“Rock and roll emerged as a reflection and as an expression of the economic and technological changes taking place in western civilization, it was no accident, it was the precisely perfect manifestation of the tremendous changes going down throughout the western world.” — John Sinclair, “Guitar Army: Street Writings / Prison Writings.”

Courtesy of Bentley Historical Library
Courtesy of Bentley Historical Library

It’s 1966. A man observes audience members from behind a projector in the University’s Art & Architecture Auditorium as they watch excerpts from the movies he has come to screen at the fourth annual Ann Arbor Film Festival: “Vinyl,” “Lupe” and “14 Year Old Girl.”

The films are experimental, cutting-edge examples of what he terms “neo primitive realism.” And the audience doesn’t know how to react to scenes of the grotesque, such as a boy being tortured just because he enjoys reading books.

Some critics might have called the young filmmaker avant-garde. But in an interview with The Michigan Daily at the time, the artist, named Andy Warhol, didn’t seem to find anything odd about the films he’d chosen to present.

“I didn’t think these films were unusual, they were just very humorous,” Warhol said.

Before John Sinclair was ever arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison for possession of two marijuana joints, before John Lennon and Yoko Ono came to town to rally for Sinclair’s freedom, and before Hash Bash left its legacy as the embodiment of the hippie movement and counterculture here in Ann Arbor, there was Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground and a tradition of festivals that ignited a generation.

“Well, they certainly weren’t bored.” — Andy Warhol, commenting on the audience’s reception of his movies.

Organized by the University’s Cinema Guild, the Dramatic Arts Center of Ann Arbor and Detroit’s American Civil Liberties Union, the Ann Arbor Film Festival — then in its fourth year — wanted to continue its tradition of offbeat cinema, the kind that still distinguishes the festival to this day.

They looked to Andy Warhol, the luminary of the pop art movement; his 16-millimeter film projections were exactly the sort of thing the festival wanted.

But there was a catch. Warhol would only come if he could bring his band, the Velvet Underground. After all, they were a team. They relied on each other for their traveling show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.

“Apparently, Andy said, ‘Sure, I’ll come, but you have to let me bring my band with me,’ ” said American Culture Prof. Bruce Conforth. “So of course they agreed, and they come, and they do the concert.”

The Velvet Underground’s performance was something wholly new to the town of Ann Arbor. They were not the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Nor were these guys your typical light-hearted fare from San Francisco, Conforth said.

Their music was gritty, urban, like the sounds of New York City transplanted to the Midwest. More importantly, they were bringing what would later be called “punk rock” right to the steps of the University campus.

“Here come the Velvet Underground singing about something that was diametrically opposite from what the love generation was experiencing,” Conforth said. “So, they get out there, and their music was very drone-like. It was very, very simple. Very basic. Very much like what punk would ultimately become, ya’ know, with the basis very easily on that three-chord formula.”

The audience that the Velvets appealed to back in March of ’66 wasn’t just composed of college students. Two future musicians were in attendance that day: Iggy Pop and Wayne Kramer.

“(Iggy Pop and Wayne Kramer) have commented that — largely on the basis of what they experienced that night — it led them to want to get into music,” Conforth said. “I mean, basically Iggy created Iggy Pop and the Stooges based on what he had seen from that concert.

“They were influenced all the way around. They saw this and said ‘That’s what I want to do. I want to be a rock ‘n’ roll musician … I don’t want to just be a Beatles clone. I want to do something that’s very different, too.’ ”

While Iggy Pop would go on to found Iggy and the Stooges, Kramer stayed closer to Ann Arbor. He subsequently joined the Detroit-based MC5, a band that was, for a time, managed by John Sinclair himself.

Though Sinclair is perhaps best known for his radical political affiliations — he was the founder of the anti-racist White Panther Party and the namesake for the 1971 John Sinclair Freedom Rally, which spurred the tradition of Hash Bash — he was first and foremost an artist and poet who devoted himself to Ann Arbor’s music scene.

But at the time, concerts were not unusual. Big-name artists like the Velvet Underground had already been coming to Ann Arbor for some time.

So, on Dec. 10, 1971, the date of the famed Freedom Rally — when acts such as Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen, Stevie Wonder and Allen Ginsberg came out to perform at Crisler Arena in support of Sinclair after his arrest — John Lennon and political fervor were what made the concert unique.

“Concerts like that were promotions,” Sinclair said in a phone interview. “You hired the acts, and promoters made a lot of money. Show business. What we did (with the Freedom Rally) was a political act. Everybody did that for nothing.”

Conforth agreed, but he also asserted that the context from which the Freedom Rally emerged should not be ignored.

“There was precedent for that many artists coming to (Ann Arbor),” Conforth said. “Having a Beatle there changes everything. But still, if you took John Lennon (and) political speeches out of the event and just had the artists, it would have been just another big concert at Ann Arbor.”

As fortune would have it, “just another concert” was what was in store for John Sinclair.

“All in all … it was a powerful festival that Sinclair’s legions staged. It churned up a lot of bread for the alternate community around Ann Arbor and showed what can be done once people settle down and get organized. The Rainbow people are beautiful.” — Richard Nusser, from “The Woodstock Nation at Ann Arbor,” published in the Village Voice on Sept. 28, 1972.

