The Untold Sixties: When Hope
An Insider's Sixties On An International Scale
NOTE: The material in this
section was written
during the early and mid-Seventies when it was still quite
fresh in the author's mind and is also based upon
his large collection of Sixties documents. For
further information, see the book outline by clicking here.
The Life and Death
Of The East Village Other
New York, 1968--71
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Since this book has now been published, many of its chapters have been abridged, though the summary and four chapters can still be found in their entirety.
One of the paradoxes dearest to science fiction writers depicts the earth-born hero returning to his planet after a flight of several years' duration at a speed approaching that of light. Due to a quirk in the Einsteinian cosmos, his own personal time has moved far more slowly than that on earth, and so he returns to a planet where everything has changed almost unrecognizably, where everyone he knew before he left is either dead or dying. Yet this fantasy can become close to a reality in one's own lifetime, as anyone who has returned to his country after a prolonged absence well knows.
When Ilene and I stumbled back into Greenwich Village after seven years in Europe, we might just as well have been space travellers shot out of a "time warp." We had no choice but to submit to a period of reverse cultural shock in readjusting to American manners, customs, and tempo. During this time our previous experience as Americans turned out to be of dubious benefit, for so much had changed in our absence. We were forewarned of these changes by our assiduous reading of the underground press, but we were still not prepared for the full impact.
The America we had left in 1961 had been stately by comparison, formalistic, still nestled in its 'Fifties mythology. To the extent that a culture was evident, it had been the orthodox culture, whose adherents spoke in hushed voices and gathered in small enclaves for self-protection. Contacts between these enclaves and the dominant American life-style were rare and unsought on either side. Anyone who dressed the least bit strangely would be stared at, perhaps even heckled in certain neighborhoods. I can recall being stared at myself for wearing one of the first Russian-style fur hats in New York during the deep recesses of the 'Fifties, and I remember Ilene getting cat-calls even in Greenwich Village as late as 1961 for the large earrings she was fond of wearing.
But the America we were returning to in 1968 was so different that we could only rub our eyes with joy and amazement. What we were seeing was of course only New York, but the changes even here were so compelling that we had to extend them in our minds to the nation as a whole. To our astonishment almost every other person we saw looked weirder than ourselves. This was not only true of the East and West Villages but extended to some extent uptown as well. When we had gone to Europe, the East Village was a small defensive community of nonconformists. When we came back, it seemed unaccountably to have taken over.
After a fitful night's sleep in a fleabag hotel, we stumbled into the offices of the East Village Other in the hope of orienting ourselves to what had been happening during our time with Rip Van Winkle. To my surprise, our sense of dislocation went totally unnoticed, and I was immediately asked to start writing for the paper on the strength of the work I had been doing in London and Berlin. And to my further surprise I found this quite easy to doalthough I was walking into what appeared to me almost a foreign land, my every step of the way seemed assured, as though I had been rehearsing this role over a long period. And in a sense I had been. I started writing my articles, brought them into the paper, and saw them in print a few days later, just as I had been doing in London. It was as though I had walked from one world into a totally different one without missing a step. After only two months I was firmly established as a fixture at the East Village Other.
Because this newspaper emanated from New York, still widely hailed as the nation's cultural capital, and because it had preceded all other underground papers in the country1with the exception of one or two conventionally laid out papers which were called underground in retrospectit was widely regarded by many as the chief spokesman for "the movement." Universities and libraries had started to subscribe (as had other newspapers and even foreign embassies) on the theory that we were the cutting edge of the youth culture and had to be understood.
We were only in the EVO offices a few moments when Allan Katzman told us that he was being regularly courted by uptown reporters and commentators and had even been asked to speak at various press lunches on the significance of what we believed we were doing. Allan regarded this as something of a joke besides being a waste of time, for no matter what he would tell them, they were simply not in a position to interpret it correctly and integrate it with their preconceptions. This was how wide and real the gap between the two cultures was in late l968. As this gap was spread out over all of the twelve cultural and political areas (described briefly in the footnote below and in greater detail elsewhere in the book),2 it is not really surprising that it often seemed to be an unbridgeable chasm.
As soon as I started writing for EVO, I too found myself being wooed by certain uptown media types, who seemed to believe that I possessed a key to opening deep cultural secrets, if only I would share it with them. And this attempt at rapprochement among media people, at courtship even, was going on during the height of the tensions surrounding the counterculture, when demonstrations, arrests, and physical violence were a fact of everyday life. I believe that what Allan and I saw working was one of the mechanisms by which a society protects itself from dissolution. Fortunately for all of us it was to prove quite effective
The East Village Other aka EVO at the time I formally joined it had already been in existence for over two years and had reached what was in many ways the peak of its power. It had been founded by John Wilcock, Walter Bowart, Sherry Needham, and Allan Katzman as a single sheet broadside which slowly and painfully began to put out larger and more frequent editions. It had originally been published from offices on Avenue A but gladly accepted the offer of free office space from rock impresario Bill Graham, and in 1967 EVO moved into its Second Avenue offices over the Fillmore East. During its early existence it came out twice a month at best, but shortly before my return to America it went weekly and for a while at least seemed to have no problems coping with this schedule.
