Celebrating Berkeley Barb’s 50th Anniversary of Founding

I’ve said it many times already in many forms. I’m happy to say it again: My deepest thanks to the Berkeley Barb reunion committee for inviting me to share in the festivities of the fiftieth anniversary reunion, Wednesday and Thursday August 12-13. (Events took place all week but those were the only two I was able to attend.) The Barb, one of the legendary underground papers of the Vietnam era, hasn’t actually been around since 1980 but it was founded fifty years ago, in 1965, and fifty years of anything is worthy of a celebration.

Reunions always include at least two parts. First is the celebration, seeing friends who you haven’t seen in what seems like forever and who you’re never sure you will ever see again, and also seeing folks who go back to the same time but who you never knew personally and are meeting for the first time. So the event is joyous at the same time as it is bittersweet.

Here are some of the friends who shared memories and laughs with me:

  • Friends I met while organizing against both major parties in Miami Beach in the summer of 1972 (Gabrielle Schang, Leslie Bacon, Babs Yohai, Kathy Streem, Judy Gumbo);
  • A friend who worked with me on Joint Issue in Lansing-East Lansing, Michigan, and then made the trek west with a stop at the Barb (Stephen Vernon);
  • A friend from East Lansing who worked on another area underground paper, The Spectacle (Tom Price);
  • Contributors to my Voices from the Underground Series (Trina Robbins, Alta, Laura X, all veterans of the feminist newspaper It Aint Me Babe);
  • Members of the reunion committee (Raquel Scherr, Gar Smith, Diana Stephens, John Jekabson);
  • The legendary medical advice columnist Eugene Schoenfeld, known as Dr. HIPpocrates.
John Jekabson, Berkeley Barb veteran and member of the reunion committee, with Ken Wachsberger. Photo credit Marianne Smith, August 2015

John Jekabson, Berkeley Barb veteran and member of the reunion committee, with Ken Wachsberger. Photo credit Marianne Smith, August 2015

And there were others so apologies to anyone I neglected to list here.

The second part is reflective. When you’re living in the now and you’re looking back fifty years, and if you have an active mind, you can’t help but go deep inside yourself as you listen to others go deep inside themselves. The conference on Thursday encouraged the trip back in time. It began with a keynote from feminist comix pioneer Trina Robbins talking about women in the underground press and how she broke through the all-boys’ club of comix artists; and ended with a keynote from Dr. HIP, giving his fascinating life story including how he came to write his famous sex advice column for the Barb, which was “syndicated” in underground papers all over the country. (I use quotes because none of the papers that reprinted his column, he said, in fact paid him. Although membership in Underground Press Syndicate allowed papers to reprint others’ articles and graphics for free, it is likely that non-UPS members also reprinted his column without paying for it; we were kind of loose with understanding of copyright in those days.)

Between the opening and closing keynotes were two panels and a reading by feminist poet Alta. In the morning panel, moderated by Judy Gumbo, veterans of the Barb representing the entire fifteen-year span of its existence shared their memories by answering two questions apiece that Judy prepared specifically for them. I shared the afternoon panel with journalist/historians Peter Richardson, historian of Ramparts magazine and the Grateful Dead; and Seth Rosenfeld, chronicler of the FBI-Ronald Reagan war against student radicals in the sixties. Diana Stephens, who led the effort to organize the reunion after being inspired during the writing of her master’s thesis on the Barb, moderated this panel.

A report on the reunion appeared in the Contra Costa Times News. You can read it here.

Following is the full text of my talk, which I cut slightly at the panel in consideration of a tight time frame.

* * *

As a veteran and a historian of the sixties, I hear often—and maybe you do, too—the question: “When did the sixties end?” I’d like to reframe that question:

  • Same-sex marriage is now legal in the entire country.
  • Legal marijuana is not far behind.
  • Women are rising up again to fight for equality and to control their own bodies.
  • U.S. residents of Mexican descent, who we knew as Chicanos, are demanding a path to citizenship and the right to study their history and culture in schools and universities.
  • Black Lives Matter.
  • A socialist is a viable candidate for president.
  • And the alternative press is vibrant, and more necessary than ever.

So my reframed question is: How have the sixties lasted so long? That shining star that never fades.

When I was compiling and editing histories of individual underground papers in the late eighties-early nineties for the first edition of my Voices from the Underground Series, I was chided by at least one friend, himself a veteran of the underground press, for putting so much effort into such an esoteric topic. Fortunately, I didn’t know what “esoteric” meant, so I was undeterred. Since then, it has become a major part of my life’s work.

While working on that first edition, my most gratifying discovery was that my contributors were still politically active. This was no small feat. We were fifteen years after the war’s end. The country had veered dramatically to the right. We were living in Reagan’s America. A major percentage of our peers were becoming Yuppified. They were hiding from their own kids what they did to help us accomplish all that we did because they were paranoid of losing their jobs, even though the period had produced the broadest, most diverse antiwar movement in the history of our country.

Now we’re 25 years beyond that time. I know all of you are still politically active. And the country is starting to swing around to our side. I know it still looks bad, but the arc is curving in our direction. We were persistent. We were patient. And we were right all along.

