In April 1970 Tulane University students set fire to a former Air Force ROTC building on campus in protest of the Vietnam War. Several days later roughly 500 students interrupted a luncheon of university officials to demand an end to the ROTC and the reinstatement of a math professor who had been fired for participating in anti-war demonstrations on campus. Days later, the walls of the student union were plastered with the front page of the newspaper NOLA Express, showing an image of the building (which Tulane had retired from ROTC use six years prior) engulfed in flames. “Yippee!” read the headline at the bottom.
The actions of the Tulane Liberation Front, as the students called themselves, were part of a national wave of student protests against the war. In New Orleans, the protests represented a high-water mark in local engagement with the movement, proving that anti-war sentiment had penetrated even “this staid old haven for children of upper middle class southern families,” as another NOLA Express article put it.
This surge of resistance was made possible by years of groundwork from activist groups and the anti-establishment corner of the fourth estate. Centered in the French Quarter, small periodicals such as NOLA Express began appearing in the mid-1960s and reached their zenith from 1969 to ‘71, giving an accessible platform to an array of countercultural and leftist voices.
To local officials, New Orleans’ underground press was an avatar for the wrong side in a culture war that was destabilizing the entire country. Moon Landrieu was mayor, and he presided over the New Orleans Police Department as it conducted a sustained campaign of harassment against “heads” (hippies) and vendors of head-oriented papers. From mid-1969 through 1970 publishers and vendors withstood a wave of arrests, beatings, and, in the case of Robert Head and Darlene Fife, co-publishers of NOLA Express, a federal indictment. “I don’t want to exaggerate the dangers,” writes Fife in her 2000 memoir, Portraits from Memory: New Orleans in the Sixties, “but, still, it was a kind of war zone on the streets of the French Quarter.”
Fife and Head arrived in New Orleans in February 1966, quickly finding their way in the developing anti-war scene. They joined the New Orleans Committee to End the War in Vietnam (NOCEWV), where they met Jack Frazier. A cofounder of the Quorum coffeehouse, one of the city’s first integrated businesses, Frazier started a newspaper distribution company, Atlantis, to put anti-war news and views in front of as many potential readers as possible.
Frazier also edited the New Orleans Freedom Press, which debuted in May ‘66, shortly after its publisher, Dottie Nance, led the first local demonstration against the war. Held outside of St. Louis Cathedral on Easter Sunday, the protest was not well received. The Freedom Press, made possible by Nance’s access to a mimeograph machine, presented a different way of disseminating their ideas. The inaugural issue’s opening editorial carried the hope, energy, and challenge of the burgeoning movement: “In spite of the fact that the white power structure is still deeply entrenched, the future of the freedom movement in New Orleans was never brighter than it is today.” The Freedom Press published five issues total, the last one in January 1967.
NOLA Express, “Who
Rules Tulane” cover (No. 29, May 1969).
Over the course of ‘67, Fife and Head joined the Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS) and focused their energies on helping young men avoid the draft. Several times a week Fife would get up early and join the daily protest outside the U.S. Custom House at the top of Canal Street, which was where draftees reported locally. She and her comrades would hold signs and pass out leaflets for draft counseling, then Fife would head to work as an engineer for Chrysler’s space division in Michoud (She had already earned a BS in physics and an MA in English).
Even with his and Fife’s heavy involvement in political organizing, Head held onto his first love—poetry. As Fife writes in her memoir, the “mimeo revolution” of underground publishing in the 1960s grew out of small poetry magazines such as Olé and the Wormwood Review (Fife dislikes the term “underground,” as she sees their work as having been entirely out in the open, not hidden). Increasingly, Head began to be frustrated with the infighting and theorizing of the left. He and Fife decided to start their own paper, one that would weigh poetry, national politics, and local action equally. In April 1968, NOLA Express was born.
Early issues covered the draft, Alabama segregationist George Wallace’s presidential run, and a parent-led campaign against racist policies at Wilson School, a majority-Black public school in Central City. They published an interview with Lionel McIntyre, a Black man harassed and beaten by police without cause in the French Quarter. (McIntyre said the incident was “not unusual at all.”)
Early on, Fife showed an interest in exposing the mechanics of power: She used public records to piece together players behind the development of the Superdome (or, as it was called at the time, the “giant domed stadium”), and she spent several issues exploring the state’s parceling out of Atchafalaya Basin land tracts to out-of-state companies and developers. Late in the publication’s run, she wrote a multipart series on the city’s water supply.
