Pat Thomas reconstructs the revolutionary history of Jerry Rubin in "Did It!"
As an archivist, Pat Thomas is focused on letting the subject speak or sing unadulterated. So, whether it's working on album reissues for the Light in the Attic label and others, or writing about the Black Panthers and other political movements, Thomas wants voices and ideas to be presented as the artists and activists intended.
Thomas' latest search for the truth is Did It! From Yippie To Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, An American Revolutionary, which follows his other graphics-heavy book for Fantagraphics, Listen, Whitey!: The Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975.
Did It! covers the life of the man who co-founded the radical and theatrical Yippies political movement in 1967, along with poet Allen Ginsberg and prankster-activist Abbie Hoffman (Steal This Book!). And while Rubin stayed political all the way until his untimely death in 1994 at age 56, he became less overt with his activism as his career as a businessman bloomed. But he never abandoned his social-justice ideas even if they were presented in a different way as the years wore on.
"I think Jerry’s legacy ... was tainted by him putting on a suit and a tie," Thomas says about the '60s revolutionary turned Wall Street businessman. "If you Google Rubin, you’re going to see all these falsehoods claiming he was Republican, claiming he was a right-winger -- and all that turned out to be false. It was more like [fellow activist] Tom Hayden, who put on a tie and became a liberal Democrat. So, I think Jerry’s legacy was kind of tainted, and I feel like I’ve found the truth, as best as can be found by interviewing almost 100 people who knew him, reading his personal journals, that kind of thing. I mean, I realize this isn’t going to be front-page news, but I’m going to rejigger his legacy a little bit with this book."
For his speaking engagements on Did It!, Thomas doesn’t read from the book. He speaks from the heart and also plays audio clips from Rubin’s speeches. “It really brings Jerry legacy to life for people who don’t remember what he sounded like -- they get to hear him speak in his own words," Thomas says. "It’s a fun presentation; it’s not a heavy-handed political science debate. It’s more of a pop-culture thing.”
You can see Thomas present his pop-culture thing on Rubin at Bookbound in Ann Arbor on April 3 and Book Bound in Oak Park on April 4. I spoke with Thomas on the phone the day before the March for Our Lives protests.
Q: How did you come to be the one who was given access to Rubin’s archives?
A: The key thing in any archival research project is empathy. No musician or no old radical or nobody’s estate wants to be approached and be lectured about what it all means. So, I’ve learned to listen and have the subject tell me what they think it means. With the Rubin estate, it was interesting. I mean, Jerry Rubin was a huge countercultural icon in the ‘60, part of the Yippies. And I was always surprised that no one else had done a book. So, I just found Jerry’s ex-wife, his children, and my book about the Black Panthers had just come out, and they were kinda impressed by that. So, they welcomed me literally into their home: I moved in with Jerry Rubin’s widow and I went through all his personal belongings over the course of eight weeks. There were literally thousands of letters between him and Eldridge Cleaver, the Weather Underground, Abbie Hoffman, old phone books -- it was just an incredible thing.
Q: What’s it like going through someone else’s stuff?
A: I really kind of worship the counterculture of the 1960s, for lack of a better word, and it’s kind of a trip. You’re sitting there reading a letter between Jerry Rubin and Allen Ginsberg, or Jerry Rubin and Norman Mailer. And especially in today’s fake news, social media world, there’s so many myths, so many half-truths being put out there, that’s it’s great to see something written with a pen or typewriter and there’s no debating about what happened -- the facts are right here on the page. And one thing we’ve definitely lost track of in 2018 is the facts.
Q: This book is laid out like Listen, Whitey! in that it has more of a magazine feel. The graphic design is an integral part of the book.
A: My books are sort of three dimensional. A normal biography would be a lot of text and maybe in the center of the book there would be 10 pages of black and white photos, but this is actually a giant coffee table book, it weighs almost 5 pounds, and there’s hundreds of photos of Jerry Rubin with some of the people I’ve been mentioning, there’s letters, his old passport is in there. It really brings the whole story alive. It’s almost like a documentary except that it’s on paper rather than on film.
Q: How did this graphic-design-heavy approach to biography come about for you and is it partly a result of working with a graphic novels publisher?
A: Fantagraphics is a very visual company because they mostly do graphic novels and what I call “adult cartoons,” and they were into the idea of me bringing in these counterculture visual books. They really want to have the visuals; they’re not interested in a text-heavy book. That said, the Jerry Rubin book has about 130,000 words. It’s also kind of an oral history: I interviewed about 75 people for the book, and rather than paraphrase them, I let them tell their stories in their own words. Since I had already done Listen, Whitey!, with Jerry Rubin I originally presented them with a more traditional biography. And they said, “No, we want a visual history.” And, of course, after I discovered this amazing cache of memorabilia -- it took me five years! -- we put it together. Jacob Covey, who’s an in-house graphic designer for Fantagraphics, did a wonderful job. There’s a lot of open space. It’s a large coffee-table book, but it’s not cluttered. There’s a lot of breathing room.
