In 1959, Leni Sinclair—born Magdalene Arndt—left a West Berlin refugee camp bound for Detroit, where relatives lived. A teenager with a love of Beat poetry, avant-garde jazz and film, she carried a camera wherever she went. Soon immersed in the Detroit’s underground arts and leftist politics, she met John Sinclair and began photographing the jazz scene, which led to photographing rock shows by the likes of the MC5 (whom she and John managed) and the Stooges. Over the years, Leni amassed an invaluable, unrivaled archive that has finally received a proper showcase, Motor City Underground. Richie Unterberger spoke at length with Leni Sinclair for PKM about her book and her incredible journey.   

In the psychedelic era, youth revolutionized both music and culture around the globe. The scenes in London, San Francisco, and Los Angeles get the most attention for the incredible music, artwork, posters, and political movements those regions generated. Detroit doesn’t get nearly as much ink in comparison, but the city wasn’t too far behind in those respects. The MC5 and the Stooges might not have sold too many records, but they too carved out a distinctive sound whose hard edge and fervor could have only come from Michigan. Detroit had its own equivalent to the Fillmore in the Grande Ballroom, and rock poster artists on par with the more celebrated ones from San Francisco.

What, I ask photographer Leni Sinclair, made Detroit stand out from what was happening in other locales? “I wanted to make a T-shirt that said one thing: Detroit is different,” she responds. “Detroit is like nowhere else on earth. That’s because of the history of Detroit, and the racism, and the poverty, and the abandonment of Detroit by the people who made their money, and then split for greener pastures.

“The people they left behind took their frustrations out in the music. They poured their heart into it, whether it’s rock or blues or R&B. They put their souls out there. It all has to do with Detroit. It all has to do with the city being so different.”

Fortunately, Sinclair was there to document the scene, whether the MC5 and the Stooges in concert; police confronting demonstrators rallying against the war and for justice; the communes that gave bands like the MC5 the essentials necessary to survive; and the avant-garde jazz musicians who help fuel the MC5’s radical tinge. Many of her black-and-white photos capturing both the joy and the raging intensity of the times are in her recent 400-page book Motor City Underground. Published by the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, the book also features a lengthy historical essay by co-editor Cary Loren and a detailed interview with Sinclair herself.

“I wasn’t trying anything,” she reflects when discussing her approach. “I was just there. When something happened, I’d take a picture. I’d take pictures where there was something that needed to be documented. I don’t consciously take pictures of things that are bad, or things that are good. I just walked along with my camera.” The result is perhaps the most valuable historical record of the counterculture, rock-related and otherwise, that burned brightly—and burned out—in Detroit and Ann Arbor in the last half of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Detroit in the Early-to-Mid-1960s

After growing up in the small East German village of Vahldorf in the years following World War II, Leni—born Magdalene Arndt—went to a refugee camp in West Berlin, bringing with her a camera she’d bought just before leaving home. In late 1959, the still-teenaged Leni sailed to the U.S. and then took a train to Detroit, where she had relatives.

“I wanted to meet some people that I could relate to,” she remembers. “I was working in Grosse Pointe,” an affluent suburb, “and on my days off, I would take the bus down to the cultural center and walk along the Detroit Institute of Art, or the historical museum. I had bought a copy of Howl by Allen Ginsberg. I carried that copy of Howl so it would be visible by somebody else who may know what it is, and may speak to me about” it.

“And that’s exactly what happened. On the steps of the Detroit Institute of Art, I met Bill Hinchey. We got to talking, and he said, ‘I can take you over to where the beatniks hang out.’ That’s where I met James Gurley and a whole bunch of other people. He was a folksinger. He and his wife Nancy were singing at coffeehouses.” The last time she’d see Gurley was when she’d take his picture (as seen in the book) with Janis Joplin when they arrived at Detroit Metropolitan Airport in 1968, on their way to perform at a concert as part of Big Brother and the Holding Company, featuring Gurley as one of the guitarists.

