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Remembering poet and counterculture icon John Sinclair

John Sinclair
Jaime Menendez
John Sinclair


John Sinclair

Ann Arbor Hash Bash


David Fair: In December of 1970, the eyes of the world turned to Ann Arbor. John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger and other musical acts joined with political activists like Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale, along with poet Allen Ginsberg. Why? A concert and rally at Crisler Arena. The issue: winning the freedom of John Sinclair. Sinclair had been sentenced to ten years in prison after being arrested for possession of just two joints. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU. That 14-hour event drew 15,000 people in. Three days later, Sinclair was released from prison. Now, Sinclair had already gained notoriety as manager of the band the MC5. He co-founded the White Panther Party to support the Black Panthers in the call for social and racial justice and equality. He co-created the Detroit Artists Workshop. He launched the underground publications The Fifth Estate and the Ann Arbor Sun. He was a noted poet and made 25 albums of his poetry over the years. He was an expert music historian, particularly when it came to jazz and blues, and he helped launch the Ann Arbor Jazz and Blues Festival. There's another part of his public legacy. A year after his release from prison, he helped organize and begin an annual tradition in Ann Arbor. You know it as the Hash Bash. Back then, it was a call for decriminalization of marijuana. As a result, the City of Ann Arbor adopted a local policy of enacting a $5 fine for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana--absolutely unheard of for the times. His cannabis activism continued into his last days. With us in the WEMU studio today are two of John Sinclair's friends. They have for years now dedicated themselves to carrying forward Sinclair's activism and have helped bring legalization to medicinal and recreational marijuana and will both be participants in the 52nd annual Hash Bash this Saturday in Ann Arbor. Jamie Lowell is the current Hash Bash event coordinator, and I appreciate you coming in today, Jamie.

Jamie Lowell: Hey, it's great to be here. Thanks for having me.

David Fair: And Adam Brook began as a Hash Bash organizer back in 1989 and remains involved to this day. And I'm glad you could make it as well.

Adam Brook: Thank you. Appreciate you.

David Fair: Now, I've just gone through a long list of why the public knows John Sinclair. The relationships you two have with him extends beyond that. Adam, you were particularly close with John for over a quarter-century. What was the genesis of your relationship?

Adam Brook: Well, I had actually brought him from New Orleans to Ann Arbor for Hash Bash.

David Fair: Because he had left town.

Adam Brook: He had left town. He had gone down to New Orleans. He was an award-winning disc jockey on WOOZ, their public radio station down there. And I thought it'd be really cool to have him at Hash Bash. And we got in contact with him, and he was happy to do it. And that's how it started. And then, we became friends shortly thereafter. I knew I could help him and had no clue what he could do for me, little did I know.

David Fair: And, Jamie, your relationship with John began as a result of cannabis activism. When I was talking with you about coming to WEMU to remember John, I was struck by how hard his loss seemed to be hitting you and was left with the impression perhaps you were equally as surprised.

Jamie Lowell: I did kind of think this would be another time when he would come through and still be with us, but also knew, one of these times, when he had a little health issue, he probably wasn't going to make it back. And so, it wasn't totally a surprise. But when the reality hit, it definitely got me pretty hard.

David Fair: I want to delve more into John Sinclair that the rest of us may not have known in a moment, but I do think it appropriate to talk legacy. And, Adam, did John care about or ever discuss his legacy with you?

Adam Brook: We used to talk about it all the time. John didn't care about a lot of things. John cared about what John liked: his passions in life. You know, he never thought there'd be a memorial to him or anything of that nature. But he was very protective of his works. He wanted to make sure that his works carried on. And his dream was to have a foundation, which we now have, the John Sinclair Foundation, where his works would be saved and used to educate people in the future. That was a big thing for him, whether people knew it or not. He was a blues historian and jazz historian, and his music represents that. He educates you on the subject he's talking about.

David Fair: And, Jamie, since his passing on Tuesday, you've been hearing from a great number of people. Have those messages and the sentiments expressed added to your view of his legacy?

Jamie Lowell: Yeah, I mean, there are a lot of people who undoubtedly are going to miss him and recognize the entire body of work that he's offered us. And he referred to himself as a poet.

Adam Brook: Yeah. He was a bard. I mean, he was the guy that would sleep on your couch if that's all there was.

David Fair: And it mattered not.

Adam Brook: No, he didn't care. I lived with him in Amsterdam on and off over the years, and sometimes we had really nice places through people he knew. And sometimes, we had some pretty rough 800-year-old Dutch apartment.

