Back in the Day: An Abbreviated Memoir of Ann Arbor 1968 - 1975
By John Sinclair
I missed most of the sixties in Ann Arbor. I attended Albion College in 1959-61, went back to Flint and graduated from the UM-Flint College in 1964, then moved to Detroit for graduate studies in American Literature at Wayne State University. I decided on Wayne instead of Ann Arbor because I was already committed to pursuing life as an urban bohemian and that was where the jazz was at, and the reefer smokers who congregated around the musicians, and the poets and the painters in the big city.
But Ann Arbor was a beacon of intelligence and art and resistance in those early days of the American Awakening. Bob Marshall’s Bookshop was the only place in Michigan where you could find City Lights Books by Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso. The Dramatic Arts Center was fostering art action and rampant creativity centered on the work of world-class residents like Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma, and director Ann Wehrer.
George Manupelli was making films and pioneering the Ann Arbor Film Festival. Ann Arbor police shut down a screening of Flaming Creatures. Bob Dylan played a solo concert to a packed house at Pioneer High School. Guys like George Frayne, Bill Kirchen, Robert Scheff, Michael & Danny Erlewine, Jim “Iggy” Osterberg, Steve Mackay and Ron Miller were forming bands like Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, the Prime Movers, Seventh Seal and Carnal Kitchen.
Bob James was the resident UM jazz pianist with Robert Pozar on Flat-Jack drums. Ron Brooks was conducting great jam sessions every Sunday afternoon at a hall on the near west side. Pat Olesko was gestating her brilliant performance art in her apartment above the Blue Front on Packard. Eric Dolphy played a rare concert with the Bob James Trio for the DAC. There were poetry readings and concerts of folk music and a thriving local rock & roll scene with bands like the Rationals, the Bob Seger System and the Scot Richard Case playing at Mother’s and the 5-D for fledgling promoters Peter Andrews and Jeep Holland with his A-Square Record label.
While Detroit was burning during the Summer of Love in 1967, the emerging hippie colony in Ann Arbor began staging free concerts in West Park on Sunday afternoons for a few hundred kindred spirits. A guy like Michael McClatchey would get a permit from the city for $10 to use the bandshell and the municipal electricity, and the bands played for free.
A bunch of us would drive over from Detroit to groove in the park on Sundays, and at the end of the season we brought the Grateful Dead from their gig at the Grande Ballroom (on their first American tour) to play for the people of Ann Arbor. At one point they asked the crowd to throw them something they could stand on in their bare feet, and someone tossed up an American flag.
Nothing was made of it at the time, but this innocent utilitarian act—witnessed by city coppers who were “observing” the action from the rim of the amphitheatre—reverberated through the corridors of City Hall and resulted in the enactment of an ordinance during the winter that barred electrified music from the parks and public places of Ann Arbor.
It was exactly at this point that the Trans-Love Energies commune of Detroit which I headed pulled up its stakes in the neighborhood around Wayne State University and moved en masse to a big house at 1510 Hill Street, just off the corner of Washtenaw.
I can’t say exactly how many of us there were when we decamped from the Motor City in May 1968, but our ranks included the members of bands called the Up and the MC-5 and their road crews, the Pisces Eyes Light Show that illuminated the Grande Ballroom every weekend, the Sun underground newspaper (then appearing only in mimeograph form), the brilliant poster artist Gary Grimshaw and equally brilliant photographer Leni Sinclair, the poets David and John Sinclair, and the Trans-Love Productions management and production outfit that coordinated all these disparate activities.
After we had unpacked, set up our mimeograph and silk-screen printing operations, created an underground workspace in the basement and a rehearsal studio in the garage, and began to acclimate ourselves to our new surroundings, it was getting close to June—time for the free concerts in West Park to start for the summer. We were excited about being part of the fun this year and wanted to bring as much as we could to the party, starting with the MC-5.
Then known only to the denizens of the Grande Ballroom and selected dance halls and teen clubs around Detroit and in outstate cities like East Lansing and Benton Harbor, the MC-5 was just beginning to come together as a powerful musical force with a devastating stage show and a repertoire that combined modern classics by James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, John Lee Hooker and Screaming Jay Hawkins with stunning original numbers composed by lead singer Rob Tyner with guitarists Wayne Kramer and Fred Smith, bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson.
The MC-5’s regional popularity would explode in the summer of 1968, starting with their on-stage destruction of Cream at the Grande Ballroom and their triumphant appearance at the Saugatuck Pop Festival, and culminating in their defiant set in Chicago’s Lincoln Park during the Festival of Life outside the Democratic National Convention which inspired a rave notice from Norman Mailer. The band would be signed to a contract with Elektra Records in September immediately following an electrifying performance for a Draft Resistance benefit at the Union Ballroom that also resulted in Elektra’s inking of the unique Ann Arbor ensemble called the Psychedelic Stooges, who had opened for the 5.
But in the middle of May the MC-5 was enjoying its first Ann Arbor spring and working hard in the practice room every day to improve its output while playing regular gigs at the Grande and elsewhere on the weekends. The band members wanted to integrate themselves into the immediate community and looked forward to playing in the park to kick off the 1968 free concert season. So I sent Ron Levine from our road crew to City Hall to put down our $10 and reserve the West Park bandshell for a Sunday afternoon in early June.
