Everything Old Is New Again
A Texan's in the White House, we're in a quagmire war and 'The Rag' returns to Austin
Right before she began her journey up the steep, dark flight of stairs inside the old building on the Drag, Glenn Scott considered turning away. "Looking both ways, I go up and I'm thinking, 'What am I doing?'" It was dusk, on a weekday in the fall of 1974. Scott had recently quit her job as a schoolteacher in Fort Worth and moved to Austin to get a master's at UT. She hadn't been here long when she discovered the local rag.
Literally The Rag.
For those too young to remember, and for all you Californians and other imports, Austin's local, (usually) weekly, underground newspaper (that was the era's nom de guerre) was called The Rag. It had a remarkable 1966 to 1977 run, and it put Austin on the nation's countercultural map through a then novel and offbeat combination of psychedelic art and political and cultural news. The sixth paper to join the fledgling Underground Press Syndicate, a national network of alternative publications that both made national connections and allowed members to reprint content from one another's newspapers and magazines for free, The Rag was at the forefront of the Vietnam era underground press movement.
It was definitely a labor of love. Other than its printers and hawkers ("Get your Rag! Get your Rag! Why do the birds go cheep, cheep, cheep? Because The Rag is so cheap!"), nobody associated with the publication received a penny of pay. Street peddlers (often moonlighting authors) wouldn't have gotten paid either, if they hadn't sold The Rag for a quarter during the years it was priced at 10 cents, and for more than a quarter when it was valued at 25 cents.
Scott had spotted a notice in The Rag requesting that volunteer writers, layout people, etc. show up at the paper's office on that early fall evening. Now the 25-year-old graduate student hesitated at the top of the narrow staircase, peering down a dim hallway, "one naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling," at 22301/2 Guadalupe (now the location of the McDonald's-owned burrito and taco chain franchise, Chipotle). Scott walked slowly down the darkening hall, past the student YMCA; she could see a faint light shining from under a door at the end of the corridor. She thought twice before knocking. There was no sign, at least that she could see in the near dark; the whole situation seemed shady.
"I was fixin' to bolt. I mean, I was ready to run." She heard muffled voices coming from the other side of the door, as she worked up the nerve to knock. A tall, gangly guy wearing something akin to a sailor's cap responded: "Well howdy! Come on in."
Scott's greeter was Bill Meacham, a former UT grad student in philosophy and a Rag contributor from 1968 to 1977. "Whoever showed up could just be part of it. It was very open in that sense," said Meacham. He doesn't specifically recall Scott's Rag debut, but remembers a string of people responding to calls for volunteers over the years, stopping by to pick up papers to sell, or just to shoot the shit. Like Scott, Meacham had responded to a call for volunteers, although he thinks he heard his announcement at a Students for a Democratic Society meeting, an anti-war movement event, or a combination of the two. The Rag, SDS, and the anti-war movement were inextricably intertwined. The interconnectedness of what came to be called "The Movement," combined with Austin's low cost of living (now a memory every bit as distant as The Rag), is what made it possible for folks to work for free, and for the publication to survive on a tattered shoestring of a budget for as long as it did.
Meacham is now a techie, who doesn't want published the name of the locally based corporation for which he works for fear of an "Oh my God! You used to be a communist" reaction from co-workers. On the night Scott arrived, Meacham was among a handful of twentysomethings in the cluttered room, gathered around an old wooden table in the midst of planning the next week's issue. By that time, he had graduated and was working for what would become Wheatsville Food Co-op, so he wrote a lot about the local co-op movement. Advocacy-driven coverage was a hallmark of the underground press: Volunteers who participated in a political happening, such as an anti-sexism protest at UT, would write about the event and the larger issues attached to it. There was no pretense of journalistic "objectivity," nor was there even very much in the way of a news organization at the paper.
As Rag co-founder Jeff Nightbyrd puts it, "It was very anarchistic back then." There were no editors, so nobody officially controlled the flow of ideas into the publication. Instead of an editor, the paper had a "funnel," who acted mostly as a content coordinator. As initial funnel Thorne Dreyer put it, "We didn't want to be authoritarian." Nightbyrd recalled The Rag's news gathering process going something like this: "My god! Some black students just got kicked out of that place. Let's do something on that. ... Oh my god! There's bad drugs somewhere. Let's tell everyone."
