Notes from the Underground
by Matthew Newton
August 1, 2012
Writer and former radical bookstore owner Sean Stewart talks about his new book on the underground press that was so vital to '60s counterculture.
Photographs courtesy Shaun RobertWith the Occupy Wall Street protests still fresh in the nation’s collective memory, and hacktivist groups such as Anonymous and LulzSec now a part of our culture, modern American protest has a different identity than the counterculture movements of the 1960s.
One shared trait, however, is the importance these movements have placed on mass communication. In the case of OWS, social media played a critical role, facilitating instantaneous eyewitness reports from Liberty Plaza/Zuccotti Park and providing the tools to quickly organize. But old media models had their place. OR Books’ Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America and n+1’s Occupy! An OWS-Inspired Gazette, are key examples. Taking cues from the Sixties underground press, these publications offered readers a more holistic view than social media could provide, and tipped their hats to a publishing movement that often remains historically unsung.
Of course, no discussion of American counterculture in the 1960s is complete without mentioning the role and influence of the underground press. In the wake of the civil rights movement, and as public opposition to the war in Vietnam swelled, this ad hoc network of the alternative newspapers found a growing audience among the disaffected and disenfranchised.
What set these small, independent weeklies apart from the journalistic establishment was that they didn’t cover news in the same fashion as The New York Times, Boston Globe, or Chicago Tribune. Instead, the loose-knit group of editors, writers, photographers, and illustrators that comprised the underground press focused heavily on the concerns of the rising New Left, the far left, and the infinite nuances of the counterculture scenes sprouting up from Haight-Ashbury to the East Village, and every small town in-between. In essence, the underground press represented the freaks, a mandate lovingly embraced by the movement’s founders.
In On the Ground: An Illustrated Anecdotal History of the Sixties Underground Press in the U.S. (PM Press), editor Sean Stewart—who until 2009 operated Babylon Falling, a San Francisco bookstore and gallery space that was a forum for revolutionary literature and progressive visual art—delves into the origins, aspirations, and internal politics of America’s radical alternative news scene. Imagine artwork by R. Crumb, Bill Narum, and Rick Griffin; a column by Charles Bukowski; reporting from Ray Mungo and Allen Young; that was the tenor of the underground press.
“The underground press was part of a vast and amorphous scene,” Stewart writes in the book’s introduction, “any attempt on my part to be comprehensive would have been folly.” Nonetheless, Stewart has assembled a primer that dives deep into the psyche of American counterculture. “For me, the relatability of the era lies in the humor, irreverence, and open defiance to authority,” Stewart tells me. “But the most important legacy is that regular people from all walks of life stood up and demanded to be counted and to be heard.”
The social, cultural, and political turbulence chronicled by such off-radar newspapers as Rat Subterranean News, Screw, San Francisco Oracle, East Village Other, Black Mask, and Los Angeles Free Press, to name only a few, is commonly overlooked in mainstream histories. As a result, what often remains is the same scattershot of familiar imagery from the late 1960s/early 1970s that’s lingered in the nation’s collective memory: hippies dancing with flowers in their hair at the Monterey Pop Festival during the Summer of Love; Timothy Leary at the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park in 1967, urging the Haight-Ashbury crowds to “Turn on, tune in, drop out”; U.S. military tanks on city streets during the race riots in Detroit and Newark; the rise of the Hell’s Angels as the new American outlaws; and the Kent State University shootings and Mary Ann Vecchio’s haunting scream.
What makes On the Ground resonate, aside from its interviews, are the visuals culled from Stewart’s extensive private collection of underground newspapers. Given the increasing scarcity of the print material from that era, On the Ground depicts the movement’s aesthetics and anti-authoritarian bent in a way that oral histories fall short.
For Stewart, who first got introduced to radical literature through hip-hop—via references by Tupac, BDP, and the Beastie Boys, among others—documenting American counterculture has become a natural extension of his prior work as a bookseller and curator. Babylon Falling, his shuttered bookstore and gallery space in San Francisco, is now a blog dedicated to cataloging the revolutionary publications and ephemera from the Sixties and Seventies, with a running thread on hip-hop culture. Over the last several months, I’ve corresponded with Stewart by email, discussing his book, the historical significance of the underground press, and what modern-day protest looks like. It turns out that the names may be different, but the struggles remain eerily familiar.
—Matthew Newton for Guernica
Guernica: Many of the visuals in the book are pulled from your own collection. Have these publications become increasingly hard to find in the fifty-some years since their initial release?
Sean Stewart: Because they are starting to pop up at estate sales, there are actually more available now. Of course I also pick up papers once in a while on eBay, but prices are criminally inflated online, so those come in one-by-one in a trickle. I don’t want to snitch on myself too much, but the most fruitful hustle for me is taking trips deep into New Jersey.