We were getting ready to mimeograph off the first issue of the Ann Arbor Sun when Levine came back with the mind-boggling news that electric music had been nixed from the parks in the off-season. A cursory investigation and some questioning of city officials yielded no solution, so we went about staging our own bootleg show at the West Park picnic pavilion, renting a generator for $8 and buying a gallon of gas for 50¢ and setting up the MC-5 to play for whoever would brave the authorities to receive the gift of free music in the park on Sunday afternoon—permit be damned.
This renegade concert set off a long chain of repercussions that started with meetings and negotiations with police representative Lt. Eugene Staudemire, the reluctant granting of an experimental permitted concert in the bandshell by the MC-5 and the Tate Blues Band, the on-stage shredding of an American flag suit by Terry Tate and the naked conclusion of his set followed by Rob Tyner leading the crowd in chanting “Kick Out The James, Motherfucker,” followed by the revocation of any further West Park concerts, continuing negotiations concerning an acceptable venue for the Sunday gatherings, the staging of shows in the Fuller Flatlands and finally an established series of free concerts on the bank of the Huron River in the old Gallup Park on the outskirts of town.
Our protracted struggle for the right to play for free in the parks of Ann Arbor provided Trans-Love’s introduction to effective political action by the city’s hip community and added another dimension to our communal life that would manifest itself in the White Panthers (November 1968), the Rainbow People’s Party (Spring 1971), and eventually the Human Rights Party, which elected two radicals to the Ann Arbor City Council in the spring of 1972 and effected—among other good things—the enactment of the $5 fine for marijuana violations in the city.
Our underground newspaper, the Ann Arbor Sun, ultimately morphed into a bi-weekly underground tabloid that both reflected and helped shape our cultural and political agenda, covering the battles against local government and bringing news of similar activities and concerns of people like ourselves around the country and the world. But first we joined with an 18-year-old crusader called Ken Kelley to help his little gang produce the Ann Arbor Argus during its flamboyant run as the city’s underground paper.
Meanwhile the MC-5 had continued to build its popular base, signed with Elektra and recorded its first album “live” at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit on October 30-31, 1968. The next day the band, its comrades at Trans-Love Energies and assorted local associates announced the formation of a somewhat bizarre radical political entity called the White Panther Party.
Born out of our collective fervor to offer support by white youth to the severely besieged Black Panther Party and our burning desire to place the MC-5 in the emerging pop music marketplace as an oppositional force dedicated to a greater goal than simply amassing money and fame, the White Panthers blazed an erratic course on the national plane for just about six months before the band concluded that its revolutionary efforts were bound to be in vain and resigned from the Party and the movement itself in June of 1969.
This sad development followed on the heels of the Party’s emergence as an actual political force in the immediate community during the course of what became known as the South University Riots, a boisterous clash just off campus between a mob of hippie insurgents and the county police led by Sheriff Doug Harvey, where many felt the forces of law and order had been routed and the people in charge of the social order perhaps moved to give serious consideration to the concerns of the burgeoning alternative culture in Ann Arbor.
In the wake of the riots the Party issued a detailed White Panther Report on the disturbance and outlined a course of action that called for community control of our emergent culture and the development of alternative institutions designed to serve our peculiar needs. This document would go on to serve as a sort of blueprint for the way a lot of things developed in Ann Arbor in the early 1970s, and its publication and wide dissemination as a mimeographed tract marked a new high point for the WPP.
Not long after the South U Riots my own life in Ann Arbor took two heavy blows when I was discharged by the MC-5 as their manager as part of their severance from Trans-Love and the White Panther Party, and when a month later I was ordered to stand trial in Detroit Recorders Court on a marijuana charge that dated back to January 1967. I had challenged the constitutionality of the state’s draconian drug laws for two and a half years on a pre-trial basis while remaining free on bond, arguing that marijuana was not a narcotic and ten years in prison for possession of two joints constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
The courts ruled that a constitutional challenge could be heard only on appeal of a conviction under the present law, so I took a conviction in Recorders Court at the end of July 1969 and was promptly sentenced to 9-1/2 to 10 years in prison, even though my legal challenge was eventually successful in the Michigan Supreme Court, my conviction overturned and the law declared unconstitutional in March 1972.
But I was incarcerated without appeal bond as a maximum security prisoner in Marquette and then Jackson Prison from July 28, 1969 to December 13, 1971, when my appeal bond was finally granted and I returned to Ann Arbor after 29 endless months in exile. I missed everything that happened from Woodstock to the John Sinclair Freedom Rally, although I followed Ann Arbor, Detroit, national and international events as closely as I could manage from my prison cell.
I kept in close contact with the progress of the White Panther Party through regular visits from my wife Leni and brother David, both members of the party’s central committee, and by means of my daily correspondence with them and other members of the organization which amounted to about seven single-spaced typewritten pages each day of the week.
Since I had nothing else to do in the evenings except bang at my electric typewriter, I was able to insert myself into the workings of the organization and participate substantially in the shaping of the Party’s policy, strategy and tactics in the course of its efforts to gain my release and carry out the objectives of the Party in actual practice—in Ann Arbor and in the world at large.
