Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Long, Orange Trip

Just finished reading Nicholas Schou's Orange Sunshine, which tells the fantastical story of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a hippie drug ring centered in Orange County ca. 1970. It's a shaggy one all right: lots of characters, not an especially neat story line, but some riveting episodes.

I first read about this outfit in Peter Conners's White Hand Society, which focuses on Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg. (Leary is a key figure in the Brotherhood story.) What I learned from this book is that the Brotherhood's members were street-fighting jerks and petty criminals before they turned on. Then they went cosmic, formed a secret organization, and hatched a plan to sell enough drugs to buy an island in the South Pacific.

That didn't quite work out. Instead of retreating to an island, leader John Griggs purchased a ranch in the desert mountains near Idyllwild, only a couple of hours away from Laguna Beach, the center of their operation. That proved to be a mistake. Instead of eluding law enforcement, the move may have helped police get a bead on the operation. Also, Griggs died there after taking a huge dose of synthetic psilocybin. But the book recounts a fair amount of island time. Several members spent years in Hawaii and helped develop Maui Wowie, the strain of weed that was the rage during my high school years. They also packed a boat full of Mexican pot and sailed it to Hawaii without any navigational instruments. That was another wild ride, well narrated by Schou.

Although the title stresses the Brotherhood's signature brand of mind-melting LSD, their hashish business was the most interesting part of the book. Members trekked to Kandahar when that was an even more remote location than it is now. The first trip took several weeks and was full of twists and turns; in fact, the original destination was Turkey, but some fellow travelers convinced them that Afghanistan had the best stuff. Once there, they scored primo hash from Afghans who would have been at home in the Hebrew Bible. The Brotherhood smuggled it back to the states, often in hollowed out surfboards. The LSD, it turns out, was practically given away, all in an effort to enlighten the world, Leary style. When Leary was sent to prison, the Brotherhood paid the Weathermen to bust him out.

Yeah. Pretty wild.

Organized crime is one of my favorite genres, and there's plenty of that here. But what comes through most vividly to me is the utopian impulse behind the operation. Mostly these guys wanted to surf, drop acid, smoke hash, meditate, and get back to the land. The drugs were in many ways more sacramental than recreational. There was plenty of sex, but Griggs tried to emphasize family life, hippie style, especially on the ranch. (At first, the ranch community excluded unmarried members of the Brotherhood.)

On the edge of the operation was Mike Hynson, best known for his role in Endless Summer, which is nothing if not utopian. For you youngsters, Endless Summer was the 1966 film about two youthful surfers traveling the world in search of the perfect wave.

The Brotherhood's operation came crashing down in 1972, when law enforcement rounded up members in a multi-state raid. But several remained at large for years, and some went on to lead interesting post-Brotherhood lives.

Hats off to Nick Schou for his research on this amazing story.

Monday, December 12, 2011

On the Ground

Last week I heard from Sean Stewart, the editor of a new book on the sixties underground press called On the Ground. It joins John McMillian's recent Smoking Typewriters and its precursor, Abe Peck's Uncovering the Sixties, in reviewing the rise and fall of the underground press.

On the Ground complements those books superbly and succeeds on its own as well. Unlike them, it's studded with clips, ads, photographs, and spreads from the Berkeley Barb, San Francisco Oracle, The Black Panther, the San Francisco Express Times, and many other publications. (I've picked the California-based ones, but Sean's focus is national.)

The text features direct testimony from those who founded, contributed to, read, and otherwise helped keep these newspapers alive. We hear from John Sinclair (White Panthers), Paul Krassner (The Realist), Art Kunkin (LA Free Press), Abe Peck, Judy Gumbo Stewart (Berkeley Barb), Bill Ayers, Emory Douglas (The Black Panther), and many others.

The artists include R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Gilbert Shelton (Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers), and Bruce Conner, who produced a cover for the San Francisco Oracle. As part of my Grateful Dead research, I'm learning more about both Conner and the Oracle, but I didn't know they were connected.

Sean gives us a minimal structure: ten chapters that a) describe how the work got done and b) track the fortunes of the genre. The headline version is that they got a lot of free stuff from sympathizers, sold a lot of sex ads, used photo-offset printing, worked with the goodfellas who ran (still run?) newsstand distribution, coped with various forms of internal and external strife, got a little carried away toward the end, and finally moved on to other forms of activism and professional life. (Sean concludes with a helpful "where are they now?" section.)

