John Sinclair — poet, recording artist, radio personality and inspiration for John Lennon’s 1971 protest song “John Sinclair” — returns to New Orleans this week. A native of Flint, Michigan, and longtime Detroit resident, Sinclair lived in New Orleans from 1991 until his move to Amsterdam in 2003.
While Sinclair is back in town, he’ll perform several gigs with local singer-songwriter-guitarist Carlo Ditta, including Sunday at d.b.a. and Nov. 21 at the Old U.S. Mint.
A minister in the Universal Life Church, Sinclair also will perform a marriage ceremony for his friend, Randy Leo Frechette, aka Frenchy, the “performance painter” whose in-real-time subjects have included musicians, Mardi Gras and the Super Bowl.
Telling a capsule-size history of Sinclair, 73, isn’t easy. In the 1960s and ’70s, he covered jazz for Downbeat magazine; managed proto-punk band the MC5; co-founded the White Panther Party; chronicled the era’s radicalism through his underground journalism; managed Mitch Ryder and other Ann Arbor music acts; and produced the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festivals.
Most famously, Sinclair, an activist who supported many causes, became a cause himself after he was sentenced to 9½ to 10 years in prison for giving two marijuana cigarettes to an undercover policewoman.
On Dec. 10, 1971, former Beatle Lennon, Yoko Ono, Stevie Wonder, poet Allen Ginsberg, folk singer Phil Ochs and others appeared at the “John Sinclair Freedom Rally” in Ann Arbor. Lennon sang “John Sinclair” in honor of the imprisoned poet. Three days later the Michigan Supreme Court set Sinclair free.
A few years later, Mardi Gras Indians culture drew Sinclair to New Orleans.
“Yeah, that first Wild Magnolias album came out in 1975 and it just blew me away,” he said last week from Detroit.
The Wild Magnolias’ “They Call Us Wild” album, and Dr. John, whom Sinclair booked for gigs in Detroit, convinced Sinclair to visit New Orleans.
“Dr. John told me about New Orleans and Mardi Gras,” he said. “I thought he was making it all up. But I said, ‘Man, I gotta see this for myself.’ The reality of it proved to be even more thrilling. The greatest stuff I ever saw in my life.”
Sinclair had just turned 50 when he and his wife moved to New Orleans. Back in Detroit in the 1970s and ’80s, the couple had raised four daughters. Sinclair had also held several positions of responsibility, including being editor at the Detroit Sun newspaper and director of the Detroit Jazz Center. Once he reached New Orleans, he reveled in a blissful period of unfettered creativity.
“Oh, man, that was the time of my life,” he said. “It was a beautiful, warm, supportive, creative environment. Especially in the ’90s. Like Florence in 1500. A renaissance. I was right in the middle of it.”
Sinclair volunteered as a WWOZ-FM radio personality for 12 years. He wrote about the city’s music and Mardi Gras Indians scene. He performed with his band the Blues Scholars. And then a trip to Amsterdam in 1998 and the Cannabis Cup, the city’s annual cannabis festival, impressed him.
“I loved it there,” he said. “I went back every year and made friends who urged me to move there.”
Unable to live in both New Orleans and Amsterdam, Sinclair chose Amsterdam.
“I’m an urbanite,” he explained. “The inner city of Amsterdam, it’s like a dream world. The architecture, the public transportation, the canals.”
While the U.S. grows ever more conservative, Sinclair enjoys The Netherlands’ liberal social and political climate.
“The Dutch people hate for anybody to tell them what to do,” he said. “So they aren’t eager to tell you what to do. And nobody’s armed. The detriment of urban life here is that everybody’s armed. The thugs, the police, the squares — and they’re all terrified of each other.”
Sinclair’s latest album, “Mohawk,” features ten poems from his book, “always know: a book of monk.” The poems frequently mention of jazz greats John ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and Thelonious Monk. And there’s an ode to Stevenson Palfi, the New Orleans filmmaker who killed himself following Hurricane Katrina and the flood.
“He did one of the greatest music films of all time, ‘Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together,’ ” Sinclair said. “It wasn’t a hit or nothing. Unless something’s a hit today, you don’t make no money off of it, really. It’s a million or nothing. So there was no real reward for what Stevenson Palfi was doing.”
From Amsterdam, Sinclair launched his online radio station, Radio Free Amsterdam. Recent entries in his “John Sinclair Radio Show” include two consecutive programs honoring New Orleans recording studio owner and engineer Cosimo Matassa, who died Sept. 11 at 88.
“Cos was such a giant,” Sinclair said. “My wife and I used to live down the street from his grocery store. We had credit there. He was really a great American, but he was never in there telling you about how great he was. He was just a regular guy.”