Mike Jahn

 


It was April of 1968, the year that will live in unsurpassed infamy unless Donald Trump does something to outdo it. The many citations of it that we hear in this 50th anniversary year only hint at how homicidal it was worldwide and how much of a mindfuck it was for the survivors.

Here’s what happened to me.

When 1968 was spawned, I was a part-time graduate student at Columbia University and a part-time writer for the university public information office. I also had begun freelancing on the subject of rock and the counterculture. But the only dent I made in the newspaper game was a weekly column, “New York Current,” observations of the counterculture in general and rock in particular, syndicated nationally by North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA), for which I was paid $25 a week.

I was 24 and living in a one-bedroom apartment one block from campus. I paid $127: a month, a rent that I covered by selling promotional copies of albums to Sam Goody’s in Times Square for a buck each. The core reason that I began writing about rock was to get those promotional copies to sell.

(In retrospective I should have hung onto that test pressing of the Beatles’ White Album.)

My draft status was 1A, the category that made you most eligible to be hauled off, taught how to kill, and be shipped to a rice paddy to do so. I was in analysis and taking full advantage of the psychopharmacology— both formal and informal—available at the time.

In January, the North Vietnamese launched their massive Tet Offensive, a military defeat but a strategic victory in that it scared the living shit out of Americans, especially those who were draft eligible.

My NANA column gave me the small amount of clout needed to sell a publisher on a quickie book about then-ascendant, pre-dead icon Jim Morrison, and in February I flew to Los Angeles to meet him. When I met him at Sunset Sound recording studio and shook his hand he fell to the floor, writhing in fake pain and crying “oh man, you broke my hand!”

THE LIZARD KING

Then he went off to a room, by himself but with the bottle he was carrying (in the hand I didn’t break, I guess). The other Doors and several others of us were in the control room listening to a playback when Morrison emerged and proclaimed “if I had an axe I’d kill everyone here ... ‘cept my friends.”

Jeez, Jimbo, the hand wasn’t that bad.

Or maybe it was. Nominally over money, the Doors rescinded their verbal agreement to work with me, and home I flew. I would defy their lawyer and write my quickie paperback without them. That is what I did in March, blasting Doors music the length of 113th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam. I kept the whole $1,000 that was left after deducting the expense of flying to LA to break the lizard king’s hand.

Scared out of what I jokingly refer to as my wits by the draft, I got so into the whole William Blake / Jim Morrison / rock / death thing so earnestly that, two years later when Morrison died, Ben Fong-Torres in the obituary he penned for Rolling Stone wrote that I “preceded Morrison as the Lizard King.” 

When I saw “Apocalypse Now” I thought back on 1968 and wondered if Martin Sheen hadn’t been reading my mail.

At the end of February, Walter Cronkite delivered his famous broadcast advising America to get out of the war. On March 12, Lyndon Johnson’s squeaker of a victory over antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary convinced Robert Kennedy to get into the race. Bobby had been dithering, despite pressure from friends and others.

Included among the latter was a tiny Upper West Side grassroots organization called Citizens for Kennedy and Fulbright. There were five members, among them  New York Times night rewrite man Mike Kaufman and me. In the Spring of 1967 we announced our intention to enter Bobby’s name in the 1968 New Hampshire primary, got some headlines, and were told “thanks but no thanks” by him. We soldiered on nonetheless and opened a storefront office on Amsterdam Avenurse to be used in getting signatures on petitions and all those things that grassroots organizers do.

 POLITICIZE THE HIPPIES?

I don’t remember what happened subsequently because I met Abbie Hoffman and my attention wandered. Smack in the middle of the Summer of Love, 1967, we had been sitting in his apartment on St. Mark’s Place when he lit a joint, took a toke, handed it to me and, with an adorable nod in the direction of San Francisco, said “we have to think of a way to politicize the hippies.”

Oh well.

