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The Weekly Blague

70s Flashback: The Night Stephen Stills Was Booed Off the Stage

The earliest video of Stephen Stills I could find is from his show at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, NJ, March 23, 1979, five years after the concert I saw at Carnegie Hall.


I continue to excavate the detritus of the 1970s as I assemble a book about an underground newspaper at City College in the days of open admissions and free tuition. The other day I came across a music review I wrote, published in the February 13, 1974, issue of Observation Post. In the span of a month I'd seen Bob Dylan and The Band at Madison Square Garden, Joni Mitchell at Radio City, and Stephen Stills at Carnegie Hall.


Stills is the one I discussed in-depth. A blizzard paralyzed New York the night of the show, February 8. Only a sparse crowd showed up. I thought it would make for an intimate evening. But, I wrote, it was the kind of concert "that can make you never want to go to a concert again." Stills alienated himself from the audience. I said he acted like "a prick."


He opened strong with a rousing "Love the One You're With" but after three songs walked offstage and took his band with him. Twenty minutes later he returned alone to apologize. "If you're wondering why I'm acting so uptight," he said, "it's because the organ went out in the middle of the set. I've seen a lot of bands fall apart over a lot less. If you think I'm making excuses, I'm not."


I thought he was making excuses.


He launched into a solo acoustic set but got tripped up on the lyrics for "4 + 20" and "Blackbird." When he played a new song that wasn't greeted with enthusiastic applause, he said, "I like that song. I'm sorry if I bored you."


The band, recovered from their organ issues, came back and rocked out on songs like "Bluebird," the Buffalo Springfield classic. Stills and company were on the verge of redeeming themselves. But just when it seemed the crowd had forgotten what happened at the beginning, he waved goodbye and everybody walked offstage. The mandatory encore, "a half-hearted '49 Bye-Byes,'" was met with a standing ovation in an attempt to coax a few more songs out of him. But the "cheers turned to boos" when the audience realized Stills wasn't coming back. The show was over.


I spent 14 bucks on two orchestra seats (a lot of money at that time) and had fun tearing his performance apart. But on the basis of Déjà Vu alone, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young remain one of my favorite bands of all time.


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Buckley and Me

I never met James L. Buckley, but he was familiar with my work and he did have an impact on my life. Buckley, who died August 18 at age 100, was William F. Buckley's brother and an unlikely Conservative senator from New York, who served from 1971 to 1977, occupying a seat once held by Bobby Kennedy.


During Buckley's term in office I was editing Observation Post, or OP, a radical student newspaper at the City College of New York. I often published in OP the surreal drawings of the late artist and filmmaker Robert Attanasio. Attanasio, who was brought up in the Catholic Church and later rejected its teachings, had strong feelings about the church's myriad hypocrisies, which he expressed in his art.


In 1974, the church had yet to be exposed as a haven for pedophilic clergy and was considered by many, including Buckley, to be untouchable—an institution off limits to criticism by anybody for any reason. One did not criticize those who spoke for God. It was also a time, one year into Richard Nixon's second term, that the despair and rage his presidency and his endless war in Vietnam engendered were giving rise to a punk sensibility whose mode of expression was outrage for the sake of outrage. OP was a font of this sensibility, and that's why I published an Attanasio cartoon that The New York Times would later describe as "a nun using a cross as a sexual object."


The cartoon infuriated Catholic organizations on campus and beyond. In a speech before the senate, Buckley characterized Attanasio's nun as "a vicious and incredibly offensive antireligious drawing" and called for a federal investigation of OP and the expulsion of the students responsible for publishing it. The media firestorm that ensued galvanized OP, giving it a newfound sense of purpose: defending the nun in the name of transgressive art.


But there would be no investigation and nobody would be expelled. The First Amendment and a Times editorial in support of the student press (despite "inexcusably irresponsible or offensive actions by undergraduate editors") got in the way of politicians who wanted to cut off all funding for campus newspapers at public colleges. OP, a bastion of free expression, would continue publishing for five more years. And thanks to James L. Buckley, I learned more about the Constitution and the power of the press than I learned in any class I took as an undergraduate.


May the senator rest in peace.


Please join me for a discussion of Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon on Wednesday, October 4, 6 p.m. at Subterranean Books in St. Louis.


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The Bear in Number 12


"Modernistic, almost avant-garde, all acute angles and big vertical sheets of glass jutting toward the street, the red-brick structure stands in the middle of a row of mid-19th-century Greek Revival townhouses, on a tree-lined Greenwich Village block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. In its mismatched eccentricity, 18 West 11th Street cries out to be noticed, and I noticed it—and the Paddington Bear in the window—right after I moved to the neighborhood. I don't remember what kind of costume the bear had on that summer day in 1991 (probably a bathing suit and sunglasses), just that I stopped to look and wonder why the house was so different from every other house on the block." –from The Village Voice


The above paragraph is the opening of a book I'm working on. Tentatively titled No Future, an excerpt ran in The Village Voice last year. It's about the connection between Observation Post, a radical student newspaper at the City College of New York in the 1970s, and a house that the violent antiwar group known as the Weathermen, or Weather Underground, used as a bomb factory. The Weathermen were not very good bomb makers, and they accidentally blew up the house. Three Weathermen died in the explosion. Eventually, a lavish new house was built on the site, and the owners, metals magnate David Langworthy and his wife, Norma, displayed a Paddington Bear in the window. Every day the bear had on a different costume. If the Yankees were in the World Series, he'd be wearing a Yankees uniform. If a nor'easter was coming in, he'd be wearing a rain hat and slicker. I called him the Paddington Bear of Cognitive Dissonance.


In 2014 the house was sold and the bear disappeared, probably never to be seen again in that particular window.


I wondered about the bear's fate. I missed walking by the house to see what kind of costume he had on. I inquired about the bear on Nextdoor. Nobody knew what happened to him.


One morning last week, I was walking down a block I've walked down many times: West 10th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, one block from where the bear used to be. This time, a beautiful bow window at number 12 caught my eye, and standing on a table in the corner of the window was Paddington Bear, wearing red rubber boots. (It had rained the previous day.) I don't know how long he'd been there, but he's not in any of the Google street view images taken between June 2014, around the time he disappeared, and November 2022. It was the first time I'd seen the bear in nine years.


Several days later I returned to check out his costume. He was still wearing red rubber boots, though it hadn't been raining.


If the Yankees or Mets should miraculously squeak into the playoffs, perhaps the new owners will be moved to dress him in the appropriate uniform, as his previous owners always did. Then again, it's football season, and both New York teams could prove to be interesting this year. Paddington Bear would look just fine in either Giant blue or Jet green.


Please join me for a discussion of Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon on Wednesday, October 4, 6 p.m. at Subterranean Books in St. Louis.


All my books are available on Amazon, all other online bookstores, and at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.


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In the Name of Kerouac


Last week, in my post about the Volkswagen ID.Buzz, the 2023 electric incarnation of the Volkswagen Microbus, I wrote about all the VW vans that picked me up when I hitchhiked cross-country with my girlfriend in the summer of 1974. One of the rides I referenced took us more than 500 miles, from Milton, Pennsylvania, to Schoolcraft, Michigan. Below is a short excerpt from an as-yet-untitled book about the 1970s that I'm currently working on. It's from a chapter called "In the Name of Kerouac," and it goes into detail about that ride—an iconic moment in an iconic van at a time when the very notion of hitchhiking cross-country would soon pass into the realm of things sane people no longer did.


To set the scene: My girlfriend, whom I call "Naomi," and I had been on the road for three-and-a-half hours, and we'd come 160 miles. We were hitching on Interstate 80, when a VW van with Michigan plates stopped. The driver, David Legalli ("Accent on the gal. So please don't call me legally."), was heading for Grand Rapids. As we cruised along at 70—15 miles per hour above the new gas-shortage-mandated national speed limit—Legalli told us that he'd just turned 27, he was a wounded Vietnam vet, and he'd eaten speed for breakfast so he could drive all day without stopping.