“I wrote an enormous number of the articles and that was just based on whatever we were working on at the time,” Fife said in a recent interview. “I can’t think of any way, specifically, I looked for story ideas. You look for a problem.”
Fife wrote stories, co-edited with Head, and typed up the copy on an IBM Selectric borrowed from the Vieux Carré Courier. Head solicited artwork and poetry, writing some himself, and handled the production and printing. In the beginning Head also sold the ads that kept the paper running—for restaurants, head shops, movie theaters, other underground publishers and distributors, bookshops, and record stores. They ran reviews for films and albums, as well as a foraging column, “Poke for the Peckish.”
Quarterites would knock on the door of Fife and Head’s Ursulines Avenue apartment to submit stories and poems for the magazine. The place was more like “an office which happened to have a bed and small kitchen,” Fife writes. Head laid out each issue on big drawing tables occupying the front room. Next door was the ashram of a new-age religious community called the Maitreyans, led by a middle-aged white woman named Kumi. “Young, joyful, frequently dancing and often taking LSD,” as Fife describes them, the Maitreyans were known for their open-door policy during Carnival, offering food and shelter to anyone passing through who needed it.
NOLA Express, “Dirty Pictures”
cover (No. 31, 6 June 1969).
As the late 1960s progressed, New Orleans attracted more and more heads ready to soak up the scene in the French Quarter, which was the locus of counterculture activity in town. Mike Stark, an amiable, bearded man with a potbelly and overalls, was a godfather to many of these newcomers, giving them places to stay in exchange for light work. Stark opened the H.E.A.D. Clinic, which provided free health care services, as well as a legal aid clinic.
One common job for new arrivals was selling underground newspapers. As artist Amzie Adams recalls in his oral history, he and a group of friends drove to New Orleans in July 1969 and spent a sweltering night sleeping in the van. When Adams woke up and opened the door, he saw stacks of papers on the sidewalk—In Arcane Logos, which had just started up in April 1969—and passed them out to his friends.
“I said, ‘Boys and girls, guess what? We got a business,’” he says. “I made 50 bucks that day. I mean, we were rich. Our first apartment, every night, I’d go back and sleep under the kitchen table, because it had a tablecloth on it that went to the ground, and no one knew I was there… And when the sun would rise, and the heat of the day would start cooking into the table, I’d stick my head out and go, ‘Alright, time to sell some newspapers.’”
Sell they did. Fife estimates that in mid-1969 they moved about 5,000 copies per issue. Over the course of 1970 that number increased to 11,000. The bulk were sold by vendors in and around the Quarter—dozens of them out there on a typical day—but they made their way to other channels of the city as well. Dan Gifford, a local high school student who lived near the Quarter, said in an interview that he would pick up stacks of papers and sell them at school. Enterprising Tulane students sold them on campus.
Darlene Fife and Bob Head
at Jackson Square love-in, photograph by
Michael P. Smith, acc. 2007.0188.8.131.52.
NOLA Express was the most politically radical of the papers on the scene—still “not ‘political’ enough for some, but for others it was ‘too down,’” Fife writes. Lighter in nature was In Arcane Logos, which ran locally-reported features as well as wire stories from Liberation News Service. The Vieux Carré Courier (founded in 1961) was more connected to mainstream newspapers, running neighborhood news and investigative pieces and helping to launch the journalism careers of several of its contributors. Jim DeGraff, who edited NOLA Express briefly, peddled a pamphlet called Free LSD, which touted the mind-expanding benefits of the drug, and gained quite a few followers in the process.
Balls, the Ungarbled Word, which debuted in spring 1968, was the most chaotic of the lot. The biweekly magazine, which later ran as The Ungarbled Word or The Word, was the project of Roger Lovin, a Tennessee native who came to New Orleans after getting kicked out of the Navy and set up a coffeeshop called the Gryphon in the French Quarter. The Word provided a giddy cross-section of anti-establishment thought and psychedelic rapture from New Orleans and beyond—“a nonpolitical clearinghouse for views from unexpected corners,” read the cover of its third issue.
The publication shared ideological threads and bylines with the Discordian Society, whose philosophy of spiritual anarchy had been laid out in the Principia Discordia, a booklet published in New Orleans in 1965 with an original run of just five copies. The Principia is a Mad Hatter’s tea party of neo-religious ideas and satire revolving around Eris, goddess of disorder: “The Aneristic Principle is that of APPARENT ORDER; the Eristic Principle is that of APPARENT DISORDER,” reads one section about the yin yang-like symbol called the Sacred Chao. “Both order and disorder are man-made concepts and are artificial divisions of PURE CHAOS.”
