Chapter 1


“We came here . . . not only to help John 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.”
—John Lennon (Ann Arbor, MI, December 1971)

In December 1971 John Lennon stood onstage to sing and speak on behalf of John Sinclair, a radical leader who was serving a ten-year prison sentence for possession of two joints of marijuana. Sinclair had been incarcerated for more than two years when Lennon pleaded his case.

Two days after Lennon sang, “Let him be, set him free,” a state circuit court reversed a previous decision and Sinclair walked out of prison.

With the nation reeling after years of political turmoil, America needed a new kind of leader. The recently turned ex-Beatle was one of the most famous and influential people on the planet. If he could get a man out of prison, what else might he do?

A government eager to silence enemies asked the same question. They thought Lennon might use his considerable clout to, in their words, “sway” the upcoming presidential election. It would be better for some people if he just went back to England, and the Nixon administration tried to make that happen through methods legal and otherwise.

“So flower power didn’t work,” Lennon said from the stage between songs that night. “So what? We start again.”

• • •

John Lennon felt like a newcomer to New York in the summer of 1971. He’d been to the city before, of course, but those were whirlwind Beatles visits, frantic tours where Manhattan was seen from limousines and hotel rooms. Lennon sought a lower-profile life, ironically in the very place where, seven years earlier, he had launched the “British invasion” of English rock and everything that followed. Back then all it took was an electric guitar, a smart-ass grin, and “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

But this time there were no teenage screams to drown out the music, no mobs of girls desperate for a glimpse at a Beatle. It wasn’t the sixties anymore, a decade of war and assassinations, flower power and protests. Lennon was no longer one of the “Fab Four,” a point he made often.

“Tried to shake our image just a cycling through the Village,” Lennon wrote in “New York City,” among a fresh batch of songs inspired by his new home. He and wife Yoko Ono had stayed first in Midtown’s St. Regis hotel before settling that fall at 105 Bank Street on the west side of Greenwich Village, a space formerly occupied by drummer Joe Butler of the Lovin’ Spoonful.1 The downtown neighborhood suited Lennon’s frame of mind: a gritty yet colorful free-for-all of music, radical politics, art, and dope smoked openly on the streets; an atmosphere worthy of the finest psychedelic “Sgt. Pepper” vibes.

The apartment was modest by New York standards, barely two rooms more functional than spacious. It was worlds apart from Tittenhurst, the English estate Lennon left behind, a home that made an ironic setting in the eyes of more than a few critics of the Imagine promotional film (“imagine no possessions”). Lennon was apparently embarrassed by his wealth, among other by-products of Beatlemania. He told authors Peter McCabe and Robert Schonfield, who that summer had been researching a book on the Beatles’ breakup, Apple to the Core, “I can’t really go on the road and take a lot more money. What am I going to do with it? I’ve got all the fucking bread I need.”2

It wasn’t a random thought; he’d recently discussed the “Imagine” lyrics with Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker.3 “I began to think: I don’t want that big house we built for ourselves in England,” Lennon acknowledged. “I don’t want the bother of owning all those big houses and big cars. It’s clogging my mind just to think about what amount of gear I have in England. All my books and possessions; walls full of books I’ve collected.” Lennon thought those books belonged elsewhere, in libraries and prisons, as with most of his other belongings.

Lennon was trying to get away from the trappings of wealth and fame, and with equal intensity longed to take part in something larger than himself and bigger than the Beatles, if that could be imagined. The explosive political and cultural conflicts that had been brewing in America demanded his attention. In early 1971, Lennon had given extensive interviews to Rolling Stone and Red Mole, a British underground newspaper edited by Tariq Ali. Lennon was “ashamed” that he hadn’t been more active in antiwar and civil rights movements. He had often felt torn between the commercialism of early Beatles success—“everybody trying to use us”—and the desire to sneak more adult topics into their songs: “We’d turned out to be a Trojan horse.”4

He had been cautious, though, understandably hesitant after enduring media scrutiny and public backlash on more than one occasion. There had been legendary scandals including his taken-out-of-context, blown-out-of-proportion observation that British youth weren’t too keen on the church and that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Himself. He told Ali that, back in those days, manager Brian Epstein begged the boys not to weigh in on what had become the dominant issue in America.

“Epstein tried to waffle on at us about saying nothing about Vietnam,” Lennon explained. “George and I said, ‘Listen, when they ask next time, we’re going to say we don’t like the war and we think they should get right out.’ . . . That was a pretty radical thing to do, especially for the ‘Fab Four.’”