In the late afternoon as we sped through the Ohio cornfields on U.S. 30, a straight line of geometric perfection, Legalli asked, "Anybody play guitar?"


"She does," I said, pointing over my shoulder to Naomi.


"Well then why don't you grab my guitar and play something, sweetheart."


She seemed hesitant. Though I thought she was a talented singer, she was a rudimentary guitarist, shy about performing in front of strangers. But she picked up the guitar in the back of the van and began tuning it.


"Do you know 'Country Roads'?" Legalli asked.


Naomi nodded.


"That's one of my favorites."


She strummed the guitar, began singing softly, and on a country road taking David Legalli home, we all joined in on the chorus, attempting what a generous person might call harmony. And I think Naomi understood that this was why I loved hitchhiking, that this was the kind of thing I'd hoped would happen, and it was happening on day one. Her voice growing stronger and her guitar playing more confident with each song, we sang everything she knew by heart, including "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" (we did well on the "na, na, na"s), "City of New Orleans," and "America"—a paean to the road, a song that was one with the moment. Paul Simon sang that it took him four days to hitchhike 370 miles, from Saginaw, Michigan, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We'd be in Michigan by the end of the day.


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Catch a Buzz

Tbe 2023 Volkswagen ID.Buzz. The ID stands for "intelligent design," the Buzz for the sound of electricity. You may have other ideas.

"It was July 27, my 22nd birthday, our 15th day on the road, and we snagged a ride within minutes. The rear door of a VW bus slid open and a hippie woman beckoned us inside. We joined her in the back seat and I said we were going to Salt Lake City." —From a book in progress about the 1970s


In the summer of 1974, my girlfriend and I hitchhiked from New York City to San Francisco, taking a meandering route through the Rocky Mountains. The morning the VW bus—officially known as a Transporter or Microbus—stopped for us, we were fleeing a mosquito-infested campground in Montpelier Canyon, Idaho. In the book I describe the hippie woman as "a dead ringer for Patty Hearst" and the driver as bearing a strong resemblance to Phineas Freakears, the Afro-topped Freak Brother in the Gilbert Shelton cartoon. They happened to be carrying a pound of "primo dope" and we caught a buzz off a giant spliff they passed around as we cruised down Highway 89 in air-conditioned comfort through the craggy, pristine hinterlands with Crosby, Stills & Nash playing on the sound system. It was a good and memorable ride in one of five Volkswagen vans, similar to the one below, that picked us up along the way, one of them taking us more than 500 miles, from Milton, Pennsylvania to Schoolcraft, Michigan.


The 1970 Volkswagen Microbus, a good car to catch a buzz in.


Many years after my cross-country odyssey, I edited a car-buyers guide for a time, and consequently I'm still invited to the New York International Auto Show. This year, among the exotic, super-luxury, and futuristic cars on display, the one that caught my eye was the latest incarnation of what was once the ultimate hippie mode of transportation. The 2023 VW Microbus is now called the Volkswagen ID.Buzz. It's electric (like Kool-Aid); it will be available in the US in 2024; and in keeping with its flower-child heritage, in addition to a name that could be construed as cannabis-themed, it's also carbon neutral.


As I admired its retro design, I imagined what it would be like to drive the ID.Buzz down some of those roads I traversed by thumb 49 summers ago, and fill it up with 21st-century hippie hitchhikers, assuming such creatures still exist. It would be a great deal of fun. And these days the buzz is legal.


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Off the Top of My Head


Victor Wong, a PhD candidate studying public policy at the University of Western Australia, is working on a thesis that he describes as an attempt to connect the policies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to the current state of Democratic politics. 


He contacted me because he'd read my John Lennon bio, Nowhere Man, and thought I might be able to answer some questions related to his thesis. I told him I'd try. As it turned out, only one question was about Lennon; two touched on material I'd covered in Bobby in Naziland; and the rest were about the politics of the 1970s. The latter, in part, is what I've been exploring in the still-untitled book I'm currently working on, some of which is set at a politically radical and pornographic student newspaper at the City College of New York.


Answering Wong's questions (off the top of my head) was challenging, kind of a mental warm-up to get in gear for another day of re-creating the atmosphere of the 1970s, a time when the student left was giving way to the encroaching forces of what was not yet called punk.


Below are Wong's 16 questions and my answers.


What exactly were the motives ascribed to the Johnson administration regarding its acceleration of the war in Vietnam? Was it the domino theory pertaining to Communism, as some have suggested, or was there talk of some other underlying, more complicated motive such as imperialistic excess, for example?

The "domino theory" is what they taught us in school—junior high and high school at the time. My understanding now is that the U.S. was fighting in Vietnam because of all the American corporations that did business there. As with everything, the war was about money. We had to keep Vietnam safe for capitalism. There's a documentary, Millhouse (1971), about Nixon. If I'm not mistaken, the end credits include a list of every U.S. corporation doing business in Vietnam. And, of course, there was the "We've invested so much blood and treasure, we can't leave now" excuse. And nobody wanted to be the president who lost a war for the first time since 1812, even though they knew the war was unwinnable.


Was the U.S.'s youth particularly partial to leftist ideologies such as Trotskyism—or Leninism—or were most of them distracted by other things in their lives?

In the early 1970s, at the City College of New York, only a tiny minority of students were hardcore communists or involved with Trotskyist or Leninist organizations. Most students were simply opposed to a war they thought was pointless, illegal, and never-ending. Then, in 1973, the draft ended (though the war continued), and the remaining energy animating the student left began to dissipate. And yes, there was a multitude of distractions—drugs, music, and sex among them.


What were John Lennon's true feelings regarding the war? Did he ever express his thoughts regarding the war in his diaries?

Though Lennon never mentioned the war in his diaries, I think he was genuinely opposed to it. His antiwar activism was more than an act.


Often, in my experience, the military—or some of its members—are quick to lay blame for America's defeat or withdrawal on the media for its depictions of the war on TV. Do you think this is a fair assessment?

Vietnam was the first televised war, beamed into your living room every night. People were appalled by what they saw on TV and read in many of the mainstream newspapers and magazines and the underground press. Then there was the moment Walter Cronkite, whom everybody listened to, turned against the war. So, yes, I think the media played a role in ending the war. But to blame the media for America losing the war is absurd. As the Pentagon Papers make clear, the war was unwinnable.


Is there any comparison whatsoever between the Vietnam War and the war in Iraq?

Both wars lasted seemingly forever (Iraq continues); both were unwinnable; and both were based on lies.


Ultimately, did the Vietnam War have a deleterious effect on American politics on the domestic front?

Yes, it taught us to hate the government and to assume that everything the government told us was lies and propaganda. And it gave rise to groups like the Weathermen, who literally declared war on America and, in order to end the war, were prepared to kill people with massive dynamite-and-nail bombs.


Why did the U.S.'s youth view World War II as an existential struggle in comparison with the war in Vietnam, which they regarded with contempt?

Our fathers were World War II veterans who fought the Nazis and Japanese. They brought us up to believe in the righteousness and necessity of that war, and to hate the Nazis and Japanese. This is exactly what my book Bobby in Naziland is about—growing up in the aftermath of World War II among Holocaust survivors and World War II vets, and the war lingering "like a mass hallucination." Though I was politically naïve and ignorant in the late 60s and early 70s, as I approached draft age (I turned 18 in 1970), it was clear to me that the war was pointless. I was prepared to do anything necessary to not be drafted and sent to Vietnam. Most people I knew felt the same way. Fortunately, all I had to do was go to college and get a 2S student deferment.


Was there really widespread opposition to the war, or was it more of a niche movement?

The opposition in New York City was widespread. Nobody wanted to get drafted and sent to Vietnam to die in the jungle for Richard Nixon. And many of our parents didn't want to see that happen, either.


Was Nazism viewed as more of a threat to U.S. interests than Communism as it was being practiced by Vietnam, China, and the USSR?

