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Writer co-founded alternative paper

Obituaries / Walter Bowart, 1939 - 2007

January 13, 2008|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Walter Bowart, who channeled the cultural chaos of the 1960s into print as the co-founder of one of the era's first underground newspapers, died Dec. 18 in Inchelium, Wash. He was 68.

The cause was colon cancer, his family said.

Bowart helped launch the biweekly East Village Other in Greenwich Village in 1965, a convulsive year when the Beatles, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War were rocking American society.

Bowart and a small band of colleagues used the paper to push the boundaries of convention with articles about sex, drugs, music and pressing social issues, presented in an experimental format that changed from issue to issue.

The paper reported on the exploits of many of the figures who became icons of the psychedelic era, including Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg.

"It was a radical alternative to the Village Voice. It was very irreverent," said Paul Krassner, the satirist and co-founder of the Yippies who ran his own counterculture journal, the Realist, from an office near Bowart's on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Bowart later published books and other materials about metaphysics. He also became fascinated by the Central Intelligence Agency's experiments with mind control and offered his view of government attempts to manipulate human behavior in the book "Operation Mind Control," published by Dell in 1978 with an introduction by "The Manchurian Candidate" author Richard Condon.

Born in Omaha in 1939, Bowart attended the University of Oklahoma on a journalism scholarship but was also interested in painting. He brought an artist's sensibility to the East Village Other, which was launched by a small group of artists and writers that included Allan Katzman, Sherry Needham and John Wilcock.

"Walter should be remembered because he was such a pioneer in this early revolution in publishing," Wilcock said, noting that Bowart was among the first underground newspaper publishers to use offset printing as "a way to break the limitations of a linear paper."

Unlike other underground papers that stuck to traditional newspaper design, the Other had stories swirling around pictures and graphics printed in dizzying colors.

"It was gritty but imaginative," said Northwestern University professor Abe Peck, who lived in the East Village during the paper's heyday and later wrote a history of the alternative press. He remembered in particular a cover that consisted of a picture of a man in a Sgt. Pepper uniform with a collage of images floating above his head that depicted his thoughts. He was burning his draft card under a headline that declared, "Girls Say Yes to Men Who Say No."

The Other, which had a circulation of about 65,000 at its peak, also fostered a new breed of cartoonists, including Vaughn Bode and Spain Rodriguez, influential figures in the underground comics movement of the 1960s that provided popular culture with characters who resisted authority, practiced free love and smoked pot. The paper advocated better living through chemistry in features that included a column by LSD guru Leary called "Turn On, Tune In and Drop Out," the slogan that the one-time Harvard professor coined for the psychedelic generation.

The Other was "pro-drug, probably more than most of the papers," said Art Kunkin, founder of the Los Angeles Free Press, the granddaddy of underground papers. "There was a definite hippie image to the paper. It was very psychedelic looking. . . . You couldn't read it sometimes because there would be color pictures overlaid on the type. But it was very innovative."

Bowart practiced what the paper preached. At a 1966 hearing in Washington, D.C., on whether LSD should be made illegal, he testified that he had used LSD more than 30 times and urged one of the senators to go on an LSD trip and "report back" on the experience. According to a New York Times article, none of the senators appeared eager to follow Bowart's advice. LSD was declared a controlled substance a few months later.

Bowart subsequently helped launch a rumor that the mood-altering properties of LSD could be found in nonchemical substances, specifically bananas.

According to Krassner, the story grew out of a discussion he heard Bowart having with Katzman and another editor, Dean Latimer. They were intrigued by the idea that a substance common to LSD and bananas could trigger pleasurable sensations in the brain. The story found its way into underground and mainstream papers, instigating what Krassner has called the great banana skin hoax.

"In San Francisco, there was a banana smoke-in, and one entrepreneur started a successful banana-powder mail-order business, charging $5 an ounce," Krassner wrote in his 1993 autobiography, "Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut." It was widely believed that the 1967 hit "Mellow Yellow" was songwriter Donovan's homage to bananas as a natural hallucinogen.

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