Rat Subterranean News, New York's second major underground newspaper, was created in March 1968, primarily by editor Jeff Shero, Alice Embree and Gary Thiher, who moved up from Austin, Texas, where they had been involved in The Rag.
Probably more than any other underground paper, Rat was in the eye of the political hurricane, making news as well as reporting it. Rat immediately attained national notoriety for its exclusive inside stories from the Columbia University student uprising in the spring of 1968. Its notoriety grew further when a couple of staff members (including star reporter Jane Alpert) were arrested in connection with a series of non-lethal bombings of corporate offices and military targets in late 1969. Its reputation took a new turn when it became the first bastion of sexism within "the revolution" to be successfully stormed by the forces of the emerging women's movement in early 1970. In its new incarnation as Women's LibeRATion, it lasted another few issues into the fall of 1970.
While the East Village Other, published a few blocks away, represented the countercultural "establishment" with its arty covers and relatively relaxed culture-oriented content, Rat embodied the raging far-left politics of the late Sixties. Unlike the orthodox Marxist press, however, it still represented the fun-loving, free-wheeling spirit of hippiedom. Its stripped-down, straightforward design (created by Bob Eisner, later a leading designer of mainstream papers) marked a sharp break with the baroque psychedelia of EVO and other first-generation underground papers. But its relatively austere aethetics were relieved by abundant cartoons, including covers by Robert Crumb and clippings from 1940s poultry magazines found on the street and used as decorations wherever they fit.
Among the memorable contents were original contributions from William S. Burroughs, an interview with Kurt Vonnegut, and insightful front-line reports on the Weather Underground's seizure of SDS written by Shero and others. There were regular in-depth stories on the Young Lords, a militant Puerto Rican youth movement, and the Black Panthers - with a focus on New York's own Panther 21 terrorism trial, and well as news of the on-going sagas of Huey Newton, Afeni Shakur, and Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver. Jane Alpert wrote on her own experiences in the notorious Women's House of Detention after she was arrested for involvement in the bombings. Like most underground papers, Rat shared articles through the Underground Press Syndicate, allowing regular coverage of distant events like the Native American takeover of Alcatraz Island — and of course, looming over everything, the Vietnam War.
While most pages of Rat serve as two-dimensional museums of its own era, its ecological writings are astonishingly far-sighted even now. The Apollo 11 moon landings were seen through a mirror, in a grand color centerfold, sponsored by the Sierra Club, headlined "Towards A More Moon-Like Earth" - elegantly written and designed, probably by Jerry Mander and/or David Brower and/or Paul Simon aka Paul Zmeiwski. . Coming hard on the heels of UPS reports from the bloody struggles over People's Park, this manifesto provided a radical planetary overview for the nascent ecology movement. As this came to Rat in the form of a paid advertisement from a national organization, it presumably appeared in several other papers at the same time. Further thoughts on this subject came from the famously ex-Marxist Murray Bookchin, a regular Rat contributor whose left-anarchist take on eco-politics anticipated (and influenced) the socially engaged anti-globalization movement that emerged in 1999. Some of his articles appeared under pseudonyms.
There may be only one item first published in Rat that has survived on the fringes of mainstream culture. This would be Robin Morgan's incandescent essay "Good-Bye to All That" (a title borrowed from Robert Graves), which appeared in the first women's issue, and is still available in anthologies of the finest feminist writings.
It's noteworthy that the percentage of the paper devoted to reporting would-be revolutionaries' warfare with the state actually increased following the women's takeover, as did a tendency toward hard-left politics and Maoist graphics. The fiery "Women's LibeRATion" was a far cry from the safely upward-mobile feminism associated with the National Organization for Women and Ms. magazine a few years later. Issues of workplace discrimination and sexual harassment were already a major concern, however. A poem about office work by Marge Piercy, Metamorphosis into Bureaucrat, appeared in the women's Rat of March 7, 1970, containing the lines "Swollen, heavy, rectangular/ I am about to be delivered / of a baby /zerox machine."
A list of notable contents is misleading, in its implication that Rat took itself seriously, and expected to be taken seriously. In fact, it didn't and wasn't. Rat's sense of humor lightened up, and subtly undermined, its often heavy political messages. Most of its better writings contained humor of their own - and any that didn't were likely reach the reader accompanied by inappropriate illustrations and irreverent headlines (in press-on letters that were always a bit askew). Despite the life-and-death urgency of its political stories, Rat's modest newsstand sales came largely from "straight" people looking for offbeat entertainment — and looking for sex.
