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Rolling Stone? Please!

Ramparts magazine did it better, and influenced an entire generation of subversive journalists

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John Lombardi

Journalism used to be a lot more fun. You could be portentous, facetious or pretentious, singly or all at once, without having Times or New Yorker-style usage and “taste” rules rain down on your head. You could be hip/literary, like the early Rolling Stone writer Lester Bangs, all curled up like a burning match & channeling Kerouac & Cassady, and still be free of critical wimps like Anthony DeCurtis—who represents “mature,” 21st-century Rolling Stone—which Hunter Thompson, near the end of his life, accused of having morphed into “a Gap catalogue.”

DeCurtis curiously began critiquing Bangs around 1985, when he joined the staff—and after Lester’s death (!)—for reasons that probably had to do with RS’ rebranding campaign: It had moved from Third Street in San Francisco to Fifth Avenue in NYC, where it started pushing earnestly for Volkswagen ads and Kennedy offspring as interns ... Bangs’ rode-hard-and-put-up-wet looks and ragged bell-bottoms were off-message, as were his “racist,” “sexist,” “self-indulgent” “run-on sentences”—according to DeCurtis’ final word on the subject, “Busting the Cult of Lester Bangs” (2000). RS had carefully shed all of its founding hippie cred

By then, along with Jon Burks, Ed Ward, John Morthland and Grover Lewis, the core of its early staff, who’d established the magazine ... DeCurtis was likely just playing Cromwell to Jann Wenner’s Henry VIII business plan, tidying up hippie irregularities. Since he personally had little self to indulge, he couldn’t see why so many readers—to whom Bangs was RS—were so upset ... After that, it was slicker stock for a “younger” book, and mandatory drug testing for RS personnel, at what was becoming known as “Wenner Media.” Rumors of trouble to come in news and feature writing everywhere.

I met Lester once in somebody’s loft off Sixth Avenue in New York, and we reminisced about the old days. L was ripped to the tits on foreign substances, but still the best conversationalist at the party. He rattled off his favorite theories from Creem, where he was then an editor—that showbiz marketing trends had affected all of American life, “the secret of U.S. decadence!” he hissed. “Look at the ‘Selling of the President syndrome,’ man! It’s just like marketing a record!” (This was 1975.) Out of that eventually came my own “Mass Marketing of Gay” front-page piece for the Village Voice, and later a “Saint Boss” essay in Esquire, which posited Bruce Springsteen’s fan base as just another market trend: nice if thoughtless white suburban kids who preferred hip without the danger of extreme behavior and hard drug addiction, like Hendrix or Morrison—Hip Lite. Audience-wise, that translated into what I thought of as “Mass Hip.”

Thus, you could make out some previously blurry pop-cultural “devolutions”: American Bandstand over Soul Train; Mike Nichols’ movies over Sam Peckinpah films; Saturday Night Live with Lorne Michaels and Gilda Radner instead of The Living Theatre with Julian Beck and Judith Malina; the mass hip Rolling Stone edging the old, genuinely bohemian Village Voice; and as Peter Richardson wrote in a Time essay, “A Bomb in Every Issue,” Ramparts magazine, which changed American journalism in the ’60s and early ’70s, but couldn’t survive what was becoming a pure and growing sales culture.

As it turns out, Jann Wenner, a co-founder of Rolling Stone (with Ralph J. Gleason), used to hang around Sunday Ramparts, a weekly spinoff that didn’t last. Warren Hinckle, the one-eyed visionary and greatest of Ramparts editors, couldn’t stand Wenner, whom he remembers as “a fat and pudgy kid around the office ... What I found objectionable about hippie promoters [like him] was the attempt to make a serious political stance out of just goofing off ... Hell, Jann didn’t even cover the police riots at the Chicago Democratic Convention in ’68!” The only thing Hinckle ever consciously gave Wenner, he said, was a bottle of rubber cement to paste up RS’ first issue, in 1967. And he screamed about that.

Hinckle, who’d been a tough reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, was hired by Ed Keating, an untough Bronx kid, adopted by millionaires, who’d married an heiress, and so had a lot of dough to spend. In 1962, in Menlo Park, not Berkeley or Frisco, Keating unrolled Ramparts: It was serious and dull, like a Midwestern girls’-school poetry annual, but intended for a “literary” Catholic audience. He’d attack J.D. Salinger and Tennessee Williams as “dirty” writers, and encourage Catholic heavies like Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk from Kentucky (like Hunter Thompson!) to expand on racial problems and American “advisors” in Vietnam. Hinckle got Jessica Mitford, the authoress of The American Way of Death, an exposé of the funeral industry, to get involved, and soon the magazine was swinging left, attacking first Pope Pius XII for failing to challenge the Holocaust (in an interview by I.F. Stone’s daughter Judy, with German playwright Rolph Hochuth, who’d written the scandalous The Deputy, which first leveled the charges); then with a premature announcement that Ramparts would name the killers of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, three civil-rights workers infamously murdered in Mississippi in 1964—before it had the story.