While I was imprisoned the Party and its many allies in the community never let up in their strenuous efforts to spring me. I think you’d have to get the whole story from the comrades who made up the central committee and the rest of the Party, but from my perspective they were relentless in their pursuit of my freedom. Posters, banners, newspaper layouts, everywhere possible they shouted “Free John Now” and organized rallies, benefits, dances and all sorts of cultural events to raise money for my legal costs on appeal and enlist the music-loving masses in my cause.
This incredible and unprecedented campaign ended in success with the staging of the massive john Sinclair Freedom Rally on December 10, 1971 when 15,000 highly visible supporters gathered at Crisler Arena to join John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Stevie Wonder, Black Panther Party Chairman Bobby Seale, Allen Ginsberg, Phil Ochs, Jerry Rubin, Bob Seger, Archie Shepp and a legion of additional musicians and speakers in demanding my release from prison.
That was Friday night. On Monday morning my lawyers informed me that I would be released on appeal bond by the end of the day, and at 8:30 pm I stepped out from behind the iron bars and into the arms of my family and friends. I went straight back to Ann Arbor and tried to pick up my life from the point where it had abruptly ended two and a half years before.
I returned to Ann Arbor as Chairman of the Rainbow People’s Party and did everything I could to maximize the positive Impact from the Freedom Rally and my immediate release from prison that still resounded throughout the city and the state of Michigan. I spent the next three years entirely engaged in the work of the RPP in its many disparate activities, working like a mule for two solid years in the service of my hopes, dreams and visions for Ann Arbor and the planet at large until I suffered a physical and mental breakdown early in 1974 and, quite frankly, started looking for a way out of the commitments I had made to myself and to the struggle.
But what a two years! When I went to prison at the end of July 1969, Woodstock was a month away and the Ann Arbor Blues Festival was on the immediate horizon. What we called the alternative culture was about the size of a microdot then: A huge gathering of hippies in Ann Arbor would amount to about 1,000 people at a free concert in the park on a Sunday afternoon in the summertime, or about 1% of the local student-and-townie population.
Fulltime hippies—young men and women who were neither students nor held a job, who smoked dope and dropped acid, dug and danced and conducted their lives to rock & roll, opposed the war and despised the consumer society with all their might—comprised an even smaller minority, sticking out like sore thumbs among the 35,000 UM students and operating culturally well to the left of even the most rabidly oppositional of the student anti-war and civil-rights activists.
Hippies were people who lived their beliefs and attempted always to put their ideas and visions into practice in their daily lives. With little or no visible means of support, we lived together in big houses where eight or 12 people had to scuffle up only one rent payment every month and pay one utility bill. One beat-up car would suffice for several drivers, and gas was less than 50¢ a gallon. We wore our raggedy Levis and T-shirts and cowboy boots until they fell apart, or tarted them up with garish fabrics and hand-drawn designs to turn them into stage clothes for gigs or just flamboyant street wear.
For the hippie bands and writers and poets and artists there was always the dream of recognition and compensation, but the reality was that record contracts, book deals and even paid journalism assignments were well beyond the reach of most of us. Bands played gigs in teen clubs and school gymnasiums for next to nothing—during their period of ascendancy in 1967-68, the MC-5 earned $125 a night at the Grande Ballroom—and poets and writers like myself mimeographed up our own books and wrote for underground newspapers without a shred of muneration.
But none of us were in it for the money—we lived to express ourselves and put our thoughts and feelings into action the best we could, and we devised our own forms of public amusement like free concerts and little dances and benefits for community causes because we wanted to help bring people together and share with them the results of our creative endeavors whether they had any money or not. One could always join in with the enterprise of the moment and barter work and individual services for the price of entry to just about any activity that attracted one’s interest.
From my own point of view, the most progressive forms of social organization were built on the communal model, achieving a sort of primitive communism—or what the Black Panther Party began to call “communalism”—in which people gave whatever they had to make their collective aims come true and got back every bit of the energy they had contributed to the effort in the coin of accomplishment and satisfaction.
It was this miniscule community of full-time hippies living in communes and de facto collectives in Ann Arbor during the second half of the 1960s that provided the structural underpinning for the counter-cultural movement that would blossom in the city over the next few years.
This movement exploded nationally and internationally, and particularly in campus communities like Ann Arbor, after the Woodstock Music & Art Fair of August 1969 revealed the existence of at least half a million music-crazed, dope-smoking, sexually-charged, long-haired human youths who posited a way of life and a whole world outlook that had evolved in contradistinction to the mainstream paradigm, and who were obviously having a natural ball in pursuit of their ideals.
Over the next two and a half years, while I remained confined in a series of prison cells in Michigan, millions of youths all over America and the entire western world adopted the Woodstockian template and took on the trappings and—to the best of their comprehension—the social outlook of the hippies. America’s college campuses began to resemble hirsute hippie enclaves where the new unisex youth uniform of jeans and T-shirts was replacing the khakis and skirts and sweaters of the immediate past.
