Yippie activist Jerry Rubin brought
His psychedelic oratory to Arizona
By Tom Miller / The Rag Blog / January 25, 2010
Writer Tom Miller will be Thorne Dreyer’s guest on Rag Radio, Tuesday, January 26, 2-3 p.m. (CST) on KOOP 91.7 FM in Austin. They will discuss Tom’s adventures as an author, journalist, and world traveler — and as an activist and underground journalist in the Sixties. For those outside the listening area, go here to stream the show.
[Tom Miller is an old friend of ours and a fellow graduate of the underground press. In this article he remembers his friendship and adventures with Yippee Jerry Rubin — especially one eventful day in Tucson, Arizona, in 1970. It was first published in the Tucson Weekly in 1995.]
My houseguest was the first to notice. Every hour that night a car would pull up to the curb outside my rental near Grant Road and Tucson Boulevard, dim its lights, and shift into neutral. We’d hear a brief murmur of muffled conversation, and another car would silently drive off. Very quiet. Very discreet. And to my guest, very conspicuous and amusing.
They were FBI cars, making sure that Jerry Rubin, recently convicted for conspiring to incite riots at the Chicago ’68 Democratic convention, wasn’t plotting the same for Tucson, Arizona. That explained the occasional clicks and wheezes that punctuated the obvious echoes on my telephone line.
We expected some sort of surveillance — deep down, we looked forward to it — and J. Edgar Hoover’s men didn’t fail us. “It really works to my advantage,” Rubin said. “It keeps the right-wing vigilante goons away from the door no matter where I’m staying.”
Thirty-two-year-old Jerry Rubin –short, skinny, matted curly hair — was at the peak of his notoriety. He had risen to prominence in Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement in the mid ’60s, and, with Abbie Hoffman, Paul Krassner and a few others, used television advertising techniques to bring a disparate and disorderly constituency into the anti-war fold.
Their letterhead said YIPPIE! — Youth International Party — and white, middle-class apolitical kids who puffed the occasional joint made up their primetime audience. The Yippies successfully linked an unpopular war overseas with the burgeoning counter-culture at home and made uniformed authority the enemy on both fronts.
They used guerrilla theater, inventive slogans and confrontational tactics to ridicule antiquated laws and the police who enforced them. Rather than preach the evils of capitalism, they gleefully exploited their contradictions. Bands like the Jefferson Airplane and the MC5 played their benefits; politicians such as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond proved their foils.
In public, Rubin & Co. were appealingly offensive clowns whose names could draw thousands to a rally as they shouted rehearsed hyperbole and spontaneous rhetoric. To the straight press they were terrific — they spoke in soundbites, wore colorful clothes and had a well-crafted sense of spontaneity.
Unlike orthodox Marxists, they flashed an aura of psychedelic oratory and tie-dyed eloquence. To those of us in the underground and anti-war press they were supportive and respectful, often contributing articles and, if they were passing through a city near deadline, helped with layout or distribution.
I had gone to the Chicago convention as a demonstrator and reporter — objectivity has never been a high priority with me — but instead of joining the pack of journalists trailing the Yippie circus, I traveled with a medical van that treated demonstrators bloodied by Chicago police.
That fall, back in Washington, I covered the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings on the anti-war movement, and Rubin responded to his subpoena wearing a revolutionary war uniform. We had lunch at a fancy Capitol Hill restaurant one day and became fast friends.
Rubin lived with his girlfriend Nancy Kurshan in a small walk-up at 5 St. Mark’s Place on New York’s Lower East Side. Radical publications were strewn about the place, posters of Janis Joplin, Che Guevara, and Jimi Hendrix hung lopsided on the walls, and an oddball assortment of young hippies, middle-aged activists and aging bohemians touched base at all hours of the day and night.
“Jerry, Eldridge telephoned from Algiers; he wants you to call him back this afternoon.” “Hey, Jerry, you just missed Phil Ochs a half-hour ago; said he’d be back to confirm the rally in Gainesville next week.” “Rubin, that ladies’ club on Long Island wants to give $500 to the Yippies. What should I tell them?”
Anyone who was near the door or the phone became part of the Central Committee that swirled around Jerry and his ego. He himself, in private, was an inquisitive fellow, dedicated to social justice and ending the war, and addicted to his persona. He was far more a doer than a thinker, but he usually bounced his plans off the thinkers before going out and doing.
