The Village Voice Helped Me Become the Person I am Today

Newsstands used to be like a library. Dozens of newspapers, magazines and paperbacks filled the shelves of even the smallest such establishments. They might be standing alone like those in major cities everywhere or they might be one section of a drugstore or bookstore. On most military bases, they were an extension of the US military’s equivalent of a department store—the Post Exchange (PX). I spent many hours hanging out at such newsstands, reading science fiction magazines, music rags, the Sporting News, peeking at the Playboys, scanning various daily newspapers and exploring paperback books of all kinds. When I lived in the racetrack town of Laurel, MD. I would look at the Daily Racing Form, trying to decipher the phrases and numbers various men argued over at the lunch counter in the neighborhood People’s Drugs. The variety of media that existed then and was available in print was better than any school course I ever took. That is, if one took the time to read it. Indeed, if it weren’t for newsstands, I would probably never have become a weekly reader of the Village Voice, a forerunner of the underground press and all that succeeded it. The Voice’s ornery challenge to the powerful and the arrogant struck a chord in my fourteen year old brain the day I discovered the paper in 1969. When I lived in Frankfurt am Main in what was then West Germany, it was the Village Voice that helped keep me in touch with the parts of US culture I was interested in. It also convinced me to move to New York City as soon as I go out of my parents’ house.

It wasn’t perfect, nor was it as radical as I became. It suffered from a lack of Black writers for a while, just as its male chauvinism (as we used to call it) was often not only appalling but certainly beyond the pale. Yet, for me and many other, it was the paper of record, not the New York Times. Then again, in my world, the New York Times has always been more like Pravda was in the USSR. It gave the reader plenty of news, but it didn’t necessarily give them any truth. As we know, thanks to folks like the late Counterpunch founder and editor Alexander Cockburn and his groundbreaking media criticism writing at the Voice, sometimes the Times didn’t even provide honest facts. At least papers like Voice provided the reader with some truths. And some magnificent, bold and stylistically refreshing writing. A new oral history about the Village Voice continues that tradition. Titled When the Freaks Came Out to Write: The Definitive History of the Village Voice, the Radical Paper That Changed American Culture, this large and rambunctious book by one-time Voice worker Tricia Romano does the paper’s story justice. And then some.

Oral histories can be a challenge to read. The format invites the reader to skip over entries if the text seems to be dragging. I have to say, I read every word of When the Freaks Came Out to Write. Every goddam word. It’s that good. The stories of the egos, the personality conflicts, the legal challenges, and the responses to the revolutionary changes going on in the world, Manhattan and the Village are described by those who worked at the Voice, those who were covered by the Voice and those who read the Voice. Likewise, the changes in the paper’s content and approach that occurred with each new owner are discussed honestly and plainly. As a reader, I wasn’t interested in the Voice’s ledgers then or now. However, there were writers I wanted to read every time I picked up a copy. I am pretty certain that most other Voice readers felt the same.

Richard Goldstein, Jack Newfield, Robert Christgau, jill johnston, Stanley Crouch, Susan Brownmiller, Nelson George, Greg Tate, even Pete Hamill were writers I looked for over the years. Of course, none of them were all there at the same time. As Romano reminds us in her book, this is what made the Voice an exciting newspaper for so long. Not only did it write about stuff most media didn’t write about (until the Voice made it a thing, that is), it had writers who wrote about those phenomena in innovative, even revolutionary ways and styles. For example, no one I can think of has ever done what jill johnston did in her column during her twenty-one year run at the Voice. I never cared about dance until I started reading jill johnston. I was never afraid of lesbian separatists because of johnston’s writing and joyous take on the world of sexual politics. When I lived in the Bronx for a few months in 1973 and 1974, she was one of the people I hoped I might run into during the time I spent hanging out in the Village and the Lower East Side. Bob Dylan was another one. So were Abbie Hoffman and Tuli Kupferberg. I did see Dylan once, but it was on stage at the Garden.

When the HIV/AIDS pandemic hit the United States, I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Friends of mine whose friends were getting sick and dying—mostly gay men early on then intravenous drug users later—looked to New York City for inspiration on how to get health care and some kind of treatment for those coming down with the disease. It seemed that every house I went to during that time where gay men resided had a subscription to the Voice. The reason was simple: it’s coverage was visceral, agitational, reflective, and responsive to the trauma an entire community was experiencing. I’m not saying it was perfect and above criticism because it wasn’t. However, its approach to the crisis was genuine, very much so.

Romano’s text suggests that this was how the Voice almost always covered stories. It reflected New York’s place as what was then one of the most culturally and politically important cities in the world. It made people looking for a big and exciting world want to move there. It was also one of the first, if not the first, media outlet to go after Donald Trump. Indeed, reporter Wayne Barrett took him down often, pissing Trump off over and over. Barrett did something similar regarding Rudy Giuliani, well before it was popular to do so.

It’s not that the Voice’s politics were marxist. At best, they were democratic socialist. They weren’t. In fact, they were pretty consistently on the left side of the Democratic Party. Of course, the Democratic Party in New York City is more liberal than it is in Nebraska, but it’s still mainstream electoral politics. The one part of politics that the Voice did best was in going after corruption in the boroughs and at the State House. It was the writing on this that probably got them in more hot water with the powers that be than any particular political position it took. Despite their more or less mainstream liberal politics, many readers associated them with those further to their left. My personal take in 2024 is that the Village Voice was never necessarily what is nowadays called politically correct, but it was usually against the powerful and the corrupt, which are often one and the same.

This book is one of the best oral histories I have ever read. Romano’s ear for great storytelling is apparent. The narrative flows from one conversation to the next as if those conversations occurred in a seamless marathon of Voice workers remembering the past in their favorite bar with the drinks on the house. Reading this book reminded me that the media isn’t what it used to be. And that’s too bad.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com