“I was going to antiwar demonstrations, I was in SDS, and I was trying to be political,” she says. “I had a camera, so I shot pictures. Went to the National Student Congress and the March to Washington.” She also got involved with the Detroit Artists Workshop, “a collective of artists doing modern poetry, avant-garde jazz, filmmaking, photography, painting—everything.” And she began a relationship with another of the workshop’s stalwarts, John Sinclair, whom she’d marry in 1965.

1520 Hill 1970 by Leni Sinclair

Although the British Invasion was well underway by the time the workshop was founded in late 1964, rock’n’roll wasn’t yet much on its radar. The earlier photos in Motor City Underground feature intimate shots of cutting-edge jazz musicians like Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Charlie Haden, Alice Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Marion Brown, as well as some of the political demonstrations in which Leni took part.

“With every concert and every musician, it was easier getting access and being able to take pictures in the ‘60s than it is now,” she observes. “I never needed a permit. Usually, I was working for some kind of [underground] newspaper or another, like the Fifth Estate, or the Detroit Sun.”

Such shots still weren’t so common in the mid-1960s, when experimental jazz musicians played to small audiences and usually sold records in small quantities. “Archie Shepp or the Art Ensemble of Chicago, in the early ‘60s, they were not that well known,” she affirms. “But John Sinclair was a great enthusiast and supporter of the avant-garde musicians. So by promoting them, and hanging out with them, we became friends. That’s how I got a lot of my photos sometimes.”

The Sinclairs and the Detroit Arts Workshop might have kept operating within this vital, but rather small and insular, jazz scene (with some folk, blues, poetry, and other arts as well) had not some unexpected events thrown them into the center of the city’s exploding rock inferno. As Leni explains, in February 1966, “John went to jail [for marijuana possession] for six months. When he got out of jail, [in] that time the world had changed, it seemed. Instead of a whole big jazz scene, what was happening was a whole big youth movement.”

And, a little surprisingly, it was one of those very jazz musicians he’d worked with who helped steer John toward rock. “There was a jazz musician who told John Sinclair to listen to the Beatles. In fact, it was Joseph Jarman of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, who told John, ‘You should start listening to this shit. Listen to Revolver.’ Then John started opening his ears more away from jazz. Then he met the MC5.”

As Leni explains, in February 1966, “John went to jail [for marijuana possession] for six months. When he got out of jail, [in] that time the world had changed, it seemed. Instead of a whole big jazz scene, what was happening was a whole big youth movement.”

Photographing the MC5

The MC5, Sinclair continues, wanted John “as a manager. But the MC5 was on the verge of breaking up. He met ‘em because Rob Tyner was their lead singer. Didn’t want to play rock and roll; he wanted to play jazz. He even changed his name from Robert Derminer to Robert Tyner, in honor of McCoy Tyner, who was a piano player for John Coltrane.

“Rob Tyner wanted to break up the band and start a jazz trio. And John could see that the MC5 was actually already a moneymaking operation. They had gigs every weekend. He started going out with them, and helping ‘em out, like helping carry equipment, or helping collect the money. He saw they could use some help, and instead of breaking up the band…John [and] Tyner became fast friends. They talked about keeping the band, and incorporating some of the jazz elements into the rock, and making new sounds. They called it avant-rock, but borrowed from avant-garde jazz. They listened to a whole lot of avant-garde jazz, and then made their own music. So we went to rock and roll.”

Leni Sinclair would be key to building the MC5’s momentum with photos that not only captured the band in action, but were often used as publicity pictures. She shot the group in outdoor concerts, Rob Tyner exultantly flashing the peace sign in striped pants as American flags draped their amplifiers. She caught Tyner playing harmonica in a particularly effective multiple exposure under the strobe light at the Grande Ballroom, an image later used on a poster by Detroit’s top poster artist, Gary Grimshaw. One two-page spread shows Tyner, as the caption puts it, “improvising with a member of the Grande Ballroom audience” onstage, though in a couple of the half-dozen shots, “straddling” the girl might be a more appropriate description. Her picture of the quintet in bare-chested pose would be used as part of their debut LP Kick Out the Jams; a couple outtakes from that session are in the book, along with many others of the band.

