A Review of The Portable Sixties Reader by Ann Charters
628 pp, New York, Penguin Classics, Paper, $16.00
First appearing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review on February 16, 2003

A Difficult Decade to Read
by Stew Albert

If you lived through them, you probably have your own private Sixties. Bobby Seale, Paul McCartney have theirs and so does George W. Bush. They would certainly all write different accounts of the rebellious decade. And if they put together an anthology of writings from that period they would surely offer very different selections.

And so it is with myself and Ann Charters. She was a college professor in the Sixties and a much respected scholar of Beat literature, especially Jack Kerouac. She attended four antiwar demonstrations but was not really an activist. Certainly not an organizer or leader. The center of her life was literature. I on the other hand, was a full time activist, a founder of an underground newspaper, an original Yippie, I was arrested fourteen times and once ran for Sheriff of Alameda County. The center of my life was revolution.

Like Ann Charters I, along with my wife Judy Gumbo Albert edited an anthology of Sixties writings, “The Sixties Papers,” it was published back in 1984 and it's still around as a college text. So it’s fascinating for me to see how someone of very different background approaches the subject and what she selects. Mostly I want to see how deeply her comments and choices resonate in my memory, intellect and emotions. Does it bring me back to the days when everything good seemed possible and our greatest enemies were “corporate liberals?”

The answer is mixed and occasionally frustrating. Much of the reading is in a distinctly different than my own, but clearly neighboring modality. Take the Hunter Thomson selection on the Hell’s Angels vs The Vietnam Day Committee which oddly finds itself in the “Free Speech Movement and Beyond” section. About the only thing this conflict had to do with the FSM was that it took place in Berkeley.

Now almost anything that Thomson writes is a trip and insightful but his angle of vision here is from the seat of a Hell’s Angel motor cycle. Not that he romanticizes these outlaws, in fact he calls them fascists. But his journalism had little to do with the Vietnam day Committee or its intentions. The Angels had attacked VDC sponsored peace marchers at the Berkeley/Oakland line in 1965. And were threatening to do it again in a scheduled second march. But they backed off. And Thomson is at a loss as to why.

I used to set-up the Vietnam day Table on the Berkeley campus and occasionally give speeches at noon rallies. Let me suggest that the Berkeley radicals who would turn out at least ten thousand marchers were better prepared this time. Not all pacifists by a long shot, they would far out number the Angels and included in their ranks some ex-pro and amateur boxers and wrestlers and a number of football players. The Angels would certainly have been overwhelmed. Then again, this time around, the VDC had a permit from the Oakland city regime and its unlikely that on this occasion the Oakland police would be looking the other way.

Charters could have greatly enriched the telling of this tale if she had included in her anthology some writing by VDCers, perhaps something that appeared in the Berkeley Barb.

The sad ending of the Vietnam Day Committee ought to be mentioned. Person or persons unknown planted dynamite under its office and blew the building to smithereens. The police called it attempted murder but the crime remains unsolved.

For me People’s Park was one of the great highlights of the Sixties. It was created in Berkeley circa 1969, by thousands of students, street people, and ordinary citizens. Originally, an abandoned piece of University owned land, it was seized and turned into a park. The park builders rolled out sod, planted flowers, constructed swings and planted a vegetable patch. Ronald Reagan hated it and called in the troops, and that included the Alameda County Sheriffs Department. They shot up the town leaving one person blind and another dead.

I was hoping that Charters would come up with some obscure masterpiece about the rise and fall of People’s Park. There was so much excellent writing about the Park in radical magazines and newspapers. Reprinting a portion from Mario Savio’s magnificent speech about “Seizing the Means of Leisure” would have been perfect. But aside from a passing reference to James Reston being killed in the battle for the Park, we find nothing. Incidentally, as a participant in the action I can state that James Reston was nowhere near the Park. It was James Rector that was killed.

