IN FRONT of Holyoke Center, a man and a woman played a bass fiddle and an electric dulcimer. In the entry of the Cambridge Savings Bank, a man picked a guitar and hummed blues on a harmonica. In front of Out of Town News, a juggler spun three balls and told bad jokes. A string quartet sat in the entrance at the Coop and sawed at classical tunes. Little knots of people gathered around each performance, and those walking the block-long stretch moved slowly through, leaving one show and attaching themselves to the crowd at the next, walking from one sound into another. Many of the onlookers could have been anywhere--the well-dressed, well-groomed young men and women who wander around Quincy Market eating overpriced ice cream when they're not doing the same in the Square. Others were more Cantabrigian--t-shirts and cutoffs, mid-20s, long hair. And some, though not a lot, were hippies, for lack of a better term. Harvard Square may be one of the few places where street people remain, where they even seem to be on the increase. More raggedy clothes, more sitting on the benches on Cambridge Common all afternoon, more dancing impromptu jigs around musicians than in recent years. Harvard Square and the community it supports just may be coming back.
New life in the Square--or at least a few reminders of what old life there was like--make the passing of the Real Paper ealier this month all the more sad. After all, the Cambridge Phoenix, as it was first known, was the original "underground" paper in this city, a playful, political, very-angry-or-very-happy rag put out by people who thought rag was a fine description. If you were stopped at a red light, chances were a hawker would have been at your window peddling the paper for a quarter. Even after early 70s financial dealings too Byzantine to discuss created a new paper--The Real Paper--with most of the original staff, the weekly retained much of its spirit.
Look, for instance, at an issue from April of 1973, just one drawn at random. The "Short Takes" section is unceasingly left-political--Rennie Davis converts to eastern religion, FBI informant unmasked, grape strike update, "Vietnam-American Friendship Week starts Monday," "Supporters of striking Shell Oil workers are demonstrating Monday." Names mentioned include Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Ngo Vinh Long, Gloria Emerson, Frances Fitzgerald, Ann Froines, Michael Ansara. The lead article was on a company that sold a how-to suicide package. The second story was by a reporter who was getting obscene phone calls. She talked to her harasser and changed his life. Lots of notes on gay politics, an update on the Panthers.
May 25, 1980, a couple of weeks before it closed, the Realp ran an interview with feminist Andrea Dworkin, something on land reform in El Salvador, Zippy the Pinhead comics, part of a continuing series called "The Fashion Police" which found illdressed people, a short medical note on diarrhea, and a big spread on "Altered States" which dealt with mostly legal ways, like sitting in saltwater tanks, of altering perception.
The paper didn't change dramatically. But it did change, from radical to liberal, though those are imprecise terms. For a journalist they mean the difference between acting "responsibly," and acting out, saying what you want to say. It's the difference between being an advocate and an "objective" onlooker, Maybe the best example of the change was a spectacularly ridiculous special report on nuclear power that the paper ran last year, an effort to stake out some middle ground. When the Real Paper started, the game wasn't played like that--of course, you reported, found the facts--but if there were usually two or three sides, you took one. It didn't lead to bad reporting; just because people knew which side of a question you'd come down on didn't mean they knew what you were going to say. The difference is between underground, which the Reelp sort of was when it was founded, and alternative, which it had become by the time it closed. One refuses to come to Parliament: the other is the loyal opposition.
CHANGES IN the paper's audience, obviously, caused much of the drift. The people who once smoked dope (regular updates on its supply were printed by the Realp), now drink wine (samples were regularly rated by reviewers in the paper's last years). The crowd that once knew about Vietnam now suspected El Salvador, so the Realp suspected too. Old readers dressed as they like; these days, throwbacks to sloppiness were likely to be nabbed by the Fashion Police, that particularly obnoxious feature. Mark Zanger, editor since August, shortened articles and straightened styles in an unsuccessful effort to keep the paper afloat. He wanted he told Alexander Cockburn, to make it "cheap, vulgar, lurid, left wing, intellectual and satirical, with a bow to the National Enquirer." The trouble is, cheap and vulgar and especially satire often fade to cute, which is rarely as good as honest and funny.
Several less metaphysical factors helped drive the paper out of existence. Boston Phoenix publisher Stephen Mindich apparently decided long ago he wanted to put out the only alternative paper published in Boston. He succeeded, and now readers will get an unrelieved diet of his inanities (like the reprinted editorials from the New York Post that were the paper's comments on the Iraqi raid), along with some good writing by the more talented members of the regular staff. The richer Phoenix has done the same political fades as the Realp, but their bankroll has allowed them to keep the format much the same as the old days, with longer and more personal pieces. Want to know what it's like to drive a Porsche? Check out last week's 312-page Phoenix.
Harvard Square may come back--summer nights, dope and music, a little politics. If it ever does, it will again need a paper like the Realp, the old verslon. Every community needs a rag. But the Square may never return to its late 60s heyday, it may melt away before a wave of franchise pizzerlas and suburban money. In that case, the passing of the paper is just a poignant reminder of how things have changed. The Real Paper tried to change with its audience; perhaps to its credit, it couldn't keep up.