From Do It to Did It:
The Jerry Rubin Story
By Jonah Raskin
The decade from 1965 to 1975 will go down in history as an era of communes and collectives, “we” and “us,” rather and “I” and “me,” though there were plenty of egotists and narcissists to go around. Still, the generations that included boomers and pre-boomers thought of themselves as a coherent group that aimed to widen the gap with the World War II generation that preceded it.
Given all that, it’s fitting that Pat Thomas’s Did It (Fantagraphics Books) doesn’t offer a single voice, but rather dozens of voices: a whole chorus of them. Did It! is a big, gorgeous book about Sixties/Seventies cultural revolutionary superstar, Jerry Rubin that finally accords him his place in American history.
Thomas, who is also the author of Listen Whitey!: The Sounds of Black Power, 1965-1975, interviewed dozens of Rubin’s friends, family members, associates and co-conspirators. Unfortunately, many of the leading luminaries, including Eldridge Cleaver, Dave Dellinger and Abbie Hoffman, were no longer alive when Thomas started his ambitious project in 2011. But he has found ways to include them anyway in photos and extracts from their books.
Thomas has many distinct advantages over previous writers who have chronicled the cultural revolution in the U.S.A. Born in 1964, he was too young to protest in the streets of Chicago in the summer of 1968, and too young to be a member of the Yippies, that small, amorphous group of individuals who took guerilla theater to the nth degree in the late 1960s and early 1970s at the New York Stock Market, the Pentagon, and in Judge Julius Hoffman’s federal courtroom where eight defendants, including Rubin, were on trial for conspiracy.
Thomas wasn’t there and didn’t do that, which means that he has a fresh perspective and little if any interest in settling old scores and sharpening old axes. He knows what previous writers got right, including the fierce anti-war protests of the day, and what they didn’t really get at all, including the decisive role played by Yippie women, including Nancy Kurshan, Anita Hoffman and Judy Gumbo all of whom appear in Did It! and have lots to say that’s worth saying.
As a musicologist and as an artist of the spoken word, Thomas has a highly attuned ear and real sensitivity to speech patterns and the power of oral communication. Indeed, one can practically hear Jerry and Abbie and Tom and Anita and Judy and Nancy when one reads this book. Along with the images, the words fly off the page.
Did It! has a long subtitle, From Yippie to Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, An American Revolutionary, in part because there’s a lot to say about the subject of this book. Did It! also has dozens of archival photographs and documents that help to tell the story of a curious figure in the history of radicalism in the United States who ran for Vice President on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket in 1968, along with Presidential candidate, Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panther Party.
Then, in the 1970s, Ruben seemed to turn his back on radicalism and aimed to make as much money as he could as quickly as possible, without breaking the law. If he was a capitalist, he wasn’t unscrupulous.
Some of the most insightful comments about Rubin come from Rubin himself who was far more self-reflective that he appeared to be.
”I was the screwed-up, middle-class monster that I was railing against,” he told journalist Robert Sam Anson. Rubin also took a step back and observed apropos his generation, “We were really revolting against ourselves.”
Thomas includes hefty sections from Jerry’s own Journals that provide a window into his mind. “Fantastic political troublemaker,” “great disrupter” and “media manipulator” were just some of the phrases he used to describe himself. No one was more critical of Jerry Rubin than Jerry Rubin, though many of the aspects of his personality that others regarded as unhealthy he regarded as his genius.
In some passages from his Journals he sounds like Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. Indeed, both Jerry Rubin and Jay Gatsby were self-made men, one of them a real historical figure, the other a fictional character.
Eight pages from Jerry’s Rolodex are reproduced here, with phone numbers for Bob Dylan, Ron Dellums, Stew Albert, Jennifer Dohrn, Abbie Hoffman, Paul Krassner, Michael and Eleanore Kennedy, plus City Lights Bookstore and his Tai Chi School. Then, there’s also the page which Rubin titled “I Want” in which he listed ten items including, “I want a restaurant called ‘Jerry Rubin’s” and “I want a blond society beautiful wife.”
Rubin made manifest his biggest dreams and desires, and while he rarely described his deepest fears, anxieties and dysfunctional behaviors, he did write, “The more famous the less freedom.” That was also Abbie Hoffman’s story and Tom Hayden’s and even Dave Dellinger’s. Fame ate away at the tribe of men who sought total freedom.
Jerry’s friends and his lovers make up for his own omissions. Indeed they depict his dark side.
“I couldn’t be with a man that was trying to subsume me into himself,” Stella Resnick, a clinical psychologist, says. She adds that during one breakup she “opened a window, and tossed his stuff out.”
Perhaps more than any figure in the era of the American cultural revolution, Rubin lends himself to psychological analysis and interpretation, in part because he was orphaned at any early age and realized that he could reinvent himself. Then, too, he often seemed to be acting out, even as he acted up.
Yoko Ono thought that Jerry longed “for confrontation…because his mommy and daddy died and he has the pain of losing them twice.”
Take Yoko’s comments with a grain of salt, or don’t take them at all, or take them as a projection of her own inner self, but listen to what she has to say, along with what Nancy Kurshan and Judy Gumbo have to say.
Pat Thomas’s Did It! offers all the many different Jerry Rubin’s, some of them contradictory and paradoxical.
“He’s a quintessential American,” Thomas writes near the very end of his book. “He’s an American revolutionary” and an “entrepreneur” who plugged “democracy, individualism and capitalism.”
Did it! is not just a book about Jerry Rubin, but about his generation and about a time and a place in American history when the nation came apart and then restored itself. Jerry Rubin disintegrated and then did what all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t do in the famous nursery rhyme. He put himself back together again. He did it! And then in 1994, while jaywalking across Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angles, a car struck him. Two weeks later, at the age of 56, he died at UCLA Medical Center.
Jonah Raskin is the author of For the Hell of It: The Life and Times and Abbie Hoffman and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation.