Avatar: Notes from A Sober Underground by Michael Horowitz
BOSTON- A cool breeze sways the trees on the tranquil New England street. Old ladies with canes gaze out among the gardens from their rocking porch chairs. Children dig sand, dogs snooze on the lawns, and churches toll the hours.
Inside a storefront that could just as easily be the local hardware store, studious workers type out messages, file note cards, and answer telephone calls. Tacked on the wall are a sheet on postal rates, a suggestion box, and a huge calendar of August with notes entered carefully for each day.
Brian Keating looks up from his desk at three teenagers milling about the office. "I don't want to kick you out," he advises them, "but we have a lot of work to do."
The "work" Brian is referring to is not, as the surroundings might suggest, real estate, insurance, or accounting. Brian is the editor of an underground newspaper - but an underground paper so temperate in tone that even the Christian Science Monitor has taken a subscription. Rather than gleefully mime the psychedelia of the West Coast's Oracle, the Avatar of Boston chooses to serve the avant garde seriously and factually. The result is a hip newspaper that disappoints many hippies. "Man," complained one, "they never bothered to pop their pill."
Not that it should come as a surprise to find Boston's contribution to the Underground Press a bit nearer to the surface than its southern counterparts. Hippiedom has never been able to muster full support from Boston bohemians, owing largely to a recalcitrant beat culture. The beat movement has always enjoyed a sympathetic haven in New England and attitudes in the region - even in the underground - are not wont to sudden change. It was in Boston, after all, that old English folk ballads were revived to give beatism a music of its own. The flourishing folk renaissance brought such people as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan to Cambridge, the city's esoteric academic suburb. To further entrench the burgeoning folkie phenomenon, local beats began publishing Broadside, a Cambridge journal for folk music devotees. Around Broadside gathered an assertive "in group" that dominated Cambridge bohemian life for some time.
With the advent of hippiedom, New England folkies did much to prevent the vinyl trinity of drugs, rock, and paisley from upsetting the beat applecart. But the southern hippie winds were beginning to blow Boston's way. Paul Williams brought his rock magazine, Crawdaddy, up to Cambridge in 1966 and outsold Broadside within a few months. Two rock halls, the Boston Tea Party and the Crosstown Bus, quickly surpassed the local coffee houses in popularity. By 1967 hippiedom was firmly established in Cambridge with a psychedelic shop and a mod boutique occupying key positions on Massachusetts Avenue.
But the hippies could never expect to master the Boston underground in the way that the Diggers run Hashbury or Comco calls the shots in the East Village. Beat sentiments lingered in the hearts of Boston bohemians and the folkies were still able to wield a great deal of influence. In deference to the local elite, the hippies stepped lightly. The result was a curious hippie-folkie entente whereby acoustic guitars slept with electric amplifiers and expresso coffee hosted tablets of LSD.
It was in this atmosphere of harmony that the Avatar was conceived last June. Heavily supported by the new merchants of mod, the Avatar was ostensibly a hip publication. But editorial slots were set aside for the editor of Broadside and a Harvard academician. The staff was recruited, not from Cambridge's plastic set, but from the more down-home bohemian community of Fort Hill in nearby Roxbury. The Hill was aware but it was neither hip nor beat. No less of a compromise could have suited Boston's schismatic underground.
How to convert this tightrope stance into dynamic journalism has been the Avatar's major concern. To begin with, the Avatar has refused to cater to the hippie community by itemizing every drug arrest and reviewing every pharmacological advance. "We're not a hippie gossip sheet," insists co-editor Wayne Hansen. "The hippie world is a very small one."
But the hippies are what's happening and the Avatar, if only to validate its raison d'etre, must be hip in context if not in spirit. It resolves this paradox by writing about hip subjects with a deliberate air of skepticism. Columnists with a considerable personal following take pot shots at a herd of Sacred Hippie Cows. Mel Lyman, for example, looks at the hippie love ethic and finds it a fraud:
"The Hip Movement is guilt ridden, it represents everything it condemns. It totally lacks compassion. There is more truth in a cop directing traffic than in a hippie preaching love, there is more truth in a soldier fighting against Vietnam than a hippie fighting for freedom, there is more truth in President Lyndon Johnson than in all the Learys and Ginsbergs and all the rest of the professional lovers in the world and I hope you hate me for telling you the truth because there is much hate IN you, oh mighty and powerful Hippie Generation . . ."
As for drugs, your are apt to find Leary propaganda countered with a strong dose of Avatar truth serum. Rants "The Itinerant Head":
"Is LSD dangerous? Yes. It may cost you your life or perhaps only your mind . . . The LSD experience doesn't necessarily lead to the mystical experience . . . LSD will not make the way any easier, it only makes it more apparent."
Even hippie hedonism, generally regarded as a fait accompli, does not evade the Avatar's sardonic mien. In his series "Scaramouche," columnist Dave Wilson criticizes certain disturbing developments in the sexual revolution. Wilson's credo: "Honest masturbation is healthier than a dishonest lay."
Ed Fox complements this caustic editorial package with a crisp, clean layout. Articles are spread two columns wide and are rarely jumped. As a rule, Fox limits the number of articles per page to two, freeing the Avatar from the unprofessional, crowded appearance that marks standard underground fare.
To match the realistic editorial spirit, Edward Beardsley and Eben Given have evolved what can only be described as a non-psychedelic school of hip art. Every two weeks the pair turn out a front cover poster, a back cover poster, and a center spread depicting one of the Seven Virtues. The posters are semi-abstract, easily recognizable, but prone to a certain amount of linear distortion.
"We didn't want to jump on the hippie bandwagon," Beardsley explains. "There's a wider audience than hippiedom. We try to communicate with tools all people can understand. We know the value of order. We come off graphically as trying to assume responsibility for communication."
Beardsley criticizes underground artists for fantasizing existence. "What about reality?" he asks. "The reality of ice-cream and singing on the porch Saturday night."
Maybe there wasn't singing on the porch, but when last seen the Avatar office looked as prosaic as the region's cream pie. Nestled securely on a residential street 15 blocks from Harvard University, the Avatar seemed only slightly hipper than the Atlantic Monthly across the river. Given the customs of New England, however, it somehow all made sense. The underground gets its newspaper - but the Cabots and God go unscathed.