Boston Sunday Globe
October 8, 1967

Avatar descends on Boston:

The underground press speaks up

Story by Jane Harriman
Photos by Frank O'Brien
Illustrations from the Avatar
It was one, maybe two, in the afternoon, hot and sunny, quiet with sometimes the buzzing of a locust and the long grass waving outside. It could have been a New Hampshire farmhouse.
That's the feeling you get on Fort Hill. A rural sort of place. It's hard to remember you're in Roxbury.
We were sitting in the kitchen which I guess serves the Fort Hill community. Up there that kind of question isn't important. People would wander in, eyes still blinking from sleep, make coffee and try to focus on the day. A couple of young women came in to get milk for babies' bottles. A few babies waddled in looking for cookies or help in dressing.
On the kitchen table was a tiny grey plasticine doll house with chairs, tables, cradles and people, which someone had modeled and put out of a child's reach at bedtime.

Brian Keating and Wayne Hansen, editors of The Avatar, Boston's new underground newspaper, and its production manager, Ed Fox, were sitting at the table. Several of the paper's artists came and went and the astrologer, Joey Goldfarb, sat down for about two minutes and then went back to his charts or something.
We'd been talking about the paper for a while, and about the people who produce it. Hansen had said, "I don't think I'm a hippy, but then I didn't think I was a beatnik several years ago when I was."
Keating said: "We feel we did nothing until the Avatar began," but they all did do something, and relevant or not, their backgrounds are interesting.
Hansen is 23, and from Grand Forks, North Dakota. He graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy and attended Harvard for a couple of years as did Ed Fox. He works two nights a week at the Cambridge Cyclotron. Fox is from Boston ("We're all from Boston now. It's our home. That's important.") and worked in management consulting. Keating, 24, is married and has a son, and two degrees from the University of Rhode Island. He taught English at Wentworth Institute for a year, and before that worked in the mail room at the New York Times, and as a social worker for the City of New York.

Eventually, we started talking about astrology, which is prominent in the paper and in the lives of those who live on Fort Hill.
They said they believe in astrology as a means of communication, a language which is older and more powerful than psychiatric language, which except for that of Jung and perhaps Reich, does not consider the spiritual side of man as adequately.
I asked if any of them would ever, for any reason, consider going to a psychiatrist.
"That's like asking if we'd ever go back into society," Hansen said.
Of course, I knew that the people sitting around the table with me had to some extent broken with conventional society and formed a new way of life, but I suddenly felt it and realized what it meant.

The Fort Hill people, and those who work for the Avatar, are not rebelling, primarily. They have merely broken away and formed a way of life that is deeply tolerable to them.
Don't misunderstand me. I have no doubt that any of them I met could, with a few days practice, function as well as you do, better than I do, in the 9-to-5 white collar world. But they have decided that the pains and pressures we accept, often begrudgingly, with the aid of drink, drugs, hypnotic television trances, day dreams and the like, are not worth it.
They know that to love life is to spend its passage in as pleasurable or as tolerable a way as possible.
They have tried to create a personal utopia, an environment in which they can live with a certain integrity and attempt to fulfill themselves as happily and productively as possible.
This is something which we should all do as much as our accrued responsibilities allow, but few of us have the courage to form our own traditions.

We mask our cowardice with voyeuristic snickers about old Harry who runs off to Tahiti with his daughter's roommate or with guffaws or tongue clicks at passing "hippies" some of whom are living with an independence and an ultimate responsibility for their personal destiny of which we are, quite simply, frightened.
Anyway, out of this community, and this way of life, came the ideas behind a publication that would hold up a vision, sometimes a mirror, to society - the ideas for a new kind of newspaper called, for want of a better name, underground.
Boston was slow to get an underground newspaper.
When the Avatar was first published here last June the Underground Press Syndicate had more than two dozen members with a combined circulation of 234,000, and the Los Angeles Free Press, which began the wave of tabloidized "truth papers," had been in business for three years.

