John Lennon at the John Sinclair Freedom Rally in Ann Arbor
By Alan Glenn
December 27, 2009
The passage of nearly four decades can dim even the keenest of
memories. But to Hiawatha Bailey, the events of that winter afternoon
in 1971 are as clear as if they had happened yesterday. Bailey was 23
and working at the communal headquarters of the Rainbow People's
Party in the ramshackle old mansion at 1520 Hill Street in Ann Arbor.
"I was doing office duty," he recalls, "which entailed sitting at the
front desk and answering the phone. Some friends were there, and we
were sitting around, tripping on acid, probably, and the phone rings.
I pick it up and I hear this voice, 'Hello, this is Yoko Ono.'"
Bailey, of course, didn't believe it for a second. "I said something
like, 'Yeah, this is Timothy Leary,' and hung up. We all got a good
laugh out of it." A few minutes later the phone rang again. This time
the voice on the other end said, "Hello, can I speak to David
Sinclair, Chief of Staff of the Rainbow People's Party. This is John
Lennon of the Beatles."
"I wasn't even that familiar with the Beatles then," says Bailey, now
lead singer for the Cult Heroes, an Ann Arbor-based punk rock band.
"I was more into the Stooges and the MC5, more radical rock 'n' roll.
But I knew right away that it really was John Lennon." He put the call through.
"Dave and John talked for quite some time," Bailey recalls. "Lennon
said, 'I heard about the benefit that you blokes are putting on, and
I wrote a little ditty about John Sinclair and his plight. I'd like
to come there and perform it.'"
They Gave Him Ten for Two
John Sinclair poet, pothead, cultural revolutionary, and Chairman
of the Rainbow People's Party of Ann Arbor, Michigan was at that
time confined to the state prison in Jackson. More than two years
earlier he had received a nine-and-a-half to ten-year sentence for
the possession of 11.50 grains of marijuana two joints' worth
following a trial marked by numerous irregularities.
"The powers-that-be in Michigan had it in for me," says Sinclair, who
now lives in Amsterdam. "They didn't like what we were doing,
establishing an alternative community, defying their authority,
smoking grass. First in Detroit, then in Ann Arbor. They fixed on me
because I was the most outspoken, and also because somehow I was
successful in bringing young people around to my way of thinking."
Even those who weren't quite as certain of Sinclair's blamelessness
agreed that ten years in prison for possession of two joints was an
unusually severe sentence, and probably politically motivated.
"They wanted to put me away," Sinclair says, "and so they did."
Following the sentencing, a request for an appeal bond was denied,
and the 27-year-old cultural activist went directly to a
Sinclair's sudden departure sent the collective into a state of
shock. But his wife Leni and brother David quickly assumed leadership
roles and began to direct the effort to free their party's leader.
In the coming months they worked tirelessly, organizing benefit
concerts, demonstrations, and rallies. Wherever possible they
enlisted the aid of sympathetic movement celebrities Allen
Ginsberg, Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman
(whose misguided attempt to win support for Sinclair at Woodstock
during the Who's set earned him a bump on the head, courtesy Pete
Townshend's guitar), Tom Hayden, and others. But after two years of
diligent effort they seemed no closer to getting John out of jail.
At some point in the summer of 1971, Sinclair who was still helping
to lead the party from behind bars decided that what they needed to
do was organize one huge benefit rally for the end of the year. With
the help of sympathetic student organizations they were able to
secure the use of the University of Michigan's recently constructed
Crisler Arena for Dec. 10. (That's also international Human Rights
Day although no one seemed to realize it at the time.)
A Total Bomb
Utilizing the contacts that they had built up over the years, Leni,
David, and the others assembled a list of about a dozen radical
speakers and musical performers who agreed to appear at the rally.
Then they approached Peter Andrews, an experienced area music
promoter who was working as events director at the university.
Andrews was a friend of John Sinclair and had previously organized a
few small benefit concerts on his behalf. But he wasn't interested in
producing this show.
"I just looked at it and said, 'This is a total bomb you have on your
hands. You'll get three thousand people tops, and in the
fifteen-thousand-capacity Crisler, it'll only show how little people
care about John Sinclair.'"