The anti-war movement swelled to incorporate millions of students over the next five years until it forced the end of the War in Vietnam. Richard M. Nixon—or “that goddamn Nixon” as we knew him—undertook the construction of a permanent mechanism of repression directed against hippies and African Americans under the guise of the War On Drugs and Operation Cointelpro until he was tripped up by his own chicanery and forced out of office in 1974.
The counter-cultural movement boomed in vigorous and joyous opposition to the world of what Nixon called the Silent Majority. In Ann Arbor the transformation was stunning. I’d been following what was happening in the outside world as closely as I could from my unfortunate vantage point, and I’d carried on a voluminous correspondence with my comrades in the White Panther Party in our common commitment to trying to understand, analyze, and hopefully help direct what was happening among the youths we thought of as “our people.”
The long struggle for understanding within the central committee of the WPP during 1970-71 culminated in the summer of 1971 with the dissolution of the White Panthers as a semi-coherent national organization and our reconstitution as something called the Rainbow Peoples Party that committed itself to organizing in the local community around local issues.
Building on our struggles around free music in the parks, marijuana legalization, and the South University Riots, the RPP even began to participate in local government—David Sinclair was a charter member of the Cable Commission that shepherded cable television into modern life, and he and Genie Plamondon ran highly visible campaigns for City Council under the aegis of the Human Rights Party.
During this period the WPP had three key members in prison on various charges, where Pun Plamondon, Skip Taube and myself had the unique opportunity to think, study, plot and scheme with no practical distractions except trying to figure out how to get ourselves out of stir. We read the standard revolutionary texts of Marx and Lenin and Mao Tse-tung and tried to apply what we were reading to the situation in America and the future of what we called the “youth colony.”
Our idea was to exhaust all the possibilities of democratic struggle as had been proposed by V.I. Lenin, develop a “revolutionary base area” in Ann Arbor and Michigan that was inspired by Mao Tse-tung, and create an alternative social structure based on informed consensus, communal action, and the creation of alternative businesses and institutions that would make us capable of controlling our own communal destiny—and eventually to win the sympathy and participation of the entire community.
This was all well and good within the confines of one’s prison cell, but my sudden release from confinement propelled me into the actual street-level reality of a community where hippies and a generally sympathetic student body now made up almost half of the population and seemed eager for substantive social change right there and then.
The day after I came home from Jackson Prison the University of Michigan was presenting the first of two nights with the Grateful Dead in Hill Auditorium, produced by Peter Andrews—who had spearheaded the John Sinclair Freedom Rally from his post as Director of Major Events for the university—and heralded by a poster created by RPP artist and central committee member Gary Grimshaw.
Peter brought me to the concert and my mind was totally blown by the sights and sounds of this once-staid auditorium in the middle of the UM campus, just a couple of blocks away from the site of the South U disturbances of 1969, now packed with about 4,000 hippies smoking dope, dancing in the aisles, and grooving to the Dead, This was beyond my wildest dreams, and I couldn’t wait to leap into action in the middle of all this creative cultural ferment.
It’s probably impossible to convey the full sense of the world I entered into upon my return to Ann Arbor, but I came home to rejoin a communal household now comprising 30+ adults and three children in an elaborate compound including two huge houses and a carriage house just across Washtenaw Avenue from a posh section of town and situated in the middle of a fraternity row—the dental fraternity was next door, and the big campus message rock was painted over daily just across the street.
My wife Leni, a member of the RPP central committee, had kept me in close touch with the happenings there through regular visits and long correspondence, and my brother David, serving as Chief of Staff, managed the sprawling affairs of the Rainbow complex and kept me informed on every front. My daughter Sunny had been two years old when I was dragged off to prison, and my wife had been pregnant with our second child. Now Sunny was 4-1/2 and Celia Sanchez Mao Sinclair was two. The third child was Una Bach, two-year-old daughter of Up lead singer and RPP Minister of Culture Frank Bach and his estranged wife, Bonnie Bach.
The life and activities of the Rainbow Peoples Party were coordinated by a Central Committee composed of founding members of the White Panther Party—Pun Plamondon, Skip Taube, Frank Bach, Peggy Taube, Gary Grimshaw, Genie Plamondon, David Sinclair, Leni Sinclair, this writer—and people like David Fenton, who had come from New York City to join us.
Pause: If I’ve left anyone out, or misstated dates or other information, I’m writing this without reference to prior documentation, it was 40 years ago, and I’m sorry for any possible imprecision.
The CC coordinated the work of the other 20 or so party members, all of whom lived together at the RPP complex as participants in a communal economic system that directed all incoming funds from the Party’s various hustles into the hands of the Chief of Staff, who dispersed them as circumstances dictated in order to keep everything going.
The houses had first been rented and then purchased on a land contract with the $5.000 advance for my book Guitar Army serving as the downstroke while I was still in prison. The compound was then the property of the First Zenta Church of Ann Arbor, an non-profit ecclesiastical corporation chartered by the State of Michigan that we had established as the religious wing of the Party, upholding and preserving our holy sacraments—marijuana, hashish, peyote, mescaline, LSD and other psychedelic substances—and taking full advantage of the massive tax exemptions provided for churches of every sort.
