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University of Illinois Daily Illini Buzz Magazine - Around Town Issue: 1/19/06

Steve Hager Blazes Through Urbana
By Erin Scottberg and Matt Stensland

Discontent with the school newspaper in 1968, Urbana High School senior Steve Hager started an underground newspaper to showcase what the other part of the student body thought. After exposing racism at UHS and helping elect the first African-American class president, Hager went on to work at a number of professional publications. After spending 16 years as editor in chief of High Times magazine Hager has just finished a new book and is working on a full-length documentary about his life. Finding himself in Urbana for a few days last week, the King of Counterculture reminisced with Buzz.

While you were at Urbana High School, you started a well-known underground newspaper, right?

Yeah, I had an underground newspaper called the Tin Whistle. I started it in '68 and it was distributed at Urbana High, Uni High, Champaign and Centennial, and it was banned at every single school. We would stand there on the corner and sell it on the sidewalk, which was legal, as the school busses would pull up. It was really popular with the black kids, especially the black girls. I think it was five cents a copy.

Do you have any here still?

You know, I have all the copies and you see it in the movie, but I can't carry the copies around, they're falling apart now.

How did you print it?

Actually, I went to the University of Illinois underground newspaper, it was called the Walrus, and they gave me office space and turned me on to their printer. But after a few issues, the guy refused to print my newspaper.

Who wrote for the Tin Whistle?

Well, we had this guy Charlie Garrin, who was one of the toughest black guys in Urbana High School, and he had his own column. For his first column, he went to the George Wallace for President Headquarters of Champaign Country on Neil Street, which is where the Army Surplus store is now.

So he walked in there, I'm sure he was the only black who ever walked inside, and he did an interview. That was his opening column, and he got louder from there. Basically, he and a few other people unveiled the tremendous racism that had been going on at Urbana High. It was the first time any of that was ever confronted.

Did your paper cover mostly racial issue?

No, we talked about everything, but with the black kids, this was the number one topic because they were like second-class citizens, especially in the U Club [that's the lettermen]. The black lettermen were treated different from the white letterman. So I published an anonymous letter about racism inside the U Club. The coach at the time, Smitty was his nickname, was one of the most famous football coaches in the state of Illinois.

So Smitty called a meeting of the U Club the day after this issue came out. He gave this, like, fifteen-minute speech where he said things like, "I'm not a racist, I put more niggers through college than any other coach in this state." While he delivered this speech in front of the entire U Club, probably 70 people or so, he was staring at Jim Wilson. Jim Wilson was my old friend, but Jim didn't write any letters, he didn't do anything, he wasn't connected to the Tin Whistle, but Smitty thought he was.

And Wilson was a starting football player, right?

And basketball player. And he got third place in the state high jump championship. After that letter, he never played another game of football. He would suit up and just sit on the bench, and [Smitty never played him in] another game. He could have been a professional football player, and he lost it all because of my underground newspaper.

What happened with the coach? Was he ever confronted for not playing Wilson?

No. He had all the power, no one could even talk to this guy. But he destroyed Jim Wilson's professional career because he was mad at me, basically. I've known Jim since third grade, we just shot baskets after school and stuff--he was just my friend, not part of the newspaper.

What was Urbana like in the late '60s?

Everything was so polarized. There were the greasers, the guys who wore pegged jeans and white socks with black loafers. The pants of their jeans came down to about mid-calf, and they were so tight, I couldn't imagine how they could get those pants on. And of course, they had slicked-back hair and Elvis was king-they were a big segment at the school.

Then there what we would today call preppies. They were the clean cut kids from the country club set who were going on to college, you know, some of them were on the football team. Then, in '68 the longhairs emerged.

You.

We were a real minority. Then there was what I called the black activists, the Malcolm X followers. Those were the power groups of the school. Things were so polarized.

How did these groups interact?

After Smitty gave his speech, some of the U Club members started beating up the longhairs. They'd just follow them out of school, wait till they got two blocks, jump 'em, kick the shit outta 'em, and this kept going on. Then the blacks joined in on our side and started jumping the U Club members, but that got nasty too. I don't care if its five jocks jumping a longhair or five blacks jumping a jock, you just don't want that kind of behavior going on. It's just not right. I felt bad when I would see some jocks surrounded by black guys. I was totally non-violent, I was trying to air out all these issues. I wasn't supporting any kind of violence at all.

Did you get beat up?