If you're talking about Nazism in the 1940s, I'd say yes. They were overrunning the world, committing genocide, bombing major cities of our European allies, working on an atomic bomb, and trying to figure out how to invade the U.S. It was a very dark time when we thought we might lose the war. The main horror of Communism during the 60s and 70s was the threat of nuclear war. But with the exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it seemed more like a background threat, not something you worried about every single day. I don't think anybody outside the John Birch Society believed the Russians or Chinese were going to overrun America. The U.S. fought Communism far away, in Korea and Vietnam (to protect corporate interests). And that's where they stayed. "We fight them over there so we don't have to fight them here," the saying went. As far as Joe McCarthy, I doubt he believed communism was the threat he made it out to be. He was a lowlife politician trying to score political points. In the 1960s and 70s, you never heard about the threat of Nazism. The Nazis were over, defeated, and buried… except for the fugitive war criminals smoked out in the U.S. or on the loose in South America who might be kidnapped, brought back to Israel, tried, and hanged.


Would the generation that fought the Korean War have reacted to Vietnam the same way the baby boomers did?

I think anybody with a functional brain, unless they were willfully blind, eventually recognized the futility of Vietnam. The longer the war went on, the more obvious the futility became. I don't see why the generation that fought the Korean War would have reacted any differently than the baby boomers.


Did those on top such as McNamara truly make bad decisions, or were they put in an impossible situation?

The Pentagon Papers make it clear that the war was unwinnable and the Johnson and Nixon administrations knew it. So, yes, I'd attribute it to bad decision-making.


Why did LBJ, who accomplished much on the domestic front (at least when it came to civil rights), fail so profoundly when it came to Vietnam?

The war was unwinnable; he knew the war was unwinnable; he got bad advice from his cabinet and the Joint Chiefs of Staff; he continued to bomb the country; he continued to send more troops; Americans were dying in large numbers; atrocities were committed; people saw it every night on TV; they were horrified; and the public eventually turned against him and the war.


Why does Vietnam continue to captivate the American public's imagination, in your view?

I'm not so sure Vietnam still captivates the American public's imagination. People are too caught up with the pandemic and the current political and economic nightmares.


Was the '60s truly a time of optimism and opportunity, or, as writers such as Stephen King, in Hearts in Atlantis, have suggested, was it a more chaotic time?

The 1960s were a time of war, riots, massive antiwar demonstrations, domestic bombings, and assassinations. That is chaos. But there was also more opportunity, which I'd attribute to the state of the economy. It was much easier to find a job that paid a living wage, college was affordable or free, and, especially in New York City, it was much easier to find affordable housing.


Do you think the younger generation today has the potential to have as big an impact politically—if not culturally—as yours did?

I sure hope so. Greta Thunberg and the Parkland high school kids come to mind.


Given your time in government, do you have any insight as to how the U.S. government/bureaucracy currently views Vietnam? How organic are protest movements in general? Is the view of the government sometimes that these moments of spontaneity are a way of tamping down the political climate?

I briefly worked as a speechwriter for the Secretary of the Air Force, in 1975, in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War and the evacuation of Saigon. The Pentagon was in a state of shock. It's a different world now. But the attitude still remains that the Pentagon always needs more money to build more and better weapons. I also think that it's generally accepted in the government and military that Vietnam was a cataclysmic mistake that was badly handled from beginning to end. And yes, I do think that protest movements today are organic. My wife and I enthusiastically demonstrated when Bush invaded Iraq and when Trump was elected. And finally, I'd be willing to entertain the possibility that the government sees some demonstrations as a way of allowing people to let off steam and lower the temperature.


My latest book, Bobby in Naziland, is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.


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Remembering Francine

Remembering Francine
Francine du Plessix Gray, shot by Irving Penn, on the cover of Vanity Fair, November 1983.

It was a long time ago, and the memories are starting to fade, but when I heard last week that Francine du Plessix Gray had died, at the age of 88, it reminded me, once again, of the best piece of writing advice I ever got. It's advice that I've adhered to since that autumn afternoon in 1975, in her office in the English department, at the City College of New York, when she showed me a spiral-bound notebook, the latest volume of the journal she'd been keeping since the summer of 1951, and said, "Keep a journal; write in it every day."


It was, she explained, how a writer finds his (or her) voice—by making writing as natural as breathing.


There were other bits of useful advice that Francine—we called her "Francine," not "Professor Gray"—shared with her students, advice of the sort you wouldn't normally get in a CCNY writing workshop. Like (and I forget her exact words, but the message was clear): Edit your own work when you're stoned on marijuana. You'll have no tolerance for bullshit and unnecessary verbiage.


Francine arrived at CCNY for the Spring 1975 semester, slated to teach one graduate and one undergraduate nonfiction writing workshop (what would now be called "creative nonfiction"). I met her my first day back at school—I'd gotten my BA in creative writing and then taken off a few months to travel. Now I was about to embark on a course of study in the graduate literature program after having been rejected from the creative writing program, which, at the time, I saw as the key to my future. I was 21 years old and crushed. The writing program at City College, in those magical days of free tuition, was a promised land where, for little more than the cost of books, one could study under the tutelage of Kurt Vonnegut, William Burroughs, and Joseph Heller, the department chairman, who had personally rejected me.


I thought studying literature might be a constructive way to kill time while I figured out what to do with my life.


I was wandering through the English department—a quonset hut on South Campus—attempting to put together a not-too-demanding schedule of classes, when a woman, fashion-model tall with blonde hair and wearing a Viva magazine T-shirt, asked me, with the slightest hint of what I took for an indeterminate European accent, if I knew where the administration building was.


"New here?" I inquired after giving her directions. I thought she might be a night-school student.


Yes, she replied, she'd just been hired to teach a creative writing workshop.


She asked me other questions about the college, and in the course of our conversation, I told her that I used to edit one of the student newspapers and that I'd been rejected from the creative writing program.


What happened next still seems miraculous. Francine asked me to bring her some of my stories that had been published in the newspaper. I brought her a half-dozen samples of my work, and when I returned to her office later that afternoon, she looked up from my articles, spread out on her desk, and declared, "This is gonzo!"


She invited me to take her graduate writing workshop and asked if I'd be her graduate assistant.


I was in!


Because Francine never talked about it in any detail, all I knew about her history was what I read in the short excerpts about her European childhood—governesses, a Russian mother, Paris—that she showed the class from the autobiographical novel she was writing at the time, Lovers and Tyrants. Had I heard that her stepfather, Alexander Liberman, was the editorial director of Condé Nast, it would have meant nothing to me. I'm not sure I knew that Condé Nast was a magazine-publishing company.


But what was really important to me about Francine was that she taught creative writing in a way that none of my other teachers had. Where Heller, for example, said that there was only one way to write a story—well-plotted with a beginning, middle, climax, and end… no deviations and no sci-fi, supernatural, or detective stories—Francine believed the best way to write was in fragments. Don't think about plot or form. Just get something good down on paper. Trust your unconscious and eventually the fragments will congeal into a coherent whole.


Rather than stories, she assigned fragments. Start from the inside and work your way out: first describe an emotional experience, then a small space, then a person, then a larger space, and keep going until you finally work your way up to describing a historical event.


This made sense to me and I flourished.


Once a week, after she taught her undergraduate class, we'd sit together in her little office in the English Hut, as it was called, critiquing stories, with me, on occasion, alerting her to an unexpected gem.


It went on like this for two terms, during which she guided me though my first attempt to get a full-length book off the ground, reading and editing my rough drafts. After I'd badly missed the mark on one of her assignments, she made a prediction: "You're going to write darkly humorous books and travel around the world."


And our bond became stronger because we were both plagued by a stutter that came and went depending on how stressed we were. Writing was a way to express ourselves fluently.


Francine left City College in 1976, returning to Connecticut and a life of writing books (At Home with the Marquis de Sade, World Without End, October Blood, and Them, among others) and magazine articles, including covering the trial of Gestapo chief Klaus Barbi for Vanity Fair, which won a National Magazine Award for best reporting.


I somehow muddled through my final term of grad school without her.


Over the years, we'd exchange an occasional postcard, but by the mid-1980s we'd fallen out of touch. I now wonder if she was aware that her prediction had come to pass.


