By John McMillian, $27.95; Oxford; 204 pages
I don't just review LGBT-specific books, because I know our readers care about issues that are of broader interest as well. And one of my interests, as a reporter in LGBT media since 1984, is alternative media in general. So I was pleasantly surprised to find a book about alternative journalism that actually had some interesting gay history embedded within.
Smoking Typewriters is not about the gay press and, in fact, the gay press is pretty much ignored in the book's coverage of 1960s and 1970s "alternative" media. But writer John McMillian has uncovered some interesting facts about the role a few gay men played at critical underground media, and media content provider Liberation News Service, during this era. [Lesbians are not mentioned specifically.]
The book does an excellent job of reviewing a niche of underground media, those newspapers and services controlled mostly by white men, and some white women, focused on anti-establishment writing. The book begins with the primary reason that media started to be more diversified in the 1960s: The mimeograph machine made it possible to afford the printing process that broke the process wide open.
McMillian had a tremendous task in front of him in trying to summarize a movement that included hundreds if not thousands of publications across the country. He focused his work through the examples of a few key media in various cities, including the Los Angeles Free Press, or Freep; East Lansing, Michigan's Paper; Austin's Rag; and the Berkeley Tribe. The Chicago Seed is among those mentioned, but not in great detail.
The founding editor of Michigan's Paper was Michael Kingman. He was a Michigan State University student upset with the administration and the failed promises offered by the school. His work at The Paper was critical, but he eventually became involved in the psychedelic movement, was in a cult and died of AIDS in 1991.
The Rag was even well known enough to be attacked by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1968. He called it "the terrorists' guide to Chicago."
While the book does not deal with the LGBT media, including the 1950s and 1960s Mattachine, ONE and Ladder publications, it does note that some of the people who started in the underground press in the 1960s eventually gravitated toward gay activism and coverage in the 1970s and 1980s, including reporting about AIDS. Many of the women involved in underground media also went on to work on feminist publications and activism. Controlling the means of printing meant a flourishing of women-owned presses in the 1970s, including in Chicago, something also not mentioned in the book.
The era covered by McMillian is actually only a few years, and some of the papers lasted for very short periods of time. But they were still vital and influential, and laid the groundwork for far more diverse media in the future. They also forced some of the mainstream media to stop ignoring the youth movement, and some of the reporters ended up with long careers in mainstream media. That print diversity eventually paved the path for the Internet and all its diversity.
The Chicago Reader is also mentioned in the book, including its work as part of an alliance of alternative media formed in the late 1970s. It's interesting to note that this alliance became far more mainstream and focused on business, and I really liked how McMillian captured those changes in "underground" media that now wanted to appeal to corporate advertising buyers. That alliance of alternative weeklies was also very narrow in its focus: they did not allow many truly alternative papers, including gay media, to join.
The intensity of the 1960s and early 1970s work was probably part of the reason for its demise. That level of anger just could not be sustained, and it claimed many victims. There was infighting, drug use, sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, and all sorts of personality clashes. There were also great enemies to battle: The FBI had spies working to sabotage the movement, and papers were mercilessly harassed by police and other authorities. Many papers faced obscenity charges that were clearly politically motivated. Reporters and editors were arrested on drug charges.
The author does a great job of showing how the passion often transformed into paranoia, how ideologies clashed, and some of the papers and media services just imploded. I loved the story of how Liberation News Service was so divided that half the team absconded with all the equipment and supplies and then the others found them and held them hostage until the printing machine could be located. Drama and turmoil, fueled in many ways by the drugs ubiquitous in the underground media scene. But they still accomplished important things, and many of their goals were met. Those kinds of passionate people still exist in alternative media today. (After all, in 1987, I was part of a staff coup from the original Windy City Times.)
There is a lot of interesting material in Smoking Typewriters and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in media history and the limited gay history the book includes from that era. The sources in the back of the book are also very valuable for finding out additional information on these topics.