Arnie Reisman on Boston's Counter Culture
Golden Age of Arts and Media from 1969 to 1981
By: Charles Giuliano - May 08, 2018
Charles Giuliano The publication of "Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968" by Ryan Walsh has changed perceptions of the counter culture of Boston. The book has been widely reviewed, mostly positively, with a tepid one in the New York Times.
Arnie Reisman I am curious about the kind of coverage it is getting outside Boston. It seems like a book which just as easily might have been tossed aside and forgotten. Just as anything like it has been for the pervious thirty or forty years. Perhaps the reason it is being looked at outside Boston is because it’s called "Astral Weeks." That's the title of Van's old album and you don't know it’s about Boston until you get into the subtitle. It was a wise choice to call it that. I've been leafing through the book and it would be better if he had an editor tighten up the whole thing by making transitions.
I would like to add my own footnote. There is an anti Boston bias in the media particularly among New Yorkers. In sports NY always looks down its nose at Boston. Be it Yankees vs. Red Sox, Celtics vs. Knicks, Bruins vs. Rangers, Patriots vs. Jets. If the Yankees beat the Sox there is a huge headline in the NY media and if the Sox win the story is buried. Boston suffers a passive aggressive attitude. It never makes an issue of clearing up why it is always viewed as second best.
Some 40 years ago I pitched the idea for a book which was somewhat in the order of "Astral Weeks." It was about how in the cultural scene Boston was maybe as influential as New York or San Francisco in changing the face of young America. I pitched it to Beacon Press, a Boston publishing house. I've never forgotten the rejection letter which stated "Who's going to read this outside the city of Boston?" (laughing)
CG That's a logical question.
AR I talked about how much of an impact it had on the rest of the country and that was lost on the guy who was responding to my pitch. I got a reply that what happens in Boston stays in Boston. I dropped the idea figuring that if I couldn't sell it to a Boston publisher there was no point pitching it to a NY publisher.
CG Hopefully this interview, and others, will be compiled as a book. The working title is "Boston's Counter Culture and Media: Notes from the Underground." There is richness of significant events and colorful anecdotes which deserve to be documented. The primary sources, including you and me, are disappearing. We just lost art critic David Bonetti. So it is now or never.
Last June we were in San Francisco for a theatre conference. It was the 50th anniversary of The Summer of Love. We saw an amazing special exhibition that included the hippie culture of music, media, psychedelics, fashions.
(The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion, and Rock & Roll, De Young Museum, San Francisco, April 8 to August 20, 2017)
We also saw Kacee Clanton in "A Night with Janis Joplin" the touring company of the Broadway musical at American Conservatory Theatre.
So San Francisco was revved up and cashing in on tourism related to its counter culture. Clearly, in the late 1960s, they had a lot more going there than what was happening in Boston. They had better bands- Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Country Joe and the Fish- to name a few. Promoting them were psychedelic posters for the Fillmore concerts and groovy graphics for the San Francisco Oracle.
AR Compared to that was the fiasco of the MGM Bosstown Sound promotion which totally flopped.
CG That's a part of how Boston unraveled. San Francisco had phenomenal graphic artists. The designer for Avatar was Eben Given an illustrative artist and close friend of Mel Lyman (1938-1978). He was adequate but reactionary compared to what was going on in San Francisco.
Lyman and his group were aesthetically conservative. It is not a surprise that the primary assets of the cult derived from Jesse Benton and the estate of regionalist artist and scion of Americana, Thomas Hart Benton. The Kansas lawyer, Ray Riepen, was called on by Jesse to arrange Mel's divorce from Sophie (living with Given). Then they were married. Fort Hill was running the Cinematheque based on Mel's passion for Jonas Mekas. For a time, Mel crashed with Mekas from whom he absorbed a desire to make films.
When the Hill’s venture failed Riepen took over the South End lease and founded the Boston Tea Party. The first rock broadcasts of WBCN, with DJ Peter Wolf, took place there staring at midnight. Riepen expanded his empire by acquiring the Cambridge Phoenix.
Avatar, Boston's underground paper which I was a part of, under Lyman's overview was numbingly conservative compared to what was happening elsewhere. The nation’s underground press was serviced by the radical Liberation News Service (LNS).
Under control of Lyman’s Fort Hill editors the Avatar was out of sync by lacking a radical, leftist, social and political orientation. Mel modeled his life and music on Woody Guthrie who resonated during the Great Depression. His guru aura entailed a quaint view of folky Americana during the late 1960s. The "avant-garde" mantra of Lymanism was based on superannuated regionalism. Fort Hill may well have been located in the middle of Kansas.
Mel grew up in California and Oregon but lived for a time in Appalachia where his music was influenced by Obray Ramsey a banjo player and singer. Mel adapted a bluegrass persona. During an ill-fated spring break drive to Harlan County I had breakfast with Mel and Obray during which they performed together. John Kostick and a couple of other guys were a part of that adventure.
So consider the contrast between San Francisco Oracle and Avatar.
AR How true and bazaar.
CG Combining the Bosstown Sound with Lyman's theocracy it’s significant that "Astral Weeks" documents a phenomenon of utter failure. That put the kibosh on the brilliant, influential and diverse renaissance of the counter culture and media in Boston/ Cambridge that prevailed from 1969 through 1981 when the Real Paper folded.