By the time Meacham and Scott were working together at The Rag, the U.S. had pulled its troops out of Iraq er, Vietnam and the draft was winding down. Although these were the largest issues that had initially spurred The Rag into existence, there were still plenty of local and state stories various strikes, rallies, and protests on or around campus, the South Texas Nuclear Project, and the United Farm Workers labor struggle in Texas, especially in the Rio Grande Valley. "It was a very intoxicating thing. ... It really did change my thinking about things," said Scott, who now works as an organizer for Education Austin, the AISD teacher and staff union.
Within a few months, Scott was joined at the paper by her boyfriend, Richard Croxdale, who later became her husband. Together they would witness the paper's dissolution, although only Croxdale was still working at The Rag when its last issue came out in the spring of 1977. "There was just too much work to continue putting it out," said Croxdale, now an adjunct economics professor at Austin Community College.
Money wasn't the major factor in The Rag's demise, since throughout its brief life it never had much. There were some newspaper racks with coin slots that worked on the honor system, a handful of subscribers, a donation here and there, and some advertisers "hippie counterculture-type businesses," as Scott put it, that paid $1 per column inch, at least in the publication's early years. Minus the "fancy" coin slot newspaper racks around parts of town, that's pretty much how The Rag's finances had always looked.
But by 1977, a new "alternative" weekly, the Austin Sun founded by Nightbyrd had opened its doors and lured away some of The Rag's contributors with paying jobs. Young Austinites were also finding other avenues to channel their political energies, Croxdale said. Following no particular ideology and beholden to no one specific group, The Rag was general by nature. The local, politically minded set had gradually gravitated toward "more issue-based politics," he said. Fewer and fewer volunteers began showing up at The Rag's weekly story meetings. It finally got to the point at which the few people left on the job decided, "If nobody shows up for the next one, guess [we] won't put it out," Croxdale recalls. When only he and two others showed up at the next meeting, "That was the end of The Rag."
The paper had been founded by do-it-yourself activism. Nobody wanted to compete with the Sun by hustling for advertising and putting a greater emphasis on entertainment tidbits more coverage, as Croxdale puts it, of "the best doughnut shops in Austin and how to have a good time downtown. We saw that model, and we just didn't want to take that step. And so The Rag faded away."
The Daily Texan gets some of the credit for spurring The Rag into existence, albeit by default. The Texan abruptly became more conservative in 1966, when UT's student body elected a right-leaning student editor to replace Kaye Northcott, who went to work with Molly Ivins at the liberal bastion The Texas Observer. In The Rag's initial issue, Northcott reported (complete with typos) on John Economidy's strange first day as the new Texan editor.
[H]e made a grand entrance into the newspaper office wearing an Air Force ROTC uniform and carrying a makeshift swagger stick. He marched to the copy desk, banged the stock on the table rim and announced, "General John is HERE."
The Texan has not been the same since.
As Thorne Dreyer recalls, Economidy, "who offered himself as an alternative to 'another female editor,' turned the Texan's editorial pages into a mouthpiece for the university's information service." The change goaded Jeff Nightbyrd (whose name at the time was Jeff Shero) to round up fellow nonconformists Gary Thiher, Alice Embree, Carol Neiman, and Dreyer. The idea of starting an underground publication had been on the mind of Shero who had been simultaneously writing for the Texan and participating in SDS as well as the others. The editor of Ann Arbor, Mich.'s underground paper, The Paper, had visited Austin recently, and they had "milked him for ideas," Dreyer said.
Not that those ideas helped a whole lot. Nobody really knew what they were doing. But that didn't keep the first Rag from appearing on Oct. 10, 1966. It was put together in an old house at 2506 Nueces, where Dreyer and girlfriend Neiman lived, and which served as a "crash pad, newspaper office, and general whirlwind of free thought and ideas," as Nightbyrd put it. An independent printer and activist named Larry Freudiger printed The Rag's first 12 issues 1,500 to 2,000 copies and after that, commercial presses everywhere "from Waco to Smithville" got the paper out, Embree said.
The Rag became the first underground paper in the South. And it was, in the heady parlance of the times, "revolutionary." Sprinkled on the sheet-fed paper, among bizarre and lively Jim Franklin illustrations of armadillos busting through newsprint or, in the case of an anniversary issue, posing as a weird birthday cake, melting candles adhered to its backside, were stories about taboo issues the mainstream press had ignored the opposition to the war in Vietnam, the black-power movement, and sexual liberation, to name only a few. "There was the feeling that we were a part of history," Dreyer said.
