Fifty years ago this week (Aug. 23-26, 1968), Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and many others organized The Festival of Life in Chicago on the eve of the Democratic National Convention. Coming at the end of an already violent year — with the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and the killing of Robert Kennedy in June — the festival was touted both as a celebration and as a massive protest of the nefarious, deceitful, and unjust practices of the American government. The Vietnam War continued to escalate, dividing families over the morality of sending troops to fight a colonial war to protect vested American interests and ostensibly to stop the flow of communism. Fathers and sons stopped talking to each other, and some families lost one son to the war and the other to the anti-war movement; one came home in a body bag, the other chose never to come home and to live in another city. The civil rights movement was embroiled in internal and external strife, and black communities were often torn between supporting the work of the Malcolm X or the work of Martin Luther King Jr.
Early in the festival, on Aug. 23, 1968, protesters conducted their own nominating convention and nominated a pig, Pigasus, as their candidate, illustrating at once the good-natured humor and joyous satire that animated the event — at first. Acting on what he said were threats against some of the convention-goers, Mayor Richard Daley called out a combined force of 23,000 Chicago police and National Guardsmen who barged violently into peaceful crowd of 10,000 protesters. The Festival of Life quickly turned to a scene of destruction and death, and Rubin, Hoffman, Bobby Seale, and four others were arrested and tried as the Chicago Seven.
Fifty years later, America is as divided — probably more so — than it was in 1968. Protests against the war galvanized many back then, and the attempts to connect race and war — during his final days King was preaching about the disproportionate number of men of color being sent to fight — demonstrated that the rifts between the powerful and the poor grew wider and would likely never be bridged. The gaps between powerful and poor have never been greater than in 2018, and the resurgence of racial violence against blacks and people of color illustrates a move back rather than forward. A few months after the 1968 Chicago convention, the country elected a man who hid his monumental lies until they were caught on tape; 50 years later the country has elected a man who cares not a whit about hiding his monumental lies.
That’s why Pat Thomas’ Did It!: From Yippie to Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, an American Revolutionary (Fantagraphics Books) is so important to read right now. Of course Thomas’ book carries us back to a time in American history that makes us uncomfortable and raises questions about our own political and social context and the violence from veiled threats and physical violence that continues to erupt daily in our society. Of course we can read the book as a chapter of a distant past. Yet, Thomas’ portrait of Rubin, chock full of photographs and drawing on years of archival research and interviews with many of Rubin’s friends and associates — and even Rubin’s foes — emphasizes the intimate connections between all cultural forms, especially music, and the ways that Rubin effectively used music to help mobilize his followers in ways that other leaders did not. “Jerry and Abbie were quasi-rock stars,” says Thomas. “Rubin understood that in a way that Tom Hayden didn’t. Rubin used rock and roll — and sex and drugs — to market revolution to high school students.” Thomas also points out in one of the book’s most moving chapters that John Lennon and Rubin formed a special relationship and that Rubin and Lennon worked on political matters in the early 1970s.
Jerry Rubin has his critics, and Thomas includes their voices in his book. When Rubin moved, as Thomas’ subtitle states it, from “Yippie to Yuppie,” he was criticized for selling out. In the mid- to late ’70s he engaged in a number of self-help therapies, from yoga to acupuncture and meditation; in the ’80s he became a businessman, focusing on bringing social consciousness to business, and he marketed health foods and nutritional supplements. He also established “business networking salons,” which his wife, Mimi Leonard, claimed was the earliest version of what today we call social networking. Thomas cannily traces all these changes up until Rubin is killed as he walks across a Manhattan street.
I talked with Thomas recently by phone about the book and Rubin. Thomas will be in Chicago on Aug. 23 to moderate at a Pigasus for President 1968 Reenactment at Maria’s Community Bar.
Tell me the story of the book.
I was born in 1964, but my brother was ten years older, and he was bringing subversive materials into the house already. By the time I was 16 I was really obsessed. I realized that Jerry had no biographer. His estate invited me to move into his place to pore over pictures and go through his archives. What I thought would be 18 months turned out to be five years! (laughs)
What were you most surprised to learn about Rubin?
He was a big Beatles fan. One remarkable thing I realized writing the book was that on the first day of the convention the Beatles’ “Revolution” was playing and by the last day the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” was playing.
What was the soundtrack you listened to while you were writing the book?
Phil Ochs; John Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s Some Time in New York City: I love his song “Attica State”; MC5; The Doors’ “Peace Frog.”
What would you like readers to take from the book?
He was a little bit of an egomaniac. Look, Jerry was an asshole, but he was loved; he’s our asshole, his supporters would say. We want our heroes not to be human, but they are. I became sensitive to the fact that people can change. I learned empathy for and from Jerry. No one ever set out to be a famous revolutionary (laughs). Jerry was vulnerable, and he was willing to show that vulnerability. What he’s often criticized for is cleaning up his act, but in my mind he was a survivor who changed with the times. He really opened up as he got into health food and healthier living. He wasn’t stuck in the past.