It is interesting that the album format of WBCN, with DJ's not limited to rigid play lists, originated with KSAN in San Francisco. I'm not sure who brought to Boston tapes that inspired formatting at WBCN. The Rock of Boston went on to be one of the nation's most influential stations. Many bands playing the Tea Party broke out when WBCN interviewed, broadcasted performances, and played their songs. That's when Boston evolved from local to national with its immense college demographics.
AR You can make a case for Boston/ Cambridge evolving as a hot house for growing talent. It's obviously college based with so many good schools in the area. Many of the best and brightest stayed. I'm thinking of the newspaper business, music, art, definitely theater.
So many great actors began here. After graduate school in New York I started here as a 22-year-old theatre critic. The first thing I was doing was reviewing Theatre Company of Boston which was functioning out of a dirty old theater in a hotel basement. Two blocks down at the Charles Playhouse was Al Pacino.
(Theatre Company of Boston (TCB) was co-founded by David Wheeler and Naomi Thornton in 1963. Wheeler served as its artistic director until its closure in 1975. Actors including Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, Jon Voight, Stockard Channing, James Woods, Blythe Danner, Larry Bryggman, John Cazale, Hector Elizondo, Spalding Gray, Paul Guilfoyle, Ralph Waite, Charles Siebert and Paul Benedict were part of the company.)
All those people came out of here and there was an audience for it. There was an element of sophistication that you don't find in other places.
CG Boston always had a strong theatre community. It was a tryout town for shows being developed for Broadway.
AR This past year I had experiences with a show "Warpaint" headed to Broadway. When they told me it was going to open in Chicago I spoke with one of the producers. I said fine "You can open it at the Goodman. Everyone knows that theater and it does well. It's been around for a hundred years and I understand that. But back in my 20’s and 30’s Boston was a real tryout town."
There were three functioning theaters; The Wilbur, The Shubert, and The Colonial. Producers would come in here and work with their shows for a few weeks which they would also do in New Haven. Then they would open on Broadway.
I asked "What happened because that's not true anymore?" The guy laughing on the other end of the phone was David Stone who was one of the producers for "Wicked." So he was fairly successful.
He said "I'll give you three good reasons why Boston will never be a tryout town anymore."
I said "Oh, really, should I be sitting down?"
"Number one" he said "Way too educated."
"What does that mean" I asked?
"Bostonians will kill a play that New Yorkers will love" he said.
"Are you saying that New Yorkers are not that sophisticated?" I replied.
"No" he said "That brings me to number two. No tourist in his right mind comes to Boston and goes to see a play. On any given night in New York, one of every three or four seats, on or off Broadway, is sold to a tourist. That takes down the level of sophistication and the NY commercial market builds on that knowledge.
"That brings me to the third point” he said “Chicago's Goodman Theatre is a subscription service. They have a data base and people get hit up in the mail or by email. Here's the next season. Here's the next six plays you never heard of. They'll buy tickets just to keep going. They don't know what the hell they're buying tickets for. That's great if you're a producer. It means that you will fill seats with bodies. There is no such thing in Boston."
I said "There's the Huntington."
The response was "Nah, not big enough."
AR I mentioned that but he said "Rarely do they let you in there. So you have closed the doors on the avant-garde theatre world or even the musical theatre world. It just doesn’t go anywhere if it’s in Boston. The taste of Martians!" (laughs)
CG What was your role in "Warpaint" which I was lucky enough to see on Broadway?
AR They took it from the documentary we did for WGBH.
(March, 2009. "The Powder & the Glory," a 90-minute documentary narrated by Jane Alexander, tells the story of two of the first highly successful women entrepreneurs — Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein. One hundred years ago these women immigrated to America and, starting with next to nothing, created what is today the $150 billion global health and beauty industry. It was produced, written and directed by Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman. It is based upon the book "War Paint: Miss Elizabeth Arden and Madame Helena Rubinstein — Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry" by Lindy Woodhead. The author had unprecedented access to correspondence and diaries.)
They run it each March. David Stone, the producer of “War Paint" and "Wicked" was also the associate producer of "Grey Gardens." It was also originally a documentary. (A 1975 film by Albert and David Maysles.) It was turned into a musical. Stone saw our film and said "This is a musical." I said "What do you want to do?" He said "I want to buy it from you. We'll have a deal where you'll get a piece of the box office every week."
I said "Oh. Is there anything I have to do?" He said "No. Now and then we will send you the creative team to pick your brain. It was the same three guys who did 'Grey Gardens' bookwriter, lyricist and composer. We had a great time and the show ran for eight months. It ended because Patti Lupone was in pain and needed a hip replacement. We didn't want to go with an understudy. They're trying to license it to London and LA which I hope they do.
CG I liked the show but don't think it was well received by my peers.
(Doug Wright, book, Scott Frankel, music and Michael Korie’s lyrics, costumes by Catherine Zuber and scene design by David Korins. Michael Greifs director, Christopher Gattelli choreographer. With Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone) and Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole).)
AR I saw it five times and it grew on me.
CG How could you not like LuPone and Ebersole?
AR Exactly. They sang their hearts out.
But that was a very sophisticated lesson. He said "If we listened to Boston we would have lost our shirts. There's just too much negativity there. I asked "What happened to New Haven?" He said "The same. We don't try out anything there either."
CG Do you remember the TV show "Smash?" They had a Boston tryout. It was a great show which never got the audience it deserved. The theatre world loved it.