Yes, Francine, there have been a handful of "darkly humorous" books and there has been much travel to distant lands to talk about them. And I often think of you when I write in my notebook—which I still do every day.


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Legal Marijuana and Tobacco Industry Paranoia: A 1979 Time-Capsule of Investigative Journalism

I wrote the article and sidebar below, about the tobacco industry's efforts to gear up for the legalization of marijuana, on spec for The Nation, in 1979. Since I couldn’t definitively prove that the tobacco industry was gearing up for marijuana legalization, The Nation passed.

A few weeks ago, I read the story for the first time in 38 years and found another flaw: I’d buried the lead. I should have begun with the Philip Morris corporation’s legal action against a small Long Island drug-paraphernalia manufacturer. But who knows if even that would have made a difference?

This time capsule of amateur investigative journalism has never been published. I’m publishing it now, exactly as I wrote it then.

Armies of journalists have invested a great deal of time during the past 15 years attempting to unravel a web of marijuana rumor and misinformation so complex it defies clarification. They’ve met with little success. Chasing bizarre leads into every segment of government and industry, occasionally managing to dispose of some of the more ludicrous rumors, they’ve created a paranoiac atmosphere where new rumors—as absurd and tantalizing as the ones they’ve put to rest—breed like bacteria in a petri dish.

The most widespread, persistent rumors concern the tobacco industry’s plans to gear up for the inevitable legalization of pot. It’s not true, for example, as Time magazine reported on January 11, 1971 that “One of the very biggest cigarette makers is experimenting with pot cigarettes in Puerto Rico.” Nor is it true, as James Ridgeway reported in the April 1971 Ramparts, “Justice Department officials asked Philip Morris to design and make a marijuana cigarette for test purposes.” It’s entirely believable, but probably not true either, as Jack Anderson said in his syndicated column of July 22, 1976, “Tobacco companies have set aside choice southern land for future marijuana harvests, competent sources say.”

No solid evidence has ever been documented linking the tobacco industry to marijuana. Yet, they remain terrified of even the vaguest associations, and vehemently deny everything. Stories like the ones printed in Time and Ramparts have provoked the industry to treat the press with contempt and hostility, an attitude that invariably spawns more rumors.

The trail of every rumor linking the tobacco industry to marijuana always leads to the same place: the Research Triangle in the pine woods near Durham, North Carolina. An industrial park conceived 20 years ago, its purpose was to stop the “brain drain” of PhDs from North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina, and Duke University to greener, out-of-state pastures. The Research Triangle Institute (RTI) is one of the many corporations located within the park. Its research ranges from the “study of catastrophic illness addressing spinal injury” to “data analysis and survey procedures for measuring pupil’s English language proficiency” to clinical studies of marijuana, which have been going on since 1969, funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) to the tune of $220,000 per year. It has a reputation of being one of the top research laboratories in the world. Perhaps it is only a coincidence that this is where the government has chosen to set up its joint-rolling factory—in the heart of tobacco country.

The government has chosen to set up its joint-rolling factory in the heart of tobacco country.

Commonly known as Durham’s third cigarette maker (along with American Tobacco and Liggett & Meyers), it’s no secret what’s being manufactured in RTI. Rumors of potential rips offs, hijacked marijuana shipments, kidnapped employees and links to tobacco companies abound.

“Security is a delicate area,” said Dr. Monroe Wall, President of Chemistry and Life Science. “You don’t want the Mafia to come down here and raid the area.”

“Our attitude isn’t one for paranoia, but we have reason to be apprehensive sometimes,” added C.X. Larrabee, Public Relations Director, referring to the rumors.

Three years ago, RTI acquired from one of the local tobacco companies an old cigarette rolling machine and a retired employee familiar with the “Rube Goldberg–like” instrument who helped convert it for the production of marijuana cigarettes. Originally, Dr. Wall said that they appealed directly to the tobacco companies for assistance in setting up the operation, but “paranoid” about any associations with marijuana, they refused. It took several months to get the machine operational.

Now, also under NIDA contract, Columbian, Mexican and Jamaican dope is shipped in 60 kilo barrels and crates marked “First Class Registered Mail” to RTI from the government pot farm at the University of Mississippi at Oxford. There, under the auspices of project director Dr. Carlton Turner (who denied rumors that tobacco companies frequently request information on growing marijuana), about 1,000 kilograms of 50 to 100 varieties of the most potent pot on the planet—some five times stronger than anything you can cop on the street—are growing on 5½ acres or rich, Mississippi topsoil.

The Research Triangle Institute rolls about 100,000 joints per year.

RTI rolls a ton of marijuana per year, about 100,000 joints, and processes some into liquid and pills, which are mostly used for glaucoma research. It’s a five-man operation and two people are needed to run the machine which, churns out 1,000 perfectly rolled 9-gram joints per minute. The size of non-filter cigarettes, stamped at one end with a thin red line and an “M” for marijuana, the carefully monitored THC content (the major psychotropic agent) ranges from 1% to 2.5%. (Average street dope, according to NIDA is .8% THC content.)

“If we sold the 2.5% THC marijuana on the street for $75 an ounce,” Richard Hawks, a chemist in NIDA’s research division commented, “people would be getting a bargain.”

Rolling goes on four or five times a year. Joints are packed 350 to a container the size of a coffee can. Some is stockpiled in a bank vault. The rest is distributed at no expense to researchers in the United States and Europe—provided they’re licensed and involved in legitimate research programs—and to a government pharmacy in Washington DC where Bob Randall, a 28-year-old glaucoma victim, the first and once the only legal pot smoker in the country, fills his prescription for 70 joints per week, which he receives in brown prescription jars with “child-proof” caps.

RTI officials stressed that their research is “legitimate,” “there’s nothing to hide,” and there are no links with the tobacco industry. Yet, they did everything possible to hide two simple, perhaps even trivial facts: Who supplied the rolling machine and who supplies the rolling paper. In tracking down this information, it becomes clear why a cloud of rumor hangs over RTI. Why should it take one month and more than 100 phone calls to ascertain information which in the end seems meaningless? The search for the information, not the information itself, indicates somebody is working very hard to cover up links between RTI and the tobacco industry.

As it turned out, the rolling machine came from the American Tobacco Company via Gonzalez International of Baltimore, a used machinery firm that specializes in tobacco machinery. The rolling paper is supplied by Ecusta Inc., a division of Olin Inc.—hardly astounding information.

Originally, officials at American claimed they knew nothing about one of their cigarette rolling machines being used to roll joints at RTI. Though, after being told his company was identified as the source of the machine, Cleveland Kern, the manufacturing director, recalled the entire transaction and remembered that RTI even asked to borrow one of their employees to set up the machine. But a superior in the corporate hierarchy quickly contradicted him. “We disposed of the machine to Gonzalez,” Robert Stinnette, assistant to the chairman of the board, claimed. “What they did with it after that is their business.” He was not able to explain how Mr. Kern knew the machine was being used at RTI.

The case with Ecusta was more complex. “They are doing a favor for the government and for science,” Dr. Wall explained. “The amount of paper they supply us with is negligible. They make no money off it. They don’t want their name associated with marijuana. If it is, we’re afraid they’ll withdraw the supply. Because of what the paper is used for, it was difficult to find a supply.”

Ecusta, located in Pisgah Forest, North Carolina, the largest of three rolling paper manufacturers in the country, wasn’t difficult to find. A secretary answered the telephone. She thought I was a potential customer referred to them by RTI, whom she recognized as a customer. Then she realized I was a reporter and transferred me to the marketing director who claimed he “wasn’t aware RTI was an account of ours.” Later, though, he confirmed it.

If the amount of paper they supply to RTI is “negligible,” why did a secretary immediately recognize the name? Perhaps the amount isn’t negligible. One of the many rumors flying about suggests RTI manufactures 500,000 joints per year, not 100,000.

RTI felt confident if Ecusta was publicly identified as the source of their rolling paper, the company wouldn’t hesitate to cut off their supply and legitimate marijuana research would be “seriously damaged.”

