Sunday, May 22, 2011

"Smoking Typewriters": the '60s underground press emerges from the shadows

"We're turning into a generation whose thing is to be an Audience, whose life-style is the mass get-together for good vibes." (The Berkeley Tribe, December 12-19, 1969)

That quote seems a surprisingly contemporary view of our media-driven culture, in its way, even as it describes the audience who showed up for the Rolling Stones wreck of a free concert at Altamont in 1969 expecting a good time. In its pages the Tribe newspaper reported the sudden end of the 1960s, as first witnessed in the underground press. In contrast the major Bay-area daily paper, the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner, first reported on a successful and happy festival with no deaths and no problems at Altamont. It was a kind of wishful thinking, brought on by the expectations of another Woodstock. Where were thoseExaminer reporters grooving?

More than forty years later everyone is still part of a tribal audience, of course. We are all connected in cyberspace, but rather than joining in a group with shared expectations and ideas we are the internet audience of individuals bent over our keyboards. The difference is that we are now accustomed to news and information expressly tailored to our own expectations and ideas, with advertising based on data-mining of our own internet searches, and the insular "news services" of all political and cultural stripes.

The history of the underground press in the 1960s and 1970s presented in
Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, is more than a memory-trip of counter-culture rags, political rants, and Indian ragas. John McMillian's study makes plain that the New Left politics of the underground press could only move further left of the Kennedy and Johnson Democratic administrations of the 1960s. The rest of the country was not as sure what was going on in college campuses, and later in the streets, as the decade ended in equal parts tragedy and war.

The only direction, for many on the New Left, was to move beyond even the goals of the politicians and union leaders of in the 1930s and 1940s. Hubert Humphrey's long career fighting for liberal causes was overshadowed by his vice presidency under Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy had been assassinated in June; and the Democratic Party found itself split, again, when first-time 18-year-old voters were attracted to Senator Gene McCarthy's promise of a "peace plank" in the Democratic platform to end the Vietnam War.

This idealism, created and nurtured primarily on college campuses, was bound to seem extreme in a year of assassination and riots, and it eventually met an extreme backlash in the form of Nixon's "silent majority" and the rise of Dixiecrats represented by George Wallace, who won five states in 1968.

It was plain, however, that the anti-establishment position of the underground press was initially helped along and then maintained by increasingly cheap technology available to anyone with an opinion: "our founder, the mimeograph machine," read a posted sign in the office of one paper.

With the luxury of a long view, Smoking Typewriters takes pains to draw lines between the cultural and the political. In the hothouse reality of the times, however, the lines were swiftly blurred between the polemic and the people. By the late 1960s there were an estimated 400 underground magazines in the country; in many, it would have been difficult to separate the ads for record companies from the anti-establishment editorials they helped finance.

Soon the politics became wrapped in the idea of a "counterculture" that spread into the marketplace, and though Paul Krassner's
Realist magazine was funny, smart and pointed in its politics, it was Jann Wenner's Rolling Stone, with lengthy musician interviews, full-color photography, and hip, literate record reviews that was found beside most readers' LP collections and plastic baggies.

The Great Speckled Bird (1969)

As the counterculture emerged aboveground in commercial ways, it was the distribution and availability of the more radical underground press, as much as the content in its pages, that was at issue. In Atlanta, The Great Speckled Bird was subject to a succession of obscenity and harassment trials, and its offices were eventually firebombed after an expose of the Mayor's office in 1972. Challenges to first amendment rights became a frequent battleground in what could and could not be printed and sold. Here was a familiar war ranged around freedom of the press, and some familiar voices spoke up for the underground papers.

Even then, however, there were differences of opinion in an era when the very words "drug culture" meant different things to different people. Allen Ginsberg took note of these subtle shadings when he chided PEN American Center director Thomas Fleming's defense of free speech in one 1970 case, for characterizing the underground press as "inflammatory":

I would have taken exception were it my place, to (the) adjective "inflammatory" applied wholesale to the New Left literature outside the context of equally-inflammatory ideology displayed in, say, Reader's Digest with its historically inflammatory cold war fury or odd language about "dope fiends;" or NY Daily News which in editorials has proposed atombombing China counting 200 million persons at their own estimate as reasonable; or for that matter the New York Times whose business-as-usual reportage in this era of planetary ecological crisis occasionally inflames my own heart to fantasies of arson. ... Merely to say that I find "aboveground" language as often inflammatory as I find "New Left" underground thetoric, (as would) W.C. Fields.

Today the idea of a left-dominated, underground press as a dynamic force for change seems an increasingly distant memory.
Smoking Typewriters is a good reminder that America, though challenged to do so, was able to encompass both the "radical" and "political" in its concept of a free press. Yet there are surprising echoes in the history of recent political campaigns as partisans on both the left and the right learn to use the internet to "frame the debate" with persuasive words and images, and with even more powerful personalities.

The 2008 election will always be historic, McMillian writes, not just because it made Barack Obama president, but "as a watershed election in which the Beltway media was frequently outmaneuvered or humbled by the liberal blogosphere." The power of the '60s underground press is duplicated now in the internet's viral videos and meetups, and with more far-reaching effect. As the most recent events in Egypt and elsewhere indicate, the potential of the internet as it develops will far outstrip the wildest expectations of any nation's underground press.

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