Jamie Lowell: And as you referred to, he'll be meeting somebody of great importance and success and fame and notoriety, and he'll talk to somebody who is struggling on the street and living in the same hour and treat each with the same amount of respect and attention.

Adam Brook: Yeah. He could be a rough fella at times, but only when it was called for. He had fans. I had to convince him that he had fans when we started going on tours, and he started actually performing his works outside of his little private group. I had to explain to him that, no, there are people that want to talk to you. There are people that would come and say, "Hey, John. I met you back at the Grand Ballroom, and we went and smoked a joint together." And he gave him his time, you know?

David Fair: Right.

Jamie Lowell: I heard somebody ask him, 'What was it like to smoke pot with John Lennon?" He's like, "It's just like smoking pot with another person."

Adam Brook: Right.

David Fair: Not many would say they take that away from that experience. This is 89 one WEMU. And we're talking with Hash Bash organizers Jamie Lowell and Adam Brook. They were gracious enough to stop by and talk about and remember their dear friend John Sinclair in their difficult time of grief. Adam, we all think we know public figures to one degree or another. But it's only a part of the total person. So, what can you say or what do you know about John Sinclair, the man that we've not experienced?

Adam Brook: We went through a lot together, and he didn't care about the rules. He was very respectful but didn't care about the rules. I mean, he didn't care. But we would go places, and people would recognize him, and they'd have these long conversations with him. And I'd get in the car with him, and I'd be like, "Who was that?" He's like, "I have no idea." And then, there were times we were traveling 2 or 3:00 in the morning back from a gig. And we're up north coming down. A cop followed up for eight miles finally pulls us over. Now, the cop was too young to know the name John Sinclair on the driver's license, which it actually didn't say. He changed his name at one point to Wally Sinclair. Wally John Sinclair was his legal name. And the cop didn't know who he had, and I was kind of dozed off in the front seat. And the cop admonished me for being the copilot and not keeping the driver awake because he noticed he had swerved over the line a couple times, but he was as sober as a church mouse, minus the weed we had smoked and the nicotine cigarette he lit up real quick when the cop turned on his light. But there were times like that you didn't know what was going to happen. I got introduced to some people that I would have never met in life--lawyers, famous lawyers, celebrities. Doctor John was his personal doctor, he used to claim. And we were performing with Doctor John at the Jazz Fest in downtown Detroit, and he's practicing at the piano. And I walked up to him, and I introduced myself. And I said, "Hey, I've been a fan for years. But the coolest thing is that John Sinclair considers you his personal doctor." And every time he came on the radio or something like that, he'd be like, "That's my personal doctor."

David Fair: He enjoyed his life to the fullest and being engaged with all kinds of people, and he didn't stand on pomp or circumstance. So, Adam, a lot of folks refer to you as Mr. Hash Bash. Given that it began 52 years ago because of John, did you two ever have a laugh about that?

Adam Brook: Oh, yeah! We used to laugh about it all the time. The reason the Hash Bash started on April 1st, 1972, which was a Saturday, was because a law was enacted that day that made marijuana illegal again after John proved that marijuana was a euphoria and not a narcotic. So, for a short time in the state, there were no marijuana laws. And then, a group of people got together and basically said, "We don't care what law you pass. We're going to smoke pot." And it wasn't about gathering to smoke pot because they really didn't do that. You know, they used to have their little parties or whatnot, but there was no gather. There was no protest. It wasn't until the second year that Perry Bullard, who was an elected representative, lit up a joint on the diag and, of course, the Ann Arbor News being the great newspaper that it was, made sure that they got a picture of the sitting representative with a joint in his mouth. And he was censured for that. And that basically helped to put Hash Bash on the map. And Ann Arbor was very different at the time. The Rainbow People's Party were lived here. The White Panthers had realized that it might be time to move on from the Black Panthers. And the Rainbow People's Party was created. They fed people, housed people. Ann Arbor was an arts community at the time. This group of people every year decided to gather on April 1st. And it wasn't until a generation later, that my people came in and realized that we got a much bigger crowd on the first Saturday in April than we would on Wednesday, April 1st.

David Fair: Right, right.

Adam Brook: So, we literally, because the event is an up from the people event, we literally asked the crowd, "Do you think we should change the date?" The crowd said yes, and we made it the first Saturday in April. But John and I used to laugh about the fact that he didn't need a Hash Bash to go smoke pot. It was delivered to the house regularly.

