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Interview with Thorne Dreyer
Original Recording Date: 07/15/1976
Louis Marchiafava: Interview with Mr. Thorne Dryer. I’d like to begin the interview by getting some background information on you. Your days at the University of Texas. How did you get into the newspaper business – the underground newspaper?
Thorne Dreyer: Well I went up to – went to the University of Texas in 1963, I guess – uh, and I guess it was a very heightened time already. It was a time of anticipation, a time of sort of excitement, something was in the air, something was beginning to happen. The, uh, the civil rights movement was-was growing, and there were sort of these sparks. The country was really just beginning to come out of the long sleep of the fifties, there was that-that undercurrent of energy, and I had always been – my parents were very sort of open-minded and liberal – and I had always been, I guess, more open to different kinds of ideas than a lot of people, that are among my peers. And so I went up to Austin – I was ready, I mean I was ready (for) something, I felt this energy, and I was ready to move-to move into something. At that time I thought I was going to go into theatre – I wanted to be an actor, or a writer, or both. And…so I went to the University of Texas for awhile. I ended up dropping out of school, I dropped out of school a couple of different times. I never graduated, incidentally, from the University of Texas. I ended up living in Austin, for the greater part of ’63 through ’68. But during most of that time, was-was-was a dropout. In fact, it was time when being a dropout was sort of ..
TD: It was-it was-it was a thing to do. It was a time that, uh – if you really felt, you began to have a social conscience, and you felt all of these things welling up inside of you, you felt very useless in school – you felt tied, hamstrung. And so I dropped out of school—
LM: When? In your freshman year, your sophomore year?
TD: Well, my freshman year, really. I-I-I made, I guess I made it through total about two semesters at the University of Texas, it was all. And not even those in a stretch, because I kept dropping out and getting involved in other things, and going back to school, and dropping out again. I went to New York for awhile, and uh, studied theatre in New York—Bergdorf Studios—was up there for about a year, and then came back down. Uh, and at this point, my friends, the people I had known in school, and the people I had known around Austin, were beginning to get involved in this new kind of political, cultural energy, that was still very much a minority thing. There were still very few people, but it was a growing thing, and it was sort of the way we felt things were going, the motion was taking things, and I got involved in SDS – Students for Democratic Society – early. Really in ’64, I guess, and started. I got involved in the anti-war movement, various kinds of demonstrations, became very active in that whole process. My inclinations have always been in the artistic or literary areas, and I guess I tried to put together, uh, my political attitudes and skills, and ended up getting involved primarily in theatre, oriented towards political activities, and uh, and eventually The Rag, which was, I guess, the seventh underground newspaper in the country, I think, the seventh member of the underground press syndicate. And it was the first such paper in Texas, starting in the fall of ’66. Several friends and I, mostly the sort of core people, in both the political and cultural movements, we all got together and felt a real need for some kind of a publication, and there weren’t really any models for that kind of thing. Nobody had done it before. There were other underground papers, things like the Los Angeles Free Press and the East Village Other, and whatever, but none of them were really the kind of thing that we wanted to do. It was going to come out kind of community we were involved in, we really just sort of winged it—
LM: Who were some of these other people?
TD: Well, uh, Jeff Shero, who was later national vice-president of SDS. He started a paper named The Rat in New York, which was kind of New York’s big underground paper in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. And is now Jeff Nightbyrd, and edits a paper called The Austin Sun. Um, Carol Neiman, who was from Dallas, and was in fact the woman that I was living with at that time. Living – back in the early days when people started living together. Outside of the legitimate bonds of matrimony. Kay Northcott, in fact, who is now editor of The Texas Observer, was at the first meeting which we talked about starting The Rag, the meeting which we discussed – finally came up with – the name. Kay wrote a story, in fact it was one of the cover stories on the very first issue of The Rag. It was about John Economidy, who was the editor of The Daily Texan. Kay had been editor of The Daily Texan the year before, and the editor who had just been elected was, uh, a real militarist right-winger. In fact the first day that he came into The Daily Texan office, he had on his – he had on his ROTC uniform, they called him General John. General John Economidy. He was not real popular, and wasn’t exactly the, sort of, tradition of The Daily Texan, and I think that’s one of the reasons that The Rag was started. It was felt that there was a need for another publication. The Daily Texan had always been seen as being a limited and basically University controlled forum, and uh, we wanted to do something that we had complete control over. And so we did it. A number of people – Gary Thihre who was an early Austin, SDS leader, ran for student body president. A group of people got together and decided to start the paper, and it was an incredible process in the early days. As I’ve said, none of us had even really done that. We had had some experience in other areas, but we just, we just dove into it. And ended up, ended up staying up all night, for all day and all night, for two and three-three day stretches, just do layout and everything and putting it all together. But it ended up being an incredible cohesive force in those early days – pulling together political radicals, and sort of the new emerging cultural scene – the drug scene, which was really just developing, and ha-had heavy philosophical overtones at that point, it all seen as very important, mystical, and we—Austin in the middle ‘60s was one of those few places in the country where the cultural and political movements really kind of merged and grew together, and were in overlapped, and had this sense of vision, sense of hope. It was an incredible heightened sense of reality at that time. But, one other thing about The Rag, before we go on, is that, it was, it was interesting because it violated traditional tenets of journalism, and did so consciously. It was not – we did not believe that there was any such thing as objectivity. We always thought that objectivity was just an intellectual construct that doesn’t exist in fact. And that what we were doing, was, uh, putting our biases up front. And that, uh…we weren’t pretending to be objective. We’re not. This is what we believe and this is where we’re coming from. And felt that that, we certainly wouldn’t have wanted people to read only The Rag as their only source of information. But we felt that it was a supplementary source of information for people. But it was also a rallying point, it wasn’t just a publication to be read and to inform people, but it was also a magnet, a rallying point for activities, and it helped to make things happen itself. It not only reported on movement activities – and it was, I think, a general thing with underground papers – it not only reported on movement activities but they made things happen—
LM: Such as?
