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Stew Albert’s Radical Life, 1939-2006

by MICHAEL SIMMONS

“My politics have not changed.”

So read the simple blog entry by Stew Albert on January 28, 2006. Two days later, he died in his sleep at his home in Portland, Oregon, surrounded by his wife Judy Albert, daughter Jessica and friends. Suffering from cancer and unable to write at length, he was clearly determined to make a statement–a last stand — that blended the legendary Yippie’s defiance and wit. As if his politics would ever change!

For the Yippies–the Youth International Party — the word “party” meant both political group and outrageously good time. The Yippies merged left-wing activism and freak culture in the late 1960s. One of the “non-leaders” along with Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Paul Krassner was another party animal — equally irresponsible for the chaos and comedy: Stew Albert, a fierce soldier for justice as well as subversive prankster.

Born on December 4, 1939 in Brooklyn to a working-class family, Stew was genetically nonconformist–a natural blonde Jew. In 1960, he visited the young, idealistic revolutionary Cuba and it derailed his plans for civil servitude. “I saw people living exciting, meaningful lives not based on self-promotion or small-time ideology,” he later wrote. After a failed attempt at reintegrating into normalcy, he got bit by wanderlust and ended up in Berkeley, California working for the anti-war Vietnam Day Committee whose most effective founding member was Jerry Rubin. Soon, Stew and Jerry were best friends and Stew was in the thick of Berkeley’s cannabinoided counter-culture. Despite his “growing rage” at America’s war on Vietnam, his “private joy was complete.” In 1966, his pal Rubin ran for Mayor of Berkeley and Stew became campaign manager and created a campaign that advocated social justice, an end to war and racism as well as the legalization of marijuana–a brave, new demand–and he laid out the campaign pamphlet in a decidedly psychedelic style. The same year, Rubin was called before the commie-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee and he showed up wearing a Revolutionary War costume. These examples of performance politics successfully blew the minds of the congressional creeps and thrilled young anti-war activists by establishing a new tactic–capture their imaginations and their hearts will follow.

In preparation for a march on the Pentagon, Stew and Jerry flew to New York City in the summer of 1967 and befriended a fellow longhaired, wisecracking troublemaker named Abbie Hoffman. Stew, Jerry, Abbie, Jim Fouratt, and others descended on the visitor’s gallery of the New York Stock Exchange and showered 500 one-dollar bills onto the floor below. For the first time in Wall Street’s history, trading stopped on the floor while the greedheads went grabby ga-ga for the green. This merry band had pulled down the curtain on the wizards of capitalism and the media lapped up the story.

In October of that year, Stew helped organize the massive March on the Pentagon. Stew, Jerry, Abbie, along with Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs and others, announced that they were going to exorcise the Pentagon of evil spirits and levitate it. Again, the story made for thrilling press. By the end of 1967, these characters, along with Paul Krassner, Allen Ginsberg, Phil Ochs, Bob Fass, Anita Hoffman, Nancy Kurshan, Kate Coleman, Keith and Judy Lampe, and others, signed a unified statement of purpose and announced themselves as Yippie, a name thought up by Krassner.

The Yippies began planning a Festival of Life for the Democratic Convention in August of 1968. The idea was to present a counterpoint to the Convention of Death hosted by the politicians who’d brought us the war in Vietnam. That year marked another watershed event in Stew’s life when he met fellow traveler Judy Clavir in Berkeley, a love story that lasted his entire life. Judy, later dubbed “Gumbo” by Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, became his mate and a renowned activist in her own right.Stew contributed Pigasus to The Festival of Life, an actual pig that he and Jerry announced was the Yippie candidate for president. The pig was later detained by the police and squealed in custody. The counter-convention devolved into a police riot where thousands of demonstrators–including Stew — were savagely beaten in what was dubbed “a police riot” by a federal commission. Undeterred by the facts, the government prosecuted a group of the organizers for conspiracy to riot in what became known as the Chicago 8 (later 7) trial. Abbie and Jerry were two of the indictees and Stew was named an unindicted co-conspirator (evidently two Yippies were sufficient). The Chicago Conspiracy Trial became known as “The Trial Of The Century” and eventually all charges were dropped.

Stew cut a swath across the planet. He ended up in London disrupting the David Frost Show (along with limey accomplices including writer/rocker Mick Farren) where he actually made a history book for being The First Person To Say Cunt On British Television. He traveled to Algeria to facilitate escaped fugitive Timothy Leary’s exile, where Leary stayed with another exile, Eldridge Cleaver. (Of all the Yippies, Stew was the closest to the Black Panthers, particularly Cleaver.) He enlisted John Lennon and Yoko Ono in a “Beatle/Yippie pact” that resulted in Lennon’s radicalization and near-deportation.

Beyond YIP, he ran for Sheriff of Alameda County (and lost, but carried Berkeley), where he’d earlier done months of jail time for general agitation. With compadre and folksinger Phil Ochs, he traveled to Chile before the CIA-backed coup. When he implemented DIY egalitarianism by helping create People’s Park in Berkeley, then-Governor Ronald Reagan responded to the unsanctioned green space by bringing in the National Guard and turning the streets into a war zone.

While living in the Catskills, Judy discovered a tracking device connected to their car, placed by the FBI. She and Stew eventually sued the FBI for illegal surveillance — and won (proving there’s a damn good reason the feds need judicial warrants). In 1977, their daughter Jessica Pearl Albert was born. Stew went on to become a private eye and reconnected with his Jewish roots. He was played by actor Donal Logue in the Abbie biopic Steal This Movie in 2000.

Through the years, Stew never stopped thirsting for peace and justice. He became a mentor and friend to younger activists, from the L.A. Cacophony Society to myriad anarchists. Young people from all over the world corresponded with Stew, asking about Yippie and seeking advice on contemporary shit-stirring. He continued to write extensively, publishing The Sixties Papers with Judy and his autobiography Who The Hell Is Stew Albert?

After being diagnosed with Hepatitis C, he spent the last year enduring chemotherapy. Just as he completed his treatment and was given a clean bill of health, he was diagnosed with liver cancer last December. It was a cruel twist, but in an e-mail to friends he was determined to confront it head-on and with humor. “I am still a Yippie,” he noted. A week before his death, he gave a two hour plus interview to a film crew making a documentary about the Yippies and although he was clearly tired and in pain, he remained powerful, insightful, unrepentant, and funny as hell. As he wrote in his autobiography, he had “an uncontainable need to test my bravery,” something he did until the end.

If you choose, contributions honoring Stew’s life and times may be made to Planned Parenthood of the Columbia/Willamette, 3231 SE 50th, Portland OR 97213 or the Rosenberg Fund for Children, 116 Pleasant St. # 3312 Easthampton MA 01027

MICHAEL SIMMONS is an award-winning journalist and currently filming a documentary on the Yippies. He can be reached at munz@mindspring.com.

 

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Michael Simmons is a musician and journalist. He can be reached at guydebord@sbcglobal.net.

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