23 July, 1969
“PIGS SCALP SINCLAIR”, reported the Detroit anarchist periodical Fifth Estate. John Sinclair, poet, manager of the MC5 and co-founder of the White Panther Party, had been in a world of pain since Christmas 1966. Accused of selling two joints to an undercover cop, he got his enforced haircut at Oakland County jail in Michigan. “They grabbed me and held me while some ponk [sic] with a pair of scissors cut my hair,” said Sinclair of the July 10 shearing. “This is what the pigs are all about. They want everyone to look and be just like them… they’ll pay for this one way or another.”
Luckily, Sinclair had some friends in the Detroit area he could count on. Proto-punk culture-arsonists The Stooges and the MC5 not only had his back, but were threatening something more terrifying still to the forces of reaction: both had deals with major label Elektra and were threatening to take their rock’n’roll insurrection to the US mainstream.
The groups had been signed by PR Danny Fields to Elektra after a September 1968 show at the University of Michigan (the MC5 got $15,000, with $5,000 for The Stooges, who then moved into chaotic communal headquarters the Fun House). The MC5’s explosive live debut Kick Out The Jams had peaked in the US at Number 30 in May. In July, they were telling Jazz & Pop magazine how Sinclair hepped them to “the whole concept of energy”. Said guitarist Wayne Kramer, sat in Fields’ New York apartment, “if you take everything in the universe, take everything that the mind can conceive of, anything, everything, and break it down, you can only go as far as energy… energy is freedom.”
The MC5’s “little brother” band The Stooges, who were arguably the more enticing prospect, had no shortage of energy-as-freedom. A dysfunctional group of friends, so messed up that ever-wired frontman James ‘Iggy’ Osterberg was the adult in the room, their combustible mix included the Velvets, the blues and Hendrix, mixed with the out-of-control audience provocation of Jim Morrison. As The Psychedelic Stooges they’d already shared stages with Sly Stone, Cream and the Mothers at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, gaining excited infamy for Iggy’s trouser-bursting, food-slathering, stage-diving live antics.
“It was like driving by an accident… you wanna see if there’s some blood.”
The earliest known footage of the band, filmed by Leni Sinclair, dates from a July 20 performance at the Delta Pops Festival at Michigan University Centre. The symbols are loaded: as well as a Stars And Stripes and a White Panther flag, guitarist Ron Asheton sports a Nazi armband. Iggy can be seen dropping to the floor and invading the sitting crowd, flinging a hapless girl over his shoulder (this was apparently the college dean’s daughter). “People were fascinated,” said Ron Asheton of the primal Stooges experience, in 1988. ”It was sort of like driving by an accident, and there’s a car wreck… you wanna see if there’s some blood, or if you can [see], ‘Oh, that guy is really fucked up…’”
This month they had their self-titled, John Cale-produced debut album ready to go, heralded by debut 45 I Wanna Be Your Dog. There were high hopes for this smart/dumb nihilist power surge. Billboard expected similar sales as The Doors, and gushed about, “a rough and raw Rolling Stones-type sound… sophisticated pop execution… will boost The Stooges to the top.” Though Iggy was sore that they renamed him ‘Iggy Stooge’ on the record cover without telling him, he said in 2016 book Total Chaos: “I thought that the label had class. I wanted to be with a class label, and I think long term, that was a really good thing.”
Yet in the short term, not so much. As if in imitation of the album photoshoot, when a stoned Iggy tried to liven up Joel Brodsky’s session by diving chin-first onto the concrete studio floor, The Stooges was not a success, entering the charts at Number 131, finally reaching Number 106 in October.
John Lennon, Jane Fonda and Stevie Wonder Support
John Sinclair’s news had been bad too. Despite The Stooges and the MC5 playing a Legal Self Defence benefit for him at the Grande Ballroom on July 23, on July 28 he was sentenced to nine-and-a-half to 10 years in prison. He would eventually serve just two, after a legal battle and the high-profile support of pals including John Lennon, Jane Fonda and Stevie Wonder. Sadly, both The Stooges and the MC5 failed to break through and would split in the next few years, though their inspirational legacy to rockers bent on going further continues to reverberate.
A final twist came on the morning of November 28, 2019, when Sinclair scored his first legal weed from Arbors Wellness. The Ann Arbor dispensary was located less than three miles from where both the Fun House and the MC5’s headquarters stood. It was a fact that could not have been lost on him, as he exhaled heavy Gorilla Glue No. 4 smoke into the Michigan air.