TD: Well, okay, one of the first things, we did a thing in Austin called Gentle Thursday, which was really a kind of precursor to the be-ins. It was before the other be-ins and other sorts of happenings, before those things had, I guess – San Francisco that the first be-ins were. We just, we declared, in fact I think the second or third issue of The Rag started to have these cryptic little notices that Gentle Thursday is coming. You know, each-each week it would get a little bigger and a little more specific, sort of building-building this sense of anticipation, sense of mystery, “What is this Gentle Thursday thing?” And finally what we did is we organized, and it was The Rag and SDS in fact, in Austin, in fact that organized the thing. Uh, organized a day for people to come and sit on campus, you know, the kind of flower-child idea that goes into that period, you know, “Bring your balloons, and your flowers, and bring your kids, and your dogs, and your musical instruments.” We put up signs all over campus that advocated various kinds of things, like “Go barefoot on Gentle Thursday,” and “Kiss someone on Gentle Thursday.” But the amazing thing-well, one, that the administration, uh, decided that this sounded sort of subversive, which blew our minds, and really was a surprise to us. They outlawed Gentle Thursday and said it could not happen. They banned it. And of course, this immediately caused this sort of cohesion and convalescence. And it ended up being a very, very big event. And what was originally conceived as being just a coming together on campus, an attempt to break down those traditional barriers of people – walking from one class to another and scurrying around – something that was intended to show people that there are other ways to live, other lifestyles and stuff. It ended up being a mammoth event, the lawn that day was just filled with people. There were musicians out playing musical instruments, and a lot of dialogue. It sort of helped to spread that small counter-culture that had just really begun to emerge and coalesce. It spread that out and gave people contact and I think was one of the first events on campus, at the University, that, that helped the movement to begin that mushrooming process that then occurred over the next couple years. But it was The Rag, to a great extent, that built that and made that happen. To come full circle there. And it was also true – a lot of demonstrations, and benefit concerts, and various kinds of events. It was advocacy journalism, you know. It basically said, not only is this what is happening, but this is what we think should be happening, and we think you should come out and do this on this date, and people did.
LM: Turn to the practical matters of The Rag, such as financial considerations. How did you finance?
DT: I don’t know. [Chuckle]. I really don’t. I don’t even…It was-it was so marginal. Uh, everything we did at that point was so marginal, and we weren’t business people, we weren’t oriented towards money. In fact, at that point in history, we had kind of a poverty ethic, I guess. We were mostly reasonably privileged, white, middle class and trying sort of break away from those traditional privileges, or whatever. And we didn’t think about money very much , and so it was very, very hard, to make anything work on that level. It was always just a skin-of-the-teeth operation. We would put together enough money to get the damn thing printed, and then we got out to sell them, and we sold advertising, and we’d usually just make enough money to get the next one printed. There never was a very, um, substantial cash flow situation with, uh, with The Rag, as I remember. And most of the people who worked on The Rag weren’t paid anything. Supported themselves by going out and selling papers, themselves. I mean, the editorial staff, everybody, went out and sold papers on the Drag in Austin, or on campus. Whatever, the first issue, incidentally, sold, I think we printed 1500 of them, and they sold out in about two hours. For one thing, there was a confrontation on campus. The campus cops came out and George Bizard, who was one of the people who was involved in starting The Rag, and was in fact shot and killed while working in a convenience store, in Utoteem, in Austin late one night. And at that time, a lot of people – it was officially called a robbery – but a lot of people were always very suspicious about it, because he was the most upfront – the person who always got arrested at demonstrations, and the person always got into conflict, the person who always at the frontline, and was always in the confrontations, that sort of thing. Uh—
LM: Unsolved murder?
TD: Yeah, it was an unsolved murder. And, uh, there never were – no body ever came up with anything on it. George went out on campus and started selling them right on campus, which was a violation of University rules. And we were very much into violating University rules, we didn’t believe in their legitimacy, and also it was a good way to attract attention. So, George went out, and started—immediately campus cops came out and said that he couldn’t do it. He said, “What authority—on what authority do you tell me this?” And they’d be completely boggled. The crowd gathered and everybody started buying papers. We attracted a lot of attention. And pretty soon the chief of the campus cops came out and some dean came out, and he just kept selling, and they just didn’t know what to do. But it did attract an awful lot of immediate attention to the paper, and like I say, it sold out. And we went back afterwards, and Larry Frothinger was the printer, and he had a small off-set printing press in his living room. And so we were printing—that was another reason that we could do it cheap—we were printing the thing, you know, in Larry Frothinger’s living room. So we ran back to Larry Frothinger’s living room, and, uh, got some more plates made, and just ran off another thousand. Started selling them again. It was really, pretty, just one step beyond that traditional mimeograph machine in the backroom.
LM: I’ve heard critics state that such newspapers would not have been possible by such known people, if it had not been for family support, financial support. Did that play a role in it?
TD: Oh, I’m sure it did to a certain extent. But, not really very much. I think most of the people who were working, pretty much full time on The Rag at least, really didn’t have very much money and were existing at a level that would be considered now at a sub-poverty level of existence. But at that time we were very happy, because we sort of were rejecting, I guess, a lot of the traditional material needs that we just didn’t—we just didn’t feel like we needed or wanted. So I think people really didn’t have—didn’t have a lot of money and didn’t care about it that much. I mean, I’m sure what you say is true to some extent. There was space, there was a certain space that we had that we were allowed to operate in, and part of that space was caused by the fact that even if people didn’t maybe get a lot of support from their parents at that time, they always knew that they could fall back on that, I’m sure. So I think that—that was a factor. But, basically, we, uh, it wasn’t like The Rag was supported by somebody’s rich parents – at all. It was supported in—just—we put it out ourselves and we made it pay for itself. It never made money but it always paid for itself. I mean, I mean sometimes we had benefits, and rock groups, you know the big, local rock groups would play, you know, whenever there was a financial crisis, and we were always, you know – from one financial crisis to the next – “Oh, no! We can’t print the next issue! What are we going to do?”
