Helix (1967-1970)

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 2/13/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20971

Helix, Seattle's first "underground" newspaper, debuted in March 1967, and for more than three years and 125 issues provided its readers news, reviews, opinions, musings, letters, more opinions, poetry, personal classifieds (often sexual in nature), and much, much more. Unburdened by any pretense of objectivity, Helix documented and supported the youth rebellion of the late 1960s. It was satirical, sarcastic, ironic, often funny, sometimes silly, frequently outraged, occasionally brilliant. At its best it was cogent, thought-provoking, perceptive, and persuasive; at its worst, particularly near the end, it could be shrill, scolding, and somewhat incoherent. Above all, Helix was a creature of its tumultuous times, and it documented that era from a perspective and with a panache that Seattle's two daily papers could not have matched if they'd tried. But as America in the late 1960s grew increasingly dark, so did Helix, and there was a price to be paid. On June 11, 1970, five weeks after National Guardsmen killed four students at Kent State University, the demoralized and exhausted staff finally threw in the towel, and Helix was no more.

Context: The Sixties

Helix can only be understood in its historical context. It was part of an underground press in America that flourished from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, but what a time it was. The most momentous year was 1968, but 1965 marked a generational pivot point of no return. More than seven million baby boomers born in 1946 and 1947 were entering adulthood, and many did not like what they found there (full disclosure -- the author was one). A small sampling:

In March 1965, 3,500 Marines became the first U.S. ground-combat troops in Vietnam, a small country in Southeast Asia then little known to many Americans. In July the military draft quota was doubled. In October more young men were inducted into the army than at any time since 1951, and married men without children lost their draft-exempt status. One month later the military, hungry for more troops, lowered its minimum intelligence standards. Every able-bodied male between the ages of 19 and 26 who was not in college, married with children, or otherwise exempt, faced mandatory military service. By the end of 1965 there were more than 184,000 American military personnel in Vietnam.

On the home front, in March 1965 civil rights Freedom Marchers walking from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery were attacked repeatedly by racists and by police using horses, clubs, and fire hoses. In August, Watts, a largely African American section of Los Angeles, exploded in five days of rioting that left 34 people dead and more than $200 million in property damage. In November, Norman Morrison (1933-1965), a Baltimore Quaker and father of three, burned himself to death at the gates of the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War.

Seattle avoided violence, but in September 1965 an edict by the school district banned long hair for boys, and the weekly University Herald complained of the growing number of "beatniks" in the city's University District. In October 200 people attended the first Vietnam Teach-In at the University of Washington, while a U.S. senate subcommittee falsely claimed that the teach-in movement was linked to the "communist propaganda apparatus" (Crowley, 225). By the end of 1965 the battle lines of an epic generational conflict were becoming fixed and clear.

The New Left and the Counterculture

Two youth movements, the New Left and the counterculture, developed during the early and middle years of the 1960s. The New Left was a political movement inspired by the Port Huron Statement, a 1962 Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) manifesto that rejected old-style leftist dogma and called for the mobilization of "younger people who matured in the postwar world" ("Port Huron Statement"). The New Left would be in the forefront of opposition to the war, the draft, racism, materialism, and a host of other issues.

The other movement, a youth counterculture, was more spontaneous, less intentional. While never entirely apolitical and increasingly less so, it was preoccupied with exploring lifestyles that in nearly every aspect -- grooming, dress, music, living arrangements, sex, recreational drug use, and more -- were a rebuke to the values and traditions of the previous generation.

The New Left could be relentlessly humorless; the counterculture could seem frivolous, solipsistic, and naive. Despite their differences, they shared a belief that an unjust war could be stopped and a conformist, complacent, and complicit society remade. History would prove them partially right.

A Not-so-free Press

Journalist A. J. Liebling wrote in 1960, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one" ("The Wayward Press ..."). In 1965 the internet was decades away; most Americans got their news and opinions from about 1,700 daily newspapers (with a combined circulation of well more than 60 million), and three national television networks -- ABC, CBS, and NBC. Newspaper revenue from ads and circulation in 1965 was nearly $6.5 billion. The three television networks made $2.5 billion that year selling viewers' eyeballs to advertisers. There was no incentive to take controversial positions, and plenty of incentives not to. In the mid-1960s America's mass media were, for the most part, unquestioning defenders of the status quo.

