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THE ORGAN READER
by Howard J. Pearlstein, Richard A. Lupoff and Fender Tucker
DANCING MY WAY TO OBSCURITY —
LIFE AT THE CHICKEN FACTORY
Howard J. Pearlstein
I CAN’T REMEMBER exactly when Gerard asked me to join the staff — I think it was outside the cabin where I was staying in Forest Knolls. Maybe. At any rate, I had to postpone it because I was supposed to go to Canada but the proverbial “one thing and another” happened and I found myself back in the Bay Area doing pre-screening and program notes for the First International Erotic Film Festival.
Three weeks in a darkened room 8 hours a day watching alleged porn films with Bruce Conner, Paul Lawrence, and the Delightful Debbie Adams, a true San Franciscan (“I don’t go west of Van Ness or South of Market”). It may have been that her sense of humor was the only thing keeping any of us from either self-castration or self-immolation on a flaming pyre of submitted films. Not only were far too many entries from people who didn’t know how to make a film, more than a few were from people who obviously didn’t know how to have sex.
Once the Festival was over, I met with Gerard in the converted poultry freezer that was the office, and we did a dance to establish my role in the hierarchy. Not the metaphorical sort of mental/verbal dance one does in the usual job interview, sitting in a chair and answering questions, but a literal one that involved lots of body language and movement, waving of arms and yelling and jumping up onto and down off of the long low 2-foot high table that covered one entire wall (for laying out the flats in sequence), spinning around, sliding on the concrete floor across the room and back — a dance. (But no dipping.)
By the time it was over, I was a nearly equal player (in Gerard’s universe, “nearly equal” was quite a compliment) and we were having a drink at Andre’s on Broadway and talking about their cook who’d hanged himself in the kitchen only a week before.
And then it got strange.
It’s important for people who never worked in print media, and those who have but are younger than 40 or 45 to understand how long ago 1970 was in Print Media real terms.
We’re talking about geologic time — the end of the Pleistocene Age — Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and the very last period of the age — the Rubylithic era.
If you made a magazine with illustrations, you used Rubylith.
First you typed pages on a typewriter (“Daddy — what was carbon paper?”) then sent them to a typesetter and waited until the typeset words came back on a clay-coated paper the back of which was waxed by the typesetter so it would stick onto the boards but still be moveable. Once type was set, editing was done with a razor blade. Nothing was EVER glued down before press time. Missing words or letters could be added with Prestype, but let’s not even go into that.
For art, you used Rubylith — a transparent red plastic sheet that was backed on a heavier rigid clear plastic sheet. You laid it over an illustration and used an Exacto knife to cut along the outline as closely as possible so the first shot of the plate would be black where the ruby was, and the art would be stripped in afterwards. Cut through the Rubylith but NOT through the clear acetate. After which, on press day, you ran the pile of finished flats to the printer at 6AM.
That was done for every page of every magazine published, The Organ included.
It existed in an interesting reality that hung between the traditional Berkeley leftist point of view of publisher Christopher Weills and the Eisenhower Republican perspective of editor Gerard van der Leun.
Most people thought that the photo of Ike over his desk was a joke. After all, he was a long-haired poet and lived in an Oakland loft with a somewhat magical woman (Kate Mendrey) who made extremely strange and wonderfully disturbing room-sized sculpture — how could he possibly tolerate, let alone idolize the man who gave us Richard Milhouse Nixon? And yet, he did.
And the dynamics of the stretch between the two perspectives created a metaphysical anomaly that allowed us to make a magazine with no discernible editorial policy, neither Left nor Right. There were criteria — it had to be interesting, not have been done before, be reasonably well written, and — ideally — cross at least one line of media taboo — but I don’t know if any of us even knew what an editorial policy was, although we had suspicions, but if it was what we suspected, we didn’t want one. (As you will see in the following pages reproduced from the original issues.)
