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THE ORGAN READER
by Howard J. Pearlstein, Richard A. Lupoff and Fender Tucker
JUST WHICH ORGAN DID YOU HAVE IN MIND?
Richard A. Lupoff
THE ORGAN WAS a short-lived periodical of what is loosely known as “the Sixties,” although its actual publication dates were July, 1970 to July, 1971. Its physical presentation was the “folded tabloid” format popular in its era, used most notably by Rolling Stone but also at various times by Crawdaddy, Changes, Stormy Weather and many others. Covers were printed on good quality stock which retains its whiteness after nearly forty years. Interior pages were printed on lower-grade newsprint, now beginning to turn brown and become brittle.
Standard issue length was 36 pages, with a cover price of fifty cents. Covers were printed in two colors. Interiors were all black-and-white. This is regrettable, as interior artwork was extensive and sometimes of excellent quality, including a double-page poster in each issue and full-page cartoon strips by leading underground artists of the day including R. Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, and Greg Irons. There was even a two-page science fiction comic strip, copyrighted in the name of William M. Gaines, the late publisher of the famous EC Comics line. No prior publication data was furnished, and it is likely that the story was a leftover from the heyday of EC Comics in the 1950s.
For most of The Organ’s lifetime the publisher was listed as Christopher Weills. Editor-in-chief was Gerard van der Leun. Associate editors were Jon Stewart (not the television host of The Daily Show) and Howard Pearlstein.
Although the office address of The Organ is listed in each issue as a post office box in Berkeley, California, the actual editorial and production offices were located in a cavernous building located at the foot of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. A former poultry-processing plant, the building was widely known as “the Chicken Factory.” The smell of avian blood and entrails had so permeated the concrete floors and interior walls of the building that their odor was never absent. At least, such is my recollection. My friend Howard Pearlstein tells me that there was no such odor. I must be creatively editing my memories. Such things happen.
In the San Francisco wintertime the Chicken Factory was moist, dank, and bone-chillingly cold. In summer it was stifling hot and it stank. Still, in the spirit of the era a young staff — mostly in their twenties, with a few old-timers in their thirties — worked and fought with enthusiasm.
From its first issue The Organ was confused about its own identity, nor were matters clear to any newsstand browser who picked up a copy. Was The Organ a sex paper or a music journal? The “O” in the logo of the first issue had an arrow rising at one o’clock and a plus sign at six — combining the astrological symbols for Mars and Venus — male and female. A full-page photo showed a nude male and female sharing their tongues beside a pond. The top of the page blazoned THE COCKETTES / ALLEN GINSBERG / S. CLAY WILSON. Not a bad lineup of features: a calculatedly outrageous San Francisco based cross-dressing theater group, a poet-hero of the counterculture, and a talented underground cartoonist who specialized in violent and sexually-charged scenes of biker gangs and pirates.
Anyone who made it past that front cover was confronted with a huge tabloid-size photo of a Cockette — a bearded male in lipstick and painted eyebrows, Carmen Miranda tutti-frutti headgear, beads, bangles, feathers and tattoos. The accompanying report is a piece of relatively straight journalism that leads to a two-page jump spread of semi-nude photos of the Cockettes’ stage show. The essay ends with something of a polemic:
The Cockettes, however, are neither an act nor a review. In fact, their greatest danger lies in the quite present possibility of becoming ‘disciplined’ performers, developing standardized bits, and evolving a star system within their own group. This can happen through over-exposure or rapid success, either of which are traps that the Cockettes should try to recognize and avoid. For the Cockettes could not exist in the world of established performers, because, ultimately, the Cockettes are sexual outlaws. It is highly doubtful whether any of America’s major sexual organizations — the Daughters of Bilitis, the San Fernando Valley Swingers, or the Mattachine Society — would approve of the Cockettes. The Cockettes bear no resemblance to organized sexuality.
And if the Cockettes are political, they are political in the way that every public act is a political act. Their politics are contained and expressed within their rampant sexuality. They fuck with minds and fuck them well.
Thus, The Organ was launched with a mixture of warped libido, in-your-face outrageousness, and Sixties-style revolutionary fervor.