Guernica: In the book, you talk with a cross section of people who were involved in the production and distribution of underground publications such as the Berkeley Barb, Chicago Seed, Helix, Los Angeles Free Press, The East Village Other, Screw: The Sex Review, and The Black Panther, among others. During your interviews, did any specific conversation help you better understand the social and political tone of that time period?
Sean Stewart: If I had to single out just one, it would be my conversation with Alice Embree of the Austin paper, The Rag. She helped me to get a deeper understanding of just how insidious the male chauvinism in the movement was and why the emergence of Women’s Liberation, and its manifestation in the underground press, was inevitable.
… we’re all familiar with the cases of overt oppression that existed, but it’s much harder to identify or even articulate the nature of the oppression that is hardwired into the culture.
Guernica: Did Alice Embree give any specific examples of the type of male chauvinism that was dominant in the movement?
Sean Stewart: Definitely, but it wasn’t so much the particular abuses, or that she was trying to harangue me about male chauvinism, it was just something in the way she related them that hit me. We’re sitting in her living room and she’s telling me stories illustrating just how much of a badass she was and yet she still, reflexively, fell into the role of typist in the early days at The Rag. Of course, we’re all familiar with the cases of overt oppression that existed, but it’s much harder to identify or even articulate the nature of the oppression that is hardwired into the culture—the sort of thing that flows quietly beneath the surface, assumptions and attitudes that we accumulate little by little over the years. I don’t know, it just made sense to me the way she told it.
Guernica: Were any mainstream newspapers or magazines getting the counterculture coverage right? And do you think the underground press caused traditional media outlets to feel threatened?
Sean Stewart: For the Sixties, you can’t get me to go more mainstream than Ramparts magazine.
I tread carefully here because the concept of “getting it right” rests on a lot of assumptions. For my part, I’m not so concerned with facts as I am with truth. And I think reading the underground press purely in the pursuit of facts would be folly, but it was one of the few places where you could get a true representation of the culture as it was being experienced. Hunter S. Thompson has a great quote about the blind spots inherent in any posture of objectivity, and I tend to agree with the Gonzo approach as it applies to truth and facts.
That being said, things are so bad with the media right now that you really can look back on the mainstream press of the Sixties and Seventies and imagine that they were radical. I’m even willing to concede that great journalism was done back then, but if you follow the thread to the mid-Sixties you begin to realize that the mainstream media was essentially embarrassed into sympathetic coverage of the anti-war movement and forced to occasionally train a skeptical eye on government corruption.
The youth movement exploded right under their noses, and while they served up bullshit pro-war pieces and condescending articles about the counterculture, the underground press was right there, on the ground, reporting the shit as they lived it. I don’t want to overstate the case, but I’m sure the mainstream press felt threatened. I doubt that the tone of their coverage would have ever changed if they didn’t sense an existential threat.
Guernica: The underground press is historically significant for a lot of reasons, but one aspect that comes to mind is this idea of activist journalism. I can’t remember who said it in the book, but one of the interview subjects talked about how he went from being an observer to a reporter to a warrior. Was this experience typical for many who were involved?
Sean Stewart: I think it was. It was a culture of authenticity that demanded full involvement, and so people working at the papers were evolving at the same pace and in the same direction as the movement.
Guernica: You were born in 1979, more than a decade after the formative years of America’s underground press. Since you didn’t live through the social and political turbulence of that era, what initially sparked your interest in the subject matter covered in your book?
Sean Stewart: It’s definitely been a gradual process over the years. If I had to map it, I would start with my Mad magazine obsession as a kid. Later on, as a teenager, listening to hip-hop provided the first exposure to this stuff. A lot of the artists I was listening to planted the seed for ideas and names that I would encounter later: Tupac talking about his [Black] Panther heritage; the Robert Williams artwork on the cover of BDP’s Sex and Violence album; all the Sixties and Seventies soul, funk, and jazz that hip-hop producers were sampling from their parents’ record collections.
I was living in Jamaica, so this stuff was beyond scarce. I treasured everything I could get my hands on, so there was really nothing escaping me—every little lyric and aspect of the music, every detail of the artwork. I even got put on to Vaughn Bode from an Ad Rock lyric on “Sure Shot,” and then searching out Bode stuff is what put the East Village Other on my radar. Basically, these ideas were floating around in my sphere as a kid, and I think I was primed to be receptive to the papers once I started coming across them.
A lot of what is standard practice visually in magazines and newspapers today was pioneered by the kids working on these underground newspapers in the Sixties.
Guernica: I want to stray for a moment to talk about the visual aesthetics of the movement. In the book, Ben Morea—one of the men behind Black Mask—talks about how they treated each cover of the magazine as a piece of art. How important were visuals in attracting attention and gaining an audience?
