Messages in a Lovely Psychedelic Bottle

Abe Peck is professor emeritus at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and author of the book Uncovering the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press, the definitive survey of the underground press movement of the late 1960s and early 70s. He was an early editor and writer for The Chicago Seed and a member of the coordinating committee of the Underground Press Syndicate. After leaving The Seed, he worked as an editor for Rolling Stone and as a reporter and weekly columnist for The Chicago Daily News and Sun-Times. The excerpts below are taken from the transcript of a much longer interview.
SM/AV   You settled in Chicago in fall of 1967 (on your way back from the Summer of Love in San Francisco) and became immersed in the hippie scene around Wells St. How did you first get involved with The Seed?
Abe Peck  I was an avid reader of The Realist and Paul Krassner. I used to live in the East Village in New York but never met Paul. He had gotten mugged, and he wrote a piece in The Realist saying, “Hey, I’m looking to get out of the city. It’s too tough for me here. I’d like to live on a farm.” I knew a guy who was a gentlemen farmer who came from a fair amount of money, and who had a place in Northern Illinois, so in the spirit of the times, I volunteered his farm. I wrote to Paul with an invitation. In response, I got Jerry Rubin in my apartment – my black-lit apartment with posters and soap flakes all over the floor. And Jerry is telling me about this groovy festival that’s going to happen at the counter-convention in August of ‘68. I wrote a piece about that for The Seed, and that was my first contribution. I believe it was signed Abraham Yippie. I was the first Yippie in Chicago, I think.
SM/AV   Speaking of which, The Seed famously became the headquarters of local organizing for the Yippie Festival of Life held in Lincoln Park during the ’68 Democratic National Convention. What was that like?
AP   Jerry and Abbie [Hoffman] were flying in a lot and there were a lot of us from Chicago organizing…We had planning meetings that were raided. We had a benefit for those arrested in the raid that was held at the Electric Theater. And the benefit was raided on a curfew violation… We met with the Chicago police about permits. The city had the man from central casting, the perfectly named David Stahl, who was the Deputy Mayor negotiating with us, and another guy named Al Barger. And they were just stalling us at every turn. The thing that kind of freaked me out was that we had a meeting with one of the top cops who said, “even if there’s 100,000 people, I will clear Lincoln Park if I see one marijuana cigarette.”… We were scared from having our meetings busted and being followed. I think we saw that it was going to be tough times and I think we were a little bit afraid, at least I was. And some of us were also concerned that our “brothers and sisters” were not being told how heavy things could get in Chicago… All those things kind of boiled over. I wrote a piece for The Seed approximately a month before the convention saying “if you’re coming to Chicago, make sure to wear armor in your hair.”…Our permit was pulled [by the city] and then resubmitted. I did not sign the new permit but stayed very involved with things and was of course totally swept up in the events once they happened.
SM/AV   What were you and the rest of The Seed staff doing during convention week?
AP   I was in Lincoln Park a lot. I was there both nights when people were pushed out. I was a reporter in a way. I went to Henrotin Hospital and watched the people who had been smashed come in… I saw a guy from a gas station come running out and break the arm of the first demonstrator he could hit. Whether it was political or he just wanted to protect his gas station, I’m not sure.
Later on I was at The Seed office. We were putting our heads down, trying to get the paper out. I was in there with a couple of other guys and the windows got shot out. All of a sudden, these bullets whizzed into the front window. It was one of those surreal things where we ran out into the street, which of course was not the wisest thing to do. The only car on the street, cruising slowly north, was a blue and white cop car. We liked our landlord, so we had to call the police to file a damage claim for the insurance. So the police came down and said “Who do you think did this?” And we said, “Well, you guys.” It was a bizarre dialogue.
SM/AV   How did The Seed respond to the police brutality at the convention and to its aftermath, to the Conspiracy trail, the increasing repression of the left, and so on?
AP   The cover of the issue after the convention was a picture of a pig dressed in a Chicago police uniform with Daley’s face on it. I think that was our change. We had been radicalized by the convention… Mike James [a founder of Rising Up Angry] came into The Seed office and took my hand and made a V, and he said, “That’s what we used to be.” And then he made a fist—my first fist—and said “That’s how we are now.” I’ve known him 40 years, and we still tease each other about that moment. So we were getting increasingly into that kind of militant politics and we started doing, in our own way, more investigative reporting.
SM/AV   What about the Black Panthers and other revolutionary New Communist groups who increasingly opted for armed struggle after 1968? How did you relate to them?
AP   Well, I think in a couple of ways. We certainly didn’t see ourselves as communist. If anything, we called ourselves communalists. We let the Panthers use our facilities. We sympathized with them. I think that people were very uncritical about the Panthers but there’s no denying that we were captivated by them and saw them as a group that was trying to carve out a space in a country that we were increasingly at odds with… As we got more international in our politics, some of us, including myself, came to see that the country was imperialist. That wasn’t a word I used but I certainly felt that way. I think we tended to identify more with a world revolution in the late 60s and early 70s than we had before even though some of us thought we were still hippies.
SM/AV   Around 1969 or so, The Seed began printing more and more articles about the women’s movement and gay and lesbian issues. Your girlfriend at the time was a member of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. Can you say something about how women’s liberation affected the paper?
