Fire down below

The underground press burned bright, burned out and holds lessons for today

May 18, 2011 at 12:00 am

Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America
John McMillian
$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.

Incredibly, while recounting John Sinclair's release from state prison in 1971, he fails to mention that three days before the release, a raucous crowd of supporters filled Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor to join a who's who of musicians, poets and activists (including John Lennon, who had written a song for the occasion) to demand his freedom. It was the music in the end that set the politico free.

Rolling Stone, with its embrace of the music and culture and its relative lack of interest in the political, actually represented a threat to struggling papers. By unapologetically commercializing the music scene, Rolling Stone gave nervous record label executives what they yearned for, a viable alternative for their advertising dollars free of the political rhetoric that made them so uneasy.

Similar to Berry Gordy's tragic idea of moving Motown out of Motown for the bright lights of Hollywood, the increasing disconnect between the music and the counterculture that had inspired it inevitably led to some incredibly bad music in the years ahead.

The papers and New Left unraveled together in the early 1970s, leaving behind the increasingly disembodied music "business" and the relentless marketing of "hip" and "cool" that continues to this day. Smoking Typewriters should have ended there.

Curiously, after focusing the entire book on the New Left — using SDS as the touchstone for his analysis and dutifully dissecting the musings of countless radical journalists, in its final two chapters Smoking Typewriters becomes tone deaf to the alternative newsweekly papers and journalists that most closely continued down the political path of the underground press.

He seems enthralled with those alt weekly veterans who have moved on to more mainstream work such as David Carr of The New York Times and Jack Shafer of Slate. Worse, he devotes extensive emphasis to the ramblings of those who have little of particular value to say like Jim Larken (New Times) on union-bashing and this gem from veteran publisher Russ Smith:

These independent papers, coasting editorially, would act in lockstep, not in collusion but because of a confluence of leaky imaginations. So, for example, in the election of '96, the endorsements of Bill Clinton were nearly unanimous among those papers that endorsed. ... Even as publishers had ever bulging wallets, they stayed true to the safe lefty editorial content, and just churned it out, while real editors ... like [New Times executive editor] Mike Lacey, the evil Cookie Cutter Monster, actually encouraged original and daring reporting in his "chain" papers.

Really. The alt weeklies' declining to embrace George Bush or crazy Ross Perot revealed an insidious lack of imagination? And when the publishers' wallets got fatter, they kept publishing left-of-center stories instead of becoming Republicans like Smith? This is McMillian's idea of a trenchant critique of the alt weeklies?

There are plenty of people who might have proven tougher than Smith on the failed promise of the weeklies, but from a viewpoint more consistent with the content of the previous six chapters. Bruce Brugmann (Bay Guardian), Michael Moore (who once published his own brand of alternative monthly in Flint and attended several AAN conferences with me), or the brilliant Katherine Fulton, (founder of the North Carolina Independent) would likely have had much to say about the niche. Or how about's visionary Executive Director Don Hazen, whose vibrant progressive Web hub once served as the syndication service of those alt weeklies?

There is an unmistakable arc that travels from the underground press to the alternative weeklies to today's "indymedia" ecosystem. McMillian loses his way when he steps into the alt weekly world and does not even attempt to address the similarities and profound differences between web activists now and the '60s media activism of the underground press.

Today, the most useful thing about analyzing the undergrounds is in trying to reach a better understanding of the lessons they hold for the potential of the social web to serve as an organizing tool. While the Vietnam War was ended by the ferocious resistance shown by the Vietnamese people, its end was also hastened, as McMillian clearly shows, by a mass mobilization of domestic anti-war sentiment, in no small part made possible by the underground press.

With two wars, corporate personhood, emergency managers administering the "shock doctrine" to our cities and a rolling global financial crisis that is far from over, the need for a fresh wave of oppositional media has never been greater. The concentration of ownership of the mainstream media has reached its inevitable denouement, but in a delicious twist, it turns out that by the time the legacy newspaper and broadcast assets were all rolled up, the entire media landscape had been turned on its head.

In North America, anyone with access to a computer and a sliver of bandwidth can be a digital pamphleteer — a modern-day Tom Paine. On the one hand, media reform activists now see much of what they have been working for a reality: a level playing field that enables an unlimited range of voices to step forward and seize the means of media production. On the other, the media environment has imploded into millions of fragments, each trying to game the system with special Google-juice to capture that elusive state of grace through search engine optimization. Meanwhile, under our noses and in plain sight, the forces that have spent so long concentrating their control over old media are moving at lightning speed to seize the new media because they control the last mile of fiber.

If McMillian had taken the final chapters of Smoking Typewriters in that direction, then he would be in new and important territory. What, in the end, can we learn from the explosion of DIY, advocacy journalism of the '60s that might be relevant to today?

One might argue the counterculture's papers, while tied to an international movement, were most effective when they reaffirmed their sense of place. The impact of the underground press' local coverage on culture, identity, community building and political organizing cannot be underestimated. Could local, even hyper-local, be the killer organizing app of the world wide web today? (Of course, with the network effect, any set of like-minded entities can be woven together into a larger web of change.)

In the underground press, first person, writer-participant reporting rendered mainstream coverage comparatively shallow and inauthentic. One of the signatures of the blogosphere today is often that same inside-the-story vantage point. But the prevailing every-blogger-for-himself approach is in direct contradiction to the highly collaborative way underground staffs operated. Let's face it, bloggers still do not play that well with others, opting to go it alone with diminished presence and even less impact.

If we are to look to the Web as the place to find the next iteration of the values and goals embraced by the underground press — and I would argue that's as good a place as any — then we need to look no farther than to some inspiring and innovative organizations right here in Detroit. The Detroit Digital Justice Coalition and Allied Media Projects, working with MSU and utilizing federal stimulus funds, show lessons learned and effectively applied to new media.

While the underground press was an overwhelmingly straight, white and very male show, Allied's annual media conference is firmly multicultural, highly collaborative and a glance at their programming shows the widest possible spectrum of creative expression in the service of education and training. Geeked-out training sessions and radical political analysis are combined with karaoke, bowling and hip hop performances — an approach that would make any counterculture veteran feel right at home.

The DDJC, of which Allied is a member, is an imaginative and savvy community organizing effort aimed at developing a digital economy in Detroit. The concept of "digital justice" is their way of framing the very real digital divide — they promote equal access to media and technology as producers and consumers. They aim to "expand broadband infrastructure," by building out mesh wireless broadband networks and "use community media to rebuild the city's economy for the 21st century." They want to spur community-based economic development by promoting small business, independent artists and other entrepreneurs via the web.

DIY? Check. Diverse? Check. Collaborative? Check. Fun? Check. Hyper-local, with a global perspective? Check. New tools for grass roots political action and job creation? Check. The next chapter is already being written.

Ron Williams is former board chair of and current board chair of He is the co-founder of Metro Times. Send comments [email protected].