ABOUT FOUR YEARS AGO, I was searching for some images on the internet for an article, the title of which is long forgotten. I stumbled over a site that contained thousands of images, all scanned from underground newspapers and similar alternative and counterculture publications. Black and white to full color, most of them reproduced in what looked like full size!
And best of all, they appeared to come from that period of unrest and upheaval that we call The Sixties—which actually (politically, socially, spiritually) took place between 1962 and 1975, depending on how you define it and where you lived at the time.
The images that I first found were music-related, but I spent an hour perusing the pages with page after page of:
• advertisements and poetry
• political cartoons and record reviews
• photos and articles
• portraits and comic strips
• and so much more!
I sent an email to the site’s proprietor complimenting his work and alerting him to the fact that I had absconded with a couple of images by Emory Douglas. He responded in kind (“Absconsion is encouraged!”). I followed with an email to him requesting an ‘interview.’
This first round of questions and answers followed …
A revolutionary bookstore/gallery
NU: Do you own all of the magazines/newspapers that you use for BF?
BF: Yeah, I own all the magazines and newspapers and personally scan and process the images you see posted on the site.
NU: That must be large collection: what are its parameters?
BF: No real parameters to the collection. I just accumulate shit I like whenever I have extra cash lying around. I’d say I have about 5,000 newspapers and maybe 1,000 magazines.
NU: What was the motivation for Babylon Falling?
BF: After I closed my bookstore, I finally had the time to dig into all this stuff I had been collecting over the years. The motivation to scan and post the images was simply a desire to share this stuff with people who might dig it. Conveniently, the site also helps to justify my hoarding impulse.
NU: Okay: what was the name and location of your bookstore. New or used? Specialties? Did you sell the old magazines and newspapers from which you compiled the images on BF?
BF: The store was called Babylon Falling Bookstore and it was a ‘revolutionary’ bookstore and gallery in San Francisco. I had vintage posters and buttons in the store, but only brought out the magazines and newspapers when I tabled at book fairs.
NU: When was your store open? Years? I lived in Napa and St. Helena 1978-1981 and loved the area. I haven’t been back in thirty years and have been told that I wouldn’t recognize much. Petaluma, Santa Rosa, Napa, Vallejo, all changed dramatically.
BF: I opened the store in 2007 and closed it in 2009. Miss the Bay Area something serious.
On the same wavelength
NU: Do you get a lot of contact feedback email regarding your site?
BF: People email me pretty regularly just to express solidarity with the endeavor, and I occasionally get researchers, curators, and filmmakers contacting me with questions and requests for material.
NU: By “solidarity” you mean?
BF: “Solidarity” meaning they’re on the same wavelength.
NU: Is your wavelength philosophical? Political? Aesthetic? Religious? All? None?
BF: My wavelength is middle fingers up always.
NU: Has any news organization picked up on it?
BF: A handful of websites outside of the Tumblr ecosystem have done mini-features on the site, and a few big name news organizations have reached out to use content and/or have lifted images from my site without credit.
The motivation to post the images was to share this stuff with people who might dig it.
NU: Have you considered a Babylon Falling Facebook page to attract viewer?
BF: Tumblr is the perfect platform for a living archive like this and because Babylon Falling is strictly non-commercial. Having a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or anywhere else isn’t worth the effort.
I have enough of an audience on Tumblr that I can just focus on keeping everything simple and accessible and trust that content will get eyes and if it resonates that it will travel.
NU: I really don’t understand the social media well. I have my blogs and I just write what I want. I like Facebook mostly because I have made contact with several people that I went to high school with that I didn’t know then.
I hated high school, but if I had known these people, it might have been a bit better. We get along now because of politics.
BF: I hear you. I see the value of social media but personally have no use for any of it.
NU: Back to Tumblr: I have a site there but I haven’t paid it much attention. I wanted it to bring people to my blogs. Is that a reasonable expectation?
BF: No idea—trial and error über alles.
Laying down lines of association
NU: Do you ever add any commentary?
BF: Very rarely. Adding commentary feels like a conceit; for me, attribution is the key. I figure with a little orientation, anyone that is truly interested in more than the aesthetics can follow the thread themselves.
It’s all about laying down lines of association and promoting digging over passive absorption of facts; learning over preaching and proselytizing.
NU: Oh, I didn’t mean interpretation. More like, “This image is from Anytown’s only issue of its only underground newspaper done to protest the My Lai Massacre in 1968.”
I have enough of an audience that I can just focus on keeping everything accessible and trust that content will get eyes and that it will travel.
BF: I try to put that kind of information in the tags. If you see me writing something like that, I probably drank too much coffee that morning.
NU: In my questions, I am being simplistic so that my readers who know nothing about your site will get an idea of what they are in for.
BF: No worries—I embrace simplicity!
NU: My hometown of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, had an underground newspaper in 1970: The Wyoming Valley Free Press. It was distributed in time for the first Earth Day and I drew the cover and the inside illustration(s).
I don’t think that there was a second issue. I haven’t seen a copy of this artifact in more than 40 years! Know anything about it?
BF: Never heard of it, but will keep an eye out
A trip into a wormhole
NU: How many categories does you site have?
BF: Many, but the main umbrella categories are listed on the site. A little initial guidance for what I hope is a trip into a wormhole.
NU: You no wanna give your age?
BF: Half-assed attempt to brush away the trail as I make the slow march toward the fringe. I was a teenager in the ’90s, if that helps orient you.
NU: What name should I use for you?
BF: My name is Shaun.
NU: You wrote, “After I closed my bookstore, I finally had the time to dig into all this stuff I had been collecting over the years.” Were you an actual collector, actively and consciously building a collection or were you buying the stuff and simply not selling it?
BF: My horizon is too short and my tack changes too often to build a real collection. I rarely sell, only purge.
NU: You wrote, “It’s all about laying down lines of association and promoting digging over passive absorption of facts; learning over preaching and proselytizing.”
I am constantly astounded by people that I know know better who receive these unf*ckingbelievable rightwing emails and send them on to others, including me.
And I mean that they are not remotely in the realm of possibility and yet there is no questioning of their veracity by these people. The internet is the greatest resource for information, facts, data, etc., in history.
I read something that doesn’t sound kosher and I can look it up and learn its truth or lack of truth in a matter of minutes and yet most people seem to never use the internet for anything but socializing! It pisses me off.
BF: I don’t mind so much. This material and these ideas are all supplemental to actual lived experience anyway. More than facts and data, it’s the spirit of the thing that really matters.
NU: Do you wanna give readers a brief bio? Or where you live now and what you are doing?
BF: Since I left home at 15, I’ve never lived anywhere more than three years at a time. I’m in Brooklyn right now and I’m doing this and that.
Wyoming Valley Free Press
So that’s that for now and it’s all secondary to the images and the meaning of those images and since this is supposed to be a record collectors site I have selected images (above and below) from Babylon Falling that I believe are in some way related to the music that some of collect.
There is a Facebook page devoted to the valley in Pennsylvania where Wilkes-Barre is located. I posted a note there about the Wyoming Valley Free Press hoping that someone know something or had a copy to at least copy for me.
Didn’t hear a word in return.
FEATURED IMAGE: I originally positioned this stunning Ron Cobb cartoon at the top of this page but reflection made its place as a coda seem the better choice. Since posting this article, I have also devoted a page to Cobb’s work on Pinterest as “Political Cartoonist to the Underground Newspapers of the Sixties.” This conversation originally appeared on Rather Rare Records on December 23, 2014. It is reposted here as it fits the theme of this site.