The Hippies and the Freep, Part One

The Hippies and the Freep, Part One

Written by Ken Sander

The Los Angeles Free Press, AKA “The Freep,” was started by Art Kunkin, a former organizer of the Socialist Workers Party. The first issue was published in May 1964, and that first issue sold approximately 1,200 copies at 25 cents each. Considering that The Los Angeles Times cost a dime back then, it might seem curious that people were willing to pay that amount, although, as one of the first “underground” newspapers, the Free Press certainly was a different kind of publication.

Pleased by this early success, Art Kunkin found some investors, and the Los Angeles Free Press became a weekly newspaper. It was said that Art wanted the format to be loosely based on New York’s The Village Voice. From its inception The Los Angeles Free Press championed personal freedom and was strongly involved in the anti-Vietnam war movement. It was an important voice toward changing America’s perception of the war. The Freep eventually became an editorial force to be reckoned with.

Art Kunkin, founder of the Los Angeles Free Press. Art Kunkin, founder of the Los Angeles Free Press.

The newspaper was newsworthy in itself and was responsible for a plethora of creative and editorial discoveries including GUAMBO, the Great Underground Arts Masked Ball and Orgy, in July 1966. It was the Freep’s second anniversary, and a party that launched Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention.

Initially, it was staffed mostly by unpaid volunteers and for its first two years it had occupied a rent-free office space in the basement (truly an underground newspaper) of a Sunset Boulevard coffee house called the Fifth Estate. The place was the unofficial meeting place for street kids and teens. Those kids brought attention to the Sunset Strip, and many of that group initiated the later Sunset Boulevard riots.

Freedom of the press and free speech rules meant that newspaper publishers had the unregulated ability to sell their issues directly to the public. They could buy vending machines, place them on street corners and chain them to posts. I am sure all of you have noticed newspaper vending machines on sidewalks. Don Campbell, a Free Press editor, bought three of these newspaper vending machines for $125. Seeing their success, he bought more. They expanded their distribution to head shops and eventually had street vendors (Peter Sellers played a Freep vendor in the movie I Love You, Alice B. Toklas). Throughout West Hollywood you could hear the young hippies shouting, “Don’t be a creep, buy a Freep!” Street kids picked up bunches of papers from the printer and sold them, creating income for the kids and putting the paper all over Western Los Angeles.

Truly great local coverage put the LA Free Press on the map. An example was their in-depth coverage and analysis of the 1965 Watts riots (aka the Watts Rebellion or Watts Uprising), which put the concurrent LA Times reporting to shame and forced the latter to issue a retraction of their so-called analysis. After that the Times and the other local mainstream paper, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, “lived in fear,” according to journalist Lionel Rolfe, of how the Freep would report on events, and it went from a little radical community hippie paper with an initial readership of less than 2,000 to a contender that would eventually claim a worldwide distribution of over 125,000. The actual readership must have been much higher. There were even copies in Vietnam, and I can state from personal experience that each copy was read by many soldiers.

By 1970 the Free Press had 150 employees, a yearly income of two million dollars, and had three bookstores, a publishing company, and a printing plant. Despite that, the paper was in terrible debt and near imploding. “There Should Be No Secret Police.” This August 1969 headline was the one that started the problems. Someone had given Kunkin a list of 80 names of undercover narcotics police, complete with home addresses and phone numbers.  Of course, he published that list. At that time there was a serious amount of community resentment toward the narcs. They were heavy-handed and had been doing things like breaking into people’s homes without warrants. Art had no problem using local citizens as sources, much to the chagrin of his editorial staff.

The narc issue caused many problems for the Freep, including dealing with the cost of lawyers and all kinds of legal issues, and harassment by government officials and agencies. That drained the Freep’s coffers. They had to come up with other ways to create income.

Like Screw magazine, the Free Press started to rely more and more on personal classified ads with no editorial restrictions. In 1973, Art declared bankruptcy and was forced to sell the paper to Marvin Miller, a sex industry investor. The Freep closed a short time later but that was only one period of the paper’s long and storied history…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In 1969 John Carpenter was the music editor of the Los Angeles Free Press. One of the publication’s greatest strengths was its music coverage. Among the writers whose bylines appeared were those of Pete Johnson (my host on my first arrival to LA), Richard Cromelin, and Don Snowden, all three of whom also wrote for the LA Times. I had met John Carpenter through my sister Ellen and found him to be smart, engaging and a sarcastic SOB, but we seemingly got along and on occasion even had drinks together.