John [and] Tyner became fast friends. They talked about keeping the band, and incorporating some of the jazz elements into the rock, and making new sounds. They called it avant-rock, but borrowed from avant-garde jazz. They listened to a whole lot of avant-garde jazz, and then made their own music. So we went to rock and roll.”

“They were always cooperative when it came to taking pictures,” Leni tells me. “Because that was part of getting famous, getting pictures taken. The pictures that I took of the MC5 were always taken with that in mind: that if a picture turns out real good, it can be used as a publicity photo. For that reason, I also acquired a 16-millimeter camera and started shooting some movie footage of them. Because we were gonna make a little three-minute movie to show to potential promoters so they could see the band in action, and see if they could book them.

“It was all about getting gigs and making money, because we all lived in poverty. We didn’t get paid. There was a whole commune of people”—seen in a few of the book’s pictures—“who literally every weekend worked on the light show, making stage clothes for the band, and drew posters and fliers promoting them. There was a whole communal effort to get the band to be famous so we could all eat better, and they could buy better equipment.”

Were spontaneous audience interactions, like the sequence with Tyner “improvising” with a fan onstage, surprises that you had to be quick to click? “No,” she replies matter-of-factly. “That happened a lot. That was not the only time. Because girls would jump on stage and Rob Tyner. It was theater, you know? The girls loved it. They loved the band.”

More controversially, the MC5 also posed with guns for some pictures. One shows them recreating Grimshaw’s “nation” symbol of the White Panther Party by crossing a guitar with a gun and a peace pipe. While managed by John Sinclair, the MC5 would often be associated with the White Panthers, a party working for cultural revolution in which the Sinclairs were heavily involved. How much of the MC5’s posturing signified actual intent to use weapons, and how much was theater?

There was a whole communal effort to get the band to be famous so we could all eat better, and they could buy better equipment.”

“I think it was only theater,” she laughs, “because I never saw any of ‘em shoot anything. I don’t even know if they knew how to use ‘em. Somebody brought ‘em over and we used ‘em for photo shots, photo prop, you know? Just to make a provocative image. But it’s not like they were into militarism. No no, they were just for fun. That’s how I think of it.

“But now I’m ambivalent about showing pictures of them with guns. And I’m very ambivalent about showing the MC5 with the Confederate flag”—though a picture of them onstage with that flag draped over an amp is in the book. “They did that, they had no idea that it was a bad flag. The MC5 had no idea what it meant. I had no idea what it meant either, until I moved to New Orleans and I became aware of what that flag did to people if they saw it. It put the fear of the lord into them, you know? It started putting the fear of the lord in me when I saw a truckful of guys on the beach flying the Confederate flag and getting drunk and loud and shit.”

I never saw any of ‘em shoot anything. I don’t even know if they knew how to use ‘em. Somebody brought ‘em over and we used ‘em for photo shots, photo prop, you know? Just to make a provocative image.

As she clarifies in the book’s caption of the photo, “I don’t want people who love the MC5 to see them with that [Confederate] flag and use it to justify their own use of that racist flag. The MC5 were the most antiracist people I met in this country. Ignorant maybe, like me, but not racist.”

As much adulation as they could inspire among some fans, the MC5’s presence wasn’t welcomed by everyone, as one particularly stark photo reminds us. A Chevrolet van used by the band, emblazoned with their distinctive star-studded logo, bears the obvious scars of an actual act of violence committed against the band’s property. “We were attacked a lot because we were hippies,” says Sinclair. “Some hippies were just attacked because they had long hair. A lot of people did not like what we stood for, or the way we dressed. So they fire-bombed the MC5 van one time.”

I don’t want people who love the MC5 to see them with that [Confederate] flag and use it to justify their own use of that racist flag. The MC5 were the most antiracist people I met in this country. Ignorant maybe, like me, but not racist.

Iggy, the Up, and Other Detroit Bands

 Although Leni’s primary photographic focus was the MC5 until they and John Sinclair parted ways at the end of the 1960s, a good number of pictures of other bands are in the book, including some of Iggy Pop and the Stooges. “The main emphasis with me was always trying to get the MC5,” she admits. “I wasn’t really concentrating on the Iggy shots very much. I couldn’t. That wasn’t my main objective.”