About the only alternatives were a very few listener-supported radio stations around the country, including Seattle's KRAB-FM. They didn't always avoid controversy, but had limited reach and were at the mercy of the Federal Communications Commission's licensing authority. Beyond these, the mass-communication options of the New Left and the counterculture were for the most part limited to fliers, posters, and megaphones. The times demanded more, and more was on the way.

The Pioneers

Seattle historian and HistoryLink cofounder Paul Dorpat (b. 1938) remembered the day in late 1966 when Paul Sawyer (1934-2010), a charismatic Unitarian Universalist minister, spoke the 10 words that inspired the creation of Helix:

"We were alone in the Free University office, beige walls and gray ceiling, on the second floor above the Coffee Corral on University Way, aka 'The Ave.' Under a blue winter sky and from the window I followed a couple walking hand in hand below me on 42nd St., when over my left shoulder Paul suggested, 'What we need here is something like the Berkeley Barb'" ("The Helix Returns").

The Barb appeared in the Bay Area in August 1965, the second major underground newspaper of the mid-1960s. The first was the Los Angeles Free Press, launched in July 1964 by Art Kunkin (1928-2019). The Free Press opposed the war in Vietnam, the draft, racism, suppression of free speech on college campuses, police misconduct, and many other things. Decades later, Kunkin told the Los Angeles Times, "The sense of the 1960s alternative press was that these issues were all connected, [and] that indicated a certain sickness in society" ("Art Kunkin, Free Press Publisher ...").

Three papers followed the Barb in quick succession -- New York City's East Village Other (EVO) in October 1965, Detroit's Fifth Estate one month later, and in December, The Paper, from East Lansing, Michigan. The following year saw few new entries, but one stood out -- the short-lived San Francisco Oracle (12 issues total). The Oracle took full advantage of photo offset printing (further explained below) to produce the first psychedelic underground newspaper. Its visual style had many influences, including turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau, Bay Area poster and album-cover artists, and, far from least, psychedelic drugs. Much of the underground press, including Helix, would emulate the Oracle style.

Between 1967 and 1970 underground papers began tumbling from presses across the land. A study by the University of Washington counted more than 2,600 "underground, radical, and alternative periodicals" that existed in the U.S. between 1965 and 1975 ("Mapping the Underground ..."). They were of varying quality, lifespan, and reach, and not all were grinding the same axes, but their combined circulation reached into the millions. The adjective "underground" represented a romantic conception rather than a legal or publishing reality. Despite police harassment, reluctant landlords, and cautious printers, America's underground papers were produced and distributed openly, protected by the First Amendment.

Helix Is Born

Paul Sawyer dropped the Helix seed in fertile soil. Seattle's Free University had opened in the fall of 1966, one block off the UW campus. Walt Crowley (1947-2007), also a cofounder of HistoryLink, would later write, "The Free University collected Seattle's dissidents into a critical mass for the first time in decades," a place where volunteers, including several UW professors, "taught everything from Anarchy to Zen" (Crowley, 59). It was a fitting birthplace and prime recruiting ground for a still-notional, yet-unnamed underground newspaper.

It's not possible more than a half-century later to identify everyone who participated in getting Helix off the ground, much less all who later had a hand in it. Record-keeping was not even a remote consideration, there was no regular payroll, and bylines were optional and often sparse. Some participants are no longer living, a few simply disappeared, and memories have faded. What follows is about all that can be said with reasonable certainty about how and by whose efforts Helix came to be. It is based largely on Rites of Passage, a 1995 memoir by Walt Crowley, whose history as a writer and illustrator for the paper began with its third issue and lasted until the end.

Inspired by Sawyer's musings, Dorpat, an avuncular figure even at age 28, organized meetings at the Free U to discuss the idea, but nothing really jelled. Weeks later, in February 1967, Nancy Keith, KRAB-FM program director and factotum, took Dorpat to the Blue Moon Tavern and told him, "Just do it" (Dorpat email), or words to that effect.