Prudence dictated that the party members must live together in the Hill Street commune: The economics were manageable, with one house payment monthly instead of 20 or 30 individual rents; it was extremely difficult for hostile forces to infiltrate the organization because they would be inundated on a minute-to-minute basis with the outlaw culture of the communards; and it was then possible for the Chief of Staff to keep tabs on everyone and everything that was being done in the name of the RPP.
Party members each had (or shared) a room of their own. They were fed from the communal kitchen, from food supplies purchased in bulk as cheaply as possible and prepared by the residents on a carefully scheduled basis. There were several cars and vans attached to the compound that were shared and checked out as needed.
In fact, all of the outfit’s activities, internal and external, were organized by the central committee and scheduled on charts that specified who would be answering the telephone and greeting visitors (Officer of the Day), cooking, child-caring, cleaning, maintaining the physical premises, editing, writing, designing and laying out the newspaper, creating posters and flyers, working the printing and silk-screening equipment, on assignment to particular objectives in the community and with other alternative organizations, distributing newspapers, playing gigs, repairing instruments, amps and other band equipment, using for a specific task or repairing the communal vehicles—everything except getting high, fucking, and listening to music, which were spontaneous and continuous.
For about three dozen dope-crazed hippies the Rainbow People’s Party and its human tentacles made a significant impact on the Ann Arbor community of 100,000 citizens, of whom about 38,000 were students and 2,000 were full-time denizens of the alterative culture. The latter included the many bands and their families and crews who were then based in Ann Arbor and an inordinate number of marijuana growers, importers, procurers, wholesalers and street-level dealers who found the little city a relatively safe haven for smokers and their suppliers thanks to the ceaseless efforts—and considerable victories—of the RPP in the struggle to legalize marijuana.
One of the basic precepts of the RPP was the necessity of developing and working with what we called “united-front organizations” to accomplish our goals. The Tribal Council was the ultimate local manifestation of the united-front concept: an attempt to form a coordinating council for the alternative community based in what we understood of Native American culture, sort of a hippie version of the longhouse of the Senecas or the Odawas where individual and tribal concerns were addressed through open and often protracted discussion among equals until they could be resolved by consensus.
Tribal Council was proposed as a way to bring together, support and coordinate disparate emerging community organizations like the Free People’s Clinic, Drug Help, Ozone House (for runaways), the People’s Food Cooperative, the Children’s Community School, and a scattering of eco-businesses committed to the ideas and visions of the alternative culture.
Working groups called People’s Committees were formed under the aegis of the Tribal Council to handle various community initiatives. I can’t call all of them to mind but there was the People’s Communications Committee that developed live broadcasts of music from the parks and other local venues that were carried on WNRZ-FM, and the People’s Parks Committee (or whatever it was called) that produced the free concerts in the parks that featured four bands every Sunday afternoon for 12 weeks in the summertime.
One of our proudest achievements grew out of the parks program and resulted in the construction of a People’s Ballroom on West Washington Street. This was a facility designed and built within a former Cadillac dealership by the people who made the music and their associated technicians and other music-lovers who volunteered their work to transform the building into a dance hall with professional staging, sound and lights that would feature bands from the community and see that they were appropriately compensated.
Another pinnacle of accomplishment was the Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival, a world-class musical presentation which took place on the grounds next to Huron High School that we had christened Otis Spann Memorial Field in tribute to Muddy Waters’ pianist and half-brother who had recently passed away. The 1972 AABJF featured Miles Davis, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, he Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sun Ra & His Arkestra, Freddie King, Luther Allison, Otis Rush and a host of other blues and jazz stars and relative unknowns who played over three days for an audience of 12,000.
The 1973 festival brought Charles Mingus, Leon Thomas, Ray Charles & the Raelettes, the Count Basie Orchestra, Jimmy Reed, Ornette Coleman, Yusef Lateef, John Lee Hooker, Roosevelt Sykes, Victoria Spivey, the Johnny Otis Show and many others to Ann Arbor and introduced them to crowds of up to 18.000 people. The entire festival was broadcast live in its entirety over a National Public Radio network of 96 stations—NPR’s first major festival transmission.
The Blues & Jazz Festivals were produced by another RPP offshoot, the Rainbow Multi-Media Corporation. RMMC was formed by David Sinclair and myself with our friend Peter Andrews, who had masterminded the Crisler Arena rally that got me out of prison. It was organized as a non-profit corporation to reflect our belief that our work should be done to the benefit of the community and not for profit to ourselves.
The Blues & Jazz Festival was a division of RMMC; other divisions included our artists management and concert production arm, Rainbow Productions; our professional sound system, Energy Sound; and the Rainbow Press, operating in the basement of the blues bar called the Blind Pig where the late Sam Smith and his co-workers made it possible for us to produce all our own printed material for all the Rainbow activities at minimal cost.
It occurs to me that this period can be studied in all its endless details in the pages of the Ann Arbor Sun, now completely digitized and available on-line through the auspices of the Ann Arbor District Library. The Sun had its roots in the paper we’d published as Trans-Love Energies and in the Ann Arbor Argus, Ken Kelley’s tabloid that had served as the White Panther party organ until Kelley decamped for San Francisco to start the national White Panther newspaper, SunDance.