In addition to Gerard and Chris, there was Jon Stewart who knew how to be an investigative journalist, even though his first love was theater, and the talented and toothsome Art Director, Stevie Lipney, who also did illustrations and wrote articles — a triple threat.
The office was in the basement of the old firehouse at 451 Pacific, Warren Hinkle’s Scanlan’s on the ground floor, and The Organ truly underground in the basement.
After the first issue, the one that was about sex, everyone said “Ok, we did that, do we have to keep doing it? Or can we do other stuff, too?” The answer was “of course,” obviously we could do other stuff too. It was the end of the 60‘s. In counter-cultural San Francisco, you could do anything you wanted — except admit to being a Republican. (Even letting it ALL hang out had its limits.)
We also found a genuine experienced proofreader, one Kayla Sussell, who was working upstairs at Scanlan’s. Actually, Kayla found us. Having wandered down the stairs to check things out, she kept visiting and realized she was enjoying the people in the basement more and more and the people upstairs at Scanlan’s less and less.
They say that anyone who actually lived in the 60’s doesn’t remember it. First of all, this was the dawn of the 70’s, and second, that’s not true. We all remember bits and flashes, meaningful episodes, memorable moments and epiphanous impressions that hang in mental space like tarot cards — archetypal images that strike deep beyond verbal meaning. The flow of sand through the fingers while on acid on a beach. The smile of a random moment that says: “Let’s do it.” The recognition of Ferlinghetti’s wonderful lines: “And in the morning you discover/ she has bad teeth and really hates poetry.” (Or even worse, she loves every word Rod McKuen ever wrote and needs to know if you do too.)
A hyperactive poet coming and going, his brilliance crippled by his bitterness at non-recognition and his obsessive hatred of Mick Jagger.
A theater owner who smiled and comped a writer from a monthly to do a review, even though the movie would be gone before it ran.
Trying to climb over the back of the seat in sympathetic terror after Malcolm McDowell asked his acquaintance (in O Lucky Man) “How much did you get?”
The finished copies of an issue moving down the conveyor belt at the foot of the 30-foot long web press.
Breakfast afterwards at the only 24-hour diner/ burger joint around — Zim’s.
Raw fish salad with cartoonist Greg Irons at Sam Wo’s, the irascible waiter, Edsel Ford Chung knowing us as regulars who knew the rules and no longer yelling at us as he did to all the new patrons.
Hearing someone spouting loud insanity from the street outside a restaurant in Chinatown and remarking on how everything stops when a madman is holding forth. Then returning to an exceptional almond custard.
Tense insanity glowering over some decision or other and that same above-mentioned Debbie Adams choosing just that moment to call on the phone from a bar in North Beach and tell us a Dada-esque joke about a hooker, a farmer, and his chicken.
Gerard getting a giant one-word rubberstamp (6 inches across, 1-1/2 inches high) for rejecting manuscripts. That word: “BULLSHIT”
Coming up with pseudonyms for articles I’d written, for protection, amusement, or to reduce the number of time my name would appear in the issue.
Probably the most significant contribution I made was bringing in Paul Bianchi — a rock solid deadline-savvy experienced Production man who could organize and execute without our heretofore characteristic dithering and depression. With him, the magazine suddenly had a firm foundation.
Kayla didn’t often attend editorial meetings, but she did come to one to pass along a suggestion from her friend Alice Molloy (editor of “It Ain’t Me Babe,” author of “In Other Words,” and founder of the first feminist bookstore in California, “Woman’s Place Bookstore.”) Alice’s suggestion was to do a section to be called “The New Right,” pointing out authoritarian organizations for what they were.
She had selected Scientology, Synanon, Krishna Consciousness, and Ayn Rand’s Objectivists. It was a great idea.
I suggested adding an essay about The Process, since I knew a bit about them, having spent time visiting their house in worry over a friend who had joined. I also had a fondness for interesting religious fanatics. And these fellows were interesting. Unlike American religious types, they were actually educated and they were viewing and presenting the Christian Jehovah, Lucifer, and Satan as a sort of Hindu-esque triune resembling the Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer trio of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Except this was more like Fanatically Ascetic Monk, Dope-Smoking Porn Star, and Sociopath.
