LENI SINCLAIR: THROUGH THE CAMERA'S EYE

By KEN SHIMAMOTO
Photos: LENI SINCLAIR

If you're a fan of Detroit rock, chances are you're already familiar with Leni Sinclair's work. She's the photographer responsible for all the best-known photos of the MC5 and Stooges, as well as a host of other rock, blues, and jazz luminaries. As the wife of poet/"King of the Hippies"/MC5 manager John Sinclair and an integral part of his Artists Workshop, which evolved into the Trans-Love Energies commune and thence into the White Panther Party and Rainbow People's Party, she was at the epicentre of the social/political/cultural explosion which shook America in the 1960s( Ann Arbor, Michigan branch).

Today, Leni markets her historic work at http://www.musiclegends.net/. Leni Sinclair joined me at the Bar from her home in New Orleans.

K: How'd you become affiliated with John Sinclair and the Artists Workshop?

L: I met John when we were both students at Wayne State University. We started living together and we became the nucleus of the group of people who loosely called themselves the Detroit Artists Workshop.

K: Around what year was that?

L: 1965. Actually, it started in the fall of '64, in fact, the founding date for the Artists Workshop was November 4th, 1964.

K: Who were some of the other people involved at that time?

L: Well, there was John and Charles Moore. That was the other nucleus. Charles Moore was a trumpet player and John and Charles, after I introduced them, became inseperable. There were a number of other musicians that formed a band called the Detroit Contemporary Four, with Charles Moore on trumpet, Danny Spencer and John Dana and I don't know who else.

K: I guess Charles Moore is still active; he was on that record [Full Circle] that John made with Wayne Kramer a couple of years back.

L: Yeah, he lives in Hollywood, or at least in L.A., and he's working on his Ph.D in ethnomusicology. He studied for a long, long time.

Then there was George Tysh, the poet, who's now the arts editor of the Detroit Metro Times; Robin Eichele, a filmmaker, poet, and all-around Renaissance man, and he's now a film producer (I haven't talked to him recently, but John has); Martina Algire, a political activist who was in the first wave of students to go to Cuba when it was still totally forbidden in 1962 or something...she was one of those people, and later on she was hanging out with Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder at some mountain retreat in California, I don't know what became of her -- I would love to track down some of these people. So anyway, that was like 1964, 1965, and that was when the Artists Workshop flourished.

In 1966, John had to do a six-month stint in the Detroit House of Correction and when he came out, we gave him a welcome home party called the Festival of People. I thought I had organised it; I organised the exhibitions and the dancers and the poets and the bands to play, and then at the end of the evening, this band [the MC5] showed up. I had no idea who they were or where they came from or who told them they could play there. When they played, it was the last act of the night, it was very late, and one of the neighbours came out with a shotgun and said "If you don't stop this, we'll have to do something." We had a real redneck neighbour who didn't like us in the first place, so when this rock band started to play, that was just too much. I mean, John had just gotten out of jail; the place was volatile. They would have liked nothing better than to put him right back in. So I pulled the plug on the band, there was no way I could make them stop, so I pulled out their electricity and they stopped. So I think they were mad at me for a long time.

K: Did you experience a lot of harassment from the police in those days?

L: Oh, yes. Constantly. I mean, it was like Ken Starr tracking down Bill Clinton. There was one cop in Detroit, Sergeant Stringfellow [the subject of John Sinclair's "Poem for Warner Stringfellow"], that's how he felt about John Sinclair. He thought John Sinclair was a number one enemy of the people, turned millions of teenagers in the Detroit suburbs onto being hippies. He thought John was responsible for all that, and he had a personal vendetta against John, so he kept busting him time and time again, sending an undercover agent to infiltrate us twice. Anyway, they really, really had it in for John, and the only thing they could pin on him was possession of two joints. [Stringfellow] had a daughter who was a hippie and liked John and she used to tell [John] what [her father] would say around the dinner table. Talking about John's dirty feet and wearing sandals and beards was considered dirty.