But she did get Iggy in action sometimes, including a particularly memorable shot, taking up nearly two pages in the book, from the Grande Ballroom in the late 1960s. Iggy is sprawled onstage holding his microphone, tongue stuck out, legs on the floor, but chest nearly perpendicular to the ground, almost as if he’s a rock’n’roll mermaid. It seems like a gymnastically impossible, almost reptilian position to manage at any time, let alone when you’re fronting the Stooges in concert.

“Photographing Iggy was an adventure every time, because you never knew what he was gonna do,” according to Leni. “That picture was just luck that it came out so nice, that I caught it exactly at the moment where he was extended. I wasn’t ready actually to photograph Iggy. I was just ready to photograph the MC5, ‘cause the Stooges opened for the MC5. But I was by the stage, I was ready, the camera was ready with black and white film. So when I saw Iggy going through these contortions onstage, I snapped a few pictures.

“I told Iggy one time, ‘I just want to thank you for letting me take those pictures of you in the ‘60s. Because now, selling those pictures puts bread on my table now and then.’ And he said, ‘Oh, I’m so glad to know that.’ He wasn’t mad, he was glad.”

Iggy Pop 1968 by Leni Sinclair

For an intense fan of Detroit rock of the era, the book’s also valuable for including some images of bands that didn’t make it, or even make many records. The Up, for instance, whose bassist, Gary Rasmussen, was still in high school and living at home. They only managed one-and-a-half rare singles (though a CD offering a more comprehensive overview of their recordings eventually came out), and on the basis of these, had a hard rock buzz not too far afield from the heat generated by the far more famous MC5 and Stooges. There are also shots of the Früt, described in one Creem review as sounding “like a crappy high school band drunk past exuberance.”

Photographing Iggy was an adventure every time, because you never knew what he was gonna do

Leni Sinclair makes no grand claims for the Up, even though she and her family worked with them. Trans-Love Energies, she explains, “was managing three bands: the MC5, the Stooges, and the Up. The Up was managed by my brother-in-law, Dave Sinclair. But the MC5 was the poster child for us. The MC5 was the band. But then when the MC5 fired John Sinclair, we needed a band. So the Up came to the forefront. We had nothing to do with the MC5 after we had that split.”

As for the Up, “They were good musicians, but they were not as together musically as the MC5 was. I might have had something to do with them not becoming more famous, ‘cause I criticized [Up singer] Frank Bach in a letter to John Sinclair one time, which I regret to this day. But so it goes. They never made it like the MC5.

“They also appeared in the movie Ten For Two of the John Sinclair Freedom Rally,” the December 1971 Ann Arbor rally/concert protesting his ten-year sentence for marijuana possession, also featuring John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, Commander Cody, Archie Shepp, and others. “They were the first band to play. They made a 45 of that song [‘Free John Now’]. On the B-side of the song was a poem by Allen Ginsberg called [‘Prayer for] John Sinclair.’ They did their jobs. When they played concerts, they had a big entourage of young kids that loved them and danced real wild, and they would sing ‘Just Like an Aborigine,’” the song that had featured on their first single.

“There was another band that was really good, the SRC with Scott Richardson. I have pictures of them too”—a couple of them performing at a 1970 free show in an Ann Arbor are in Motor City Underground. “Pete Andrews, who was their manager and did a lot of work as a concert promoter, complains to me sometimes, ‘Oh, everybody talks about the MC5, and Iggy. And nobody ever talks about the SRC.’ Which is true, because they were non-controversial. Only the people that were controversial made it. So it’s a shame. Scott Richardson was just the darling of the girls; he was just impeccable, and they loved him. But somehow the records didn’t become hits.”

A few photos of Detroit rockers who did have hits—Bob Seger, Mitch Ryder, and Commander Cody—dot the book. So do some of legends who weren’t from the city, like the Who in November 1967 at suburban Southfield High School, which marked their first appearance in (or at least very near) Detroit, though they’d previously done a couple elsewhere in Michigan. There’s also Jimi Hendrix at Detroit’s Masonic Temple in February 1968, though a Hendrix-less picture of badly dented Sunn amplifiers from the concert might tell a more interesting story than the images with Jimi himself.