The hippies were having nothing to do with creating peace other than talking about it endlessly. We despised them, for they made it easy for “the straights” (not a gay reference) to make fun of those who merely wanted to stop the war and attain social justice.

In December of 1967 Abbie held a press conference to announce plans to hold demonstrations to disrupt the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which was scheduled for August in Chicago. There were only two people in the front row, Joan Baez and me. I sat next to her but didn’t ask her anything. Regarding leftist striving, she was yesterday’s news. Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and the rest of the Village “protest singers” were increasingly irrelevant. The answer that they saw blowing in the wind was nascent onstage with Abbie and uptown with the kids at Columbia with whom I shared my days.

Scrawled on the door of the East Village Other underground newspaper was “Flower Power Is Dead; Long Live Fire Power.”

After LBJ laid an egg in New Hampshire, Bobby jumped into the race. Two weeks later, on March 31, Johnson announced that would not seek re-election.

On April 4, Martin Luther King was assassinated. While rioting occurred in many American cities, the response in New York was muted, largely because Mayor John Lindsay went to Harlem and chilled things out. I don’t recall much at all occurring on campus beyond the disruption of a memorial service by student-activist-vanguard SDS.

Relative silence on the King assassination notwithstanding, a lot was going on—a million little campaigns on a variety of local issues. The 17,000-student campus raged with foreboding and anticipation. As elsewhere across America, this brave and ancient land was alive with the death of the ancien regime.

Several targeted rage points were University involvement in military and intelligence, but the main focus was Columbia’s plan to build a gymnasium for undergraduates in neighboring Harlem’s Morningside Park. But all were surrogates for the war in Vietnam, which hung like a B-movie hterror fog over every draft-eligible young man.

DYING IN A SWAMP 

Especially me, a 24-year-old nobody with no money and no likely future that didn’t include dying in a swamp on the far side of the earth. Okay, so I had taken a few tentative steps in the direction of a dreamed career as a writer, but dreams and a token—15 cents at the time, if memory serves—would get you on the subway to be mugged.

The future began on April 23 when student activists began to occupy campus buildings. I’ll spare you the specifics, which are described in excruciating detail online. And the piece in the current Vanity Fair is pretty good. Important to us is that buildings were grabbed and, before too long, grabbed back. We were all waiting for that to happen, we being members of the press and Columbia media reps. 

TEN MINUTES UP BROADWAY  

Keep in mind a fact of geography. Columbia was a major research institution, true. It was an ivy with a pedigree going back to the 1700s, true. But it was also a ten-minute drive up Broadway from the global center of media. Our large public information staff was very much a research arm of the press. A reporter needs an expert on earthquakes to comment on that trembler in Tibet? He calls Columbia and the geeky kid in the press office gets him one. That’s what I did.

In the hours between midnight and 8 am, the press office was me. Because I lived on 113th Street I got to sit up all night with the press. And because he lived on 111th Street, New York Times dude Mike Kaufman got to sit up all night with me.

There were dozens if not hundreds of reporters of all stripes—print, radio, TV, local, foreign, national—with tons of gear. We had pushed our desks into the center of the huge office in Dodge Hall to make a city desk of sorts that all could use. In the wee hours we sat around, drinking coffee and talking, running out en masse every so often in response to a rumor (“a police van just pulled onto College Walk”).

The early hours of this one night, April 29 most likely, Mike and I were bullshitting idly when, out of nowhere, he said “you’ve written about folk/rock, right?”

I had.

‘Bob Shelton just quit and they’re looking for someone to replace him. Why don’t you send in your clips.”

A brief stunned silence in the brain, then the thought nobody starts their daily newspaper career at the New York Times.    

I don’t recall what I replied. More than likely something sharp, like “dunno.”

Replace Robert Shelton? The legendary folk music critic and enthusiastic supporter of the Village folk scene who “discovered” Bob Dylan? Who was an unsung hero of the resistance to McCarthy-era suppression of the press?

The answer, my friend, was blowing in the ill wind that had marked my dreams to that point.

