13 September 2010
by Jeffrey Nightbyrd
'Don't be a slave to the rules':
Our time in the sun
[The Austin Sun was a counterculture paper published in Austin from
1974-78. It was born of the underground press, and served as a
precursor to the many "alternative" publications that would follow.
The Sun's influence went far beyond its short life span. It served as
an incubator for major talent and helped stimulate the development of
Austin's music scene, helping artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe
Ely, Marcia Ball, and Butch Hancock reach a wider audience.
The Sun was founded by Jeffrey Nightbyrd and Michael Eakin. Nightbyrd
-- formerly Jeff Shero -- was a major figure in the Sixties New Left,
in Austin and nationally. He served as national vice president of SDS
and was active with the Yippies. Jeff was involved with Austin's
original underground newspaper, The Rag, and also edited RAT in New
York. Jeff now directs Acclaim Talent, one of the largest talent
agencies in the Louisiana/Texas region.
(Co-founder Michael Eakin, a former editor of the Daily Texan, was
shot to death in 1974. The crime was never solved and is believed by
many to have been related to a story he was researching on the South
Texas Nuclear Plant. See the sidebar article below.)
A retrospective exhibit of art from The Sun ("Rehearsals for the
Apocalypse: The Austin Sun Years 1974-1978)" is currently showing at
the South Austin Popular Culture Center. The following was adapted
from notes Jeff wrote for the exhibit.]
Looking through the old Suns, the issues we championed haven't
changed today: war, a smart energy policy, no nukes, long range
environmental thinking, ethnic and religious tolerance, sensible drug
policies, planning instead of runaway growth, and sexual freedom.
In Austin tolerance has become widespread but our economy dangles on
a precipice, we are fighting overseas wars, and our natural world is
imperiled. Hence the title of this museum exhibit: "Rehearsals for
the Apocalypse. The Austin Sun Years."
The hard facts are that former Daily Texan editor Michael Eakin and I
thought it was essential to create an Austin newspaper that presented
alternatives to the local information sources. So we went about raising money.
People like Bud Shrake who had just sold a movie script to Hollywood
"Bud," we told him. "We don't know if we will ever be able to pay
this much back."
"I know that," he said. "One day pass it on."
Over a brief few years many great writers and artists got their
start. My first partner, Michael Eakin, was murdered under suspicious
circumstances. And like an improbable reality show, we sunspots kept
surprising each other with bursts of originality.
Finally hard economic reality set in forcing me to take in a
"liberal" real estate investor. Soon he bought up more stock than
anyone and ousted me as a "terrible manager." His condemnation --
"You don't even have a time clock!" -- still rings in my ears.
Afterward, most of the Sun staff followed their muse and found more success.
For most of us the Sun years were a time of plenty... or should we
say our time in the Sun.
Following are some thoughts and memories:
Good drugs and bad drugs
The Sun crew laughed at the over-culture's hypocrisy about drugs.
After all, we live in America -- the society that invented the "Drug
Store." Some drugs like alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine (the most
addictive of all) had legal sanction. But others, like pot, could
send a smoker to prison. (Pot prisoners are almost half the
population of many jails and we never saw pot smokers getting into
fist fights in bars.)
In the Sun era, creative Texans reached for transcendence through
peyote and mescaline just as the indigenous Indians had for thousands
of years before. Into the mid-Sixties peyote could still be bought at
cactus nurseries. Then the hysteria fed by the establishment media
set in, demonizing psychedelics as madness-inducing. We tried to
bring enlightenment to the frenzy.
Burroughs, the apocalyptic futurist and author of Naked Lunch,
inventor of cut-up writing, and beatnik legend, inspired the Doom
issue of the Sun, which in turn inspired the theme of this
exhibition, "Rehearsals for the Apocalypse. The Austin Sun Years."
Burroughs contributed his articles to the underground press for free.
Michael Ventura, a Sicilian street kid from Brooklyn, stopped by the
Sun on his way out of town and got his first paid writing assignment.
A curious combination of street-toughened, world-class dirty dancer
and Talmudic-like scholar, he became a creative mainstay of the Sun.
His apartment walls were astonishing, covered with voluminous
hand-lettered note cards, quotes from the world's greatest and most
obscure thinkers, thousands of posted notes that worked as brain
stimulants for his essays.
Rocky Horror midnight madness
The national Rocky Horror Picture Show Saturday night phenomenon took
off in Austin. The producers called the Sun and asked if we would
sponsor a test event to see if Rocky Horror had legs, as they say in
the movie biz. Tim Curry flew in, and a raucous crowd at the
Paramount Theater cheered their way through the look-a-like contest.
By the end of the night the sell-out crowd had sung their way through
the entire movie and a phenomenon was born.
The music scene and Stevie Ray Vaughan
The clubs kept giving birth to stunning and original bands and
musicians that would make jaded veterans pause in awe. I remember
Michael Ventura touting a new guitarist, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and
watching him for the first time in an obscure club on Red River
called the One Knight. Eight people were in the audience. But Stevie
Driven like a Hendrix or a Picasso he ripped through songs so fast
and beautiful that you knew you had entered a moment of magic shared
only by a few. Soon the venues grew much bigger. But somewhere in
Austin right now another young genius is playing.
