March 23, 1967: The Cocoon Breaks, the Helix Emerges

Helix, Vol. 1, No. 1, March 23, 1967

Seattle has a long history of local alternative newspapers, some better than others, all vital in the collective process of stirring the complex pot of a healthy local media scene. Most, if not all, of the past four decades’ worth of such endeavors owe a great debt to Helix, the groundbreaking chronicler of Seattle’s counterculture whose debut issue was published on the date in focus here.

Helix was conceived in late 1966 during discussions at the Free University of Seattle, an alternative college and countercultural meeting place located in the University District. These discussions were inspired by the recent flowering of underground newspapers in other counterculturally rich cities, such as San Francisco’s Berkeley Barb and Oracle, and New York City’s East Village Other. Helix‘s prime instigators included Paul Dorpat, then a wayward University of Washington grad student, and Paul Sawyer, a Unitarian minister. This circle quickly grew to include future famous novelist Tom Robbins, Seattle Post-Intelligencer cartoonist Ray Collins, and Jon Gallant, co-founder of Seattle’s legendary underground radio station KRAB-FM.

Serendipitously named after Watson and Crick’s famous description of DNA during a particularly productive session of beer-drinking and brainstorming at the Blue Moon Tavern in February 1967, Helix emerged from its fertile countercultural cocoon to immediate success. The debut issue’s cover announced the new paper’s mission in an editorial that began as follows:

You have in your hand the first issue of a fortnightly newspaper. It is dedicated to no cause, no interests, no point of view; it is dedicated to you.

The first 1,500 copies of the 12-page, vividly colored, wildly illustrated tabloid were quickly snapped up off the streets of the U District, and its initial success would eventually become a three-year reign of weekly publication. During that time, Helix would sponsor a number of important countercultural events in the Puget Sound region before finally folding in June 1970.

Helix, Vol. 2, No. 6, December 1, 1967

Among such events was the Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair, a three-day concert series held near Sultan (50 miles north of Seattle) from August 31 to September 2, 1968 — a full year before the more famous Woodstock festival — featuring such luminaries as the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, and Santana. Helix also played an important role in promoting local political activism, serving as both catalyst and chronicler of many local protest events organized by the antiwar, environmental, and black liberation movements.

Among other positive effects Helix provided for Seattle’s countercultural community, it provided a decent (albeit modest) living for a number of the hippies who served as the paper’s street vendors. It also launched the media career of Walt Crowley (1947-2007), the much-revered local writer, historian, and rabble-rouser, who joined the paper’s staff, first as an illustrator and later as an editor, in May 1967.

Crowley would later attribute the paper’s demise to the splintering of the American Left, both in Seattle and nationwide, in the wake of the Kent State Massacre — as well as other dark turns the American counterculture had taken by mid-1970. “After Kent State, the left had gone totally wiggy,” Crowley told Seattle Weekly in 1989. “And the drug scene was brutal.” In the wake of Helix, the media needs of Seattle’s counterculture would be served — if only temporarily — by the more overtly political and militant Sabot and Puget Sound Partisan.

Today, Paul Dorpat has made a name for himself as a celebrated Pacific Northwest photographer-historian, mainly as author of the long-running Seattle Times weekly pictorial feature “Seattle Now & Then.” Crowley would also go on to broader local fame as a KIRO-TV news commentator in the 1980s. Meanwhile, Helix‘s heady brew of radical politics and groundbreaking graphic design has rarely, if ever, been surpassed locally, its closest competition arguably being The Rocket (1979-2000), Seattle’s greatest music-centric monthly to date. An ongoing digital archive of complete issues of Helix can be viewed online in PDF form at Paul Dorpat’s blog.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: Howard Aubrey Mills, “The Seattle Helix: An Underground Looks at the Times,” M.A. thesis, University of Montana, 1970; Peter Blecha and Charles R. Cross, “When Seattle Went Psychedelic,” The Rocket, May 1987, p. 21; Bart Becker, “The Beats Go On,” Seattle Weekly, November 29, 1989, p. 34; Walt Crowley, “Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle” (University of Washington Press, 1995).