David Fair: Once again, we are taking time to reflect on the life of poet and counterculture icon John Sinclair, who passed away on Tuesday. Sinclair's friends and Hash Bash organizers, Jamie Lowell and Adam Brook, are sharing with us today. Jamie, the 52nd edition kicks off at noon on Saturday on the Central Campus Diag at the University of Michigan. Now, John Sinclair was actually scheduled to be a speaker. Had he discussed with you his plans in addressing the gathered, or was he planning to freeform it?

Jamie Lowell: He always freeforms. He's got a lot to say. He pays attention to what's going on and says the appropriate thing at the right time. He's got many years of perspective on that. And then, he likes to perform. He likes to do his poetry. And Laith al-Saadi--

David Fair: They've done that before.

Jamie Lowell: Many times. Yes. This year, Lenny Sinclair--

David Fair: His ex-wife.

Jamie Lowell: Yeah. Ex-wife and who hadn't spoken at Hash Bash before wanted to this year. And she's still going to. And I think that's really apropos. And I just want to say to you, I know this is about John, but it's really important that Adam be there. I've gotten close with John in most recent years. Adam and John have been close friends for a really long time. And I can tell you that there's a couple of people that I've heard John talk about. And we can really authentically detect that connection. And, when he brings up Adam Brook, you can tell he's got the sincere friendship there and the closeness. And I've definitely been aware of that for a long time. So, for Adam to be there and to address this is going to be a big deal. I hope a lot of people want to come out and be a part of this on Saturday.

David Fair: It's going to be a long list of others addressing the Hash Bash in Ann Arbor, including Congresswoman Debbie Dingell from Ann Arbor, state Senator Jeff Irwin from Ann Arbor, state Representative Jimmy Wilson from Ypsilanti, and musician extraordinaire Laith al-Saadi, as you mentioned. And, Adam, you're right at the top of the speaker's list. Has John passing away this week change what you want to say and how you want to address the gathered?

Adam Brook: It has. John wasn't there a couple of years ago. He was in the hospital, and I read one of his poems. And I'm not going to lie to anybody. I knew a week ago that John Sinclair wasn't going to be at the Hash Bash because he was in the hospital, and he would get out and he would say, "I want to go." And I would have told him he wasn't going. So, I've known for a bit that he wasn't going to be there. I figured I'd do something to not memorialize him because he was memorialized when weed was legalized in California. Once that change started to happen in this country, what he fought for starting in 1965, it was starting to come to fruition. So, he knew he was on the win at that point. And it was just a matter of time before it came to Michigan. Then it came to Michigan, and he loved it. I don't want to memorialize him. I want to honor him because he actually left the weed movement for a long time. He disappeared. He had nothing to do with it. And once he came back into the fold, as some people say, he worked as hard as he could. I can guarantee you. Jamie was never told no. And he called up and said, "Hey, I need you to come meet with this politician," or "We're going to go drive wherever, and I need you to do that." You know, he was that kind of guy. So, to me, I knew he wasn't going to be there. I'd been preparing to honor him at the event. He had been like a father to me. My father had passed about 20 some years ago, and John would have been his age, and they were family. And I've heard from people all over the world that knew that we were more than just business partners. We were good friends. And he respected me. He called me his merch guru.

David Fair: And you wear that with a badge of honor?

Adam Brook: Oh, yeah! I could tell him what to do, and he'd do it. I'd tell him I didn't think something was a good idea, and he wouldn't do it.

Jamie Lowell: He was comfortable with you representing him.

Adam Brook: Yeah. I could speak for him and know that I could go back to him and tell him what I said. But I also convinced him that he wasn't worth listening to for $100 a night. Maybe $1000 or $1200, but for 100 bucks a night, you're going to go do that? Uh-uh.

David Fair: I know this is a most difficult time for both of you, so I am particularly grateful you would take the time to come in and talk about your friend and share some stories with us. Collectively, we're all very sorry for your loss.

Adam Brook: I appreciate that.

Jamie Lowell: Thank you very much.

David Fair: That is Hash Bash organizer Jamie Lowell and Hash Bash legend Adam Brook, providing a personal and deeper insight into poet, activist, icon, and, obviously, dear and loyal friend John Sinclair. He passed away at the age of 82. John Sinclair and a host of other cannabis activists, who have passed in the last year, will be remembered and honored at the 52nd annual Hash Bash. It gets underway at noon Saturday on the University of Michigan's Central Campus diag. For more information, pay a visit to our website at wemu.org. We'll get you linked up everywhere you need to go. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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