And I discovered something else: Our friend Jerry Rubin said it best: “We are everywhere.” Underground papers were everywhere. They were in urban, suburban, rural, ghetto, barrio, tribal, and other communities in every state of the Union and in countries around the world. They represented the gay, lesbian, feminist, black, Native American, Puerto Rican, Asian American, Chicano, senior citizen, high school, campus, community, anarchist, socialist, psychedelic, counterculture, new age, prisoners’ rights, rank and file, Southern consciousness, and other alternative voices of the day. They were found in every branch of the military—over 900 GI underground papers published by or directed to members of the military. Support the troops? You’re damn right we supported the troops. No one supported the troops like we did. Underground papers were everywhere. Each one spoke to its own unique audience. But they were united against the war.

So here we are celebrating Berkeley Barb, one of the greats, one of the legends, one of the first five members of Underground Press Syndicate, the first nationwide network of countercultural underground newspapers. My hat’s off to all of you who played a role in that history. You really are a remarkable family of heroes and legends and friends. I’m honored to be sharing this historic moment with you.

And congratulations to all of you who came of age in the eighties and nineties and have carried on our struggles, which we carried on from generations before us. You’re the new leadership.

We still have goals to achieve, fantasies to live, as Abbie [Hoffman] would have said, but the torch has been passed to the next generation. Our mission now is to share our experiences and lessons with current and future leaders.

Here’s the first thing, people of my generation, you’re going to find: Too many young folks have no idea what happened back when. A journalist wrote to me recently. He said: “It is interesting how little the underground press plays into our popular conception of the 60s and 70s, given how vibrant the scene seemed to be.”

We can debate the reasons but he’s right. Young, progressive bloggers, our political heirs, for the most part, have no idea of their journalistic roots.

So I’m issuing you all a challenge. We’re in the middle of a celebration and I’m issuing a challenge. Here’s my challenge: Record your stories. Now. Produce a movie. Publish a book. Post a blog entry. Write a letter to your kids. Get it down—because if you don’t, someone else will do it for you and it won’t be the way you remember it or the way you want others to remember it. Teach your children and your children’s children.

I’m grateful to the reunion committee for inviting me here to share my latest effort to preserve the greatest writings of our generation, including the Barb, and make them accessible to current and future generations of activists, artists, and historians. When we’re done, we will have digitized over 1,000 titles, representing over three-quarters of a million pages of exact, keyword-searchable, digital reproductions of underground, alternative, and literary newspapers and magazines from the fifties through the eighties covering all of the genres I mentioned earlier. We even have four papers published by the FBI to sow dissension in the Movement. With more funding, we could do more. So all of you wealthy heirs here today, let’s talk.

We heard Trina Robbins, in her keynote, talk about women in the underground press. The digital collection includes nearly 120 feminist and lesbian papers including the Bay Area’s own It Aint Me Babe, the first nationwide feminist underground newspaper in the United States, and one fortunate enough to have had many of Trina’s covers and inside cartoons. Sometime after January 2017, the collection will go into open access, which means the entire collection will be accessible to anyone through a simple keyword search.

While it is still in development, only patrons of supporting libraries can get into it, but one of them is Berkeley. In fact, the entire UC system is a supporter so anyone with access to any of the UC libraries can view the complete evolving collection. We have about 400,000 pages uploaded so far.

And if your library isn’t on board, here are two thoughts to keep in mind:

  1. Please introduce me to your acquisitions librarian.
  2. We have put aside a select list of twenty-two titles that are open access from the beginning so you can get a feel for the site and endorse it glowingly to your acquisitions librarian. One of them, in honor of this wonderful celebration, is Berkeley Barb.

We’re working with a growing team of sourcing libraries and individuals, including some of you here today, who are sending us original copies of papers from their collections that we scan and digitize and then return to them. In this way, we are able to create complete runs of titles where the individual sourcing libraries had gaps in theirs. When we’re done, we will have, as far as we can tell, the only complete collection of the Barb anywhere and it will be fully keyword-searchable. Thanks to all of you who have shared your original issues.

I became aware of the Barb before Kent State, which is when I became radicalized. I remember the day. I was visiting my brother in Manhattan Beach. I was listening to Johnny Rivers sing “Going Back to Big Sur” and I realized that Big Sur was only about 400 miles north on Highway 1. So the next morning I filled my laundry bag with two days worth of clothing and camping gear, slung it over my left shoulder, and rode my right thumb up Highway 1. I know it was 1969 because that was my first of what would turn out to be a decade of hitchhiking adventures and it was the year, I learned later, that Jack Kerouac died. So naturally, I drew a karmic connection between the two of us, two generations of hitchhikers. Three short rides brought me out of the Los Angeles area, and then I got picked up by four long-haired hippies, two male and two female, in—cliché alert—a VW microbus with multi-colored swirls and shooting stars on the sides. There was so much smoke coming out of the car I was high before I sat down. Some time before I passed out with a big grin on my face, they introduced me to the latest copy of the Barb. I’m pretty sure that was why I had a grin.

For a kid from the eastside suburbs of Cleveland who wasn’t ready yet for the politics, the Barb was outrageous with its cartoons, graphics, and layout that told me there was something different out there that I couldn’t ignore. Later, when I came of age at Michigan State and realized that The Paper, East Lansing’s underground newspaper, was one of the first five members of Underground Press Syndicate, I discovered that the Barb had been another. Berkeley was the epicenter of the counterculture. The Barb was the voice of Berkeley.

The sixties was an amazing era, one of the most dynamic, colorful, significant—and divisive—eras in our young country’s history. I’ve never been one to apologize for the period’s supposed excesses and I’ll bet none of you have either. Were we excessive? Of course we were. We changed the world, for the better, and it’s still changing, for the better, because of what we did—and what we continue to do.

Congratulations to the Berkeley Barb for being such a major player in this historic era that never fades.

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