The Sun wanted to keep the government out of all our bedrooms. But in
this era gays could still be prosecuted as sodomists, and women were
not secure in the Roe v Wade ruling that protected the privacy of
their bodies. We felt the rainbow of sexuality that is the human
experience was none of any government's business. Relationships of
any kind are hard to sustain. So, root for everybody. The Sun rooted
for all consenting adults and championed the right of the abnormal to
find their happiness
Writers fresh from the academic reformatory that is the university
would bring us lifeless prose. What would now be slam poets would
arrive, ignorant of the rules of English grammar, and put down words
that were captivating.
I told writers: "Don't be a slave to the rules -- make the language
your slave. Do anything that works." I would suggest reading
advertising copy. Or translations of the Chinese master Li Po and Tu
Fu. In extreme cases I would hand writers a copy of the poems of e.
e. cummings. There are no rules of good writing save putting down
words in any fashion that communicates with passion.
Piedras Negras jailbreak
Taking a page from the Wild West, gun-toting hired guns stuck up the
guards at the Piedras Negras jail and freed a gringo rancher's son.
In the mayhem, a bevy of hippie pot prisoners made their escape
running down to the Rio Grande and swimming the river. First thing,
they called the Sun to tell their story. We were just going to press,
so at 2 a.m. the art department redesigned the cover and we beat the
dailies by two days.
The mysterious murder of Michael Eakin
By Jeffery Nightbyrd
September 13, 2010
Austin Sun co-founder and former Daily Texan editor Michael Eakin was
a dogged opponent of the South Texas Nuclear Plant. On April 14, 1979
he was shot to death while sitting in a parked car in Houston. The
crime was never fully investigated. There are few hard facts in the case.
The South Texas Nuclear plant was built after politicians overcame
huge opposition within out city. There is no proof that Michael's
murder had anything to do with his journalistic investigations. But
former Sun investigative reporter Todd Samusson recently sent me some
very disturbing information which follows:
I had extensive experience of harassment for doing anti-nuke
organizing in Austin. I was physically assaulted several times.
Always by two large thuggish-looking guys but never the same two. I
had my house ransacked and nothing stolen but an address book. I
received threatening calls. I had my porch light smashed out three
times. I even came out of a meeting once and found a bullet hole in
the rear window of my truck (that same piece of crap I used to schlep
Austin Suns from the printer in Taylor back to the Sun offices). My
car window had a bullet shot through it.
Michael Eakin obviously had it much worse. In the weeks preceding his
death he told me he was working on a freelance article about cost
overruns at the South Texas Nuclear Project. He said he had been
interviewing construction workers at the site about intentional
slowing down of work to drag out the project. Also about major flaws
in the concrete pours of the containment buildings. (These stories
were later confirmed in articles in the Austin American Statesman --
I think written by Bruce Hite.)
Michael was shot point blank and killed in his car in Houston with a
small caliber pistol (weapon of choice for mob contracts, according
to police). Also shot was his passenger Dilah Davis. She was hit in
the face but survived. She was very active in Austin Citizens for
Economic Energy the electoral group working against the nuke.
That project was done on a cost-plus basis. There was absolutely no
incentive for Brown & Root to come in at the contract price. In fact
they had every incentive to seek cost overruns. The south Texas nuke
was originally bid at $700 million-plus. When I left Austin in 1988
the cost was heading toward $4 billion. The nuclear industry isn't
about how to best generate electricity; it's about construction gigs.
And, on a bigger scale, it's about bonded indebtedness on electric
utility bonds used to pay for that construction. That $4 billion
turns out to be way, way more than that over the life of the debt.
So the money trail is way bigger than Brown & Root. It goes to huge
bond houses. Anybody along that trail had motive to stop Michael from prying.
Brown & Root was eventually fired for its cost overruns and replaced
by Bechtel. But they went on to do well, becoming KBR (Kellogg Brown
& Root) and making zillions from the current war in Iraq.
Michael Eakin should not be forgotten. As a journalist he pursued his
passion to expose corporate corruption to the end.
Rehearsals for the Apocalypse
The South Austin Popular Culture Center is presenting a landmark
exhibit featuring the underground/alternative newspaper the Austin
Sun. The exhibit will run from Sept. 11 through Oct. 23.
"Rehearsals For The Apocalypse" encompasses the entire run of the
Austin Sun, which was from October 1974 through June of 1978. The Sun
was founded by Jeff Nightbyrd and Michael Eakin. They were joined
later by printer and bon vivant J. David Moriaty as managing editor,
The Sun transcended the usual mode of underground newspapers with
professional layouts, cutting edge news articles and, wonder of
wonders, paid staff positions.
The exhibit features a selection of newspaper covers along with
accompanying articles, photographs, and comments by Jeff Nightbyrd,
Dave Moriaty, and some of the key staffers. The show also includes a
striking selection of vintage photographs.
"Rehearsals For The Apocalypse: The Austin Sun Years 1974- 1978" will
run from September 11th through October 23rd. The South Austin
Popular Culture Center is located at 1516-B South Lamar Boulevard in
Austin. Hours are Thursday through Sunday from 1- 6 p.m. or by
appointment and chance.