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A History of the 60s Underground Press

Unbinding the Mind of US Media

by RON JACOBS

The first newspaper I remember writing for was an underground paper some friends and I started at the high school I attended on a US military base in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.  The name of the paper–DAVAI– was a Russian word which we were told meant "keep going."  I didn’t come up with the name, but attended the founding meeting of the paper and worked on every issue during its existence. 

We wrote mostly about music and culture, although there was usually at least one political article in each issue.  One I remember was about socialism and how socialist economics were necessary for true democracy to exist.  Another was a piece based on Ferdinand’s book The Rich and the Super Rich.  I think I wrote a poem about Black Panther Bobby Seale, who was on trial in Chicago and New Haven at the time. 

After that paper’s tenure ended (primarily because most of the writers went off to college), my newspaper activities were limited to distributing the Heidelberg GI underground FighT bAck (FTA–Fuck the Army).  This involved getting a few copies of the paper from a friend and discreetly leaving individual copies in locations on or near the base that were frequented by GIs–the Post Exchange cafeteria, a nearby gasthaus, etc.  I also occasionally helped get the local Black Panther paper Voice of the Lumpen into similar places. 

After I moved back to the United States in 1973, I worked on and off for a number of leftist community papers in towns from College Park, Md. to Berkeley; from Olympia, WA. to Burlington, VT.   Most of them differed stylistically from the underground media, but they were certainly not considered mainstream.

During this same period, I was an avid reader of several underground papers that my friends and I subscribed to or bought at one of the newsstands in downtown Frankfurt.  There was The Kaleidoscope from Wisconsin, Quicksilver Times from Washington, DC, International Times from the UK, OZ from Australia, the Berkeley Barb, East Village Other (EVO) from New York, and a few others.  Except for the EVO, most of these papers were primarily political, but told their political stories with a countercultural undertone.  It was, after all, when the two were virtually synonymous for most of the underground press’s readers (and their enemies in law enforcement and the so-called straight world).

Recently, John McMillan of Georgia State University published a book titled Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America.  He focuses primarily on only four or five papers, including the LA Free Press, The Realist, Berkeley Barb, and the Michigan Paper.  Those papers are more than representative of the politically charged countercultural newspapers mentioned above.  In addition he covers the brief but important histories of the two underground press distribution networks–the Underground Press Syndicate and the Liberation News Service–that made the underground media of the 1960s a truly national, if not international institution.  He discusses the efforts of the papers and the syndicates to get material out despite harassment by law enforcement officials from a myriad of agencies.  This included harassment of their printers, bombing of their offices and police raids.  Like other COINTELPRO activities, the harassment also included efforts by the FBI to provoke personal antagonisms and place snitch jackets on trusted writers and staff members.  The media was considered a serious threat.

Smoking Typewriters approaches the topic it covers in a manner both scholarly and accessible.  McMillan could certainly have written more, but his tight focus on the subjects he covers provides the reader with a clear and concentrated look at the underground press of the Sixties.  By doing so, he also creates an understanding for the reader of how important that press was to the political and cultural changes precipitated during that period.  In addition, the astute reader will easily draw the line from that period’s media to the multitude of grassroots media present into today’s electronic and print milieu.  Indeed, the website or blog that you are reading this review in is, at the least, the illegitimate spawn of the Sixties underground press.  Together with former Chicago Seed writer Abe Peck’s study Uncover-ing the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press, the student of the Sixties would find a rather complete history.

McMillan’s narrative is mostly his own.  By this, I mean he keeps long quotes to a minimum.  However, he does excerpt one thing in its entirety.  It is a speech by Tom Forcade, one of the prominent personalities in the underground press network and the future editor of the magazine High Times.  The speech was given to a special committee set up by Richard Nixon to study the supposed proliferation of pornography and other obscene materials.  This speech represents a good part of what the Sixties underground press was all about.  Let me conclude with a brief quote:

This Keystone Kommittee, engaged in a blatant McCarthyesque witchhunt… around the country, is the vanguard of the Brain Police, Mind Monitors, Thought Thugs and Honky Heaven Whores grasping to make thought criminals out of millions of innocent citizens.  You ARE 1984, with all that that implies….What pretentious arrogance to presume, what colossal nerve to attempt to impose your standards on the public….Fuck off and Fuck censorship!

RON JACOBS is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. His most recent book, titled Tripping Through the American Night is published as an ebook.  He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net