Eventually, the Michigan Supreme Court overturned the ruling against Sinclair, and he was released from prison in December of 1971. Upon his release, he received a phone call. It was his old friend Peter Andrews, one of the producers of the John Sinclair Freedom Rally. He was working for the University’s Major Events Office and wanted John to assist him in organizing the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival.

The festival began in 1969, and according to a 1972 article from The Ann Arbor News, it was a financial failure that was revived three years later under “new direction and expanded emphasis.” That new direction was Sinclair’s nonprofit organization, Rainbow Multi-Media Corporation.

As a festival co-producer, Sinclair helped to handpick the lineup, which consisted of some of the most notable names in jazz at the time: Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Archie Shepp, Freddie King, Otis Rush, Pharoah Sanders and Miles Davis, to name a few.

“We were trying to produce events and carry on music in the music business,” Sinclair said. “We also produced free concerts in the park. They were a means of producing things and making things happen without being concerned about anyone making a lot of money or any money at all.”

The festival lasted for three days. And for three days, as many as 16,000 attendees filled the grass of the Otis Spann Memorial Field for what was, by definition, an event for the people.

“The thing that’s gonna make the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival different from any other festival is that it’s gonna be a real people’s festival — produced by freaks and for the community,” Sinclair was quoted as saying in a Rolling Stone article from 1972.

Sinclair further explained that all proceeds from the festival were used to promote “self-help and self-determination projects here in Ann Arbor.”

“(People) had the opportunity to pay and have the money go to the artists,” Sinclair said.

“Dope is marijuana, LSD, peyote, mescaline, psilocybin, sacred mushrooms, hashish, DMT, nitrous oxide, and other beautiful chemical substances that make you feel good without hurting you.” — John Sinclair, “Guitar Army: Street Writings / Prison Writings.”

Today, the Ann Arbor Film Festival persists, and musicians come to Hill Auditorium every year for the Ann Arbor Folk Festival, though in far smaller numbers than the 1972 Blues and Jazz Festival. And Sinclair’s legacy is still celebrated annually, as protesters loudly voice their beliefs on the Diag for an hour on the first Saturday of every April. Festivities follow at the Monroe Street Fair, colloquially known as Hash Bash.

Why has Hash Bash persisted? In Sinclair’s view, it’s an opportunity to have a good time, much like the festivals that surrounded the original Freedom Rally. And he believes Hash Bash would continue even if recreational marijuana were to be legalized.

“It’d be a celebratory occasion, then, wouldn’t it?” Sinclair said with a laugh over the phone. “We’d have even more fun. You could just smoke a joint out there without worrying about the thugs from the University Police riding down on you.”

However, according to DPS spokeswoman Diane Brown, Hash Bash doesn’t generate controversy as it once did. Citing statistics from the past decade, Brown explained that the number of arrests made by DPS has significantly decreased in recent years.

1999’s Hash Bash saw 74 arrests. In 2000, that number decreased to 56. And by 2007, there were no arrests, “and (the protesters) left before 1 o’clock even got there,” Brown said.

Brown said the recent legalization of medicinal marijuana played a part in attracting more visitors than the event had seen in recent history, and she noted that their actions were primarily benign.

“(The number of people) inched back up partly because of the medicinal marijuana issue, so its low last year was somewhere in the 6,000 range, maybe,” Brown said. “But it was a 6,000 that came and then left at (1 o’clock) rather than (staying) all afternoon and into the evening, which is what used to happen.”

This isn’t to say the protests have stopped. They haven’t. But the methods and forms have changed. And in today’s Ann Arbor, an event like Hash Bash seems to be exactly that — an event, a time for momentary celebration.

The actual protesting occurs on a quieter level.

LSA junior Sebastian Swae-Shampine, the assistant executive director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said the the University’s official stance toward medicinal marijuana, in his opinion, doesn’t make sense.

“I think it’s pretty absurd that someone can have a bottle of Vicodin on the Diag and pop one of those and that’s OK, but they can’t even possess — not even consume — they just can’t even have their state-sanctioned medicine on them,” he said.

SSDP — a student-run organization that’s part of an international network with over 140 chapters — fosters discussion about drug policies at the grassroots level. But Swae-Shampine explained that the organization “does not endorse or condone drug use in any way, shape or form.” Its role is to foster discussion about drug policy, which he believes is not as widely accepted as it could be.

When it comes to Hash Bash, however, SSDP maintains a safe distance from the message put forth by the annual protesters.

“We’re definitely going to be there. We support it, you know, as what it is and as a celebration of culture,” he said. “But it’s just unprofessional for a reform organization to be like, ‘free the weed!’ ”

Sinclair, a state-registered medicinal marijuana patient, continues to return every April to smoke a joint and see old friends — not to re-experience the past or to put forward a political agenda, but to live in the present.

He says he’ll keep coming back as long as Hash Bash continues, even if it’s only a time for people to express themselves the way he feels they should.

“What else is it supposed to be about?” he asked. “It’s just an hour for one day a year. It’s just a thing. But I’m happy they still have it because it’s good for people to express themselves like that, I believe. It doesn’t happen enough in today’s world.”

As Warhol noted during his Film Festival visit back in ’66, artists have never really needed a reason to express themselves in Ann Arbor. The act of expression is enough.

—Kayla Upadhyaya contributed to this report.

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