Kayla was not able to be in San Francisco to see it completed, a death in the family demanding her return to New York for a while, but her instincts had been right — the section attracted a lot of attention. (Issue #5)
The Day of the Scientologists
I was alone in the office when the Scientologists showed up claiming libel. I had no idea what they were talking about — I had not edited the article, hadn’t even read it. I opened the issue while they were there, and looked at the photograph of L. Ron Hubbard with Stevie Lipney’s drawing of a box labeled “Scientology — Stronger Than Dirt” pouring soapsuds down over L. Ron’s head. The title mentioned the annual dollar gross of the Church and concluded with “. . . if you liked his science fiction, you’ll love his religion.” Kind of eliminated the option of saying “But no one intended to disparage your Church.”
They double-teamed me — a man in Catholic Priest drag, a BIG pre-disco bling-bling gold sunburst on a gold chain substituting for the crucifix. He was THE AUTHORITY.
With him, a pleasant bit of Scientological pulchritude in a modestly short skirt (pleated, not mini), thin white jersey top with a cardigan over her shoulders, unbuttoned and opened wide to display her significant blouse bunnies and thereby dazzle and distract me.
It was an obvious ploy, but it still was a distraction and it scattered my energy to deal with two focal points instead of one. (Or perhaps that should be three focal points instead of one, she having two of her own?)
After the Erotic Film Festival gig, I had become the only person I knew who really DID read Playboy for the articles. So, to simplify things, I ogled her charming bumps aggressively until she shrank back, put her shoulders forward and pulled her tan cardigan tight around her, crossing her arms and pulling out of the conversation.
So, left essentially alone with Father Bling-Bling, I asked him: “What do you want?”
He wanted a retraction. One concerned a claim quoted as having been made by a recruiter, that joining Scientology would enable a woman with a hysterectomy to re-grow her uterus. It didn’t matter if that had really been said or not — we could never substantiate it in a court of law. And their reputation was intimidating — they were considered notorious as nit-picking chickenshit litigation-happy suppressors of those who dared criticize them.
I took down the list of seven or eight items they wanted retracted, including misspelling “thetan” as “theton”.
Surprisingly, the priest was quite candid when I asked him about something not in the article called “Directive 45.” “Directive” might not be the correct word, but it was definitely “45” because it was an internal rule that said a person who left the organization, and was therefore categorized as “suppressed,” was “at risk,” meaning “if you see him, you can shoot him.” Or her.
His reply: “We don’t do that anymore. Not since the 50’s.”
That set me off-balance. I had been fully expecting a denial. Remember, this was the end of Nixon Era when interpreting an official statement meant trying to figure out what the lie was covering up.
Of course they had a right to the retractions, and when I next saw Gerard he decided that we should run a contest. The winner — the person who could write the most libelous retraction — would get a free one-year subscription.
An Incident at The Last Whole Earth
Stewart Brand put down a pile of money ($20,000) on the stage front and asked people to come up with the best possible use for it. Given that we were in the Marina, and the American Indian Movement was at that moment still occupying Alcatraz Island only one mile away from us, someone suggested we give it all to them. That suggestion came up more than once, but each time it was laughed down. Welcome to the New Age of Love, Harmony, and I Got Mine, Fuck You.
A woman I knew suggested we find the bestlooking man in the place, give it all to him, have him go down to the Tenderloin and find the oldest, most corroded, pathetic hooker around, take her home, do her, and then drop the entire twenty grand on her saying, “Best I ever had.”
I was approached by a well-dressed man in a three-piece suit who asked me about our editorial policy.
“We don’t have one. We work very hard to not have one.”
“It needs to be interesting, but that’s a standard not a policy.”