Nope. They never went after me, they went after all my friends though. I saw one of my best friends get punched out right in class. It was Smitty's son that did it, I think. I think I left school after that, I just couldn't stand the double standard. If I had punched some kid in class, I would have been suspended immediately. And he just floored my friend and they didn't even send him to the office. Nothing. Take your seats.

What about the teachers? Were there longhair teachers? Were there any black teachers when you were there?

Nope.

Did the teachers side with the different groups?

No. There was a couple of really good teachers-they didn't have long hair but they were just really good teachers, you know? I was a straight C student. I never took a book home in my life. I was totally disillusioned with school. But there were a couple of teachers who were really good, and I got A's in those classes. Actually, the people running the school system targeted me in sixth grade and funneled me into a special program for juvenile delinquents. They recognized right away that I wasn't going to fit in.

So you were recognized as a troublemaker, someone who would stir things up?

As the alpha troublemaker.

So back to getting Jim, better known today as Chef Ra, elected. How did that happen?

He was a jock, he was one of the stars and after they destroyed his career, it politicized him and he decided to run for senior class president. We had a different candidate, we had a longhair candidate, a friend of mine. At the last possible minute, right before the vote, there was an assembly in the auditorium where all the candidates spoke. There were only three candidates, the other was a prep. The longhaired candidate threw all his votes to Jim Wilson. That's how he got elected. One of the things the class president had to do was ride in the homecoming parade, and as he was in the float riding by the stands-the white homecoming queen and the black class president-you know, there was a lot of racial slurs. There'd never been a black person recognized in any level of the school. There were a lot of people who were very mad.

So what next?

Jim decided to circulate a questionnaire in homeroom that everyone had to fill out-an anonymous questionnaire that had like 15 questions, all about your attitude towards people of other races. Two weeks later, Jim organized an event in the auditorium where kids stood behind a curtain, so you couldn't see them and read comments off these anonymous questionnaires.

Did people come?

Everyone had to. It was during school hours, a regular assembly. It was so chilling because the comments were so unbelievably racist.

Do you remember what was said?

You know, things like "The problem with black people is that they smell funny." Just all these stereotypes, just the ugliest stuff. And a lot of Christian stuff too, like, "My father told me the Bible says black people are bad."

Were there any comments made about whites?

Yeah, for sure. I'm sure there were a lot of nice things said too, but they didn't read that stuff, they read all the ugly stuff. Jim wanted to get it all out in the open, he had been dealing with this and he wanted everyone to see.

How did students respond?

Charlie Garrin rushed the stage. He went around to the side door, which was locked, and he was trying to break it down because he didn't realize the kids reading weren't the ones who wrote it. He thought the actual people who wrote those things were on the stage and he was going to go beat them up. There was all this commotion, there was just pandemonium for a while. Nobody could believe the racism was this bad.

Did this change the attitude around the school?

Well, then Jim organized another event, and that was a black culture awareness event. That was after school hours. They had a whole bunch of black soul food that we could taste for the first time. Then they threw a party with the best soul band in the school. You know, I'd never seen any of this stuff. I really think it helped heal a lot of the problems. Racists didn't come out for black culture awareness parties, so black kids knew pretty much who was sympathetic to them and who wasn't. And there were a lot of people sympathetic to them.

Were there individuals from all those different power groups you talked about?

It was mostly the longhairs and the blacks at that event, but there were always smart kids who were jocks and smart kids who were greasers and those guys would mix with anybody. So after my newspaper destroyed Jim's professional career, dooming him to a life of poverty, when I got to High Times, I made him a columnist at High Times Magazine, and that's when Chef Ra's Psychedelic Kitchen was born. He spent about 15 years writing for High Times. But he was always famous in Urbana as Chef Ra.

So back to the Tin Whistle, why did you start it in the first place?

You know, I had been working for the student newspaper called Tiger Tracks. The people who controlled the paper didn't want to tackle anything real, they just wanted me to write jokes for the joke column. So I was inspired by what was going on at the University of Illinois.

What was going on?

People don't realize that in the 1960s, John Cage was here at the University of Illinois. He was the guy who inspired the abstract expressionist movement. He was one of the greatest artists of our time and he was doing happenings here on the university campus. Around John Cage grew this incredible arts community and the whole psychedelic thing that was happening and everything was going down. It was something I was trying to explore and starting an underground paper was part of it. And it just took off, too. I didn't know what was going to happen. My newspaper was way more popular than the student newspaper. It was very edgy, we never knew if we were going to be arrested for some of the stuff we were doing. We weren't afraid of anything.