My own connection with the magazine didn’t begin for a while. In 1970 I had left a straight job in the computer business after twelve years of corporate upward mobility. I actually had a pretty good career going. I was making movies, writing and directing ’em, for use within the company. But this wasn’t what I really wanted to do with my life, and as year faded into year I became increasingly desperate to make a break with the world of corporate policy manuals, departmental meetings, and annual evaluation reports.
For a while, domiciled in a Hudson Valley exurb of New York, I lived a double life. Monday through Friday I played the role of exurban white-collar worker, rising at regular hours, donning suit and tie, kissing my wife and children goodbye, and heading off to the office. I was a regular Ward Cleaver!
Came Friday night, Pat and I would have arranged for a weekend babysitter and our other selves would emerge. We would head for Manhattan and spend our weekend on the seacoast of Bohemia. It wasn’t just the world of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll — although there was surely a good deal of that — it was more the world of intellectual and esthetic freebooting. It was the world of music and literature and some radical politics. It was hugely liberating, exhilarating, and momentarily fulfilling.
But come Sunday night it was back to the big house in the country, farewell for five days to the friends and to the other world we had come to love.
In that era, as part of my second life, I even had a second career. I worked in odd hours as an editor at Canaveral Press, a small concern located on New York’s legendary “book row” — Fourth Avenue. I also wrote for a variety of off-beat publications. I scripted a comic strip that was illustrated by cartoonist Steve Stiles and ran briefly in The East Village Other’s occasional comic supplement, Gothic Blimp Works. I did a lot of music journalism for Crawdaddy.
But that kind of schizophrenic lifestyle could last for only so long, and in 1970 Pat and I sold our house, packed up our kids and dogs and cats and books and records, and headed for the West Coast. Gone, among other elements of our former existence, were my regular paychecks. I was about to learn the painful lessons of the free lance’s life.
Starting bright and early I barged into the editorial offices of one periodical after another, looking for assignments. I had some credentials. These included a portfolio of clippings from East Coast magazines. And by now my first couple of books had been published. I picked up occasional guest-lecture gigs at local universities, and taught courses at a couple. I even fell into a teaching job at San Quentin State Prison — one of the more vivid semesters I have ever survived.
I was supposed to set up a West Coast office for Crawdaddy and had even begun hiring a staff when the parent magazine went through one of its periodical upheavals and the whole plan went glimmering. I wrote for newspapers including The Washington Post and The San Francisco Chronicle, became resident music critic at Ramparts magazine, and free lanced for any number of short-lived publications with names like Earth, SunDance, and Night Times. All of them were supposed to pay me and some of them actually did.
And then I discovered The Organ.
In fact my situation was far from unusual. Most of the staff of The Organ, I discovered, had stories comparable to my own. This wasn’t a bunch of scruffy kids playing at publishing. These were an aggregation of intelligent, talented, dedicated writers and editors and designers and photographers. Almost everybody had abandoned a promising career in either the corporate or the academic world, hoping to find an occupation more meaningful and more rewarding than piling up dollars or competing for fellowships.
Working for The Organ was closer to a straight job than you might think. There were assignments to be filled, deadlines to be met, and (for me, at least) editors to satisfy. In other ways, though, this new life was worlds away from the one I had left behind. Certainly there was no “work uniform” — suit, white shirt and “quiet” tie for males; modest skirt, hose, and “pumps” for females. We wore jeans or khakis and tee shirts or sweatshirts or whatever we felt like. Office hours were pretty irregular. But of course I was outside talent, not staff at The Organ.
One of my first pieces in The Organ was a feature on Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen. By a lucky break, the Commander (George Frayne) and the rest of that fine band shared a house not far from my own. It might be a shrine today if it had not been torn down to put up a parking lot. I visited the Commander’s house, drank some wine, imbibed some other substances, and taped an interview. The jovial Commander himself was a huge, beefy, muscular man, a former lifeguard. Other members of the band were an imposing looking bunch. My interview must have been a pretty good one because it not only ran in The Organ, it was reprinted in a publicity booklet by the Commander’s record company.
A few months later my masters at The Organ asked me to interview the great Jerry Lee Lewis, who was booked into the Corral Club, an establishment in San Jose. On the appointed night my beloved spouse and I, along with photographer Michael Zagaris, found the way to San Jose and located the establishment.
The parking lot was composed of blowing dirt and pebbles. Most of the vehicles there were pickup trucks, although a section reserved for motorcycles was filled with monster hogs. The building was a combination of rustic wood and garish neon.