The idea behind the Rubin book, I look as each individual chapter as a magazine article. If you’re reading The New Yorker, you don’t necessarily read it cover to cover; you kind of skip around. And the Rubin book is kind of like that. You can dive in and read a chapter or two and dive back out again. Rubin became controversial because he was a radical activist in the ‘60s and then in the ‘80s he put on a suit and a tie. A lot of people thought Rubin became a Republican; he didn’t, he was a liberal Democrat. They thought he was a money-hungry capitalist. But he was on Wall Street in 1980 trying to get people to invest in solar panels and green energy. Later in life, he was really into vitamins and health food, and he was selling that stuff. He wasn’t telling people to invest in Exxon oil. One of the reasons why I wrote this book is the arc of Jerry Rubin and the arc of other Baby Boomers was not necessarily from radical to right-winger; it was from radical to liberal.
Q: What was the most surprising or illuminating thing you found in the archives?
A: It’s hard for me to limit it to just one. There’s an incredible letter from Yoko Ono scolding Jerry. There’s a lot of interesting pieces. I wouldn’t say there was one Holy Grail -- maybe one, if you’re really a historian: A letter to Mayor Daley of Chicago and it’s signed by all these radicals saying we’re going to come to Chicago in August and we’re going to be doing this protest whether you like it or not. That’s a really fascinating part of ephemera.
Q: How did he support himself when he was basically a professional protester?
A: Jerry was not a trust-fund kid. His dad drove a bakery truck in Cincinnati in the ‘50s and ‘60s. His dad died at 52 of a heart attack, so [Jerry] didn’t really have money. When the Chicago 8 trial happened, these guys kinda became celebrities and so they were making money -- they’d go an lecture at Yale for the weekend or lecture at UCLA. To be brutally honest, it was the women [who financed the professional protesters].
One of the things I’m really proud of in my book -- many of these books about the '60s, nobody bothers to interview the women. I interviewed a couple dozen women and they talked about how they’d go out and have a day job while Jerry and Abbie were on the front line protesting. There’s a lot of women weaved into this book of mostly white males.
Q: Before Abbie Hoffman came into the picture, was Ginsburg the primary inspiration for Rubin to become theatrical? Stephen Smale? It was a quick transition.
A: Jerry grew up in Cincinnati and he arrives in Berkley in ‘64, at the height of the free speech movement. And Jerry’s like a sponge, taking notes, watching Mario Savio and other people. Then he runs into a guy named Stew Albert, and these guys are in their 20s. And as they sit around smoking dope, Stew Albert said, “Wouldn’t it be incredible if we politicized this burgeoning hippie movement.” Then Jerry becomes pals with Ginsberg, and Allen Ginsberg kind of came out of the womb thinking surreal thoughts. And weirdly enough, in the book, there’s an intersection with Bob Dylan. Ginsburg tried to get Dylan to participate in the 1965 anti-Vietnam War protests. And Bob says, “Well, I’m not gonna come, but you guys serve lemonade and paint balloons with pictures of octopuses” -- or something like that. I’m kinda paraphrasing. So, Jerry started thinking outside the box, and his first big move was when he was subpoenaed by Congress. Basically, they wanted to lock him up for protesting the Vietnam War in ‘66. And he shows up [to Congress] in a Revolutionary War outfit, handing out copies of the Declaration of Independence -- and he’s immediately arrested. That’s literally front-page news, and Abbie Hoffman, who hadn’t really done anything theatrically yet and thought, “I want to meet this guy.” So, when Robin moves to New York in the middle of ‘67, the rest is history.
Jerry was a better organizer and Hoffman was arguably the better comedian. It was kind of a yin and yang thing, and I think both men have admitted, “We would have been much less without the other.” Even Rubin’s brother said, “What’s the legacy of Abbott without Costello? What’s the legacy Laurel without Hardy?” These guys were very different and they were very similar, and when it worked it really worked.
Q: What can today’s protesters learn from reading about Jerry Rubin?
A: Rubin’s own political manifesto [book] was called Do It! That was later corrupted by Nike who grabbed the phrase “Just Do It!” But that was [Jerry's] slogan. It’s easy to sit around and complain. ... It’s another thing to put on your shoes and march. The thing with Rubin, he didn’t just talk about this shit. He got arrested countless times. Had the Chicago 8 trial gone another way, he could have possibly spent the rest of his life in prison. That’s why I called the book Did It! Jerry said, “Do it!” and he ultimately did it.
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.
Pat Thomas will talk about his new book, "Did It! From Yippie To Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, An American Revolutionary," at Bookbound, 1729 Plymouth Rd., Ann Arbor, at 7 pm on April 3. Thomas will also appear at Book Beat, 26010 Greenfield Rd., Oak Park, at 7 pm on April 4. Both events are free.