A Bomb in Every Issue
Posted on Aug 21, 2009
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.”
A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America
By Peter Richardson
New Press, 272 pages
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:
Hunter Thompson had reached the same conclusion. He gloried in the early days of “Hashbury,” which he later identified as his time and place:
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:
“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:”
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:
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:
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:
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:
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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