There were, at the time, internal differences of opinion about the Beatles’ place in the world as artistic or revolutionary leaders. Before leaving England Lennon had exchanged letters with Paul and Linda McCartney, prompted by public statements regarding the group’s legacy. “Do you really think most of today’s art came about because of the Beatles?” Lennon asked. “I’m not ashamed of the Beatles—(I did start it all).”5

He also wanted to keep their achievements in perspective: “Didn’t we always say we were part of the Movement—not all of it? Of course we changed the world—but try and follow it through—GET OFF YOUR GOLD DISC AND FLY!”

Lennon and McCartney realized that more involvement had been expected of them as a group. Red Mole publisher Ali, an Indian-born, British-raised journalist who was among the new breed of counterculture scribes, had written that artists of Lennon’s stature had an obligation to do more than just flash an occasional peace sign. At the same time, Lennon hadn’t fully come to terms with his newfound revolutionary status.

“He was very modest about it,” recalls Ali. “He said, ‘Are you sure you want to do an interview with me? Your magazine is so intellectual.’”

For the better part of two days they discussed Vietnam, politics, activism, and the challenges the ’60s generation now faced.

“It was John Lennon’s ‘State of the Union’ message,” Ali says. “That’s what it was to the world at that point in time.”

Lennon wanted to be involved, and had been among the first to admit that the youth culture of the sixties had perhaps been a bit too laid-back in its approach.

“The acid dream is over,” Lennon said. “That’s what I’m trying to tell them.” As a musician he could offer songs that brought people together, like the 1969 anthem “Give Peace a Chance,” written and recorded during a very public honeymoon spent on bedded display before the world’s cameras. He envisioned that the song could be sung “in the pub or on a demonstration.” He took it a step further in 1971 with “Power to the People,” and told Ali that his post-Beatles plans included a more active role in the Movement: “I would like to compose songs for the revolution. . . . I hope they see that rock and roll is not the same as Coca-Cola. That’s why I’m putting out more heavy statements now and trying to shake off the teeny-bopper image.”6

In America Lennon was ready to practice what he preached. “Get on your feet,” Lennon said in “Power to the People,” and “into the street.” He loved the idea that he could, more or less, freely walk around Manhattan just like everyone else. The city was alive; the Village a heartbeat that measured the pulse of the streets. Lennon felt it in the basement hangouts of St. Marks Place, the bars on Bleecker, and in Washington Square Park, where the central fountain was a magnet for struggling musicians with talent ranging from up-and-coming to probably-not-happening but no less passionate. John and Yoko casually joined the crowds who enjoyed music played for its own sake, songs not likely to be heard on Top 10 radio.

“Up come a man with a guitar in his hand singing, ‘Have a marijuana if you can.’” David Peel and his Lower East Side band, as immortalized in Lennon’s “New York City,” were among the park’s regular acts, singing and playing for fun and whatever spare change people tossed into an open guitar case. Pot featured prominently in Peel compositions, earnest songs about street life and being a hippie in the city.

In spite of Peel’s amateur abilities, Lennon was taken by the music. The songs were of, by, and for the people, and to Lennon’s ears seemed far more intimate, more relevant than the inherently commercial nature of popular music. Being too successful wasn’t necessarily considered cool in the Village.

“Why do we have to pay to see stars?” Peel asked his audience, a rhetorical question from the perspective of a struggling musician.7

“He must be talking about me,” Lennon reportedly mused. He’d been wrestling with the very nature of being a pop star just as he had his standing in the revolutionary world.

• • •

In Washington Square Park Lennon first met Jerry Rubin, a friend of Peel’s and one of the “Chicago Seven” defendants who, three years earlier, had been charged with inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention.

Lennon said that upon arriving in New York, “the first people who got in touch with me were Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. It’s as simple as that.”8

Lennon seemed the answer to the radical leaders’ long-mumbled prayers; it was “love at first sight” from Rubin’s perspective. “Great vibes,” Rubin described the meeting, confident that Lennon shared his vision. “The Yippies had been applying Beatles tactics to politics, trying to merge music and life.”

