“The Rag”

by Jonah Raskin, November 23, 2016

“The Sixties” as a state of mind has lasted far longer than the actual decade itself, much to the delight of 1960s survivors and to the annoyance of politicians who wish it had never happened. Now, in their 60s and 70s, the aging veterans of the 1960s like to remember the heady days of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and rebellion, that volatile quartet that hasn’t lost its appeal yet.

Moreover, if the boomers were associated with an underground newspaper, they’re likely to recall the glory days when hippie journalists, pot smoking photographers and daring editors created scandalous sheets with names like The Seed from Chicago, The Rat from New York, and The Rag, which emerged from Austin, Texas, an island of sorts in the Lone Star State.

If nothing else, the Austin activists proved that radicalism didn’t just emerge from Berkeley and New York.

Just in time for Donald Trump’s victory at the polls, Rag veterans, including Thorne Dreyer, Alice Embree and Richard Croxdale, have edited and published a collection of The Rag’s best articles, interviews, drawings and cartoons, “Brought to you,” as they insist, “by the miracle of functioning anarchy.”

The whimsical editors at The Rag usually maintained a sense of humor even when they took on the powers-that-be at the University of Texas and in the State Capitol, too.

The editors were also willing to publish Mariann Wizard’s bittersweet Valentine, “To Austin,” that has the lines, “I am tired/ Of your guns and butter crunch rhetoric/ And your crutch and concrete reality.” The paper could poke fun at itself and the culture that gave birth to it.

Celebrating “The Rag” (New Journalism Project; ISBN # 978-1-365-39954-8) brings readers back to the years that stretched from 1966 to 1976, roughly the same time-period as the War in Vietnam which fueled the underground press, so called because it was oppositional and countercultural.

The writing from The Rag is surprisingly intelligent, the poetry still resonates and the cartoons and sketches by the likes of Gilbert Shelton, Jim Franklin and Trudy Minkoff are classics of their kind.

As this new book shows, The Rag wasn’t all that different from its brother and sister underground papers elsewhere, except that it came from Austin, Texas. Indeed, Austin and Texas shaped The Rag, and The Rag in turn reflected the state of Texas and the state of mind that informed Austin. There was often something of the cowboy in the Austin hippie and something of the wide-open spaces of Texas in the pages of the paper.

Celebrating “The Rag” is of particular value to citizens of Austin and Texas, but not only to them. It ought to be of interest to anyone who cares about the underground press. Moreover, It ought to be of interest to anyone who wants to see what creative, anti-authoritarian types did without I-phones, laptops and the Internet.

Celebrating “The Rag” is a mirror that reflects the changing movements, causes, issues and events that animated The Sixties, from the military draft to Woodstock and from there to food-cops and socialism. Nearly everything and everyone is here, from Allen Ginsberg and Frank Zappa to Wonder Woman who holds a speculum and cries out, “At Your Cervix.”

This volume also reproduces the famous cover of The Rag from October 18, 1971. A weird-looking character, part-cowboy and part-hippie, holds a joint in one hand and says, “Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get your through times of no dope.” Does one laugh or does one cry?

An introductory essay by the historian Paul Buhle doesn’t help, though it does point out that papers like The Rag had forefathers and foremothers like The Masses, which published from 1911 to 1917. Indeed, as Buhle points out, The Masses was “full of life and good humor” until the US government closed it down on the grounds that it published “treasonable material.”

We might remember The Masses and The Rag now as we embark on a strange, new journey in America that will take us we know not where, but that might well bring new charges of treason to those who exercise their right to speak freely.

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