Sean Stewart: The visuals were indispensable. They were the first point of entry for many people, and, in contrast to the linear, text-heavy layout of the straight press, the focus on graphics and rejection of standard principles of layout in the underground acted as an instant, and very potent, signifier of the differences between the two. A lot of what is standard practice visually in magazines and newspapers today was pioneered by the kids working on these underground newspapers in the Sixties. Shit, I even remember the uproar caused by the New York Times’ decision to finally include color photos back in the 1990s.
Guernica: Do you think the freedom from having to appeal to a large, mainstream audience fueled those in the underground press to try new things with layout, design, and content? Or was some other factor at play?
Sean Stewart: The underground press, at its height, was reaching millions of people worldwide, so I don’t think that having to appeal to a large, mainstream audience necessitates the creation of boring content, layout, or design. I think the sort of blandness you’re talking about was, and is, an expression of a dying culture. By that same token, I think that the underground press looked like it did because it was a reflection of a vibrant youth culture. Also, from a technical standpoint, the photo offset process by which most underground newspapers were printed allowed for a certain degree of graphic experimentation—if you were in the correct frame of mind.
Guernica: Though it’s not exclusive to youth culture, the Occupy movement shares a certain kinship with the underground press. What’s your impression of the group’s messaging and political effectiveness?
I think the establishment is asking the wrong questions. There seems to be complete signal loss. No matter how you feel about the whole thing, what can’t be denied is that millions of people feel betrayed. The people held up their end of the bargain and rightly feel that they got sold out.
Sean Stewart: I love how Twitter is being used for real-time updates at protests and marches, I love all the madness churned out over on Tumblr, all the livestreams are great, and it’s always dope to see people reading the Occupied Wall Street Journals out in the street. I love what Occuprint is doing and how they were funded through Kickstarter. And, of course, I love all the handmade cardboard signs—probably most emblematic of the spirit of the movement.
In the graphics, and in the general atmosphere at the various rallies and assemblies, I see the same sort of playfulness that was so important to the Sixties underground press and which, a hundred years ago, made the Wobblies so popular. Judy Gumbo Albert had a great little piece over at Thorne Dreyer’s Rag Blog where she breaks down the echoes of the Sixties she saw in the makeup of the crowd at the big Oakland General Strike back in November. Of course, although Occupy bears the mark of previous eras of struggle, it’s also its own thing entirely. As Judy says in the article, “history is not a straight line,” but I do think that in this case it is one that is unbroken, and one that is distinctly American.
As far as political effectiveness? Any intellectual differences I have instantly melt away once I’m surrounded by thousands of people demanding a better world. For me, the most vital part of the movement is the lack of shame—the fact that people who are surrounded by an obscene abundance, and yet have nothing, aren’t afraid to speak up.
And as far as the overall discourse, I think the establishment is asking the wrong questions. There seems to be complete signal loss. No matter how you feel about the whole thing, what can’t be denied is that millions of people feel betrayed. The people held up their end of the bargain and rightly feel that they got sold out. As I see it, the system is a game of three card monte. If you’re not the dealer, ringer, booster, or lookout, you’re probably getting conned. The problem the conmen are now facing is that the crowd is hip to the game. The key for the Occupy movement will be making sure that the ringers in the crowd aren’t speaking on their behalf as they try to redress grievances.
Guernica: In one of the book’s final chapters, “People Burn Out, and People Burned Out,” you cite the repression of the Nixon years and the increasingly splintered focus of the underground press as contributing to the movement’s eventual downfall. Even though its dominance faded, what do you view as the most important aspect of the movement’s legacy?
Sean Stewart: For me, the relatability of the era lies in the humor, irreverence, and open defiance to authority, but I think the most important legacy of the era is just the fact that regular people from all walks of life (every color, every stripe, every persuasion) stood up and demanded to be counted and to be heard. For the underground press, it started as a system of intramural communication, and grew to become the unifying institution for a counterculture made up of a wide range of affinity groups.
About a month ago I was at Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn where they were screening Roz Payne’s classic newsreel film Garbage followed by Chris Marker’s The Sixth Side of the Pentagon, which features footage of a group led by Ben Morea breaking through the doors of the Pentagon at the massive 1967 anti-war rally in Washington D.C.
Anyway, Ben Morea was there at the theater, and, at the urging of the guys running the place, he took questions from the crowd. A lot of the questions were of the “What should we do?” and, “What mistakes did you make?” variety, and Ben’s answer was basically that there is no blueprint, and that each person and each group needs to decide for itself what is to be done. He has a line at the end of the book that I think applies to the underground press and that speaks to the legacy of the Sixties youth movement in general: “That’s the lesson of the Sixties; everybody was out there. It wasn’t just the crazies, like we’ve been called. It wasn’t just us, it was everybody. It was all there, and I think that’s the key: it takes it all.”