The Youth International Party—the “Yippies”—were an informal group of antiwar and civil rights activists fronted by Rubin and Hoffman. In Chicago they had joined forces with New Left leaders including Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden. Their Chicago activities made them famous in some circles, notorious in others. Supporters who gave trial testimony on behalf of all the Chicago defendants included Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, Norman Mailer, Timothy Leary, Reverend Jesse Jackson, and others, but the 1970 court proceedings were mostly seen as a media circus dominated by Hoffman and Rubin’s absurdist theater tactics. Among other stunts, they wore judicial robes to court one day, underneath which—certain they’d be ordered to remove the garments—were Chicago Police Department uniforms. The Seven had been found guilty of crossing state lines to start a riot, and lived with a suspended sentence hanging over their heads for two years before being acquitted.

The Chicago Seven—Rubin, Hoffman, Davis, Dave Dellinger, Hayden, John Froines, and Lee Weiner—had followed separate paths since the trial; some as de facto leaders of the antiwar movement, others as media-fueled celebrities. By 1971 Hoffman and Rubin’s act may have worn thin: ABC News dismissed them as “Groucho Marxists,” not to be taken seriously given their street-theater gags like a mock campaign to elect a pig president (Pigasus the Immortal) or throwing money onto the floor of the stock exchange for a laugh. Davis says there was essentially a schism on the Left around the effectiveness of Hoffman and Rubin, and a guiding force was needed if they were to reenergize in time to replace Nixon as president.

Maybe it was only the end of a difficult decade, but the nation’s spirit of rebellion seemed broken. Many activists continued their work, but on a local level—in schools and communities rather than on the international stage of the antiwar movement. Timemagazine wondered if the dreaded bomb of student protest was a dud. “Something has happened in American life—or has failed to happen,” offered a February essay entitled “The Cooling of America”: “In dead winter, 1971, after months of recession, a decade of war abroad and domestic violence, a mood approaching quiet has fallen like a deep snow.”

“There was so much steam to oppose the war,” says Davis, a Michigan native who cut his revolutionary teeth in Ann Arbor. “The steam ran out. Everybody could see it; you couldn’t get anybody to do anything.”

Davis recalls reading John Lennon’s revolution-fueled interviews and recognizing not just a kindred spirit, but one who could revitalize a fading antiwar movement.

“It was an extraordinary moment to me,” Davis says. “Here was this human being, who symbolized so well his entire generation through the Beatles, making statements that clearly indicated he was not just saying, ‘I’m for peace.’ This was someone saying, ‘I’m an activist, I’m ready to join up.’”

Lennon landed in America at a precarious time, a time when thousands were being arrested, when a few protesters had been killed, and when thousands were dying in Vietnam. So you didn’t necessarily hang back. You put yourself on the line. You made a statement of your active involvement. Lennon had never considered himself a political man, but maybe times had changed. In an October interview with the underground Los Angeles Free Press, Lennon said he’d only recently understood what he might have to offer.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve given up politics in that way,” Lennon reflected.9 “I mean, I never took up politics. Things I do—or for that matter anybody does—are done politically. Any statement you make is a political statement. Any record, even your way of life is a political statement.”

The Movement too was at a crossroads: Was the spirit and passion that had begun with the civil rights movement nearing an end? Davis waxed nostalgic for the sheer rightness of the struggle as it had been, that had begun when four black students sat at a Woolworth’s diner reserved for “whites only” and inspired a six-month boycott of the store . . . and for the decade that had followed.

“It was clear to everyone, especially myself, that this enormous thing that began in 1960 at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, was now a phenomenon, a historic event,” Davis says. “And now, clearly, it was ending.”

Or was it? In John Lennon, Davis and Rubin saw a glimpse of hope. Rubin needed something to restore his credibility, not only with mainstream America but within the Movement itself. In some ways, Rubin faced similar life issues to Lennon’s—concerned about his future and uncertain of the legacy he’d thus far written. Rubin told Rolling Stone that he had more than a few doubts about his—and the revolution’s—future.10

“Everyone around me was depressed and confused,” Rubin said. “Everyone in the Movement was condemning everything . . . condemning our whole history.”

Lennon in New York presented a rare opportunity that Rubin eagerly seized. He placed a shot-in-the-dark call to Apple Records and was as surprised as anyone when Yoko called him back. Rubin and Hoffman’s first encounter with John and Yoko fittingly took place beneath Washington Square’s landmark arch; Lennon wore American flag sneakers, Yoko was all in black. After excited introductions they left the park and spent several hours in Hoffman’s apartment. Rubin told John and Yoko that their bed-ins for peace were great, not unlike his own political stunts. John and Yoko said they considered Hoffman and Rubin to be artists; the radical leaders saw Lennon as a new kind of political activist.

