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Still fomenting a blues revolution

John Sinclair remains true to the MC5 while paying homage to artists who shaped his youth.

February 12, 2003|Natalie Nichols | Special to The Times

If what goes around really does come around, then John Sinclair has just about gone full circle.

The former counterculture icon moves back and forth in front of the microphone on the crowded, tiny stage at the Baked Potato nightclub in North Hollywood. He's sitting in with the band of his old pal Wayne Kramer, former guitarist for Detroit underground rockers the MC5, whom Sinclair managed in the late 1960s when they were the "house band" of his radical White Panther Party, a sort of Black Panthers auxiliary for hippies.

But at this moment, Sinclair, 61, isn't inciting the packed house to "kick out the jams." He is reciting pieces from his book "Fattening Frogs for Snakes," a homage to Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and other blues musicians he idolized as a small-town Michigan teenager.

Exaggerating his deep bass voice, Sinclair intones, "This is the Delta sound," bringing to life the artists who shaped the blues -- music at once so ubiquitous that beer companies apparently can't make commercials without it yet so obscure that most people barely know the names of its innovators.

Early exposure to the blues inspired Sinclair's lifelong interest in black culture and an empathy for the downtrodden, which eventually led him to the counterculture. He found kindred spirits in the MC5, whose loud, fast songs portended punk while providing the soundtrack for the burgeoning youth movement in Ann Arbor, Mich.

In 1969, Sinclair received a maximum 10-year sentence for passing a small amount of marijuana to an undercover agent. His plight galvanized drug law protesters, inspiring a song by John Lennon and a 1972 benefit featuring the ex-Beatle and other sympathizers.

Released after the sentence was overturned that year, Sinclair parted ways with the MC5 and, exercising his belief that it's a political act for a white man to promote black music, organized the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, wrote album liner notes and articles and taught blues courses at Wayne State University. After moving to New Orleans in 1991, he became a radio DJ and released several collections of blues- and jazz-oriented spoken word.

In the companion book to "Fattening Frogs for Snakes," verses sit starkly on the page, blending history from Robert Palmer's landmark tome "Deep Blues," quotes from the artists and Sinclair's own observations.

"It's the blues aesthetic, to take something that was done before and do it your way, make it your composition," says Sinclair, in town for a series of shows that concludes Friday at Silver Lake's Salvation Theatre.

Eating lunch at a Hollywood coffee house, Sinclair looks like a comfortable combination of scholarly Beat elder statesman and slightly-surprised-to-have-made-it-this-far grandpa (he's married, with four kids and three grandchildren). He's still passionate but also well-mannered and easygoing.

"I hate to characterize myself as being on a mission, because, really, I'm trying to express myself," he says. He hopes "Frogs" will pique listeners' interest in blues history and in "what down-to-earth people these artists were. When you think of regular people making great works of art, it really gives you a bigger appreciation of it."

While Sinclair is still staunchly left-wing when discussing pot legalization, impending war and socioeconomic troubles, he doesn't seem as bent on fostering revolution as he was 30 years ago.

But one cause that still gets his juices flowing is recognition for the MC5, whose first two albums, 1969's "Kick Out the Jams" and 1970's "Back in the USA" have influenced punk from the '70s through such current "garage revivalists" as Detroit's Dirtbombs and Sweden's (International) Noise Conspiracy.

"Everybody in the record industry hated us, and they still do," he says. "That's why they won't get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I was amazed they were nominated [last] year."

Although die-hards were appalled when teen-pop star Justin Timberlake sported a T-shirt bearing the MC5's winged-panther logo on the cover of Vibe magazine, Sinclair thinks it was a good thing. Rather than feeling artistically co-opted by the European clothing line that offered the shirt and other MC5-themed attire, Sinclair was upset that he and band members didn't receive any money from it.

"I mean, are we supposed to starve forever?" he asks softly, rhetorically. "Didn't we pay enough already?"

*

John Sinclair

Where: Salvation Theatre, 1519 Griffith Park Blvd., Silver Lake

When: 9 p.m. Friday

Price: $10

Info: (323) 662-6221

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