“So if someone were to write an article justifying child molesting, you’d print it?”
“Are you kidding? If someone could actually make a case for that, damn right.”
He walked away shaking his head.
A half hour later, he approached me again.
“You really would print an article advocating child molesting?”
“Well, I doubt anyone could actually make a case for it being a good thing, but if someone could, I’d like to read it.”
And he walked away again, muttering.
Finally, he approached me a third time.
“I don’t understand. You’d publish an article in favor of child molesting?”
“This is something you seem to have a particular interest in. You could write it under a fictitious name.”
This time he didn’t walk away — he ran.
This Is The End, My Friend
Finally, after issue #9 came out, it was over. Someone had dumped our entire New York distribution (most of the print run) in the East River.
The feds were pissed off that we’d proven them liars when they said none of the troops who were coming back from Vietnam were still using heroin. Jon Stewart and photographer Bob Footherap had gone to Treasure Island — an open base — asked the Marine at the gate for directions to “the dopers’ barracks,” and he’d said, “Down that way a block and turn right — it’s halfway down on the left, sir.”(Issue # 8) The dailies and weeklies then picked up the story and ran it. Since then, silent men in black clothing had come to the chicken freezer, opened the door, looked around, said nothing, and then left.
That was getting to the scary intimidating side, but not really much worse than the hate mail we’d gotten — letters with swastika stickers and crosshairs and words like “warped reptile bastard kikes.” It was only one part of it. Losing an entire issue and the income it would have produced was also a part of it. But we could have dealt with that, except there was something else that tipped it over.
Every issue had been a battle of decisions. Since we were limited to 36 pages, we had to decide what to leave out with every issue.
And now we were having a meeting and wondering what could we possibly do to fill up the next issue. Anyone have any ideas? Where could we find topics? Where could we find writers? And it was obvious — it was over.
It was time to end it. We had spent a year doing 9 issues, each one as good as we were able to make it, given our resources and limitations (funds, technology, time, our own levels of talent, sophistication and intelligence). Each one had been EXACTLY what we wanted to do. There had been no compromise.
But it was over.
We no longer had REASONS to do another issue.
Now, instead, we were looking for JUSTIFICATIONS.
Someone had to be the geek — it was me. I said the fateful words:
“You know it’s over.”
As soon as it was in the air, everyone knew it was so.
No one was happy about it. It was bitter and depressing and disheartening — we had been successful at what we’d set out to do, but it was just over and we all knew it was true.
After what we’d gone through the past year to do what we’d done, no one wanted to let it turn into just another magazine.
There were things to clear up, people to call, aimlessness to deal with, and paper to file, so there was more office work. Also, I was rebounding from a breakup with a blue-eyed honey-haired lady I’d met at a design conference in Aspen just a month or so before. She’d gone back to Chicago, and I was trying to find out if it was possible there might be more. (To be honest, when I’d first seen her across a room, I had known it: “This one is going to break my heart.” But fools rush in.)
As I was dialing, the freezer door opened, and in walked a dozen Cockettes (Issues #1 and #5). Not in costume, but still. Gerard had told them they could use the office for rehearsal. It was big — 30 x 40 feet and soundproof.
I had finally gotten through after trying several times, and couldn’t hang up — there were no answering machines in those days. They were on my right, by the wall, chattering and singing. I was turning away to try to be alone with the phone, but I was only 10 feet away from the chorus line.
And then, one of them said to all of them: “Shh, he’s talking to his girlfriend.” And they all stopped talking and sat down along the wall, waiting. Great. Dead silence except for me, talking. And it was weird. But even at that rather embarrassing moment, I was thinking “How sweet this man is. How sweet these people are.”
Makes me smile to think of it. Makes me smile to think of all of it.
And now, I can show this volume to friends (those who are still alive) to prove that I hadn’t just been taking drugs — they hadn’t seen me around because I had been doing something that was worth the doing. Something that still seems to have been worth the doing.
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