Rubin asked early and often what exactly Lennon wanted to do. To be involved, Lennon told him. He wanted to put a band together, play music, and “give all the money back to the people”; to use his music and do his part for the Movement. He had said he intended to “compose songs for the revolution,” and hoped to take those songs on the road and maybe shake things up a little.

“I want to do something political, and radicalize people and all that jazz,” Lennon said. “This would be the best way . . . taking a really far-out show on the road, a mobile, political rock and roll show.”

If he’d been back in London Lennon would have had all the contacts he wanted, as he dipped a tentative toe in British revolutionary waters, but in America he required some introductions to find the right causes to rally. Rubin’s usefulness relied on whether the Yippie leader could serve as Lennon’s tour guide into Left politics, Yankee style. He had to bring something to the Bank Street party to stand out from the dreamers and schemers who sought Lennon’s friendship, confidence, and favors.

A specific issue piqued Lennon’s interest, the struggles of Rubin’s friend, Detroit activist John Sinclair, who was serving a harsh prison sentence: ten years for marijuana possession that instead seemed like punishment for his political views.

Either the sales pitch or the cause—ten years for two lousy joints!—clinched the deal. The immediacy of the effort appealed to Lennon—grab a guitar, fly to Michigan, and get involved, and for the crowd to do more than just scream in delight.

“We want the audience to participate fully, and not just admire God onstage,” Lennon told French TV reporter Jean-François Vallee, who spent a day filming a Bank Street bed-chat with John, Yoko, and Rubin in early December.11 Lennon described the vision he’d been forming of a politically charged concert, free of superstar trappings, with the people and performers united in spirit.

That seemed to have been the problem when the Beatles last tried to perform in front of a crowd—and who knew what might happen if all four took the stage together again. “I am still mainly a musician,” Lennon said, perhaps wistfully, as he prepared to begin a new chapter in his career. Partly, his goal was to be just another musician, one without the superstar trappings; at the same time, in his writing and performing he was seeking to shine as an artist in ways that might even surpass what he had accomplished as a member of a group, even if the group did happen to be the Beatles.

“As an individual I still have a lot of power, I can always get on the media . . . because of the Beatles,” Lennon said. “Our job now is to tell them there is still hope and we still have things to do and we must get out now and change their heads. We can change! It isn’t over just because flower power didn’t work. It’s only the beginning.”

Lennon thought he’d found exactly what he’d hoped for when he left Britain, a chance to serve the Movement with his guitar and presence.

• • •

Lennon may have been John Sinclair’s last hope for getting out of prison. Two years into his sentence and nothing had worked, not letter-writing campaigns to the Detroit News or Free Press, not even when Abbie Hoffman tried to take the stage at Woodstock and say a few words about Sinclair’s ordeal. (Abbie’s timing was off: he stepped onstage while the Who were doing their thing, and legend holds that guitarist Pete Townshend belted Hoffman with his Gibson and sent him off.)

Sinclair was an underground Detroit legend dating back to his Wayne State University days in the early 1960s. A man of eclectic tastes in addition to an affinity for weed, Sinclair composed poetry, advocated for political causes and community benefits, and promoted his beloved jazz. With his future wife, German-born Magdalene “Leni” Arndt, Sinclair transformed the 1964-launched Detroit Artists Workshop into the more political, civil rights–driven White Panther Party, a name taken in response to Black Panther Huey Newton’s call to arms to people of all colors. Although the name was potentially confusing (and later changed to the Rainbow People’s Party), the White Panthers sympathized with what they considered a natural ally in the wake of the 1967 riots that rocked the Motor City.

“The hippies and the black people had the same enemy: the Detroit Police Department,” Sinclair says. “Another common bond was we smoked weed and so did most of them. Certainly the ones we came in contact with, artists and poets.”

Whether hippie or Panther, Sinclair said they shared common bonds as easily distinguishable minorities in a country divided by a so-called generation gap.

“They had a sign: long hair,” Sinclair says. “If you had long hair, smoked dope, liked rock and roll, didn’t have a job, and liked to fuck, you were a hippie. Hippies were great; best thing to ever happen to this country.”