He moved to another, larger apartment on Carmine street in the West Village, and one Saturday afternoon we loaded all his possessions into a borrowed car for the schlep across town. Four of us carefully carried his prized 21-inch color television down the front stairs, when suddenly all the deadbeat junkies on St. Mark’s place started clapping and whistling.
Jerry thought it was for him, and waved amiably to the crowd. “Psst, Jerry,” I whispered. “They think we’re ripping off some guy’s television in broad daylight. They’re applauding our audacity; they don’t know who you are.”
We stayed in touch through his 1969 conspiracy trial, by which time I had moved to Arizona, and when he and his cohorts were found guilty after one of the most bizarre and riveting courtroom tribunals of this century, he went out on the lecture circuit.
His book Do It! [ghost-written by The Rag Blog’s James Retherford] had just been released. Student groups at some universities paid him a handsome honorarium to come and provoke anti-war activity, other ad hoc groups simply hoped they could scrape together enough expense money to bring him in for a speech, feed him and send him on his way.
That’s what brought Jerry Rubin to my Tucson couch, and the FBI to my doorstep, a quarter of a century ago this week.
Tucson had a fairly active anti-war movement. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) shared a storefront on Sixth Street with a militant pacifist group. UA student government leaders took part in anti-war demonstrations. Renegade airmen from Davis-Monthan spoke out publicly against their commander-in-chief, Richard Nixon. The arrest of some demonstrators in a picket line at a Wildcat-BYU basketball game — we were protesting the Mormon position on blacks — galvanized the city’s progressive forces.
A low-profile but active arts and literary scene nurtured the more politicized crowd and, for a while, proximity to Mexico made the Old Pueblo the Price Club of America’s marijuana trade. Into this milieu a few other recent arrivals and I rented a storefront on Fourth Avenue and called it the Yippie Free Store.
We published an underground newspaper that lasted two issues, took in and gave away used clothing, and put on Sunday afternoon rock concerts at Santa Rita Park on 22nd Street at Fourth Avenue. Local bands volunteered to play, we handed out anti-war propaganda, and earth mothers prepared huge cauldrons of red chili and brown rice. Bikers and students, full-time drop-outs and off-duty servicemen, foothills floozies and the best of the barrio all mixed easily.
No one said boo to the city; we simply made bare-bones plans, spread the word on the street and through sympathetic radio stations, and hoped for the best. When it came time to arrange for Rubin to come to town, however, we responded to a standing invitation from the city’s parks department to formalize our efforts. Secretly, Eddie Cohen, a fast-talking, rambunctious working class Brooklynite, and I met with Parks Director Gene Reid. He offered us two sites; we chose Palo Verde Park, not far from Broadway and Wilmot Road, and plastered the town with fliers.
That April 1970 day started in Tempe, where the ASU administration had grudgingly approved a student group’s request to use Goodwin stadium for a Rubin rally. His appearance there provoked the anticipated First Amendment mutterings; Morris Starsky, a tenured and vocal ASU professor who, in the spectrum of anti-war groups, took the orthodox Trotskyite position, called Rubin a “lunatic,” but defended his right to speak on campus.
Rubin’s Tempe hosts and I greeted his flight at Sky Harbor Airport; he was almost impossible to find among all the burly, DPS plainclothesmen who surrounded him. By the time we got to ASU, close to 3,000 students were waiting. Anti-war whoops greeted Rubin as he took the stage and adjusted to the Arizona sun. The obligatory joints passed through the audience and up to their speaker.
Rubin’s speech, a succession of one-liners, Yippie slogans, and provocative patter geared for Arizona, was a big hit. “We’re going to take the Pentagon,” he yelled, “and turn it into an LSD factory. Then we’ll turn the White House into a crash pad.”
Privately I was somewhat embarrassed at how silly Rubin sounded, but I loved the response he got, all the more so because he was so good at converting apathetic students into constructive activists against the war in Vietnam. “You are all inmates at Arizona State Penitentiary,” he shouted, and the laughing, Sunday afternoon crowd cheered in response. As a parting shot he thanked the ASU administration for its hospitality.
We raced to the airport for the short hop to Tucson before Goodwin stadium had completely emptied. On the flight down we talked about friends in the anti-war movement and about the Weather Underground, a militant group that broke away from SDS to form clandestine cadres of saboteurs.