Michael and Pat and I made our way inside. Looking around, we realized that this was a classic redneck establishment. Male customers in cowboy regalia, females with very big hair and lots of sparkles. Overheard conversation seemed to consist mainly of discussions of multiple divorces. There was plenty of serious drinking going on.
Clearly, this was not the kind of music venue we were accustomed to in San Francisco or Berkeley. To be honest, I was seriously frightened. Here we were, dressed in what had to pass for hippie haute couture, huddled together in the middle of a very hostile environment.
At this point, half a dozen familiar figures strode into the club. They were none other than Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen. They sat down in formation around Michael and Pat and me. Nobody lifted a finger.
After the show the Organ delegation made their — our — way to the dressing room. We met Jerry Lee Lewis and his sister, Linda Gail Lewis. She was tall and willowy, wearing gray velvet shorts and a white satin shirt. I did my interview with Jerry Lee but I must confess that Linda Gail made a lasting impression on me.
The Organ was a leading light of what was then known as “the counterculture,” but nonconformist attitudes notwithstanding, it had to get to the printer on time. One night long after our children were asleep and Pat and I had retired to our own room, the phone rang. I picked it up groggily, noting that my bedside clock read 1:30 AM, and heard the weary voice of Gerard van der Leun.
“We’re putting the issue together. It has to go to the printer first thing in the morning. We need some copy cut, and everybody is just too exhausted to do it. Can you come in and lend a hand?”
Pat and I dragged ourselves out of bed and pulled on some clothing. Our oldest kid was approaching puberty and was a thoroughly responsible youngster. We felt we could leave him in charge of his sleeping siblings for a couple of hours. We climbed into our Volvo station wagon, crossed the Bay Bridge, and parked at the Chicken Factory.
Organ had obtained a piece by Bob Shea, an old East Coast friend of ours, and Robert Anton Wilson, already regarded in some circles as a burgeoning guru. Shea and Wilson had worked together for Hugh Hefner at Playboy. They came away from that experience as conspiracy mavens, resulting eventually in a series of books starting with the now-classic Illuminatus Trilogy. The layouts for their Organ essay had been made and the article was too long by a couple of column-inches. There was no way to set new type at the office and no time to have it done in the morning. The article had to be cut. Literally. Gerard handed me a repro proof and a razor blade and told me what needed to be done.
The article was duly shortened and pasted up. Pat and I got back in the Volvo and returned to our peacefully slumbering household. The Organ got to the printer in the morning and all was well.
In due course the ninth and final issue appeared. There was talk of continuing The Organ but nothing came of it. Howard’s theory, in retrospect, is that The Organ had run out of creative drive and it was time to pack it in. My own observation was more practical. The financial well had run dry and while circulation and income projections were favorable, there was just no way to continue. Which theory was the more accurate? Deponent knoweth not.
People drifted off in various directions. Chris Weills stayed in the publishing racket and now produces slick sports periodicals. Gerard went on to create City magazine in San Francisco, then to the semi-slick Earth magazine, book publishing (Houghton Mifflin), and back to the world of periodicals, working for Penthouse and Omni. Howard answered Gerard’s request to come in at City Magazine as an Associate and then Managing Editor (writing articles, art reviews, music reviews, and such, although writing the Tube section under the nom d’couch potato Tao Chu Kwan was his favorite) then spent the next decades wandering through this and that as a museum curator, ice cream maker, botanical products tech researcher, Chinese Medicine Editor, and finally general medical literature database editor. He is now retired from that job and has become a dealer in rare and collectible books. Michael Zagaris still works with his camera; his credit line appears in local and national publications with regularity.
And I keep writing books, achieving a small degree of fame and no fortune whatever.
Was The Organ worth the effort? Does the material we turned out nearly forty years ago merit revival? I think it does. Just look at the bylines on the table of contents of The Organ Reader. It’s hard to imagine some of those talents writing and photographing and drawing for a rough-textured, irreverent little paper produced in a dank warehouse-like structure called the Chicken Factory, that paid them a pittance for their efforts.
But the material holds up. It does not deserve to be lost, and thanks for Fender Tucker and Ramble House, it is here to astonish a new generation of readers.
Turn the page. Open your mind. Think. You’ll have to decide whether to bomb it or kiss its ass.
Richard A. Lupoff
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