Rat was published during a period of layout innovation and had a dramatic look of jumbled letters and strong imagery. Stat camera reproduction of paste-ups composed of often "swiped" graphic elements, and letraset type, were fast and affordable. Contributing designers included Van Howell and Joe Schenkman. This largely forgotten period of innovation in communication is remembered for its association with period (mainly punk) music graphics and concert flyers, and for many campus publications and activist flyers. It is somewhat similar to the later desktop publishing revolution.
Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll
Before 1970, Rat was deeply involved in "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" as well as revolutionary politics. Censors were incensed, but newsstand sales shot up by 50%, when the cover featured a full-frontal-nude "Slum Goddess" rising from a toilet to liberate Manhattan (March 1969). Photo editor Elliott Landy commented in the July 1–15, 1968 issue: "Last time we ran a naked chick on the cover (4th issue) we temporarily doubled our circulation. Thought we'd do it again." In the next issue Jeff Shero offered his own thoughts: "Sex is the magic commodity in New York. Everytime we print a nude on the cover circulation jumps five thousand" and in the following issue someone wrote: "Two weeks ago we put tits on the cover and commented that the previous cover we did with tits doubled our circulation. It happened again, not quite double but a considerable increase in sales—the paper sold out on many, many newsstands."
Profits from Pleasure, a pornographic tabloid, published separately by one of Rat's founders, may have paid some of Rat's printing bills. Rat's financial news from "The Street" charted market fluctuations in the street prices of various drugs.
Rat was perhaps responsible for the most peculiar footnote in the history of rock music. Some recent Internet writers have claimed that Rat was the source of the 1969 "Paul is Dead" rumor, which had millions examining Beatles albums for cryptic clues that Paul McCartney was actually a ghost.
There was an exclusive interview with Jimi Hendrix, and another with John and Yoko during their Toronto "bed-in" to promote peace. It seems probable that Frank Zappa was inspired by a sign painted on the front window of Rat's 14th Street office, originally the previous tenant's advertisement reading "photostats made while you wait," now neatly altered to proclaim "Hot Rats made while you wait," in early March 1969; Zappa's first solo album appeared in October with that title in similar typography.
"Hot Rats" was scraped off the glass soon after the takeover by W.I.T.C.H. - Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell - and its sister groups. A sign that had once advertised Rats "hot off the press" had quite different implications on the window of an office now filled with intense young women - who were there, and intense, precisely because they'd had enough of "all that".
- Jeff Shero's name became Jeff Nightbyrd at some point after he left Rat.
- William Burroughs, Allen Hibbard. Conversations with William S. Burroughs. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2000, p.16.
- Generalizations about Rat readership are based on market research conducted in Manhattan in 1969, including the author's brief conversations with, and observations of, various categories of consumer considering purchases of copies of Rat, as well as word-of-mouth reports from distribution staff. Samplings are not scientific.
- Source for sales figures: Conversation with Jeff Shero, 1969. Artist credit for "Slum Goddess" - please add if known. Covert sources of income are rumored to have included personal donations from the poet W. H. Auden. (Please edit this if you know either way.) Printing bills sometimes went unpaid, During leans periods, Rat would find new printers willing to take on the legal and financial risks of publishing New York's most notorious paper. During most of 1969, Rats came out of the legendary Septum Printing plant of Oceanside, NY. Source: Untranscribed and unpublished interviews with various printers, New Jersey and NY, 1969; confirmed by anonymous Rat staff members.
- This brief summary omits many highly relevant factors at work on the Movement of 1969-70, such as (a) the traumatic effects of fatal Weather Underground explosions, Altamont, Kent State, Jackson State; (b) the mainstreaming of Earth Day and the denaturing of "environmentalism". It also omits the previous few years of the feminist revival, such as the theoretical work of Betty Friedan and Valerie Solanas, among others, who presumably contributed something to the views of some of the participants in the Women's Takeover. Incidentally, the correct term for the Weather Underground in 1969-70 was Weatherman although women were in leadership positions from the early on. The later name is used here out of respect for their contributions to their ill-advised struggle.
- Link to exhibit of underground press covers, including several examples of Rat
- Former Rat editor Jeffrey (Shero) Nightbyrd on Rag Radio Interviewed by Thorne Dreyer, September 14, 2010 (54:54)