Richmond’s always had the toughest questions to ask, but has never chosen to ask them, writes Edwin Slipek, a senior contributing editor at Style Weekly. Those who ask often are members of the city’s independent press.
Here? In the home of Confederate statues, massive resistance and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor? As local journalist Don Harrison, a former Style arts and culture editor, puts it, seeking to learn about the underground press in Richmond might seem akin to studying “rhythm and blues in Provo, Utah,” or “the history of surfing in Taos, N.M.”
Those are some thoughts that kick off a new book by Dale M. Brumfield that chronicles the not-so-mainstream side of local media: “Richmond Independent Press: a History of the Underground Zine Scene.”
Brumfield, a regular Style contributor, has been part of the alt-media world for decades. He founded Throttle magazine in the early 1980s and is a longtime collector of local underground papers from what he calls the New Left — though his political leanings today are conservative.
“It interests me because it was a history that was rarely understood,” Brumfield says. “All the independent Richmond papers through the years were so different. They had their own gestalt, their own reason for existing.”
Brumfield got his start in 1978 as a cartoonist working for the Commonwealth Times for $30 a week while he was a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University. This was back when VCU’s student newspaper was more independent. “It was really the only alt-weekly in Richmond,” Brumfield says, from the time the Richmond Mercury folded in 1975 to about 1981 — not including occasional handbills.
Brumfield’s colorful trip through time starts with the Beat-flavored news sheet the Ghost in 1960 and soon after, the Sunflower, a hippie paper from 1967 that printed drug-bust maps and otherwise emulated the Oracle from San Francisco.
Already there was an established minority press, the Richmond Afro-American, which had merged with the Richmond Planet in 1938. It lasted until 1996; Ray Boone had broken off to found the Richmond Free Press in 1991, which Brumfield believes proved too much for the Afro.
Style’s 31-year history isn’t covered in the book, Brumfield says, because it needs its own book. But other featured publications include the Richmond Chronicle, a hard-hitting, nonobjective, advocacy magazine, the Richmond Mercury, which practiced “pure journalism”— and of course, Throttle.
Brumfield met Peter Blake and Bill Pahnelas through VCU’s student newspaper, the Commonwealth Times. They began publishing one-shop publications — with names such as Rockets & Weenies — that included poetry and art from local contributors. In late 1980, they wanted a bigger product and Throttle was born. The alternative tabloid, which started as bimonthly, went monthly by the time Brumfield left in 1987, and teetered out in 1999. “That’s a record for any unfinanced magazine staffed solely by volunteers,” Brumfield says, with a laugh.
The idea for his book started with Brumfield considering how many acclaimed figures got their start in Richmond through the independent press, such as New York Times critic Frank Rich, author Garrett Epps, and underground cartoonist Joe Schenkman, who did “crazy redneck” illustrations for National Lampoon in the ’70s. “All these people nobody knew about,” Brumfield says.
He pitched the idea to History Press in Charleston, S.C., which had published a number of Richmond books. A year later, a newly hired editor jumped on the idea, narrowing the years from 1960 to 1990 and including all independent press, handbills and comics journals (mainly used in the ’70s).
Brumfield’s primary research sources included his own massive private collection, VCU’s Cabell Library special collections, and the University of Virginia library, which contains the original Bell and Howell microfilms from the underground press syndicate or UPS — a consortium including more than 500 underground papers from across the country in the late ’60s and ’70s. He conducted more than 80 interviews in 10 months while in grad school at VCU and working.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Frankel, the director of the School of Journalism at University of Texas at Austin who started out at the Richmond Mercury, told Brumfield that the police were trying to start a guerrilla war with the New Left movement in Richmond.
“The corruption in the Richmond vice squad and city government was breathtaking back then,” Brumfield says. “There were stories told to me by the editors that I couldn’t print. They were slanderous even today. They had the proof, but they couldn’t print them then because they would’ve been shut down.”
The city government, police, and the daily media’s resistance to the counterculture remained surprising to read today, Brumfield says.
“The Richmond Times-Dispatch was absolutely malicious, really hateful and smirking in the late ’60s,” he says. Interestingly, the Times-Dispatch predicted in a 1967 editorial that “repulsive, unattractive” hippies would grow up to vote Republican.
The book even has a funny old review of a hippie dance party at Tantilla Gardens, featuring the city’s first psychedelic band, Actual Mushroom, by Ross Mackenzie, who later led the editorial pages of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. (It was titled “A Mild Form of Hippie Evening,” and the reviewer refers to himself as “the intruder.”)
The details swirling around the media provide a quirky history of the Richmond counterculture, with the Fan as its epicenter. Also covered are infamous riots involving police brutality — one in 1970 after an Allen Ginsberg poetry reading at VCU, another involving streakers in 1972, and another chaotic scene at the Cherry Blossom Music Festival in 1974, during which a police officer badly beat a Richmond News Leader reporter.
Surprises abound. Brumfield discovered that America’s first female underground newspaper editor, Nina Sabaroff (now Katya Sabaroff-Taylor), began in Richmond in 1969 at The Chronicle. After filing six Freedom of Information Act requests, Brumfield found examples of pseudo-underground weeklies started by the FBI in 59 American cities. “These were dummy papers like the Rational Observer in Washington, D.C. The images were in this cache of documents and nobody had ever been able to find them.” The only thing the FBI did in Richmond involved a group called the Southern Students Organizing Committee, Brumfield says.
Bruce Smith, a founding member of that group, which had early association with activists such as the Black Panthers, opened a shop on Ryland Street that sold hippie paraphernalia and distributed literature — nothing violent, Brumfield says. “The FBI took notice and started posting phony flyers around the VCU area just to rile people up,” Brumfield says, noting they considered the group too much like the Students for a Democratic Society. “The FBI worked with the city of Richmond to cut off the electricity in the apartment where they lived. Just harassment.”
Smith later went to work for the Richmond Chronicle, which Brumfield describes as the most persecuted independent paper. Looking back, Brumfield considers the Richmond Mercury as the most journalistically sound paper, started in 1972. “These were Harvard and U.Va. graduates,” he says. “They did hands-down the best stories ever. Three- and four-thousand-word stories every week. Their good journalism killed them. They kept bleeding advertising. Richmond was not a big enough town then to fill those ad holes.”
The book launch for “Richmond Independent Press: a History of the Underground Zine Scene” is scheduled for Aug. 3, from 6-8 p.m., at Chop Suey Books, 2913 W. Cary St.