Monday, December 12, 2011

On the Ground

Last week I heard from Sean Stewart, the editor of a new book on the sixties underground press called On the Ground. It joins John McMillian's recent Smoking Typewriters and its precursor, Abe Peck's Uncovering the Sixties, in reviewing the rise and fall of the underground press.

On the Ground complements those books superbly and succeeds on its own as well. Unlike them, it's studded with clips, ads, photographs, and spreads from the Berkeley Barb, San Francisco Oracle, The Black Panther, the San Francisco Express Times, and many other publications. (I've picked the California-based ones, but Sean's focus is national.)

The text features direct testimony from those who founded, contributed to, read, and otherwise helped keep these newspapers alive. We hear from John Sinclair (White Panthers), Paul Krassner (The Realist), Art Kunkin (LA Free Press), Abe Peck, Judy Gumbo Stewart (Berkeley Barb), Bill Ayers, Emory Douglas (The Black Panther), and many others.

The artists include R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Gilbert Shelton (Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers), and Bruce Conner, who produced a cover for the San Francisco Oracle. As part of my Grateful Dead research, I'm learning more about both Conner and the Oracle, but I didn't know they were connected.

Sean gives us a minimal structure: ten chapters that a) describe how the work got done and b) track the fortunes of the genre. The headline version is that they got a lot of free stuff from sympathizers, sold a lot of sex ads, used photo-offset printing, worked with the goodfellas who ran (still run?) newsstand distribution, coped with various forms of internal and external strife, got a little carried away toward the end, and finally moved on to other forms of activism and professional life. (Sean concludes with a helpful "where are they now?" section.)

Between the art and the first-person accounts, On the Ground is above all immediate. It allows you to sample the publications, read the insiders' anecdotes, and make up your own mind about these publications.

If you've had your snout in Ramparts for the last few years, you'll see many familiar names. Paul Krassner, of course, was that magazine's "society editor." Jeffrey Blankfort's photographs accompanied its coverage of the Democratic National Convention in 1968, and several of his photos appear in my book. Judy Albert got her nickname from Eldridge Cleaver when he was on the Ramparts masthead. Ron Turner of Last Gasp will publish Warren Hinckle's forthcoming book on Hunter Thompson.

(Of course, fanatical readers of this blog will recall that I don't regard Ramparts as an underground publication. The whole point was that it invited comparison with Time, Esquire, Playboy, etc. Let's call this the Garner Thesis--named after the New York Times critic who thought I scanted the underground press in A Bomb in Every Issue.)

I came upon other familiar names, too. One of Norman Solomon's co-authors, Harvey Wasserman, describes how the FBI's infiltration of his underground newspaper indirectly led his collective to begin the anti-nuclear movement in Massachusetts. Jeffrey Blankfort recounts meeting David Fenton, the youngest photographer to place a photo in Life. (He was 17.) Fenton went on to work for Rolling Stone and then founded Fenton Communications, one of the big rainmakers in political communications today.

Sean avoids big conclusions, though the preface by Paul Buhle tries out a few. For example, he calls the underground press "one of the great wonders of modern cultural politics" (ix). Whatever you make of this wonder, Buhle is certainly right that this volume's unique contribution is its combination of oral history and evocative images, a combination that can be absorbed and enjoyed in a single day or savored slowly.

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