I was feeling a bit frustrated about not finding the passionate heart of my personal history in Charter’s Sixties anthology but then she came up with a selection in her antiwar portion from Norman Mailer’s award winning “Armies of the Night.” It’s Mailer’s account of his participation in the 1967 march on the Pentagon and the sit-in that took place around that scary building.

Mailer’s work is in many ways a masterpiece. His account of some of the organizing activities that took place in the months that lead up to the march is incomparable. But unfortunately Mailer ws arrested early in the confrontation and missed most of the best and most exciting action. He got much of his account of the wild stuff from interviewing Yippie Jerry Rubin, who was the Project Director of the siege. Why not also include something by Jerry Rubin on the clash and sit-in? Rubin did cover these events in his best selling manifesto “Do-It.” He was there when it got hot and heavy, so was Abbie Hoffman, and so was Phil Ochs and so was I, but the Yippies are mostly missing from this anthology. There is one odd work by Abbie, a somewhat melodramatic attempt at forging a last letter from Che Guevara in Bolivia. But it contains none of the legendary Yippie surrealism. And it isn’t funny.

Speaking of the late Jerry Rubin and Norman Mailer, I do have a personal story to tell involving these men that is strongly recalled because of a selection in the anthology. Charters gives a nod to a portion from “Ringolevio” by Emmett Grogan.

Emmett was a near mythic figure in the mid 60’s. He was a very famous member of the Diggers. A San Francisco based counter-cultural activist group that despised famous figures. By way of the media, Grogan came to represent the group. In the early 70’s he turned to writing, his autobiography and then some novels. One day he died on the Brighton Local subway line in Brooklyn supposedly from an over dose of heroin. Emmett hated the Yippies. He claimed we ripped him off. Stole his ideas. And then corrupted them by playing to the media. He may have also been a bit bothered by the Yippies replacing him as the prevailing counter cultural myth.

Grogan took some revenge in Ringolevio by reporting on an embarrassing conversation that supposedly took place between Jerry Rubin and me, after Rubin spoke at the first San Francisco Be-In. Not only does Emmett misspell both our names but he made the whole thing up. The day of the Be-In, I was in a Berkeley jail. And Jerry’s task at the Be-In was to raise my bail.

I’m annoyed that such a dishonest account appears in Charter’s book. But I have no complaint. An anthologer on the Sixties can not censor or research the honesty of the selections. If they were influential they should be included. And Emmett was an important figure.

When the Alberts edited their anthology they included a piece by the feminist thinker and former Yippie, Robin Morgan, that similarly mis-located Norman Mailer in the wrong place and and falsely accused him of doing something bad. Mailer blew up at me for including Morgan’s essay, and used the sort of heated language that can not appear in a family newspaper. He also concluded our friendship. His elemental wish was that I have exactly the same painful experience. With the appearance of The Portable Sixties Reader, I have had just that.

Of course, by my lights, Charters also gets it right a lot of the time. You can’t miss with selections by the likes of Rosa Parks, Bob Dylan, M.L. King, James Baldwin, Ron Kovic. And she really catches fire as one might expect, when representing the literature of the era. William S. Burroughs, Diane Di Prima, Ken Kesey, Charles Olson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Amiri Baraka among many others. They were the creators of the Sixties oversoul. Not, for the most part, artists of the street and its confrontations but soul builders. The individuals who provided the image and imagination to elevate spirits and get them thinking about just where the next sit-in or riot should take place.

During the Chicago uprising that took place while the Democratic Convention of 1968 was proceeding, I was cracked over the head. The doctors that sewed me up thought I had been blackjacked by a cop. Allen Ginsberg was quite proud of my scar and showed it off to Burroughs, Jean Genet and Terry Southern who made up a visiting cultural delegation. Genet said “not bad,” of my wound, and Burroughs gave me a pat on the back. These guys weren't about to join the violent festivities but their work had put me on those dangerous streets. At that moment I felt like a character in their creations.

- Stew -
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