As I pack the FedEx box addressed to the Interference Archive in Brooklyn, New York—a nonprofit study center for “objects created as part of social movements by the participants themselves: posters, flyers, publications, zines, t-shirts and buttons, audio recordings…”—I am holding a poster that says FUCK COMMUNISM and suddenly find myself in tears.
My collection of printed matter from the sixties and seventies has followed me across decades and miles, from East Coast to West. By packing these items off to this worthy repository in my native city, I am letting go of those miles, those years, and these fragile things on yellowing paper. “Imagine no possessions,” says John Lennon. “Does it spark joy?” says Marie Kondo. But this personal downsizing is more elemental than any kind of tidying up.
These items are handcrafted artifacts of the late twentieth century’s analog era—a road I followed, and in some small ways contributed to making. Now, in the early twenty-first century, that road tapers off into the digital ether, leading who knows where.
So I feel compelled to take one last look at a few of my treasures before sending these things off.
1) KOUFAX AND WARHOL IN ’68 (bumper sticker)
The backing still attached, this bumper sticker never stuck to any car’s bumper. Who created it, and where, or how it came into my possession is a mystery. In the midst of the turbulent and historically decisive 1968 presidential race (think back, now: Humphrey/Muskie vs. Nixon/Agnew), the bumper sticker nominates one of baseball’s idiosyncratically great pitchers and a culturally disruptive artist as a winning ticket. Its juxtaposition captures a certain kind of countercultural cool. Seen through the windshield of its time, or in today’s rearview mirror, this automobile ornament is a sociopolitically perverse provocation, as well as a kind of litmus test for hipness: either you smile or you don’t. And if you don’t know who Koufax or Warhol are (Sandy’s still with us) or were, well … anyway, I’d be happy to vote this ticket today.
2) JOIN THE JURY (8 ½ x 11 leaflet, two-sided, offset printed on yellow paper, dated September 1970)
The trials of the Black Panther Party, and the deadly federal government campaign against them and all of those involved in what we referred to at that time as “The Movement”—which included progressive causes from antiwar, civil rights, and feminism to gay rights and environmental activism—reached a crescendo in the fall of 1970 when this flyer was printed and handed out in a time of physical peril for activists.
Earlier that May, National Guard troops and state police shot and killed students participating in nationwide antiwar protests at two universities, Kent State in Ohio and Jackson State, Mississippi. After a long, hot summer, with the war in Vietnam raging and Richard Nixon at the midpoint of his first White House term, the stark, no-nonsense design and layout of this leaflet captured the urgency and danger in the air. It’s promoting a rally in downtown Manhattan at the Federal Courthouse where the Panther 21 were on trial for conspiracy, allegedly to bomb department stores and police stations and to murder police. Among the accused was Afeni Shakur, mother of Tupac. The leaflet urges supporters to gather and “join the jury.” A year later, the actual jury voted for acquittal.
The leaflet’s rough quality is typical of printed agitprop handed out on the streets for myriad causes and events during this time. The silhouetted photo image of Panther Party members at the top in an action pose, identifiable by the shapes of their Afros and iconic berets, the cut-and-paste typewriter text (typesetting was too expensive), and the use, probably, of Letraset dry-transfer lettering for the main message (JOIN THE JURY in Helvetica) are examples of the handmade nature of political activism of this precomputer era.
It also displays the patient dedication required to spread the word in the days before the easy click-throughs of social media. I learned to use a mimeograph, or ditto machine, forcing ink through a stencil (the citrusy, stinging scent!) to make copies, as well as how to ink the rollers and adjust the collators of the offset machine housed at the Come!Unity Press, “a 24-hour open access print shop run by a gay anarchist collective.” My first published poem came off a Gestetner machine in the back room of the Tenth Street headquarters of Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, an SDS-affiliated street gang.
Leaflets were our social media. Handing these things out on the street, you could be clubbed over the head by the cops, or photographed by police intelligence officers who would later add those photos to your file. To my mind this leaflet is a grim reminder of what a police state feels like, or at least felt like before so much of the surveillance became digital.
3) Berkeley Barb (pages from vol. 19, no. 1, issue 439, Jan 18–24, 1974)
There is a deranged quality to this issue of the Barb, the first of the independently published periodicals known as the underground press, which emerged in the mid-’60s. Its front page features a story by A.J. Weberman, a “Dylanologist” who attacks Bob Dylan for being a capitalist who is “conning his fans.” The story is illustrated by the photocopied image of a check from CBS Records to Dylan for $149,000 that was “intercepted by agents of the Dylan Liberation Front,” copied, and then sent along to the legendary singer-songwriter, in total violation of federal postal laws.
Weberman’s page-one rant is nearly equaled in hallucinatory tone by an adjacent piece about Gorf, a new play by poet Michael McClure that is somehow about “a purple flying cock and balls.”
From the sex ads in this edition’s last few pages, it appears that the Barb had been overtaken by genital obsession; from “We would like to handle your business,” to the promised “nude encounters,” these ads were a major revenue source for the underground press, and a source of internal staff conflict as the women’s movement increasingly asserted its role in the progressive left.
