William S. Burroughs and MC5: An Interview with John Sinclair


By Marcus D. Niski

“It’s mind-blowing, earsplitting, stomach-churning. The souped-up music of the MC5 (MC for Motor City) starts off in high and never throttles down… It’s a driving music that has in it the dirt and factory pulse and scream of rubber turning corners at full speed…”

– “Kick Out The Jams,” Hubert Saal in Newsweek, 19 May 1969.

Perfect Sound Forever: When you met up with the MC5, what was your impression of them? 

John Sinclair: When I first saw them, I thought they were incredible. Just totally fucking great. They were trying to extend rock and roll into something that had more space for creativity and improvisation. They called themselves Avant-rock at the time. For about the first year that I knew them, I went to all their gigs ’cause I thought they were so great. I got to be very close friends with Rob Tyner and the others guys…”

– MC5: John Sinclair interview by Jason Gross in Perfect Sound Forever, November 1998.

“William [S.] Burroughs is one of our guiding lights…”

– Wayne Kramer, MC5 lead guitarist in MC5: A True Testimonial

Volatile, politically vociferous and iconic, the MC5 cut a musical swathe through 1960s America that still continues to reverberate today. 

MC5 on the cover of John Sinclair's WORKDeveloping a near-cult following through their legendary performances at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, the MC5 became the embodiment of class struggle against the oppression and racial tensions of 1960s America that threatened to engulf not only Detroit but the nation itself. With tight driving performances by Rob Tyner on vocals, Fred “Sonic” Smith on rhythm guitar, Michael Davis on bass, Denis Thompson on drums and Wayne Kramer on lead guitar, their style was a heady brew of full on rock n’ roll tinged with a hypnotic, raw and driving presence. Indeed, their famous their cri de coeur “kick out the jams motherfuckers” would become an anthem for their in-your-face hard-hitting style that emulated the heavy industrial heartbeat of the motor city itself.

At the helm of their early success was poet, muse, entrepreneur, agent provocateur and political activist John Sinclair. He steered the 5 until the pivotal turning point that eventually brought about their demise. Stylistic changes, internal conflict, ideological tensions, escalating substance abuse and increasingly bizarre stage and costuming antics progressively destroyed their popular appeal and alienated their once adoring fan base. 

As their flamboyant and idiosyncratic manager in the heady days of the pre-Jon Landau period, Sinclair and the MC5 were never far from controversy. Politically astute, provocative and hugely media savvy, Sinclair became a high profile anti-establishment figure. His contretemps with the law led to him being arrested, imprisoned and eventually released through the agitation of public protests that included Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Ed Saunders, Yoko Ono and none other than John Lennon himself.

The writings of William S. Burroughs – among other musical and literary influences – played an important role in shaping the intellectual milieu that inspired MC5 to spearhead a generational backlash against the strictures that had been imposed on them by society. Strongly affected by Burroughs’ writings in his own youth, Sinclair continues to draw upon the el hombre invisible in his work. Now in his early 70s, John Sinclair remains as formidable as ever, maintaining a prolific schedule as a radio host, poet and founder of the John Sinclair Foundation. Sinclair’s innumerable books, articles and poetry collections continue to document his extraordinary times.

Recorded via Skype from London on 29 May in 2014, this intervew spans a range of fascinating themes including Burroughs’ intellectual influence on Sinclair; the influence of Burroughs’ work on the musical oeuvre of the MC5; his arrerst and imprisonment, and his personal observations on the eventual demise of the MC5.

Marcus Niski: I read somewhere in my research that you had written your graduate thesis on William S. Burroughs. What sparked your initial interest in Burroughs?

John Sinclair: His writing.

MN: What was it in particular that captivated you?

JS: He was a genius. He was a brilliant writer and he had an incredible grasp of what was happening like no one else. I remember in the preface to Naked Lunch, I think of it every day when he said: “In the future they are going to simplify and degrade the consumer as well as the product.” That’s the whole story of modern life in one sentence.

MN: Yes, he was very prescient when it comes to many of the predictions that he made. I don’t know if you are familiar with the metaphor where he suggested that we are all in the lifeboat and some people are trying to push others out and other people are trying to punch holes in the bottom of the boat. It was a metaphor he used in conjunction with the environment and the future of the planet.

JS: Yeah, exactly. I was fascinated by his work and I had Naked Lunch when it came out and I had read excerpts in the underground literary magazines before that so I was fascinated with him. When I went to graduate school at Wayne State University in 1964, I was given the chance to do my masters thesis on a work of my choice. I chose Naked Lunch and my advisor was open-minded enough to allow me to do this so I wrote that in 1965.

MN: One of Burroughs’ central themes is control. Was this one of the main philosophical underpinnings of the MC5 or were there other equally important aspects of Burroughs’ work that played an influential or informative role? I read in an interview with Wayne Kramer that he had said that Burroughs’ writing “…was at the heart of everything we do…” 

JS: Correct! [Laughs]. Well, you know that from Burroughs we got the term “heavy metal.” And that’s what we kind of jokingly called their music. Not realizing that it would be reduced to the absurdity that it became. And also at Sanders’ publishing company for the Fugs was heavy metal music. So we were all very deeply influenced by Burroughs.

MN: I was interested in the parallels with Herbert Huncke and yourself. Did you have any contact with the circle of Huncke, Ginsberg and Burroughs himself personally?