AP   Several things happened. Traditional hierarchy went away…because there was a “revolution within the revolution” of women and if we weren’t going to do that, who was? …The infusion of women into the paper became very real and we became more of a collective. And at one point, we had a rotating editorship. It was good in that it certainly created an increase in perspective, and it opened us up to one of the most important revolutions that went on during the 60s, the gender revolution. At the same time, it was a problem in that the women who came in were new and had varying degrees of talent. It wasn’t that Gloria Steinem came in and was the editor that week. It would be someone who might not have even a modicum of talent that the guys had. …There were a lot of women who were quite talented and they certainly espoused views that would not have gotten into the paper, and were important for men to know, if only for the evolution of our own politics. But there were times when people who didn’t know how to put out a paper were in charge of the paper that issue. When you have a truly radical organization, one of the things you have to figure out is how to embrace your political evolution while still getting the job done…
SM/AV   Can you talk a bit about the notorious incident in which obscenity charges were brought against you and bookstore owner Barbara Kahn for an illustration by artist Karl-Heinz Meschbach that appeared in The Seed?
AP   It’s actually ironic, because I used to have very bad asthma, and I missed the insertion of that graphic into the paper. It was a surreal graphic about [Karl’s] life in East Germany, and there are lots of images in it, but there was one small image of someone performing oral sex on an erect penis very close to the figure of Mayor Daley. I was sick and my then-girlfriend brought the paper home. I was looking at it, and I said “Oh great, a graphic by Karl,” and I looked at it some more and thought “Uh-oh, this could be trouble.” Now, had I been healthy, would I have run it? The answer is very likely. Because the two things we were against were censorship and property…So two guys come in wearing suits—they’re pretty obviously cops—and buy the paper. Then they come back and flash badges and arrest us. They arrested the guy who sold them the paper and they arrest me…Barbara had been arrested simultaneously because she was an outlet for the underground press. She was the alternate bookseller in town. And remember, this was way before underground comics or anything. So I’m arrested for this graphic that I didn’t see, which was the irony, and it turned into a real circus down there, which of course, we fanned the flames of. Our bank dropped us as a result, so we picketed them.
SM/AV   Weren’t the charges ultimately dismissed?
AP   The judge ruled that The Seed—while trashy—was not obscene, which of course we ran on the masthead for awhile.
SM/AV   Overall, what role would you say The Seed played in the counterculture and Movement over the course of its 7-year existence?
AP   The Seed really tried to express—we weren’t Buddhist, but we tried in an almost Buddhist “right action” kind of way—to express our counterculture. With all those colorful pages, we tried to embody a way of life. It’s a word that’s widely abused, but I think it is appropriate…I’ve been reading the inevitable ‘68 pieces now, and the thought that I’m most sympathetic with is the French stuff in May. …There was a saying in France—“Beneath the cobblestones, the beach.” And I think that was kind of our politics. At least at The Seed, and a fair chunk of Yippie politics. The idea that was there was something deeper than the Democratic Party, and even something deeper than ordinary reality. There was living a different way, opening the doors of perception. …I think that The Seed, by using this offset press and by using those split-fountain colors, was trying to get at that physically. It was the only place in Chicago where you were going to find that. The other papers had different emphases. Second City was much more a kind of descendent of left politics and very straight. Later on Rising Up Angry was sympathetic to the counter culture, but were trying to build something tougher…
[The Seed] was just a window into an alternate worldview, and in some ways, an alternate reality. When people say that it wasn’t professional, I usually say—well, where were the professionals? They weren’t trying to explain this culture. Not just on it’s own terms, but in a thoughtful way. I think it gave people a window into considering some of the basic tenets of society. … It was the right place to be. If I had to pick at where to be—The Seed or The Tribune, I would go for The Seed, at that time, in a heartbeat. Because I thought it was doing the right thing—not that The Tribune was coming my way. It was just the right place to be in terms of where the world was going.
SM/AV   In your book you talk about the various factors that led to the collapse of the underground press by the mid-70s, but could you say a little more about why the tide receded and how that affected The Seed?
AP   I think a lot of younger people who had given—no, that sounds like a charity—who had been in the crucible for 4 or 5 years of their lives were either burned out, or wanted to move on, or there were other alternatives, things that were more palatable, whether it was Rolling Stone or FM Radio, or New Times in Phoenix. I think that some people wanted careers; some people wanted more than one pair of jeans. The politics became so intense that it was hard for everyone to hang in. The level of commitment and purity that was attached to being in the movement by 1972 was difficult. It called for a level of sacrifice as opposed to a level of fun… Some people went back to the land, some people took too much acid, some people completed their experience of it. And then there was the government, the trials, the repression…I don’t blame the whole thing on the government. I think that’s too simplistic. So I think [the demise of the underground press] was a combination of things. Also, the papers were never born to be institutions. Maybe with one or two exceptions. They were messages in a lovely, psychedelic bottle. But they were of their time, and I think in some ways it was “mission accomplished.” They reflected and nurtured and critiqued their movements, however imperfectly, and then those movements either crested or proved unviable or wrong, and people kind of drifted away. ◊