That got things going. Dorpat borrowed $200 and rented a small storefront, a former candy shop, at ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­4526 Roosevelt Way NE near the western edge of the University District. (Evicted in September 1967, Helix relocated to a storefront at 3128 Harvard Avenue E, where it would spend the rest of its days.) Dorpat was the paper's effective founder and first editor. Crowley later identified some early participants:

"Tom Robbins; P-I cartoonist Ray Collins; poet and song-writer John Cunnick; artists Maryl Clemmens, Karen Warner, and Gary Eagle; UW geneticist and KRAB co-founder John Gallant; Dan Murphy ...; Free University 'janitor' Scott White; Seattle Folk Society founder John Ullman; Seattle Jazz Society leader Lowell Richards; writer-critic Gene Johnston; and P-I headline writer George Geazy" (Crowley, p. 62). [Note: actually George "Giese," who also held more exalted editorial positions at the P-I.]

The name Helix was suggested by a UW student, winning out over Ray Collins's proposal, Peeping Fred, a reference to a voyeur/flasher then haunting the campus. More volunteers appeared after the first issue was published. Sisters Roxie Grant and Sharma (who used no last name) were early arrivals. They typed and pasted up the work of others, went on to write articles of their own, and became key members of the Helix cadre. Roger Downey, a UW security guard, came to the office in uniform with a warning about police informants. He was quickly co-opted and began managing the paper's events calendar and covering cultural topics, the start of a long career as a writer and critic for several Seattle publications.

Other names, gleaned from the pages of early issues, include photographers Frank Denman, Randy Hall, and Gary Finholt; artists Jacques Moitoret and brothers Paul (1936-2014), Larry (1940-2019), and Maurie Heald (d. 1996); music critic Erich Ramhorst; and writers Pat Churchill, Robert Horsley (later a professional printer), and Tim Harvey, another key figure, who wrote prolifically and served as co-editor after Dorpat began spending much of his time in Bellingham organizing a Multi-Arts Festival. The omission of many other names signifies fading memories and a dearth of documentation, not the value of their contributions.

An early and valuable Helix friend was Stan Stapp (1918-2006), publisher of the North Central Outlook, a community newspaper. After seeing a few early issues of the paper, he simply showed up one day and offered to show the staff how to operate his IBM Selectric composing typewriters, which he then let them use at his home print shop. An early form of word processor, these produced justified text of much higher quality than the manual typewriters Helix started with. When Stapp later upgraded his equipment, Helix inherited the Selectrics.

A Digression: Photo Offset Printing

In 1963 there were about 650 community newspapers in America; by 1967 they numbered nearly 1,700, including 1,500 weeklies. The flexibility and economy of photo offset printing fueled this increase. Tens of thousands of copies of a multi-page tabloid could be printed for just a few hundred dollars. A happy concurrence of technology and the times, it also made the underground press possible. For that reason, a partial explanation Helix's use of photo offset printing seems unavoidable.

Photo offset printing got rid of metal type entirely. The various elements of each Helix page -- text, photographs, drawings, etc. -- were pasted onto a backing sheet by hand (usually by many hands), often in legendary day-and-night, stimulant-fueled sessions. The result was a pastiche of text, photographs, cartoons, "comix," drawings, clip art, collage -- virtually anything that whim dictated and space allowed. Text in a welter of clashing fonts (or even handwritten) could wrap around other content, slithering snakelike around a page. If you could paste it up, you could print it:

"Copy was squeezed and twisted onto [sic] every conceivable shape. What space remained was populated with mastheads, illustrations, and doodles. Mainly because Dorpat suffered from graphic agoraphobia, every page looked like an example of Rhode Island gerrymandering" ("Helix Second Anniversary ...").

When the paste-up was deemed complete or exhaustion set in, the backing sheets were taken to a printer to be photographed full size. The resulting negative images were then transferred to a thin, chemically treated metal sheet in a process that needn't be explored here. Each metal sheet was fastened around what was called a plate cylinder, and ink was applied from a reservoir (or fountain). As the press turned, the inked image was transferred to an offset (or blanket) cylinder made of rubber or a synthetic material, and it was this that printed the image onto the paper.