The Ungarbled Word finished its run after Mardi Gras 1970, after which Lovin moved to Los Angeles and published a foul piece of smut called Eleven, which the book’s jacket blurb advertised as “the story of the love affair between a 300-pound man and an 11-year-old girl.” By the end of the 1970s Lovin would be arrested for possessing, creating, and helping to distribute “thousands of pornographic pictures of young girls,” per the October 1979 Times-Picayune article covering the arrest. According to Historia Discordia (a website that documents Discordian Society people and events), Lovin had presented himself as a rakish hippie womanizer, but following his arrest several women came forward saying he had preyed on them when they were runaways in the Quarter. Lovin spent several weeks in lockup, then received a five-year suspended sentence.
NOLA Express, Stark
In hindsight, Lovin’s arrest is emblematic of the rank curdling of hippie ideals in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, but in 1969 that fate was still a world away. One common refrain in recollections of the period is the sincere belief that all this activity—the protests, the magazines, the psychedelics, the simple act of a man wearing his hair long in public—was going to change the world for the better. “One of the things we had in mind was that we were going to change everything,” Fife said in a recent interview.
By everything, she meant everything—she and Head were true radicals. Whereas much of the hippie movement solidified around ending the war for the sake of peace and love, Fife and Head wanted to bring about the complete downfall of American imperialism and capitalism. “Obviously, we didn’t, but that was a driving force for everyone around the country.”
Amzie Adams, who turned from vendor to reporter for In Arcane Logos, covered a series of love-ins that happened across New Orleans in the summer of ‘69. He and a van full of Logos staff received press badges from Woodstock and road-tripped up to the happening in New York. They were so blown away, they put out a Woodstock issue upon their return, writing of the “aquarian age” that had flowered over those three days. In an open letter to NOPD, they asked local authorities to attempt the kind of “understanding” between police and heads that had kept Woodstock without incident. “We’re not asking for the narcotics laws and nudity laws to be ignored (although there are no logical reasons for them to exist),” states the letter, signed, “another human being.”
In Arcane Logos, Woodstock
cover (No. 13, 1 September 1969),
Photograph by Tony Hayden,
“We’re concerned with something infinitely more fundamental: why are we constantly harassed and hassled for simply walking down the street? We do not understand. Unless we have committed or are suspected of committing a crime please allow us freedom of movement on the streets of our city.”
Police harassment of heads and other counterculture types was common across the country. Black people in New Orleans were all too familiar with state-sanctioned brutality, but the late-‘60s rise of the Black Panther movement, as well as the ongoing backlash to school integration, triggered even more violence and intimidation. By the eighth issue of NOLA Express (June 1968), the magazine was running a small notice: “NOLA Express vendors hassled by the New Orleans Police should call Kendal Vick, attorney, at 529-4437 and make a statement.”
The anti-war movement was intrinsic to the underground press, and police treated both with equal hostility. By the time that legal-aid notice ran, Fife, Head, and their contemporaries with NOCEWV and MDS were well acquainted with the city’s M.O. on such matters: From the beginning of the protests outside the Custom House, a unit called the New Orleans Intelligence Squad surveilled the proceedings, photographing protesters and generally serving soft intimidation. After one protest led by Women Strike for Peace in 1967, the organization sued NOPD for preventing them from exercising their First Amendment rights; they lost.
Police photographed Fife extensively, sometimes following her. The FBI opened a file on her and Head, which made its way to Fife’s employers at Chrysler.
Fife was at times unsettled but never bowed to the police presence. Her relationship with the Intelligence Squad was paraprofessional, and could be cordial. It was clear, she says, that they were nine-to-fivers in a campaign guided by larger forces—which ones, she never knew. “Why were there so many police agents so carefully watching so few of us?” she writes. “I don’t know. You would have to ask them.”
Once she and Head started NOLA Express, police treated it as an extension of their activities against the war, which it was. Targeting obscenity in the papers was a go-to strategy. It provided immediate results, giving officers a premise for hassling street vendors anytime a pair of tits graced the cover of an issue—which was not entirely uncommon. Sometimes police confiscated a vendor’s papers and threatened arrest if they didn’t “move on,” Fife writes. The point wasn’t to convict: It was to publicly intimidate what the establishment saw as “undesirables” in the French Quarter. At a time when the city was making its final pivot into a tourism economy, officials set about ridding the streets of people and activities that might prevent Middle America from spending their money here.