Andrews, now semi-retired and living in Ypsilanti Township, recalls
that the Sinclairs weren't willing to take no for an answer. "I went
to Toronto with my girlfriend just to get away from them for a few
days. When I got back, Leni came to see me and she said, 'John Lennon
and Yoko Ono want to play at the rally!'"
Andrews was skeptical, thinking that this might simply be a ploy to
get him involved. "I said, 'Oh, really. And who's the headliner,
Leni Sinclair insisted that it was real, however, and explained that
Jerry Rubin had talked the Lennons into doing it. Andrews was still
doubtful but agreed to fly to New York and meet with John and Yoko.
Even today he still marvels at the surreality of that trip to New
York with Leni in December of 1971.
Some Time in New York City
"Nobody met us or anything," he says. "The only thing we had was a
telephone number to call. I remember putting a dime in the phone, and
dialing the number. John Lennon answered. He said, 'Oh yeah, we've
been waiting for ya, come on over, here's where we're at, great!' I
hung up the phone and looked at Leni, and I said, 'We're hot, we are
Sinclair and Andrews took a cab from Grand Central Station to the
Lennons' two-room apartment in the West Village. "They greeted us,
they were very friendly, very, very nice," says Andrews. "I had
Lennon sign a contract for $500 to appear, and he crossed it out and
put, 'To be donated to the John Sinclair Freedom Fund.'"
The visitors from Michigan spent about an hour talking with their
newfound allies. At one point, Lennon asked Andrews to come into the
bedroom and listen to a song he had written to perform at the
concert. "He wasn't sure if the song was appropriate, and he wanted
my opinion. He sang the song 'It ain't fair, John Sinclair' with
that steel guitar he had. I assured him it was totally appropriate,
and the lyrics were cool. He was very grateful."
Andrews shakes his head in wonder at the memory. "I thought to
myself, 'John Lennon's asking my opinion! Man, this is somethin' else.'"
After leaving the apartment they had gone only about a block before
Andrews realized that even with a signed contract as evidence, no one
was going to believe that John Lennon would be at the show. "So we
went back, and I asked John if he had a cassette recorder. I wrote a
little script out, and he and Yoko read it into the recorder. Now I
knew we had it."
The Magic of John and Yoko
On Wednesday, Dec. 8, two days before the concert, the Committee to
Free John Sinclair held a press conference in Ann Arbor. The tape
that Peter Andrews had made was played for representatives of the
local and national media.
"Hello, this is John with Yoko here," began the recorded message. "I
just want to say we're coming along to the John Sinclair bust fund
rally to say hello. I won't be bringing a band or nothing like that
because I'm only here as a tourist, but I'll probably fetch me
guitar, and I know we have a song that we wrote for John [Sinclair].
So that's that."
Tickets went on sale that same day at $3 each. "It sold out in such
short amount of time two or three hours, statewide that we
actually had guards, uniformed guards, to protect the people that got
tickets from the ones that didn't," says Peter Andrews. "We
distributed tickets statewide so that people would have an
opportunity not a big opportunity, but you had a chance if you ran
down there and got in line."
Andrews recalls that they didn't spend a penny on advertising. It was
enough to simply make the announcement of John and Yoko's
participation and let the media take it from there.
From Mop Top to Working-Class Hero
After the breakup of the Beatles, and before his untimely death by an
assassin's bullet in 1980, John Lennon performed in public on only a
handful of occasions. In retrospect it may seem odd that one of these
was a benefit for a jailed longhair in the cultural backwater of
Michigan. But at the time it made perfect sense.
Ann Arbor was in the forefront of the radical movement of the late
'60s and early '70s. That same period found the famously outspoken
Beatle becoming deeply involved in political activism denouncing
war and injustice, attending demonstrations, concocting peace-themed
"happenings" with Yoko, encouraging his fans to "Imagine no
possessions," advising them that "A working-class hero is something to be."
In the summer of '71 John and Yoko moved to New York on a
more-or-less permanent basis and quickly became close with Yippie
activists Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. Rubin was committed to
speaking at the John Sinclair Freedom Rally in December, and
encouraged John and Yoko to appear, as well.
