The Chicago Seed

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]


By the mid-1960s, the area around Wells Street in what is now Old Town formed the heart of Chicago’s small but thriving hippie scene. The neighborhood housed headshops, record stores, music clubs, coffee shops and a burgeoning population of bohemian young people. Students for a Democratic Society had its headquarters in the city as well and thanks to their tireless organizing, after 1965 the draft resistance and anti-Vietnam War movements had begun to gather steam. Predictably, local news coverage of both the flower children and the New Left was often antagonistic, factually inaccurate or openly dismissive. As a consequence, the city in the late 1960s saw the founding of several underground and alternative newspapers that sought to speak for the different currents of political and cultural dissent that the mainstream press misreported. The most important of these was The Seed.

Communicating Peace and Love

Launched in 1967 by artist Don Lewis and Earl Segal, owner of a poster and button shop called The Mole Hole, The Seed was initially conceived as a community paper for the Wells Street hippie enclave. The paper’s main sources of revenue were ads taken out by Old Town merchants (especially headshops and hip clothiers) and big record companies like Columbia. It featured freeform poetry, music and movie reviews, reports on area rock concerts, and a fairly detailed Dope on Dope listing of the current street prices of drugs like LSD, marijuana and hashish. It regularly covered demonstrations, festivals and community happenings that the Tribune, Daily News and Sun-Times typically ignored. Occasionally it also published long, rambling personal essays on such subjects as ecology, Zen Buddhism and masturbation. It set aside a significant amount of space for letters-to-the-editor, announcements from community and activist groups, and an assortment of personal ads.

“We reflected, we energized, we communicated [our] community,” recalls Marshall Rosenthal, who began writing for The Seed in 1968, “Anti-war, counterculture, pro-love—it was all there.”

A typical early issue (Vol. 1, number 6) carried a statement on draft resistance by one of the founders of the Chicago Area Draft Resisters, a report on the city’s censorship of the Andy Warhol film Chelsea Girls, an obituary for John Coltrane and an article extolling “wild and undisciplined” long hair as both inherently erotic and anti-macho.

An early member of the alternative news exchange The Underground Press Syndicate (UPS), the paper frequently reprinted material from larger, better known underground rags like New York’s East Village Other and The Los Angeles Free Press. Among other things, The Seed ran a UPS- syndicated medical advice column by Dr. Hip-O-Crates that dispensed information on the health effects of recreational drug use and gave frank answers to questions about sex.

The form of the paper matched its nonconformist contents. Stylistically, the prose in The Seed was brash, unpolished, laced with profanity and slang, often tongue-in-cheek and sometimes incoherent. Visually, the paper exploited the full expressive potential of recently introduced offset printing technology, quickly becoming famous for its multi-color psychedelic graphics, chaotic layouts, unusual font choices, occasional pictures of nude women and transgressive comics by artists like R. Crumb and Skip Williamson.

In the lead-up to the Democratic National Convention, writers and editors for The Seed not only publicized but helped to organize the counter-convention activities Abbie Hoffman and others were planning, including signing onto the first official permit request for the Yippies’ proposed Festival of Life. As the convention grew near, the paper aired the growing debate within the anti-war movement over the Yippies’ tactics and the sort of reception protestors could expect from Daley’s police. In an article titled 1984, it also covered the passage of an ominous anti-riot bill making it a crime to cross state lines with the intent to incite or promote a riot, the very law later used to prosecute Hoffman and other anti-war movement leaders for their role in the convention protests.

Shortly before the convention, the paper put out a special issue with a schedule of events issued by the Yippies, a city guide for out-of-town protestors and tips on What to do in Case of Arrest. It included an editorial by The Seed editor Abe Peck warning that “the Man is into confrontation” and telling would-be demonstrators “[d]on’t come to Chicago if you expect a five-day Festival of Life, music and love.” Alongside Peck’s piece was printed Abbie Hoffman’s testy rebuttal essentially dismissing The Seed’s peace and love ethos as politically inadequate and out of date.

“The whole Yippie thing was kind of an exercise in media jiu-jitsu, of using the media through a series of greater and greater claims. The problem was that you only made news by making a bigger claim each time you did it,” Peck remembers. “My ethical position was that if you’re telling your brothers and sisters to come, you ought to have full disclosure. This was going to be a tough scene. We were getting arrested left and right.”

Making A Fist

Of course, the police violence during the convention proved to be just as horrific as Peck had expected. In its aftermath, The Seed—like the New Left and the counterculture more generally—became more militant and confrontational in its politics.

“The cover of the issue after the convention was a picture of a pig dressed in a Chicago police uniform with Daley’s face on it. I think that was our change. We had been radicalized by the convention,” said Peck.

The police murder of charismatic Illinois Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton in December 1969 and the notorious Chicago 8 trial hastened the process of radicalization.

“The murder of Fred Hampton was a very dramatic event that had a lot of influence. The Black Panther Party was very well thought of in Chicago and Fred Hampton, in particular, a lot of us knew,” explained former Seed writer Bernie Farber. “The Chicago police were becoming… vicious.”

The Seed itself was a frequent target of official harassment and politically motivated violence. The Chicago Police Department’s notorious Red Squad followed and photographed staffers. Editor Abe Peck was slapped with obscenity charges for a surreal sexual illustration in one issue (although, as often happened, the charges were ultimately dropped). Street vendors hawking the paper were hassled and sometimes arrested. Cops pressured drug store and newsstand owners to stop selling the publication. Right wing vigilantes shot out the windows of The Seed’s offices (with the alleged collusion of the police). The FBI monitored and assembled lengthy files on several people involved with the paper to disrupt the New Left as part of its COINTELPRO program. As Abe Peck notes in his book, Uncovering the Sixties, there is even scattered evidence that the FBI encouraged record companies to withdraw their advertising from underground papers like The Seed.

