Alternative Press

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Alternative Press

Notwithstanding legitimate rivals for the title, most Americans hearing the words "Alternative Press" would probably think of the brash, crude, anti-establishment periodicals of the Vietnam Era (1963-1975). Most often tabloid in format, printed on the cheapest stock available, written with intent to maim, edited like frontline dispatches, and illustrated with "psychedelic," provocative graphics, these "underground" newspapers and magazines offered themselves as the organs of the national and regional "counter-culture" for which the period is famous—and, by and large, the counter-culture accepted the offer. The epithet "underground," however, was largely self-assumed and unmerited, since use of the police power of the state to suppress their publication was seldom if ever threatened, let alone exerted. By the time the Viet Cong forces took possession of Saigon (April 30, 1975), the great majority of the underground papers had either ceased publication or transformed themselves—like Rolling Stone—into the raffish fringe of the Establishment: the subject matter had not changed, but they had shed the guerilla style of their youth and moved, like their readers, above ground.

Since one of the overreaching goals of the 1960s counter-culture was to cancel all debts to the past, the insider histories of the Alternative Press—most of which appeared in the early 1970s—make no mention of any predecessors older than the end of World War II. But they were certainly not the first journalists to print rude, funny diatribes (or cartoons) against the establishment: the authors of the "Mazarinades" in mid-seventeenth-century France were as outrageous and one-sided in the expression of their disapproval of Cardinal Mazarin as any editorial in the Berkeley Barb or L. A. Free Press was of President Lyndon Johnson or Draft Board chief General Louis B. Hershey. More directly antecedent to the Alternative Press of the 1960s, the English Puritan pamphleteers of the 1640s were every bit as self-righteously insulting to the Anglican conformists—calling them the "agents of Rome"—as any underground paper of the 1960s calling a Fire Marshal a "fascist" (which is not to say, in either case, that the accusers were always, or even usually, mistaken). The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries abound with similar serials expressing the perspectives and prejudices of a self-conscious, ambitious minority, on its way either to becoming a majority or to disappearing.

In the late nineteenth century, however, the exponential growth of literacy provided the demographic base in Europe and America for the first truly popular press, and men like Lord Northcliffe in England became rich and powerful "press lords" by giving these newly-literate people news on subjects which interested them: sporting events, disasters, success stories, and scandals. In much the same way, those representatives of the Alternative Press of the 1960s who survived and prospered did not do so on the basis of their political reporting or ideological preaching, but on their coverage of matters of what came to be known as "life-style." The success of such entrepreneurs as Lord Northcliffe and William Randolph Hearst is a perfect paradigm for what happens when the "established" press becomes too narrowly identified with an elite as a new technology becomes available to an emerging majority.

Like so many phenomena identified with the 1960s, the Alternative Press got started during the 1950s—an era now remembered as a time of up-tight conformism and anti-Communist hysteria—when one puff on a reefer led immediately to more damaging addictions, one artistic impulse signaled infinite secret perversions, and any expressed support for the Bill of Rights was an admission of Communist sympathies. As far as the first waves of the Postwar "Baby Boom" were taught, at home or school, to be exposed as a drug addict, homosexual, or Communist was to be immediately cast into outer darkness, your name never to be spoken again in decent society, your family disgraced and forced to move to another town. All true pleasures were furtive.

Yet the 1950s was also the decade which saw the publication of Alan Ginsberg's Howl (1956), Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957)—which became a bestseller—and William Burroughs' Naked Lunch (1957); when Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers established rock 'n' roll as THE American popular music; when the image of the rebel and misfit—Paul Newman in The Left-Handed Gun, Marlon Brando in The Wild One, James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause—gave attractive physical form to the restless dissatisfaction of middle class American teenagers; and when Aldous Huxley published the results of his experiments with hallucinogenic drugs in Heaven and Hell (1954) and The Doors of Perception (1956). Moreover, the 1950s witnessed the first significant gains of the Civil Rights movement—the model for all future liberation movements—and the first, largely unnoticed, involvement of the United States in the anti-colonial upheavals in French Indochina.

October 26, 1955 marked the publication of the first issue of the Village Voice, written and produced by a group of bohemian intellectuals (Michael Harrington, Norman Mailer, Katherine Anne Porter, Allen Ginsberg, Nat Hentoff, Anaïs Nin, and others) living in the Greenwich Village district of Manhattan—founded, it must be noted, not as an alternative to the New York Times, but in reaction to a tame neighborhood paper called The Villager. Among the many innovations of the early Village Voice, many of which were too mannered to endure, the most important was the total absence of any restrictions on language, either in the use of profanity or in the graphic treatment of taboo subjects. This latter characteristic made a quantum leap in June of 1958, when Paul Krassner—a 26-year-old writer from Mad Magazine (itself one of the major influences on the future Alternative Press)—brought out the first issue of The Realist. It instantly became the gold standard of satire, sneering irreverence, and the blurring of the line between fact and fiction which would characterize all utterances of the still-embryonic counter-culture.