To return to the theme of Boston. I was three years in New York initially for graduate study in Egyptology at the Institute if Fine Arts. I lasted a semester and stayed on running galleries. An old girlfriend, Arden Harrison, was passing through headed for Mexico. We got as far a Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Flat broke we made it to Boston and got a cheap pad on Fort Hill. It was 1968 and that summer Dave Wilson and I put out Avatar.
He went back to Broadside that fall just as Avatar was regaining momentum. You hired me as design director of Boston After Dark. That didn't last long but I stayed on writing a weekly column Art Bag.
AR Art Bag! I remember Art Bag.
CG The Globe had Edgar Driscoll, Jr. who covered The MFA, Copley Society and blue movies. Those x-rated reviews were his best work. Back then papers reviewed "I Am Curious Yellow" and films like that.
The art world was digging itself out of annihilation. The ICA on Newbury Street, under Sue Thurman, was booted out of New England Life on Newbury Street. Its assets (including a fine library) were stored in the abandoned tin-hut home on Soldier's Field Road in Brighton.
(It was erected under founding director, James Plaut, after he served during WWII. As a teenager I saw shows there including the first American exhibition of Austrian expressionist, Egon Shiele. It was curated by Thomas Messer who left to become director of the New York Guggenheim Museum. The location was remote from public transportation and failed for lack of attendance. The ICA moved a number of times before its current home overlooking Boston Harbor.)
Drew Hyde, and architect Edwin Child, worked with Adele Seronde in the fine arts part of Kevin White's Summerthing. With the backing of Assistant Mayor, Kathy Kane, Hyde resurrected the ICA. Drew had close ties with White and for a time there was a gallery at the New City Hall. Drew and I curated a show "Images" at City Hall that had a focus on the new realism.
The only consistent space for emerging artists was Gallery 11 in a basement of Tufts University. In one of my first Art Bag columns I asked for artists to get in touch with me. Out of that evolved The Studio Coalition which staged America's first Open Studios. It was a great success which led, in addition to my coverage, to cover stories in The Gallery Guide as well as part of a major Boston article in Art News. Soon Boston artists were included in the Whitney Annual exhibitions. Later, the Boston Visual Artists Union was formed. It was an exciting era and my BAD coverage was a part of it.
You responded with some edge to our interview with former Cambridge Phoenix editor Harper Barnes. His paper and Boston After Dark were similar and different. Both were seeking the same primarily young audience. After all these years your remarks evoked a rivalry. Can you give us a sense of that era?
AR You're reading in an edge that doesn't exist. There was a playful edge. It was my chance to jump in to what he said. I was shocked to learn that Harper is now 80.
Back then we had a dozen meals maybe even 20. It was early on, around 1970, and I don't recall who made the first call. It was a Ray Riepen vs. Steve Mindich thing. We were hearing that there was potential violence. Hawkers were being harassed. They were beaten up and papers were taken out of vans and tossed in the Charles River. There was a lot of nonsense that went on.
CG At that time I recall seeing a dumpster on Lansdowne Street, near the office on Boylston Street, and it was full of the current issue of Boston After Dark. I reported that to Mindich but his reaction indicated that he was not surprised.
AR It's a bit foggy now but I recall how pissed Steve was when Ray Riepen announced that he planned to buy the competition rather than put his money into Boston After Dark. That was, what, spring of 1970? Both papers hired hawkers making a minimum amount of money. They were standing on corners selling papers for fifteen cents.
CG Twenty five cents.
AR Apparently, the hawkers went to get papers (BAD) and they were pushed aside. Goons arrived and took papers out of the truck and tossed them in the river. I heard that the thugs were hired by Riepen. Over which Mindich was pulling his hair out. He said "I can't go down that dirty road. This way madness lies." He said "I have to have a meeting. I don't care where we have it." He told me to stay out of it.
It proved to be a one time event and nothing happened after that.
CG Similarly, Fort Hill’s thugs stole and sold for scrap Issue 25 of Avatar which I edited with a collective. Harper spoke about breaking in and vandalizing the flats of the scab Cambridge Phoenix. The renegade design director, Ed Jordan/ Beardsley, sabotaged and tore up an issue of Avatar which Dave Wilson and I created. So that kind of criminality was a part of the zeitgeist. It speaks to the passions of the time. Arguably, today, the thugs are hackers.
AR Harper and I met secretly and said, let's not be like them, the guys that own us. Let's be friends. Harper was a new guy in town. (From St. Louis) We picked DuBarry's on Newbury Street as a place where it was unlikely that we would run into anyone we knew. We would have lunch and talk for an hour. That was about it. With the exception of features it was obvious we were going to cover the same things; plays, movies, concerts, news. For news they would have perhaps more of a Cambridge bent than we had. We would meet and share each other's list of what was coming out two days later.
We were sharing information and not really trying to out scoop one another. We developed a friendship. Paul Solman, my news editor, had friends on the Cambridge Phoenix as well. (He later took over from Barnes as editor and became editor of the spinoff The Real Paper.)
I was friends with Vin McClellan who did the story of tracking down Stanley Bond who was involved in the Brighton bank heist (with Susan Saxe and Kathy Powers of Brandeis). Vin got the one and only interview with him as he was going into prison in Colorado.
(Stanley Ray Bond, October 30, 1944 – May 24, 1972, was a former convict who enrolled at Brandeis University. He was arrested for a bank robbery conducted to obtain funds for anti-Vietnam War efforts. Previously, he had served as a Private First Class in the United States Army in the Vietnam War. During the bank robbery a Boston Police officer was shot and killed. Bond and accomplices were captured following the robbery. Brandeis students Susan Saxe and Kathy Powers were fugitives. Bond later died in prison awaiting trial when a bomb he built to use for an escape detonated prematurely.)