LM: You probably enjoyed it all, too.
TD: Oh, sure. It was a very exciting crisis. It was a crisis-oriented time. We thrived on crises. But, uh, you know, maybe some professor would come through with a chunk of money to help us out. We had a lot of support from individual facility members on campus, and that sort of thing. You know, some of whom even didn’t even support that much of the content of the paper, but thought that it was important that it be happening. Slipped us a couple hundred dollars one time or another – would help maybe gather together some friends to raise some money for us. But a lot of it was big benefits at the Methodist student center, the, uh, Hillel, the Jewish student center. And that’s were we had big rock concerts to raise money. Benefits were a very important thing at keeping us afloat back then.
LM: What about the mechanics of getting the paper out. I mean, the – how much investigation really went into your news stories?
TD: Uh, well, that, that, that really varied an awful lot. We’re still, we’re still talking about The Rag on this stuff, I think, as opposed to Space City!, where we were involved a lot in later days, later underground days—
LM: But I was going to compare the two later on, which is why I’m asking this question now about the investigative reporting.
TD: Uh, it was very spotty. Um, you know. I think in terms of, in terms of—we didn’t do a lot of sort of local investigative reporting at that time. More what we did was analytical pieces. We would report a lot on stuff that we had a personal knowledge of, and it would be that sort of personalized journalism which has now become very popular in major magazines. You know, with Tom Wolfe, and the like – Hunter Thompson. But, I mean, we would do very personalized journalism, in which we would describe something in which we were personally involved in, and I think in that sense really gave pretty accurate descriptions of stuff that wasn’t usually even reported on, you know, or else it was reported on from a very different perspective. You know, there was some research on things like, say, the Vietnam War. Some very, very highly researched, kind of analytical pieces by people like Gary Thirhe, for instance, who read every magazine, every publication, international journals, and whatever, put together some of the best stuff that was available at the time. Highly informed writing. So it varied. I’m sure we made rash accusations that couldn’t be backed up, that we certainly wouldn’t do now in a similar situation, but we also did a lot that was pretty—that was based in fact and that offered people information that they couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. And I know we had, we always had, contacts with sort of friendly people on the local newspapers, and news services, and television stations, or whatever, we always had those kind of contacts throughout the history of the thing, who would feed us information that, say, they couldn’t get in their papers, um.
LM: That is a very good point.
TD: Who would be interested in what we were doing, would come and hangout while we were doing layout or something like that. Um, always had that sort of relationship with sort of the working journalists. Not with the management of the papers, but—I think something else to get into at some point is the general way the effect the underground press had on—has had on an ongoing way on commercial-commercial journalism. Because I think that’s pretty substantial.
LM: How long was The Rag in print?
TD: The Rag, believe it or not, is still in print. I mean, I would not claim any relationship to what is still being put out. In fact, I was just involved with it for, I don’t know, I guess a year and a half, something like that, before I wandered off, to, you know, bigger and better, you know, whatever, things. But other people kept it going, and it—The Rag is very interesting, because like I say, it is still being published in Austin—
LM: I thought that was a period when it folded?
TD: No, no. The Rag never folded. The Rag always kept coming out. I mean there might have been periods where Space City! did – Space City! went through a couple of periods like that. There’s very little relationship between the paper that’s being put out now and the paper that we put out. And, and, I think after the first two years, it never grew, it never evolved. Uh, either technically, in fact it doesn’t look – the issues that I’ve seen in the last couple years don’t look as good technically, and the writing is not as good, and whatever, as it was when we were putting it out. But it somehow serves some function, an on-going function. And there’s always been that community in Austin that can continue to relate to it, and get information from it. It’s always been marginal, always had a small circulation to it. But unlike most underground papers—I mean there are very, very few of the early underground papers that are still coming out—I mean, it has to be one of a very small handful, that has any kind of continuous history.
LM: Well, let’s move on to your, uh, your bigger and better things. What brought you back to Houston?
TD: Well before I came to Houston, you see, I got more and more involved in sort of radical politics, and was very involved in SDS in Austin, and in fact, SDS nationally. Um, in the whole anti-war movement especially. And went to, went to New York, to—I was beginning to feel stifled, and felt like I’d done as much as I could in Austin for awhile, and wanted to go somewhere else and do something more. I went to New York and worked with Liberation News Service, which was the, kind of the AP of the underground of college papers. It was at that time a pretty vital operation, had, and is in fact still hap-still coming out, out of New York. I was involved in Liberation News Service for about a year, doing editing, writing, collating, mailing, everything. We all did everything there. But that, that, that was kind of fun, and it gave me a little more of a national perspective on everything that was happening, and was also a pretty highly charged place and activity. Um…
LM: That—Excuse me. That particular news service, Liberation News Service, who was behind it, who organized it?
