My Days With John Sinclair ► Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used To Be

John
Lennon
wrote very few songs about REAL people, and when he did he disguised
the name of the subject, like “Sexie Sadie,” who was “Maharishi” in the
original version. However, Lennon wrote and recorded a song called “John
Sinclair,” about one of Detroit’s
a cultural icons. Lennon’s “John Sinclair” was just one protest song on “Some
Time in New York City
.” a double-record set (filled with political polemic
as 3 minute tunes on one LP, and live concert with Frank Zappa and the Mothers
of Invention on the other). Lennon was protesting the sentencing of John
Sinclair to 10 years of hard time for GIVING an undercover agent
two joints. This made the already infamous Sinclair, who only had a regional
reputation until then, an international cause célèbre, which is what prompted Lennon
to write the song and later appear at a Free
John Sinclair
concert. However, I knew John Sinclair before he ever became
a jailbird.

I first encountered John Sinclair way
back in the ’60s. I grew up in Detroit on Gilchrist
Street
(we called it Gilchrist Avenue because that was classier), one block
and three houses south of the infamous 8 Mile (aka M-102) and five houses
south of David Palmer, the original drummer for the Amboy Dukes. We
were all in our middle teens then, but Dave was a year or two older which made
all the difference back then. He wasn’t part of our clique, just a few doors
down. His clique was far more exciting to us. We thought he was really cool
because he was in a real rock and roll band who played real concerts and made
real records. However, for some of us there was a more important reason for
admiring David Palmer: When the administration threw him out of Coffey Junior High School
because his hair was well-below his collar, he responded with a lawyer who
argued that this was how Palmer made his living and he would be affected
adversely if he had to cut his hair. Those of us who were still fighting the
Hair Wars — and still being kicked out for having long hair — knew that it was
only a matter of time before the rule fell, because David Palmer had already
blown right through it.  The school was
forced to make an accommodation with Dave: He had to wear his hair tucked in
his shirt collar the entire day so that it was no longer than his shirt collar.
From then on Dave wore wild paisley shirts, with even wilder ties to hold all the
hair in. It was always a bit of a thrill to follow Dave out the door at the end
of the school day, see him scoop his hair out of his collar, and watch it
cascade down his back. When the Amboy Dukes rehearsed in Dave’s garage, all us neighbourhood
kids would hang out at the end of the driveway to listen. They were my first
garage band.

I was only 15 and most weekends  and would head to Plum Street—Detroit’s Haight-Ashbury—on
weekends, where I’d occasionally get a glimpse of John Sinclair holding forth. He was Detroit’s Top Hippie and
I was a weekend wannabe.  On more than
one occasion I’d work up the nerve to talk to him. Despite the age difference,
and his massive height, he never talked down to me and all these years later I
never forgot that kindness. Sinclair seemed to be everywhere: He helped launch
the The
Fifth Estate
(one of ‘Merka’s oldest alternative/underground newspapers) manager
of the MC5, and head of the White Panther Party.
Skip ahead many years—through many twists and turns that no
one could have predicted at the time. In the new century my nephew became John
Sinclair’s merchandising manager. What a thrill it was to learn that.
That’s merely all background to the real story.

It’s Labor Day weekend, 2006 and I’m excited. I am going to
the Detroit International
Jazz Fest
where I am going to see John Sinclair for the first time in about
40 years. More importantly, my nephew is going to officially introduce us, even
though we met way back when. John is at the Jazz Fest performing with his band
The Blues Messengers.

We get there early because my nephew has lots to do before
the show and I’m directed to a little table in the VIP area to wait. I need to
describe this VIP section so the story makes more sense. There are 8 stages
around the downtown area and each has a VIP section. It’s not backstage; it’s
off to one side or another in front of the stages. It’s for audience, but
special audience. Like me. The regular
audience sits on fold-up chairs or the ground. We get real chairs and small
cabaret tables to sit at. How civilized.
I’m killing time and I see John Sinclair arrive and sit at a
table a few away from me. When my nephew comes back he says, “So, didja
say ‘Hi!’ yet?” I reply, ” No, he’s going to do a show soon and I
don’t want to bother him now.” I said that because I saw someone approach
him only to be told, “I’m going to do a show soon. Don’t bother me now. I need
to concentrate. I’ll gladly talk to you after.”
My nephew doesn’t care about such niceties and drags me over
and makes introductions.
John Sinclair says to me, “I’ve heard so much about you
I feel like I know you. Your nephew talks about you all the time.”
After I come back to earth I say, “John, I just want to
thank you for treating me with respect way back when, instead of the snot-nosed
Hippie weekend-wannabe that I was.”
With that my nephew starts cackling, “I hear people
come up to you all the time and say pretty much the same thing, John. But this
time it’s my uncle.”
It turns out that for all our own reasons, the three of us
are all thrilled at the meeting.
Introductions over, I go back to my table. Eventually Sinclair
performs. We talk a bit after the set and then head off in separate directions,
John to meet up with some musician friends and me to go see a 24-piece Big Band
playing all Zappa music with Big Band arrangements. (!)
A few hours later I find myself at the same VIP table alone,
rocking out to the Regal Brass Band of New Orleans, which I had seen earlier in
the year during Mardi Gras, the first one after Katrina.  I didn’t see anyone sit down next to me, but
suddenly I was nudged from someone on the left. It was John Sinclair passing me
a joint. I have to say that again: JOHN SINCLAIR PASSING ME A JOINT!!!
And, I do inhale.
As I begin to pas sit back he nods, as if to say, “Now pass
it to the guy on the other side of you,” so I nudge that guy and he turns
towards me. That’s when Dr. John says to
me, in his gravely voice, “No man, I gotta do a show soon,” so I pass it
back to John Sinclair.
So now me, John Sinclair and Dr. John are all dancing in our
seats to a New Orleans Jazz band. Amazingly, as we talk and smoke, I learn that
Sinclair was also at that very same Mardi Gras I attended—on the other side of
the street from where I was watching the parade. Exactly on the other side of
the street. I’m amazed I didn’t see him. 
Eventually Dr. John gets up and leaves because his set’s on soon and the
joint goes out. Sinclair rips it open and puts the shreds on the table. Then he
starts fishing in his pockets. He pulls out several roaches and starts ripping
them apart. He’s determined to get one more joint out of this mess on the table
and, believe me, I’m rooting for him.
While I’m watching John do his thing I vaguely become aware
that the guy on stage has been talking longer than usual. I focus on what he’s
saying:
“…a really dear friend of ours. We’d like to have him
stand up and say “Hello.” He’s a Detroit
native, but now he’s a citizen of the world, living part time in New Orleans and part time in Amsterdam. Please, a warm hand for Detroit’s own, John Sinclair!”
John is in his own world. He’s on a mission. He doesn’t
realize the applause is for him.
I nudge him.
“What?”
“Stand up, John.”
He looks around a minute, sees that everyone is looking at
him (at us!!!) and clapping, so he stands up and takes a small bow and then
sits back down laughing. “Why did he have to introduce me then? Look at this
table.”
“John, there was no other time to introduce you. What
are you known for?”
<breathing air> And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my
John Sinclair Story. However, I invite you to tune in to listen to
John Sinclair
at Radio Free
Amsterdam
, one of the oldest regular online podcasts going and just another
one of the cultural touchstones John Sinclair helped create in his long and creative
career. And, if you are in Ireland
later this month, check out the BREATHIN’ AIR
– Irish Tour 2012
With Howard Marks.

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Headly Westerfield
Headly Westerfield
Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.