Breasts were one thing, but when a penis appeared on the cover of an August 1969 issue—stylized but unmistakable, dripping blood—NOPD struck. Plainclothes officers arrested three vendors selling the issue, charging them with peddling obscenity. One received a charge of selling without a license, and another was booked on contributing to the delinquency of a minor, because he had had his five-year-old son with him. In Arcane Logos reported on the arrests in satirical fashion: “They [the vendors] were all out on Bourbon Street, noisily accosting staid and innocent passers-by and trying to force them to buy a newspaper with a picture so dirty it couldn’t help but get them insanely lecherous and horny.”
NOLA Express quickly slapped a “censored” label over the remaining copies of the issue to avoid further arrests, but the battle between them and the police was just heating up. That fall, assisted by lawyers from the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation, Fife and Head sought an injunction against the police for their harassment of street vendors. In December ‘69, Judge Herbert Christenberry granted them the injunction, easing some of the pressure on street peddlers.
Two weeks later, Fife awoke to a friend at the door, informing her that she and Head had been indicted on federal charges for “mailing obscene matter,” according to the States-Item. The obscenity in question was a photograph in a November 1969 issue. A parody of a Playboy ad campaign at the time, it shows a hunched, naked man grabbing his fully erect member and grinning maniacally. The caption reads, “What kind of man reads Playboy?”
The couple turned themselves in and bonded out ($5,000 each) in less than an hour, thanks to a friend from the ACLU who put up his house as collateral. While arrests of vendors subsided with the injunction, police continued harassing heads, typically for vagrancy. Fife estimates that they made 300 arrests over the spring of 1970. That November, a federal judge dropped the indictment against Fife and Head on First Amendment grounds.
NOLA Express’ court victories upheld freedom of the press and helped sustain the energy of the movement for several more years, but eventually the tide turned. In Arcane Logos fizzled out; The Ungarbled Word ended when Roger Lovin moved to California; and in 1971 Fife and Head made an extended sojourn in Colorado, leaving management of the paper to their associates. Upon their return, the couple pursued a campaign to stop the construction of a nuclear power plant in St. Charles Parish, but it failed (The Waterford 3 nuclear generating station, operated by Entergy Louisiana, is still active).
That loss, in 1974, prompted Head and Fife to quit New Orleans for good. For seven years they had poured their energies into the anti-war effort and the newspaper. Somewhere near the end of their stay Fife began to look beyond the miasma of human problems into “the natural world around me,” she writes. “I began to actually see birds.”
They weren’t alone: The back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s was burgeoning in areas such as West Virginia, where land was cheap, beautiful, and largely undeveloped. After scouting several areas, Head selected a hollow outside Lewisburg, in southern West Virginia. They first lived in a tipi and eventually built a two-room house, where they still live. They opened a bookstore in Lewisburg in 1977, which they still own and operate, at the back of a gift shop. Fife studied Latin and Greek, and translated the work of a contemporary Greek poet, Maria Kardatou.
Fife, 82, still keeps a newsletter—a journal of life up the hollow, sprinkled with reflections on books, poets, and ideas. She mails it to about 60 recipients.
She and Head, 81, split the year between town and country. During the cold months, they stay in an apartment above the shop in Lewisburg, and the rest of the year they are up the hollow, on the same 113 acres they bought after leaving New Orleans. They live simply: The house is a mile walk from where Fife parks her car. Instead of running water, they use the creek. Eschewing electricity and natural gas, they use a wood-burning stove. Fife, who drives into Lewisburg twice a week to run the bookshop, keeps a large garden with a grove of peach trees at one corner. An “early gardener,” she pulls out the last of her winter squash by October’s end.
Fife doesn’t spend her days thinking about NOLA Express. It was a lifetime ago, borne on a crest of passionate activism that waned, as things do. That collective endeavor to blend poetry and politics for the betterment of the world stands as “one of the great pleasures of our lives,” she writes at the end of her memoir, but living in nature has provided its own, daily form of poetry.
“Last night I heard the most melodious towhee, the drink your tea each note softly blending into the next. Even if the world of nature and myself are, according to Democritus just atoms jostling around in empty space, still to this collection of atoms it is so beautiful.”
NOLA Express, penis-spider, censored (at top) and
uncensored covers, illustrated by Glenn
Miller (No. 35, 1 August 1969).
Molly Reid Cleaver is a senior editor at the Historic New Orleans Collection, a museum, research center, and publisher in the French Quarter.
Images courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection. NOLA Express cover images acc. 2021.0178.2.13.