"We're turning into a generation whose thing is to be an Audience, whose life-style is the mass get-together for good vibes." (The Berkeley Tribe, December 12-19, 1969)
That quote seems a surprisingly contemporary view of our media-driven culture, in its way, even as it describes the audience who showed up for the Rolling Stones wreck of a free concert at Altamont in 1969 expecting a good time. In its pages the Tribe newspaper reported the sudden end of the 1960s, as first witnessed in the underground press. In contrast the major Bay-area daily paper, the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner, first reported on a successful and happy festival with no deaths and no problems at Altamont. It was a kind of wishful thinking, brought on by the expectations of another Woodstock. Where were those Examiner reporters grooving?
The history of the underground press in the 1960s and 1970s presented in Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, is more than a memory-trip of counter-culture rags, political rants, and Indian ragas. John McMillian's study makes plain that the New Left politics of the underground press could only move further left of the Kennedy and Johnson Democratic administrations of the 1960s. The rest of the country was not as sure what was going on in college campuses, and later in the streets, as the decade ended in equal parts tragedy and war.
Soon the politics became wrapped in the idea of a "counterculture" that spread into the marketplace, and though Paul Krassner's Realist magazine was funny, smart and pointed in its politics, it was Jann Wenner's Rolling Stone, with lengthy musician interviews, full-color photography, and hip, literate record reviews that was found beside most readers' LP collections and plastic baggies.
Even then, however, there were differences of opinion in an era when the very words "drug culture" meant different things to different people. Allen Ginsberg took note of these subtle shadings when he chided PEN American Center director Thomas Fleming's defense of free speech in one 1970 case, for characterizing the underground press as "inflammatory":
I would have taken exception were it my place, to (the) adjective "inflammatory" applied wholesale to the New Left literature outside the context of equally-inflammatory ideology displayed in, say, Reader's Digest with its historically inflammatory cold war fury or odd language about "dope fiends;" or NY Daily News which in editorials has proposed atombombing China counting 200 million persons at their own estimate as reasonable; or for that matter the New York Times whose business-as-usual reportage in this era of planetary ecological crisis occasionally inflames my own heart to fantasies of arson. ... Merely to say that I find "aboveground" language as often inflammatory as I find "New Left" underground thetoric, (as would) W.C. Fields.
Today the idea of a left-dominated, underground press as a dynamic force for change seems an increasingly distant memory. Smoking Typewriters is a good reminder that America, though challenged to do so, was able to encompass both the "radical" and "political" in its concept of a free press. Yet there are surprising echoes in the history of recent political campaigns as partisans on both the left and the right learn to use the internet to "frame the debate" with persuasive words and images, and with even more powerful personalities.