Sinclair’s casual demeanor, that of the frequently if not perpetually stoned, could be deceptive; he was passionate and focused on the issues he championed. From a core of community-based idealism, his grassroots efforts tackled causes large and small but always local, unlike the higher-profile activists who basked in the national spotlight. While sympathetic, Sinclair pointed out that Detroit had its own problems.

“We were totally outside the established realm of politics, of which the left wing was the SDS and the mobilization of all the antiwar stuff,” Sinclair says. “We were always in support of that, but we were coming from a different cultural perspective.”

The local attention—good and bad—was just as intense as the national scrutiny faced by Rubin and Hoffman. Sinclair’s passions for pot and politics made him a target for campus police who considered longhairs enemies of the state.

“I was busted twice before,” Sinclair recalls. “Once for selling a ten-dollar ‘matchbox’ to an undercover police officer; the second time an undercover policeman induced me to drive him to someone’s house where I got him a ten-dollar bag.”

The second arrest in 1965 ended with Sinclair spending six months in the Detroit House of Corrections. What should have been a cautionary tale—quit giving pot to relative strangers—didn’t take hold. Back on the streets, Sinclair continued his laid-back approach to freely sharing the weed.

“We were hippies, you know, we weren’t criminals,” he says. “We didn’t consider ourselves engaged in criminal behavior. Everything we did was open, free to the public, that’s what we were about.”

Everyone was welcome at the Detroit Artists Workshop, including two newcomers in late 1966: a man with long hair and a beret called “Louie,” and a woman introduced as “Pat” who wore hippie clothes, smoked pot, and helped with the typing.12 Pat played up to the men and Louie tried to score pot from whomever he could. Louie and Pat—in reality Vahan Kapagian and Jane Mumford of the Detroit Police Department—were comfortable with the hippies, and one memorable day Pat asked a question often heard at the workshop.

“She asked me if I had a joint,” Sinclair says. “I rolled a joint, we had a smoke. She asked if she could take it with her. I said, ‘Here, let me give you another one,’ so I gave her a second one.”

The word “entrapment” probably didn’t slow down the two officers who, a month later, stormed the workshop with some of their friends and a fistful of warrants. Sinclair was arrested along with fifty-five others in what the papers called a “campus dope raid.” The charges dragged through two years’ worth of appeals, and in 1969 Sinclair began a ten-year prison sentence for a pair of joints.

For two years his friends and supporters had tried everything they could think of—appeals to sympathetic lawmakers, letters and advertisements in newspapers—but Sinclair remained stuck in prison. Hope came in two forms. The first was a political gambit played in July 1971 by President Richard Nixon when he lowered the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen. The impact went well beyond the election of the president; candidates at all levels of government would now need to sell their platforms to a generation that they had barely acknowledged before, let alone understood. Of particular interest to the college crowd, the politicians would quickly learn, were laws criminalizing marijuana use. Legislators across the country weighed whether it might be time to reduce simple possession from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Sinclair’s supporters hoped this might be the chance they’d been waiting for to get Sinclair’s story back in the public spotlight, told on front pages and evening newscasts. Sometimes it took sensational efforts, something as loud as a Yippie stunt, but backed up by mainstream credibility. A concert to rally the pro-pot, antiwar crowd could be the perfect combustion of audience and cause—if the right acts could be found. They needed a big star to draw the right amount of attention.

“We were always reaching for more,” Sinclair says. “This time we hit the jackpot.”

• • •

Concert promoter Peter Andrews didn’t believe it was really happening until John Lennon answered the phone. Andrews and Leni Sinclair had flown to New York equipped with little more than a Jerry Rubin–provided phone number and some downtown addresses.

Andrews was well experienced in booking concerts in Ann Arbor, everything from local acts to Jefferson Airplane. He’d been approached about the intimidating task of filling the fifteen-thousand-seat Crisler Arena on behalf of a jailed poet.

“Sinclair wanted a big event,” Andrews says. “He’s in jail telling folks, ‘I need something big here.’”

What they had wasn’t enough. Andrews says the original plans for the Ann Arbor show included local musicians and a host of speakers, which might fill three thousand seats at best and leave a sad, empty-looking arena. Besides, wasn’t John Sinclair old news?

“I looked at what they had and said, ‘You have a real bomb on your hands,’” Andrews recalls. “He’d been in prison two years, and people have short memories.”

Andrews considered the idea without much enthusiasm, until Leni Sinclair relayed an intriguing offer: John Lennon and Yoko Ono as headliners.

