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A couple of hundred downtown night crawlers milled about the cavernous Signal 66 warehouse on Blagden Alley NW last Friday evening, taking in several pieces of installation art and a superb series of 30-year-old psychedelic posters brought to town by the evening’s main attraction, John Sinclair, the ’60s radical and manager of the revolutionary Detroit-based rock band MC5.
Backed by drums, guitar, and bass, Sinclair went off on a stream-of-consciousness rant about John Lennon. It was a thank-you note to the late Beatle, basically, because John and Yoko once headlined a star-studded bill at the Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, Mich., to raise money for Sinclair, who was serving 10 years for selling two joints of marijuana to an undercover cop.
Most of the retro-hipsters at the gallery were too young to remember the 58-year-old Sinclair—or the Five, as the band was known—unless they had dusted off their parents’ vinyl to hear the old protest song, “John Sinclair,” recorded by John and Yoko. “Free John Sinclair!” Lennon demands over an eerie slide guitar. “He gave them two. They gave him 10.” Three days after the concert, one of “Amerika’s most notorious citizens” was sprung from prison.
Following his release, Sinclair published a set of prison essays, Guitar Army, which chronicled his cause celabre and his formation of the White Panthers, a Caucasian support group for the Black Panthers. But with the MC5 nodding off on heroin and a political backlash kicking his radical movement to the curb, Sinclair lowered his profile, eventually settling in New Orleans, where he continues to write Beat poetry and also publishes a blues magazine.
Sinclair’s date in D.C. came as one of Signal 66’s “Lost in D.C.,” live Webcasts featuring different musical acts every month. The Sinclair gig was captured by four roving cameramen who zoomed in on the gray-haired, bearded yippie and panned across the young folks swaying to his retro beat. Filmed sequences were picked in the director’s booth, and the streaming video was fed live to the Internet on www.signal66.com.
“Lost in D.C.,” says Signal 66 cofounder Steve Lewis, is “all about connecting audiences with artists” by eliminating the middleman: gallery owners who have become the arbiters of art. “We need to take the art back from the galleries and give it back to the artists,” says Lewis. “It’s an empowering message about art and social activism.”—Patrick Tracey