Jimi Hendrix by Leni Sinclair

“Every picture tells a story, and the story of the Jimi Hendrix concert should have been told,” says Sinclair. “Because something was wrong with Jimi, and he didn’t like to perform that night. He played seven songs, and then he smashed his guitar through the amplifier and walked off the stage. People who came had been waiting for Jimi Hendrix for so long, and so intensely, they got mad. They started rioting and tore off some of those plush velvet seats in Masonic Temple. He didn’t actually like playing and pleasing the people, and people did not appreciate it. They got so mad. Then Masonic Temple didn’t allow any rock bands to play in there for God knows how long, I don’t know. But they were scared of the rowdy audience.”

The Grande Light Show and the Psychedelic Rangers

 Although Motor City Underground spotlights musicians more often than not, there are also images that document the scene within the scene—the dancing audiences, the posters, and Detroit FM rock DJ Barbara Holiday, shown proudly holding the Fugs’ Virgin Fugs at a record store. “I just go around and pick out the records that I feel like listening to, that night,” Holiday told the Ann Arbor Sun in 1971. “I just go through the whole record library and see what’s in there and see what I want to play that night and play it.”

Sinclair has a good deal to say about some of the auxiliary figures of sorts she photographed, like the light show operators (one of them Gary Grimshaw) at the Grande Ballroom, shown actually working in the booth. “We were a damn good light show,” she proclaims. “The Trans-Love light show, or the Magic Veil Light Show, whatever it was called. We were artistic. One of the light show artists was Gary Grimshaw, one of the top poster artists in the country. And there was usually at least five people on the light stand doing all those little projections and everything.

“Our light show, I think, was the best light show any bands had. Because we changed it every week. We would do the light show at the Grande Ballroom on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. And the rest of the week, we would all be busy making new slides or painting on the glass, or doing this and that. Sometimes we had a movie projector, among all the liquid projections on the wall, and the pictures flickering in and out. Sometimes you’d see a train going down the walls. It was fun; doing a live show was one of the funnest things I ever did.

“After a while, light shows fell out of favor because the musicians that came from out of town didn’t want a light show. They didn’t want a light show to be seen. They wanted to be seen. I wish we had some movies of the light shows we did.”

Grimshaw also designed the T-shirts worn by the Psychedelic Rangers, a volunteer security group of sorts who, as the captions of their two shots in the book note, “took the place of the police at large local gatherings and concerts, ‘making sure things run smoothly.’” They look far mellower and more peaceful in these pictures than the Hells Angels do in many pictures of San Francisco psychedelic outdoor concerts of the era, where the Angels were supposed to perform a similar function. The Angels in the Bay Area didn’t always do so, of course, most notoriously at Altamont.

Hippies dancing 1971 by Leni Sinclair

As Sinclair explains, “We did have a decent relationship with the Ann Arbor police department. They agreed to stay out of the concerts. The Psychedelic Rangers would keep the peace. And they did. In fact, at the blues and jazzfestival, with 15,000 people, no police. The Psychedelic Rangers were the people’s police, and people listened to them. So there was no trouble.

“We had free concerts every Sunday afternoon in the park, and the Psychedelic Rangers in their bright yellow T-shirt. During intermission, they would go through the crowd with a bucket and collect money so they could pay for the band. The Psychedelic Rangers were just our friends who put on a yellow T-shirt and decided to make themselves useful. That’s like a foreshadow of the ‘defund the police’ movement. Make ‘em psychedelic police, and they’re better at keeping the peace. It was okay in Ann Arbor. The police were cooperative.”

