Revolution was in the air 50 years ago this weekend.
The Chicago Democratic National Convention was supposed to be an opportunity for Vice President Hubert Humphrey to build momentum for a presidential run against Republican nominee Richard Nixon. Instead, an alternative nation of 10,000 mostly young people demonstrated on the streets and in nearby city parks, only to be beaten, gassed and arrested by a force that included 12,000 cops, 6,000 National Guardsmen, 1,000 Secret Service and FBI agents and 7,500 Army troops — many traveling in tanks.
Paul Krassner was an organizer of the Yippies and the riots at the 1968 DNC. Palm Springs Desert Sun
As their brethren fell, bloodied by cops they called “pigs,” a young, diverse crowd chanted, “The whole world is watching.”
Mayor Richard Daley erected bulletproof doors and steel fences with barbed wire around the convention and ordered police to “shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand.”
The Beatles released their single, “Revolution,” the day the convention started.
The Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society, the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, and the Hispanic Young Lords were among the groups represented in Chicago. But of all the social activists descending upon the Windy City, and eventually getting charged with crossing state lines to incite a riot, the best-remembered is the Youth International Party, which wasn’t international and wasn’t even much of a group, according to Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Wenner.
Wenner wrote in Rolling Stone, “There were three people who were Yippies, except the newspapers were so dumb they were making like this was some big movement. Their whole existence depended on the coverage they were getting.”
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The Yippies, as members of the Youth International Party were called, were much more than a trio. Wenner’s male-centric focus overlooked the early contributions of women such as Nancy Kurshan and Anita Hoffman, and Judy Lampe, who created the logo on the Yippie flags. But at the core of the group was Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Desert Hot Springs resident Paul Krassner, who is their last man standing.
They were all social activists.
Hoffman graduated from pool hustler to liberal thinker at Brandeis University to grad student at UC Berkeley before emerging as a leader in the effort to politicize hippies in 1967 by getting a Flower Brigade entered in a Veterans of Foreign War Loyalty Parade in New York City.
Rubin organized anti-war and civil rights protests as a UC Berkeley undergrad in 1964 before being asked to lead a march on the Pentagon in October 1967.
Krassner, a former child prodigy violinist, was known to both Hoffman and Rubin as publisher of The Realist, a pioneering magazine called by counterculture historian Abe Peck “the iconoclastic parent of the underground press.”
The Realist was read by such cultural influencers as alternative comics George Carlin and Richard Pryor, and socially conscious authors Norman Mailer and Ken Kesey. (Krassner went on to join Kesey in the Merry Pranksters, a San Francisco-based communal group, in the 1970s.) Carlin wrote that he wasn’t at the ’68 Democratic National Convention, but, as an avid reader of The Realist, “I was represented by Paul Krassner.”
The teaming of the charismatic Hoffman and the influential Krassner was an underground equivalent of the alliance between Ronald Reagan and TV Guide publisher Walter Annenberg, when Reagan was a spokesman for General Electric. Call Rubin the alt version of Reagan’s Vice President George H.W. Bush.
Hoffman and Krassner decided to protest the Democratic National Convention while vacationing in the Florida Keys on New Year’s Eve, 1967. Krassner rented an office in New York’s Union Square, run by Kurshan and Walli Leff, and about a dozen activist friends conducted Yippie business. They held open weekly meetings at the nearby Free University and sent press releases through the Liberation News Service, an alternative equivalent to the Associated Press founded the previous summer by Marshall Bloom and Ray Mungo, who would later move to Palm Springs and write the notoriously sensational “Palm Springs Babylon.”
Peck said in a recent interview from Chicago, where he was staging 50th anniversary commemorations of the Chicago Democratic National Convention, that Hoffman and Rubin were the Yippies’ primary event organizers while Krassner was “super important” to attracting people with media messages, which is what Wenner said “their whole existence depended on.”