An Ecusta spokesman said they wouldn’t cut off the supply under any circumstances, but quickly added, “We don’t pander to the marijuana trade,” implying his concern for rumors that they did pander to the marijuana trade. Ecusta supplies paper to US Tobacco, the makers of Zig-Zag, a perennial joint rolling classic.

A lot of people believe a rumor fueled by ex–California Governor Ronald Reagan, who said, in 1972, that 14 tobacco companies have already registered trademarks like Acapulco Gold and Panama Red for use on marijuana products after legalization. Mr. Reagan was apparently unaware it’s impossible to register a trademark for a non-existent, or worse yet, illegal product.

It is true, though, that the General Cigar and Tobacco Company has registered the trademark “Tijuana Smalls” for their commercially successful little cigar. It’s been suggested that this trademark is being used only temporarily. Once marijuana is legalized, General Cigar can switch the trademark from cigars to pot. Though possible it’s unlikely. Switching names is a terrible business practice that only leads to consumer confusion. Imagine the shock of a loyal Tijuana Smalls smoker whose favorite little cigar suddenly appears on the market with a 2% THC content and has him hallucinating long before his fifth puff.

The latest breaking marijuana rumor, though, is the most believable to come along in years. It’s public record that Philip Morris Inc., an international conglomerate with revenues of $6 billion per year, has blocked a trademark application for “The Lid,” by Brasshead Inc., a small Long Island paraphernalia manufacturing company. Philip Morris claims it interferes with its product, Lido cigarettes.

You’ve probably never heard of Lido mentholated cigarettes. Philip Morris originally registered the name in 1957. Test marketing of the product began in 1969, in Venezuela, Costa Rica, and the United States, and still continues today. Though Philip Morris marketing executives prefer the term “diminishing results,” Lido has been a commercial disaster. Twelve hundred packs were sold in the United States in 1978. In Venezuela, sales between 1974 and 1977 dropped from 36.5 million packs to 9.9 million. Clearly, Lido cigarettes are going nowhere fast. Yet, test marketing continues, and in 1975 the trademark was renewed for another 20 years.

Brasshead Inc. of West Babylon, Long Island, a tiny member of the $350 million a year drug paraphernalia industry, was formed in 1970 by Mike Michaels, its 30-year-old president. Michaels, in 1975, came up with a relatively innocuous product called “The Lid,” classic street slang for an ounce of pot. In a zip-lock plastic bag, he packages a small, wooden hash pipe, extra screens, a roach clip, and rolling papers. It retails for $1.99. When he tried to register the trademark “Lid,” Philip Morris formally objected, in part because it said that Lid so resembled Lido that it was deceptive, would cause the consumer to confuse the two products, and would lead to the belief that Philip Morris manufactured both products.

“We’re not interested in marijuana because we can’t make enough money on it,” a Philip Morris spokesman said. “People can’t smoke 20–30 joints a day.”

How anybody can confuse a kit for getting stoned with a pack of mentholated cigarettes known mostly in Venezuela and Costa Rica may very well be one of the more intriguing questions of the day. Philip Morris doesn’t have a particularly good answer. “We’re not interested in marijuana because we can’t make enough money on it,” a spokesman said. “People can’t smoke 20–30 joints a day.” It’s a straightforward trademark case, they claimed, and as always, they’re ever-vigilant in protecting trademarks because they don’t want to see the laws eroded.

Michaels finds the case absurd. “Why should Philip Morris bother us on a trademark they’ve more or less abandoned here?” he wondered. “Maybe they’re trying to save the name in case marijuana is legalized. To me the name isn’t even important. I can call it ‘Bib’ and still sell the same amount. It’s a matter of principle.”

A number of patent lawyers agree the case is “peculiar.” Nobody has ever heard of one quite like it, in which a major conglomerate, protecting a trademark for a doomed product, contests a distantly related trademark by a much smaller company.

It seems entirely possible that when marijuana is legalized, Philip Morris could simply drop the “o” from Lido and call a marijuana product “Lid.” If Lido cigarettes should suddenly vanish from the marketplace, unlike Tijuana Smalls, you can be sure nobody will miss them, not even Philip Morris. A phone call to its Park Avenue headquarters revealed only one person who ever heard of the product. It took several days to locate him.

There’s one provocative rumor that will probably never die no matter what’s proven or disproven: Tobacco companies stand to make the fortune of the century when marijuana is legalized. Pot, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is a $48 billion a year business, the third largest in the country, behind only General Motors and Exxon, which are tied for first at $53 billion. Naturally, like good businessmen, tobacco moguls are gearing up on all fronts—production, advertising, marketing, and agricultural. When legalization hits, they’ll be ready to roll joints within the hour.

Tobacco companies have already made one of the fortunes of the century. In the process of promoting lung cancer, emphysema, and heart disease, they’ve also drawn intense criticism from such people as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Joseph Califano, a vigilant anti-smoking campaigner. Companies insist that the last thing they want is more government heat from marijuana, which some studies show is more harmful to the lungs than tobacco because it’s inhaled more deeply and remains in the lungs longer.

“We don’t need marijuana,” tobacco companies say, claiming they’re so rich and diversified, if cigarettes were outlawed tomorrow, they wouldn’t go out of business. Philip Morris, for instance, not only makes Marlboro, Benson and Hedges, Merit, Parliament, Virginia Slims, and Multifilter, but also Miller Beer, Lowenbrau, and 7Up.

Rumor naturally lurks behind the DEA’s claim that pot is a $48-billion industry. The enforcement of marijuana laws, the DEA’s principle obsession, is as much a business as selling marijuana itself. It keeps men working. They claim $48 billion in order to wangle a bigger budget from Congress. Without grass, the agency would be forced to exclusively pursue more dangerous drug criminals, like heroin and cocaine smugglers, who are more difficult to collar because their contraband is trafficked in much smaller quantities.

More realistic estimates from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORMAL) and Penthouse magazine peg marijuana sales somewhere between $4 and $12 billion, which at least holds a respectable position on the Fortune Top 100.

For the time being, at least, it’s possible that tobacco companies really aren’t gearing up for marijuana. Legalization, according to NORMAL—who already has brought about decriminalization in 11 states—is at least 7–15 years off. Before legalization can occur, international treaty obligations, which call for the prosecution of drug criminals, must first be repealed, and then, legalization would still be two years off. The tobacco companies know there’s no reason to stand poised with a finger on the joint-rolling button. If a crash program were invoked, it’s estimated that they could be rolling marijuana cigarettes in six to nine months.

Getting High in the White House

Only God knows how many reporters have been looking for drugs in the White House since Jimmy Carter took office. With a son who was thrown out of the Navy for toking up on board ship, a Rolling Stone endorsement by notorious gonzo journalist Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, who promptly told High Times about snorting cocaine with the White House staff and press corps, and the sudden departure of Drug Advisor Dr. Peter Bourne for writing bogus Quaalude prescriptions for a White House secretary and snorting cocaine with NORMAL Director Keith Stroup, the paranoia there is intense. Just call up the press office and ask about pot. It doesn’t matter what the question is. As soon as they hear “marijuana,” the answer is, “No drugs are used inside the White House and anybody found doing so will be fired.

Former speechwriter for the Secretary of the Air Force, Bob Rosen, a New York based freelance writer, recently completed a book on the Pentagon, Ground Zero Paranoia.

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Journey Through the Past

All three parts of "The Provocateur," my series on artist and filmmaker Robert Attanasio, are now posted on Erotic Review.

In the 1970s, I worked with Attanasio on Observation Post, the radical student newspaper at the City College of New York. We published a lot of controversial material, much of it having to do with pornography and religion. Working on OP changed the course of our lives, but we drifted apart after graduation and eventually lost touch. I hadn’t heard from Attanasio in 30 years. Then, in February 2015, he contacted me and we reunited. By November he was dead—from cancer.

“The Provocateur,” adapted from a book I’m working on about the moment in the 1970s when the student left gave way to punk, is a retrospective of my relationship with Attanasio, and a journey through his art and film.

Click here to read Part I, Part II, and now Part III.

