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Open City: The Role of Underground Newspapers

John Charles Bryan was a rock music critic of the San Francisco Examiner and the Chronicle in the early 1960s, when he corresponded with Bukowski and published his poetry in two underground journals.16 Bryan quit his job in 1963 because he wanted to spread the word about LSD. With his $400 severance check, he bought a mimeograph: this was all that it took to enter publishing then. He produced the San Francisco Open City Press, a short-lived tabloid (only fifteen issues), but in one of the last issues he printed a piece by Bukowski.17 Friends carried on the paper, renamed it the Berkeley Barb, and it played key roles in the Free Speech Movement and Haight-Ashbury era.18 Many counter-culture papers began in this era, some of which were later mainstream: the Village Voice in New York in 1955; East Village Other in 1965; the International Times in London in 1966; Libiration in Paris in 1972; and El Pais in Madrid in 1976. They nurtured a generation of artists and their significance, as Abel Debritto has shown, has been overlooked in Bukowski’s career.19

Late in 1966 Bryan moved to Los Angeles to write for the Los Angeles Free Press, where he printed another piece by Bukowski. But within a year he had fallen out with the editor and started his own paper, which he again called

Open City. It started on mimeograph but soon went to offset presses, printing 35,000 copies a week. It survived on concert and record ads and small ads from hundreds of head shops, surf shops, food co-ops, and strip joints, which were also its distribution points, a cooperative economics. Now in spirited competition with the Los Angeles Free Press, Bryan recruited Bukowski to his cause, proposing a weekly column to be called “Notes of a Dirty Old Man.”20 Bukowski was not interested in drugs, but the chance to publish on a weekly basis, to use whatever his daily life put at hand, persuaded him. It was a relatively rare chance in his life to be the center of any field of attention.

Let us note the moment and context. Since the Watts Riots of 1965 Los Angeles had been tense, mostly for racial reasons but also due to the war in Vietnam. Bukowski worked at low-level jobs his whole life, and he had to drive a cautious safe route to reach his job at the Post Office now, where some of his black co-workers “reacted by spitting or cursing at him.”21 Though he lived in this historic moment, Bukowski didn’t care about race or the war. He was like certain ahistorical readers who had retreated into their alienation. They liked R. Crumb comics, Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa, and The Grateful Dead, with a tincture of Henry Miller. These were materials that mixed well in both the Free Press and Open City.

Bukowski appealed to this audience by inverting the usual cliches: his Los Angeles was dirty, overcast, dishonest, abject, and unhealthy. He had a large stock of anecdotes in this key, but within a few months at Open City he had used them up and “began inventing sex stories.”22 While he had ridiculed such columns in the Los Angeles Free Press, he found that he “liked the immediacy of deadlines. He knew that once a week he had to hand in his copy.”23 “Absolute freedom to write anything you please,” Bukowski said. “Sit down with a beer and hit the typer on a Friday or a Saturday or a Sunday and by Wednesday the thing is all over the city.”24 On this particular field of attention there was no other voice articulating so many overlapping types of disaffection.

But Bukowski wasn’t especially grateful for the opportunity. He called the staff “commie scum,” though the office manager “was a pipe-smoking, short-haired academic type,” notes Miles, who adds that “Open City—like most underground papers—was typeset at the last minute at the IBM compositor.”25 It helped that Bryan lived near Bukowski, so “they saw a lot of each other.” Bryan even invited him for a drive with Neal Cassady, resulting in a famous column. Bryan was a generous friend: he “loaned money, babysat [his daughter] Marina ... [and] worried with him,” writes Miles.26

Bukowski wrote over 100 columns between May 1967 and August 1968. “Every week Hank was promoted on the streets of Los Angeles. Open City was sent free to a select mailing list of writers, directors, producers, musicians, actors, artists, and entertainment industry executives; everyone in the city who was creatively engaged saw a copy.” This seems a strong claim, but it is true that Bukowski’s name, known before only in mimeo magazines, reached a large public. “Ordinary people who despised all poetry and its effete creators,” said John Bryan, “took Bukowski to their hearts.”27

This sense of ordinary people, of Open City readers as Bukowski’s audience, construes them, correctly or not, in opposition to the dominant class. Bukowski probably felt that he had finally gathered a crowd. Seen from a technological vantage, he was writing in the transitional space between “small scale production” (mimeo “art for art’s sake”) and a larger field of production where massing economic and cultural capital was visible on the horizon. It is comparable, in Flaubert’s career, to the convergence of vaudeville, serial, and journalism.28 But Bukowski had no sense of how to advance his career from here; it was Bryan who suggested a gate.

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