The Yippies’ first press release, announcing plans for a Festival of Life in Lincoln Park to contrast the “Festival of Death” at the convention, set a tone for what was to come:
“Free people, free pot, free music, free theatre, a whole new culture will manifest itself to the world, rising from the ashes of America,” it read. “Rock groups will be performing in the parks, newspapers will be printed in the streets, provos and police will play cops and robbers in the department stores, Democrats and dope fiends will chase each other through hotel corridors. Long boats filled with Vikings will land on the shores of Lake Michigan and discover America! Chicago will become a river of wild onions!”
Folk singer Judy Collins broke the news that the Yippies were going to Chicago to protest the Vietnam War at a March 1968 press conference in New York unveiling her new album, “Wildflowers.” That helped attract media to the press conference, but Krassner said it also emphasized “the cultural over the political” motivations for going to Chicago.
Peck supported the Yippies as editor of the underground newspaper, The Chicago Seed, but he broke from them by withdrawing his name from their city permit application for a festival in Lincoln Park and a march to the convention center.
“I said, ‘You have to have transparency. You don’t lure brothers and sisters into (a boxed canyon), which is what Lincoln Park was,” Peck said. “It became a hype machine.”
While he sensed a trap,he understood what the Yippies were doing.
“Who wants to say, ‘Hi! Come to Chicago and get beat up!’?” said Peck, now professor emeritus-in-service at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. “But, ‘Come to Chicago and freak freely and hear these great bands and sleep in the park?’
“I don’t want to break too much from them because I love the idea of the Yippies and I was in their park every day and we were in the Yippies’ headquarters. I wrote about the Yippie thing and endorsed it. I think Jerry’s thesis was, we win either way. Either we have this really groovy festival or the cops and Mayor Daley overreact and that reveals the metaphoric truth of what’s going on in Vietnam. A few broken heads in the park is nothing compared to the bombing and napalming of Vietnam.
“You can argue with that, but there’s an idea there that I eventually had real problems with. I said, ‘If you come, be sure to wear some armor in your hair’ (because) it was a little bit of a trap. You want to find a way to turn on mass numbers of kids to politics, who would never ever listen to bla-bla-bla. But, obviously, it got overextended.”
Krassner says many famous bands, perhaps even the Beatles, were invited to their demonstration and he said the Yippies did want to make it a Festival of Life.
But he said, “There was no follow-up because of fear from police and the National Guard.” As a result, the biggest bands to show up were the MC5 from Detroit and folk singers Phil Ochs and Peter, Paul and Mary.
The Yippies’ real purpose was to awaken the political sensibilities of the ‘60s flower children and, to do that, they realized they had to make their endeavor fun.
That’s what distinguishes the Yippies from other activists: Their emphasis on a fun fight for counterculture values would influence young people to demonstrate for civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, the environment and more power at the ballot box. In the early 1970s, Nixon would feel compelled to lower the voting age to 18 and end the draft. By the ’90s, picket signs at rallies were so commonplace, the Beastie Boys satirized the protest culture with their anthem, “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (to Party).”
By the 2010s, counterculture values, including ingesting marijuana, had been legalized and Krassner was in the Amsterdam, Holland-based Counterculture Hall of Fame, joining Beat poet Allen Ginsberg as the only protester at the Chicago convention to be so honored.
Krassner, 86, now spends most of his time in a middle-class Desert Hot Springs neighborhood working on his first novel. He gets around with the aid of a walker because his right leg is “essentially paralyzed,” a condition he says was precipitated by a beating he received from a cop while covering a 1979 protest of the light sentence given to the convicted killer of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone.
He’s eschewed prescription drugs most of his life, but he still smokes weed daily and remains a strong advocate for its medicinal and recreational value. He also advocates for the medicinal and cultural value of hallucinogenics such as LSD and magic mushrooms.
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Sitting in his small, information-packed office, Krassner says Ochs best verbalized the idea for the mission of the Yippies, which they conceived on LSD when the organization was born on that Florida vacation.
“Phil Ochs had a slogan that a demonstration should turn you on, not turn you off,” Krassner said. “That was the thing.”
The Yippies’ source of inspiration wasn’t just historical figures such as Samuel Adams and Thomas Payne. It was also the father of modern stand-up comedy, Lenny Bruce, who died of a heroin overdose two years before the Chicago convention.
