Counterculture Icon John Sinclair Dies

His pot bust inspired John Lennon song
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 2, 2024 6:57 PM CDT
Counterculture Icon John Sinclair Dies
John Sinclair talks at the John Sinclair Foundation Cafe and Coffeeshop, Dec. 26, 2018, in Detroit.   (Junfu Han/Detroit Free Press via AP, File)

John Sinclair, a poet, music producer, and counterculture figure whose lengthy prison sentence after a series of small-time pot busts inspired a John Lennon song and a star-studded 1971 concert to free him, has died. He was 82. Sinclair died Tuesday morning at Detroit Receiving Hospital of congestive heart failure following an illness, his publicist Matt Lee said. Sinclair drew a 9 1/2-to-10-year prison sentence in 1969 from Detroit Recorder's Court Judge Robert Colombo for giving two joints to undercover officers. It was his third offense. He served 29 months but was released a few days after Lennon, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, and others performed in front of 15,000 attendees at the University of Michigan's Crisler Arena, the AP reports.

"They gave him 10 for two/What else can Judge Colombo do/We gotta set him free," Lennon sang in "John Sinclair," a song the ex-Beatle wrote that immortalized its subject. At the time of Sinclair's arrest, possession of marijuana was a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. He was arrested in Detroit while living as a poet and activist who co-founded the anti-racist White Panther Party. He received the maximum sentence. The day before the concert, the Michigan Legislature voted to reduce to a misdemeanor the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana, punishable by up to a year in prison. Because he already had served 2½ years, Sinclair was released from prison three days after the concert.

  • Sinclair continued his advocacy for marijuana, helping to usher in Ann Arbor's token $5 fine for pot possession and celebrating when his home state legalized recreational cannabis in 2018. "I'm the pioneer. I was the first one in Michigan who said marijuana should be legal, and they said I was totally nuts," he told the Detroit Free Press in 2019. "I'm proud to have played a part in this. I spent nearly three years in prison because of marijuana."
  • Sinclair was born in Flint in 1941. He grew up in nearby Davison and graduated from the University of Michigan-Flint in 1964 with a degree in English Literature. Over the next six-plus decades, Sinclair did a bit of everything—dabbling in performance art, journalism, cultural and political activism. And, of course, poetry. "You got to/live it not just/say it or/play it that's what this is/all/about," Sinclair wrote in a 1965 poem.
  • Sinclair often kept a toehold in the world of music, managing for a time Mitch Ryder and perhaps most notably MC5, a Detroit-based quintet known for "Kick Out the Jams" and as a hard-rocking forerunner to the punk movement.
  • Sinclair proudly and aggressively fought for progressive policies as part of the burgeoning "New Left" movement. "In those times, we considered ourselves revolutionaries," he said in 2013. "We wanted equal distribution of wealth. We didn't want 1% of the rich running everything. Of course, we lost."
  • Sinclair also promoted concerts and festivals and helped to establish the Detroit Artists Workshop and Detroit Jazz Center. He taught blues history at Wayne State University and hosted radio programs in Detroit, New Orleans, and and Amsterdam
(More obituary stories.)

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