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About radsearem

Jeff Stevens is a Seattle native and author of the forthcoming City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle.
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17 Responses to March 23, 1967: The Cocoon Breaks, the Helix Emerges

  1. Lois Danks says:

    Lived in the U district at the time and have a stack of old Helix issues – would like to get them to an archivist somewhere…loved the Supercop cover!

    • radsearem says:

      Lois,

      For what it’s worth, I’m interested in getting a hold of some old “Helices,” since I’m writing a book about the history of alternative newspapers in Seattle.

      Jeff Stevens aka “radsearem”

      • Lois says:

        are you going to include the Freedom Socilaist newspaper? It’s been going for many years and It started out at Freeway Hall under the University Bridge acrosss from Ivar’s. The offices are now out on south Rainier Ave. I write some articles for it now…I could loan you the Helixes next time I am in Seattle – it may not be for a couple weeks.
        Lois

    • Joe says:

      Lois,
      My father taught at the U during that time and I remember the Helix and have wanted to read some of them. I manage a microfilm/scanning company and would love to offer to get those copies you have archived to some media in order to preserve them. All I ask is for a copy of the new media so I can peruse them. Interested?

  2. Marty says:

    Was there a Seattle underground paper before The Helix? I bought some paper going outside a concert in the summer of ’66 that was “.25 if you can afford it, .15 if you can’t”, which I had always thought was The Helix, but evidently predated it.
    A customer of mine at a bar near Roosevelt that I managed in the early 80’s had been a vendor of The Helix back when, and squirreled away one copy of each issue he sold. He brought a stack in one day, and we had a great time trippin’ down memory lane.

    • Jeff Stevens says:

      Marty,

      There was a “Seattle Barb” in early 1967, put out by some folks from the UW chapter of SDS. It only lasted four issues, though. That’s according to Walt Crowley, from “Rites of Passage.”

  3. Thomas W. Warner says:

    I was the editor of the Puget Sound Partisan. We started because the Helix quit. We waited for a couple of weeks and when the Helix did not appear on the news racks, we checked out the reason and determined that the Helix had suffered a fatal seisure brought on by a combination of sexism and political fatigue. We contacted the former staff of the Helix and they turned over the keys to their offices and formatting equipment and some supplies and we went to work of volume I – #1.

    We contacted the publisher of several neighborhood freebie papers and were allowed to use their formatting equipment. It was primitive by today’s computer standards but formidable for the day. The text was entered in a generic style onto a large magnetic tape cassette and from that you could choose various fonts and sizes according to what balls you had access to – and they had a bunch. Then when you wanted to create the text for the paste up, the spacing was determined by an adjustment on the typewriter, which was a sophisticated IBM Selectric.

    Volume I #1 had a cover sheet that was a huge red fist superimposed over a map of Puget Sound – which said boldly that it was a crime to replicate that map. We used it – warning and all.

    “We” were a collective of the Seattle Liberation Front and had close ties to the recently established tiny party called Workers World and we got our national and international news from them. Our component (always half of the paper) was of the very militant Seattle Liberation Front. We covered the frame up and police murder of a Black veteran of the Vietnam war. The cops provided a bomb and provided a date and time for this hapless fellow to blow up the offices of a Seattle realator in the Central District. We covered the fish-ins at Frank’s Landing and a Feminist raid on a Pike Place Mkt tavern that featured ladies undergarments as decorations. We covered the occupation of the US Army land that was being reclaimed by the Native Americans and which was joined by notables such as Jane Fonda. Daybreak Star now occupies part of that abandoned base today. Of course, the resistance to the Viet Nam war was a continuing theme.

    The “collectives” of the SLF were involved in every manner of protest activity and we got them to write the story of their struggles. Partisan!

    Of course we never achieved the circulation of the Helix since we were just a dozen or so unpaid activists. The paper was at least i6 pages and sold for a quarter and the vendors bought them for a dime. It just barely covered the production costs. Try as we might, we only got a sprinkling of advertising space.

    Never the less, the alternative press was a hot topic and a number of regional underground papers tried to stake an appearence to replace the Helix. The Spokane alternative press tried as did the Wilamette Bridge out of Oregon. A slick monthly tried its turn and had Walter Crowley and Eric Lacitus aboard tried but the Puget Sound Partisan outlasted them all. The established Left was furious about our success and placed prominent adds in all of the competitors issues.