Vin and I started at the Patriot Ledger in Quincy. So there was a lot of camaraderie. What was interesting was two, weekly, alternative newspapers surviving in the same market. We were both oriented to the college market.
Part of Steven's strategy is that he wanted to give the paper free on college campuses as well as paid on newsstands and to subscribers. The Post Office said you can't do that. He studied the postal code and discovered that it is a new publication if it is at least 20% different.
We established the following. The paper to be sold was called Boston After Dark. The free paper for college campuses was BAD. We changed the front page pictures and headlines. We changed stories around and had grab bag features that we would use in one or the other papers then swap the next week. So they became 20% different and he got under the postal code radar. There were 150,000 free papers and perhaps another 50,000 to 60,000 that were sold.
CG That's incredible circulation.
AR It was. The Cambridge Phoenix surely had similar numbers.
CG Some 200,000 weekly circulation was a monster. That was in the range of the daily papers Boston Globe and Boston Herald. Today, of course, with the internet their circulation and influence is a fraction of what it was in the 1970s.
(A 2012 Globe story reports that “The Globe’s circulation, including subscriptions to BostonGlobe.com, increased 11.9 percent to 230,351, compared with the same six months in 2011, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. The Globe’s Sunday circulation, including digital subscriptions, grew 3.4 percent to 372,541.
“The Boston Herald’s daily circulation fell below 100,000 in the period. The tabloid’s circulation declined by 14.9 percent to 96,860, compared to same period a year ago, according to the bureau. The Herald’s Sunday circulation was 77,764, down 9.4 percent.”)
AR At the time we were all young, in our twenties, having fun, doing what we wanted to do. This is the kind of paper I want to work on rather than an established daily. I don't want to go to the Globe, Record American, Herald Traveler. I want to stay here because its the kind of journalism I want to do.
(The 1825-1972 Boston Herald Traveler, a broadsheet, was sold to the Hearst organization’s tabloid Record American when the Supreme Court handed down a decision that a news organization could not own a newspaper and TV station in the same market. Cherry picking some sports, columnists and editors the Hearst staff was retained and merged as Boston Herald. It is now a trimmed tabloid. While it still exists there is not much left of the once proud paper I was laid off from as its jazz and rock critic.)
On the other hand, I didn't think that we had much influence on how Boston ran politically. Most of our readers weren't even voters.
Then one day I got a call from Tom Winship (Boston Globe editor). He wanted to eat me for lunch. Kevin White was running for Mayor against Louise Day Hicks. We were picking apart something on White.
(Anna Louise Day Hicks, October 16, 1916 – October 21, 2003, was best known for staunch opposition to desegregation in Boston public schools, and especially to court-ordered busing, in the 1960s and 1970s.)
Possibly he was buddy buddy with too many slumlords. I don't recall the actual issue but we were hammering away.
I got a call from Winship who was clearly looking down his nose at me on the phone. In a piss-ant way he said "Will you guys stop writing this stuff about Kevin?"
I went "What are you talking about?” He responded “Do you want Louise Day Hicks to be mayor? What's the matter with you? Are you that dumb politically?" I said "I'm surprised you're even calling me." He wanted me to lay off Kevin White. This was from the editor of the Globe.
CG Has this ever been made public?
AR You can post it. Be my guest. I've told the story before. It annoyed the hell out of me. I told Mindich but I don't know if he ever told the Taylor family. Imagine the Globe calling another journalist telling me to lay off this thing. What, are you working for Kevin White? The bottom line was part of this turned my stomach because, oooh I thought, he's right. (laughing) If I look at the world that way, if I'm chipping away at White, am I elevating the possibility that Louise Day Hicks gets elected as Mayor? She was far worse than Kevin White as a possible Mayor of Boston. Looking down from atop Mt. Olympus I thought do we have that kind of influence?
CG During the summer of 1968 City Hall sent a proclamation to Avatar addressed to the Hip Community regarding perceived youthful unrest. I decided to run it with an ornamental border treating it like the Declaration of Independence. Adding to the humor I designed a cover that had a photo of the Mayor with a halo of shamrock green stars. My headline was "Whitey Speaks to Hippies." Through Barney Frank, then assistant to White, our coverage was quoted and discussed in Washington Magazine. Kevin was an easy target for pin the tail on the donkey.
AR You're shaking in your boots at the establishment newspaper and take time in the middle of the day to call me and tell me to stop it! After that I went OMG we are influential. Or those who have influence feel that we are strong enough to make waves in this town. After that I felt we needed to tackle more political stories.
CG As I reported in the Harper Barnes interview years ago he took a swing at me. The widely held assumption of Barnes and his staff, then on strike, was that I was one of the writers for the scab paper. I never understood why I was on their enemies list. Discussing it recently a friend from that time said "Because you were a Mindich man."
What does that mean? I worked for Mindich but I never felt I was a Mindich man. My loyalty was to you starting when you were my editor at the Brandeis Justice. Then you were my editor and mentor at BAD. I never planned to be a journalist. It was something I backed into. But you were amazingly tolerant in giving me an opportunity.
AR You were enthusiastic about a field that I felt needed to be covered. You had insights and a real passion for it.