Attanasio appears at the beginning of this episode of The Madness of Art.

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Birth of a Book

The way things are in publishing these days, it's as difficult for me to sell a magazine article as it is to sell a book. So I usually don't bother writing articles because even if I do sell one, it'll be around for a month at best. My books, however, tend to endure. Nowhere Man remains in print 17 years after publication.

Ironically, both my books began as failed magazine articles. In 1982, Rolling Stone and Playboy turned down an early version of what became Nowhere Man--because I couldn't prove to their satisfaction that what I'd written was true. I started writing Beaver Street in 1995 on assignment from The Nation. It was supposed to be an article about the economics of pornography. They rejected it for not being “political enough.”

But sometimes the stars line up and something I write finds its way into a magazine. This month, the first part of a three-part series called “The Provocateur” has been published on a British site, Erotic Review. The series is an excerpt from a book about the 1970s that I’ve been working on, and it’s the story of my old friend Robert Attanasio, an artist and filmmaker who died in 2015.

It was Attanasio’s death that helped me find a focus for the book and made me realize what its central theme should be—the moment when the student left gave way to Punk.

Part I comes with multiple trigger warnings and a big NSFW. Stay tuned for parts II and III.

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The Front Page

Observation Post, December 20, 1978.

As I contine to immerse myself in the 1970s, reconstructing that time for a book I've been writing, I'm continually reminded of how much I forgot.

Fortunately, I have an archive of Observation Post, a student newspaper at the City College of New York. I joined OP in 1971, as a sophomore; became editor in chief as a senior; remained a contributor as a grad student; and in 1978 and '79, while living with the then editor in chief, I acted as surrogate editor.

OP was a radical, political, pornographic embodiment of First Amendment freedom of expression, underwritten by City College, and produced by both students and former students turned professionals. Its readership extended beyond the campus. By the end of its 32-year run, OP had become a record of the staff and contributors’ emotional turmoil, and nowhere is this more apparent than in a Christmas issue, dated December 20, 1978.

The memory-jogging front-page reminded me how far out of our fucking minds we were.

“OP Editor dies of drugs after being forced to resign” was fake news. The editor in question, the one I was living with, did not die. (As far as I know, she’s still alive.) But in December 1978, her life had descended into a state of chaos and despair. The coup de grâce came when the school forced her to give up her beloved editorship because she wasn’t registered as a student. To share her feelings with the administration (and the world), she died a metaphorical death in the pages of OP.

My book focuses on the moment in history when the student left gave way to punk, and it was in this issue of OP that punk won. The fake-news death of the editor foreshadowed both the real heroin-overdose death of Sid Vicious, of the Sex Pistols, little more than a month later, and the symbolic punk-suicide of OP itself the following year.

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Upon Looking Into an Old OP

For the past few years I've been immersing myself in the 1970s, trying to reconstruct what it was like to live and go to school in New York City at that chaotic time, as the student left was giving way to punk. Lately (in an effort to think about something other than Trump), I've been re-reading old newspapers that were published at City College, like The Campus, The Paper, and Observation Post (OP), which I edited.

In 1975, when I was in grad school, the Pentagon invited me to be a speechwriter for Air Force secretary John McLucas. Despite strong anti-war and anti-military sentiments, I accepted the offer. It was a paid writing gig, an “internship,” the Pentagon called it—the Air Force hoped that upon completing my degree, I’d make the military my career. Gerald Ford was president, the Vietnam War had just ended, and I was an ambitious, rebellious 22-year-old, hungry for experience.

Upon returning to City College for the fall semester, I sat down with three OP editors—Herb Fox, Mark Lipitz, and Fred Seaman—to discuss my stint at the Pentagon. They published their interview with me in the November 5, 1975, issue. Reading it now, more than 40 years later, my unguarded anger and the way I shot off my mouth startles me. I’d apparently not yet developed a filter and did not fully understand the effect my words might have on a wider audience, especially my former Pentagon coworkers. The interview, however, does serve as a window into my unruly consciousness and the mindset of the military in the immediate aftermath of having lost a war for the first time since 1812.

Here are some excerpts from the interview, with the names of my former coworkers redacted.

OP: What was your first day at the Pentagon like?

Bob Rosen: I couldn’t sleep the night before. I didn’t know what I was getting into. In the morning I had to wait at the main information desk with about 20 other interns. After an hour, some Air Force people took us to be “processed in,” which was filling out tax forms, taking loyalty oaths, and having your arms checked for needle marks. Then I went up to the speechwriting office and met the people I was going to be working with. I was terrified. It was the first time I ever came in contact with the military. There were three lieutenant colonels and a captain. Lieutenant Colonel A_____, the chief, asked me to come into his office and said: “Well, Bob, you’ve got to hang loose. This is a very loose place.”

OP: What did he mean by that?

Rosen: He meant speechwriting was a very frustrating job. It takes about ten days to write a speech. It’s a very long process, involving a lot of research and interviewing. You spend entire days talking to people on the phone, running around the Pentagon tracking down “experts,” going through microfilm files, and reading up on relevant material. Then you write a rough draft and finally hand in a polished speech. But McLucas is a callous pig. He looks at a lot of speeches and says: “I don't like this. Do it over!” Then you’d have to do the whole fucking thing over. When he actually gives a speech, he usually reads the first paragraph, throws the rest away, and spins off on his own. It killed everyone in office. It wouldn’t have bothered me if he was a good impromptu speaker, but he was terrible at it. He’d go off on all kinds of boring tangents that put people to sleep. He did it to gratify his ego, to prove to himself he was more witty and more articulate than his speechwriters. He treated us like garbage. A couple of times he said things that got him in trouble. For instance, during a speech to a group of scientists in San Francisco he started to ad-lib and called the Vietnam War a “debacle.” That made banner headlines in the San Francisco Chronicle. It got people in the Pentagon really pissed at him.

OP: You said that at first you tried to be as “truthful” as possible [when writing a speech]. What do you mean by that?

Rosen: Okay. Let me use my first major speech as an example. McLucas had to speak to a group of ROTC cadets who were graduating from college this year and expected to join the Air Force right away. Now these cadets had entered college during the Vietnam War, when the ROTC program was going full force. However, since the end of the war, the size of the Air Force has been reduced by about 30 percent, and there’s going to be no room for these cadets. McLucas had to explain to them they had to wait up to two years before they could join the Air Force, and he had to come up with something to tell them to do during these two years. So I wrote a speech suggesting these cadets should run off and become hippies, and then when the time came they would be able to go into the Air Force with a completely new perspective on life.

OP: I suppose they killed the speech right away.

Rosen: No, they didn’t kill it that fast, which surprised me. Each speech, before it gets to the Secretary, has to go through a chain of about 15 experts. My supervisor, Lieutenant Colonel A_____, actually liked it, so I figured that there really was a chance it might get through. It passed three people before someone realized I was subtly suggesting these cadets go off and become hippies. I got an angry memo from the Pentagon Commandant of ROTC saying: “I don’t think the Secretary of the Air Force should suggest our future pilots become hippies.”

Another weird thing happened to me with that speech. After I had finished writing it, I typed a separate paragraph they wanted to include, mentioning there had been a 69 percent increase of women in the Air Force since 1969. I showed the paragraph to one of the officers there, Lieutenant Colonel B_____, and he said: “You can't use this 69 percent.”

“Why not?” I asked. “I triple-checked it. There’s a 69 percent increase.”

“Well, you see,” he said, “you’re going to be speaking to a group of ROTC cadets and they’re all males. Here you are talking about women. You just can’t use 69 percent when you’re talking about women to an all-male group. Some of their minds might not be in the right place. You have to change that.”

I thought he was joking and started to laugh. When I looked around I saw nobody else was laughing. It wasn’t a joke. I had to change the 69 percent to something else.

OP: Are there many religious people at the Pentagon?