TD: It was originally organized by a guy named Marshall Bloom, who was, had been elected, um, I don’t know, chairman or whatever, of the United States Student Press Association, which was the sort of traditional national students association, um, journalistic arm, the organization that all of the campus newspapers were involved in. And he was, he was a radical, and um, sort of had a lot of problems with those people, and, and I don’t remember what—there were some tensions or whatever. Before he ever began to serve his term he quit or he was off-ed or something, I don’t know exactly what happened. And he and some other basically campus newspaper editor types, um, decided to start another news service. Its genesis, it actually came out of that national student association scene. Then a lot of-a lot of, um—it was originally in Washington, and a lot of movement journalists from around the country ended up coming getting involved and then some people like, oh, Alan Young, who had been, uh, oh I think he had been with the, uh, The New York Times, I believe. Several people who had worked for commercial newspapers got involved with it, too. A woman that I was then was living with while I was in New York, Victoria Smith, who later came to Houston and was involved in starting Space City!, had in fact originally been a journalism student at the University of Minnesota, and, and worked for the St. Paul Dispatch. And, uh, went off, went to Chicago to visit the SDS national office, and ended up staying there, quitting the St. Paul Dispatch, and running the press shop in the SDS national office. And so she and I ended up going to New York about the same time. It was supported entirely by, um, the contributions of the individual newspapers around the country. And it had a lot—not just the underground newspapers, but it had a lot campus newspapers and community-based newspapers that were members of LNS. It was kind of the information central at that time for the whole kind of alternative media system. Victoria and I, we’d been at LNS for close to a year and were beginning to feel frustrated with being in New York, you know, New York was beginning to oppress me, and I was… I like Texas, and I really felt a little homesick, and wanted to come back, and missed putting out newspapers, too – there’s a more direct involvement, when you’re putting out something in the community you’re living in, than if you’re putting out something that then has to go to these other papers – and it’s a more removed process. The gratification is more removed, or something. So, Victoria and I decided that we wanted to get involved in something else. And Dennis and Judy Fitzgerald, who were two of the original Rag people, two of the original Rag founders and who I had gone to high school with. Uh, Dennis in fact is now an assistant city editor at The Houston Chronicle. Um, they came up to New York to visit, and we all started talking about, “Hey, let’s start another newspaper.” And Victoria and I went to a conference in Atlanta, a southern underground newspaper conference, and ran into a couple of VISTAworkers from Houston who were talking about starting a community paper here – Ken and Sue Duncan. And so we all sort of got together and we all sort of came back – it was a funny kind of conspiracy, you know, planned all over the country, basically with folks from Houston, we decided to come back to Houston and start a paper. So the six of us came back down, sat around, had a bunch of meetings, and got together with some people to raise some money, and started putting out Space City!. Originally Space City News, and later changed to Space City!, the name was. Because it turned out that there was a Space City News which was put out by a-an unidentified flying object group somewhere in the country [LM chuckles], believe it or not, and they actually threatened us with a law suit if we didn’t change the name, and they actually had the name registered. And, we didn’t particularly feel like getting into a battle with aliens, and so we changed the name to Space City!, with an exclamation mark. So, we just had, there were just a few issues that were called Space City News.
LM: What objectives did you have in beginning this new newspaper? Were they the same as you had with The Rag in Austin?
TD: Of course we were more involved and were a little more sophisticated in what we were doing. We weren’t just sort of diving into it as much. But I guess basically they were the same. Uh, Houston has always had, I think, a real vacuum in terms of news coverage—it still does, in fact. And we felt that there was an awful lot that just simply wasn’t getting covered, wasn’t getting reported on. There also at that time was—it was sort of analogous to what had been happening in Austin a couple of years ago. There was this community of people in Houston who were coming together who had counter-culture ideas of various sorts. You know, ranging from crazy LSD-taking musicians to, um, uh, heavy-duty ideologues, and then this whole, larger, mushrooming community, these overlapping circles of people in town, who in one way or another identified with this whole force that was in motion in the country. And we just saw a need to coalesce that. I think that was one of the purposes of the paper, and always had been one of our purposes, you know, in doing alternative journalism, which was to coalesce, to be kind of a coming together po-coming together point for all of these folks. And also, we wanted—it was a personally gratifying thing to all of us. It was something to do, and it was the best thing that we could see doing that was fun, and, um, that, that we felt was purposeful in terms of the movement that we were all committed to, and yet it was aesthetically gratifying, a way that we could put our talents to use in the service of the greater good.
LM: Are you still a member of the SDS in this town?
TD: Well, this membership was pretty irrelevant really in terms of SDS and in terms of the movement—
TD: Yeah, we’re still actively involved in, in radical politics. During the period of Space City!’s publication, SDS was really beginning to go through its sort of latter-day craziness – there were all these splits and splinter groups, and uh, and people getting into heavy violence trips, and, the, uh, I guess… eventually SDS nationally divided into the Weathermen, and the Revolutionary Youth Movement, which was a very dull, ideological, you know, working-class organizing-oriented group; both of which groups seem to us to be totally removed from both reality and from a real sense of what was going on in the country, and also removed from the original vision, the original thing that sort of, touched us all and gotten us involved in politics. So I guess—we were-we were still very committed to radical change, and, uh, radical political and cultural change; both in the terms of the way we lived our lives and the way we thought that the country should be altered. But we didn’t identify as much, and as the month went by, began to identify less and less with the actual organizational structure of SDS and other movement organizations in the country.
LM: The newspaper, uh… retrospective, looking back at it, appeared to be geared to a certain segment of the population, the youth segment, and yet there were many articles in there that would interest the general reader. But it appears that the tone of the newspaper, excluded those – for example, many people were uptight about the use of four-letter words.
LM: Certainly you were aware of this.
TD: Well, you know. I guess in the early days of underground papers part of our response to criticisms about, say the use of four-letter words or certain expletives that we used for describing police officers and kind of thing. You know, we always said that that was… [sigh] One that in terms of using four-letter words, that that was all—that that was the way people talked. That was the way we talked, and the way most of the people that we knew used that kind of language and that most people, in fact, in their daily lives, used that kind of language and—we were very much into not being hypocritical. We considered it to be very hypocritical to censor on any level what we were doing – to censor our writers, to censor our approach to things. And I guess that was a lot of it, we thought we were being honest. And we always felt that even if things that we did, in the immediate sense alienate people, that in the long run we were building another kind of consciousness, we were building something that-that would slowly, you know, people would slowly begin to identify with. And it was more important to live your life as you saw fit, and to live a different kind of life, even a radically different kind of life, even if it meant…I mean, the same thing is true with why do people grow beards and long hair and wear crazy clothes and stuff, when that turned people off. “Well, if you cut your hair short and put on a tie, wouldn’t you be better able to communicate with people?” In the short run that was true, but in the long run, I think that more people identified with, or at least a lot of people identified with, the movement and movement activities because they identified with our lifestyle, you know. Because it was kind of exciting. It was less – it wasn’t so drab, it wasn’t so dull. There were things happening. It looked like we had more fun, like we were-we dealt with each other in very different kind of ways than most people in society did. And we always saw that process as being a slow process. And, uh, so we didn’t-as things evolved, as Space City! in the later days of Space City! we really tried to, you know, I think we got our feet a little more on the ground, we mellowed out a lot. We really tried to change the paper and tried to change the image of the paper without really—basically changing the content that much. We tried to change the presentational form. And I think the paper we were putting out for the last year was a paper that was reaching a lot more people, and had we had had the money, and had we had not been caught up in various kinds of dynamics that were really established in the early days of the paper, we would have-we would really have been able to obtain a mass circulation. Um…[pause]
LM: No…That’s-that’s the point that I was trying to make. It seemed like you had the makings for a very stable, accepted newspaper in the community. Certainly some of the articles that I’ve seen in issues that I’ve read, were quite well done. It appeared a great deal of investigative reporting had gone into it.