CG My feeling at the time was that under Mindich, other than you, BAD was commercial. By contrast, Cambridge Phoenix under Barnes was a cult. That may have changed later with the Real Paper as it passed through editor and staff changes. One thinks, for example, of the Village Voice vs. The East Village Other.
AR Keep in mind that up until the sale both papers were making money. Both were in the black. (Richard) Missner's paper was never in trouble though he thought it was when the staff threatened to form a union. Then he was going to have to pay out too much money. Lord knows papers didn't pay very well. But they paid enough because at that time things didn't cost that much.
My relationship with Steve was love/ hate but it was much more love than hate. He was a hip capitalist and pleased as punch to be selling full page ads to Sack Theatres and Jordan Marsh. He was trying to prove that he had entrepreneurial skills and he also had the savvy to know that there couldn't be 25 to 40 Steve Mindiches. He had to have me, and you, and everyone else who had a different way of communicating. We could reach people he was trying to reach better than he could do. Except for his occasional theatre review because that was his passion. He was never going to be the theater editor nor did he want to be.
CG He was the original theatre critic under Jim Lewis who founded Boston After Dark as an entertainment tip sheet for Harvard Business School. With his (first) wife (Betty’s) money Mindich invested and became co publisher.
AR Under me he wasn't theatre editor. He remained so until the breakup with Lewis in 1970. I was living in Mexico and he called me to come back. I had left in a huff at the end of 1969.
AR Now you hit the button. The Phoenix was coming to town. The reason I knew that was because I was asked to be the editor. That meant jumping ship and I really didn't want to do that. Jeff Tartar, another Brandeis guy, was starting the paper. Jeff worked for me at the Justice. He was my news editor. Personally, I didn't think Jeff could do it. He has worked for Time Magazine and taken some shrapnel in Vietnam. He had money. I agreed to a meeting with him and his uncle who was going to be the finance man. It seemed like it was a toy and how long were they going to play with it.
Mindich was building something and this didn't look the same. Mindich started poor and he had something to prove. It was summer of '69 and a lot was going on including Woodstock. I told Mindich and said this is what's coming to town. I watched the blood drain out of him. This was going to be competition. He asked what are they going to do? I said well "A, they're going to cover Cambridge. They will be an entity for awhile. I know Jeff and he's going to hire people. He was interested in the idea of combining news (politics) and entertainment.
My line to Mindich was "Let's do a Village Voice in Boston." Steve wanted to do it. But Jim Lewis, who started the whole thing and hired Steve to be advertising director before they became partners said "Over my dead body. I see where the future is and it's not in news. I don't want to go that way."
Jim was entirely into youth marketing and wanted to be even more college related. He wanted to cover what was happening on campus and he wanted to be a college newspaper. I had a meeting with Steve and said "I really have no interest in doing that. I have much more interest in doing the news thing. Why don't you just fight it out. When it's over, if you still want me, come get me."
Somewhere around October I quit. Dave Sterritt from the Christian Science Monitor replaced me.
CG I worked for him. Eventually, he went back to the Monitor.
AR I left to work on a novel and I didn't know what the heck I was doing. My then wife (Nikki) and I drove all over the country like Kerouac in On the Road. We ended up in San Miguel de Allende where we lived for three months. We were there for the beginning of 1970.
CG As I understand Nikki is deceased.
AR She died 30 years ago. We broke up in 1978.
CG I remember her fondly. She had rose colored glasses.
AR Exactly, real ones. We remained friends. We were staying with her uncle who left Madison Avenue to become an artist.
This was the pre computer era. A kid on a donkey with a sombrero knocked on our door. He said (in a comical accent) "Is there an Arnie Reisman here?" I answered "That's me." He said "There's a phone call for you. (laughing) Where the hell is it?"
"Back in the post office" he replied. Which was like a mile down a hill. So I said "Oh, can I get on your donkey?"
"No" he said "It's not going to hold you."
There was an operator I had to call back. She said "There's someone called Steven Mindich in Boston."
So Steve gets on the phone and says "I won. Jim has packed it in and gone back to Chagrin Falls, Ohio. I get the paper. What do you want? Come on back."
Paula (Lyons a TV consumer journalist), my wife of 36 years says "You never asked him for a piece of the paper!"
I said "I want editorial control and $25,000 year."
He said "You got it." So I went back.
CG That was pretty good money in those days.
AR This says a lot about Steve. It was the spring of 1971. In the office we got wind that Stop and Shop was pulling a fraud on consumers. This was the height of Cesar Chavez and produce strikes in California. We were told that there's a phony union label on all the lettuce heads at Stop and Shop. They're slapped on in Cambridge.
Paul Solman had an idea. "This may backfire but I want to send Jane Goldberg." She was our listing editor. He said that she had an innocent manner and that people trust and unload on her. "Send her" he said "See what happens. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work."
After hours and hours she comes back. She said "You're right and the produce manager admitted it." (laughing) "He showed me where they slap the labels on."
She wrote a huge story. I got the art department to create a graphic which was a head of lettuce with an ax going through it and blood pouring out.
I went to Mindich and said "Here's your front page." At the time Stop and Shop was running like $25,000 worth of ads.
Steve said "You've got to be kidding me. We're not doing this, are you? You really can't do this."
I told him "This is news and we can't sit on it."
"How did she get this story" he asked? "Did she tell him she was a reporter?" (laughing)
We called in Jane to talk with Steve. She said "I think I told him." We're saying don't tell him that and Paul is saying you must have told him.
She said "I was taking notes."
So we said he must have seen her taking notes. Oh good. A notebook and a pencil. Good.
