they're doing. They're just a bunch of bullies, and the way that you deal with a bully, is you get up in their face, and pretty soon they turn tail, and run, because really they're cowards. That's the way I feel about these people now. They've just bullied their way. They stole the Presidency, and no one said anything. They bombed the shit out of Afghanistan, striking against the people who used to be on their payroll, the heroic Islamic freedom fighters, now the Taliban. The people who used to be their enemies, the Northern war lords, opium producers, and processors, now they are the heroic Northern Alliance, they're our allies. I don't know, ha, it's so ugly. It's just indescribably ugly, and yet America goes on paying $2.25 for a gallon of gas, for their big cars. They're just totally out of their wigs. They get excited about who Donald Trump is going to fire, or who's gonna win American Idol. The winner of the Donald Trump contest was on the front page of fucking papers, ha, help me. I don't know, it's just so ugly. The ugliness here is just so all pervasive. They don't have a heart anymore. My homeboy, Michael Moore, says it best, when he says, "Dude where's my country?"

Bob: What do you you think about the use of LSD, back in the 1960's?

John: It was a good thing. They could use some now.

Bob: Do you think that it helped to create the revolutionary attitude?

John: Absolutely.

Bob: It's somewhat paradoxical the way that the government actually initiated what was at thevery heart of the revolution.

John: Oh yeah. They start everything, because they've got all the money. We give it to them. They started the internet, thats' a good thing. You know, sometimes these things backfire on them, and it takes them a few years to turn it back around, in their favor. But LSD was the motor, and they need something like that now. You see, the great thing about it was, it blasted the enforced reality to smithereens. It made you look beyond what they were giving you. Well now they've got people completely surrounded with this mass media, and popular culture. They're completely surrounded by it, and they need something to help them break through. So I don't know how to show them without meaning to sound like a drug advocate, per se. I think that it would be a good thing if thousands of young people were taking LSD today. It would take them a lot farther than ecstacy.

Bob: There isn't a good supply of high quality LSD out there, or people who are making it. What gets passed off as LSD, on the street, most of the time, is either a placebo, or a very impure form.

John: I don't know anything about it, but taking it would be a good thing. Mescaline, LSD, Peyote, any sort of psychedelic drug. It will open your mind. I think that they need to open their minds, and then find their hearts. It did make some good music.

Bob: So you really do believe that LSD was the motor that drove the revolutionary ideas of the 1960's?

John: The Hippie revolution, yes. What I was involved in, yes. I don't know if it was just a motor. It was more like dynamite that blew apart your preconceived ideas about the way things were, and could be. Then what drove us was our passion. The music had a big part, but then again, a lot of the music was made by people inspired by LSD. I was just reading this great interview with R. Crumb. He attributed all of his creative period, that totally altered cartoons, to his several years of taking LSD regularly. I thought, yes Bob, right, ha, ha. Me to, ha, ha, ha.

Bob: Did you see the documentary they on him?

John: Yeah, yeah, yeah! He is very interesting.

Bob: I used to have all his comic books, Zap, and the others, but I destroyed them all, when I became a Jesus Freak, in 1971.

John: Whoa! No! Yeah, I remember you told me that. It must have been a painful experience.

Bob: Drugs, like LSD, in my case, drove me to Jesus.

John: Oh dear.

Bob: Then when the drugs wore off, I found myself back in the trap that the drugs originally helped me to escape from?

John: Right! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. I mean you were lucky to escape again.

Bob: It seems that the same drugs that created the Hippie revolution, also created the Jesus revolution. A lot of the Jesus Freaks, like myself were taking psychedelics prior to our conversions. After you take LSD, and mescaline a couple of hundred times, over a period of a few years, it blows your mind apart, to the point that your looking for something to pull it all together.

John: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. Pretty strenuous.

Bob: I needed to get back in touch with some kind of reality, and the biggest dose of reality that I could find was religion.

John: Unhappily, most of those people aren't even Christians. If they were Christians, you wouldn't have anybody sleeping on the streets. I just came from San Francisco, where that's just part of life. Here are people living on the street, in this bastion of people with lots of money. The people that holler the most about Christ, are the ones who don't have the slightest idea of what He was about. It seems to me.

Bob: What are your religious beliefs?

John: I don't know. I don't have any organized beliefs.

Bob: What are your personal beliefs?

John: I have pretty much the outlook that I gained, when I took peyote the first time, in 1963. The universe is a big place, and we're just little bitty dots swimming around in it. The best you can do is be as kind to other people as you possibly can. As Allen Ginsberg put it so eloquently, who should you be kind to? Be kind to everybody.

Bob: What religious views were you raised with?

John: Roman Catholic.

Bob: Did you go to Catholic school?

John: No, but I went to catechism, and I went to Mass every Sunday, for eighteen years.

Bob: When did you break away from it?

John: My first semester in college, in 1959. One day I was walking down the street on a beautiful Friday afternoon, thinking about what all Catholics youths do, going to confession, and communion that weekend, and all of a sudden it was revealed to me that this was all horseshit. That some very sick humans made up this whole concept of guilt, and confession, and all of that stuff. It was the most liberating thing that I ever felt, up to that time, ha, ha, and I haven't been burdened with that ever since. I feel guilty if I tell someone that I'm going to do something, and then for some reason I don't do it, then I feel guilty, but other than that, guilt doesn't enter into my life. I committed no original sin. The things that they regard as sin, I regard as appropriate behavior. Especially on the sex, and drugs issues.

Bob: What kind of projects are you involved in right now?

John: I'm a poet, so I write, and perform. I set my verse to music, and perform with music ensembles. I write about blues, and jazz, and related forms of African/American music, and I travel a lot, performing.