JS: Well, I knew Allen Ginsberg. The rest I knew through their works and their legends. I was a careful student of them. They gave me my direction in life.

MN: Was your background similar? You mentioned in the documentary film The Motor City’s Burning from Motown to the Stooges that: “I wanted to come here [to Detroit] to be around the jazz players and the beatniks and dope fiends and the people who were not normal …The young white people that came here came here on purpose they came here to find urban adventure…” Was Naked Lunch part of the motivation?

JS: Yeah, sure. Naked Lunch, Howl, On the Road, Really the Blues by Mezz Mezzrow. Lady Sings the Blues by Billy Holliday. And rhythm and blues records on the radio and from my personal collection.

MN: Much has been written and said about the MC5 being a prototypical punk band.

MC5 and William Burroughs share the bill at the Phun City music festivalJS: [Laughs] They were the least of that. There was nothing punk about them! They were a rock n’ roll band. They had a lot of different facets. They combined quite a few musical streams into their approach. They were good blues players. They were fiendish rhythm and blues lovers. Knowledgeable from Motown to James Brown, who was their idol. Also, they were avid jazz listeners. And straightahead rock n’ roll – Rolling Stones, The Who, Them, Chuck Berry, Little Richard. They combined all these things into their approach and then they had the brilliant lyricist and conceptual leader in Rob Tyner who made it all come together. 

MN: Do you think the perception that the MC5 strayed too far into the political arena was a major factor that ultimately brought about their demise? Or was it more their increasingly avant-garde presentation and costuming that seemed to confuse their audience and move them decisively away from the presentation and music that they had become known for?

JS: When they turned their back on their thousands and thousands of fans and followers and decided they didn’t want to have anything to do with the revolutionary movement – the mass movement – they just wanted to be a rock n’ roll band and they went strictly down hill from there. 

MN: So do you think the political message was driven too far or was it part of their essence really?

JS: Well, they sold all their albums with that message. The first album you see, that was the MC5 they sold over 100,000 albums. That was a lot for a first band putting out a live album as their first album, so they threw all those people away and then they put out that Monkeys album called Back in the USA with Jon Landau. And then they completely alienated the people who had liked them before because it didn’t sound anything like them. By the time that they had made a really good record like High Times – the third one – no one was listening any more.

MN: In the wake of your contretemps with the law and your arrest for possession of two joints, did you have much contact personally with John Lennon in his campaign to have you released? 

JS: Only after I got out. That was an act of magnanimity and brotherhood. He was convinced of the worthiness of my cause by our mutual friends Jerry Reuben and Ed Sanders. 

MN: Were you ever offered the option of being treated at Lexington, KY, as were so many other prisoners who were convicted of possession or use at that time? Indeed I’m sure you are aware that Wayne Kramer himself later spent two years at Lexington.

JS: For one, Lexington wasn’t a deal, it was a narcotics prison. And also, my case was a state case – State of Michigan – so I went to a federal institution. I did hard time just like everybody else. I went to prison, it wasn’t no farm. Rough place.

MN: Do you think that it changed you a lot having to do that time as a result?

JS: Did it change my life? Of course! I didn’t have any for two and a half years except mental. I had a daughter who was two years old and another daughter that was born six months after I was incarcerated. So yeah, it took a big part of my life away from me.

MN: It seems that, with the almost complete dominance of the internet over contemporary culture, more control over human society is available than ever before. Would you agree that this affirms some of Burroughs’ most prescient prophecies about control?

JS: All of the above. The control is greater because you have got to remember that they have all of our conversations such as this and all of our phone calls recorded and in their vaults to refer to whenever they want to and this is all over the world. So that’s pretty advanced in terms of oppression. They don’t crush us all but if they wanted to they have all of the information and all of the ammunition on file. So that’s kind of scary. But on the other hand, we can do something like this whereas before it would have cost us hundreds of dollars to talk this long in a transcontinental way. So it’s nothing — we can both record it and have it for all time as long as they got ones and zeroes. Who knows how long that will be but it will outlast us probably. I just think this is tremendous stuff. It’s like the wheel or the telephone or the automobile — all of these things changed the course of humanity for good and for bad.

MN: So we have to accept all of these things?

JS: Well, I think that’s the healthiest way to approach it [laughs]…

Interview by Marcus Niski. Recorded via Skype from London on 29 May in 2014. Published by RealityStudio on 14 March 2015.

3 thoughts on “William S. Burroughs and MC5: An Interview with John Sinclair

  1. Very refreshing. Refreshing to be exposed to a voice from my own generation, reflecting on the past and underscoring the importance of understanding the present.

    Thank you, Marcus. A nice piece of work!

  2. The holy horsepower of the MC5, coupled with nonstop reading of Burroughs, helped me kick a deadly 9-year heroin habit 22 years ago. These 2 combined elements quite literally brought me back to the edge of Life. John Sinclair is no theorist culture blogger- he’s been there and he’s the real deal.

  3. I was walking down the street one day and a youngster was approaching from the other direction. He had the latest haircut and a MC-5 T-shirt that looked fresh off the rack from one of the many trendy shops here (SF). Once he was close enough I screamed at him: KICK OUT THE JAMS MOTHERFUCKER!! He looked at me as if I was stark raving mad and hurried away. Made me chuckle. Keep up the good work Marcus, and don’t give up on getting your own book out there!

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