Between the art and the first-person accounts, On the Ground is above all immediate. It allows you to sample the publications, read the insiders' anecdotes, and make up your own mind about these publications.

If you've had your snout in Ramparts for the last few years, you'll see many familiar names. Paul Krassner, of course, was that magazine's "society editor." Jeffrey Blankfort's photographs accompanied its coverage of the Democratic National Convention in 1968, and several of his photos appear in my book. Judy Albert got her nickname from Eldridge Cleaver when he was on the Ramparts masthead. Ron Turner of Last Gasp will publish Warren Hinckle's forthcoming book on Hunter Thompson.

(Of course, fanatical readers of this blog will recall that I don't regard Ramparts as an underground publication. The whole point was that it invited comparison with Time, Esquire, Playboy, etc. Let's call this the Garner Thesis--named after the New York Times critic who thought I scanted the underground press in A Bomb in Every Issue.)

I came upon other familiar names, too. One of Norman Solomon's co-authors, Harvey Wasserman, describes how the FBI's infiltration of his underground newspaper indirectly led his collective to begin the anti-nuclear movement in Massachusetts. Jeffrey Blankfort recounts meeting David Fenton, the youngest photographer to place a photo in Life. (He was 17.) Fenton went on to work for Rolling Stone and then founded Fenton Communications, one of the big rainmakers in political communications today.

Sean avoids big conclusions, though the preface by Paul Buhle tries out a few. For example, he calls the underground press "one of the great wonders of modern cultural politics" (ix). Whatever you make of this wonder, Buhle is certainly right that this volume's unique contribution is its combination of oral history and evocative images, a combination that can be absorbed and enjoyed in a single day or savored slowly.


Saturday, December 03, 2011

Dugald Stermer RIP

Dugald Stermer, path-breaking art director of Ramparts magazine, died yesterday after a long illness. He was 74.

I got the call last night from Bob Scheer, who heard about it from John Burton. Sad news indeed. I came to know Dugald while I was working on the Ramparts book. He was hugely gifted, highly respected, even beloved. He deserved all the credit he received--and more--for his work at the magazine, and he was also revered for his teaching and art.

He started at Ramparts in 1964, when it was a two-year-old Catholic literary quarterly that resembled “the poetry annual of a midwestern girls school.” But as Ramparts began running more controversial content, Dugald transformed its look and earned the respect of Warren Hinckle and Bob. Between 1966 and 1968, the trio produced a magazine that, according to the New York Times, restored the lapsed institution of muckraking, put showmanship back into journalism, and gave radicalism a commercial megaphone.

Dugald’s art direction was a critical part of that achievement. Ramparts became the first “radical slick” by combining blockbuster investigative stories with high production values, including color, photographs, and glossy paper. That combination supercharged the magazine’s circulation and heightened its impact. When Dr. Martin Luther King came upon a 1967 Ramparts photo-essay called “The Children of Vietnam,” which documented the effects of U.S. bombing on Vietnamese civilians, he immediately decided to come out against the war. King wasn’t the only one affected by that piece; Dugald told me that laying it out was “just about the nastiest job I’ve ever had.”

Dugald left Ramparts in 1970, and the magazine folded for good in 1975, but his influence in the magazine world lives on—most obviously at Rolling Stone, which was founded by Ramparts alumni Jann Wenner and Ralph Gleason in 1967. With Dugald’s blessing, Jann lifted design elements from Ramparts, and some still appear prominently on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Born in 1936, Dugald grew up in Los Angeles. “I was a beach boy, your basic forties and fifties kid,” he later said. “I liked playing cowboys and drawing pictures.” In his youth, he was something of a hood. “My image was surly, leather-jacketed, the white t-shirt with rolled up sleeves, the Levi’s hanging low. A nasty little teenager. Who worked in a gas station, so I was greasy on top of all this.” But a high school teacher noticed his talent as a cartoonist and encouraged him to attend college. He studied art at UCLA and worked for two years in a Los Angeles design shop before joining a Houston firm.

