The Georgia Straight's anniversary edition
The Georgia Straight's anniversary edition

The Georgia Straight Turns 50

The hippie rag grew up.

Sort of. It started in May, 1967, with four founders, Pierre Coupey, Milton Acorn, Stan Persky and Dan McLeod, responsible for publishing the first issue. Initially, it was associated with the underground press and reflected the countercultural values of the times.

Now it arrives every Thursday, with a hard copy circulation of 119,000 and a readership of potentially 800,000 weekly.

It still is a reflection of changing times, and now is characterized as a lifestyles magazine. In this way it is faithful to itself, although it is more likely to have full page ads for new apartment complexes than small personal ads for "muffdivers."

By the time my family moved from Winnipeg to Vancouver in January, 1968, the Straight had become notorious for its criticism of police and government; for cartoons by Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, and especially Rand Holm's Acid Man—and for reporting what was happening on the street.

If the city's then mayor, Tom Campbell, had his way, all runaways, transients, draft dodgers - the damned hippies - would be swept into the Pacific Ocean. Along with them would go that "filth," the Georgia Straight, that symbol of the countercultural thinking he hated.

My Grandmother bought that filth. At a dime an issue she could scandalize her sons, my uncles. I don't know if she ever read the Straight but leaving it around her North Vancouver house was Hilda's way of asserting her individuality, a rebellious spirit that the Straight embodied.

My Grandmother's dime was gathered with all the others and put in a drawer in a cabinet upstairs from Vancouver Books on Powell Street in Gastown. Presumably it was a communal petty cash fund to be divvied up after expenses. It was a nice thought, but that bit of idealism didn't last long when it was discovered that one of the vendors, a junkie, would plunder the drawer and take what he needed for a score.

Vancouver Books, a kind of head shop that sold incense and small books of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poetry, accidentally found itself in the middle of a 1968 legalize marijuana "smoke-in" that escalated into the infamous "Gastown Riot" where police charged in on horseback and clubbed those damned hippies.

Somehow it was fitting that the riot happened at the Straight's doorstep and cemented the newspaper's image. By this time, Dan McLeod had been jailed after the first issue, and both municipal and provincial governments had tried to silence the paper. Still, the Straight published, at first twice a week and then weekly, withstanding adversity with almost heroic determination. 

"It was fun at that stage," McLeod says now. "We were full of energy. We could do it."

The debts and court battles were mounting like the creaky steps up to the Straight's dark floors.  That was my introduction in 1974. Bob Geldof had upped the music coverage in the previous 18 months to the point where many people had begun to think of the Straight as a music paper. Then he went back to Ireland, informing McLeod he was forming the band that became the Boomtown Rats. He handed his music writer's hat to buddy Nick Collier.

Collier assumed Geldof's duties, and then hired me. As a stringer for Toronto monthly, Beetle, I often crossed paths with Bob. Each time we met, he would try to upset me with news of Beetle's impending doom. One day, it did fold, Bob left, and Nick called.

We talked a bit about this new guy, Bruce Springsteen, and he set me up for my first Straight review with Roy Forbes (Bim) at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. A few months later, Nick became the editor of the Straight and I moved over to handling the music beat. There is no official naming of me as the music editor, but that's the direction I took it in. 

The Straight had moved to Fourth and Arbutus, above a classical record store called The Magic Flute, and not far from Kool Aid—a haven for runaways and would-be hippies in the late 60s. It shared space with the nascent Greenpeace, which was handy as the Straight reported Greenpeace activity and Greenpeace supported the Straight.

At least up until Paul Watson left Greenpeace to start his Shepherd Society and wrote a scathing Greenpeace article that ran in the Straight. As it has always done, the Straight survived that controversy by just keeping going.

For a few months, it had competition from The Metro, funded by the successful businessman Nelson Skalbania. The Metro's fatal flaw was that it kept looking over its shoulder at what the Straight was doing instead of fashioning its own identity. When Skalbania pulled out, The Metro folded.

"We had nothing to lose," says McLeod. "Or I had nothing to lose. I came from nothing."

The Straight had its own financial problems, alleviated in part by Sharky. Once a month, Sharky, who handled distribution, would smuggle in American porn magazines, chop them up and the Straight would publish the Vancouver Star, into which the personal sex ads were funnelled.

Investors and ad salespeople, each with a plan to save the Straight, came up against the image of the hippie rag. They invariably were nuts to begin with, possibly liabilities, but, no matter, gave up in frustration.

Doug Bennett, who helped in the layout and contributed art, got up on a table, read out something clever and then disappeared to lead Doug And The Slugs.  It was further evidence that the Georgia Straight was a music paper.

Punk rock was emerging. Although no one at the paper was a punk, many of us were punk sympathizers. Having been exposed to the callousness of Vancouver's music mainstream, I breathed the fresh air of punk, even bringing a cassette player to the office filled with tapes of the latest singles; however, the punks never accepted the Straight. From their viewpoint, the Straight was that "hippie rag," looking at it with suspicion from the other side of the mainstream.