The RPP felt it was essential that we publish our own tabloid newspaper to function as an official party organ in terms of advancing the “party line” in all matters and strive at the same time to serve the alternative community as a whole, with news, music and cultural coverage and commentary of interest to hippies, students and other citizens.
So we had a newspaper, a print shop, a sound and staging operation, a production company, several bands under our management, and a cadre of 30+ people who worked in these undertakings and also participated in the workings of the community organizations that made up the Tribal Council. We had a radio show on WNRZ-FM and then on the campus station, WCBN. We could put on our concerts and dances, broadcast them live, record our music and shop it to record companies in New York and Los Angeles. We were able to control the means of production necessary to our many activities and integrate our considerable resources into the community at large.
This worked for about three years, from the beginning of 1972 through the end of 1974, before a combination of unanticipated failures on our own part and a massive weather change nationally, from revolution to reaction after the deposition of Richard Nixon and the end of the War In Vietnam, brought the forward motion of the Ann Arbor alternative community to a sudden halt.
First the People’s Ballroom was burned down by a disgruntled kid with a grudge. Then, after a wildly successful second edition in September 1973, the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival was undermined and destroyed when a felonious crew chief who had been entrusted with the cash for the payroll of the many workers on the grounds of the festival absconded with the money—something like $20,000—and lost it all in a failed dope deal.
I don’t know who was aware of this extraordinary occurrence at the time, but neither my brother David nor myself nor else anyone in the RPP had any idea of what had happened or why the people working in the grounds crew for the duration of the festival (and, in many cases, for an even longer period) had refused to clean up the site after the event.
But reasonably enough, when no pay was forthcoming for their days of toil, the large crew of hippies who had been hired to work the site quit on the spot and the mess festered for some long days until a volunteer crew could be organized to restore the site to normalcy.
This ugly development turned a significant sector of the community against anything with Rainbow in it from that point on, and the most horrible part was that we had no idea what had caused the problem—and wouldn’t know what had happened for the next 20 years. Even worse, the City of Ann Arbor was enabled by this lapse in our contractual responsibility with respect to the Blues & Jazz Festival to deny us a permit for the 1974 event and drive the festival out of Ann Arbor —and subsequently out of business.
But worst of all was the destruction from within of the Human Rights Party at the height of its success as a radical electoral party that had won two seats on the Ann Arbor City Council and wielded political power in the local community in a whole new way. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans on the seven-member council could form a majority and thus were forced to deal with the two HRP councilpersons in order to pass any of their initiatives—even a fundamental city budget.
Outwardly strong but internally shaky, the HRP comprised an uneasy alliance of three roughly equal factions: the Rainbow people, organized into the electoral group by the RPP; the campus radicals, dominated by a group called the International Socialist Party; and a centrist group that called itself the Militant Middle, made up of former Democrats, unaffiliated campus leftists and what we called progressive community elements.
As the HRP proved itself in the city elections and began to play an active role in determining the direction of local government in Ann Arbor, the contradictions among the three factions sharpened and internal conflict ensued. Looking forward to the Washtenaw County elections where the sheriff’s office held by the hated Doug Harvey would be up for a vote, the RPP was dead set on fighting for and winning this key post and actually wresting control over the power of arrest from Harvey to place it in the hands of the people.
The RPP’s first concern had been to remove the power of arrest for marijuana offenses from the hands of the city police, and the HRP made it happen when the City Council was moved to pass an ordinance—known simply as “the $5 fine”—that would make marijuana law enforcement the lowest possible local police priority, bar the arrest of marijuana offenders and instead mandate the issuance of a ticket that would result in a maximum penalty of $5.00.
But for the RPP, control of the sheriff’s office was an even bigger issue. The sheriff directed a county-wide armed force that made life miserable for the people at the lower end of the socio-economic scale, particularly black people, hippies, and what they called “poor white people.” The sheriff enforced the laws and dispensed economic justice in the service of what we called the ruling class, and we thought this potent police agency could actually be turned against certain interests of the ruling class if the right sort of people were in charge.
The RPP had been recruited into the fledgling Human Rights Party early in 1972 by a close friend of Ken Kelley’s named Howard Kohn, a brilliant journalist with the Detroit Free Press and cover-story contributor to Rolling Stone who was among the organizers of the Ann Arbor branch of the HRP. The Michigan Human Rights Party was headed by the great former Democratic Party leader and ex-Lt. Governor Zoltan Ferenczy and represented a deeply serious commitment to creating a third-party alternative to the Democrats and Republicans from the left-wing side.
As the most progressive community in the state of Michigan, Ann Arbor was fertile ground for the HRP, and the Rainbow People’s Party was targeted as an important local ally. Howard Kohn came over to Hill Street to pitch the RPP Central Committee on the mutual benefits to be gained from an immediate alliance. The HRP would gain credibility with the burgeoning hippie community, its activities would be regularly publicized in the pages of the Ann Arbor Sun, it would back the RPP in mounting an effective voter registration campaign and turn its support into votes.
In return, the RPP would insure a voice for its constituency in the councils of the HRP and, if the HRP proved effective, in the mainstream political process: arguing its positions within the HRP, participating in the shaping of public policy, having an effect on the language, intent and implementation of local laws.