No way, thought Andrews. “It was too far out,” he says. “The idea of him performing was pretty outrageous.”

But it was real, and soon it was happening. Andrews and Leni shook their heads at their good fortune and set about closing the deal. While Andrews headed for Bank Street to confirm Lennon’s interest in the concert, Leni took a cab to Jerry Rubin’s Prince Street apartment to discuss adding another top-shelf artist to the line-up. Braced against the December chill she rang the bell. Hearing no response, Leni waited on the stoop for him to return.

“Before long, a man came up and rang the same doorbell,” Leni says. He, too, was there to see Rubin, and they had a brief conversation. Leni told the kindred spirit of her husband’s plight and how Rubin and John Lennon planned to help. Another man soon approached who had a key to the building, and they went inside to wait for Rubin.

“I sat in a chair and these two gentlemen started a conversation,” Leni says. “I’m listening out of one ear, and it dawns on me that it was Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. Jerry Rubin was trying to get Bob Dylan to play this concert with John Lennon.”

A true radical dating back to when she fled Germany and dove headlong into Detroit’s underground scene, Leni felt somewhat out of her league when she realized the company she was in.

“I never saw them again, and he didn’t do the concert,” Leni says. I don’t hold that against him—you don’t need Bob Dylan if you’ve got John Lennon.” And though Dylan didn’t end up on the bill for the Michigan concert, Phil Ochs did.

The trip from Detroit was an unqualified if unbelievable success: one of the world’s most sought-after performers was set to champion the Sinclair cause. Andrews had a signed contract that paid Lennon $500 for his performance, a fee immediately signed back over to the John Sinclair Freedom Fund.13 The fee-turned-donation was a paltry sum, of course, and Lennon was well aware that the many groups and activists who sought him out did so in part from financial need.

“I always take care of the underground,” Lennon had said a few months earlier. He also had his own vision of what charity or benefits could accomplish. “If they get in trouble I lend them money or invest in them or whatever. I get asked every two days for at least five thousand pounds, and I usually give it to them.”14 Lennon had in mind a foundation built on “a dollar a head” concert receipts that could benefit those who came calling.

Of equal value was Lennon the performer, and the musical stamp of incalculable worth he could put on a given cause. With Sinclair in mind, Lennon previewed a song he’d started writing for the occasion, a bluesy number strummed on a steel guitar.

“I assured him it was very good,” Andrews says. “And that John Sinclair would indeed love it.”

Andrews, stunned at the prospect of a John Lennon concert, humbly asked Lennon to say a few words into a tape recorder, an oral testament to confirm the contents of the hastily drawn-up contract.15 Lennon’s message was brief, to the point, even semiapologetic in some ways:

This is John and I’m with Yoko here. I just want to say we’re coming along to the John Sinclair bust fund or rally or whatever it is 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 we have a song that we wrote for John. That’s that. We’ll be there Friday . . . hello and goodbye and hope that’s fine.

• • •

Naturally, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were treated like royalty when they arrived in Michigan on Friday, December 10. Andrews booked—ironically—the presidential suite of Ann Arbor’s Campus Inn, where he brought the couple after picking them up at the airport.

Selling tickets with Lennon’s name on the bill was hardly a concern—the three-dollar entry fee was remarkably low even by 1971 standards—and the show sold out within a few hours. Andrews said that the modest price was at Sinclair’s insistence, a “for the people” philosophy he later regretted.

“We had a breakeven budget and nobody got paid,” Andrews says. “I wanted to charge twenty bucks, gross $300,000, and we’d sell out in the same amount of time. You don’t get too many opportunities to present John Lennon.”

As in New York, Lennon hoped to downplay his fame, to be one of the street people in the college town’s hip stores and bustling downtown. Lennon spent part of the afternoon wandering through the shops, including some time with star-struck musicians in the Herb David Guitar Studio at the corner of Liberty and Fourth Street. There was no fanfare, owner David told the Ann Arbor Chronicle; Lennon simply walked in, so unassuming that at first he wasn’t recognized by some of the people in the store.16

The owner knew perfectly well who was standing in his shop. “Hi John,” David said before introducing himself.

“I’m not John. I’m his cousin,” Lennon grinned in response.

“Hello cousin,” David smiled back, and invited Lennon to relax and sit in a simple wooden chair. Lennon spent more than an hour in the store, at one point playing guitar to the delight of stunned customers. (The chair remained in place four decades later. A cardboard sign read, John Lennon sat here in 1971, a museum-worthy piece revered like presidential memorabilia.)