After Seattle's Grange Press rather prudishly refused to print the first Helix, Ken Munson, a union activist who owned The Printers, a print shop in Lynnwood, stepped in. His Heidelberg flatbed press required paper to be fed in sheet by sheet, and the printed pages then had to be taken back to the Helix office to be collated and folded by hand. Despite intense criticism from some far-right quarters, Grange Press would later earn redemption by printing Helix on its modern web press, which was fed continuously from a large role of newsprint and efficiently pumped out a virtually finished product.

The first use of color in Helix came in its third issue, and was achieved by loading two or three colors into the ink fountain, separated by barriers, or dams. The colors would gradually blend together on the plate cylinder, producing results that were usually interesting, if not entirely predictable.

Helix By the Numbers

The first Helix was loosed on the public on March 23, 1967. The last came on June 11, 1970 -- three years, two months, 19 days, and 124 issues later. Originally a twice-a-month, 12-page tabloid, by early 1968 it had expanded to (usually) 24 pages, and in September that year became a weekly. Its first issue cost 15 cents, its last cost 25 cents. In the beginning, Helix was distributed entirely by street vendors who, if honest, kept half the proceeds. Through the efforts of an early volunteer, Norm Caldwell, the paper eventually found its way into some stores and coin-operated street stands.

The first issue's 2,500 copies sold out quickly. Within two months circulation was 12,000, and three months later it was 16,000. But as the "Summer of Love" fell victim to its own excesses and relentless police harassment, circulation declined, stabilizing at about 5,000 by the end of the year. Fortunately, the paper's primary source of income was advertising, especially advertising by record companies and other music- and concert-related businesses, much of it solicited by Helix stalwart Michael Crowley. This eventually brought in enough money to enable the core staff of about 20 to dip into the cashbox for living expenses. It was all very informal.

A count is impossible, but it is likely that over the years hundreds of contributors appeared in Helix -- some regular staff, many others not -- filling its pages with reporting, essays, political screeds, photos, meditations, ruminations, rants, poems, art, cartoons, philosophical exegeses, and much that defied classification. Inspired by artist Billy Ward, Helix even enjoyed an infatuation with a counterculture icon, Meher Baba (1894-1969), a non-verbal Indian spiritual master whose most famous dictum, spelled out on an alphabet board, was "Don't Worry, Be Happy."

Helix's local content was supplemented by the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS), which allowed its members to reprint anything found in other members' papers at no cost. With no internet or even fax machines, these were mailed back and forth. Helix also joined the Liberation News Service (LNS), which provided prepackaged content from a radical leftist perspective.

Helix Evolves

For about its first year, Helix, with the exception of regular exposés of police misconduct, was heavy on the counterculture and relatively light on the New Left agenda. Alone and with others, it also organized a number of counterculture events. Three days after its debut, Helix joined with the Brothers (a sort-of private social-services agency for youth, started by Jack and Sally Delay) to put on a fundraiser on the steamer Virginia V that featured local bands and a light show. (Jack Delay would also write an occasional column for Helix titled "Dope" -- pro marijuana and psychedelics, very anti hard drugs.) Helix then got permission from the Seattle Parks Board to use Volunteer Park and the city's electricity for the free Chief Seattle Flower Potlatch and Isness-In on April 30, 1967, inspired by San Francisco's Human Be-In of the previous January. It would be the first of several similar events involving Helix. On May 7 came a concert and light show at Eagles Auditorium, made possible when the Seattle City Council directed a reluctant police department to issue the necessary permit.

But as 1968 unfurled, such lightheartedness seemed dissonant with reality. In January came the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, which convinced many Americans of the barbarity and futility of that conflict. In April the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, setting off riots in scores of cities. In June Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, minutes after winning the California presidential primary. In July it was reported that 9,557 American soldiers (about 52 a day on average) had been killed in Vietnam during the first half of 1968, more than in all of 1967. Throughout the summer, Seattle's Central Area seethed with anger and sporadic violence at police harassment of the Black Panther Party. In August police violently attacked protestors at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and in November Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) was elected president. A calamitous year, by any measure.