Flying the Freak Flag
It's impossible to comprehend the significance of The Rag without recalling what Austin was like in the Sixties when the UT tower and the Capitol dome were the tallest buildings in town, and literal racial segregation was still prevalent. Austin was more a town than a city then and, like much of the rest of the country, was pretty damn uptight.
"All you had to do in Austin was grow your hair long and you were in an oppositional situation," said Dreyer, who had long hair at the time. "It was a statement." UT students wouldn't even go so far as to get off the paved sidewalks and stroll across the campus grass, Nightbyrd said. He recalled many afternoons when groups of hippies or "freaks," as they preferred would sit on the university's grass playing guitars and singing folk songs, while the Greeks and other "straight" students would stop and stare at them, "flabbergasted" on the sidewalk.
In that atmosphere, the "freaks" ran regularly into conflict with "straights," Dreyer recalls, so "you looked over your shoulder when you were walking down the street." It was common for people to get kicked out of a restaurant or store because of how they looked. Such treatment helped fuel a strong sense of community among Austin's nonconformists, a bond that hardly exists in the city now, notes former Rag artist Kerry Awn (Kerry Fitzgerald), now a legendary local comedian and actor at Esther's Follies (yet another nonconformist institution born in the Sixties). When Awn walks by Emo's on his way to work and sees kids in all black and wearing Mohawks waiting in line, it makes him think, "You know, it's really hard to be hip these days. Everything's already been done." The lens through which Austinites viewed life back then was a lot more black and white, he says. "Nowadays it's just so gray. It's so blended in, nobody knows what anyone stands for anymore."
In a black-and-white world, the equally monochrome Rag was an important vehicle of communication for Austin's nonconformists, whose ranks grew steadily through the end of the decade and on into the Seventies until the lines and the colors began to blur. "I think [young] people were fed up with the traditional ways of looking at the world. ... I think they saw too much hypocrisy," says Dreyer, who later started another underground paper, Space City News, in his hometown Houston.
The Rag was distributed largely at and around UT. Frank Erwin, now best remembered as the namesake of the SuperDrum, was then the notoriously authoritarian, right-wing chairman of UT's board of regents; in 1969, he and the board banned the newspaper from being sold on campus. The four-year court battle that followed went all the way to the Supreme Court and it ended with affirmation of The Rag's First Amendment right to be sold on campus. Former Rag staffer Barbara Hines, now a UT Law School professor and director of the UT Law Immigration Clinic, told her 24-year-old son this story when he questioned the validity of calling The Rag "underground," since the paper was perfectly legal. "It wasn't that our newspaper was banned in some country that doesn't allow these items to be printed, but at that time, there was very little going [out] that had an alternative viewpoint," Hines said.
Hines worked at The Rag as part of a group that included influential women's lib activist Judy Smith. While working for The Rag from '68 to '73, Smith started a truly underground birth control and abortion information and referral center out of a cubicle in the publication's upstairs Drag office. "At that time, it was illegal to do much of this, so everything had to be done in sort of a careful manner," says Smith, who now runs Women's Opportunity & Resource Development, a feminist organization based in Missoula, Mont., that serves low-income women.
The Rag "created a community for me. I think it's very hard to create social change in isolation. ... By yourself I think you kind of burn out and can't keep going," said Smith, who is credited with getting the ball rolling on Roe v. Wade in the early Seventies by pushing Austin attorney Sarah Weddington to take on the reproductive rights case of Norma McCorvey, aka Jane Roe. Smith said her experience with The Rag Supreme Court case helped her see McCorvey's situation as a potential legal battle. "It made sense that we could take our reproductive rights to the courts as well," Smith said.
Rag Déjà Vu
Looking through a brittle pile of yellowed old Rags on loan to the Chronicle from longtime Austinite Eddie Wilson and the South Austin Museum of Popular Culture, I'm trying to guess which issue is the one Steve Russell and his cohorts pasted together during an acid-trip-enhanced all-nighter. Portable computers and desktop publishing were still unimaginable; Rag staffers would literally type, cut, and paste the paper together every Friday, often in a frenzy, as most were either students or worked elsewhere or both, and didn't have much free time. Asked if the ragtag staffers ever found time to sleep, Nightbyrd quipped, "Thank God there were drugs. That's all I can say." I learned of Russell's adventure laying out The Rag via one of his postings on the Rag listserv, formed not too long ago in anticipation of the first-ever reunion for former staffers and other people associated with the paper.