4) FUCK COMMUNISM (5 x 32 printed poster, color)
This poster was created in 1963 by the late Paul Krassner, editor of The Realist, who is widely acknowledged as “the father of the underground press” (“I demand a paternity test!” he liked to say), as well as one of founders of the Yippies.
Kurt Vonnegut, in his foreword to Krassner’s book, Winner of the Slow Bicycle Race, wrote that the poster “created a miracle of compressed intelligence nearly as admirable for potent simplicity, in my opinion, as Einstein¹s e=mc2.”
I took this from the wall of the underground newspaper East Village Other’s office in its waning days. I started there as a staff writer shortly before it folded in 1971. I always enjoyed how the two words created a clash of contradictory value systems, a kind of Zen/Kabbalistic thought exercise. The unique mind and personality of Paul Krassner—a friend of mine for nearly fifty years before he passed away recently (a Krassner bio documentary is in the works)—is neatly expressed in this poster.
The poster typography and design was by John Francis Putnam who collaborated with Krassner on the concept. Putnam was a regular contributor to The Realist, best known for his “Modest Proposals” column. They created the Mothers Of The American Revolution, a fake organization cited on this poster, and used the letterhead for “occasional correspondence with parties of differing political opinion that would most likely not communicate with The Realist itself.”
Krassner sold the poster through The Realist and it became “one of the most financially successful and culturally memorable pieces of the magazine’s history,” according to Ethan Persoff’s Realist Archive Project.
5) East Village Other, vol. 5, no. 2, December 17, 1969, by Art Spiegelman
Before winning a Pulitzer Prize for Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust, Art Spiegelman was a regular contributor to EVO as one of the resident comics artists that included R. Crumb, Spain, Trina Robbins, Kim Deitch, Al Shenker (Yossarian), Gilbert Shelton (“The Furry Freak Brothers”), and many others.
This cover shows two cartoon characters, one of them saying something to the other that, though the massive dialogue balloon takes up most of the cover space, is wordless, visually complex, abstract, and possibly inspired genius—or maybe it’s just chemically induced gobbledygook, or maybe it’s criminally insane. Whatever it is, the other guy, cringing slightly backward, responds, “Yeah, right!”
The cartoon says, in the best EVO graphic style, what can never be actually be verbalized—that the whole thing about being hip, or being stoned (it used to be the same thing) is that it’s incommunicable. Except through the artist. And it was EVO’s unstated philosophy that when it came down to certain choices—personal, political, cultural—it was important to always side with the artist, no matter how bizarre or dangerous the artist’s conception appeared to be.
That’s always been my first interpretation of this cover. Another is that the counterculture was full of seemingly coherent sociopaths, bullshit artists, and outright con men using psychedelic pop culture lingo to proselytize, promote, propagandize, rabble-rouse, confuse, intimidate, seduce, and swindle. Many of them came through the EVO office, where the staff regarded counterculture proselytizers such as Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Eldridge Cleaver, John Lennon, Germaine Greer, and Timothy Leary with healthy cynicism. EVO’s comics artists were often the best at taking them down a notch. In Spiegelman’s cover we see someone spinning a story meant to be profound while his listener responds skeptically. That’s exactly the kind of conversation I often overheard at EVO.
6) East Village Other, vol. 3, no. 36, August 9, 1968, by Spain Rodriguez
Comics artist Spain Rodriguez’s vision of a sword-carrying black woman in a flowing cape commanding a steam-punk flying machine is unrivaled for cool, elegant power and sensuality. It stands as an early realization of an African American super-heroine in comics. The colors capture the New York City night sky at dusk (or is it dawn?) in the sultry summertime, which is when this issue was published. And the indicated sound effects (“Flump, flump” “Sree, sree”) bring the city to life. Billboards on the skyline below advertise villains (“Nixon”) and heroes (“Spain”).
Spain’s “Trashman” comics were brilliantly inventive and his style was—and continues to be—widely imitated. The poster for the 1990 movie, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, based on my stories, was inspired by his work.
One note about the bit of dialogue in the artwork: “Man, this is some jive fuckein’ shit.” In the EVO offices in the latter years, the only correct way to pronounce the word “fucking” was the way it is spelled here. To this day I can still hear their voices, the eccentric assemblage of staff members like Coca Crystal, Yossarian, Roxy Bijou, Jaacov, Zod (all gone now): “Fuck-een.”
What to make of these printed things, created by various mechanical means of applying ink to paper, some by way of technologies now nearly extinct? They are objects you can touch, witness the texture of their age and use. Imperfect, ephemeral, not made to last, yet surviving like parchment scraps of the Dead Sea Scrolls, even as the type fades and the paper cracks into the brittle future.
Printed matter is meant to speak for itself. To those who encounter these materials within the archive at the Interference Center, perhaps they will say a little about their time—and perhaps they will say a little about me.
Rex Weiner is a journalist, editor, and screenwriter based in Los Angeles. He is a cofounder of the Todos Santos Writers Workshop, and his The (Original) Adventures of Ford Fairlane: The Long Lost Rock n’ Roll Detective Stories, was recently published by Rare Bird Books.