The fights and duels between the various founders were already legendary when I arrived in New York. John Wilcock and Walter Bowart had allegedly broken up over a dispute concerning whether or not the work of Andy Warhol should be featured in the paper. This was at a time when Warhol was truly an underground and controversial figure. Wilcock was in favor of promoting him, but Bowart was unable to accept Warhol because of his homosexuality. This story alone made me wonder how much real freedom the underground press was capable of, but the upshot of this feud was that both Wilcock and Bowart decamped, leaving Katzman mainly in charge of the paper. Bowart took off for the Southwest, and I was to see him only once, a few weeks after I returned to New York, when he arrived at the EVO offices accompanied by a lawyer.
He was impressive, tall and bearded, and reminded me in many ways of Jim Haynes in London. Soon he and his lawyer disappeared into the front office to talk with Allan, Sherry, and some of the other "official" directors of the paper. There soon emanated from behind the door shouting of such intensity and duration that I and several other writers left the building and went elsewhere to work. When we returned, we learned that there had been a battle over the custody of the EVO stock (I will deal later with the ironies of an underground paper issuing stock), and the impasse had been resolved with Bowart being bought out and fleeing back to Arizona.
Although John Wilcock was no longer around the paper he was a considerable figure in his own right. He had originally quit the Village Voice when they criticized an article in which he had mentioned potsmoking, another indication of how much times were to change. Not only did he play an important role in starting EVO but he was also one of those figures who were to catalyze many other papers and underground activities, achieving little for himself in the long run other than personal satisfaction. He had also been involved in the early stages of the Los Angeles Free Press, Detroit's Fifth Estate, and had even visited London during the summer when plans were being laid for International Times aka IT. He had a job writing for the well-known series of books on how to live in various countries for five dollars a day, which aided him greatly in moving around the world, and he is rumored to have played a role in starting papers in India, Japan and Thailand as well.
I soon became aware that the atmosphere of the EVO offices was far more turbulent than that of London's underground paper. Despite our various problems with the police, there had always been a certain English gentleness and unhurried quality at IT. Whatever other international benefits the underground might be conferring, it had clearly not yet succeeded in eradicating national differences.
Perhaps the single most important element of the tension at EVO was a tall, heavyset young man named Joel Fabricant, who increasingly took on the role and duties of "publisher." At any time of day Joel was usually quite loudly occupied in various administrative tasks. Although Allan was responsible for editorial matters, Joel had come onto the scene after the split between Bowart and Wilock to coordinateif that was the wordour business affairs. Although Joel was very much into pot, rock music, vegetarian foods and all the other underground causes, I always felt there was something decidedly unreconstructed and 'Fifties-like about him. To me he looked like the typical fast-buck businessman glazed over with a counter-cultural wash, which frequently wore thin.
Although the EVO offices were spacious enough, Joel made them feel quite cramped, for he was always everywhere at once, shouting and laughing loudly, punching the men with mock boxing blows or striking karate poses, pinching the women with gleeful abandon, barking orders to everyone about advertising, circulation, printing runs, graphics, layout, and even editorial policy. While we all had to make some sort of peace with Joel's presence, I know that many of the writers found him objectionable in varying degrees and did their best to avoid him whenever possible. And I suspect that Joel was one of the reasons that eventually led Allan to resign as editor.
The best that could be said about Joel was that his bustling was harmless and even ineffectual in the long run, for he rarely read a copy of the paper. He was mainly concerned with having a new issue to ship to the distributors each week, and he showed an interest in its contents only if there had been some negative feedback from the distributors or the newsstands where it was sold. I have already mentioned that this happened with one article I wrote (an illustrated review of a book on erotic art), which was so outspokenly sexual for its time (possibly because I entitled it Fucking Through the Ages and included some of the wildest drawings) that several thousand copies of EVO were returned from California, and suits against the paper were launched in two small New Jersey towns. Joel tried chewing me out over this, saw that I wouldn't take it, and finally concluded that this sort of problem was good for our circulation in the long run.
The absolute peak in EVO's power and influence came during the spring and summer of 1969, and if a few halfway competent decisions been taken around that time, the paper might conceivably still be around today. But EVO's success was just beginning to be counter-productive, for until that time the paper had enjoyed a virtual monopoly on raunchy material and sex ads in a newsprint format. Over the winter, however, a new paper had been launched in the form of Screw Magazine, and its appearance signalled that we had indeed, ironically enough, been successful in our battle against censorship. Yet our victory was to prove most useful to another sort of paper. While the underground press had included sex as only one part of its broad formula, Screw moved in to specialize in this area.