TD: Yeah, yeah, it’s true. And, uh, it was always kind of frustrating—one of the frustrating things about putting out a paper like Space City! and it was always true with all of the sort marginal movement institutions, in fact, was that even though you did very good work, it seemed like you reached so few people. And I think that was a kind of frustration that a lot of us began to feel. We wanted to broaden our base. We wanted to…we all got tired of talking to ourselves. And-and-and the conditions of the country changed a lot, and the old style, the old approaches really didn’t seem to be viable anymore…they didn’t seem to work, they didn’t seem to fit into the needs of the times. And so I think we changed a lot of our approaches, we certainly mellowed out that language, and got a lot more into covering local news and doing kind of substantial muckraking and investigative reporting, doing a lot more cultural coverage than the paper had done—cultural coverage in a fairly straight sense: intelligent movie reviews, and-and-and…that didn’t always have to have a revolutionary perspective to them. We really wanted to become a major alternative newspaper in town, and I think there were just a lot of stumbling blocks from that ever being able to happen.
LM: Who did much of the investigative reporting? The actual legwork involved?
TD: Um, well…it depended at various times on who was around, because the paper…at different periods in its growth it attracted different people who were into research. We had some graduate students who’d come and do a lot of research for us. Probably the people who were actually involved with the paper and who went out and did most of that kind of work were Ken and Sue Duncan, who are now in Austin. Dennis Fitzgerald did quite a bit. Victoria Smith did quite a bit. And in the individual issue it just depended – like we did a thing on Rice University – on who runs Rice, on the regents—who they were and what their backgrounds were, what their business interconnections were, and that sort of thing. And some of the people who were involved in that were in fact Rice-Rice students-Rice graduate students. So it just depended, depended on what we were doing.
LM: So you did have some outside help then?
TD: Oh, sure. In fact, the, the number of people who were involved with the paper is fantastic. In the last issue of the paper we printed a-an entire back page composite of staff box, of everyone who had been involved. It took up the whole back page. And you see this incredible list of people, including various cultural and political and journalistic luminaries in Houston. It was also true at Space City! that several local respected journalists, people who worked for the local dailies and so forth would write for Space City! under assumed names. They do research work for us and give us information.
LM: Without mentioning names, did you receive any assistance from reporters at the [Houston] Post or the [Houston] Chronicle?
TD: Yes. Yes. Really throughout the history of the paper we did. And especially in the last year or so, we received a lot of assistance from people who were, you know, like I say, respected, staid local journalists, from everyone’s way of looking at things.
LM: Would they simply give you leads, or would they prepare a script for you?
TD: They would occasionally, like I say, write for the paper under a different name. Quite a bit. We had quite a bit of that kind of help. We’re often getting calls, tips from reporters who are getting frustrated because their—whatever media outlet they had—wouldn’t let them do something, or, you know, they were just angry and irate that something wasn’t getting covered, and they would help us research it and help us get it together. That happened consistently.
LM: Now some of the more conservative groups about town created some problems for you and your staff members, from what I recall.
TD: Well, yeah. [chuckle] That’s true.
LM: The question I was going to ask you you apparently already answered with that sigh—was it real, or did you use it for publicity?
TD: We were literally under siege in Houston for a long period of time. There was—either the Ku Klux Klan or at least people who use the Ku Klux Klan or the knights of the Ku Klux Klan as their front, were, I guess in the late sixties, sort of transferred their hate, their aggression, from, primarily from the black community to the liberal and radical white community. And it wasn’t just, um, arch of the new left kind of folks, which, to great extent cut across color barriers, but were-but they seemed to be more angry with us because we were somehow turncoats, we were, uh, nigger lovers, or whatever, so they seemed to be more angry with us. And it wasn’t just the Space City! people. Everyone, every movement institution, and liberal professors, and whatever, had many instances, have been documented in a lot of places. People who had crosses burned on their lawn, had cars firebombed – there were two different Space City! cars that were fire bombed, parked outside of the office. There were bombings of people who were advertisers or distributors of Space City!. Our office-a concussion bomb was thrown into the Space City! office. There was a period of time when, the offices, cars would pull up at the corner, when Space City! was located on Wichita Street and San Jacinto, and the cars would pull up at the corner and shoot into the office, or shoot into-over our heads. There was a lot of that. And it went on. It was especially intense during certain periods of time. Just the number of instances that can be documented are incredible. Um, and it was always our contention, and I think contention that was backed up, I believe, by the fact of the matter and was held by many respected local citizens that, at that time, the Houston Police Department under then police chief Herman Shore, was at the very least looking the other way, if not being actively complicit in what was going on. Because the number of times that things happened—one time a car was firebombed—no, one time, I’ll tell you what happened. One time someone shot, somebody came up and shot an arrow through the front door with a crossbow, was viewed by someone who was in the office, someone sitting upstairs in the office, immediately picked up the phone and called the police, and, um, the, nobody—I don’t remember specifically what happened that time, but I think a police car came out about two hours later or something like that. They were always-their whole attitude was always, you know, “Are you doing it to yourself for publicity?” You know, the question you asked in the first place. But I think actually the instance that I was starting to think of a minute ago was when a car right outside the office was firebombed and the staffers saw police cars within two blocks in two different directions, just sitting there, and then driving away. Not that anyone ever assumed-thought-that the police had actually done it. They were at least not actively checking up on leads, they weren’t following up on it. It wasn’t until there was a lot of publicity, including a lot of national publicity, after Pacifica Radio was bombed off the air, the first radio station in the history of the United States to be bombed off the air. Twice, in fact. It was bombed off the air twice. It wasn’t until that kind of thing got national attention, when KPFT, when Pacifica, came back on the air after being bombed, it was covered live on the Great America Dream Machine show and public television, there was a major story – there were major stories in The New York Times, Newsweek magazine, about, you know, the civil war in Houston, and it wasn’t until that happened that suddenly there were a couple of very nominal arrests, and, uh, apparently what it looked like was that the publicity was hurting the city and word came down from somewhere that they better crack down, they better stop it. But it was rough. It was really pretty frightening. It was also kind of exciting on some levels. Because we were always into that sort of heightened sense of us versus them, and if the Ku Klux Klan is shooting at you, that meant you had to be doing something right. But, still it was scary, it was scary.
