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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

McMillian dives into radical underground presses

Published: March 4, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc.

pariah papers John McMillian discussed the proliferation of radical alternative presses in America in the 1960s on Thursday.
photo by alex patch/the hoot

As part of his tumultuous first book tour, which included a food- poisoning incident, a small theft and a plane catching fire, McMillian spoke to Brandeis students about his book titled “Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America.”

The book is an analysis of the ‘60s counterculture movement and the amateur magazines and newspapers that both propelled it and gave the movement a cacophony of voices. “Smoking Typewriters” is also about the many, as McMillian described them, “zany, over-sized characters” that wrote for and edited the newspapers.

Despite McMillian’s misadventures prior to arriving at Brandeis, his breezy and relaxed talking style mimicked the pasted-on, groovy style of the ‘60s alternative newspapers. Instead of reading from his book, he spoke generally about the origins of the underground papers and their impact.

Between 1965 and 1966, six newspapers served as the alternative press and formed the Underground Press Syndicate. A few years afterwards, there was an explosion of similar newspapers. Roughly 400 to 500 publications were printed and attracted over a million readers.

He explained how the newspapers varied both in tone and purpose, which was due, in part, to the locations in which they were based. While Californian “The Berkley Tribe” stressed the politics of confrontation with police, “The Great Speckled Bird,” based in Atlanta, Georgia, was preoccupied with drug culture.

He chose to focus his book on alternative newspapers as a way to correct the distortion of past historians’ analyses of the time period, which he thought looked too much through the “prism of the Students for a Democratic Society.” While admitting that SDS had a large impact as a group, he stated that analyzing the history through their records would be a top-down, elitist perspective.

In contrast, newspapers were written primarily by amateurs, were widely available and were very critical of American culture. Many of the newspapers developed the tropes of the ‘60s. After the Rolling Stone Concert at Altamount, which ended in the murder of one of the concert attendees, it was “The Berkley Tribe” rather than a mainstream newspaper that called the event a “disaster for counter-culture” and marked the end of the optimism of the sixties.

Throughout his talk he also stressed the harassment the newspapers faced from the government despite freedom of speech. At one point, the FBI even published two counterfeit underground newspapers that tried to spread more moderate views.

Although McMillian expressed great admiration for the underground newspapers, he did mention how they were problematic. The newspapers did, at times, print salacious and crass material, and, as an institution, the underground press was also flawed for being sexist and homophobic.

During the question and answer session that followed, he discussed what today’s bloggers can learn from the underground newspapers. “[Newspapers] fetishized the democratic process,” he said. The underground refused to have an editorial hierarchical structure, resulting in “editors refusing to edit” and a varied range of quality of content. He implied that bloggers shouldn’t make the same mistake.

Currently, McMillian is working on a book about the rivalry between the Rolling Stones and The Beatles.