It wasn't difficult to get Lennon interested. He'd been toying with
the idea of doing a series of all-star concerts combining rock music
with radical rhetoric. After long discussions with Rubin, this
morphed into an "anti-Nixon tour" that would travel across the U.S.
during the summer of '72 and wind up in San Diego at the Republican
National Convention in August.
The rally in Ann Arbor would serve as a trial run.
Not in Kansas Anymore
John and Yoko arrived with little fanfare in Detroit on Friday, Dec.
10, the day of the concert. Peter Andrews picked them up at the
airport in a borrowed limousine and drove them to the Campus Inn in
Ann Arbor, where a number of the evening's musical acts were staying.
Andrews had booked the Lennons into the presidential suite.
"I thought it was funny to put them up in the presidential suite," he
says, "because this was basically all anti-Nixon. I remember stopping
over there to make sure everything was cool. I couldn't stay, but
boy, I wish could have. They were all jamming up in Lennon's suite. I
thought, 'Damn, this is too much.'"
The event had grown so big so fast that to many of those involved it
felt like a waking dream. "It was madness, all of these people, all
the music and the politics," says Hiawatha Bailey. While working
backstage at the rally he felt a sudden need for a few minutes away,
and walked over to the nearby football stadium.
"I'm sitting there, in this huge, empty stadium," Bailey recalls.
"All of a sudden this whirling dervish picks up a pile of trash, goes
around the stadium, and drops it right next to me." He smiles and
shakes his head. "I'm thinking that I'd better get out of there,
before Dorothy and Toto show up!"
But for Bailey the unreality wasn't quite over. "I go back to the
arena, and up comes this limo, and John Lennon, Yoko Ono, David Peel
and the Lower East Side and all those scalawags that he hung out
with, all start piling out. John says to me, 'You look like someone I
can trust, mate, come with me.'"
Bailey became an impromptu bodyguard, helping to hold back the fans
as the Lennons and their entourage entered the arena. "These people
were ready to rip me apart to get to John Lennon," he says. "They had
their albums they wanted signed, and they were very vehement about it."
After escorting the company to their dressing room, Bailey recalls,
"John turns to me and says, 'Watch the door.' Then he hands me a bag
of coke, and says to enjoy myself. So I'm leaning up against the
door, holding a bag of John Lennon's blow, and behind me he's
teaching David Peel and those guys the chords to 'John Sinclair.' And
I'm just like, 'Man, this is far out.'"
A Long Day's Night
Peel would have plenty of time to learn the song John and Yoko
didn't end up taking the stage until around three in the morning,
more than two hours behind schedule. They were preceded by nearly
eight hours of speakers and musical performers that included Allen
Ginsberg, Jerry Rubin, Bob Seger, Phil Ochs, Commander Cody and His
Lost Planet Airmen, poet Ed Sanders, Black Panther Party chairman
Bobby Seale, Chicago Seven defendant Rennie Davis, radical priest
Father James Groppi, and jazz legend Archie Shepp.
The dramatic high point of the evening was a surprise telephone call
from the imprisoned John Sinclair that was broadcast live over the
arena's loudspeakers. Voice choking with emotion, Sinclair spoke to
his wife and daughter, conveying his belief that they would soon be
reunited. "You could almost see the tears flowing down the aisles,"
remembers Peter Andrews.
According to many reports, the other non-musical portions of the
program did not appear to have a great impact on the audience. The
singers, however, seemed to go over somewhat better. According to the
Michigan Daily, Bob Seger was "dynamite," Commander Cody "kept the
audience pretty satisfied," and Phil Ochs was "good and clever."
But the big musical hit of the evening possibly even bigger than
the Lennons was a performer that most people didn't even know would be there.
A few days before the concert, Peter Andrews was working in his
office when the phone rang. It was Stevie Wonder.
After his meeting in New York with John and Yoko, Andrews thought
nothing could faze him. But now here he was listening to the
wunderkind of soul tell him that, even though he wasn't in favor of
marijuana, he was dismayed by what had happened to John Sinclair, and
wanted to be part of the show.
