I was a Yippie. Upon graduating from High School and asking that age-old question “What do I do with my life?” I decided to be part of the Youth International Party! My life plans had an expiration date that Pete Townshend might have approved of when writing “My Generation.”
Like Jerry Rubin, I’ve gone through some changes since, although I recently called one of my projects Steal This Singularity (after Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book), so maybe I didn’t change enough.
This is an insanely great book. A mix of author bio and oral history, it’s also a visual treasure trove with lots of archival moments from Jerry’s own. Physically, it’s about the size of New Jersey. And it has a lovely comprehensible story arc that — among other things — might make you feel what it’s like to believe the revolution had come; and then it had gone without bringing about a season of joy and total anarcho-communist transformation (or executions) as was expected by a few of us. And then, what do you for your next act?
If you were Jerry, you exaggerated your conversion from Yippiedom to Yuppiedom — because that’s the sort of clear narrative the media likes, and because he wanted to do cool things. At the same time, he did want to make money, so maybe he wasn’t exaggerating that much.
Anyway, the book has it all. John and Yoko during their political period. Bob Dylan being elusive but friendly. Jerry’s competitive friendship with the more legendary, fellow Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman. It has Black Panthers, the Weather Underground and all the women who didn’t get enough credit — including Jerry’s girlfriend during the thick of the late ‘60s, Nancy Kurshan — during a time when several radical leftist men became pop stars
In addition to Did It! From Yippie To Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, An American Revolutionary, Pat Thomas is the author of Listen, Whitey! The sights & sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 and consulted on the essential film history of the Black Panther Party, The Black Panthers: The Vanguard of the Revolution.
I interviewed him via email.
R.U.: Aside from the fact that there hadn’t yet been a biography – and so many about Abbie Hoffman — what attracted you to Jerry Rubin’s story? You were too young during the Yippie heyday to be a part of it. (Pat Thomas is 53 years old)
PAT THOMAS: My brother was 9 years older than me. He brought Steal This Book into the house in the early 70s – I gravitated toward it despite not even being a teenager yet. I also started listening to rock music several years before my friends did (again, because of my brother). My ‘day job’ is working for folks like the estate of Allen Ginsberg, reissuing lost vintage 1960s and 70s recordings on CD and that sort of thing — so I’m into chronicling the counterculture. Jerry’s story had never been told and needed to be told — before everyone who knew him was dead.
RU: I feel like people were more alive from around 1968 – 1971, like it’s an energy that’s impossible to recapture. Of course, I was in my middle and late teens. Do you have that sense, from your generational perspective? Did you ever believe in an inevitable revolution that would be full of joy and spontaneity?
PT: I love this: “I feel like people were more alive from around 1968 – 1971” – because I was just talking with another journalist — and he asked me the difference between those “alive” people of the 60s vs. young people in the 80s — and I told him that 80s people “were less inspired, more coddled, less interesting.” Never thought of a revolution of joy — not a bad idea!
RU: I’m one of those typical people who thought of Abbie as the sexy charismatic genius and Jerry as kind of awesome but not quite Abbie. I still think that’s true. Abbie was a little more extraordinary. But that may have made Jerry’s story more relatable. He was kind of a mensch. Any thoughts on this?
PT: Sure, Abbie had more charisma and was funnier — but Rubin may have been a bit more book smart and better organized. They both had incredible survival skills — but yeah, Jerry’s story is more typical of most baby boomers. They went from being rebels in the 60s — to ‘finding themselves’ in the 70s to putting on a suit & tie in the 80s — but keep in mind, Jerry was always a leftie (even during his Yuppie phase), was a liberal Democrat wearing a tie, much like Tom Hayden was. At times, Jerry played the straight man (sorta) to Abbie’s wilder antics — but Jerry was very capable of being inspired and stirring up the shit as well.
RU: Do you run into a lot of younger people who not only never heard of Jerry but never heard of the Yippies? (I mean, the sort of people who should know about it all.)
PT: Well, Hoffman’s name is better known in 2017, some youngsters don’t know who the Yippies were, but might recall hearing about the Chicago 8 in history class, maybe. But overall, folks under the age of 45 probably are clueless. Yet, another reason I needed to write the book — and keep in mind, my book isn’t just Jerry’s story — it’s partly the overall arc of baby boomers in general, it’s a universal story in many ways.
RU: There’s some bashing of the “celebrity left” these days. Not only was Jerry a celebrity, but the bio has its celebrity aspect, with Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger and particularly John Lennon and Yoko Ono. What would you say about that?
PT: Rubin didn’t just hook up with John & Yoko because they were famous — they had some serious plans to throw Nixon out of the White House. Many books have been written about Lennon, but few of them do what I did. I tracked down the people that were part of the Rubin-Lennon-Ono axis and dug deep into what they were trying to do leading up to the 1972 election campaign. Most fans hate Lennon’s political songs, I love ‘em! Also, the 1970s were an era when you generally had to do something interesting (and work hard) to be a celebrity — nowadays, if you tweet from your couch and say dumb shit… hey, you’re a celeb!