There was no time to ponder the question. I had a revolution to attend.

THE COURSE OF HUMAN EVENTS

It arrived in full force I the early morning of April 30, when the Columbia administration called in the cops to expel the occupiers. The move came to be called “the Bust.” Here is an account published in connection with the 2008, 40th anniversary exhibit at Columbia’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library.

2 a.m.: The police removed black students from Hamilton Hall, after entering the building through underground tunnels. Alerted to the imminent police action, the students chose not to resist. The police made 86 arrests.
 
2:15 a.m.:  Police entered Low Library through tunnels, removing occupying students. Again, police met no violent resistance, and made 93 arrests.
 
2:30 a.m.:  Police entered Avery Hall through the main doors to clear the building of occupying students. The police met moderate resistance, and some students received injuries. The police made 42 arrests.
 
2:45 a.m.:  Police entered Fayerweather Hall through the main doors to clear the building of occupying students. There they met scattered resistance inside and outside the building. A number of minor injuries occurred.  The police made 268 arrests.
 
3:00 a.m.:  Police entered Mathematics Hall, where they faced the strongest student resistance.  The clearing of Mathematics resulted in several student and police injuries.  The police made 203 arrests.
 
3:15 a.m.:  Police on Low Plaza loading arrested students into vans began to charge spectators gathering in South Field. The subsequent stampede resulted in the most significant violence of the night—and the greatest public outcry.

Stampede? All I knew was I ran like hell from the one cop who had picked me out and was running at me, club ... there are common euphemisms, nightstick, baton, it sure looked like a club ... waving over his head. Other spectators on South Field bolted toward the southeast. But the campus exit there was further away, and there were other cops in front of Hamilton. The mammoth Butler Library blocked any thought of escape to the south.

I bolted southwest toward the exit at 114th and Broadway, the nearest to home.

But the cop was gaining on me and I turned to the right and crashed through the hedge in front of the Journalism building, stumbling and landing on my ass beneath the statue of Thomas Jefferson.

The cop didn’t follow me through the hedge. I got up, dusted myself off and looked up at Tom and, behind him, Journalism Hall.

Sometimes in  the Course of Human Events it becomes necessary to embrace cliches. I sent in my clips.

YOUR DESK IS DOWN THERE

Several months passed. 1968 slogged on in ways that have become familiar. Valerie Solanis shot Andy Warhol, thoroughly confusing the just-established link between art and celebrity. Sirhan Sirhan shot Bobby Kennedy, making Eugene McCarthy the only one likely to save the country from Richard Nixon. The puny effort by Mike and me and our tiny band of Broadway renegades to create a second Kennedy administration with a second Kennedy went no further than had Abbie’s wish to politicize the hippies. He created his own, bringing the revolution to Chicago and blowing it up.

Then, the third week in October, my life went wild. I was presented with a draft deferment. The letter my shrink sent to the draft board came through. No rice paddy for me. No shin splints required (I had heard of that but deemed it bullshit unlikely to get me deferred). All those nights of rousing myself from sleep to write down my dreams had paid off.

I sold my first major magazine piece, a rather silly thing on Tim Buckley printed in Vogue.

And I was summoned to 229 West 43rd Street.

There had been no buildup, no job interviews, no portentous phone calls. Legendary metropolitan editor Arthur Gelb called me to the side of the legendary metro desk and, without bothering to sit or offer me a seat, said, in essence, your desk is down there. Start writing.

It was a large, plain metal desk with a spring-loaded trap door beneath which was mounted an old typewriter. The desk was located on the outer rim of Culture News, far from the center of culture news power, but where by craning my neck I could look down the length of the long City Room to the Metro Desk, which two years later was throbbing with excitement over publishing the Pentagon Papers.

Before he let me go sit at it, Gelb made me a speech. It went, and this is pretty verbatim, “the New York Times is the newspaper of record. Every day we write the history of the world. In 200 years, when someone wants to know what happened in 1968, he will read your words.”