"I'm going, 'Holy shit.' I didn't need a draw, so I decided that
Stevie Wonder would be a surprise act. I told him over the phone that
I didn't want anybody knowing about this, and not to make any
announcements or anything. There were only about three people other
than me that even knew about it until he showed up with his equipment."
The Wonder of Stevie
Twenty-two-year-old Jane Hassinger was elated when she learned that
Stevie Wonder would be appearing that night. As a member of Drug
Help, a local grassroots counseling service for youth with drug and
alcohol issues, she was working in one of the arena's two "drug
tents" when Wonder took the stage. "I'd been on the job almost the
whole time and didn't really have an opportunity to watch the show,"
"But I said to my co-workers, 'I'm leaving for Stevie Wonder.' I went
up close to the stage. And he was extraordinary. It was as magical as
anything I can think of. There was a roar when he came on."
"We'd all grown up on Motown," explains Peter Andrews. "When Stevie
came out the crowd went bananas. I just loved it, as the promoter of
the show. I still almost tear up when I think of the emotion people had."
It wasn't just the crowd that went bananas, either. "When Stevie was
about to go on, I thought I should tell the Lennons," says Andrews.
"Well, John just flipped. He goes, 'Stevie Wonder! I gotta see him!'"
Andrews didn't think that was a good idea, as the ex-Beatle was
certain to be mobbed. But Lennon was insistent. "He said, 'Peter,
don't you understand? Stevie Wonder is my Beatles!' He'd never seen
Stevie perform. So I agreed. We got like ten security guys, and John
Lennon and myself were in the middle of the circle, and we went to
the back of the stage to watch."
Gimme Some Truth
Stevie Wonder wasn't there simply to dazzle the audience with his
music, however. Like all the performers he was also there to make a
"Before coming here today," he said at one point, "I had a lot of
things on my mind, a lot of things that you don't have to see to
understand. We are in a very troublesome time today in the world. A
time in which a man can get 12 years in prison for possession of
marijuana, and another who can kill four students at Kent State and
come out free."
"What kind of shit is that?" he asked the crowd, which responded with a roar.
The audience had also cheered earlier in the evening when Phil Ochs
delivered the refrain of his song about the White House's resident paranoiac:
Here's to the land you've torn out the heart of
Richard Nixon, find yourself another country to be part of
But of all the performances that night, it was that of the star
attractions which was the most overtly political.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono took the stage at around three in the
morning. Backed by an improvised band that included David Peel and
Jerry Rubin, they sang about the Attica uprising, about the conflict
in Northern Ireland, about women's liberation, and, finally, about
the man of the hour, without whom none of it would have been possible:
It ain't fair, John Sinclair
In the stir for breathing air
Won't you care for John Sinclair?
In the stir for breathing air
They gave him ten for two
What else can Judge Colombo do?
Gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta
gotta gotta gotta gotta set him free
Then abruptly the Lennons were gone, and the show was over.
Don't Let Us Down
Monday's edition of the Detroit News contained a review of the rally
that ran under the headline, "Lennon Let His Followers Down."
Of course, not everyone in the audience was disappointed with
Lennon's performance. But it's easy to see how many would have been
somewhat less than impressed. The ex-Beatle's set was entirely
acoustic, long before going "unplugged" became fashionable. He played
only four songs, none of which were familiar to the audience. And he
left the stage after about 15 minutes.
"Yeah, I was disappointed by John and Yoko's 'street art'
performance," says Jeff Alder, then an eighteen-year-old aspiring
musician. "I mean, the great Beatle jamming with Jerry Rubin playing
bongos or congas or something he had no idea how to play, along with
David Peel and the freakin' lousy Lower East Side. But I was still
impressed that John came to support our guy."
Alder, who today works as a studio technician at the University of
Michigan, remembers being much more affected by Stevie Wonder's
performance. "Like John L., it was real impressive that he even came
to play. Only Stevie actually came to play!"
But Alder admits that these are minor points. The bigger goal was to
show support for John Sinclair. "The coolest thing of all was that it
worked," he says. "Regardless of any critiques of the performances
and all the yapping, it worked."