LM: Toward the end of the life of Space City! there appeared to be a dispute within the-just among the staff members and one group broke off and established a rival newspaper. Do you what to throw some light on the events surrounding that?
TD: That was, well, that was kind of the culmination of a lot of processes, and it’s really very complicated. That was a time where a lot of people who had committed their lives to the movement, the social change, were becoming very disillusioned with a lot of the things that were happening, there were a lot of splits in various organizations around the country, over tactics, over approaches. It was a time of great frustration, because we had all been out there in the front lines working so hard, and it just seemed like all this repression was coming down, and there wasn’t anything really changing, and it was really a time, the early ‘70s were really a time of great frustration I think. And that hit just about every organization, every New Left or radical cultural or political organization faced those kind of problems then. The specifics of the Space City! thing were, one, that we had tried to really change the direction of the paper, we-those, all of us who were original people involved with the paper, were trying to move it in another direction, trying to keep it evolved with the times, with the needs of the times. Part of that meant that we were also getting a little bit involved and interested in electoral politics, and we’re not being quite as adamant or as stringent or as strident as we had been in the past in our opposition to involvement in things like that. And, there were some people on the paper that thought we were selling out, that we were just becoming wishy-washy liberals. And, um, that was one element involved. There was also, from my perspective, an ego trip on the part of one person who happened to be the business manager of the paper, and thus was in the position to, uh, and who also had the power to sign checks and dealt with the bank, which was something that we later learned—that your business manager should not also be the person who controls the bank account. You should have a division of responsibility there for safety’s sake. Well, we didn’t, and in fact, at one point, he took all of the money out of the bank and put it in another account. And there was a big, very, sort of…
LM: His own account? Why?
TD: Well, he just set up another account, you know, and just basically fought with the money. Because he just wanted to start another paper. He wanted to, uh—it was just an-it was just an internal split. But it was, a lot of it was a sort of a maverick group who had been involved with the paper in the later days, who were unhappy with the direction, and who were unhappy with sort of power situations, and so forth. But, uh, and also, those of us who had been doing it, who were the original founders of the paper, were so frustrated, were so tired, were tired of living on no money, were tired of that non-stop grind—because it was a lot of working putting out a paper like that, it really was, an incredible amount of work, and, uh, I don’t think we really had the energy at that point to put up a big fight. We decided that it was probably as well then, to fold the paper, let them go off and do whatever they would, and to stop and rest and take stock and look at things and figure out what we wanted to do with our lives. And we sort of had in our minds then of trying to raise a large amount of money and to start another paper that would have a different organizational structure and that wouldn’t be tied to all those kind of middle ‘60s sort of approaches, especially at organization. We never did it, as it turns out, although we did have potential money and a lot of interest in starting that type of paper, but we mostly didn’t personally have the energy to do it then. We were just very tired. It was a very exhausting period of time, from the middle ‘60s to the early ‘70s.
LM: Did the unknown authorized transfer of funds lead to the immediate collapse of Space City!?
TD: It had a lot to do with it, yeah. I mean, it was, the vitriol of that split had a lot to do with it, too. We just didn’t want to fight. So, we just weren’t into doing that, hassling with it. Yeah, basically the money was stolen. The paper was run by a collective of people, and the money was basically just stolen.
LM: Incidentally, to bring us up to date, how did the rival newspaper turn out?
TD: Terrible. [chuckle] It lasted a very short period of time, and then there was a spin-off from it, from some of people who had followed this guy, Bill MacIlrath, was his name, the business manager who had sort of coalesced a few of these people around him. And they got disillusioned with him very quickly, and they started another paper. The first paper was called Mockingbird, and the next paper was called The Bracksis. But, uh, they were both short-lived and pretty irrelevant. Too much of anything. I think, Space City!, the loss of Space City! was felt very strongly in Houston, and for a long time after Space City! folded, people would come to me and come to other former Space City! staffers and say, you know, “We got to get another paper going. Houston needs that kind of voice. I may not have always agreed with everything you said, but, it sure was important that you were in there doing it and now there’s nobody doing it, and we really need that.” You know, a wide variety of people that was true with. But we never, we never got it going again.
LM: Do you ever get, um, responses from some of the subjects of your articles, such as, one in particular comes to my mind, Mayor Welch? His land deals, alleged land deals?
TD: Well, Mayor Welch, um, was being interviewed after that article, was being interviewed on a television show by some people from the League of Women Voters, who was being asked about that specific article in Space City! And his response was not exactly what we would call to the issues. He said Space City! wasn’t worth wrapping fish in. And that was his only response to that. Basically people like Welch ignored us, and figured that was the best way to deal with us. We never got much in the way of actual reaction from people that we attacked in various ways in our publication.
LM: What impact has the underground press had on the legitimate press?