You said that sixth grade was the first time you were pegged as a troublemaker and that image stuck. How did you come to be such a fire-starter?

You know, I saw a movie when I was in fifth grade called West Side Story and I fell in love with it. I started a gang, I thought that was what you're supposed to do. There was another gang at school at the same time so the guy who lead that gang and I started fighting. That's how I got the image. He and I were both juvenile delinquents. I just, you know, I thought West Side Story was the greatest movie in the world and I thought that's what we were supposed to do.

What did your parents think of all this?

They tried to disown me, I had to leave the house in high school. I think I left when I was 18, I was gone. I left high school for a while too, I almost didn't graduate. My parents raised me to be a Lutheran. When I was 15 years old I asked the pastor, "Well, what's going to happen to all the Jews and the Buddhists and the people in Africa," and he said, "Oh, they're going to Hell. Not only that, the Catholics are going to Hell." I just looked at him and went "Hmm." I went home and told my parents I was never going back there, because I could not believe this guy, I could not accept anymore of this indoctrination.

My dad was the head of the biochemistry department and he was very anti-Hippie, anti-longhair, and he was very well known on campus as being really against the counterculture. He's not like that today though. He was at Harvard with Tim Leary and he hated Tim Leary's guts and he thought Tim Leary destroyed a lot of grad student's careers through his drug taking. So my dad had his own personal problems with the whole thing. We didn't talk for about five years. Now we're great friends again.

Going back to the Tin Whistle, did it get into the hands of parents and community members?

I think a lot of parents took a look at it because it was pretty scary to some of them. After the first issue came out, the principal came to the cafeteria and had me pointed out. Then he came and sat down and sort of told me that there was stuff in the newspaper that could get me arrested. I just played dumb and said, "Well, what could that be?" trying to get him to put his cards on the table. There was a lot of crazy poetry and drawings and artwork that I'd stick in there. Some of it had some sexual content and I knew that's what he was talking about, but I just played dumb and he wasn't going to go into any detail. They tried to let me know right away, "You're in trouble, you'll get arrested if you continue doing this." And when that didn't work, they banned the newspaper, you weren't allowed to have it on school property.

Which obviously sparked interest.

Oh yeah, it made it much more popular. Everybody wanted to read what the other side was saying. I didn't want to take sides so I was printing the extremes of everybody.

What events led you to this kind of lifestyle?

I think the music came first. Garage band music. We all went out and got instruments and started playing Rolling Stones songs.

What did you play?

Bass. I was in a band called the Knight Riders. And I got kicked out of that band for doing drugs. They were scared of me. When LSD first appeared, people thought it was heroin or something like that. But I'm against synthetic drugs now, I don't like ecstasy or LSD or any of that stuff. But the first time I took LSD I had a religious epiphany and I forgave my parents for all the problems they'd been causing me. I realized I shouldn't be fighting with them and that I had to make peace with them.

How old were you?

I was about 15. It helped me.

What about marijuana?

When I started smoking marijuana, I stopped stuttering. I had a real bad speech impediment my whole life. I do believe-you know, there's so many things cannabis is good for, epilepsy, strokes, asthma, head injuries, cancer chemotherapy, AIDS, whatever-but I believe it cured my stuttering.

So later, when you got your job with High Times, how did your parents react to that? Obviously, you were a grown man, but you ran a magazine about pot.

Before I went to High Times I was a reporter for the New York Daily News and my parents loved that. They were hoping I'd move to the New York Times. I couldn't believe that I got a degree [a master's in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign], moved to New York and within a year and got a job at a major daily paper.

Did you fit in at the Daily News? With the staff?

They had just launched a hip, new, version of the paper. Clay Felker was the editor, who was Tom Wolfe's original editor. Clay Felker was a big hero of mine, and I was going to be a reporter for him. So the paper tried to go hip, that's why I was there, and that lasted one year then they fired all of us because it didn't go over. Their readers didn't want to go hip.

What about your old U of I journalism professors, were there any like-minded professors during your time here?

