As much as it’s readily recognized and accepted that the music that continues to enhance our lives throughout the years reverberates with what was born out of the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, there would seem to be little consideration for the long-tail influence of yesterday’s underground press on the way we read and interact with revolutionary rhetoric today (meaning, in this way – online).
Maybe it’s too esoteric – or too academic – a point to consider. And it’s certainly not going to be parsed successfully on this revolting, ape-centric website.
Nor is it necessarily the focus of Sean Stewart’s beautiful and bountiful book, “On the Ground: An Anecdotal History of the Sixties Underground Press in the U.S.” Alternately eye-opening and eye-popping, Stewart presents a compendium of the images that once flooded underground newspapers across the United States, along with the thoughts, remembrances and stories of those who were their, hands dirtied with ink.
In “On the Ground,” journalist Alice Embree notes the following: “I try to explain particularly to younger people that we had the civil rights movement as the example of moral courage and direct action. It was like, you can do things and change things.”
We salute Sean Stewart and his dedication to doing things, in the form of “On the Ground”‘s salute to those who did change things, and we feel terribly fortunate to have a copy of his incredible book. We feel just as fortunate to present his answers to our ridiculous questions below. Enjoy.
Setting aside for a moment the political dynamic of “On the Ground,” the book is appealing — or at least relatable — to anyone who has a collector’s mentality; seeing so much rare and indeed “forgotten” material compiled in one place is invigorating. Do you consider yourself a collector? Where do you think this impulse comes from? How did this impulse manifest itself in your adolescence? How does it manifest itself in your life today?
At any given time, I have a number of small collections going, but over the years I’ve only had a few serious ones—Mad magazine as a little kid, sneakers as a teenager and sixties underground newspapers today. I think, at the heart of it, it’s an attempt to fight a feeling of scarcity in one form or another. The driving force behind collecting print ephemera and sixties underground newspapers in particular is a compulsion to try and get as close to the history as possible. I suppose I could just go to the library, but it’s much more exciting running around hunting these things down out in the wild.
Original photo of Sean Stewart by Shaun Roberts
What is your own personal history with what we might broadly call the contemporary underground press? When did the realization that there are other avenues for the communication of ideas regarding art and politics reveal itself to you, and what effect did this have on your life at the time? How has that effect evolved over the years?
For me the essence of that realization is all about the importance of creation over consumption, empowerment over passivity. As far as my personal history with the underground press goes, I’d been picking up papers on my trips to flea markets and estate sales for years. But when I opened my bookstore and gallery (Babylon Falling) in San Francisco, I started to meet and talk to the cats that were actually involved in the production and distribution of the papers. Those interactions basically gave me a connection to the era, and that connection allowed me to dig much deeper into the history.
How did “On the Ground” evolve from a presentation of a physical collection to the form of the book? How did you decide upon the title and what does the title mean to you, personally?
Back in 2009, I curated a show of underground newspapers at Babylon Falling, and while the show was up, Warren Hinckle (who lived in the neighborhood and occasionally came into the store) planted the seed by suggesting in passing that I should use the show as a platform to do a book about the underground press. When I closed the store and I finally had time to entertain the idea, I started to think about what that sort of book would look like. I figured that it was more or less by chance that I came across the underground press, and while I enjoyed reading the histories that are out there, it was the graphics in the papers themselves and later the stories that the people involved were telling me that carried the most resonance. The idea was to combine those two elements (images and anecdotes) in a way that would appeal to both the uninitiated and those familiar with the history.
The title of the book is a reflection of the fact that the underground press represented the culture from the front lines as it was being experienced.
One of the things we find most compelling about “On the Ground” is that it’s a mixture of aesthetic history, political or social history and personal anecdote. Was this your plan from the beginning or was it just the way it came together? What is your impression of how the book came together, now that you have some distance and perhaps perspective away from being in the middle of its construction?
Thanks. Yeah, it was definitely planned to be that way. I love how it came together. A couple people have turned their nose up at the format, but the feedback I’ve gotten from the actual veterans of the underground press is that it is the closest approximation to the look and feel of the underground newspapers that is out there—and there really can be no better endorsement than that.