The Demise of the Detroit Scene

 While every legendary rock scene that runs white-hot for a time eventually runs its course, Detroit’s came to an end more troubling and abrupt than many others did. The MC5 and the Stooges had many internal and external problems impeding their hoped-for path to stardom, documented in a number of books and documentaries. Of all the Detroit acts, only Bob Seger would have a sustained run of national stardom, and only after his sound had become considerably more mainstream in the mid-1970s. John Sinclair received a ten-year jail sentence for marijuana possession, although he was freed by the early 1970s, with help from the John Sinclair Freedom Rally/concert that drew attention to his unjust prison term. The Sinclairs would divorce in 1977, though by that time the Detroit rock scene had been in decline for years.

Quite a few of the photos in Motor City Underground record the demonstrations, confrontations with authorities, and activism in which youth of the time participated. Rock fans might be drawn to the photos of the MC5/Stooges et al. first, but the others are important to understanding the revolutionary sociocultural context in which they worked. In our conversation, Leni Sinclair offers a few thoughts about the obstacles the White Panthers faced, and which impeded the movement’s progress.

Bob Seger, 1976 by Leni Sinclair

One authority figure, as Leni remembers, in a position to throw his weight around “had particularly hated John Sinclair, personally so much that he put John in jail a couple times. This lieutenant had a daughter who became a hippie and started hanging out with us. That made her dad really hate us, and he took it out on him. They sent undercover agents in the commune to [find] a couple grams of weed or something so they could put him away.”

Black Panthers from the region are seen in a number of the book’s photos, and as Leni continues, “The COINTELPRO program destroyed the Black Panther program in Detroit. It seemed to me, when I was reading my FBI file—the Red Squad file [referring to a police unit that harassed young hippies and activists, among others in the counterculture]—“that they were trying to institute some kind of split in the White Panther Party like they did in the Black Panther party. But because we were hippies, they didn’t know how to do that. Because we were all together, we were not splitting up.

Quite a few of the photos in Motor City Underground record the demonstrations, confrontations with authorities, and activism in which youth of the time participated.

“They did succeed in infiltrating us. Who it was, we don’t know to this day. When John was in jail, we used to have meetings with our lawyers and planning meetings. We just knew our phone was bugged, so we also thought our house must have been bugged. So we started having our important meetings under a tree in the park, so we couldn’t be overheard by the uninvited ear.

“About 20, 25 years later, reading my file, I find there was one among us who was an informer, who worked at the FBI. So going under a tree was no defense,” she laughs. “That kind of makes it so that you don’t really ever want to live in a commune again. You don’t know who’s who; who might be the informer.

“Then of course, the White Panther Party became the most dangerous organization in the country. The government charged three leaders of the White Panther Party with destroying government property. There was a bombing in Ann Arbor in ’68, but in ’69, they accused three leaders of the White Panther Party for destroying government property or something. When that case was announced, John was already in jail. ‘What did I do?’ He had no idea.”

Another of the men charged in the case, White Panther Party Minister of Defense Pun Plamondon, “was at our house, at the commune. We smuggled him out of the house and from one safe house to another. He went underground for a whole year. He’s the first so-called hippie to make the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. Then he stayed with Eldridge Cleaver at his place in Algiers, and under a fake name, he had press conferences.

“When he came back to the United States, he was captured. When the case came to trial, the trial judge happened to be Damon Keith, the most progressive federal judge we could have picked. We didn’t pick him; he got picked kind of by accident. That was what saved the government and democracy from being overturned by Nixon, like he wanted. Because he wanted the right to wiretap anybody without court order. When that came to the Supreme Court, he lost, and that’s what made Nixon have to resign.

About 20, 25 years later, reading my file, I find there was one among us who was an informer, who worked at the FBI. So going under a tree was no defense,” she laughs”. That kind of makes it so that you don’t really ever want to live in a commune again. You don’t know who’s who; who might be the informer.

“That’s another story,” she allows, a “deep underground story that still needs to be told. Because when we won in the Supreme Court, it held off the Patriot Act for some 28 years. But then after 9/11, it got overturned by Bush. It even allowed torture.”

As riddled as it was with strife, government harassment, and qualified triumphs, Sinclair doesn’t see the movement in which she and others in Michigan took part as futile. “Hippies did a lot of good things for this country,” she remarks. “In fact, without hippies, we wouldn’t have gotten out of Vietnam. We did a lot of things, but we didn’t flout our victories.”

