IN 2013, I WAS RESEARCHING AN ARTICLE and stumbled over a site containing thousands of images, all apparently scanned from ‘underground newspapers’ and similar counterculture publications. And best of all, they appeared to all come from that period of unrest and upheaval that we call “The Sixties”—which 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: page after page of advertisements for things that seemed hip then; political cartoons, from the amateur to the genius of Ron Cobb; artwork; portraits; photos; articles; comic strips; etc.
So of course I sent a complimentary email to the site’s proprietor (I told him that I had “absconded with a couple of images of Emory Douglas Panther pages”), who responded in kind (“Absconsion is encouraged!”). We remained in touch sporadically and then a few weeks ago I stumbled over his site again and followed with an email to him requesting an ‘interview.’ And so this first round of questions and answers followed . . .
A revolutionary bookstore and 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 laying 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/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 1978-81 and loved the area. I haven’t been back in 30 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.
Cover art that proved somewhat prescient: while Huey P. survived the police bullets, many other Panthers did not.
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.
NU: I will be yet another non-Tumblr site doing a feature. 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 did not even 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 uber alles.
“In the freedom of that power of all wisdom and of love all the shit of worldly centuries but nourishes the rose and all good and gracious creatures grow great within themselves and find in the mouth of lions the holy book of peace.” (Richard Shannon, The Book Of Peace, or The Way Within)
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.” That sort of data.
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 no 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 a one-shot “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 do not think that there was a second issue. I have not 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
He inspired a chant: “Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” He inspired a song: “And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for? Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam. And it’s five, six, seven, open up the pearly gates! Well, there ain’t no time to wonder why. Whoopee! We’re all gonna die . . .” Who thought that after the 1968 elections we’d miss him?
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 Sean.
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 (daily?) astounded by people that I knowknow 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. The Internet is the greatest resource for information, facts, dada, 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! 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.
Finally, Sean placed these two images one after the other and I thought them a perfect way to end this article . . .