The Life and Death and Rebirth of Boston’s Counterculture

How the city lost its underground cool—and might just get it back.

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Volunteer arts organization Boston Hassle provides venues for indie and experimental music acts. / Photograph by Ben Stas

Meanwhile, a number of players affiliated with the Club 47 scene had fallen under the sway of guru and self-proclaimed deity Mel Lyman and established a commune with him in Roxbury called the Family. Together, they put out a magazine titled Avatar, which served as a soapbox for Lyman’s neo-transcendentalist ravings. In 1967, a confrontational editorial triggered the city’s anti-obscenity laws, which led to a raid on the magazine’s offices in Cambridge. By then, though, muzzling Boston’s counterculture was no longer realistic. Alternative media had planted its flag: Fusion magazine was an East Coast rival to Rolling Stone; Crawdaddy was for the rock nerds; Boston After Dark and the Cambridge Phoenix merged to become the Boston Phoenix, which in turn played foil to the Globe. WBCN live-streamed the outré pulse of the city from its Newbury Street studio, while the music scene migrated to the station’s sister venue, a psychedelic ballroom in the South End called the Boston Tea Party.

It would be a fool’s errand to keep tracing the history of the city’s counterculture on such a granular level. Suffice it to say, a distinctly Bostonian alt-cultural gestalt persisted into the 1990s. Boston’s attitude—influenced by its enormous student population—was ironic and smart-assed, rebellious but with a cause. Think Willie “Loco” Alexander, the in-house enfant terrible at the Rat. Think Steven Wright or Denis Leary, who came out of the city’s go-go ’80s standup scene. Think the Pixies, or Morphine, local giants who recorded at Fort Apache studios.

Gradually, though, economic pressures crushed many of the city’s old hubs, and Boston’s counterculture began to lose its relevance. In 1994, the state did away with rent control, accelerating the gentrification of Boston and Cambridge. Fort Point, long a seedy artist enclave, would be rebranded into an “innovation district.” Kenmore Square was scrubbed clean as BU evolved from a slacker commuter school to a $65,000-a-year NYU clone. Luxury condos sprouted like weeds. Because of new technologies, some of them invented here, record stores and indie theaters became superfluous and faded. Alternative newspapers, which depended heavily on personal ads, lost their business model and died.

By the time I started reporting this story, the infrastructure that had once sustained the city’s alternative life had all but disappeared. “There are no record labels in Boston, no film production companies in Boston, no television stations in Boston,” says local filmmaker and musician Michael J. Epstein, who announced his move to L.A. last year in an open letter to the city. Like him, many artists I spoke with had recently moved away—less because of anything other cities offered and more because Boston had become unaffordable. You can be cheap or you can be interesting. But it gets tough when you’re neither. “I would have been the first to be really honest and say, ‘No, there really is an awesome, thriving counterculture. Go find it. Go to a couple basement parties,’” says DigBoston editor Chris Faraone. “But it’s just not the case. It just isn’t.”

The question remains, though: What’s replaced it?

 

When I was a teenager living in Harvard Square in the mid-2000s, I rode the T to prep school in Boston. I wasn’t going to sit there with a fat, dull Globe sliding off my lap, so my commuter entertainment was limited to the Metro, which was as vapid as it is now, and on Thursdays the latest Phoenix, which was a revelation. I was too young to really get a lot of it, but I was taken by a weekly comic strip called Failure, which was drawn in a technically precise, realist style and focused on the charming aimlessness of twentysomething life in Allston and J.P. The strip, and the newspaper that housed it, became conduits between the comfortable but stuffy milieu in which I was raised, and the lingering weirdness that lay just beyond.

Even then, though, Harvard Square was entering the pointless-bank-chain phase of its existence. Gradually, street life got sterilized, as the Pit punks and the buskers and the conspiracy-theorist megaphone Uncle Sam guy began to disappear. In May 2012 the Phoenix’s sister radio station, WFNX—first in the country to play Nirvana’s Nevermind from start to finish—died the worst of all possible deaths: It was sold to Clear Channel and eventually converted to a country music station. That September the Phoenix merged with the lamentable Stuff @ Night and became a glossy. Within a couple of months it was packaging features listing Beacon Hill’s “most beautiful” people. The following March, the paper officially expired, and hundreds of red plastic newspaper boxes became collector’s items.

