The life of the underground press was brief but tumultuous and, if one goes in for that sort of thing, fascinating. It began in 1964, with the founding of the Los Angeles Free Press, and ended about a decade later with the emergence of an "alternative" press that was more attuned to the altered interests of younger readers. But while the underground press lasted it made a lot of noise and had, perhaps, a degree of influence: not so much on public policy, to which it devoted so much sound and fury, as on the established press it had come into being to oppose.
Certainly it deserves a thorough history and analysis, so it is a pity that Abe Peck has written neither. Peck is himself a veteran of the underground press -- he was a founder and for a time the editor of a Chicago paper called the Seed -- who now teaches at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. He has assembled a great deal of material in "Uncovering the Sixties," but he has not managed to work it into an especially coherent structure and he has not made very much sense of it.
The underground press seemed unique during its lifetime, what with its free use of obscenity and its merry disregard of journalistic objectivity, but it was actually in an old American tradition. As long ago as Benjamin Franklin and John Peter Zenger, as recently as The Village Voice and The Realist, there has always been room in the American press for an eccentric, unconventional alternative to general-circulation newspapers and magazines. Few of these publications lasted very long or prospered -- the most notable exception being The Voice -- but they added spice to the journalistic mix.
What was indisputably unique about the underground press was the sheer scope of it. Though not many of the papers recorded impressive circulations individually, taken as a whole the numbers were startling -- to the extent, that is, that numbers are available and accurate. Peck estimates that at its peak, in 1969, the underground press included around 500 papers that had a combined circulation of somewhere between 2 million and 4.5 million.
Almost all of these readers were college students or residents of academic communities. The underground press came into being because of the combination of four phenomena: The doubling in college enrollment between 1960 and 1966, the anger these students felt over what they perceived as injustices against themselves (Vietnam, the draft) and black Americans, the development of new attitudes toward sex and drugs, and the coming of age of rock music. This was a heady combination, and in the underground press -- the Berkeley Barb, the Great Speckled Bird, the Old Mole, and countless others less well known -- it produced a "journalism" that was occasionally as energetic as it was amateurish and self-indulgent.
It was a journalism that spoke almost entirely to itself and its relatively narrow, solipsistic readership. But it was read in the established press, a few of its reporters and editors eventually found their way into jobs on conventional newspapers, and a certain ripple effect took place. For better or worse -- the vote here is for the latter, but that's strictly a private judgment -- the underground press encouraged and hastened the tendency in the established press toward "personal" and "adversary" journalism; its very existence also provoked newspapers to provide expanded coverage of rock music and the pop world that emerged from it.
But there is to all intents and purposes no discussion of this in "Uncovering the Sixties," nor is there any especially significant discussion of the ways in which the underground press covered sex, drugs and rock. Peck got into the underground press because of his own political interests, and he remains convinced that politics was its principal raison d'e tre. He argues that publications that wrote primarily about music and culture (Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy) deviated from the norm, but they were actually an extremely important part of the overall phenomenon and to dismiss them so highhandedly is, if not irresponsible, certainly misguided.
Apart from his insistence on viewing the underground press as an almost entirely political movement, Peck simply has not managed to bring his history into focus. He does a lot of quoting from various screeds -- he is particularly generous when it comes to quoting from his own oeuvre -- but the barrage of quotations provides noise rather than analysis. Apart from a few pages about the record companies, he ignores the relationship between the underground press and its advertisers -- a relationship that became crucial as it gradually evolved into an alternative press mixing post-'60s politics with '80s self-gratification. "Uncovering the Sixties" fails to uncover its own subject.