Berkeley was already churning with Free Speech Movement protest when Jerry Rubin arrived on campus in 1964 as a sociology grad student. Within weeks, he abandoned his studies to devote himself full-time to activism, playing a key role in launching the Vietnam Day Committee, one of the first campus organizations founded in opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War.
Rubin, who died in Los Angeles in 1994 at the age of 56 after being hit by a car while jaywalking, went on to co-found the Yippie party and helped spearhead the protests at the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago, which led to the political theater of the Chicago 8 trial. These days, Rubin’s legacy has faded into the background, but Pat Thomas is looking to change the focus with Did It! From Yippie To Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, An American Revolutionary (Fantagraphics), the first biography of the essential but strangely overlooked activist.
Thomas has spent much of the past 25 years expanding the way we think about 1960s and 70s. The drummer and former Bay Area resident was the driving force behind the ambient jazz-groove collective Mushroom, but it’s off the bandstand that his work has had the farthest reach. As a producer and tireless spelunker into archives and back catalogs, he produced dozens of reissues by seminal but overlooked musicians as the A&R director for the San Francisco-based labels Water Records and 4 Men With Beards.
In 2012, various projects culminated with his landmark book Listen, Whitey!: The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 (Fantagraphics) and companion Light In the Attic album documenting the music and speeches associated with the Black Panthers and Black Power movement.
Thomas talks about Rubin and Did It! Sunday at Berkeley’s Pegasus Books in downtown. I caught up with him by phone from his home in Los Angeles. Our conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
Given your history with Listen, Whitey! Allen Ginsberg and immersion in the music of the 1960s, it’s not surprising to find you telling Rubin’s story. But how did you get started on this project?
The short version is that I realized there were five books out about Abbie Hoffman and none about Jerry. Around the time I finished my book Listen, Whitey! I went back to college at Evergreen State College. Early on, one of my professors told me that I’m old and too smart to be sitting in a classroom with a bunch of kids. I proposed doing this research on Jerry as a school project, and with success of Listen, Whitey! my publisher asked me to write another book. I got ahold of Jerry’s family, who were very enthusiastic, and they turned me loose on Jerry’s personal archives, with lots of stuff that no one had seen before.
Considering his founding role in the Vietnam Day Committee, why does Jerry Rubin tend to be overlooked and underappreciated as an early catalyst in the anti-war movement?
He became a villain because he put on a suit and tie in the 1980s and popped up on Wall Street. But contrary to what a lot of people think, he did not become a Republican and endorse Reagan. He was not selling shares of Exxon. He was trying to get people to invest in solar energy. He’s been forgotten because people thought he went to “the other side.”
The fact that he’s been overshadowed is sort of paradoxical given that he pioneered a kind of political theater that’s become a hallmark of activist politics on the left and the right.
I love the whole Occupy Movement, but one of the things that lead to its demise, is that people want a leader. I can’t name one person connected to the OM. You need to be a little bit of an egomaniac and an asshole to get things done. The Black Panthers – who I love dearly, plenty of critical things I can say. It takes some chutzpah. Guys like Bobby Seale and Jerry Rubin were pretty young, in their 20s. They didn’t have any funding, they used the power of the media (in an old school fashion), no twitter, no Facebook, a lot of real work got put into spreading their political message – Now you tweet something funny, get 3,000 likes and “bang” – you’re considered an important leader in the media in 2017!
It’s interesting that some figures who really did do a 180-degree ideological turn, like Eldridge Cleaver, are much better remembered than Rubin.
The thing about Eldridge Cleaver is that that the progressive media glommed onto the Black Panthers (in a good way) – it’s still an interesting story today. In a perverse way, Jerry came to be more controversial (in 2017) than the Panthers. I think that might be because so many of us are Jerry’s. If we were around in the 60s, we fought against the war, recharged our batteries in the 1970s, maybe got MBAs in the 1980s. With Jerry being such a public figure, his transformation seemed more dramatic than the average Joe’s. I’ve had this conversation numerous times with someone sitting in their executive suite telling me Jerry’s a sellout, and I say, well, your arc follows Jerry’s!
One of the interesting things I’d forgotten is that before Rubin arrived in Berkeley in 1964 he’d been working as a journalist, a wannabe muckraker, and you make a strong case that his journalistic experience gave him a strong sense of how to create irresistible narratives and images for the press.
He knew that embellishment was a key tool. In 1972, he went to the GOP convention in Miami and told a press conference that 10,000 naked Yippies are going to run through the streets. Afterwards he admitted to someone that’s not going to happen. He knew that outrageousness would get front-page attention. I think our best social critics are comedians these days. I wouldn’t call Jerry a comedian, but he used humor to disarm people.
Looking at what’s been happening in Berkeley and other college campuses over the past year, you could argue that various factions of the right, call it the alt-right or the troll-right, have adopted Rubin’s politics-as-theater tactics far more effectively than the left.
There was an op-ed piece, recently in the New York Times, that said Donald Trump is a spinoff of Jerry & Abbie in manipulating the press. I got in a lot of Facebook debates about that and claims that Milo Yiannopoulos is a modern day Yippie. Milo and Trump are peddling white supremacist garbage. Jerry was trying to get us out of Vietnam! But in a perverse way, the right has figured out how to use Yippie tactics better than anyone on the left these days. The left doesn’t have a much of a sense of humor.
One thing that was striking about Rubin was his gift for finding and making allies, like launching the Vietnam Day Committee with Cal mathematics professor Stephen Smale and activist Barbara Gullahorn.
He knew enough to track down Ralph Gleason at the San Francisco Chronicle. He was a networker. Long before Linkedin and Facebook, he was creating these events at these hot spots, Studio 54 and the Palladium in New York City, that were all about getting interesting people together. He knew the power of networking throughout his whole life. In the book, I reproduce a couple of pages from his phone book and there’s Dylan, John & Yoko, Ram Das. It wasn’t so much that he was into celebrities, though he did like being around famous people. He really was a great organizer, and that meant being able to pull different people together.