Rosen: That’s another incredibly weird aspect of the Pentagon—the way people there are into religion. This one speechwriter, Captain G_____, tried to convert me to Christianity. He was a Charismatic Christian. He’d tell me how he talks to Jesus every night when he drives home in his car. There’s something very frightening about an officer in a high government position telling you how he talks to Jesus every day. He also gave me religious books to read that painted horrible fire and brimstone visions of hell. These passages would always be followed by a paragraph that said, “But, if you accept Christ you don’t have to go there.”

He told me I was in the Pentagon because God wanted me there.

“Why would God possibly want me in the Pentagon?” I asked, and he said: “Well, when the Messiah comes maybe He’ll want you to be His speechwriter. He has you here to learn about speechwriting and to learn about Him.”

OP: Tell us about your trip to Florida.

Rosen: I’d written a speech for a graduation exercise at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, and I got to fly down there with McLucas, his military aide, and Lieutenant Colonel A_____. [In Florida, A_____ and I shared a hotel room. It] was the first time I’d ever roomed with a lieutenant colonel.

He liked to talk to me about my politics and drugs. A_____ had been in the military for 19 years and he only came into contact with other people in the military. I’d say, “I take drugs and opposed the war.” He’d say, “Gee, I never met anybody who admitted he took drugs. I don’t know people who opposed the war.”

I told him there were a lot of people like me. He had only seen them on TV and read about them in the newspaper, and now he’s suddenly rooming with one. He used to ask me a lot of questions whose answers seemed obvious, like: “How come you didn’t like the war?” I’d give him a pretty standard answer about the United States having no right to destroy a country halfway around the world for its own selfish interests. Then I’d ask: “How come you did like the war?” He’d tell me he’s a patriot and the Communists were the aggressors, the usual story. He’d keep on saying we didn't bomb civilian targets. It was the most “surgical” bombing job in the history of the Air Force. He’d use expressions like, “We didn’t want to destroy the whole country, we just wanted to twist the Communists’ arms till they saw things our way.”

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How I Spent the Winter

How I Spent the Winter

One of the problems with writing a book and then preparing it for submission to publishers is that it's an extraordinarily time-consuming process. Take into account that I also have a demanding freelance gig, and there are simply not enough hours in the week to tend to blogging, Facebooking, and tweeting, at least if I want to have something resembling a life. Which is why it's been two months since I've posted anything new on this blog. But I am still here and I know some people have missed me.

So, aside from the book, what’s been happening since January 12? Here are a half-dozen highlights:

Like everybody else in the northeast, I’ve been getting through the winter, which can’t end soon enough, though I’ve not been letting the cold or the snow interfere with my daily walks by the Hudson River, which on some days might be mistaken for the Northwest Passage.

My wife and I spent a week in Florida, visiting my mother and being tourists in Miami. It was warmer there, I went swimming every day, and at no point was I forced to stand my ground.

For a brief moment, Beaver Street was the #1 porn book on Amazon Germany and Nowhere Man was the #1 Beatles book on Amazon Canada. Is it too soon to declare them both cult classics?

Quadrant, a conservative Australian literary journal, cited Nowhere Man in an essay comparing John Lennon to Russell Brand. The conservative media’s 15-year embrace of my work, using it to prove whatever point they’re trying to prove, continues to be a source of astonishment.

In my blog post about Charlie Hebdo, I wrote about the artist who, in the 1970s, had drawn a pornographic cartoon as a way of expressing his discontent with the Catholic Church. I’d published the drawing in Observation Post, the City College newspaper I was editing at the time. Major controversy ensued. Well, the artist read the post, and contacted me. We got together for the first time since 1974. He’s still an artist. And he’s still crazy after all these years. But so am I.

I woke up one morning to find that the porn star Stoya, whom the Village Voice had described on their cover as “The Prettiest Girl in New York,” had mentioned Beaver Street in a blog post. If I could have picked three people on planet Earth to read and appreciate Beaver Street, Stoya would have been among them, alongside Philip Roth and Joan Didion. So, I tweeted her a thank you and she tweeted back, “Thank you for writing it. Amazing glimpse into the adult industry.” Say what you will about Stoya, but I’ll say this much: The girl gives good blurb.

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J'aurais Pu Être Charlie (I Coulda Been Charlie)

Had I gone to college in France, I'd say the odds are pretty good that I'd have ended up working for Charlie Hebdo. It would have been a natural progression.

Instead, I went to the City College of New York and joined Observation Post, or OP, as this student newspaper was known. Founded in 1947 by returning World War II veterans, OP by the 1960s had evolved into the "alternative" paper, a radical journal of anti-war politics and rock 'n' roll, kind of a Rolling Stone-like option for those who found the "responsible" New York Times-like Campus to be exceedingly dull.

By the time I’d joined the staff, in 1971, one year after Charlie Hebdo was founded, OP, as I describe it in Beaver Street, “had mutated into a blunt instrument primarily used to test the limits of the First Amendment…. a student-funded incubator for an emerging punk sensibility soon to burst into full flower; it was an anarchist commune whose members performed improvisational experiments with potent images and symbols designed to provoke, or to ‘shock the bourgeoisie.’”

In short, we could have flown our freak flag under the Charlie Hebdo slogan, journal irresponsible (irresponsible newspaper).

In 1974, the staff elected me editor-in-chief. Early in my tenure, an artist who was raised Roman Catholic submitted his latest drawing, a reaction, he said, to his primary school education at the hands of “sadistic nuns.” It was an artfully crude cartoon of a nun masturbating with a crucifix.

Obviously, it was intended to provoke, but I also thought it was a legitimate artistic statement. Though many on the staff were less than thrilled by the cartoon, the only people who voiced objections to its publication said that the image was self-indulgent and clichéd, a rip off of the crucifix-defiling scene in The Exorcist, a popular film at the time. The possibility that somebody might want to do us physical harm should we publish such a drawing was not even considered.

So I ran the nun as a stand-alone cartoon, my sole motivation being to allow an artist whose work I liked to express his well-earned anger towards The Church, which I had no strong feelings about one way or the other.

And of course we got a reaction, though it wasn’t the usual irate letters from radical feminists accusing OP of exploiting women, as had happened when, in an earlier issue, my predecessor published a cover photo of a couple copulating on the couch in the OP office. Rather, the masturbating nun cartoon provoked Senator James Buckley of New York to denounce it as “a vicious and incredibly offensive anti-religious drawing” and demand the expulsion of the students responsible for it, the censoring of every college newspaper in America, and a Justice Department investigation of OP to “protect the civil liberties of all students who are offended by pornography.” This, in turn, provoked the Times to run an editorial defending OP in the name of the First Amendment, which put an end to the crisis.

In other words, a religiously “offensive” cartoon did what it was intended to do: spark a passionate debate.

Five years later, the cartoon inspired another OP editor to don a nun’s habit and have herself photographed masturbating with a crucifix as a tribute to the original drawing. Then, in a gratuitous act of pure punk provocation, she ran those photos in OP. In Beaver Street, I describe what happened next:

“[A] jeering mob of students affiliated with the Reverend Sun Myung Moon burned 10,000 copies of OP in a South Campus bonfire;… the City University chancellor publicly apologized to Cardinal Cooke for the photos; the Board of Higher Education demanded the criminal prosecution of OP’s editors on obscenity charges; the New York City Council threatened to gut the budget of the entire City University system unless something was done about OP; [and] the City College student body voted to kill off OP once and for all.”

The point I’m making here is that despite two attempts to provoke a reaction with crude and pornographic religious imagery—the second attempt more shocking and gratuitous than the first—there was no physical violence directed at the OP staff and there were no threats of physical violence. Though I’m sure many people wished those responsible for the cartoon and photos dead, the people who hated the images responded with words, political acts, and their own symbolism—burning the newspaper.

So, what does it mean that students in the 1970s could publish outrageous religious and political satire and not have to worry about being assassinated by a fundamentalist death squad? I suppose it means that I came of age as a writer and editor in a more tolerant and possibly more civilized time.

Unfortunately, there was no American equivalent of Charlie Hebdo for me to graduate to. Yet, in my books and other writings, I continue to nurture the spirit that OP infused in me, the spirit that very much lives on at Charlie.