This is going on and all of a sudden Steve said to me "You can't do it. Build another front page. You can't do it." This was just before dinner time.
He went off and wrestled with it and around midnight he came to me and said "Ok, run it. I've been doing a lot of thinking and decided where I have to come down. Otherwise, I'm a total hypocrite. I'm coming down on what's morally correct here. You guys discovered a story that they're using fraudulent labels and I can't sit on that. If I loose the damned account then that's just the way it is.
We ran it. The next day all hell broke loose at Stop and Shop. The produce manager was fired. It was a big story at the time. The Globe was calling asking how we got the story. We told them to do their own work and hung up on them. It wasn't Winship this time.
The PR person, Bernard Solomon, known affectionately as "Bunny" called Steve the next day. He said "Well, you got us. We're sorry it happened. We shouldn't do this and are going to make amends."
He was big about the whole thing and saw it as a public relations fiasco. They had inadvertently walked into it and they never pulled their ads. Steve was ecstatic and ran into my office and kissed me.
Whatever you might say about him he came around on this and I'll never forget him for this.
CG When I worked for BAD I recall that Jim and Steve both had separate offices as well as personal assistants. One I recall was Gladys and I don't remember the name of the other woman.
AR Jim's was Gladys and I don't recall the name of Steve's.
CG There was a sense of intense competition and they were part of the Jim and Steve show or should we say melodrama.
I recall an incident when they launched the new City Hall with a gala celebration. Somehow Jim got too enthusiastic and spent the night in the men's room. Gladys had to show up and rescue him with a change of clothes.
AR That sounds vaguely familiar but I don't remember.
CG It was a part of the color of the news room and the intense rivalry. I believe it was about when they parted and went to court. Lewis continued to put out a scab paper.
Early on Steve was accessible and a family man. I recall driving around with him in an old car with his son Brad in the back seat. I knew his wife Betty and allegedly it was her money that launched his investment.
With success he became more flamboyant and philanthropic. He had money but never exuded a sense of class and style.
AR His second wife, Dale Roberts, had more money than anyone. The marriage didn't last long.
CG I knew Dale. She was a very nice lady who I knew socially in the art world. Through her Steve was involved with the ICA, collected art, and was a backer of an art gallery.
AR Then he married the extremely agitated judge.
(Maria Lopez was for a time a TV judge criticized for unusual sentencing which resulted in controversy.)
CG A lot of your writers, including myself, were Brandeis grads. Who else?
AR Paul Solman, Teddy Gross, Ben Gerson, who became music editor after Tim Crouse went to Rolling Stone. Gerson and Gross were class of 1969. In my class (1964). I'm a year behind you. Teddy had a brother Larry Gross who taught at Penn. Solman was class of 1966.
CG And Jon Landau.
AR He was class of 1968. It was just people I knew who were writers and wanted to do this thing. It just happened. I walked in and inherited an established staff. There was Deac Rossell in film. Larry Stark covered theatre. When we became a newspaper he became my theatre editor. I felt that Larry was doing what you were doing in terms of how he covered every little theatre from Boston to the North Shore. What you were doing for art Larry was doing for theatre. It was great.
There were a lot of people who walked in and out of the office like (Janet) Maslin. I forget where she went to school.
(Janet R. Maslin, born August 12, 1949, is best known as a film and literary critic for The New York Times. She served as a Times' film critic from 1977 to 1999 and a book critic from 2000 to 2015. She graduated from the University of Rochester in 1970, with a B.A. degree in mathematics.)
CG I remember a Cat Stevens interview she did for BAD. Didn't she start as a rock critic?
AR She didn't cover film for me. She went to the Times to do film. She was doing music for Tim Crouse who brought her on. When he was leaving he called and said "Whatever you do don't give Janet my job. She lets people go on way too long. She lets herself go way too long. We're trying to keep things short and punchy."
Instead, he suggested Ben Gerson who I did not know at the time. (Several years later he left journalism for law school.) The final thing he said is that "I really think she wants Deac's job (film) and not mine."
She came in for an interview during which I went, uh huh, uh huh. I was not convinced.
It was eleven that night when I got a call from Mindich which was unusual.
He said "I was just about to go to sleep when my phone rings. You don't give out my phone number but by now people can figure out where I live. Someone named Janet Maslin called and she said she didn't like the interview she had with you. Now she wants to talk to me because obviously I outrank you. She has some nerve calling me at eleven at night saying that she didn't like her interview with my hand picked executive editor. Whatever you do, don't hire her. I don't think she understands tact."
As Harper told you, with all the colleges, there was a real good pool of writing talent and ability.
CG I don't think that the prominence of Brandeis in Boston media at that time was a coincidence. I was a fine arts major but the campus was politically charged. If it was a nice sunny day, and students wanted to march to the Watertown Amory for an anti-nuclear protest, I went along. While I wasn't a political activist I would say that, because of Brandeis, I became an arts radical which I am to this day. I was taught and conditioned to think with dissent as an outsider.
AR Well said. When we were there the whole thing was question, question, question. Challenge authority. Challenge the status quo. Yeah, I got that feeling.
CG How did that inform your outlook and writers you chose to work with?
AR Well, it informed my outlook to not be a part of the mainstream news media.
CG To what extent do you identify with the Brandeis radical tradition? You didn't make it to the FBI most wanted list.