Looking back now, the whole chain of events reads like a pathetically sad parable about the direction of the city. I may write for Boston magazine, but I wound up moving to Brooklyn. The erstwhile author of Failure, Karl Stevens, lives in a Fort Point condo he could not afford were it not subsidized for artists by the city of Boston. He still publishes a comic strip, but it’s printed each week in the Village Voice, out of New York. And while the Voice itself isn’t what it used to be, it’s an improvement over what’s left in Boston. “You pick up something like the Improper Bostonian,” Stevens says, “and it’s completely alien to anyone who has any interest in art. It’s all about food and drink and this really conservative sort of lifestyle.” He continues, “I think that’s sort of what has swept through the city. There’s this air of conservatism that goes along with new money from the tech industry—the rise of just a lot more young professionals who aren’t plugged into the counterculture. Squares, you know.”

Boo, squares. I couldn’t agree more. But the curdled nostalgia Stevens and I share also kind of misses the point. To understand why the Phoenix died, and moreover, why most Bostonians don’t know or care that it did, one has to reckon with the emergence of a different kind of counterculture altogether: the tech industry.

In 1999, a 19-year-old Northeastern University freshman named Shawn Fanning debuted a free music file-sharing program called Napster. Five years later, Mark Zuckerberg created thefacebook.com in his cramped Kirkland House suite in Cambridge. At the time, neither was looking for corporate work at, say, a Kendall Square biotech firm. Both were, famously, dropouts. They were exemplars of DIY culture, and their websites were the new underground (and in Napster’s case, illegal) spaces.

Which is fitting, because as it turned out, the old, analog counterculture and the contemporary, digital one could not coexist. The migration of life to the Internet literally killed much of the old alt-culture by sucking off its revenue streams. Alt-weekly newspapers, being free, derived their revenue entirely from advertisements. But social media and search engines were more efficient at funneling customers to businesses, and so the ads went there instead. When music became free and/or instantly accessible on the Internet, indie radio stations and record stores were rendered practically useless.

What’s more, by destabilizing the existing underground infrastructure, the Internet sent the very concept of a counterculture into a tailspin. For decades, the old hubs were delivery mechanisms for cultural contraband. As Newbury Comics CEO and cofounder Mike Dreese says, “We used to enable voices that nobody could hear.” Suddenly, nobody needed Newbury Comics to access hard-to-find records or word-of-mouth bands. Now, the chain survives by selling Simpsons swag, streetwear, and gag gifts. Likewise, the decentralization of content obliterated not just the business model but the purpose of alternative media. In the ’60s, recalls Peter Kadzis, the senior editor of WGBH News and a former Phoenix editor, “there was only one culture to be alternative to.” Two papers, three TV channels, et cetera. Today, who needs the Phoenix as an alternative to the Globe if no one is stuck reading the Globe?

That was bad news for Newbury Comics and the Phoenix. But in a paradoxical way, it represented a win for the ideals of the counterculture. The demise of the old institutions suggests they served their purpose. Nothing is censored; everything is on your phone. There is more mass culture against which to react. In that way, Brahmin to beatnik to tech bro represents a natural evolution for the city. The old radicals and the startup types who disrupted them into oblivion share the same mistrust of gatekeepers, the same anarchic rejection of accepted wisdom. The result is a slick and expensive city, yes, but also one that has traded in its parochialism for a cosmopolitan blend of cultural diversity and political progressivism.

You could survey the past 50 years and reasonably conclude that Boston has gone mainstream. Just as easily, you might argue that the mainstream has gotten weird.

 

On a frigid Sunday afternoon last December, I got an unexpectedly close look at that dynamic: how the city’s aboveground and underground wound up joining forces. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Fort Hill Community—Mel Lyman’s Family—represented the very fringe of Boston’s radical fringe. To its adherents, the commune was a free-love refuge from the violent strife that plagued the Vietnam era. To nearly everyone else, it was a cult run by a moderately talented banjo player who called himself God and subjected his captive followers to questionable LSD experimentation.

Among its many endeavors, the Family published a magazine called Avatar. It was printed on large, heavy-stock paper and suffused with hippie-Aquarian imagery. The magazine’s staff members were identified on the masthead both by their given names and their corresponding astrological symbols. Mostly it was a vehicle for Lyman’s stream-of-consciousness musings, but his decision in Issue 13, November 24/December 7, 1967, to fill a two-page spread with large, golden letters spelling FUCK SHIT PISS CUNT was seen as a sort of Dada manifesto against the city’s Puritan ethos. “Within a couple days, [the magazine] was banned from school,” recalls Kadzis, who was a student at Boston Latin at the time. “It must have been extremely threatening to someone.”