We were moved by Kohn’s reasoning and completely won over by his personal enthusiasm for getting rid of Doug Harvey by electing an HRP candidate to the sheriff’s office: Howard Kohn himself. Kohn had been covering the narcotics trial of several rogue 10th Precinct officers of the Detroit Police Department and peered deeply into the abyss of police corruption and selective repression of the citizenry. He seemed to understand how the police should properly function as a force in the community for justice and progress, and we wanted him as our sheriff.
So the RPP joined with the campus socialists and the independent activists
and an effective party organization was soon ready to contend for office in the April 1972 elections. The HRP ran a full slate—including RPP leader Genie Plamondon as a candidate for the unwinnable Third Ward—and captured two seats on the City Council in the persons of ISP members Nancy Wechsler and Jerry DeGriek. They effectively inserted the HRP program into the center of city government and began to effect change in the way things were done, including the passage of the $5 marijuana law.
But when the county elections began to loom on the immediate horizon, the HRP leadership wasn’t so sure that the party was ready to attempt to take on the powers and law-enforcement responsibilities of the sheriff’s office. For me, this represented the worst sort of wishy-washy Democratic-Party liberalism and campus debating-society radicalism, and I got so angry over what I considered a serious betrayal that I completely lost my sense of perspective and, once we were voted down on the question of campaigning seriously for sheriff, as Chairman of the RPP I led the Rainbow faction in walking out of the HRP en masse. This was one of the stupidest and ugliest things I’ve ever done in my life and I deeply regret it to this day.
But the damage was done. I had led our righteous constituency into an untenable position and basically destroyed our effectiveness as players in the local political arena. The city government was then able to deny our application for a permit to hold the 1974 Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival on the festival grounds adjacent to Huron High School and, having committed to a slate of artists headed by the James Brown Revue and the Sun Ra Arkestra—my personal dream show of all time—we made the idiotic decision to accept the invitation of tiny St. Clair College in Windsor, Ontario, to move the 1974 Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival to Canada.
We suffered another crippling blow in the months leading up to the 1974 festival when a massive record production deal with RCA Records engineered by Peter Andrews and myself and our New York attorney, David Lubell, fell through on the day before it was to be signed when the president of RCA, Rocco Laginestra, was discharged from office for some sort of corrupt behavior and all of his pending deals placed on permanent hold.
The 1972 Festival had been recorded and a double-LP released by Atlantic Records. In 1973 Rainbow Multi-Media enjoyed the control of a 16-track mobile recording unit and decided to record and produce a series of albums from the Festival ourselves, confident that we could place them with a major record company.
This outcome proved immediately impossible, but the deal we were cooking up with RCA would have provided for the release of a set of albums from each year’s Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival, all recorded and packaged under our own imprimatur, plus the maintenance of a roster of no less than three bands under our management, starting with the Rockets, Detroit, and the Ann Arbor band called Lightnin’. The advances from this agreement would finance the establishment of our own recording studio—indeed, our own record company—and provide an impressive cash flow into the Rainbow operation for the next five years.
So our Rainbow future, once so bright and rosy, was now turning to shit in front of our eyes. The killer blow came when the City of Ann Arbor ruled against RMM in July and we opted to stage the festival in Canada. RMM set itself upon the daunting task of convincing American music lovers to cross a fiercely-guarded international border with the insane hope of enjoying themselves en masse as they had in the liberated zone of Otis Spann Memorial Field in Ann Arbor, where the producers felt free to guarantee festival attendees “A Rainbow of Music … A Real Good Time.”
There would be a rainbow of music, as promised, but the Windsor gendarmes and their big brothers in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police would do everything within their considerable power to keep people from having the “real good time” they were seeking at the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival in Exile. Advance ticket sales were light, with people seeming to take a wait-and-see attitude toward the thorny issue of crossing the Canadian border, and their worst fears were realized when Canadian border authorities turned back legions of would-be festival-goers on any grounds they could dredge up.
At the festival site, a sparse crowd was harassed by local authorities, who flooded the backstage area and trooped down into the amphitheater itself to snatch up marijuana offenders and other undesirables. The musicians were getting nervous themselves as they looked out at the slim audience and visualized their paychecks floating off into the darkening gloom.
To make matters even worse, this writer—Creative Director of the Festival—was singled out and deported back to Detroit while trying to shepherd Sun Ra and his Arkestra through Canadian customs. The Arkestra went ahead, but I was turned back on the basis of a marijuana conviction ten years earlier and never got to witness first-hand the debacle that ensued in Windsor.
Earlier that summer I had been called to the Shelby Hotel in Detroit by my friend Lyman Woodard, the Hammond B-3 organ player who was leading the hottest working jazz band in Detroit. He alerted me to J.J.’s Lounge in the hotel’s lobby where he and his Organization were playing six nights a week, and to the existence of a large music room elsewhere in the hotel for which the owners were seeking a professional management and production company to turn it into a downtown live music hotspot.