In the majority of the histories of the underground press, the narrative adheres to a framework that seems to be inherited from the earliest books written on the movement. Although I enjoy pretty much all of those histories, the parameters that they use to define the edges of the scene are too rigid for me. Looking through the papers, the whole thing seemed to me to be much more fluid. So with my book I made a deliberate attempt to incorporate stories from some of the people that were integral to the scene, but who are nevertheless routinely left out of the histories. This pisses some people off.
What was the biggest surprise to you personally that came from the interviews conducted for inclusion of the book? How, if at all, did your perception of the underground press and its impact on the culture of American society during that time change from before the book to afterwards?
Probably the biggest surprise was seeing the condition that former “King of Porn” Al Goldstein was living in. He’s definitely had a fall from what was at one time an exalted (in some circles) position. I will say that despite the horrible living situation, he was in good spirits.
The most surprising shift for me personally came as a result of the sort of demystification that takes place anytime you get an opportunity to peek behind the curtain. I feel like I came into the process predisposed to hero worship and through all the interviews I came to a much more holistic understanding of the range of individual motivations that drove the whole thing. I also finally was able to truly appreciate just how innocent the movement was in the beginning, and, by that same token, just how dark the repression guaranteed it would become.
The sixties underground press in the U.S. followed the same trajectory as the youth counterculture of the era, and in a country that worships youth, to read those papers was, in many respects, to take the temperature of the culture at large. That being said, I do think there’s a danger in overstating the impact of the underground press. In general, I tend to agree with Ben Morea’s assessment at the end of the book: “What happened in the Sixties … I wouldn’t say couldn’t have happened without the underground press, but the underground press was a vital part of it, period. You can’t take it away.”
What do you think the biggest misconception about the underground press is – or do you think there even exists *any* perception of the impact of an active and engaged underground press? Do you think an organization such as the Underground Press Syndicate could exist today? Do you think an organization such as UPS *should* exist today?
The biggest misconception is that it was actually an underground press, when in fact it was underground in name only. These were, for the most part, newspapers that existed above the surface, and who should have enjoyed the full protection of the law.
Instructively, the more of an audience that they built, the less tolerable their message became to the authorities. Though technically protected under the Constitution, some papers would have to endure the sort of tactics of intimidation by government forces (at local, state, and federal levels) that the truly underground presses of the world faced—getting their offices shot up, getting their phones tapped, having their movements surveilled, having their street sellers and distributors be harassed, their printers threatened, and their shipments sabotaged.
I think the spirit of the UPS lives on today in the popularity of file sharing and the protracted battles against antiquated copyright laws online.
We would imagine that you were politicized (for lack of a better term) well before you began collecting underground and revolutionary newspapers. How do you think your politics have changed – even in a very nuanced way – from the time before you began “On the Ground” until now?
I guess one of the biggest lessons I’ve taken away from talking with all the people who are in the book, has been that life really will be supremely difficult if you dare to step out of line, but that the dignity that comes from standing up for what you know to be right is more than worth a lifetime of struggles. Maximum respect for perpetual rebels.
What do you think is the proper place for the music of the 1960′s when considering the political landscape as a whole? The conventional wisdom would seem to say that the music helped politicize the youth, but is it closer to the truth to say that the youth helped to politicize music? What place does music hold in your life today? What music have you been listening to lately?
The widespread popularity of music that was revolutionary (both technically and in content) created a space where young people weren’t afraid to acknowledge and embrace their convictions. I don’t think the music necessarily politicized them, but it primed them, and for a moment, before the big record labels swooped in, there was an incredible opportunity that I think could have been better exploited.
As far as music in my life, like Madlib said, “Music is my medicine and my religion.” The music ads that I post on my site are usually a guide to what I’m playing at that moment, but today I’ve been listening to a Lil’ Boosie mixtape nonstop.
Author Rebecca Solnit once wrote the following:
“Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal… To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”
As a couch-sitting, lottery ticket-clutcher, I resent the analogy.
What’s next for Sean Stewart?
In between looking for a job and planning how I’m going to spend my lottery winnings, I’m writing a novel about the life and times of a small-scale drug smuggler and sometime gunrunner called Donnie. It’s a dark comedy.
And you already know I’ll still be out there scavenging for old newspapers.