The Avatar in production

An Avatar is the incarnation or manifestation of a spirit in Hindu mythology.
On the back page of the first issue orange and black letters proclaimed "Avatar Descends." The spirit of those producing the paper was descending to enlighten the city, the truth was made newsprint.
Between columns of the lead story (on Avatars and somewhat elusively titled "Emerson" who was not mentioned until the last paragraph) the editors wrote, in a box:
"... Dogma, suspicion, and narrow personal pride have always acted upon society's appointed overseers to persuade them to subject laws once resonant with the best spiritual and constructive ideals of an age to thought control and terror. That which began as a towering moral force, and might have remained so if allowed to remain a real part of perpetual community revival, has been shattered and allowed to dissipate into countless petty confusions and quarrels.
"AVATAR is the symbol of community revival. Our goals are high, yet we are certain they will come to pass. For a long time we have remained convinced of the rightness of our task - now it is time to bring our message to the world."

Editor Wayne Hansen checks a layout used in a back issue.

The paper's layout was fairly conventional, with vertical columns broken by quite lovely initials and hand-drawn headlines. It looked clean, for its advertisers were few, and according to the paper's policy, they had to meet the "creative staff's" artistic standards or be redrawn by an Avatar artist.
There are several loosely written columns of personal philosophy, an interview with birth-control-law-contester Bill Baird, an article on the Inner Belt, a report of the use of police dogs and other techniques at a riot outside the Savoy Theater, an essay on "Understanding China," a centerfold astrological chart (whose artistic merits are hotly debated) and a few photographs.

Perhaps the most striking piece was by one Mel Lyman, who began his column, "To All Who Would Know," and described himself as "... not a man, not a personality, not a tormented struggling individual. I am all those things and much more. I am the truth and I speak the truth," he advised his readers: "Follow Abraham Lincoln's example if you want a REAL MAN to look up to. Read Emerson's essays if you need words but do your damnedest to make the most out of every moment of your life right here and now, and if you do, I promise you nothing."
For reasons that may escape the Avatar's square reader, Lyman's column continues to excite. He receives more mail than all other Avatar columnists combined, and many of the letters are printed with his answers. A recent issue contained 18 photographs of him, a full-page of letters and answers and his column which consisted of his photograph and the epigram: "The only thing I know that is greater than me is that which I'm always becoming. Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it."

Ten weeks and five issues after its debut the Avatar has descended farther and come, to some ways of thinking, down to earth. It's lead story [No. 6, p. 3] was on "Speed," the amphetamines, and the editors wrote: "...At the moment a situation exists in Boston of which many are unaware. Because of a recent influx of people from Haight-Ashbury and New York, and in part because of the speed scene already existing in Boston, serum hepatitis may become a very great problem in the next few months... We will continue to give important space to the danger of amphetamines with the hope that everyone will become more conscious of this serious problem. SPEED KILLS is not an empty phrase."
In Wayne Hansen's article, the paper took an unequivocal stand against the drugs and backed it up with an interview of four speed users who described their nightmare experiences.
The Avatar had not joined the establishment. Marijuana and other psychedelic drugs it called "a key which if taken with awareness, may be used to open whole worlds of high-level experience, worlds which exist within the mind and the soul, areas which in everyday consciousness are closed to the mind of the everyday person."

Avatar artist Albert Wagner illustrates a page.

But in an Underground Press Syndicate article, "Haight-Hate," [No. 6, p. 13] the starvation and death that are occurring in the psychedelic haven of Haight-Ashbury are described and the question is asked: "Why hasn't the man who really did it to us done something about the problem he [has] created? Why doesn't Doctor Timothy Leary help the Diggers? He's now at work on yet another Psychedelic Circus at $3.50 a head, presumably to raise enough cash to keep himself out of jail, and there isn't even a rumor that he's contributed any of the fortune he made with the last circus towards alleviating the misery of the psychedelphia he created: "Tune in, turn on, drop dead?"
The lay-out had become more exciting. Although it was a far cry from the spectacular (and often unreadable) visual maze of the San Francisco Oracle, there were many more drawings and photographs, often "burned" or printed faintly beneath columns of type.
The Avatar had not undergone reincarnation, but it had become more creative and adopted an attitude of greater responsibility in considering the serious, concrete questions and problems of its readers rather than their vague philosophical distress.