No matter that I was younger than Debbie Harry and about the same age as The Ramones, the Straight came from the generation that sang "all you need is love," and danced without feet touching the ground.

The Straight was as anarchic as the punks, and, if anyone looked, preached many of the same values. We were on the same side.

A possible solution was Public Enemy. This was designed by then Straight editor Bob Mercer and made explicit where we stood.

The punks weren't buying it. Public Enemy was too slick, far more professional than the sloppy handmade local fanzine, Snot Rag. It also contained many of the same music writers bylined in the Straight.

We went further. Mercer had written a song, "Wilson, Lucas And Bruce", about the inhumanity of solitary confinement and how it had led to a bloody attempted jailbreak.

Inspired by the Do It Yourself principle spouted by punk, Mercer formed a band around it with layout artist Dave Lester, writer Alex Varty and me a novice drummer. I brought in my neighbour, Jamie Baugh, to play bass. As the Georgia Straight "house band," as we became known, The Explosions recorded "Wilson, Lucas, And Bruce." At six minutes in length, it was a doomed single but put out anyway.  This sparked too many adventures to note here, but in less than a year, by late '78, it was all over for The Explosions and me; and The Straight temporarily became the Vancouver Free Press.

"You have to do what you have to do to survive," McLeod explains.  "We had tried to clean the slate. We had sought to do a lot of crazy stuff with the Straight. We 'd made too many enemies. We thought we'd go back to our original subhead - the Vancouver Free Press."

Cleaning the slate meant starting over with new names and getting rid of the old. I'd become a problem for editors who wanted more hard journalism and investigative reporting. I'd waltz in with an offer by a record company to finance the next edition if we'd put so and so —Donna Summer, for instance — on the cover. Such a deal was a lifeline for the cash-strapped Straight, which had to figure out how it was going to publish from week to week, and relied on the patience of College Printers, but the editor's plans were hijacked. I had to go.

Nonetheless, the Georgia Straight was good to me. Without it, I wouldn't have met Bob Marley in Jamaica or witnessed a failed comeback attempt by BTO at Mardi Gras in New Orleans; talked to George Harrison, or established myself as a writer.

The Vancouver Free Press lasted a year.

"It didn't have an identity," McLeod figures. "The Georgia Straight meant a lot to people."

Without skipping a beat that "hippie rag" was back.

I was over town at The Province newspaper.

That was an eye-opener. I was doing a third of the work for three times the money. When the Straight booted me out, I had taken to sleeping overnight on an editing table rather than bussing home. I put in long hours most days of the week and, eventually, after some nagging, getting paid a pittance.

This routine became so bad I struck up a friendship with a teller where the Straight kept its account with a bank down the street. She'd phone me and say, "Tom, we've got a little money here."

I'd drop everything and race down the street, sometimes just a little ahead of creditors. Occasionally not.

That was the Straight. Despite all its troubles and flaws, it inspired loyalty just to the idea of a free press. It might have rubbed many people the wrong way, but it had a very open attitude which is increasingly rare.

Thus, it was a starting place for many music writers, Alex Varty, Mike Usinger, Les Wiseman, Greg Potter, Alann Twigg, or a place on the rebound for veterans Doug Hughes and  Lloyd Dykk.

After I was booted out, the Straight tried something new. Instead of charging for it, each issue was given away.

"We've had low spots where the debts were horrendous," explains McLeod. "Free distribution was a model we could try. I was heartened by the way the Chicago Reader - now merged with the Chicago Sun-Times - had switched. It was a gamble that greatly increased the circulation."

The larger circulation attracted advertisers. Music coverage was still important, but so were the other arts and the range of stories greatly expanded. Contentious columns, by Charlie Smith for instance, still criticized the government - but now there also was room for sports.

The Straight was thought of - and occasionally dismissed -  as a lifestyle magazine. It reflected the growth in the city of restaurants, theatre, real estate. It had become successful.

Most of the underground press that inspired sole remaining founder, Dan McLeod, was gone.

The L.A. Free Press, the Freep, shut down in 1978 but was resurrected in 2005; New York's East Village Other, EVO, stopped in 1972; but London's International Times has carried on, mainly online.

"The underground press?" McLeod believes, "pretty well died when the Vietnam war ended."

The Straight, being Canadian, didn't have that issue to overcome. It persevered as usual but now is threatened by modern technology, the same threat that has done in other newspapers or similar publications. It has adapted to include online services.

"We're facing it," says McLeod, "I've had offers in the past, and now in the digital age there is no reason to sell. It's not worth anything. It was worth quite a lot at one time, in the mid-90s."

The Georgia Straight moved into splashier digs on Burrard Street above a car dealership and now is publishing from 1635 West Broadway. "I still go to the office every day," says McLeod, something he has done for 50 years. The morning might find him at home behind his computer. Occasionally he travels with Yolanda, his wife of 40 years. 

The Georgia Straight has been his life. It was a hippie rag but he grew up, and the Straight grew with him.

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