John Sinclair, Poet, MC5 Manager, and Activist, Dead at 82

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John Sinclair — the celebrated counterculture icon, poet, and political activist who advocated for cannabis and rock & roll and managed the MC5 — died on Tuesday at the age of 82. Matt Lee, a representative for Sinclair, confirmed to The Detroit News that he died of congestive heart failure.

The Flint, Michigan native became known for his fight to legalize marijuana and as co-founder of the White Panther Party, the anti-racist social group that served as a counterpart to the Black Panthers.

“He was on the forefront of the marijuana movement,” Lee told the newspaper. “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.”

In the mid-Sixties, he became the manager of the MC5, whose politically-driven rock aligned with his worldview. The group (shorthand for Motor City Five) first came to prominence as the house band for left-wing rallies in the city at the time. Following a performance outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, the group returned to Detroit and its Grande Ballroom in October of that year to lay down what would become their landmark album Kick Out the Jams. (The live LP — with its rallying cry “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers” — would ultimately land on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.)

Sinclair was arrested in 1969 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for possession of two joints (this was his third possession charge). This served as the bedrock for his and others to protest. John Lennon and Yoko Ono famously attended a 1971 freedom rally in Ann Arbor in solidarity, which also included Stevie Wonder, Allen Ginsberg, and Bob Seger among 15,000 people. Two days later, Sinclair was freed from jail.

He lived to see marijuana become legal in his home state in 2018 and in several across the country. He also had a hand working in the alternative press, writing for Detroit’s Fifth Estate, DownBeat and founding the Ann Arbor Sun.

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The MC5 met Sinclair in 1967, and he was their manager until the band fired him in 1969. An interview with Rolling Stone in 1971 detailed their acrimonious split over differing political approaches and money. Still, MC5’s Wayne Kramer, who died in February at age 75, spoke of Sinclair’s charms, even through the fallout at the time.

“He’s an incredibly persuasive and charismatic person,” Kramer told Rolling Stone. “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.”

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