Thus, by the time John F. Kennedy was elected president in November of 1960, the entire agenda of the Alternative Press had been set, as well as most of its attitude, style, and format. All that was needed to set things in motion was a spark to ignite the passions, and enlist the support, of the enormous Class of 1964. This was not long in coming: the assassination of President Kennedy, the advent of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, the publication of The Feminine Mystique, the Stonewall riots, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the hide-bound conservatism of the educational establishment, the first experience with marijuana or LSD, or any combination of the above. Some grain of discontent worked its way inside the shell of middle class complacency, and a pearl of counter-culture began to form. In every large metropolitan area in the United States, these pearls of disaffection strung themselves into communities, usually near colleges or universities. The "Free Speech Movement" in Berkeley, site of Campus One of the University of California, produced one of the first of the new style of radical communities, which in turn produced one of the first examples of the Alternative Press, the Berkeley Barb (first published October 13, 1965), although, in fact, the L.A. Free Press—modeled on the Village Voice—beat them into print by more than a year (May 25, 1964). On the opposite coast, a dissident group of writers of the Village Voice split from that publication to found the East Village Other (October 1965).

As the counter-culture began to subdivide into one-issue lobbies—drugs, communal living, sexual preference, racial separatism, radical politics, etc.—each subdivision felt the need for its own periodical soapbox. The San Francisco Oracle, founded in 1966, promoted the transformation of society through the use of hallucinogenic drugs; the Advocate started to speak on behalf of America's homosexuals in 1967, though its tame assimilationist line soon provoked more aggressive papers like Come Out! (November 1969) and Free Particle (September 1969); the Black Panther fired its first salvo against the white police state in June of 1967; Screw sought to unshackle the American (male) libido, and to challenge the censorship laws, beginning November 29, 1968; and in that same fall of 1968, the ecological-communitarian movement found its voice with the first, massive issue of the Whole Earth Catalog. Only Rolling Stone moved against the tide of special interest splintering: begun in November of 1967 to address the community formed by the revolution in rock 'n' roll, the paper has evolved steadily towards a more "general interest" publication—if the Village Voice is the Christian Science Monitor of the Alternative Press, Rolling Stone is its Saturday Evening Post. At some point—one might, for convenience, choose the year 1970—it was no longer valid to speak of "the" counter-culture as if it were one unified social structure; consequently, it became less and less meaningful to speak of "the" Alternative Press.

Technically a part of the Alternative Press, and definitely one of the purest expressions of the counter-culture Zeitgeist, the underground comic book is actually a separate phenomenon. The so-called Underground Press is a spent bullet, but the comic book, old and new, continues to thrive. While university libraries collect and catalogue back issues of the Berkeley Barb and the Seattle Helix, prosperous establishments all over the United States do a brisk trade in old copies of Zap and Despair along with the new graphic novels and standard classics of Marvel. And in the almost total absence of representative long prose fictions from the 1960s, R. Crumb's stories about "Mr. Natural," "Flakey Foont," "Projunior," and "Honeybunch Kaminsky"—not to mention Gilbert Sheldon's "Fabulous, Furry Freak Brothers" and S. Clay Wilson's Tales of "The Checkered Demon" and "Captain Pissgums"—remain the most reliable narratives of the period.

Something called an Alternative Press still exists in the late 1990s. They have annual meetings, publish newsletters, and give each other journalism awards. Many of the newspapers so defined still espouse progressive politics, support environmental causes, and celebrate the current popular music scene. But the counter-culture which they were founded to serve—the Woodstock Nation of love-ins, anti-war marches, LSD trips, and hippie communes—have gone the way of the Popular Front and the Dreyfussards to become a discrete historical episode. It remains to be seen whether the most lasting legacy of the Alternative Press, the disabling of any governing system of courtesy or restraint in public discourse, will turn out to have hastened the end of a nightmare or the beginning of one.

—Gerald Carpenter

Further Reading:

Glessing, Robert J. The Underground Press in America. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1970.

Kessler, Lauren. The Dissident Press: Alternative Journalism in American History. Beverly Hills, Sage Publications, 1984.

Leamer, Laurence. The Paper Revolutionaries: The Rise of the Underground Press. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Lewis, Roger. Outlaws of America: The Underground Press and Its Context. London, Penguin Books, Ltd., 1972.

Peattie, Noel. The Living Z: A Guide to the Literature of the Counter-culture, the Alternative Press, and Little Magazines. New York, Margins, 1975.

Shore, Elliot, et al., editors. Alternative Papers: Selections from the Alternative Press, 1979-1980. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1982.

Smith, Mike P. The Underground and Education: a Guide to the Alternative Press. London, Methuen, 1977.