Fire down below
The underground press burned bright, burned out and holds lessons for today
Published: May 18, 2011
Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America
$27.95, 304 pp.
Oxford University Press
In Smoking Typewriters, his exhaustively researched and meticulously footnoted study of the underground press, John McMillian does a fine job of constructing a journalistic wayback machine. He delivers the reader to the world of the mimeograph, offset printing and desktop publishing, just as these bold new technologies spread word of the Great American Cultural Renaissance (and imminent revolution) of the '60s.
And there were literally hundreds of these publications across North America and Europe from the mid-'60s to early '70s. Whether it was the Fifth Estate in Detroit, or The Great Speckled Bird in Atlanta, The East Village Other in New York to the Chicago Seed, they were all rooted in the anti-war movement and celebrating the music, drugs and lifestyles of the era.
The problem for McMillian, an assistant professor of history at Georgia State University, is that this is territory so well traversed that any new insights and factual corrections (of which there are many) really feel like picking at leftovers.
For contemporary historians and those looking to further parse the accuracy of previous works on the era, this will undoubtedly thrill and please. But over the years, much of this material has been done more entertainingly by Raymond Mungo's Famous Long Ago), more insightfully (David Armstrong's A Trumpet to Arms) and more authoritatively via first-hand accounts (Todd Gitlin's The Sixties, Abe Peck's Uncovering the Sixties). There has also been a sweeping anthology of publishing histories (Notes from the Underground).
McMillian places politics at the heart of the underground press' vitality, providing well researched accounts of the evolution (and de-evolution) of the seminal political organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and detailing the colorful history of the newspapers' two major syndication services, Liberation News Service (LNS) and Underground Press Syndicate (UPS).
He does not, however, overlook the seductive appeal of the counterculture, which was the secret weapon in building a movement that sent chills through the FBI, Pentagon and White House.
This is a serious piece of scholarship — the book itself runs a modest 190 pages, but is followed by 87 more pages of footnotes by chapter, bibliography and index. While his work understandably lacks the authenticity and authority that comes from first-hand accounts, in some cases that distance actually brings a more accurate accounting of those turbulent times.
This book may be "a brilliant reappraisal of the origins and development of the New Left rebellion" as the dust jacket claims. I'll leave that judgment to others who are more scholarly than I. The book is certainly at its best when it takes deep dives into individual papers like the LA Free Press, Austin Rag and Berkeley Barb and the outsized personalities that animated them.
There is yet one more retelling of the LNS saga, replete with the comic (and tragic) midnight heist of the news service, including printing press, mailing list and typewriters from its New York City offices to a farm in rural Massachusetts, with the "Virtuous" looking to defeat the "Vulgar Marxist" caucus once and for all. Beyond personalities, he suggests, the power struggle was about founders seeking to retain control versus the more collective approach demanded by other staff members. McMillian concludes that the "Marxists," with their demands of more shared decision-making, may not have been as vulgar as previous reports suggested.
One thing that struck me with fresh impact is McMillian's important documentation of the level of harassment and violence that underground staffs faced across the country. Death threats, bricks through windows, even gunshots and firebombs confirmed the papers' effectiveness and the stakes involved. And the violence wasn't just confined to areas of the country you might expect such as Dallas or San Diego.
It was the firebombing of the Trans Love Energies collective's offices in Detroit's Cass Corridor, not once but twice, that caused them to flee to those notorious Hill Street houses in Ann Arbor, headquarters for the cannabis-driven dreams of the White Panthers, the Rainbow People's Party, the MC-5 and Up. It wasn't easy being a hippie during the summer of love in Detroit. McMillian describes the 1967 Detroit Love-In on Belle Isle that was broken up by a crew of redneck biker badasses with the coup de gr�ce administered by a contingent of Detroit's finest on horseback swinging their batons at sunset.
As a Michigan State University alum, McMillian spends considerable time recounting the story of The Paper, East Lansing's underground publication founded in 1965 by Michael Kindman. While typical of the smaller papers that made up the majority of the underground press, it was far less interesting and of less significance that what was happening in Detroit and Ann Arbor.
Harvey Ovshinsky borrowed the name of his new paper, The Fifth Estate, from a coffee house on Sunset Strip that he frequented while working at the LA Free Press. Once he moved the paper's offices into the Cass Corridor, it attracted all sorts of new folks, such as Peter Werbe, and served as the hub for all the cool things unfolding in the Motor City. The Fifth Estate, now an anarchist occasional, is still published, making it among the only surviving remnants (though unrecognizable) of that era.
Despite McMillian's Michigan roots (he grew up in Essexville, just outside of Bay City, in addition to attending MSU), there is no mention of Creem, the influential Detroit-based national music and culture magazine that many still consider a more vibrant publication than Rolling Stone at the time. McMillian also fails to include the Ann Arbor Sun or the Detroit Sun, Barbara (Weinberg) Barefield and David Fenton's project that bridged the period of time here between the underground and the founding of Metro Times in 1980.
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