RU: I was so happy to read that full story of Lennon/Ono and the YIPs, having known bits of it. Anyway, Jerry did enjoy celebrity too. I loved the story of him returning to his hometown of Cincinnati and having himself paged at the airport. I think it’s awfully puritanical not to let yourself enjoy celebrity — if you have it — at least a little bit. The Yippies denounced puritanism and praised self-indulgence. That’s taken on a lot of complexity over the years. Any thoughts?
PT: Hey, who wouldn’t love to be a 20-something nationally renowned youth movement leader!?!?! Sign me up! Especially one that centered on politics, music and counterculture. But it’s complex, I think (as the Occupy Movement showed) we need recognized leaders (they didn’t have any – so it stalled out) and yet, many bash on Jerry and Abbie for being leaders! WTF!?!
RU: There’s lots of arguments about whether the radical pranksterism of the Yippies really helped or hindered the antiwar/radical movement. And there are arguments from the left, like Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool, that are basically against counterculture politics. How do you see all this?
PT: As Rennie Davis said to me recently… he said (more or less) – that in retrospect, the Yippies “sex, drugs, rock n roll, and humor” approach to the antiwar movement probably roped in more teenagers than he and Tom Hayden ever did with their more serious rhetoric. But Rennie of course, has no regrets about his and Tom’s amazing work with SDS either — it takes “all kinds” to rope in “all kinds” into protest movements, so I’m glad they all existed.
RU: I was a Yippie (and a Zippie) in the early ‘70s. I met Jerry for the first time at Timothy Leary’s house shortly before his (Jerry’s) death. I told him that I ran with the Zippies in Miami in 1972, figuring we would share a chuckle over that long-ago past, but Jerry still seemed miffed about the whole thing. So I got serious and explained to him that Dana Beal and all those people on Bleeker Street were accessible and he and Abbie weren’t. It was a pleasant discussion, and Paul Krassner and Tim were there cracking jokes, but I was surprised by how seriously he took things. But now I see that’s a big part of who he was. He wasn’t a natural humorist and he was painfully earnest.
PT: The Zippies’ made Jerry’s life miserable (as my book details) — so not totally surprised he wasn’t ready to chuckle two decades later — and yet, he should have!
Jerry was a serious guy and was also conflicted at that period of his life (in the final years before his death), proud of his achievements during the 1960s, yet wanting to be taken seriously in the 1990s for something besides the Yippies – and he wasn’t always sure what that “something” should be. He was kinda searching for a sociological (or even political) thing to be part of.
RU: Jerry was a star reporter and co-editor of his high school newspaper, an ambitious young man who was even invited to write for the local daily while still a high school student. Timothy Leary was the editor of his high school newspaper. Ken Kesey was captain of the football team. Abbie Hoffman was a good student but also a bit of a hoodlum. I’ve been thinking about how all these guys (and they were guys) who were the leaders and legends of the ‘60s were not the extreme misfits — the freaks — who sort of became most of the next wave of the counterculture. They were not the bullied. Curious what you think of this observation.
PT: Jerry was mocked a bit in high school — for being a nerd, but I get your point. Hoffman felt out a place as a young married guy with kids, so he bailed on that quickly. Kesey on the football team is a weird one – I’d forgotten that. All of sudden, I’ve got a vision of Tex Watson (Manson Family) in my mind — another football player gone wild — but to the dark side of course. You’re making me think, thank you!
RU: You’ve told the stories of all the women who formed the backbone of the Yippies and the countercultural left in general and who, mostly, didn’t get recognized as leaders. Say a little about how Jerry and the Yippies in general wrestled with inequality. I remember thinking that WITCH (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) events were awesome, but I never attached them to a persona, for example.
PT: Jerry and the other Yippies did not get enlightened until the women they loved and relied on started to bail on them. When the women left the Yippies to focus on feminism (WITCH being a good example) – that was a wake-up call – but a little too late I’d say to save the Yippies from their male dominance. However, the women who were with Rubin later in life felt more respected, more equal. Hoffman was always more macho than Jerry, I should add. Everyone said Jerry was never macho, never hit on women.
Pat Thomas will be appearing:
November 8th San Francisco
Green Apple Books on the Park
1231 9th Avenue, San Francisco 94122
November 12th Berkeley
Pegasus Books Downtown
2349 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley 94704
Don’t Steal This Book — Did It! etc., published by Fantagraphics, on the Internet. It’s a marvelous coffee table book filled with images and archival clippings, so you have to have the physical copy. It’s also way too big to shove down your pants at Barnes and Noble so bring a water pistol and a Guy Fawkes mask.