TD: Well, I think quite a bit. It’s not just the underground press having impact. A lot of it has to do with the changes that the underground press perhaps was the focal point for. I meant things that were set into motion at that time and were most visible in the underground press, but I think that it, the coverage of things was expanded a lot, the whole concept of objectivity was brought into question by reporters a lot. That it gave, it often gave journalists a forum outside of their regular media. I think it really challenged, it really challenged the commercial press quite a bit, to start covering things that it hadn’t been covering. I think it expanded the coverage. The underground press to was one of the first great experiments with off-set press. The off-set press was one of the reasons the underground papers were able to, to, uh, be as successful as they were, because off-set technology allows a lot more to be done a lot more cheaply than your older, traditional printing processes. And, also to do really sort of splashier layout, and I think that that’s something else that really had an effect on-on-on, especially magazine journalism, is the-is the more of a [unintelligible] approach to design and layout. Something like the San Francisco Oracle, which was an early underground paper published in San Francisco. Just a beautiful, beautiful newspaper. The content was very cosmic, Timothy Leery-oriented. There wasn’t really a whole lot to it, to read. But it was beautiful, and it was multi-colored and split font printing, and with type overlay, and a lot of experimental, a lot of graphically experimental stuff was done in the underground papers, which I think sort of paved the way for other publications. I also think there are a lot of publications that came out, like Rolling Stone, for instance, which is now a major force, a major journalistic force in the country, it really is. It’s got a very, very wide circulation, it’s important, it’s respected. Really took an awful lot of that whole underground press approach. Really, a lot of other magazines, things like Psychology Today and New Times and magazines that are sort of right now in that middle ground between what underground papers did and what traditional magazines did, for instance, and I think a lot of the ground was broken for those publications by the underground press. And there’s a lot of people who worked on those underground papers, who worked in that whole milieu, who are now working in commercial journalism. Who are freelanced writers you see published an awful lot around the country. Dennis Fitzgerald, like I said, is now assistant city editor at the Chronicle, although he’s about to leave and go off and work on some newspaper in Canada. And that happens a lot too; people moving on to other areas. As I’ve said, it’s that direct experience, that I think taken in the papers. I think there was a very substantial effect. It opened up, it created a new form, and it opened up a lot of new approaches, and I think commercial journalism learned a lot from it, took a lot from it, and changed a lot because of it.
LM: You’ve been familiar with—friends with many of the people I’ve interviewed – Tom Hayden. It appears that many of these leaders, the spokesmen of the ‘60s, now enter the mainstream, the establishment. Is this, uh, as many of the critics have said, a sellout, a maturing, an awareness of…?
TD: That’s a question that I can’t answer really, one I’m dealing with myself, because I’m one of those people who has gone through pretty substantial changes in my life in the last few years. I got involved with Democratic party politics, which I never would have done before because our whole approach was sort of “A pox on both your houses,” and now I’m, you know, I was a staffer in the McGovern campaign, and then on, got more and more involved in precinct and district level politics, your know, democratic party politics. I worked for the City of Houston for a year doing public information work, and I’m now doing public relations, you know, advertising kind of stuff, which I would have considered anathema before. Even, working with publications like Texas Monthly, you know, would have seemed like a slick, pop sell-outs. And, you know, there are questions that I haven’t personally resolved myself. But, I think we have mellowed. I think we realized that things are a lot more complex than we thought they were. Um, the times have changes in, just, sort of, what feels right. What works has changed. Mass demonstrations just don’t seem to be the way to change things right now. They played their part. I think the whole confrontational era was very important. It, you know, it got, it obtained the awareness of the people of this country. I really think we had an incredible effect on the consciousness of the country. I think most of the things we were talking about in the middle ‘60s, a very, very small minority of people were talking about and promoting and believed in very strongly—we were basing our lives on—are now believed by, or accepted in one degree or another by majorities of people in this country. When we were talking about the war, our analysis of the war in Vietnam, you know, we were considered to be crazy for what we thought, and now, you know, any respected historian or sociologist—even just the average man on the street—basically has the same, the same analysis of what was going on. We were considered to be paranoid when we talked about wiretapping and internal espionage, and stuff like that. And we’ve been proven not to be paranoid, but to have been naïve. We didn’t realize how widespread it really was. We didn’t realize how bad things really were. I think, you know, and the same thing is true with attitudes towards drugs, sexual mores, all of those kind of things that were sort of basic to our lives. And in that sense, you know, we’ve had an incredible effect, but it’s hard to sort of get a handle on it. You can’t quite tell, it’s still too soon, um, and it’s a really difficult time for people who were very much committed to changing their lives and were committed to building a new, a different kind of society back in the late ‘60s, because there was a period, around ’71, ’72, ’73, around in there, where it was very, very hard on a lot of people I knew. There was this very close community, a national community of people, who had this common interest, and common belief, a sense of togetherness, and that fell apart. And that was very disillusioning. A lot of relationships fell apart, personal, interpersonal relationships, male-female relationships fell apart. Um, partially because of, sort of, rising women’s consciousness and women’s anger, which touched everybody’s life, and we just went through a lot of turbulence and a lot of turmoil. And we’re just now really coming back out of it, and on the other side of the lobotomy we’ll look back on it and gain a little bit of perspective. And it’s hard to see, it’s hard to understand. But, it is interesting some of the things that people are doing who were ‘60s, committed ‘60s activists. Tom Hayden is a very obvious one because he’s gotten a lot of publicity—he’s run an incredible race for the Senate in California, for the Democratic nomination, which scared the daylights out of Tiny. But, um, Sam Brown, who was organizer for the National Moratorium Against the War is now treasurer of the State of Colorado. And there’s just a whole series of those kind of people who were really sort of movement activists who are now in positions of substantial power, and who have not changed their basic perspectives on reality, on change. I’ve come into contact, just lately, with a lot of folks like that. I’m pretty hopeful right now, while at the same time as I’m mellower, I’m more tolerant of different attitudes, I realize that change is a long-range process, and I think a lot of people came to that realization, that it’s just not going to happen overnight. It’s a process that we have to sort of—it evolves, and the methods and the tactics and whatever had to change with the times. But I’m hopeful now, and I know a lot of other people who are maybe a little more hopeful. Feel like even though in the short run we lost, we were crushed, in the long run, attitudes have really changed a lot, and probably in another five-ten years I think there’s going to be a heightened period again, a heightened period of conflict, of [unintelligible]– people are taking it easy – people, future shock, culture shock, from all of the change. It was hard, it was hard to take. And I think the nation was really on the verge of a collective nervous breakdown. And I think now people are sort of stepping back and – everybody, that goes for those of us that were on the cutting edge of that change, too. We were burned by it – we were very heavily burned by it. We’re sort of standing back and trying to put our own lives together. Realize that we have—our lives were really based on what we were going to do tomorrow, and what we were going to do the day after tomorrow. And we didn’t think about what we were going to do ten years from now, twenty years from now. You know, and so now I think we’re putting together – slowed down – putting together lives for ourselves. And that’s a very – it’s an important process. But I think people that I’ve talked to, people that I know who were activists in the ‘60s still have the same value systems. They might be confused, and some of them might be even a little more cynical. Certainly more realistic. But, I think that they have carried something with them. I think the whole question of what’s a sell-out is almost a moot point. I don’t even know what it means, anymore. Because things are not as black and white as we thought they were.