John got busted three times. The first time was a fluke; the second and third time was the same agent in two totally different disguises. It was amazing how he pulled that off...a masterful piece of theatre. Then when we lived in Ann Arbor at the Hill Street house, we had an undercover agent living right with us and to this day, nobody really knows who it was.

K: Why did the move to Hill Street come about in '67?

L: It was in '68. It came about...we made our money working on the weekends. The band had jobs on the weekends, the light show had jobs, we had a little store that we opened at the Grande Ballroom every weekend. The weekend that Dr. Martin Luther King got killed, the city of Detroit put a preventative curfew on the city to forestall any rioting. There was nothing, no rioting going on, but they put a curfew on the city, so nobody could go out. In two weekends, our economy was destroyed. We had no money to live on, 'cause we couldn't work our gigs. We'd been constantly hassled by the police. Longhairs walking the streets would be stopped just like young black males; longhairs were in the same category, and the police would make it a point of every night, driving around our house and shining the spotlights in our window, just really harassing us and making us feel uncomfortable.

After that happened with the curfew, we still tried to stick it out, and the next time we were at the Grande Ballroom, doing our lightshow and playing and all that stuff -- the whole commune goes to the Grande Ballroom on the weekends, you see -- and while we were not home, somebody set fire to our house. Somebody threw a firebomb on the roof, and so we were called, and when we got back, the whole house was out of commission, our living quarters were a couple of feet under sooty black water, our living room, our kitchen, everything was underwater. No electricity, no gas, nothing. And we had a little baby in the house, so we had to make a move overnight. So we just decided to cut out and go to Ann Arbor. Into exile.

K: How'd you find the house on Hill Street? Wasn't that no fraternity row for the University of Michigan?

L: No, fraternity row was all over. There used to be a fraternity right next to it, the dental fraternity. First we moved into 1510 Hill Street and then the Up and Dave Sinclair, his commune, moved into the house next door, 1520 Hill Street. Those two houses, around the turn of the century, had been the house the mayor of Ann Arbor lived in, so they were probably residences, but they were really big. One had 16 rooms and the other I don't know how many, but we needed a lot of small rooms, because we each had our own room in the commune. But all Ann Arbor is like fraternity row; it's not like there's one street.

K: What was life like in the house on Hill Street? Was there a lot of tension with the police?

L: Oh, no. John made a truce. As soon as we moved up there, we had a visit from...what's his name? I've forgotten this cop's name in Ann Arbor, the nice one...Lieutenant Staudemeier. Anyway, there was this cop in Ann Arbor who was like the vice cop. I had seen him in action previously one time when he and his squad came and shut down the projector of a movie showing on campus called Flaming Creatures. It wasn't Andy Warhol, but it was somebody like that, a weird film with a lot of nudity and all this stuff. Anyway, this cop from Ann Arbor came to the university and they shut down the projector, confiscated the film. There was a First Amendment rights case that came out of that.

Anyway, Lieutenant Staudemeier came to our house as soon as we moved to Ann Arbor, so we just all gathered around him to see what he had to say to us. John told him, "We're a working commune, we work every day, we pay our taxes, we're law-abiding citizens, and if you don't give us any hassle, we won't give you any hassle." Just like that, very nice conversation, but to the point. And that's what happened. They left us alone. And when they had to arrest the MC5 for playing illegally in the park, the officer just told John, "Look, you know you can't do this, but we won't make a scene right now. Just bring the guys down to the station tomorrow." So he brought the whole band to the station the next morning and they got a noise ordinance ticket. Instead of riding down with the goon squad and chasing people off and creating a melee. This cop had some sense. (Laughs) It was almost like...not a friendship, but a mutual respect that developed there. And it worked, except we didn't know that we were infiltrated. (Laughs) They had the goods on us. They had our phone tapped; our lives were an open book to the FBI.