AR No but there was an FBI file which I got through freedom of information. I pursued it and you had to send a notarized letter. I want to a notary at my friendly bank and she said "What if they don't have a file. Won't you be embarrassed?" She said "Ok, what did you do?"
"I edited an underground newspaper" I replied. She said "Oh yeah. You have a file."
I got the file and it was thick. I'm saying what the heck is this? (laughing) It was a complete Xeroxed issue of Boston After Dark. Every article was circled. There was a note that was signed JEH so I guess it was J. Edgar Hoover. It said "Is there any reason to dig deeper into this crypto-pinko newspaper?"
CG Why did it all fail? The counter culture we believed in is now gone. The Phoenix is gone and WBCN folded. What happened?
AR That's a big teardrop on my head. There are several reasons why it failed.
CG The young and emerging generations view us as obsolete liberals. Look at how far the shift has been to the Evangelical far right. So the counter culture institutions we believed in are long gone. That's why the "Astral Weeks" book is so interesting in unearthing the zeitgeist of 1968. Perhaps there is now enough time, distance and interest to go back and look at that radical generation.
AR I would love to see the demographics of people who are buying and reading "Astral Weeks." My feeling is that it may just be us. People over 50 and not reaching out to anyone else. I would like to be told it's different but I don't think so.
I had a nice conversation five years ago, St. Patrick's Day when the Boston After Dark/ Phoenix network ended. I wrote an obit that got printed here on the Vineyard in the Gazette. I spoke with Steve and he was not sad but he was mad. He felt the paper died because of his son (Brad). He said "I handed off a nice baby to another baby who walked away and went skiing."
There was a time to beat the bushes for national advertising which was spread thin. That was the Holy Grail to survival in the media business. By then there was social media so how could a newspaper survive? Brad probably thought, this will never fly, and nobody cares anymore.
I spoke with Peter Kadzis who was one of the last editors there. He told me that college campuses wanted to read about where to go that night. It had come full circle and kids couldn't care less about the news.
CG Back to Lewis.
AR You could see it was losing its influence a long time ago.
I recall when Nixon resigned and a few months later the Vietnam War ended. Paul Solman said to me "This is bad. Because we were right and now what do we do? There's nothing to yell about. Jimmy Carter is slithering into the White House. He'll be above it all with a tin ear. A good hearted man will end up as the best statesman that ever came out of the White House."
Everything went to sleep, and while we were sleeping, the Republican party grew six more heads. You have an entire generation which didn't even grow up under Reagan and that's the youth market.
There was a glimmer of hope that the Parkland Shooting protests might turn into something. Now it's not getting the coverage it did at the outset. Young people have to be mad and not want fake news. Now with progressive technology and the internet there are so many horses out of the barn. Maybe we will live long enough to see another alternative media. It just won’t be Steve Bannon's Breitbart.
One other thing about my FBI files. I wrote them requesting to get weekly updates on their Most Wanted lists. There were so many on it from Saxe and Powers to Bernadette Dorn. We wanted to write stories about them so that woke the sleeping bear.
At that time, I had on staff Bo Burlingham who went on to found Inc. Magazine. (Currently he writes for Forbes.) He was under the watchful eye of the FBI every day that he came to the office. They parked outside and he would go bring them coffee.
He asked "Why are you following me?" They answered because of Days of Rage. He was a Weatherman. A federal judge in Flint, Michigan threw everything out. So the guys waiting for their coffee disappeared.
So here's my guy from Princeton, smoking a pipe, who's wanted for Days of Rage because he punched out a cop in Chicago. (DNC convention 1968.)
CG To what extent were you a part of the New Journalism. One thing I couldn't stand about you was all those joke headlines.
AR (laughing) Well. Too bad. It all began when I started at the Patriot Ledger when I was 23. I was handed a wire item that Roy Roger's horse had died and they wanted to run something. I put the story together with a headline "Trigger Mortis." The next morning the publisher came to me and said "You're good."
CG Harper Barnes talked about how the staff got fed up with Mindich and wanted to defect to the Cambridge Phoenix.
AR Yeah but that's not true. Paul was already friends with Harper. I was feeling my oats about getting more and more work at Channel 2. And I told Paul that I was ready to leave. I was liking the idea of early television. Newspaper work destroyed my first marriage and I was looking for something that would be easier to deal with. Paul said "If you do that I'm not staying here." I said "You don't want to be the editor?" He said "No I don't want to deal with this. I'd rather go over there."
That's what happened so we gave it to Teddie (Gross) and he took over. As far as I heard Teddie made a lot of enemies.
CG He wasn't easy to deal with. I pitched him a story on Jose Maso a bilingual media and community person. He killed my piece and then ran it as a rewrite under another byline. When I complained and didn't get a kill fee he told me "You don't own Jose Maso." But it was my idea and evidently a good one.
AR I heard about a lot of that crap which is not good. After Teddie, Richard Gaines was the editor forever.
(He started with UPI before the Phoenix. He later moved and wrote for the Gloucester Daily Times. He died there June 11, 2013 at 69.)
CG I sensed that he (Gross) just didn't like me.
AR He didn't like a lot of people which was a problem. But I didn't sense any kind of mutiny until the end there when I decided to go. The joke is that I was the buffer so they didn't have to deal with the advertising side. Barry Morris was a bigger pain in the ass than Steve.
When Lewis left I got his office. Steve said "It has two doors. One goes to editorial and one goes to advertising. So when someone knocked, depending of which door, I knew what it was about. There were a lot of people coming and going and it was fine. I lost a couple of music writers to Jann Wenner (Rolling Stone) at the time. Tim Crouse left and for a little while Bob Blumenthal wrote on jazz for them. He wrote for the Globe for a long time.
