The Life and Death and Rebirth of Boston’s Counterculture
How the city lost its underground cool—and might just get it back.
I begin my research in November with an email to Sam Potrykus, the closest thing Boston’s theoretically leaderless underground rock music scene has to a leader. I write in my email that I am investigating Boston’s vanishing counterculture, whatever that is, and am seeking a kind of Sherpa to help me navigate what’s left of it.
“Sounds fun man!” Sam writes back. He mentions an “electronic techno freak sorta joint” at an unlicensed music venue he runs in Allston. We meet downtown, where his minivan is parked. Sam is 29, with shoulder-length hair and an easy manner you’d associate with the West Coast—though with a Carhartt-and-hoodie aesthetic you might associate with Braintree, where he grew up. With him is a DJ and electronic music producer who goes by Gobby, wears a blue painter’s jump suit, and never speaks. “We don’t need to chitchat,” Sam says, grinning. They sit up front while I prop myself up on an elbow in the rear of the minivan—Sam removed the back seats to facilitate his day job as a mover—and try not to roll around too much. A joint is produced and we barrel onto the Mass. Pike.
Sam’s minivan eventually pulls up in front of a squat building in a gnarly sliver of Allston near the Pike. The space is home base for Boston Hassle, an all-purpose DIY nonprofit organization he cofounded half a decade ago to promote independent music, art, and film projects. Inside, up a stairwell and through a hallway, is a large room in which DJs are setting up behind a trippy diptych of a skeleton ghoul holding its own hideous skull by the claw. A middle-aged Hassle volunteer named James works the door while sitting in a recliner and drawing images of shrimp in a notebook.
When the Boston Phoenix keeled over four years ago, it occurred to Potrykus that there was a massive gap to fill. The city hadn’t lost just an alternative weekly newspaper, but a vital cultural nerve center, a hub. Maybe the Hassle, which already had a website and a monthly print offering, could be that clearinghouse? After all, Potrykus’s group was responsible for booking more than 400 artists last year—not bad for a guy who carries people’s furniture up and down staircases to sustain his penniless endeavor. Then again, maybe not. “There was a time when I was trying to replace the Phoenix,” Sam says. “But the world is so vast. And people have all sorts of ways to get their information.” In fact, thanks to soaring rents, the all-devouring maw of social media and online technology, and a bunch of other factors, it seems that nobody is going to replace what Boston’s lost anytime soon.
What exactly has Boston lost? Let me back up.
I’m arguing that Boston’s counterculture has shuffled off its coil—that the city produces less smart writing, less good music, and less radical thought than at any other point in the past half century. Boston, plus Cambridge and Somerville, once housed thriving folk, punk, and indie music scenes. The city was a breeding ground for independent cinemas such as Symphony and the Orson Welles. The Rat, a nightclub on Comm. Ave. where Eastern Standard now operates, was a punk mecca, and along with rock station WBCN incubated influential local acts such as the Cars and Mission of Burma. The alternative papers were absurdly talent-rich. BU was grungy. Harvard Square was hippie. Newbury Comics was cool. Newbury Street was cool.
Today, local radio is a wasteland. The bands are fine but barely register out of town. Journalism-wise, we’re down to a handful of niche websites and one hobbled alt-weekly, DigBoston, which is in the process of being sold. Cultural criticism has been largely supplanted by breathless cheerleading for athletes, tech startups, and, worst of all, Hollywood actors who grew up in the general vicinity of the city. (Please, no more B. J. Novak articles!) Three years ago, the Verb Hotel, in the Fenway, plastered its walls with artifacts from Boston’s alt-glory days and turned itself into a hipster history museum. You know what goes in history museums? Things that are very old or extinct.
To be clear, I’m aware of flaws in my argument: The very concept of “counterculture,” a term coined in the 1960s, is anachronistic and probably irrelevant. Plus, some of my highly subjective signposts for a thriving underground culture—rock music, print media—are in decline everywhere. In an era in which technological disruption has become the punk of its time, Boston has much to recommend it. The city is a wealthy urban playground, boasting many fine restaurants, research institutions, and 3-D printers.
I’m not saying Boston is dead. I’m saying it doesn’t always feel alive.
In August 1961, 20-year-old Bob Dylan took a day trip to Revere Beach with a handful of local folk musicians. They packed ham sandwiches and a jug of spiked orange punch. At the beach, a shirtless Dylan sat quietly and anxiously on a picnic blanket as the rest of the group talked excitedly about inventing a new genre of music. “Poetry set to music,” said the writer and singer Richard Fariña. “But not chamber music or beatnik jazz, man—music with a beat. Poetry you can dance to. Boogie poetry!” Dylan mostly had other things on his mind. “I’m having trouble finding gigs,” he confided in Fariña, according to David Hajdu’s 2001 history of the ’60s folk movement, Positively 4th Street. “Would there be any gigs that you know of?”
At the time, the road to folk stardom ran through Harvard Square. Club 47, on Mount Auburn Street, had since its opening in 1958 become the hottest venue north of New York, and a mesmerizing BU dropout named Joan Baez was its homegrown star. Dylan would travel regularly from New York to the 47—asking to play, asking for a job—and was almost always turned away. But he hung around enough that the scene rubbed off on him. His first album, released in 1962, featured music he’d learned from Cambridge folksinger Eric von Schmidt. A year later, Baez began trotting him out onstage to play for her legion of fans, and Dylan had finally arrived.
In a way, the city’s counterculture was born in Cambridge, at Club 47. Sure, there were earlier bouts of norm-busting activity: In 1926, H. L. Mencken was arrested on the Common for selling copies of his banned-in-Boston magazine the American Mercury, and in the 1940s Malcolm X’s radicalization began in prison cells across eastern Massachusetts. If you really wanted, you could go back to the publication of Walden, in 1854, or William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, launched in 1831. Or to the guys who threw the tea off the boat in the harbor. The folk era, though, tore a permanent hole in the culturally conservative fabric of the city, opening it up to the possibilities of musical experimentation, political consciousness–raising, and all the deliriously heavy substance abuse that came with bohemian living. It created a whole new city.
The ’60s was a tug of war between old and new Boston. Timothy Leary, the godfather of psychedelic drug use, evangelized the spiritual merits of LSD from his perch at Harvard—that is, until Harvard fired him. Drifters, squatters, and anarcho-collectivists colonized Boston Common—suburban flight had already decimated the city’s economic base—triggering breathless Globe coverage and pearl-clutching moral panic. After witnessing antiwar protests and clouds of reefer smoke hanging over his city, Cambridge Mayor Daniel Hayes in 1967 actually declared a “War on Hippies.”