At first our stand was to support Screw, and we accepted their ads in EVO. Soon they grew so powerful that they launched a second paper called GAY for the other side of the sex scene now emerging. As our "publisher," Joel was beside himself both with the threat this posed and the opportunity it offered. Within only a month or two, he responded to this challenge by publishing out of the EVO office not only our own separate sex paper called KISS and our own gay Sheet called GAY POWER, but even a foray into astrology called the AQUARIAN AGENT. And Peter Leggieri, another of our editors, soon started a comic strip tabloid called Gothic Blimp Works. For a while all of these papers were being prepared on the same premises at once.
These developments drove some of our writers up the wall. Not only were they being asked to turn out a popular paper with a political thrust under trying circumstances and with very little pay, but now they were being pressured into writing for the new papers as well. Many of these writers had chosen to write for EVO out of idealism in the belief that they were paving the way for a new society. And here was Joel Fabricant, as many thought, just trying to make money, with little thought for the future of EVO or the paper's policies.
Several pep rallies were called that winter and spring, and Joel would explain the bright future ostensibly awaiting all of us if we would just keep writing, for he believed he was building an empire that would change the whole future of journalism. To an extent he was correct in this belief, but it turned out not to be his empire or any one's for that matter. But for the time being it looked as if Joel was unstoppable. No one could contradict him or even argue with him for that matter. And yet it was at one of his own pep sessions that his fate was sealed. He met his defeat at the hands of a single artist. And the decisive blow was dealt not by a sledge hammer but by a simple symbolic act.
The entire staffsome thirty of uswere gathered in the front office beneath its custom-made stained glass windows showing Katzman and Bowart as glowing saintly presences. Everyone waited expectantly as Joel, seated next to the door, began his latest sales pitch for the combined papers. He went on and on until we all grow numb. One person got up and left, muttering some excuse, and we all envied him. Joel was still holding forth a few minutes later when the door opened again. The cartoonist R. Crumb reached into the room just far enough to smash a gigantic Ratner's cream pie into Joel's face. Crumb quickly retreated. There was a moment's pause, a dread silence before anyone, even Joel, reacted.
Then Joel shouted one word at the top of his lungs:
The rest was a stream of obscenities punctuated with Crumb's name. Joel had risen like a bolt of lightening and raced back into the layout room, where he imagined the cartoonist had fled. Fortunately for Crumb and the future of American comics, he had chosen to run down the stairs instead and on up Second Avenue. After a bemused interlude, Joel came back, still quite literally in a lather from the pie, and tried to resume the mood of the meeting. But it was no use. No one could take anything seriously after that. And it was from that moment that we ourselves stopped taking Joel seriously.
I had been present a few weeks earlier at a small gathering in Joel's office, where I think we all may have had a foretaste of his demise. Allan Katzman, his twin brother Don, and several other writers and editors were crammed together around Joel's desk while he spoke on the phone to a relative, who happened to be a broker on the New York Stock Exchange. This being America, the original founders of the paper had issued themselves stock in the East Village Other Corporation, and now Joel had gotten it into his head that EVO's promise and renown had become so great that considerable capital could be raised by "going public" reissuing the stock and selling it on Wall Street.
He had managed to corral the imagination of several other EVO workers in this vision, and they all sat there awaiting the final outcome of his phone call on this matter. I was an exception, as I just happened to be in the office at the time. I expect I was the only one present who was skeptical of this plan, but I kept my opinion to myself. Slowly but surely we watched Joel's jaw drop, as he absorbed the information from the other end of the phone. After he got off, he quietly explained that we appeared to have some slight communication problem with Wall Street concerning our "image." Why, many of the brokers down there actually thought we were opposed to capitalist society, he announced in a flat voice devoid of humor. I do not think it had really occurred to him to ever doubt until that moment that everything could be sold as a commodity on the marketincluding revolution.
Why The East Village Other Died
(New York, 1969--71)
Joel stayed on for several months after his face was first defiled by Crumb's custard, but his fate was sealed. Allan Katzman talked with ever increasing vigor of resigning as editor, and Sherry Needham, one of the original founders, withdrew because she felt the original goals of the paper were no longer being served. Allan's own plight as editor was typical of what was beginning to happen at a number of underground papers across the country. Actually, the very values on which the underground was based were inimical in many ways to the requirements of bringing out a newspaper. After all, the counter-culture was devoted to spontaneity, joyous living, a free and easy lifestyle, while bringing out any regular publication, even an underground one, requires a certain amount of industriousness, attention to detail, and a respect for deadlines.
While the founding editors of many papers were able to go along with these responsibilities for a while by rationalizing that they were helping others to find greater freedom, they soon became aware of the corner they had red-penciled themselves into. For Allan and others proofreading became a drag to be avoided, and it was this rather than any basic illiteracy that caused some of our most blatant errors: typos, inverted paragraphs, missing ends of articles, even misdated issues. Artists and art directors frequently took over in this power vacuum, which of course gave underground papers their distinctive appearance. Some editors simply fled, leaving no forwarding address, others sank deeper into drugs or other pleasures of the scene. A few, like Allan, tried to deal with the problem as realistically as possible and arrange for a successor. It was almost inevitable that the new generation of underground editors, when it took over, would have personalities and interests quite different from those of the founders.
[This chapter has been abridged pending publication...]
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