CG Bob was the dean of Boston’s jazz writers.
AR He was another guy looking for something to do while in grad school.
Another guy who came to me fresh out of Harvard in 1970 was David Sipress who has had a career as a cartoonist for the New Yorker. That was the talent pool.
CG What was unique about journalism in Boston compared to other markets? We talk about the New Journalism. Did you sense that?
AR I thought of Boston as a very small town for good and bad reasons. You could find out about things pretty quickly. You could stay on top of things and have a say. The bad side was that everyone knew everybody's business.
We started to live through the beginnings of, your phrase, Gonzo or what was called New Journalism under Tom Wolfe. Basically I thought it was taking your notes and having them published. When I was in grad school in journalism at Columbia I was shown Tom Wolfe and he was just starting out. That would be about 1965. What it showed me was another way of having a style. You didn't have to write like the entire good grey lady newspapers did. You could inject yourself if there was a just cause for doing that. Or at least some descriptive writing that stated I'm not some staid old newspaper guy.
Early on in meetings we would discuss whether we should have an editorial page. That stopped as there was no need for one. What was the point? Every article kind of had a slant to it. Good or bad it became what they called at the time advocacy journalism. You took sides in how you wrote things.
I remember writing a piece with Bob Katz when he came back from the Harvard Square riots. That was May of 1970 (actually, April 1970).
CG I was there when the cops charged down Mass Ave. It was like the running of the bulls in Pamplona. On Boylston I managed to duck into a side street and made my way back to the other end of the square. Standing on a corner, I watched school busses full of cops driving by. Three clean cut looking guys came up to me and started talking about the "pigs." One of them pulled out what appeared to be a Molotov cocktail and offered it to me. I turned it down and have since thought that it was likely that they were undercover agents. All they needed was my prints on the bottle and I would have been a goner. Checking the papers no Molotov cocktails were used in the riot.
AR Everyone was blaming SDS and the radical groups. Katz was researching a think piece after the riots. He went to the Globe and Herald and asked to look at their photos. He got copies and brought them in. He said "Do you notice what I'm noticing?"
I said "Everyone looks young."
"Young" he replied. "They're thirteen. These are goon townies. It's not SDS. These were kids with an excuse to act crazy and throw bricks at banks and Design Research."
The more we called police the more he was right. I said write the piece about how the rest of the media got it all wrong. I felt good about that. I got a call from a Globe guy I knew, Bob Levy, who has been married to Ellen Goodman all these years. He was the Living page editor. He said "Pass along anyone writing features who doesn't fit into your paper, I'll hire them. You have good writers. I ended up writing for him in '74 and '75.
CG Compare the Cambridge Phoenix/ Real Paper to Boston After Dark. Was there a difference?
AR I didn’t see any. We were doing the same kinds of things and covering the same news stories. We reviewed the same concerts and albums, the same movies and plays. There were the same counter culture things from Ram Dass to drugs coming through. It was a chance to write in a fresher style than the Globe and Herald were allowing people to do.
I really didn’t see that much of a difference.
CG Who were the writing talents of that era?
AR Paul Solman was definitely a talent. He had a good argumentative view of life. He was trying to see both sides of every story. I thought he was really good. One guy I forgot in my original list was Peter Guralnick. He was on one track. He was going to cover rhythm and blues until the day he died. He did really deep pieces whether it was about Elvis or Howling Wolf. They were really good and I didn’t see that anywhere else.
CG Of course he wrote acclaimed books on Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke Sam Phillips and others.
AR We had a guy, now approaching 90, Charlie Beye, who nobody remembers. He was my food writer as well as a classics professor at BU. He was very funny and dapper, always with a bow tie. He was very witty and enjoyed the chance not to be writing about Greek classics. He wrote for me for about two years then said “I have to stop on doctor’s orders. I’m getting an ulcer from eating out all the time.”
CG You mention that Jon Landau wrote for you but Harper Barnes says that he was his first hire for the Cambridge Phoenix.
AR He wrote two articles for me before that and then didn’t write anything after that for four or five months and then just left. To go back to your point it was another Brandeis connection. He actually came through Paul. One day he came into the office and said “I’m another Brandeis guy and would like to write something.” He wrote two music pieces about which I can’t remember. It was before Harper came to town. That would have been in the summer of 1970.
CG Did you get to know him?
AR No, not really, not at all.
CG Did you know the Georges, Kimball and Frazier?
AR Yes. They were quite a handful in different ways. Everybody tells the glass eye stuff about Kimball. Deep down inside he was belligerent. He was mad at the world and I don’t know if it had anything to do with losing his eye. I got really antsy around people who were drinking a lot but I found him to be a good writer.
CG You drink, right?
AR Yeah, but I don’t get drunk. I wasn’t like them back then. I had to get up early in the morning to deal with the paper.
As far as Frazier goes I met him three times. He was one of a kind and a very interesting guy. He was a columnist that you just don’t find anymore.
CG Looking back at that era in media, arts and entertainment there are so many monuments the likes of which we may never see again. Thanks for sharing your memories.
Review of “Astral Weeks” by Ryan Walsh.
Interview with Harper Barnes.
Response to Barnes interview of Arnie Reisman.
Steve Nelson on the Boston Tea Party.
Avatar and Broadside editor David Wilson.