Hinckle, always the showman, called a giant press conference in New York, and stalled—saying he couldn’t release the names until the FBI guaranteed lifetime protection for the “witnesses,” and the press ate it up. Meanwhile when a grand jury came in, handing down indictments in the case, Ramparts hastily rewrote its piece and looked like a reincarnation of McClure’s Magazine from 1902 to 1912, when it was publishing Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell, the great muckrakers. TV and talk shows bit hard, and the N.Y. Times endorsed the story by citing it, and joining in the “historical” race coverage, too. By the beginning of 1965, Ramparts was as hot as Andy Warhol, if not the Beatles, and Keating made Hinckle executive editor. Before long, now appealing to Protestant libertarians and antiwar Jews as well as rebel Catholics, the magazine had a circulation of 250,000, half again as much as The Nation, the oldest left American magazine, which, under the brilliant but more dignified Carey McWilliams, remained on newsprint, and didn’t go for art directors like Ramparts’ Dugald Stermer.

The paradox of Ramparts was that it gave voice to the great, yearning rebellion of the ’60s on the best slick stock, and with designs that soon had Esquire trying to hire its art director, and plundering its enviable list of writers, among whom were Seymour Hersh, Christopher Hitchens, Sol Stern, Tom Hayden, Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag, Nelson Algren and Mitford. Hunter Thompson was hanging around, too, but was turned off by Hinckle’s pet monkey, Henry Luce, who often ran free in the office, chattering and masturbating, and who’d gotten into Thompson’s leather satchel while he and Hinckle were out drinking lunch. When they got back they found vials of Hunter’s uppers and downers strewn over the floor, and Henry shrieking madly: “That fucking monkey should be killed—or at least arrested,” Hunter said. Then caught him and took him to a vet to have his stomach pumped.

A kind of zany radicalism came to dominate Ramparts. Hinckle’s wife and future editor Robert Scheer’s girlfriend both worked in the same San Francisco brokerage house while their men published articles that the CIA soon took so seriously it began to bug the office and order IRS audits. “In New York, Greenwich Village was a separate city,” Scheer remembers, “but in San Francisco, even the arbitragers were into [our] scene.” Scheer, who’d been a grad student in Asian studies, used the Berkeley Library to research a famous piece on how the CIA manipulated Michigan State University to train Saigon police, maintain a stockpile of ammunition and even write the South Vietnamese constitution. An MSU professor, working with the CIA on campus but unaware of its ultimate plans to take over the fight against North Vietnam after France lost its colonial war there, stumbled on proof that the Agency was torturing Viet Cong prisoners at U.S. headquarters in Saigon, during interrogations. He turned his info over to Scheer, and Ramparts had another cover scoop. Abu Ghraib has deep roots.

A while later, in New York, Hinckle and staffer Peter Collier were relaxing in Elaine’s, and were confronted by Willie Morris, the young but more patriotic editor of Harper’s: “The trouble with you-all is that you didn’t love America!” he blurted. Implying that Ramparts could print the truth, but should show a little regret about it.

it never did, of course. Hinckle, who wore white suits in summer and velvet ones in winter, with patent leather shoes, and an eye patch, was part pirate, part Catholic anarchist (nearly an oxymoron), a smart, jolly guy who was a superb actor and so a natural fundraiser. He drained Keating and his wife within three years of anywhere between $860,000 and $2 million—estimates vary—then, with Scheer as managing editor, drove Ed out entirely in 1965; he developed lists of rich donors like Fred Mitchell, a Berkeley grad student with a substantial fortune, who kicked in $800,000; Louis Hoening, a partner in California’s biggest advertising firm; and Irving Laucks, who invented plywood (“I like the way you spend my money!” Laucks laughed); and went after Abby Rockefeller and Eleanor Gimbel, heavy lefty contributors.

Hinckle once showed up at Gimbel’s Park Avenue apartment in New York and was so deep into his presentation, furling flip charts to show her how Ramparts could be spun off into book publishing, radio and TV operations—a left alternative to the Time empire—that he didn’t notice Gimbel’s rare miniature poodles, scuttering around like “moving slippers” at his feet. He stepped on one and killed it: “I’ll get you another,” he assured her, and slipped the dog into his pocket.