I also do freelance work in the production department of a magazine that occasionally indulges in satire and has just moved into the gleaming 21st-century tower known as the World Trade Center. Though these things are certainly a matter of concern, I refuse to live in fear, and that’s the best tribute I can pay to the staff of Charlie.

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Call Me Virgil

I should pay more attention to Goodreads because people often post reviews of my books on the site, and I'm one of those authors who not only reads his reviews, but also likes to engage with his critics.

Last night I found two positive Beaver Street reviews. The first one, by Peter Landau, the writer who conducted the epic interview with me that ran last month on Fleshbot, describes me "as a Virgil to the reader's Dante on tour of a business that grew to define pop culture in America." In his thoughtful analysis, Landau calls the book "a fun and informative trek through a lost world," meaning that the profitable and dynamic magazine world that I depict in Beaver Street has long ago ceased to exist. He gives the book five out of five stars.

Thank you, Peter.

The other review, by Mike McPadden, is notable because the writer “vividly” remembers “the naked nun photo scandal of 1979,” which I describe in an early Beaver Street chapter about editing Observation Post, an underground newspaper at the City College of New York. (Actually, the “nun” went well beyond being naked, but I suspect that Goodreads is subject to censorship, and McPadden prudently restrained his language.) Overall, McPadden calls the book “breezy” and “funny” and recommends Beaver Street “skinthusiastically.”

Thank you, Mike. And keep those reviews coming.

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Blogs vs. Books

The “O.P.” in the headline refers to Observation Post, the student newspaper I wrote for in the 1970s. It was the equivalent of a heavily trafficked blog.

The Daily Beaver is a thing unto itself that usually has nothing to do with anything else I'm currently writing. It's a promotional tool, a warm-up exercise, a place to occasionally let off steam, and a daily challenge. But one thing I don't do with these blog posts is spend a lot of time rewriting them. What you're reading is a first draft. Maybe I've read it through twice and made some minor changes before posting it. The whole process takes less than an hour.

My books, on the other hand, are probably a fifteenth draft that I've been working on and thinking about for years. They've been critiqued by editors, vetted by lawyers, and subjected to professional copy-editing. I'd hope the difference is apparent to even the casual reader.

I think if blogs existed in the 1970s, I’d have been a more effective blogger than I am today. And by “effective,” I mean that my postings would have gotten more hits and more comments. Because blogging is a better medium for inexperienced amateurs than it is for polished professionals, especially those who put their best work into books.

In the 1970s, I thought writing was easy. Which is to say, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was unpolished, unguarded, I had nothing to lose, and I said all kinds of outrageous things (usually about sex) without understanding the impact it would have on the people who read it. I’d not yet developed a filter, and drew little distinction between what I thought, what I said, and what I wrote. I didn’t understand how easy it was to offend people. I put down on paper whatever was in my head, and then, with little editing, published it in Observation Post, the so-called alternative newspaper at City College. And, boy, did I ever get a reaction… and comments. (See Beaver Street, Chapter 1, “How I Became a Pornographer.”)

I’ve learned a lot in the ensuing decades. For example, I now know that writing well is hard; that it’s not a good idea to publish many of the things I say privately; and that it’s a terrible idea to publish everything that crosses my mind, no matter how many hits and comments it might provoke. There are certain people I’d prefer not to offend. In other words, I’ve learned the art of restraint, which is the opposite of what people are looking for on the Internet.

So, if you want total abandon—at least the kind of total abandon that’s not going to get me sued—then you’ll just have to read my books. In fact, I think I’ll work on one now.

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The Year of Nuns and Streakers

As I peruse the digital archives of The Campus, the "straight" student newspaper at the City College of New York, I continue to find more coverage of my work on Observation Post (OP), the "avant garde" (as they describe it) newspaper at CCNY that I edited in 1974.

The lead story in this issue—“Buckley says kick out editors over ‘bigotry’”—from March 15, 1974, is about Senator James Buckley, arch-conservative of New York, and his reaction to a cartoon of a nun “using a cross as a sexual object” (as The New York Times delicately put it) that I’d run in OP. The students that he wanted to expel were the art editor who drew the cartoon as a response to his education at the hands of “sadistic nuns,” as he explained it, and me. Buckley called the cartoon “a vicious and incredibly offensive anti-religious drawing,” and demanded that the entire college press be censored because of it—in order to protect the civil rights of students who were offended by pornography.

I tell the complete story in Beaver Street in the chapter called “How I Became a Pornographer,” and you can read it here.

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The Burning of a Student Newspaper

When I was researching the "How I Became a Pornographer" chapter in Beaver Street several years ago, there wasn’t much available online about the City College of New York between 1971-1979. I found a couple of articles from The New York Times and not much else. But I was able to supplement these meager findings with information from my diaries and from old issues of Observation Post (OP), the student newspaper that I was writing about, which I had on file.

The chapter focuses on a pornographic cartoon published in OP in 1974, which the Times described as “a nun using a cross as a sexual object,” and a photo of an OP editor, dressed as a nun and using a cross as a sexual object—a tribute to the original cartoon—published in OP five years later. (You can read the chapter here.)

“How I Became a Pornographer” also discusses such things as OP’s “emerging punk sensibility” and a demand by a United States Senator to censor the college press because of the nun cartoon. These events both occurred in 1974, when I was editor of OP, and I had no trouble recreating them, as I was an eyewitness.

Since I wasn’t at City College for the publication of the 1979 photo, I couldn’t provide an eyewitness account of how a group of students burned OP to protest the publication of the photo. Still, I was able to rely on information in my diaries and some press accounts, and was able to recreate the events with a reasonably high degree of accuracy.

Then the other day I discovered an amazing digital archive that didn’t exist when I was writing the chapter, and which would have helped me enormously with my research: every issue of The Campus—OP’s competition at City College—published between 1907 and 1981.

The Campus often found itself in a position of having to cover OP every time OP made news by publishing something outrageous or pornographic. Looking back at their eyewitness coverage of the 1979 nun is fascinating. It also shows me that I got at least one detail wrong: I’d said that students had burned 10,000 OPs, which would have been the entire press run. According to The Campus only 4,000 were burned. (Another source puts the number at 8,000.) Whatever the exact number, it appears that there are at least 2,000 copies of this collector’s item floating around. And I will, of course, make this correction in any future editions of Beaver Street.

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Today, Rosh Hashanah, the first day of Jewish New Year, 5772, is one of the two Jewish holidays I acknowledge. My wife and I will go down to the Hudson River with some stale bread and, according to tradition, cast our sins upon the water. Usually the seagulls eat the bread. "What a relief," I'll then say. "They didn’t turn black." The birds, that is.

I like the Jewish New Year because I feel as if I’m getting a second chance to re-live the year designated in the last two digits—’72 in this case. Yes, it’s the ’70s again, and 1972 was an especially interesting year. The energy of the ’60s was still very much alive, and having recently transformed myself into a radical hippie, I’d become an editor on Observation Post, the “alternative” student newspaper at the City College of New York, where the remnants of the SDS and Weather Underground had fused with an emerging punk sensibility.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt that kind of energy. But I felt it yesterday when I went down to Liberty Square, where the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators have set up camp. Galvanized by both ridicule in the mainstream media and a cop’s unprovoked pepper-spray attack on a woman demonstrator the other day, the motley gathering veritably exuded the Spirit of 1968 (5729). “There’s something happening here/What it is ain’t exactly clear…” is the way Buffalo Springfield put it in those electrifying days.

The demonstrators’ energy was focused around a tribal drum circle on the Broadway side of the park. People were pounding out an infectious rhythm on drums, cymbals, and garbage cans. They were playing tubas, trumpets, and washboards. And they were dancing, while a few yards away, on Broadway, a chorus line of demonstrators held up signs demanding economic and social justice. It was uplifting, hopeful, and magical in a way that’s difficult to quantify, but obvious to anybody who was there.

And take my word for it—these people aren’t going anywhere. Because most of them have nothing to lose and nowhere better to go. They’re serious, angry, unemployed, and dug in for the long haul. Ignore them at your peril.

Happy New Year, Wall Street.

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