RIP John Sinclair, dead at 82

John Sinclair, the poet and political activist who was a leader in Detroit’s counterculture scene of the 1960s and ’70s, has died. He was 82.

Publicist Matt Lee confirmed that Sinclair died at 7:58 a.m. on Tuesday morning at Detroit Receiving Hospital. Heart failure was the official cause of death, but Lee says Sinclair was in poor health in recent months.

“It was more complicated than that,” he says, adding, “He was on the ropes for the longest time. He went in with blood poisoning and he bounced back, but then he went under again. But he just couldn’t rally. There were just too many things wrong.”

Born in Flint in 1941, Sinclair rose to prominence as a poet known for his radical politics. In the 1960s, he became manager of Detroit rock band MC5, booking them as a house band of sorts at the former Grande Ballroom, where they recorded their landmark album Kick Out the Jams. (His wife, Leni Sinclair, was a notable photographer of the scene.) In 1968, under Sinclair’s management, the MC5 performed for the massive rally outside of the chaotic Democratic National Convention in Chicago protesting the Vietnam War.

Sinclair was also a founding member of the White Panther Party, an anti-racist socialist group aligned with the Black Panthers.

In 1969, Sinclair was sentenced to ten years in prison after offering two joints to a woman who was an undercover cop. The severity of the sentence sparked protests that inspired John Lennon to write a song called “John Sinclair” and sparked Ann Arbor’s annual Hash Bash, a rally where attendees smoked pot openly on the University of Michigan campus that eventually evolved into the heart of the movement to decriminalize and legalize cannabis in the state.

Sinclair was released from prison in 1971, and later moved to pot-friendly Amsterdam. He also penned a cannabis column for Metro Times.

Sinclair eventually returned to Detroit. When Michigan’s first official cannabis dispensaries for adult use opened in 2019, Sinclair, who used a wheelchair in recent years, was among the first people in line to purchase it.

At the time, cannabis activist Rick Thompson reportedly asked Sinclair, “Things have come full circle, haven’t they, John?” Sinclair retorted, “It would be more full if they came and gave me back the weed that they took.”

As a poet, Sinclair often performed with a live jazz band and has released a number of albums over the years.

Funeral arrangements are pending, Lee says.

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