Surreal life

Jan 5, 2005 at 12:00 am

Old rebels never die, they, well … just stick up Toys “R” Us stores. Allen Van Newkirk, who played a seminal role in the 1960s radical and experimental cultural scene in Detroit, was arrested following a Dec. 12 robbery and subsequent shoot-out with Mounties in a Vancouver, British Columbia, suburb.

According to Constable Dave Babineau, media liaison for the Port Coquitlam section of the Royal Mounted Canadian Police, officers responded to a report of an armed holdup at the suburban toy store by a lone man who drove off in a van. Following a short chase, the vehicle and a police car collided, and the 64-year-old Van Newkirk exited from behind the wheel with gun blazing.

Van Newkirk was wounded in an exchange of gunfire with police, and is charged with two counts of attempted murder, robbery and related offenses. Babineau described the wounds as “non-life threatening,” and Jennifer Saltman, staff reporter for the twice-weekly Coquitlam Now, said the defendant was walking under his own power at a Dec. 28 court hearing. Neither provincial nor store officials would disclose the amount of the heist, but a store employee said it was thousands of dollars.

Many veterans of Detroit’s ’60s scene remember Van Newkirk as a pistol-packing, motorcycle-riding early Detroit advocate of surrealist and Dadaist ideas. He published daily newspaper-sized posters titled Guerrilla: Free Newspaper of the Streets, featuring huge headlines proclaiming such provocations as, “Poetry Demands Unemployment.”

John Sinclair, a founder of the Detroit Artists’ Workshop in the ’60s and originally a co-editor of Guerrilla, says, “The surrealists were his big inspiration, and if sticking up Toys “R” Us isn’t a surreal act, I don’t know what is!”

He added, “I wonder what his message was. There has to be some subtext.”

Sinclair, now based in Amsterdam, and Van Newkirk became roommates 40 years ago in a Cass Corridor apartment when they were both attending Wayne State University. “We were both trying to figure out a way,” says Sinclair, “to bridge the previous era with the emerging thing that had to do with reaching illiterate teenage TV-watchers and pop radio listeners with art and political content through the media of marijuana, rock ’n’ roll and LSD.” The two of them were part of a scene responsible for an outpouring of poetry, publications, theater, art, experimental jazz and innovative rock that gave the Cass Corridor a far-reaching reputation.

Van Newkirk, at an imposing 6-foot-3, often made his opinions known by thundering down the aisle of radical gatherings denouncing proceedings as insufficiently revolutionary. His most notorious act back then occurred in 1969 during an appearance of the mainstream poet Kenneth Koch at an alternative New York reading space, St. Marks Church. Van Newkirk, incensed, ran toward the podium firing a pistol (filled with blanks, though the audience didn’t know that), yelling, “Death to bourgeois poets.”

Several confederates, including poet, author and NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu threw copies of the latest Guerrilla to startled spectators. According to Codrescu, “Kenneth responded, without flinching, ‘Why don’t you just grow up?’ and goes on reading.”

“I was wondering what mischief Van Newkirk was into,” Codrescu said on hearing of his old collaborator’s arrest.

Van Newkirk also disrupted a 1969 Madison, Wis., conference of the Underground Press Syndicate, a federation of alternative newspapers. That time, he ran down the aisle, without the pistol, yelling, “All media are lies.”

A collage he published in The Fifth Estate, Detroit’s underground newspaper, denounced the MC5 rock band as a commodity with a revolutionary veneer, outraging the band and Sinclair, then their manager. A confrontation with MC5 lead guitarist Wayne Kramer followed.

After publishing several editions of Guerrilla, Van Newkirk abruptly left Detroit in 1970 to set up the Geographic Foundation of the North Atlantic, an early radical ecological center located in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. There he put out broadsides and pamphlets under the name of root, branch, and mammal. He eventually was granted permanent resident status in Canada and moved to the Vancouver area.

Old friends say that from the early ’70s through the ’80s, they heard little of Van Newkirk’s whereabouts and activities except for infrequent late-night calls or even less frequent visits to family members in the Detroit area. No one, it seems, had heard from him in almost 15 years.

Not surprisingly, he failed to turn up for the Artists’ Workshop 40th anniversary in November, even though he had been on its board of directors.

Crossing the border might have proved difficult. At his last court hearing it came to light that he was on the lam from assault charges in Penticton, British Columbia. He had previous convictions in Washington state for felony larceny in 1990 and disorderly conduct and theft in 1994.

And while Van Newkirk faces robbery charges, old copies of his “free newspaper of the streets” sell for $130 each at an upscale San Francisco gallery.

Peter Werbe is the host of Nightcall on WRIF (101.1-FM) and a longtime Metro Times contributor. Send comments to [email protected]