The change was due to a tightening in the paper's editorship.
At one of the first meetings held on Fort Hill to plan the newspaper, its editorship was placed under a five-man board whose members agreed mainly that everyone interested in contributing to the paper should "do his own thing."
When the meeting came to a close, a girl with slinky dark hair exclaimed, "Groovy. Now let's all take a trip together."
Her suggestion was vetoed when a member of the editorial board pointed out that the whole journalistic venture was a trip. If the publication of the Avatar may still be considered a 'trip', it is now one undertaken with responsible planning and an intelligently flexible itinerary.

According to Brian Faunce, the paper's business manager (a clear, blue-eyed man who graduated from Ohio Wesleyan where he was the business manager of his fraternity):
"We started with a minimal amount of capital, and a lot of trust, in the form of credit."
The Avatar is now breaking even financially, helped by the fact that everyone except the secretary is unsalaried. All others work for love. Each 14-page bi-weekly issue has cost roughly $400 to print, circulation has averaged around 7000 copies at twenty-five cents apiece. A full page advertisement cost $100. During the Summer, advertising was low, but it began to pick up in late September when Boston again became a college town, and small off-beat shops renewed their thirst for clothing allowances and the like.
The paper has its own $4450 IBM electronic type setter, and pages are laid out for the artists to work directly on them. When the paper is assembled, it is sent to Milford for printing.

Editor Brian Keating, left, registers appreciation of artist Eben Given's cover drawing

Keating and Hansen have retained the paper's initial character, tightening it when necessary, and adding more news-features. Ed Fox still writes "The Aquarian Age," a column which is sharply written and has considered things from economic development to individual responsibility. Lenny Gibson, in "Itinerant Head" writes of drugs, and Joey Goldfarb explains "Using Astrology."
One of the most provocative and interesting columns (at least to non-hippy readers) is Dave Wilson's very intelligent "Scaramouche" which considers sex, and tries to eliminate such hang-ups as the double standard and sexual inequality. According to Keating, "Some people thought this paper should be a cross between Ramparts and the East Village Other, or between the Los Angeles Free Press, the San Francisco Oracle and the Christian Science Monitor.
"I'm not worried about what other papers are doing. Our problem has been a lack of diversity.
"There's really nothing in most papers except rather empty columns, wire service reports and press releases. Newspapers today are more representative of 1910 than they are now."

Keating shares the opinion that in an electronic age, where news is communicated almost as it happens, papers must become more varied, with colorful, opinionated writing and reports written in reaction to something.
"We are trying to avoid the reporting of just facts. We want opinions, the reporter reporting his own reaction.
"I think the New Yorker has some of the best reporting, the rest of it stinks, and the New York Review of Books has something very good happening for an establishment magazine. But in general the Underground Press Syndicate papers are certainly more vital.
"One of our problems has been the lack of editing. We're starting to edit stories and rewrite them when necessary, with the author's approval.
"We're going to continue to discuss the drug issue, and we're getting into Vietnam more, and politics."

Brian Faunce said:
"The hippy movement, if you want to call it that, is an outgrowth of capitalism. People are living off what society throws out, on all it has in excess. The fact that we can live by working a few hours a week for pay, and doing what we want to do the rest of the week, is proof that the age of leisure is already here. The people here, the people involved with the Avatar and the other projects, are choosing, instead of an anarchistic dropping out, to set an example."
"The Avatar is still a young paper, but if it continues to grow, it and other underground papers across the country should be able to set an example. Staffed by people who have the time and freedom to be idealistic, people who are concerned, free from the labor, business, advertising and political pressures that slow down large commercial papers, they may very well become the spirit of pure journalism incarnate. They may very well come to serve an important and badly needed function: the conscience of larger papers and the communities around them."

Mel Lyman