When I went back to college, I was a completely different person from my high school days. I was a party animal in high school, but I had to pay my own way when I went back to college. All I did was study and get straight A's. That's all I did, really. I didn't have any life other than school. I didn't smoke pot, I didn't take any drugs. I smoked cigarettes. I didn't drink really-I didn't do anything except study. I was trying to rebuild myself in a new direction. Then after a couple of years getting straight A's, I got my family back on my side again. They realized I turned my life around or whatever. So by the time I got to New York I was Mr. Straight, really-I was going to work everyday in a suit and tie. And I would have ended up like that, for the rest of my life, for sure. Then Daily News fires me, High Times offers a job and suddenly I'm back on this little path again.

When you took the position at High Times, were you concerned that you wouldn't be able to get back into the newspaper business?

Well, I'd been so heavily restricted at the Daily News about what I could say, I'd been so heavily edited and controlled. When I got to High Times, I could write anything I wanted and it got published internationally-the magazine was circulated everywhere, I just felt like, wow, this is an opportunity. It wasn't being at High Times that sunk my professional career, it was the things I did once I got there-the political research I published once I got there, which was very unpopular. I did a cover story on the JFK assassination, which got a lot of attention-that story's in the book.

Was it difficult to gain legitimacy for your research because it was High Times?

You know, it was strange, for a couple years there I was on every major national talk show. I was on Phil Donahue. I was on CNN, I was on a dozen national TV shows because of the conspiracy I was working on that time. It was called the Hemp Conspiracy. Basically the plant that we call marijuana is really called hemp. They were making 40,000 different things out of it. They originally were going to run all of the internal combustion engines on it. Henry Ford was making cars out of it. They had 40,000 different things they were making out of it and now all those things are made out of petrochemicals. So I found this guy, Jack Herer, who had done a lot of research into it and had postulated this theory that the treasury department created marijuana prohibition in order for nylon, the first synthetic fiber, to be released without any direct competitors. Then the oil industry was already being set up to take over the world economy and hemp was the major competitor to the oil industry. No one knew any of this stuff in the '30s when they passed the law, and I didn't know any of this stuff, this was all news to me-I thought marijuana must be bad for you, it's just a drug like alcohol. The more I studied it, the more I realized this is not right, there's something really wrong about what's going on here.

Do you have a family?

Yeah, yeah. I have a wife and two boys. They're two and a half and five and a half years old. My kids live in Woodstock, NY. So we're in a counterculture community. There are no McDonalds in Woodstock, there are no chain stores of any kind. It's a town full of little privately owned spots and everything. There's no smoking allowed in my house. I don't allow my kids to see anything illegal.

How do you smoke then?

You know, I'm real big on vaporization as an alternative to smoking. Its one thing this DEA guy [with whom Hager is debating on a national tour called Heads vs. Feds. Visit www.wolfmanproductions.com for more information] wore me out on, because he always hit me on the smoking is not healthy thing, and its one thing I eventually had to agree with him on. No, it's not healthy and I don't want my kids smoking anything. What I tell college kids is do what I did, I didn't binge drink when I was in college, I didn't do any of that stuff. I mean, there's a time and a place for everything. Right now I'm a parent, and I'm a stay-home parent. I work out of my house so I can be close to my kids, and I'm not intoxicated when I'm around my kids. And I tell college kids don't be intoxicated when you're in class or when you're studying. If you really want to get ahead, know what your priorities are. Don't swallow any of the bullshit, know what the real situation is, that the drug war is a total manipulation-they are mass-feeding kids Ritalin and Paxil and Prozac, and that stuff is way more dangerous that marijuana.

Are you a growing enthusiast?

I think everyone who wants to use marijuana should grow their own. It's the cheapest commodity on the Earth to produce. Its real value is about $1 per pound. Now they sell it for $5,000 per pound. Marijuana growers are by far the most sophisticated, most knowledgeable, most scientific cultivators on the face of the earth. No one else even comes close. You go into one of these indoor grow rooms that are super high-tech ... they are so far beyond the average farmer. Just the knowledge...they try and paint people who are into marijuana as slackers, as not being able to do anything, as being unmotivated. But when they're involved, they go way beyond your average person. I'm sure there are plenty who are slackers, but there are some who are like Einstein when it comes to cultivation. It just shows that stereotype is just not true.

When people meet you, when they realize who you are and what you've done in your life, do they give you a look to see if you're stoned at that time?