Oh, cool. No pressure there. What year am I supposed to have eternal insight into?

Several decades later I had an email chat with Maureen Dowd in which she revealed that Gelb had said the same thing to her.

THE WEREWOLF

Here’s how the Times later described me, in an anecdote that appears to have become boilerplate. I shamelessly copped it from a nine-year-old blog post, So far it has appeared in my old editor Dick Shepard’s “The Paper’s Papers: A Journey Through the Archives of the New York Times”; Gelb’s “City Room;” and the obituary of its late managing editor Clifton Daniel.

“Mr. Daniel relished his role in expanding the Times’s coverage of arts news. ‘Any newspaper that didn’t cover a major industry in its community would be judged derelict,’ he said. ‘I thought the coverage should be conscientious, thoughtful, and thorough’ … In 1968, when the Times retained a long-haired culture writer as a rock critic, Mr. Daniel enjoyed breaking the news gently to the well-groomed former marine who was then the paper’s publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger. ‘His name is Mike Jahn,’ Mr. Daniel wrote in a note to Mr. Sulzberger, ‘and he is going to write pieces on folk/rock music.’

“Mr. Daniel went on to report that another editor had reassured him: ‘Mr. Jahn wears his hair in a somewhat bizarre style–in fact he looks like a werewolf. But since his work will not require him to be in the office very much, I don’t think he’ll bite any of us.’”

Thus began my contribution to the debasement of American culture – introducing the New York Times to the coverage of popular culture, specifically rock and roll. Shelton had been a great folk critic, but he despised the Beatles and, presumably, all other rock bands. The Times had brought me in to expand the coverage to rock.

You can’t tell a werewolf what to do. In keeping with Gelb’s bare-bones, sit-down-and-write welcome, the Times never assigned me. Well, twice, to cover Elvis’s coming out of retirement and Woodstock. The rest of the time I assigned myself—decided who to cover and when. The desk didn’t know what I was up to until I did it. I came in, sat down, wrote, handed over the copy, and waited just long enough for to see if there were questions.

Then I split, often enough to Max’s Kansas City to join the little band of fellow ink-stained wretches I referred to as the New York Rock Critics Circle. We’d drink and make rude comments about everyone else.

The Times paid me $50 a piece—$350 today—and I wrote three or four of them a week. I was rich. I was the first full-time rock critic for major American newspapers, which I suspect meant the first full-timer for any major media. In short order I closed my NANA column to become a founding columnist of the New York Times Special Features syndicate alongside Clifton Daniel and Harrison Salisbury. I played DJ on WNEW-FM for a whole, and finding myself considered a name writer switched eventually to novels for a living. I generally enjoyed the life-affirming benefit of having survived 1968.

I am here to tell of it, and for that I apologize.

 APOLOGIA AND SOCKO ENDING

Hey, let me leave you with some amusing trivia. To reward me for having written a bunch of books and getting an award for one of them and maybe also for the Times stuff, in 1984 Columbia established the Michael Jahn Collection of original manuscripts and correspondence. It’s housed in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, located at the south end of South Field in Butler Library, near the route I took running from that cop the night of the Bust.

Don’t let my 50+ published books and the Edgar fool you. I ain’t no best selling author nor am I wealthy. I’ve enjoyed critical and peer approval, more than enough.

And for the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, the Times summoned me back to make a tape along with a few other veteran scribes who covered the fuss on Yasger’s Farm. I walked in and saw the smiling face of Mike Kaufman, who I had lost track of other than to note that he was Roving Asian Correspondent for years.

I shouted “You! This is all your fault! You got me into this.”

He laughed and laughed.

THE END

In August I’ll be 75. I’m getting by like all of us. I’m still freelancing, and have gone back to being a science geek, covering developments in medical research. And like all of us I’m terrified of the future.

Again.

And I’m still in the Resistance. 

 

 


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