Helix tried to stay as upbeat as it could, but its sardonic wit was noticeably giving way to outrage and anger. Even so, it continued promoting events and causes that tried to preserve the peace-and-love ethos of the counterculture. The Media Mash, a joint fundraiser with KRAB-FM at Eagles Auditorium came on April 21, 1968, and the famous Piano Drop in Duvall one week later. On August 30 the first Sky River Rock Festival began its three-day run near Sultan, a year before the far more famous Woodstock. Author Tom Robbins was there and later recalled, "I never saw a frown. Everyone was happy and smiling. It was such a utopian event. There was a feeling of freedom and sharing and loving" ("Reviving the Spirit ...").

Helix Devolves

If such serenity could still be found at music festivals in peaceful rural surroundings, it was becoming increasingly scarce back in the real world. As 1968 rolled over into 1969, things got no better. Much of the counterculture was deteriorating in a spiral of disillusionment and hard drugs. The New Left was riven by factionalism and increasingly violent. Helix, the local chronicler of both, had nowhere to hide. The war in Vietnam raged on, riots tore through a number of American cities, and police tactics against dissidents and African Americans, primarily the Black Panthers, became increasingly violent. In response, Walt Crowley would later confess, he and several others "began slowly radicalizing the paper" ("What Does It All Mean").

They also essentially redesigned Helix's appearance, perhaps to convey greater gravitas. With the help of the Selectric composing typewriters and the efforts of Roxie Grant and Sharma, its layout became more conventional, with columns of justified type much like any other newspaper. It was still heavy with graphics, mostly cartoons and comics, but the outré psychedelic touches that had inhabited its pages since the beginning were now found mostly on front covers and display ads in the back pages.

The stark cover of the August 14, 1969, Helix may have signified a transitional moment, the approximate point where Helix gave up on the fading promise of the counterculture. Below a red band with the paper's logo was a night photograph of several Seattle police cars, and below that another red band, with the words

POLICE RIOT
PIGS DECLARE WAR
ON YOUTH

The reference was to Seattle police using tear gas to break up a concert at Alki Beach on August 10, followed by violent confrontations in the University District the following evening. In the next issue, a "Commentary" by Walt Crowley ended with the words: "The disturbance in the University District is an episode in the Second American Revolution" ("Commentary").

Helix had less than a year to live, and spent much of it in a mostly humorless and exhausting journalistic rage. In the late summer of 1969, Woodstock brought a brief reincarnation of the sunny counterculture ethos, followed locally two weeks later by a peaceful second Sky River festival. But it was the disastrous Rolling Stones free concert at Altamont on December 6 that better typified the tenor of the times and the direction of events -- two days earlier, Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (1948-1969) and party member Mark Clark (1947-1969) had been slain (Hampton while asleep) by Chicago police.

The End

The new year provided no respite. The Weather Underground, a violent spinoff of SDS, was bombing and shooting its way into infamy, including, in March 1970, causing a fatal accidental blast that destroyed an expensive Greenwich Village townhouse where bombs were being made. In April U.S. forces invaded Cambodia and resumed bombing North Vietnam after a two-year moratorium, setting off large antiwar protests in almost every city and university campus in the nation. On May 4 something happened that only in retrospect seemed inevitable -- panicked and poorly trained National Guardsmen shot and killed four students who were demonstrating against the war at Ohio's Kent State University. This was a profound shock to those on both sides of the generational divide, and it triggered larger and more violent protests.

One month and one week later, Helix hit the wall. Walt Crowley later wrote, "The national mourning period for Kent State was officially over, and things were back to normal. For the survivors at Helix, it was more than we could bear" (Crowley, 178). At the time, he told a reporter, "The Helix feels numb, I feel numb." To the same reporter, another staffer explained, "Helix tried to make the transition from a hippie peace-and-love newspaper to radical media, but it just couldn't do it" ("Workers 'Numbed' ..."). More succinctly, a back-page explanation to its readers, signed by the remaining staff, said in part, "It is time. We are tired" ("Dear You").


Sources:

Note: Fully scanned but incomplete collections of Helix can be found at https://pauldorpat.com/2012/03/31/the-helix-returns/ and the Independent Voices website at https://voices.revealdigital.org/?a=cl&cl=CL1&sp=BHICDIHF&ai=1&e=-------en-20--1--txt-txIN---------------1.

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