I get that on TV, they'd always ask me if I was high. A lot of times during the debate, kids will ask, "Are you high right now?" But I don't travel with marijuana and I don't go out and get high with college kids when I'm on tour. The time that you'll find me the most high is over at the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam [in its 19th year]. That's kind of like a license to be high all day long.

Are you still a judge?

No, but everybody on the crew is high and we're doing live switches on four cameras and running three stages at the same time and we have 2,000 people and we're coordinating all this stuff. We're running a major festival and I and everybody else on my crew is stoned. You know, it's a different environment, but it works. You can't do that here, and you can't go through college with that attitude.

What are the hallmarks of today's counterculture?

I think the counterculture started in New Orleans. There was a place there called Congo Square and that was like a free zone. The Native Americans and the blacks started drum circles in Congo Square in the 1700s and eventually all the hip white guys got involved too, I'm sure. So Congo Square created jazz, rock 'n roll, Mardi Gras, and the counterculture. They were smoking pot in Congo Square and they were freestyling-improvisational ceremony, that's what the counterculture is all about. Anytime you find that kind of improvisational ceremony, that's counterculture to me. And this culture traveled up the Mississippi river, first Kansas City, then St. Louis, to Chicago. Then it jumps over from Chicago to Detroit, jumps from Detroit to New York. Once we get to New York, we're talking about the cross into the Beats, you know, Jack Kerouac, Neil Cassidy. The beats take it to San Francisco, make San Francisco the headquarters for a while. Then a new generation pops up there. Those were the hippies. It jumps around, every generation invents their own because the counterculture is improvisational in nature. Every generation is going to have their own music, their own dress, their own slang, their own everything. There's total improvisation, so everything is rewritten every generation. But it's still a very powerful force, I believe. And you usually find improvisation and cannabis connected wherever you find this culture. And they kind of go together, you know? Cannabis will help you jump out of the box and blow the solo that's never been blown before, or have an idea that's never been had before. It helps spark that creativity. So, mainstream corporate culture is a little box that's controlled by a handful of corporations in order to make money. Counterculture is something that's spontaneously erupting with new things all the time.

By the way, counterculture is always no bigots. Everybody is invited to the party, there's never any racism in it. In fact, we find racism to be very offensive.

Where is the counterculture evolving right now?

Oh jeez, I don't know where it is right now. But hip-hop's been mined now, it's been turned into a corporate, mainstream event. What they do is pump up the violence-violence pornography is a huge part of mainstream culture. You'll see a reaction against this. The misogyny, the violence, the ego gratification and the wealth worshipping that goes on now. There'll be a reaction against that stuff. It's a pendulum, it's got to go back and forth.

To me, early punk was the same as hip-hop, it came out of the same thing. Just like early hip-hop stripped down funk to its essential element, which was the break section where they drums would get funky and only the drums and bass would be playing, well they'd take that section and say, "This is all we want." What the Ramones did was take the essential elements of rock and said, "This is all we want. We don't want any guitar solos, we don't want the indulgences, we just want the core of the music right here, so they're very similar in a way."

So when I came to New York I got to see the two come together. Suddenly, the punk scene from the lower East Side and the South Bronx hip-hop scene met right in front of my eyes. I got to watch the cross fertilization take place. We're still kind of riding the energy of that coalition, I think. Gradually they began to merge together and suddenly we saw rock guitars in hip-hop and people rapping in rock songs. I spent my whole life trying to figure out where is the moment. I was in San Fran in 1967 and I was in South Bronx in 1982. And I can't tell you what's going to happen next. But if it does happen, I'll try to go there so I can be there and see it. But it's not going to be of any interest to me unless it embraces counterculture values. I can't listen to gangsta rap. I can't get involved with stuff that's tainted by the corporate culture, I'm not interested in that stuff. It would be cool if we could get music and conspiracy theory together. That's kind of like where Bob Dylan was at in 1965, his songs were like somebody unveiling the reality of what's really going on. There's so much antagonism against people like me who try to talk about people in politics, we're basically ostracized.

The Earth wants the counterculture here. We represent a natural force and we come back around all the time because we're being birthed out of the spirit of the Earth itself. We can't take over the world, but we're like an essential vitamin that keeps the Earth healthy. We created the environmental movement, we created vegan/vegetarian lifestyles, we created the midwife movement in America, we created rock n roll. See what I mean? We've done a lot of great things. They can't keep us down.

NOTE: To read excerpts from "The Octopus Conspiracy" or order a copy of the book, go to www.octopusconspiracy.com