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Arts and Culture

A Bomb in Every Issue

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Posted on Aug 21, 2009

By Peter Richardson

(Page 4)

More than anything the Haight was a unique state of mind, an arena of exploration and celebration.  The new hipsters had cast aside the syndrome of alienation and despair that saddled many of the their beatnik forebears.  The accent shifted from solitude to communion, from the individual to the interpersonal. 

Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters reflected that change in spirit.  They had generated a festive scene in and around Kesey’s home in La Honda, a tiny community in the coastal mountains south of San Francisco.  Their activities included wild parties with Hunter Thompson, Allen Ginsberg, and the Hell’s Angels; a freewheeling cross-country trip in a brightly painted school bus; and a series of “acid tests” in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, where revelers tripped on LSD.  In January 1966, Kesey and the Pranksters also organized the Trips Festival, a three-day blowout in Golden Gate Park with music, guerrilla theater, mime exhibitions, trampolines, and plenty of acid.  Jerry (“Captain Trips”) Garcia performed with his band, the Grateful Dead, and later described the event as “thousands of people, man, all helplessly stoned. … It was magic, far-out beautiful magic.”  When LSD was outlawed in October 1966, Kesey and the Pranksters convened an Acid Test Graduation on Halloween; the event’s theme, Kesey told television reporters, was “trip or treat.” 

 

book cover

 

A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America

 

By Peter Richardson

 

New Press, 272 pages

 

Buy the book

In January 1967, the Diggers, a radial community-action group of improvisational actors, sponsored the Human Be-In, which drew more than 20,000 people to Golden Gate Park.  First announced in the San Francisco Oracle, an underground newspaper published in Haight-Ashbury, the event was described as “a gathering of tribes” to celebrate countercultural values.  Speakers included Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder, and various San Francisco bands performed.  But even by that time, some participants had misgivings about the Haight-Ashbury scene.  Decades later, Grateful Dead singer Bob Weir recalled the warning signs: 

Even before the summer of ’67, the strangers coming in were starting to outnumber the rest of us.  We weren’t quite getting the riffraff yet—people with missing teeth and stuff like that.  But the folks who lived in our youth ghetto in Haight-Ashbury in ’65 and ’66 were of an artistic bent, almost all of them.  Everyone brought something to the party.  By the time of the Be-In, people were coming just to be at the party, not bringing anything.  I could see the whole thing tilting.

Hunter Thompson had reached the same conclusion.  He gloried in the early days of “Hashbury,” which he later identified as his time and place: 

There was madness in any direction, at any hour.  If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. … You could strike sparks anywhere.  There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. ... And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil.  Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that.  Our energy would simply prevail

Yet even before the Summer of Love rolled around, Thompson felt the magic slipping away.  “By the end of ’66,” he wrote later, “the whole neighborhood had become a cop-magnet and a bad sideshow.”  The rest of the world was still fascinated, however, and Thompson advanced his budding career by describing the kaleidoscopic scene for the New York Times Magazine

Theodore Roszak famously coined the term counterculture to describe this milieu, whose participants tended to share an interest in radical politics, psychedelic experience (“counterfeit infinity,” in Roszak’s parlance), sexual freedom, an aversion to technocracy, and an interest in Eastern religions, mysticism, and the occult.  Roszak’s study was by no means an uncritical celebration of this culture.  He enjoyed puncturing its rhetorical excesses, including this passage from the Oracle on avoiding hepatitis: 

Doing your thing doesn’t have to include dumping bad Karma on your soul-brothers.  Don’t touch food or drink or prepare it, without first thoroughly washing your hands, especially if you’ve just been to the john. … You can even afford to get up tight about it, especially if your home is of the tribal kind. 

“My pre-tribal father,” Roszak noted, “used to phrase this piece of folk wisdom as: ‘You wash up before you sit down at this table!’  But I seem to remember being about five years old at the time.” 

Roszak also wondered about the politics of the counterculture and its histrionic resistance to traditional values.  The angriest dissenters, he observed, staged heroic confrontations that “opened themselves to the most obvious kinds of police and military violence:”

They quickly draw the conclusion that the status quo is supported by nothing more than bayonets, overlooking the fact that these bayonets enjoy the support of a vast consensus which has been won for the status quo by means far more subtle and enduring than armed force.

On balance, however, Roszak was sympathetic to the youthful revolt against technocracy and managerial liberalism.  He was also receptive to Eastern spirituality.  His conclusion cited Chuang Tzu and the virtues of government through non-action; his source was a book by Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who had contributed several articles to Ramparts in its earliest days.