1965 to 1968 were the magazine’s glory days, and also the climax of the decade, when all its mad, “revolutionary” currents coalesced. Keating had brought Eldridge Cleaver, the black criminal/writer, into Ramparts as one of his last acts, and the Black Panthers soon followed. Scheer, more political than Hinckle, began running Cleaver’s “Letters from Prison,” which were eventually collected as the best-seller Soul on Ice, then offered him a job as a staff writer. Soon the Panthers and Huey P. Newton were hanging around, with their black leather jackets, shuffling walks and shotguns, facing off with overweight white cops who were drinking off their shifts in North Beach Bars like Cookie Picetti’s, where Hinckle often edited the magazine ... A small group of Oakland rebels, not above running coke and speed, and even pimping girls and robbing gas stations, then covering it all with their “Ten Point Plan” of “Marxist” pragmatism (a free breakfast program for ghetto kids, etc.), was promoted by Ramparts as a kind of American Viet Cong, and in an era of bad-ass posturing, was in turn wrapped by the Panthers in a media aura of radical chic.

Then everything began to explode: Dylan’s motorcycle accident silenced a generation’s poetic voice; the Tet Offensive in Vietnam turned the antiwar movement hard, along with the March on the Pentagon, and SDS’ Weatherman bombing runs on military recruitment centers and murderous bank robberies; Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Bobby Kennedy’s assassinations finished what was left of early ’60s innocence, and race riots in Watts, Newark, Detroit and Harlem neutralized the dreams of  young civil-rights workers; Altamont trumped Woodstock; heroin transfigured LSD and pot into silly fairy-dust; and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s cops broke so many heads during the Democratic National Convention that “consumer fascism” was no longer just a New Left cliché.

And by now, Ramparts was no longer alone. Time, under superpatriot Henry Luce—the real one—had doggedly hounded Ramparts so much it had inadvertently loosened its own style—“A Bomb in Every Issue!” was a Time headline virtually accusing Hinckle’s magazine of sedition; Newsweek, more liberal, picked up countercultural slang and semi-hippie graphics; Rolling Stone fecklessly chugged along on a steady diet of music trivia—underwritten, it turned out, by Columbia Records advertising advances. Wenner once scoffed at my early report that then-Records Division president Clive Davis was in bad trouble at CBS for playing fast and loose with expenses, blowing a story that broke a year later: “You can’t look a man in the eye if he’s under five-feet-five,” Thompson, who was tall, joked about the small Wenner.

New Times, the George Hirsch/Jonathan Larsen bimonthly magazine, was competing for advertising dollars and selling 350,000 copies; the Voice changed ownership and went national; Mike Lacey started a chain of weeklies in Phoenix, also called New Times, later switching to Village Voice Media when he bought the already reconfigured Voice and subjected it to his McNewsburger chain rules: identical graphics and internal organization, no matter if you were in the Bay Area, New York or Miami; the elimination of individual writers’ voices, so that his “alternative press” sounded relentlessly prime time, an advertising goal and deadly mass hip symptom; a ban on criticism of the Iraq invasion (I did three columns anyway, as Miami ME, and got fired); boring scoops about individual cases of political and business corruption, without national or international context ... literally fast-food journalism.

Warren Hinckle lost Ramparts to Robert Scheer in 1969, because he was drinking too much, spending too lavishly and because its time had passed (“I ran out of patsies to con,” he said forthrightly). People were now walking around in earth shoes, eating granola, thinking green ... but that stuff bored Warren. He started Scanlan’s Monthly and it lasted eight issues, debuting with Hunter Thompson’s full-blown gonzo pieces on the decline of Jean-Claude Killy, the French ski champ, into a TV pitchman; and “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent & Depraved,” Hunter’s revenge against his old class enemies in Louisville. (After that he went to Rolling Stone, where he had to defend his stuff at first from Wenner’s uncomprehending editing. On “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas”—the piece that would make his reputation—Thompson exasperatedly sent Jann this memo: “The central problem is that you’re working overtime to treat this as straight or at least responsible journalism ... You’d be better off trying to make objective, chronological sense out of ‘Highway 61,’ or even Naked Lunch.” By contrast, he said of Hinckle: “He would do anything to get your story in if he liked it, even if he didn’t get it ...”

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Discussed in this essay:
A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America
Peter Richardson (The New Press, $26)

Scheer’s narrower, political Ramparts only lasted a couple of years beyond Hinckle, then David Horowitz, an old friend, and Peter Collier, a smug, Southern California suburbanite, lost it in a welter of Berkeley commune-living experiments, which were supposed to forge new “lifestyle” models, and save on operating costs simultaneously. They did neither.

What’s left now is a memory of literate freedom and rebellion hard to imagine in a time when the articles sections of formerly great magazines like Esquire (Hearst), and okay ones like GQ (Condé Nast) are afterthoughts, crammed into 10 pages at the ends of each service-format issue in tiny print point sizes that automatically exclude readers over 50. And with Harper’s, The Atlantic and The New Republic staffed by recent ruling-class Ivy League grads in effete niche operations, popular magazines are kind of where the buffalo were in 1884. In a pure sales culture like ours, it’s the ads and main target market demographics—18 to 37, 38 to 45—that count. And these are measured as ruthlessly as TV ratings, or weekly movie grosses, or voter polls. It’s all numbers over words now. You’re either on the Big Board or reading a new business plan.

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