Friday, May 28, 2021

The Seed and I a Murfin Memoir —A Seedling at Last

On the phone in Piper's Alley looking for a party a few month before joining the Seed  staff. My summer appearance when I joined the staff featured a straw hat, sweat soaked plaid shirt, and a red kerchief knotted at the throat.

On a hot afternoon after Goddard Graves arrived at the Lincoln Avenue IWW General Headquarters to finish my term as General Secretary Treasurer and I had spent a couple of hours showing him the ropes I left the hall and ambled up the street to 950 Wrightwood and the Seed office over the hippy eatery and community hangout Alice’s Revisited.  I needed a job and I needed it fast.  It was a cold call.  I hadn’t spoken to anyone previously and although I knew several staffers I had no idea if they needed or wanted anyone new or if they would be open to the semi-disgraced ex Wobbly bureaucrat.  The Seed had already become an IWW job shop, but I didn’t know if that would work for or against me.

I don’t remember who was sitting at the big desk near the wide-open bay windows.  A couple of box fans stirred the muggy air.  The desk was strewn with papers, piled high with underground press exchanges.  There was a large IBM electric typewriter with exchangeable type balls in various fonts and sizes and a black telephone with extension buttons.  The large front room of the former apartment was filled with stacked bundles of the paper waiting to be bought by the street vendors who circulated the vast majority of copies.

I don’t remember who exactly was sitting in the squeaking desk chair trying to pound out a story on the typewriter between fielding phone calls.  Barely looking up he assumed I was a new vendor.  When I explained my mission, I was met with a noncommittal “Okay then.”  I was told to come the next staff meeting in a day or so for consideration by the collective.

When I turned up at that staff meeting a couple of days later I was astonished at all of the people in the room,  They crowded the front room perched on chairs dragged from every corner of the office, on the bales of papers, on the desk, or cross legged on the floor in a rough circle.  I knew, at least by nodding acquaintance maybe half of them.  I had no idea what most of them did. 

The meeting was very informal, chaired—that may be too formal a term—by Bernie Farber the lead editor.  There was no round of introductions.  I would have to figure out who was who on my own.  My instillation could not have been more off-hand.  Bernie said something like, “You know Murf from the Wobblies.  He wants to join the staff.”  Heads nodded.  Nobody voiced any objections.  Just like that I was in.  I must have said something.  No terms of employment were explained, that would be discovered later.

The meeting plunged right in to planning the next issueCommunity events and story ideas were brought upWriters pitched some ideas.  Some stories were assigned.  I volunteered to do a labor column that was eventually called Labor Pains and to do community reporting.  Items from the weekly Liberation News Service (LNS) packet were discussed as were stories from our Underground Press Syndicate exchanges.  Music people discussed possible reviews and upcoming concerts, Peter Solt and other art folks discussed comix, story illustrations, and the all-important cover.  A great cover really drove street sales.  Discussion was chaotic and there were some times arguments, particularly between those most interested in the counter cultural scene and the more ardent revolutionaries, a tension I observed throughout my tenure.

There was talk about how street sales were going, about advertising, production schedule, and assignments.  In two hours or so it was over and folks drifted off to do their thing, whatever that was.

Dramatis personae

Like all staffers Bernie Farber made part of his income peddling the Seed on the street.  This was taken about 1970.  By the time I joined the staff those whiskers were much more impressive.

Bernie Farber had settled into the editor’s chair.  He was both a veteran activist and a journalist.  He had long been active in the anti-war movement and at Roosevelt University had been active in Students or a Democratic Society (SDS) and was the influential editor of the Roosevelt Torch.  His background was in the traditional left and was a committed Marxist.  He had quickly adapted to the hippie/yippie life style and was happily living communally and enjoying grass and psychedelics.  He was a cheerful presence who had grown a bushy black beard on his round, bespeckled face and in the summer was decked out in colorful t-shirts, shorts, and sandals.  Despite that he was the firm leader of staff members pushing for more militant, political content sometimes at odds with more counter-culture interest.

In his post-Seed years he earned a law degree and for many years taught at Chicago-Kent College of Law.  After a devastating stroke a few years ago left him disabled, he has earned a living as a free-lance editor and has continued to write posting sci-fi stories and collections, short non-fiction, and occasional political commentary under the name Max G. Bernard.

The rising influence of the emerging Women's Liberation movement was reflected by this cover by Skip Williamson published during my time on the staff.

Maralee Gordon was another important editorial contributor and an ally for greater radicalism.  A hold-over from earlier days she had worked her way up from largely clerical tasks to being a major writer.  She also represented a dramatic shift toward feminism as the Women’s Liberation movement was really getting off the ground.  That meant a deep challenge to the sometimes macho-radical ambience of the staff and to the casual use of nudes and sex images in the paper.  The number of women on the staff had grown greatly to almost even numbers.  Maralee and another politically minded hold-over Virginia Becket lived a couple of blocks east on Wrightwood at the Other Cheek Commune which had been established by radical Mennonite pacifists.  The Other Cheek was also famous for its weekly vegie/brown rice/tofu Free Feeds.

Maralee moved to McHenry County and raised a family not far from me in Crystal Lake.  She became a Rabbi and served the McHenry County Jewish Congregation for several years until she retired.  She is a frequent guest worship leader at our Tree of Life UU Congregation.  She has been a leader of the interfaith Faithbridge group and remains active in social justice causes, especially immigrant rights.