In Texas, Dugald met San Francisco advertising guru Howard Gossage, who was helping Hinckle juice up Ramparts. Dugald had no magazine experience, but Gossage arranged for an interview. Dugald learned that founding publisher Edward Keating had enough credit for two more issues. But Dugald didn’t want to design corporate reports forever, so he packed his young family into his Volkswagen bus and headed for the Bay Area. He soon became a key player at the magazine. “I was pretty intransigent about what I did, a ‘my way or the highway’ sort of thing,” he recalled. “I learned early that the person who gets there earliest and leaves latest makes all the decisions. Any territory you could defend was yours.” His easygoing manner and workhorse habits tempered Warren’s extravagance and short attention span. Like Warren, Dugald was a rebel, not a radical, and that quality helped keep the magazine from descending into the doctrinaire.

For Dugald, the fact that Ramparts was located in California was crucial. Because the magazine wasn’t based in New York, it was never expected to succeed. For this reason, Gossage said later, the Ramparts staff was like a troupe of dancing bears; their technique was less important than the fact that they could dance at all. But those low expectations allowed Dugald to innovate, and he made the most of his liberty.

Dugald didn’t read magazines or the alternative press, so he had no preconceived notion of what Ramparts should look like. Mostly he was guided by his UCLA professor’s dictum that the best design is never noticed. To emphasize the magazine’s message rather than its look, Dugald set every line of type—the captions as well as the text—in Times Roman. Drawing on local styles, especially those developed by San Francisco printers Edwin and Robert Grabhorn, he produced an elegant design that grounded the magazine’s explosive stories and irreverent tone. “It was a conscious choice to just use one typeface, and make the design very simple,” he told an interviewer in 2009. “It had nothing to do with budgets, although we never had any money … I wanted the magazine, page-to-page, issue-to-issue, to feel like chapters of a book, and, considering our content, to look credible.”

At its peak, Ramparts received the prestigious George Polk Award for excellence in magazine reporting. More established magazines began to emulate Dugald’s approach, and Esquire tried to hire him. But he declined the offer, which would have matched his salary but diminished his artistic control.

Dugald left Ramparts when its new editors, David Horowitz and Peter Collier, engineered Bob Scheer’s ouster. (Warren had already left to found Scanlan’s magazine, where he first matched Hunter S. Thompson with illustrator Ralph Steadman.) Dugald pursued a freelance career, first as a magazine designer and then as an illustrator. He drew a wildlife series for the Los Angeles Times; worked on campaigns for Levi’s, the Iams Company, the San Diego Zoo, Jaguar Cars, BMW, and Nike; and created editorial illustrations for Time, Esquire, the New York Times, The New Yorker, GQ, and Rolling Stone. He designed the Olympic medals for the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, and the State Department commissioned him to design the 2009 Earth Day poster. In 1986, he was the subject of a solo exhibition and retrospective at the California Academy of Sciences, and he gave the keynote addresses at the International Conference of Natural Science Illustrators in 2000 and the International Conference of Medical Illustrators in 2001.

Dugald taught illustration for many years at the California College of the Arts, where he was a Distinguished Professor and chaired his department. He was appointed to the San Francisco Arts Commission in 1997 and served on the Delancey Street Board of Advisors for over 30 years. (The foundation is a residential self-help organization for former substance abusers, ex-convicts, and the homeless.) He is the author of four books: The Art of Revolution (1970) with Susan Sontag, Vanishing Creatures (1981), Vanishing Flora (1995), and Birds & Bees (1995).

In a 2010 interview, Dugald was asked about his career. “As Howard Gossage used to say, ‘The only fit work for an adult is to change the world.’ He said it straight-faced, and while other people might laugh, I always have that in the back of my mind. I don’t walk around with my heart on my sleeve, but I do feel that using our abilities to make things better is a pretty good way of spending a life.”

Update: Stephanie Lee's obituary ran in the San Francisco Chronicle today. She corrected Dugald's age, included family information, specified the cause of death, and got a quote from Bob Scheer. See also Leah Garchik's item in the Chronicle; she knew him for 40 years.

Update redux: Steven Heller's obituary appeared in the New York Times on December 7. Very fitting. Mr. Heller interviewed Dugald for Imprint. (That's the 2010 interview link above.)

One more time: I attended Dugald's memorial at Delancey Street yesterday. Mimi Silbert hosted, there were touching tributes from family members and friends, and John Burton added some earthy humor. Tim Luddy, creative director at Mother Jones, offered this homage. The Los Angeles Times added this obituary and article on Dugald and his work.