Several dozen former Ragheads many of whom didn't overlap at the paper so have never met are in Austin this Labor Day weekend for the event. When I talked to Russell who will be here the current associate professor of criminal justice at Indiana University, not to mention former Travis Co. Court at Law judge, he was working on his syllabus for the approaching fall semester while listening to Joan Baez. "We were busy, that's for sure," he said, but he emphasized that dissolving acid tabs in iced tea before laying out The Rag wasn't standard procedure for him, even in those days. A dissatisfied Vietnam vet (Air Force) who loved to write, Russell came to Austin to attend UT. He started working in 1969 on The Rag, where he gladly participated in what he calls "the miracle of functioning anarchy."
Several former staffers referred in one way or another to the raw energy of youth, idealism, and creativity that propelled the paper through its 11-year, weekly cycle of brainstorming, reporting, writing, photographing, typing, drawing, cutting with scissors, and pasting with rubber cement. "If you talk about The Rag as a journalistic exercise, you're on the wrong tree," Nightbyrd said. "The Rag wasn't a calculation. It was a center of energy, and ripples went out from [it]."
Those ripples included the Sun and later the still-truckin' Austin Chronicle, the paper you're devouring right now. "A lot of people think, 'Oh, there's a silly hand-drawn underground paper.' But it's like throwing a pebble in a pond," Nightbyrd continued. "The revolutionary spirit of the time carried a long way." In other words, The Rag's tradition of challenging the establishment inevitably influenced Austin's subsequent alternative weeklies. For evidence in the Chronicle, see "Weed Watch," p.20, and "Workers Tell Council: 'It's Our Turn'," p.14, both feisty throwbacks to The Rag. Nightbyrd even credits The Rag with helping pad the Chronicle's bottom line. "The readers of The Rag are today the advertisers in the Chronicle," he said, "because they appreciate an alternative voice."
Nearly 30 years later, more than a few former Ragheads feel like life has come full circle. As Rag founder and reunion organizer Embree puts it: "People have full-time jobs, careers, whatever but I think their basic view of the world is the U.S. shouldn't be abusing its power on the basis of deception. ... Bush took this country into that war based upon lies." The U.S. invasions of both Vietnam and Iraq were based on simplistic deceptions, she said. In the case of Vietnam, it was the application of the domino theory to Southeast Asia and communism, the fear that if Vietnam became a communist nation, communism would spread like a virus throughout the region and beyond, Embree said. This time around, it's Iraq's mythical weapons of mass destruction and the Bush administration's lame attempts at tying Saddam Hussein to 9/11.
So while it would be misleading to say the Iraq War is directly responsible for this week's Rag reunion, it did help prod along the idea, which had been in many former staffers' heads for a while. "People are active still and kind of wanting to rekindle those connections," said Embree, noting that she saw several former Rag staffers at the recent MoveOn.org-organized candlelight vigil on the Lamar Bridge. The event was one of hundreds in support of Cindy Sheehan, the California mother whose son, Casey, was killed in Iraq, and who raised hell in Crawford for about three weeks this summer, during Bush's vacation. Embree can't help but see a parallel between Sheehan's protest at Bush's ranch and her own actions during the Vietnam War. In April of 1965, she, Nightbyrd, and about 15 other protesters went to President Lyndon Johnson's Hill Country ranch near Johnson City. As college students, and not the actual relatives of dead soldiers, they didn't have the public image of Sheehan and her companions, but like Sheehan and the others at Camp Casey, they were the first ones to protest the war at the president's home-state getaway, Embree said.
And with all that's going on politically, Embree can't help but recall The Rag. "You become aware of how vital that communication tool was." Sure, there's the Internet now, but it's just not the same. "It's not as visible. Everyone's at home on their computers." The Rag strove to be the voice of the activist and countercultural communities of its time. Like the Internet, Embree says, the small but feisty publication galvanized local activists, and also tied them to national and international movements.
"Those were great times to have lived," Embree concluded. "As hard as they were, they tested you. I think all of us were changed by those times. Not just by The Rag but the period we lived in."