Decades later Rabbi Maralee Gordon and the Old Man would work together in on immigrant rights issues like this 2019 Lights for Liberty Rally outside the McHenry County Jail.

Other women on the staff included Rita Gehring, who mostly worked on art and lay-out with her boyfriend Peter SoltFlora Johnson was another.

Solt, the veteran art person was a leader of the more counter-cultural staffers.  He was a whiz at the fanciful color separations and dramatic covers for which the paper was known.  He was joined by those interested in the music scene.  Several staffers contributed reviews of concerts and LPs.  Other covered the lively emerging Chicago off-Loop theater movement and film reviews.  Scathing take-down of television and the mainstream press were also common

Among those plowing those fertile grounds was Mike Gold, who had been a year behind me in Niles West Township High School and was particularly interested in the underground comix we ran, the content of some of which was being challenged by the feminists as well as in the music scene.  He went on to a very successful career in the comic industry.  He regularly blogs and does podcasts with his wide-ranging, pointed, and often hysterical commentary.

Mitch Lieber was younger yet and a music reviewer.  He soon split his time with Radio Free Chicago which broadcast for a while from a second floor apartment near the IWW hall.  Mitch has been working on a documentary Rumbula's Echo a deeply personal film of a Nazi atrocity, the mass murder of the inhabitants of the Riga, Lithuania ghetto and its echoing reverberations among survivors and family members.

Dick Yippie posing with his ever-present purpe Yippie button and a copy of The Saying of Chairman Mao Tse Tung.

Dick O’Brien, better known as Dick Yippie, was a jack-of-all-trades on the staff, occasionally writing, copy editing, and was a wiz at the lay-out light table.  He worked on the Seed longer than anyone.  After advertising dried up, the free Chicago Reader stole much of the thunder, and street vendors drifted off to something else he kept plugging away trying to keep the paper alive.  He edited the last few sporadic issues alone at his kitchen table while he made a living as the sexton of a North Side cemetery.  He remained a quiet raconteur and was among the Friday after-work gathering of Lincoln Ave. street scene survivors that gathered weekly at Lilly’s.

Earl McGhee was our only Black staffer.  He usually edited the Seed’s very popular dope review feature which not only surveyed what was going around, but also warned about dangerous shit when it hit the streets.  The whole staff benefited from this feature as dealer dropped off sample for our trials.  Grass, acid, hash, magic mushrooms, and peyote were all plentiful for us.  We discouraged heroin, meth, cocaine, and various uppers and downers.  Earl also more than dabbled in the dope trade as a member and leading light of the Midwest Dope Dealers Association which promised cleaned and seeded honest ounces with a free pack of Zig-Zags included.  Staffers sometimes assisted in cleaning the recent Mexican imports at Earl’s apartment for free bags.  At the Seed Reunion in 2017 Earl showed up very professional looking and was hoping to get in on the ground floor of legal marijuana in California.

Uncle Martin, John Krug, had grown up as a working class Polish/German kid on the North Side.  After the Democratic Convention Riots in ’68 he grew his hair long and joined the street scene.  He was quiet at staff meetings but acutely interested in space exploration and its possibilities and wrote about that.  He got his moniker from Ray Walston’s character on the old sit-com My Favorite Martian.  Decked out in a floppy hat and an old Army Jacket he was one of the steadiest of street vendors selling at least 200 and often more copies a week under the Marshal Field’s clock on State Street.  He also hawked the Black Panther, Rising Up Angry, and the Industrial Worker.  He drifted out to California who connected with the Bay Area underground press.  Later in Santa Cruz he was active in homeless and housing issues, as well as closely following the West Coast music scene.  John is the administrator of the Chicago Seed Revisited Facebook group with over a thousand members.

Two other young Seed sellers were added to the staff when the paper became a Wobbly Shop.  Mary Kay Ryan was the daughter of Louise Ryan, a long-time white journalist with the Black Daily Defender.  Her mother’s lover, legendary College of Complexes Janitor Slim Brundage was a virtual step-father so she was deeply rooted in Windy City radicalism.  Her best friend since childhood was Kathy Brady.  Mary Kay eventually became a pioneering Western acupuncturist and currently lives at least part time in Ireland.

Becky Beach was almost a classic street waif who I had first encounter picketing a North Avenue head shop that had stiffed its employees a year or two earlier.  She shared and apartment with Rita Gehring and Kathy Brady who was also selling seed.  That is where I first met almost in passing the woman who became my wife when she was a widow with small children and was reintroduced to me by Mary Kay in 1981.

Skip Williamson back in the day with his most famous creation, Snappy Sammy Smoot.

Skip Williamson, the creator of Snappy Sammy Smoot and partner with R. Crum on breakthrough Bijou Comix, was not an official staff collective member, but he might as well have been.  He produced some of the most iconic Seed covers and contributed occasional strips and spot illustrations.  He frequently just hung out in the office and often partied hard with staff members elsewhere.  He recalled some of those times in his entertaining memoirs Spontaneous Combustion and Flesh.

There were, of course, several others, some of whom I am going to be mightily embarrassed by failing to mention here.

A street vendor shared a busy State Street corner with a "Captive Nations" anti-Communist.  I bet the hippy did better business.

As for me, I adopted the nom de guerre Wobbly Murf which is how I was listed in the masthead and how I signed most articles.  If I had too many pieces in an issue I adopted other aliases.

Next—What it was like. 

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