The 1969 Northern California Folk-Rock Festival in San Jose was going to be a big one. I had been at the offices of Freep when I heard about it, but alas, I didn’t have tickets. Loritta, John’s new secretary and hired just a few weeks earlier, wasn’t going either, because the Freep deemed her non-essential for the festival’s coverage and did not want to incur the additional financial burden of paying her expenses. Loritta and I had kinda clicked (she was quite attractive) and I was chatting with her at her desk. She asked me if I wanted to go with her and I said, “sure, but I don’t have tickets.” Loritta said, “Oh, but I have.” I asked, “how did you get them?” Smiling, she looked at me and asked, ”who do you think handles these things around here?” With a wicked grin she said, “I have backstage passes, press certification and anything else we need.”

It was going to be a long drive and she had just bought a new (used) car and wanted to drive it.

A 1955 Plymouth Savoy like the one Ken rode in to go to the 1969 Northern California Folk-Rock Festival. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/GPS 56 from New Zealand. A 1955 Plymouth Savoy like the one Ken rode in to go to the 1969 Northern California Folk-Rock Festival. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/GPS 56 from New Zealand.

Like many of the cars from the 1950s, there was no radio. The stick shift was in the steering column, and the car had long bench seats front and back that could comfortably fit six adults. It was in good shape and rode well. The trip was long, six or eight hours and soon we had nothing to talk about. Our mutual attraction was slowly slipping away. Although it was a beautiful scenic trip, despite that fact, I was getting bored.

The Freep had temporary “war room” headquarters in a complex near the festival’s site. We walked in and John was surprised to see us, and was unhappy that I was with Loritta. He asked Loritta what she was doing with me, as if that was an uncool thing to do. We were kinda shocked, but obviously he was bothered by seeing us together. I was a bit put off as I thought we were friends.

Not wanting to be further dissed, I went into the next room, a VIP room where other press and staff from a few record companies were gathered. I was known to most of the A&R guys present. I asked a couple of guys from A&M Records if I could get a ride with them back to LA when they left. Sure, they said, that would be cool.

I went back to Loritta, and she seemed relaxed and was back in the good graces of John. I told her I had another ride back to LA. “OK, fine,” she said pleasantly (maybe relieved), and as I turned away, I thought to myself that she and John were on the verge of an affair.

Northern California Folk-Rock Festival poster, 1969. Northern California Folk-Rock Festival poster, 1969.

From Wikipedia: “Radio station KSJO was warning listeners that the acts advertised on the poster for the 1969 Northern California Folk-Rock festival – particularly Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix – were not going to appear, as they were booked elsewhere at the time. This situation resulted in a lawsuit – paid for by Zeppelin – against the promoter, who retaliated by paying Hendrix $30,000, an unheard-of amount of money at the time and also paid to fly The Experience in by Lear Jet and play for half an hour.”

The San Jose-area concertgoers who’d been burned before got just a little uptight. Some of the locals had heard that Jimi Hendrix had been busted in Canada and couldn’t leave the country, but was previously booked on those dates. And yet he was the featured performer, mentioned prominently in the festival’s radio ads. A few long distance phone calls confirmed that The Jimi Hendrix Experience had not been booked for the event in San Jose. A few more calls verified that several other name bands mentioned in the ads had never heard of the promoter and hadn’t been booked to play his festival.

When I heard that the promoter had billed acts that were not contracted for the festival, I was reminded of an incident from my time working at the Psychedelic Supermarket (see my article in Issue 144). In the early days of the Supermarket, on Saturday nights the owners, brothers Mel and Gary, would have kind of a party at the store and everyone was welcome. The first couple of times it was nice. One time, just as we got ready to close Mel made an announcement that at next Saturday’s party there would be music performed by Poco. Everyone gasped and whooped. I walked over to Mel and said, “you didn’t book them.” He answered, “yes, I did! Can I help it if they don’t show up? Jeez!”

Before The Jimi Hendrix Experience would show up for the Northern California Folk-Rock Festival, they had insisted to be paid in advance. Made sense because the promotor had already demonstrated that he was a sleaze. In true Hollywood style, Jimi Hendrix’s agent was flown in by helicopter. He landed at the county fairgrounds and collected the 30 grand in cash.

I never thought of myself as a hippie, but I admired some of their values.

To be continued.

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