LM: Well, as the critics use the word, what they mean – this is my own interpretation of the term – is that, choose the more comfortable path.
TD: Oh, I’m into being comfortable. There’s no question about it. I was right there on the front for an awful long time. And it gets – it’s painful, it’s hard on you. It really is. I didn’t have money, I didn’t have a lot of things that I now want. And I don’t feel particularly ashamed of wanting those things. I don’t mind, you know. I want to be comfortable. I want to know that I – I want to put something together for myself. And maybe that’s selling out, maybe that’s—or, maybe it’s mellowing. Maybe it’s realizing that you’ve got a life ahead of you that you’ve got to live.
LM: Well are any other – are there any areas that I haven’t touched on that you would like to discuss—
TD: Oh, I’m sure there are so many that I will think about as soon as we’re through. One thing, that I would like to point out, um—one thing that I think was extremely important to the movement and is something that I think people that weren’t involved with it don’t have a sense of, and will never get a sense of from the textbooks and history books is that, is the lifestyle aspects, and the amount of personal commitment that was involved in it. And that – we spent most of our time talking about the newspapers, but it was true, with the staffs of Space City! and The Rag and the people in Austin that I lived with, there was just an amazing sense of closeness among those people. Um, and a sense that if you really believe in changing the world, you know, you’ve also got to change the way you live personally, and the way you relate to each other, and that it wasn’t just an academic movement, as I think many movements for social change have been in the past. It was just a movement that dealt with textbook approaches to change. It was something that also demanded – and I think this was why it was so hard on the participants, and why there was so much disillusionment later – is that it demanded a real personal change, and a personal lifestyle commitment. And, it meant that people were at times hard on each other, demanded a lot of each other in terms of living good lives and dealing with each other in decent ways. Um, and sometimes that got bad, sometimes it got too intense. And I think in the later days of the movement, it ended up people turned on each other a lot. And turned inward – a lot of movements and organizations turning inward, turned from each other. But especially in the early days, it was just, it was just amazing. It was really a beautiful experience, it was a wonderful experience. And the kind of sharing – I think I’ve said before, and I really feel, it was a heightened time, it was a heroic time. It really was. We felt heroic, we believed that we were right, and I believe—I think there’s very little question in fact – that we were right. You know. We may have overstated things at times, we may have been simplistic at times. But basically when you get right down into it, we were in the right place at the right time. We were on the cutting edge of what I think was a major change in the country and the world. And we shared that and we felt that in such an intense way. There was just an awful lot of wonder and of joy in the way we lived our lives and the way we did things. And, you know, we were really into not being elitist in our organizational structures. Space City!, for instance, did not have an editor. It was run by a collective, all of the people who worked for the paper had equal responsibility and shared in the various kinds of work that was involved, and that made it harder in a lot of ways—it’s not very effective to organize something. But it was an experiment. Everything that we were doing was really a kind of social experiment. Not only in the product that we put out, but also in the way (that) we put that out. The way we organized our own lives in doing what we were doing. And that’s, uh, that’s a very, very important aspect in what went on in that period of time. I think that—that also has carried over in ways that are important in the general, into the mainstream culture. There are a lot of lessons that we learned that have been passed on, that will continue to be passed on. [Pause] I don’t know. There’s certainly, there’s many, many other things that I could talk about, about that period of time. The changes that went on here in Houston, in our minds, and whatever, but I don’t know. Are there any more specific questions that you feel we haven’t touched on?
LM: Well, as you say, a listener will probably note gaps throughout the interview, where we should have covered areas, but at this time I can’t really—I’ve used up a lot of your time, and I do appreciate your generous contribution of it.
TD: Oh, I’ve enjoyed it. I just wish that I could have been a little more precise, and touched on a lot of things that I think we’ve sort of skimmed over. But I guess anything like this can never be very complete. But I’ll say this – I’ve been working recently on a story for Texas Monthly magazine on ‘60s activists that I knew, friends of mine, what they’re doing now. And found that to be a very frustrating process, because I began to realize as I worked on it how, how much there was to communicate, and how little I’d be able to communicate in that story, about what went on. And I always feel that frustration, you know. There were so many things that happened, and there were so many different aspects to it, and it really can’t be communicated verbally. You just had to—in a lot of ways you had to experience it to understand it – one. And two: if you did experience it, you still don’t have enough distance from it to really understand it. So, it’s a vicious circle.
LM: Well, perhaps one of the users of this tape will be inspired enough to go out and dig more.
TD: Well, we certainly hope so.
LM: Thank you.
TD: Thank you.
[End of recording]