K: Your MC5 photos are so great...I saw your website.

L: And that's only the one page; I've got two pages of MC5 photos, and I could easily make another two pages, but I haven't got the time. I have so many photos, every time I look through my files I find ones I haven't printed up before, and then I don't have proof sheets on most of mine, so I don't really know what I have. I have just thousands and thousands of pictures. Unfortunately, most of my color stuff did not survive. We had a fire once when we did a light show, and all my best color work got burned up in this fire. And there were no duplicates, so my color stuff is really just the leftovers.

K: But the black and white ones are so great. They were such a visual act anyway. Did they put a lot of thought and planning into their presentation?

L: They sure did! For two years that we were living with them, their whole life was consumed with preparing for the next gig. Every time they had a gig coming up, which was like every weekend, they would just talk about it, they'd decide what to play, they'd write new stuff, they'd figure out what to wear, they'd go out, buy the fabric and have their girlfriends sew the stuff up fancy. Every time was like a whole effort to make a new show. And that's why people kept coming. Every time there was something exciting and new happening. It was like everytime John Coltrane played...you could not say, "I've seen him." 'Cause every time he was constanty searching, searching, searching out. Between breaks I would see him backstage practicing. That's what the Five were like...they were so deep into it to make something new happen for the people. Getting high and deciding what to lay out next. (Laughs)

And they had this incredible fan base, which later on was kind of organized a little more formally into the MC5 Social and Athletic Club, but it was a group of girls that started out and called themselves the "Grande Stompers," and they were like the stormtroopers for the MC5. They would hitchhike in the middle of the winter. Wherever the MC5 played, they would be there breaking the ice, starting to dance, getting the audience involved, feeding the band and getting them high and taking care of them all the needs...(Laughs) I mean, these people were amazing. And they contributed a lot to the band's success.

But yes, the Five were very serious about performing. It had to be a spectacle.

K: One hears and reads all sorts of things about the Trans-Love house and the different roles of men and women there...from a contemporary standpoint, it sounds very traditional. Can you comment on that?

L: It might look like that in retrospect, because that was before the advent of feminism, but as far as living in that situation, the women did not feel oppressed or second-rate. I mean, women didn't pick up instruments and try to play and try to be in the band, but as far as the atmosphere at the time, we all considered ourselves equal in the endeavor. We were revolutionaries; there was no hierarchy like the males up here and the women down there. At the time, we all felt that we were contributing equally to this effort we were involved in, whatever it took. I've heard some things...that "the women were on the floor, scrubbing the floor." That was a lot of hokum. Everybody pitched in, everybody did their chores and their work. We had it tightly organized. Childcare was shared, kitchen duties were shared, everything, except for playing in the band.

In fact, I wrote an article one time in the newspaper, in the Ann Arbor Sun, I think, about "cock rock" and the criticism that was starting to appear about "cock rock" guys with guitars. And my thesis was, there's nothing wrong with that; the only thing wrong is that women have to start learning to play, too, and getting up there.

K: And that's happened in the '90s.

L: I didn't say it, but "Let's have cock-rock and pussy rock" (Laughs)

K: When John was imprisoned in 1969, did the Five renege on a promise to help you out financially while he was in prison?

L: I don't really know if there had ever been a promise. Nobody knew that John was going to go to jail, and I don't think that he ever had any discussions prior to going to jail to see what would happen. Everybody just figured he would get an appeal bond and be out on the street in a matter of days, or maybe weeks. Well, that didn't happen, and the MC5...first, they severed their relationship with J.C. Crawford, which we all felt was a big mistake, because J.C. was almost a sixth member of the band, he was almost an integral part. So when they fired him, we had kinda bad feelings about that, and then when they brought in Jon Landau as a manager, of course we had bad feelings about that. The financial part was...I don't really know. 'Cause no promises were made, John never had a written contract with the band or anything like that. It was on the honor system.