Leni Sinclair Post-1970s

 Although most of Motor City Underground covers the 1960s and early 1970s, Sinclair has remained active as a photographer ever since. The book includes some photos from the late 1970s and 1980s of iconic musicians, including Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Sun Ra, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Albert King, Fela Kuti, and Prince. The last of these was taken near the stage of Detroit’s Cobo Hall at a 1980 concert, a little before he reached superstar status.

“That was the Dirty Mind tour,” she remembers. “I was quite impressed by Prince and Dez Dickerson and the other guitar player, because they were so in tune with each other. And the choreography, their steps, too. It was exciting to see. Somehow, it reminded me a little bit of the MC5, when Wayne Kramer and Fred Smith would duo, or play with each other like Prince and Dez Dickerson.

“The ‘80s probably were my most productive time in taking pictures,” she adds. “Some months I had 20, 30 rolls of film, I suppose. But all that can be explored later. There’s material for more than one book coming after the ‘70s. It’s like 50 more years of photography.

Prince by Leni Sinclair

“I even made a book with a partner of mine in ’84 called The Detroit Jazz Who Is Who. It features about 300 photographs of the Detroit jazz musicians who were active at that time. With biography and discography and addresses and phone numbers. It was a useful book for musicians. They loved it. But it disappeared. It actually was never completely finished, ‘cause we had to meet a deadline to get it to the printer. So we were gonna finish it later.”

Sinclair’s work can also be seen in a couple other books, though they’ll take a little digging to find. In 2013, she and Gary Grimshaw “put out a book called Detroit Rock. That’s out of print. It’s the only book I know that has full-page images of some of Gary’s best posters. I thought once we put that book out, there would be people coming out of the woodwork to make a book on Gary’s art. But nobody ever did. To me, Gary is one of my two favorite poster artists in the country, the other being Mouse Miller, Stanley Mouse, who’s also from Detroit,” though Mouse would produce the bulk of his work after moving to San Francisco.

It was fun to work for the MC5. It was hard work, but the work was fun. It wasn’t work for hire. It was work to reach a higher goal.

There’s also a book, although the text is in German, of about 200 of her photographs from a recent German exhibition that “used the same external hard drive they used to make [Motor City] Underground. But they picked different pictures. It’s called Participant Observer Leni Sinclair,” since “I wasn’t from here; I was an observer from the scene. But I also participated.”

Motor City Underground’s route to publication was circuitous, to the point that for a while it was uncertain it would ever be seen. Quite a while ago, world renowned artist (and one-time member of Detroit band Destroy All Monsters) Mike Kelley “looked at the pictures on my hard drive. He said, ‘We should make a book of Leni Sinclair’s photos. And if you’re not interested, then fuck you.’ So I wrote back saying, ‘Oh yes, I’m interested,’” she laughs.

Kelley’s 2012 suicide, however, led to a cancellation that put “the people who worked on it, including Cary Loren and myself, who spent many, many hours working on correct captions and so on, kind of left out in the cold. Then earlier this year, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit took it upon themselves to raise the money from various foundations to get enough to get the book printed. The book finally came out, and they threw a photo exhibition for the opening.” It remains available through thebookbeat.com.

Sinclair is now living in Michigan, but Detroit’s not the same as when she first arrived more than 60 years ago. “When I came to America, it had almost two million people. Now it’s 2021, and Detroit has about 680,000 people. On the east side, it’s just blocks of great stretches without a single house. It should be all farms; it should be all agriculture again if there were people to do it.

“But Detroit…people are resilient. Just because they’re poor doesn’t mean they don’t have fun. And fun is going out on the weekends. Now with the pandemic all that is a little subdued. But hopefully that will really pick up again as more people get vaccinated, or the pandemic is over someday.”

The kind of fun, maybe, that’s celebrated in the photos of Motor City Underground, along with those era’s struggles and hardships. “It was always fun,” she emphasizes. “It was fun to work for the MC5. It was hard work, but the work was fun. It wasn’t work for hire. It was work to reach a higher goal.”

John Sinclair 1968
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