By evening Lennon was backstage at Crisler, where he patiently showed guitar chords to his improvised band. Satisfied that his support group understood the songs as well as could be reasonably expected, Lennon waited to close the show.

It was a long wait. The program began shortly after seven p.m. with the poet Allen Ginsberg, whose ballad of Sinclair had been given to Lennon as background information on the cause. It seemed a joint was lit each time John Sinclair’s name was invoked, as smoke clouds formed in the arena that lingered through the long night. The next seven hours featured musical performances by local favorite Bob Seger, Teegarden and Van Winkle, Phil Ochs, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen (“Hot Rod Lincoln”), the Up, and jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp. While instruments and amplifiers were rotated between acts, the audience heard revolutionary rhetoric from Rennie Davis, Bobby Seale, Jerry Rubin, and others who had come to Ann Arbor to free an imprisoned pothead; each of the speakers also brought his own take on the Movement’s priorities.

Davis gave an impassioned speech that put our government’s hypocrisy in perspective: since Sinclair began his sentence two years earlier, American forces—under Nixon’s orders—had dropped bombs on Southeast Asia at the rate of “two and a half Hiroshima’s a week”—at the same time as the administration tried to convince America that the war was winding down.17

Black Panther cofounder Seale let loose a free-verse, poetic rant on the “historical pollution” of war, hunger, murder, injustice—a rhythmic chant that long predated the cadence of rap: “The only solution to pollution is a people’s humane revolution!”

Rubin was typically excited, and made sweeping pronouncements on the state of the hippie union. “To all the people who say the Movement, the revolution is over, they ought to see what’s going on right here,” Rubin observed. “It doesn’t look over to me.”

Perhaps the most intriguing of Rubin’s statements—at least for certain members of the audience—were speculations on what might take place the following year at the 1972 Republican Convention, which at the time was scheduled to be held in California.

“We should do to the Republicans what we did to the Democrats in 1968,” Rubin said. “Bring a million to San Diego.”

Fellow Chicago Seven veteran Dave Dellinger made similar references, including plans for a political concert. “We want John out of prison,” Dellinger said, “to organize the music in San Diego.”18

It wasn’t just the radicals; the concert and Lennon’s appearance quickly sparked a bandwagon. Knowing that new laws were set to pass to reduce the penalties for marijuana possession, and equally aware of a Beatle-brightened spotlight on the cause, calls for Sinclair to be released gained momentum. A statement read during the concert from Ann Arbor mayor Robert J. Harris called Sinclair’s sentence a “horror” and “disgrace.” Harris praised the state legislature for revising pot laws; the East Lansing City Council agreed with a resolution in support of Sinclair’s appeal motion.

“Nothing like this has ever happened in history,” Leni Sinclair said, her primary focus on getting back a husband and father. “And it won’t be the last time—it’s too much fun.”

Arrangements were made for Sinclair himself to address the crowd; he snuck his way to a prison pay phone for a quick call to Ann Arbor. Andrews went onstage, stopped the show, and announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a live phone call from Jackson.”

“I’m so wiped out I don’t know what to say,” Sinclair told the audience. He asked the crowd to “say something to me,” and the night’s loudest cheer went up in an emotional outpouring.

For many, the musical highlight of the night came at one a.m. when a special, unannounced guest star hit the stage. Andrews says he had only learned about the late addition a few days earlier.

“I was sitting in the office and the phone rings,” Andrews recalls. “It’s Stevie Wonder. After we got John Lennon, nothing’s going to surprise me, and Stevie Wonder said he wanted to be part of it.”

Wonder—a Motown success beginning at age thirteen whose musical genius shone early and bright—was careful with his politics. Andrews said the singer wanted to make it clear that he neither advocated nor supported the use of drugs, but that “he knew what they did to Sinclair and it wasn’t too nice.”

Wonder launched into “For Once in My Life.” Backstage, Lennon’s ears perked up; he hadn’t known the Motown star was on the bill. Lennon scrambled to find Andrews and get near the stage.

“Stevie Wonder is here?” Lennon cried in disbelief. “I gotta see him.”

Andrews hesitated, picturing John Lennon in the crowd.

“You don’t parade a Beatle around the audience,” Andrews told the star.

“You have to understand,” Lennon explained, “Stevie Wonder is my Beatles.”