    But after a dozen or so bi-monthly issues it became evident that we could not continue. Fall had come to Seattle and the parks where the vendors would distribute the paper were drenched and chill. And the school year had begun which further depleted our sales force. But as importantly as anything waas the emergence of a local edition of the Berkley Barb with a heavy presence of “counter culture” including the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers Cartoon and a lot of promotion of LSD and weed and heavier stuff. The Puget Sound Partisan never promoted or denounced this aspect of counter culture.

    It was a wild adventure. If any one has any copies of the Puget Sound Partisan, I would like to replicate my issues which were lost in a house remodeling project.

    In solidarity,
    Thomas W. Warner
    (secretary, Seattle/Cuba Friendship Committee – a task force of the Church Council of Greater Seattle)
    8923 2nd Ave. N.E.
    Seattle, WA, 98115
    206 523-1720
    warner@scn.org
    http://www.seattlecuba.org

  4. Jeff Stevens says:

    Thank you, Thomas, that was *very* informative. I would also like to see copies of the Puget Sound Partisan, if anyone out there has any available.

  5. chris sutton says:

    Folks,
    I still have some of my friend Walt Crowley’s Helix papers…I gave most to him many years ago at a gathering. They were all the rage, and I learned a great deal about how to find info from them, and from my work sending out
    draftees in the middle of the night at Sea-Tac, to Vietnam, which led me to question..I also met RFK there on his trip to California-we docked his plane
    at Eastern jetway. The best book debunking U.S. historical revisionism is
    William Blum’s, “Killing Hope”-a TRUE CIA historical. Blum was an associate of Philip Agee, ex-CIA himself. Best to all, and RIP Walter..

  6. Doug Pratt says:

    Howdy,
    I have a nearly complete collection of the Helix. I’m only missing 3 issues, including Vol.I No.1. I’d been talking to Walt about possibly reproducing a couple of the the issues when his health went bad. It’s always been my plan to ultimately leave them to a museum or library. Sure love to get my hands on those three issues! I know for a fact that it’d be one of the only complete sets that exist…….at least to my knowledge, and I’ve researched this for years.

    • radsearem says:

      Doug,

      That’s great! Have you approached either the Seattle Public Library or the UW Libraries? The UW Special Collections would seem like the best place to give them to. Although seriously, I’d like to see some kind of museum dedicated to alternative newspapers in Seattle, including Helix, the Seattle Sun (1973-1982), The Rocket, etc.

      Let’s keep in touch about this!

      Jeff
      jps@riseup.net

    • Julie - jewlmastr@gmail.com says:

      I have Vol 2 # 1, anybody interested? Any others needed?

      • Alan J. Thill says:

        I only need the following to complete my Seattle Helix run:
        Vol 1 #10
        Vol 3 #7
        Vol 3 #10
        Vol 4 #5
        Vol 4 #6 (misnumbered as Vol 2 #6)
        Vol 4 #9
        Vol 5 #5
        Vol 5 #6
        Vol 5 #10
        Vol 11 #13
        Vol 11 #18
        Vol 11 #19

        Anybody have them & willing to part with them???
        Thanx, Alan
        thillaj@yahoo.com

  7. Ron says:

    Paul Dorpat is posting copies of all the Helix on his blog. One each week with his comments. In addition he is has a HELIX REDUX category, where random Helix related postings are going up, including interviews and photographs.
    http://pauldorpat.com/

  8. Hello there. I am on one of the earlist front covers of Helix in probably April or maybe March of 1967. It had a picture drawn of the very first Human Be-In in Cowen Park with people dancing around my head. Someone made a daisy chain and put it around my head and I remember a guy drawing a picture and later it came out. I was 11 years old. I have the issue with no date on it. i was a friend of Paul Dorpat’s niece joanne Dorpat who i met through artist Eric Nelsen, Ibsen Nelsen’s son and the brother of Hans. eric was twelve. I was great friends with eric and also dana Richardson. eric turned me into a hippie in 1966 and i have been one ever since!! Is the issue online?

  9. sparks says:

    Used to draw small filler graphics and was given 10 copies to sell for every graphic used. Then off to downtown to sell them. Ah the hippie daze

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