Hoffman and Krassner first hit it off when Krassner told Hoffman, “You’re the first person to make me laugh since Lenny Bruce” and Hoffman replied, “Lenny was my God.” Rubin listened to Bruce’s comedy records before speaking at rallies. Krassner was so close to Bruce, he edited his autobiography, “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People,” and earned a Grammy nomination for the liner notes he wrote for a Bruce anthology.
Bruce taught Krassner how to develop a stand-up comedy act and convinced him to use a pseudonym to distinguish him from the guy people knew from The Realist.
Krassner called himself Paul Maul.
“I’d always have a list of about seven areas I could talk about, and I learned that from Lenny,” Krassner said. “He would do a bit that was just a line, and then the next time he would evolve it into something else and, after a while, he might have 10 solid minutes. So, I learned just by watching how he did that.”
Krassner is generally credited with conceiving a name to reflect the Yippie sensibility. The origin story is a bit murky because Krassner said Hoffman wanted to make it look like a group creation. But Krassner said he came up with an idea associating them with the exclamation, Yippie! Then he started looking for words for an acronym.
“I thought of Young International – something,” he said. “I went through the alphabet and I worked backwards. I realized if I could get YIP that would be short for Yippies. So, I figured out Youth International… Party! I was really excited and I went back in the living room. Jerry wasn’t real (excited). He said, ‘I don’t know.’ And Abbie said, ‘No, that’s good.’”
After the press conference with Collins, the old Chicago Daily News wrote a headline saying, “Yipes! The Yippies Are Coming!”
Comedy was such an essential piece of the Yippies mosaic that the first person Krassner called after their founding was his friend Dick Gregory, the pioneering African-American political comic who lived in Chicago. Gregory said he was planning to run for president and he asked Krassner if he’d recommend Bob Dylan as his vice president. Krassner replied, “I guarantee you he’s not going to have anything to do with the Electoral College.”
The Yippies were called “the Groucho Marxists” by media from the New York Times to ABC News, and Krassner often fed them Groucho-esque lines. In an exchange cited in his memoir, “Confessions Of A Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counter-Culture,” Krassner was asked if the Yippies planned to live in tents in Chicago.
“Well,” he replied, “some of us will live intense, and others will live frivolously.”
“Why don’t you go to the Republican convention in Miami?” asked a reporter.
“What, during the off-season?” said Krassner.
“Do the Yippies have a party line?”
“Yeah, we’re going to roll a ball of string all the way from New York to Chicago, and that’ll be our party line.”
Krassner actually turned Marx, the father of iconoclastic humor, onto LSD shortly before the Chicago convention.
Marx, 77, was shooting his last movie, titled “Skidoo,” for director Otto Preminger in the spring of ‘68. Preminger was a frequent LSD user and Marx was playing a mob kingpin, called God, in a film full of hallucinogenic explorations. Actor Slim Pickens reportedly sang “Home on the Range” while tripping.
Marx wanted to find out what LSD was like before making a film advocating its usage, and he had read of Krassner’s advocacy of the drug in The Realist. He arranged for Krassner to guide him on a psychedelic journey at the Beverly Hills home of an actress friend. They played a Bach album and Marx told Krassner he was seeing beautiful visions of Gothic cathedrals. He had a piece of fruit and said, “I never thought eating a nice juicy plum would be the biggest thrill of my life.”
Around the same time, Krassner became famous for threatening to put LSD in the Chicago water system. But he said he just implied that while discussing permits with Chicago Deputy Mayor David Stahl.
“Stahl asked me, ‘What are you guys really planning to do at the convention?’” Krassner recalled. “I said, ‘Didn’t you see ‘Wild in the Streets’?’ In that movie, based on a short story in Esquire, teenagers put LSD into the water supply and took over the government, reducing the voting age to 14. This may have been one reason the Daley administration thought the Yippies were actually planning to put LSD into the water supply.”
The Yippies were denied permits and the city placed cops in front of the pumping and filtration plants. Then Rubin got his metaphor of bringing the Vietnam War home via the media. CBS newsmen Dan Rather and Mike Wallace were roughed up on the convention floor and anchorman Walter Cronkite called the security teams “a bunch of thugs.”