A squad of security men formed a circle and Lennon was brought through the tunnel to the side of the stage. It wasn’t long before people nearby took their eyes off Wonder and gasped in recognition. Crowds formed, too close for Andrews’s comfort.

“I told John it was getting messy, and like a trooper he obeyed,” Andrews recalls. “He thanked me . . . he was like a kid, seeing Stevie Wonder.”

Wonder was uncharacteristically blunt about his politics and music that night. He played Sly Stone’s “Somebody’s Watching You,” which he dedicated to the FBI and “any of the undercover agents who might be out in the audience.” Addressing the reason for the concert, Wonder questioned a justice system that jailed Sinclair while the Ohio National Guard faced no charges: “A man gets ten years in prison for possession of marijuana, and another can kill four students at Kent State and walk free. What kind of shit is that? Sometimes I get very disgusted and very discouraged.”

Eight hours after the concert started, Lennon took the stage for a short set of four as-yet-unrecorded songs: “Attica State,” “The Luck of the Irish,” “Sisters O Sisters,” and the evening’s tribute ballad, “John Sinclair.” Lennon was introduced by David Peel, who sang a song in their honor before the introduction. (“John Lennon, Yoko Ono, New York City is your friend,” he chanted in his deadpan style.)

Lennon walked on with limited fanfare to enthusiastic applause, wearing a leather jacket and sunglasses and carrying two guitars. Onstage, Lennon introduced “Attica State,” which he explained he had started writing “as an ad lib” during his thirty-first birthday celebration in October, but since then “we finished it up.” A sound check—“hello, hello” into the microphone—gave way to a thumping start to the song.

The performance wasn’t among Lennon’s best, a fact obvious to everyone including the singer. Several times during the set Lennon conferred midsong with his back-up players, visibly frustrated. Some of the reviews were critical: “Hardly worth the wait,” wrote Bill Gray in the Detroit News. Gray wasn’t impressed with the “unfamiliar” songs or Yoko’s vocal on “Sisters O Sisters.”19

Lennon prefaced “John Sinclair” with a few remarks. He tuned his steel guitar while he addressed the crowd, speaking to his friends plain and simple as he always did. He was there to help Sinclair, of course, and “spotlight what’s going on,” but the message he wanted to spread was bigger than just one man in prison.

Lennon’s speech was a keynote for a new era. He wanted people to know that passive indifference and benign protest belonged back in the sixties with the Beatles records.

“Apathy isn’t it . . . we can do something. So flower power didn’t work,” Lennon shrugged. “So what, we start again.”

Lennon sang: “Free John now, if we can, from the clutches of the man.”

About forty-eight hours later they did just that.


1 Philip Norman, John Lennon: The Life (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 683.

2 John Lennon, interview by Peter McCabe and Robert Schonfeld at the St. Regis Hotel, New York City, September 5, 1971, Tittenhurst Park blog,

3 Hendrik Hertzberg, “Talk of the Town,” New Yorker, January 8, 1972, 28.

4 Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn, Red Mole, January 1971.

5 Hunter Davies, ed., The John Lennon Letters (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012), 208.

6 Ali and Blackburn, Red Mole

7 Paul DeRienzo, “John Lennon, David Peel and Rock’s Greatest Flattery,” Villager, December 13, 2012.

8 Geoffrey Giuliano, Lennon in America: 1971–1980, Based in Part on the Lost Lennon Diaries (New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000), 35.

9 Elliot Mintz, “Elliot Mintz Interviews John Lennon,” Los Angeles Free Press, October 15–21, 1971.

10 Stu Werbin, “John & Jerry & David & John & Leni & Yoko,” Rolling Stone, February 17, 1972.

11 John Lennon, interview by Jean-Françoise Vallee, Pop 2, December 1971.

12 David A. Carson, Grit, Noise, and Revolution (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 113.

13 Alan Glenn, “The Day a Beatle Came to Town,” Ann Arbor Chronicle, December 27, 2009.

14 Lennon, interview by McCabe and Schonfeld, Tittenhurst Park.

15 Glenn, Ann Arbor Chronicle.

16 Ibid.

17 The U.S. vs. John Lennon, directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld (Paramount, 2006).

18 Roy Reynolds, “15,000 Attend Sinclair Rally,” Ann Arbor News, December 11, 1971.

19 Bill Gray, “Lennon Let His Followers Down,” Detroit News, December 13, 1971.



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