Although Roszak was a Bay Area academic, he wrote his groundbreaking articles for Carey McWilliams at The Nation before producing his seminal book, The Making of a Counter Culture, in 1969.  Likewise, McWilliams commissioned Hunter Thompson’s articles on two Bay Area phenomena, the Hell’s Angels and Free Speech Movement.  Neither man wrote any signed pieces for Ramparts, though Thompson regarded the magazine highly and was listed as a contributing editor after he moved to Aspen.  That esteem was evident in his later account of meeting Hinckle: 

I met [Hinckle] through his magazine, Ramparts.  I met him before Rolling Stone ever existed. Ramparts was a crossroads of my world in San Francisco, a slicker version of The Nation—with glossy covers and such.  Warren had a genius for getting stories that could get placed on the front page of the New York Times.  He had a beautiful eye for what story had a high, weird look to it.  You know, busting the Defense Department—Ramparts was real left, radical.  I paid a lot of attention to them and ended up being a columnist.  Ramparts was the scene until some geek withdrew the funding and it collapsed.  Jann Wenner, who founded Rolling Stone, actually worked there in the library—he was a copy boy or something. 

Thompson also felt close enough to Ramparts to offer management pointers to Hinckle.  After a visit to 301 Broadway, he struck off one of his famous letters: 

Again … it was a good show over there, and my advice to you is to give up all forms of booze and bookkeepers for the duration of the crisis.  Moderation in all things.  When you turn up a freak on the staff, don’t just fire him/her—pursue him into the very bowels of the economy and queer his act for all time.  And get that nigger off the premises.  You’ve got to get a grip on yourself.  Otherwise … they’ll cut your throat.

Closer in every way to the San Francisco counterculture than The Nation would ever be, Ramparts did surprisingly little original reporting on it.  The radicals on the staff were unimpressed by the flower children’s fantasies about transcending politics, and Hinckle viewed the city’s newest residents skeptically.  “The hippies grew up in my backyard,” he noted in his memoir.  “I did not find them good neighbors.” 

Yet it was Hinckle who wrote the magazine’s major article on the phenomenon, “A Social History of the Hippies.”  In that March 1967 piece, Hinckle described the scene and its main players, but he also argued that the Beats, the hippies’ immediate precursors, personified two dissonant political strains: fascism (as embodied by Jack Kerouac) and resistance (as embodied by Allen Ginsberg).  That analysis led to a surprising conclusion:   

The danger in the hippie movement is more than overcrowded streets and possible hunger riots this summer.  If more and more youngsters begin to share the hippie posture of unrelenting quietism, the future of activist, serious politics is bound to be affected.  The hippies have shown that it can be pleasant to drop out of the arduous task of attempting to steer a difficult, unrewarding society.  But when that is done, you leave the driving to the Hell’s Angels.

Hinckle’s article so enraged Ralph Gleason, a Ramparts contributing editor and Chronicle music critic, that he promptly resigned from the magazine.  Jessica Mitford noted Gleason’s displeasure, which he aired at a meeting of the editorial board:

He was not consulted about the Hippie article, which was full of inaccuracies.  He was originally supposed to write this article, but Hink III went ahead without his knowledge, first thing he knew about it was when it was in print.  In February, he wrote a furious letter of resignation and demanded that this letter should be printed in the mag.  He got no acknowledgment, nobody contacted him at all, it was never printed. … There was much more along this line, and a good deal of son-of-a-bitching etc.  I asked Ralph if he would come to a meeting with Hink/Scheer, he wasn’t sure but certainly not if it were held at Ramparts’ office, he’d never set foot in that place again.  He was, in a word, simply furious with the lot of them.

Wiping his hands of Ramparts, Gleason turned his attention to another venture.  While attending a concert in Longshoreman’s Hall featuring Jefferson Airplane, Gleason met Jann Wenner, a 19-year-old rock columnist for the University of California newspaper.  After leaving Berkeley, Wenner traveled to London and was living in a New York suburb when Gleason wrote to him about a position at The Sunday Ramparts, the spin-off newspaper Hinckle started in 1966.  Wenner returned to the Bay Area and worked on the paper’s entertainment section.  There he met his future wife, Jane Schindelheim, a receptionist at Ramparts

Wenner tried to interest Hinckle in the Bay Area’s burgeoning counterculture, but his efforts were fruitless.  “They were oblivious to the cultural changes in San Francisco,” Wenner recalled.  “Warren ridiculed it, and Scheer had no use for it.  Dugald [Stermer] got it.  He respected the artists and musicians.  But I didn’t have much to do with Warren, and I didn’t get along with Scheer, who asked me to get his coffee.”


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By Dree, January 26, 2010 at 10:35 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Gonna read it later.