The Tucson airport didn’t have jetways then, and we had to walk down the mobile stairs and across the tarmac to get inside. Through the glass we could see more DPS plainclothesmen waiting for us. Also waiting was James R. Hood, news director at KTKT radio, whom I had agreed could get an exclusive interview with Rubin in exchange for a lift to Palo Verde Park.
Driving the car was a very straight-looking fellow named Marshall who read the weather report on Hood’s station. I motioned to him and turned to Rubin. “He’s a weatherman,” I said in a low voice. “What?!?” Rubin bellowed, falling for the gag.
Rubin was as offensive and obnoxious in Palo Verde Park as he’d been up north, and the gig went just as smoothly. The park was filled with eastside teenagers and lots of the regulars from our Sunday rock concerts at Santa Rita Park. A layabout California biker named Brother John appointed himself Rubin’s security force.
The news that weekend told of another Tucsonan killed in Vietnam; this time a Chicano marine. President Nixon mentioned that the U.S. had a stake in Cambodia, carefully setting the stage for bombing that country a week later.
“We’re going to make Arizona unsafe for Barry Goldwater!” Rubin shouted halfway through his Tucson soliloquy, and the crowd, even larger than the Tempe gathering, laughed its approval. He came down heavy on heroin pushers, inhaled joints tossed on stage, and urged his followers to protest the war in Vietnam by every means possible. According to my FBI files, which I obtained a few years later through the Freedom of Information Act, “spectators were using marijuana and were in possession of wine.”
Rubin held a press conference at the Yippie Free Store after the rally. Of the dozen or so newshounds shoehorned into our storefront, I remember only Arizona Daily Star photographer Jack Sheaffer, whose smelly charoot and sharp elbows assured him unobstructed access. We ate dinner at a Mexican joint on South Fourth Avenue, with Rubin constantly checking his watch. He didn’t want to miss the 10 o’clock news that night.
As an outside agitator Rubin performed a valuable service. His appearance in town was the buzz of the street for days, and even the orthodox anti-war groups reported a surge of interest. Then in swift succession Nixon starting bombing Cambodia, the Ohio National Guard killed four at Kent State University, and more than 100,000 Americans converged on Washington to protest the expanding war against Southeast Asia. On the University of Arizona campus, students and outsiders took over Old Main, which then housed ROTC. We were a glorious sight.
Rubin continued his role as a “Yippie leader,” a contradiction if ever there were one, and his federal conspiracy conviction was eventually overturned. His next book, an embarrassing tome called We Are Everywhere, was a flop; I had a hand in writing and editing it, but it was nothing to be proud of. Over the next few years we remained close; when Nancy left him for another man, he and I — both in Washington for a short spell — would go on long all-night walks in which he emptied his soul.
He never returned to Tucson, but at some point, a cleaned-up Jerry Rubin moved to California with his considerable promotional abilities, and dined out on the west coast smorgasbord of therapies and feel-good workshops. Back in New York he set up networking salons in which youthful white-collareds paid lots o’ bucks to rub elbows with each other. From there his entrepreneurial spirit led him into a Wall Street venture capital enterprise, and finally back to California to set up a pyramid, Amway-type of distribution scheme for WOW — a powdered drink that contained bee pollen and ginseng.
Over the years I felt increasingly distant from him; our contact became limited to a lame “say hello” through mutual friends. Yet whenever I want to be reminded of that day 25 years ago, all I have to do is pull out my heavily censored FBI file, which speaks of “the visit of [DELETED] to Tucson.” In a memo to their boss from his Phoenix office, Hoover learned that I “spent considerable time with [DELETED].” When Rubin died last November after being hit by a car on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, I recalled with whimsy my good times with [DELETED].
Fact is, I liked him much more as an obnoxious asshole.
Tom Miller is a veteran of the underground press of the 1960s. His writing, much of it about Latin America and the American Southwest, has appeared in Smithsonian, The New Yorker, LIFE, The New York Times, Natural History, and many other publications. His six books include Revenge of the Seguaro (his latest), The Panama Hat Trail, On The Border, and, most recently, Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels through Castro’s Cuba.
His collection of some 80 versions of “La Bamba” led to his Rhino Records release, The Best of La Bamba. His book On the Border has been optioned by Productvision for a theatrical film. He has appeared on NBC, NPR, CNN, HBO, XM, and CSPAN, among other broadcast outlets. The University of Arizona Library acquired Miller’s archives and mounted a major exhibit of the author’s papers.
Tom Miller has lived in Tucson, Arizona, near the Mexican border, since 1969.