Even if you've never seen or met John Sinclair, you've probably heard him. Sinclair's raspy, cigarette-coated voice, enthusiastic "YEAHHHH" affirmations and bottom-of-the-well laugh have been a fixture for more than a decade on WWOZ 90.7 FM. His Wednesday New Orleans Music Show program and late-night Saturday Blues and Roots shows are roots-music journeys into soulful material old and new, making him one of the station's most popular disc jockeys. Since moving to New Orleans from his native Detroit 12 years ago, Sinclair's become a local icon through his DJ and emcee work, spoken-word poetry performances, and unrequited love for the New Orleans music scene.
Which makes his imminent move back to the Motor City a shocker.
"It's difficult, because I've had the most wonderful time here, far beyond my most wildest dreams," says Sinclair. "People have been so good to me in every way. But it's no easier for me to make a living here now than it was 12 years ago."
The decision to leave New Orleans comes after a particularly difficult stretch of economic hardship for Sinclair. In 2000, he lost most of his possessions in a house fire, and last year, he lost his job as editor of Blues Access magazine when the publication folded in the midst of the current economic downturn. Compounding matters is the increased marginalization of the independent music industry; Sinclair's steady jobs writing CD liner notes and producing blues and jazz reissues have dried up as record retailers and labels continue to scale back or close up shop.
Most importantly, Sinclair's realistic about his prospects of making a living as a performing poet in New Orleans: "You're competing with people who are far more entertaining than you are, and you're trying to get gigs and it's difficult, but how can you complain? It's a beautiful thing that there's so many incredible musicians here, and you basically have to give [your art] away to be heard."
The hard road isn't a new path for Sinclair. As one of the '60s most visible activists, he incurred the wrath of authorities at every step. When he managed the MC5, the band's blistering volume and albums such as Kick Out the Jams were frequent targets of conservative civic organizations. Sinclair then aroused the curiosity of the FBI with his work with the White Panthers, and received a nine-year jail sentence for giving two joints to an undercover policeman. That led John Lennon to write the song "John Sinclair," and organize a 1971 benefit concert and "Free John Sinclair Rally" that helped Sinclair get early release in 1972. Nonetheless, Sinclair's political views still hew to his formative ideals.
"I don't want to go through any of that stuff again," he says. "It's not just the economy these days, but the American mood -- the bloodthirsty American mood. I've seen some of this before. The real turning point for me was last fall when they had the elections and they elected the Republican majority in both houses of Congress. These aren't nice people, they're masters of war, and they're throwing their weight around. You expect this kind of thing from government, but you don't expect the people to eat this stuff up with a spoon."
His continued activism on varied fronts, however, has paved the way for the next chapter of his life. Sinclair's made repeated trips to Amsterdam in the past five years, where he's performed his poetry and served as the High Priest of the Cannabis Cup -- a marijuana celebration. He struck such a chord with his new Amsterdam colleagues that he's received an offer he never could have imagined.
"I've got a patron in Amsterdam, and they made me an offer I couldn't refuse," says Sinclair. "Pretty much whatever I want, they said they'd help me out until I get established. I've really got an open mind and just really want to try this. God only knows what will happen." So after spending the summer in Detroit, Sinclair will head overseas in the fall, where his new home base will be The 4:20 Cafe in Amsterdam.
That doesn't make leaving New Orleans any easier for him. "I'm proud of my radio shows and proud that I built up such a loyal listenership," he says. "My great remembrances are big Chief Bo Dollis calling up while I was playing Indian music, and saying, 'We're taping your show, and we're sewing right now.' Or Snooks Eaglin calling, or Irma Thomas, or George Porter Jr. calling and asking, 'What was that you just played?' I did radio in Detroit for years, but Aretha Franklin or Levi Stubbs never called."
John Sinclair does his final New Orleans Music Show broadcast on WWOZ 90.7 FM from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday, May 14.
- Longtime disc jockey, beat poet and music historian John Sinclair bids farewell to New Orleans.