"We got John out!"
Bring Him to His Wife and Kids
Seventy-two hours after the commencement of the rally, John Sinclair was free.
For a brief moment the state penitentiary in Jackson became the
backdrop for a scene out of some sort of freaky countercultural
version of "It's a Wonderful Life." As flashbulbs popped and movie
cameras rolled, the burly, long-haired revolutionary enjoyed a
tearful reunion with his tiny wife Leni and their young daughter
Sunny after almost two-and-a-half years apart.
This was no miracle, however. Rather, it was the result of years of
concerted effort on the part of hundreds of people, not just to free
John Sinclair but also to reform what many felt were the state's
draconian drug laws.
The day before the rally, the Michigan State Senate passed a bill
that drastically reduced penalties for marijuana possession. Three
days after the rally, the Michigan Supreme Court granted Sinclair
bail pending appeal, after having denied six previous such requests.
The question remains about how much of an effect the event itself had
on winning Sinclair's freedom. The timing is, of course, very
suggestive. The justices, however, maintained that their decision was
made solely in light of the passage of the new drug bill.
Peter Andrews thinks that even without the spectacle of the rally,
Sinclair would have eventually been released. "What it did," he
suggests, "was say, 'How about right now!'"
However it happened, John Sinclair was out, and all who had struggled
so long rejoiced. But the denouement wasn't wholly Capra-esque. Peter
Andrews believes that he lost his job as a result of the rally, which
was simply too extreme for university administrators.
Disaster also struck John Lennon, who subsequently found himself
under intensive FBI surveillance and threat of deportation. The
anti-Nixon tour was canceled, and the former Beatle shied away from
political activism for the rest of his life.
But Leni Sinclair, for one, remains grateful for John and Yoko's
efforts on behalf of her ex-husband, and is still tickled to have
been mentioned in one of Lennon's songs.
"Just knowing that we're part of history is a good feeling," she says.
John Lennon Sat Here
Walking the peaceful, tree-lined streets of Ann Arbor today, one sees
little that evokes the time when John Lennon and Yoko Ono came to
town to sing for the freedom of John Sinclair. It is difficult to
conjure up the passionate, volatile milieu of that bygone era the
demonstrations, the sit-ins, the marchers with their protest signs,
the smell of tear gas in the air.
There are a few reminders of the city's radical past still to be
found here and there: Ozone House, the People's Food Cooperative, the
Ecology Center, the Ann Arbor Film Festival and the Herb David
Guitar Studio on the corner of Liberty and Fourth. There the
connection to Lennon's visit is particularly strong in the back
amid rows of guitars sits a chair that Liverpool's favorite son once
occupied nearly 40 years ago.
"He just roamed into the shop that day," remembers Herb David.
"Nobody knew who he was. He was this little red-headed guy who didn't
look like anything you thought John Lennon looked like."
David recognized him, however. "I said, 'Hi, John.' He said, 'I'm not
John.' So I asked who he was. He said, 'I'm his cousin.' I said, 'OK
hello, cousin.' Then I let him go, and he just roamed around and we
talked." At some point during his visit Lennon felt like taking a
load off, and ended up creating an instant curio for David's shop.
"It's fun to have," he says. "It has a mystique. People get excited
about sitting down in the chair. I say, 'Sit in that chair, you'll
When asked if he really believes that, David grins mischievously.
"You never know," he says.
Could it be possible? Could the chair somehow be imbued with the
spirit of the John Lennon who came to Ann Arbor 38 years ago?
The John Lennon who asked only that we "Give peace a chance," and who
every holiday season wishes all a "Happy Xmas" and assures us that
"War is over, if you want it?"
The John Lennon who stood on the stage in Crisler Arena and said to
the assembled thousands, "We came here not only to help John
[Sinclair] and to spotlight what's going on, but also to show and to
say to all of you that apathy isn't it, and that we can do something.
OK, so flower power didn't work. So what? We start again."
Could the spirit of that John Lennon somehow inhabit the chair?
If so, maybe we all should take a minute to sit in it.
Alan Glenn is working on a documentary film about Ann Arbor in the
'60s. Visit the film's website for more information.