Peter Andrews and I landed the contract for Rainbow Productions to establish and develop the club as the Rainbow Room and began to present blues and jazz stars like Howlin’ Wolf, Hound Dog Taylor & the Houserockers, Charles Mingus, Sun Ra, and Sunnyland Slim four nights a week, interspersed with Detroit and Ann Arbor bands like the Rockets. The Shelby management also provided use of the Skyline Suite on the top floor as our offices, and we were settling in for the very productive fall season set to follow the Blues & Jazz Festival when the shit hit the fan at the border.
Denied entry to Canada while the Sun Ra Arkestra went on to play their show at the festival, I went back to my room in the Shelby Hotel Friday afternoon and watched myself talk to a television news reporter who had covered the impromptu deportation proceedings. As I witnessed the farthest-out group of characters I had ever seen in America being allowed entry into Canada while I was turned back as “too far out,” I was struck hard with the realization that my public persona as dope fiend, ex-convict and virulent revolutionary agitator had now cut me off from participating in the most important event in my career as a music promoter.
This marked a major turning point in my life. Watching myself sputter at the reporter on-screen, I muttered out loud: “You’ve gone too far. It’s time to turn back now.” It was almost too late to recover: the Rainbow Multi-Media Corporation was collapsing into shambles, the Rainbow People’s Party had mostly lost its positive base in the local hippie community, the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival was destroyed, and in the final denouement our flagship band The Rockets, immediately upon completing our long drive back from a week-long gig in Atlanta, called a band meeting to announce that they were through.
I went into prolonged conference with my business lawyer, David Lubell, who directed me for the next several weeks in shutting down Rainbow Multi-Media and its associated operations: the artists’ management division with its several bands, the concert production arm specializing in blues, jazz and rock shows in all sorts of venues, the talent coordination wing that supervised the bookings for various clubs and concert halls, the 16-track mobile recording unit, the concert-size professional sound system, the Rainbow Press and the Rainbow Agency that provided printing, advertising and promotional support for all these activities and more.
Next came the dismantling of the Rainbow People’s Party, now only a shadow of its former robustness. RPP members had been everywhere in Rainbow Multi-Media: running the print shop like Sam Smith, managing the sound system like Craig Blazier, buying and selling ads like Anne Hoover and Kathy Kelly, art directing and making flyers and posters like Gary Grimshaw and Walden Simper, managing bands and supervising event productions like David Sinclair and myself. The RPP also published the Ann Arbor Sun, headed by Party members David Fenton and Linda Ross. Several more members led by Frank Bach made up the band called the Up and its road crew.
In a series of passionate and inordinately lengthy Party meetings I advanced a severe critique of the commitment and practice of the organization and the Party members themselves as exemplified in our work in the community and our loss of support among the people we called our own. Each member was challenged to engage in deep introspection and decide what they really wanted to do, because as Chairman I had absolutely no interest in continuing the charade our work had become.
Finally the Party’s affairs were settled and seven of us decided to move back to Detroit and join the new wave of progressive activism spearheaded by newly-elected Mayor Coleman A. Young, long an ally of the WPP and RPP in our struggles against the state. The Hill Street compound was turned over to the remaining residents. David Fenton and Barbara Weinberg assumed responsibility for publishing the Sun, equipment was sold off or returned, the Up was disbanded, and David Sinclair took upon himself the incredibly strenuous burden of squaring the commune’s debts over the next few years.
I retired from political activism and artist management to take up less grueling pursuits, working in Detroit as an alternative journalist and editor for a couple of years while establishing a small arts consulting business known as Strata Associates that was focused on providing program development, grant-writing and project management services to indigenous jazz artists and community arts organizations.
I had spent the past 10 years as a full-time cultural and political activist in the belief that the revolution was at hand and my comrades were up to the task of making it happen where we lived. But when the movement ousted Richard M. Nixon from his post in the White House and finally brought the War In Vietnam to a shuddering conclusion, all the forward motion of the mass movement for social change stopped as if on a dime and remained in a state of stasis for oh, about the next 30 years.
Me, I went on to embrace the life of a cultural organizer, arts producer, music journalist, columnist, community radio broadcaster and, starting again in 1982, a practicing poet and performer with my own band, the Blues Scholars. During the next 10 years I organized the Detroit Jazz Center, edited the arts magazine of the City of Detroit, directed the City Arts Gallery at the Detroit Council of the Arts, taught the History of Rock & Roll and Blues History in the Music Department at Wayne State University, and hosted a weekly R&B radio show on WDET-FM.
By 1991 my second wife, Penny, and I had steered our four daughters through the Detroit Public School system and promptly moved to New Orleans, where I enjoyed the best 12 years of my life before moving to Amsterdam in 2003 and undertaking the life of an itinerant bard and secular bodhisattva that I continue to enjoy today, in my 70th year.
It’s 40 years now since I was released from prison and I’m a long way from the commune on Hill Street to which I returned, and from the maniacal days of the White Panther Party and our championship of “rock & roll, dope & fucking in the streets” as a viable way of life in America. I wish I could tell you a lot more about those thrilling days of yesterday when Ann Arbor throbbed in the throes of cultural revolution and political struggle, because it was a period incredibly rich with detail and absolutely like no other. But I’m way over my allotted space and it’s time to say goodbye.
Further, affiant sayeth not.
October 30-November 2 >
November 7-16, 2011
© 2011 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.