“It was awful,” Krassner said. The cops (were) sadistic. They didn’t arrest somebody, it was like squashing cockroaches in the kitchen. It was getting as many as you can. So, that was scary. I remember reporters saying, ‘Did you think we would ever be at a convention wearing gas masks?’
“Stew Albert, one of the organizers at the beginning, was one of the first to get his skull banged. I remember we went to get him bandaged. There was a guy acting as Jerry’s bodyguard. He had a beard and a motorcycle. Jerry liked the idea of having a bodyguard, but it turned out he was an (undercover) cop. The Chicago Tribune would later report that (the cop) was in the group that lowered an American flag – the incident that set off what the government’s Walker Report described as a police riot.
“I was lucky. I remember when it was starting. This was at the stage at Grant Park. There was a lot of cops and National Guard, and I remember they had bayonets. There was one guy with a bayonet who said, ‘Hey, where are you going?’ and I just kept walking away. I figured out, is he going to run with a bayonet after one individual?’ So, I sort of avoided it. I would go around the perimeter, taking notes. So I didn’t get beaten.”
Hoffman and Rubin were arrested and tried with other protesters who became famous as the Chicago 8. The 8th defendant, given a separate trial, was Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, who was the inspiration for Nash’s line about the brother bound and gagged and chained to a chair in his song, “Chicago.” The other seven were acquitted of conspiracy and then acquitted of other charges on appeal.
Krassner was named an un-indicted co-conspirator, which he said made him feel like “a disc jockey who hadn’t been offered payola.”
Hoffman, who suffered from depression, committed suicide in 1989. Rubin became a successful stockbroker and popularized the term “yuppies” to describe baby-boomers-turned-capitalists. He was fatally injured while jaywalking in 1994.
Krassner mediated a public debate with Rubin and Hoffman after Rubin came to represent a generation of Yuppies. Hoffman was seen as the guy who didn’t sell out. But that is now seen as Krassner’s legacy, too.
“He was the real deal,” Collins said recently, “a person who has an ethical and very complex and marvelous view of the world. He took great efforts and pains to write about it, think about it and do the right thing. I was very crazy about Paul Krassner.”
Krassner returned to publishing The Realist and performing alternative comedy before focusing on freelance writing upon his move to Desert Hot Springs with his wife, pioneering videographer Nancy Cain. But his planning and dissemination of information about the Chicago protests not only revealed young people had become a political force, it exposed the biased or inadequate reporting of the traditional media.
Nathaniel Blumberg wrote in the Montana Journalism Review in 1969, “The primary journalistic — and perhaps historical — lesson of Chicago is that the news media of general circulation have been guilty of a massive failure, especially in the last decade, to describe and interpret what has been happening in the United States and in the world.”
New York Times Associate Editor Clifton Daniel wrote that same year, “While you may think that the underground press is scatological and scurrilous, its existence is nevertheless proof that our press is indeed free.”
And Jerry Kornbluth wrote in “Notes From the Underground” in 1968 that the underground press that Krassner supposedly sired, along with newspapers such as the Village Voice and the L.A. Free Press, had “surfaced.”
“It is everywhere,” he said. “The underground newspapers… are perhaps the first tangible beginning of a disaffection so radical that they will frighten America as much as the black revolt.”
Peck said the Chicago protests mainly “deepened the fissure between anti-war and war.
“A lot of people who were activists became radicalized from it,” he said. “But the city got tons of letters supporting the cops and supporting Mayor Daley. He got criticism for not being tougher. A silent majority, to use (Nixon Vice President Spiro) Agnew’s phrase, did emerge and become a political cohort that the Republicans were able to activate. So, it deepened the fissures in every way. The country became more and more divided.”
Krassner didn’t get headlines like Hoffman and Rubin, but, through his planning, writing and stand-up comedy performances, he turned protest into an art form.
“He was a Yippie, but he was a cultural guy,” said Peck. “His breaking-on-through to the other side with these images, the institutions that seemed increasingly hollow and duplicitous — he was presenting a metaphoric view that was at once piercing and funny.”