To make matters worse, The Chicago Tribune in 1968 purchased The Seed’s printer, Merrill Printing Company, who then promptly announced that they no longer wanted The Seed’s business. For a time, the paper was forced to rely on a lone independent publisher and printer in Port Washington, WI, Bill Schanen, who courageously continued to print underground newspapers from around the region despite vocal opposition from conservative leaders in his community.

In response to the escalating repression at home and rising body count in Southeast Asia, The Seed’s editorial content shifted dramatically, focusing increasingly on hard political news about war, oppression and their causes. Quotes from Mao and Ho Chi Minh, along with fact-filled critiques of U.S. imperialism, replaced the Beat-inspired poetry and music reviews of earlier issues. Stories about police persecution of revolutionary youth organizations like the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords, profiles of political prisoners being held in American jails, and reports on trials involving anti-war and draft resistance activists took up more and more space. The paper ran investigative pieces on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, the carpet bombing of Laos and the appalling conditions in Cook County Hospital. A recurring section dealt with student activism at Chicago high schools and reported on the proliferation of underground high school papers. The Seed even became an established outlet for communiqués from armed left-wing groups like The Weather Underground and The New Year’s Eve Gang who engaged in bombing of military and government targets.

The paper also underwent significant changes in content and organization as New Social Movements quickly gained momentum in the post-’68 period. Informed by the gender “revolution within the revolution,” The Seed in the early 70s incorporated more women into its writers’ collective, put out special issues or supplements on the women’s movement and gay liberation, and made the economically difficult decision to stop carrying ads for the Playboy Theater. The nascent Native American rights movement—and, in particular, protests against the Bureau of Indian Affairs staged by the Chicago group Indian Village—frequently made it into the paper. So, too, did radical groups like Rising Up Angry who were attempting to organize Chicago’s poor whites.

The Seed not only reported on the women’s, black power and allied progressive social movements, it shared its resources with them. People from groups such as the Black Panthers, the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union and Rising Up Angry would often make use of The Seed’s light table to lay out their own papers or use its darkroom to develop their photos.

“[The paper] functioned as a kind of organizing center,” says Farber, “and I think that’s the role a newspaper historically and traditionally has played in a lot of eras.”

Unlike some underground publications of its era, The Seed avoided taking sides in many of the divisive ideological conflicts tearing apart the New Left. Thus, though the paper carefully chronicled the bitter struggle between rival groups of Marxist-Leninists that eventually broke apart Students for a Democratic Society [for more information on SDS see articles by Earl Silbar and Michael Staudenmaier in this issue of AREA -ed], it never allied itself with any one position, faction or organization. Indeed, even as it became more self-consciously revolutionary in its rhetoric and positions, the paper remained a relatively nonsectarian, open forum for debate and discussion within the Chicago left and The Movement as a whole. If anything, its politics were staunchly anti-authoritarian. A 1969 piece by Bernard Marshall entitled Eh…What’s Up Lenin? articulated what appears to have been a dominant political sentiment among the staff: “This is what our revolution must be about. Smashing all hierarchies and bureaucracies, all bourgeois hangovers, whenever they appear and for whatever reason.”


The Demise and Legacy of The Seed

By 1973 or so, only a few years after reaching a circulation of 30- 40,000, The Seed was on its last legs. The advertising that had supported the paper dried up as headshops were shut down and major record labels found other, more politically palatable outlets for their ads. The government campaign against the New Left and the underground press took its toll. Editors and writers quit because of the relentless official harassment, to pursue other careers or over frustration with the paper’s sometimes acrimonious internal politics. Many of the movements that The Seed sought to serve either accomplished or outlived their goals (like ending the war in Vietnam) or faded for lack of support.

“The papers were never born to be institutions,” observes Abe Peck. “They reflected and nurtured and critiqued their movements, however imperfectly, and then those movements either crested or proved unviable or wrong, and people kind of drifted away.”

In 1974, The Seed was relaunched as The Free Seed, a free, ad-sponsored publication along the lines of the increasingly popular Chicago Reader. That experiment lasted only a few issues before the paper shut down for good.

In retrospect, it is easy enough to trace left media production and activism in Chicago today back to precedents like The Seed. Its do-it-yourself spirit, anti-authoritarian politics and irreverence characterize the best of the city’s current crop of alternative media, be they print magazines like Lumpen, radio shows like This is Hell, or websites like Chicago Indymedia. And at least a few of The Seed’s former contributors – such as David Moberg of In These Times—continue to produce muckraking advocacy journalism.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be gleaned from the experience of The Seed is one that was summed up by Bernie Farber in a single word: “Audacity.” The Seed collective and the community it served attempted to overthrow a sclerotic political and cultural establishment steeped in blood and filthy lucre. Though they failed to attain their ultimate (revolutionary) goal, they managed to stop a destructive imperialist war and transform American attitudes about race, gender relations and sexuality for the better in the process. That legacy of audacity is something the left, and the left press in particular, would do well to remember. The old Situationist slogan, spray-painted on many a wall in Paris during the May ‘68 insurgency, is as valid as ever: “Be realistic. Demand the impossible”.


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