But I do know that after John went to jail, there were about 17 of us who had spent the last two years doing nothing but working for the MC5 and making them a success, never taking any money for ourselves, just room and board. All of a sudden, John is gone, and we have no money coming in. Our phones got cut off just at the crucial point when we needed to make some publicity and let people know John was in jail. We had no way; we had no phones and we were just begging for food. My mother-in-law and father-in-law helped us out like they usually did, but it was devastating for awhile. And there was probably hard feelings thinking that the MC5 should have kept John on as a manager, even if he was in jail. People told them otherwise, other people told them John would be a hindrance, because now he was too hot to handle. John was now too much of a political figure. So they said no, better get rid of John Sinclair and the revolutionary image. Which was a mistake, I think we all agree. Because they lost whatever they had going for them, they kinda got lost after that.

K: What did you do immediately after that?

L: Well, I was pregnant with Celia and we had a child, and we had to organize to make a living and we had to organize the John Sinclair freedom movement.. We kept it together by hook or by crook, and the person who's most responsible for all that is Dave Sinclair, John's brother, who took over the financial management of this whole shebang. The Up became the house band for the revolutionary White Panther Party wing (Laughs). They were no MC5, but they could kick it out, and so we kept it going like that. So for the next two and a half years, we were just continuing without the Five, focusing our energies on getting John out and continuing to organise.

Do you know about the Bentley archive? When John and I broke up, I had a whole roomful of all the things that I'd collected since I came to this country -- all the fliers, all the magazines, all the books we published. We published, at one time, four magazines, and put out about twenty books of poetry, most of them mimeographed by hand. I'm a pack rat, so I saved every last scrap of paper, every memo, everything. So when we broke up, we donated our collection of stuff to the Michigan Historical Library, which houses the papers of the governors and the supreme court justices of Michigan and all that. And so they have the John and Leni Sinclair Papers...a huge amount of materials, and people come from far and wide to study the '60s now. It's at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Myself, I can't walk in there. I get so overwhelmed, I don't know how to deal with it. It's part of my life buried in the stacks. I had to give up because I had no place to take them with me. I wish I had. They have a copy of every Grande Ballroom poster, every flyer, every postcard, every handbill, everything that I saved. I've still got a lot of stuff myself. 'Cause I didn't stop collecting afterwards. (Laughs) I have boxes and boxes of various old things. I don't really know what to do with them, but they're history and I can't toss them out. I'll leave them for my children to deal with after I'm gone, probably.

K: It has a lot of resonance for your life and for the historical value. How's the website doing?

L: I get a lot of people asking me "Can we use your picture?" and I say OK, as long as you provide a link to my site. That's how most people find me. I establish no links to anybody, it's other people who establish links to my site. I haven't done any marketing...I'm a pretty decent photographer, but I'm not a good businessperson. I need an agent. (Laughs)

K: I got your phone number from Dennis Thompson.

L: If you talk to him again or any of the other guys, please please give them my love. I miss every one of them. You know, actually, I've become better friends with Dennis and Becky Tyner since Rob Tyner died, and Fred Smith died. We've become a little closer. Not that we talk a lot, but spiritually we're almost closer now than we were back then, because of the shared experience and the shared love.

K: Rob's death seemed to be the catalyst for a lot of connections being renewed.

L: Who would have expected it? Who would have expected it? You don't think of people being able to die. You think one day we'll all get back together, but that can never happen again now.

K: And lastly, the most important question. What do you like to drink?

L. What do I like to drink? That's a toughie; your other questions were easier to answer. I guess I like German wine, Heineken, Red Stripe, Budwiser, Abita Beer (that's a Louisiana brew). But my favorite drink (which I cannot find in New Orleans) is Jamaican white rum, Wrey & Wright overproof. One drink of that is enough for me, and two of them in one night is one too many! Are they going to send me a bottle now?

GET ME BACK TO THE BAR