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By james o. clifford, December 27, 2009 at 3:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

An informative read, particularly for those who know little about Ramparts. A better starting point, however, is Warren Hinckle’s “If you have a lemon. make lemonade.” No Hinckle, no Ramparts,at least not the hotfoot kind he produced.
  A couple of people in Peterson’s book saw Hinckle for what he was - a marketing genius. I remember thinking when he broke the MSU story that he realized the important part of news conference was “conference.” Just getting news people in one place was the key. Once they were there they would have to justify being there. And the place was important. The conference was held in New York, not San Francisco where the mag was HQed.
  He was also a pioneer in validation journalism in which you give the reader what they want to hear.
There were a lot of lawyers connected to Ramparts, which I don’t think Peterson realized. The magazine was close to propaganda, where only one side is shown. Could have been the result of Hinckle’s legal and Jesuit training. I am not sure, but I have watched this kind of reporting grow over the last 30 or so years, and it will only become stronger with the Net.
    This trajectory, combined with the virtual death of UPI, which gave AP a monopoly on news distribution, is the real “bomb.”

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By Gera Rosy, August 23, 2009 at 7:47 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As an undergraduate at Kent State before the massacre, Ramparts Magazine was my guidebook for understanding the chaotic world of the time. It has never been replaced.

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By miller, August 23, 2009 at 6:34 am Link to this comment

Thank you.  I enjoyed the article. I have fond memories
of reading Ramparts.

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By wagonjak, August 22, 2009 at 6:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I did illustrations and production work for Ramparts when it was in SF and
remember meeting Hinkle a couple of times…it was a real voice for lefty politics
when there were very few to none in the country…

I also did illustrations and production work for Sundance Magazine…that one
lasted about 6 issues…I remember Ken Kelly throwing an all-out fit about
something and throwing triangles across the room to make his point. I think he
just passed on recently too. Many memories of that era…

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By P. T., August 22, 2009 at 1:51 pm Link to this comment

Ramparts was good at coming up with covers that would catch people’s attention.  I remember I bought a copy at the college bookstore and took it to the abode of a friend whose brother was home on military leave from his base in Turkey, where he eavesdropped on the Soviet Union.

The cover had the headline “Why Nothing Works:  The U.S. as an Underdeveloped Country” or something close to that.  My friend’s brother saw it and started laughing.

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By wagonjak, August 22, 2009 at 1:24 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I did numerous illustrations and production work for Ramparts and met Hinkle
and others there at the offices in SF…it was always financially troubled, and
seemed to exist for awhile from issue to issue. It was a voice of intelligent leftist
reason during a time when there was very little of that anywhere, and the
blogosphere was way over the horizon…I never knew Scheer, and I wonder if the
tape of this interview is available anywhere…Carl Muecke

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By Paul O'Curry, August 21, 2009 at 1:39 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Back in 71/72 when I arrived in the US from Europe I was a subscriber to Ramparts , MS, and I.F.Stones weekly.  I can still remember many of the articles I read at that time and notice that Mother Jones is trying to bridge the gap.  The battle against neo fasists is more dire than ever!

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By Helen Hickman, August 21, 2009 at 10:56 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Ramparts was an incredible magazine, and it certainly made an impact on my life. 
I was living in a small, isolated community on Vancouver Island and the articles,
especially on Vietnam, had a profound effect on me.  I still have all my copies of
the magazine, and intend to keep them forever.  My grateful thanks to Robert
Scheer and to Truthdig.

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By NYCartist, August 21, 2009 at 8:39 am Link to this comment

I read Ramparts in the mid1960s, at the very least.
In my mid20s, went south for two years of small cog in the wheel civil rights work and began my art career.
Went with mag subs because, as I later wrote in letters to friends back in NYC, “I only knew I was still in the US because the mail trucks said ‘US Mail’ on them.”.  (I’d been to Europe the summer before I went South.)

I’d gone South for, and with, my then-spouse’s new job, organizing in the AntiPoverty Program.  I got a pt time job, “volunteer” with a civil rights law firm after the local police took our photos (for intimidation) exiting an antiwar speech from a visiting professor, in the local Black YMCA, just after we arrived.
Spouse was told by his boss that an agent of the US gov’t (an agency), came to his office, waving a list of our mag zubs and said, “They are communists. Fire him.”.  The boss laughed, told spouse, who told me. (History lesson:I was too young to be a communist. No ideological bent, procivil rights, antiVietnam War, former teacher. How radical was that? Spouse and partner were doing real community organizing work, based on community desires: on police brutality and starting a credit union by mothers on welfare.)
I thought it was funny until I learned of COINTELPRO.
(No, spouse did not get fired. After 2 years, people in the community took over his and co-organizing partner’s jobs, which is what it was sposed to do.)  We went to another city, where I could not get volunteer work with the public defender’s office “Your having worked in a civil rights law office is too controversial for ...(the city).”

  I think Ramparts was on the list, but for sure, The Nation, The Catholic Worker (only 1cent per issue) and IF Stone’s Weekly were on the list.

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