by Bill Weinberg, Skunk

This brief memoir of CounterVortex editor Bill Weinberg's days as a young neo-Yippie in the 1980s first appeared in Canada's Skunk magazine in winter 2012-13. 

On Nov. 14, I went back to 9 Bleecker Street for the 63rd birthday bash of Aron Kay, the famous Yippie Pie-Man.

Aron is something of a legend in activist and radical circles in New York City. Of impressive girth and walking with a cane, he still sports beard and tie-dyed t-shirt, and is viewed as a kind of an elder statesman by some of the Occupy Wall Street crowd. Although his physical condition no longer allows him to engage in the daring tactic that won him notoriety, he has more than earned his sobriquet. Across his career, he has wafted pies into the faces of (in chronological order) right-wing pundit William F. Buckley, New York’s Senator Patrick Moynihan, Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt, anti-feminist mouthpiece Phyllis Schlafly, New York City Mayor Abe Beame, Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy, CIA chief William Colby, Studio 54 empresario Steve Rubell, California governor Jerry Brown, Vietnam-era National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, H-bomb mastermind Edward Teller (who got a special mushroom pie—get it?) and anti-abortion crusader Randall Terry.

At the party, aging veterans of the Yippies, grizzled and long-haired, merged with idealistic young Occupiers, as a Grateful Dead cover band blasted old classics into the space now popularly known as the Yippie Cafe. On the wall across from the coffee bar hangs the one original remnant from when the old building near the corner of Bleecker and Bowery (built in 1884 as a warehouse) was the headquarters of the Youth International Party (YIP): a big mural depicting the “New Nation” flag. First unveiled by the Yips before the legendary protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, this banner is a black field (for anarchism) with a red star (for communism) superimposed with a green ganja leaf (for, um, ganja). This was conceived by Abbie Hoffman and the original Yippies as the symbol of a radical youth culture that would take over America.

The only other relic of the original Yippie era hangs above the entrance facing the street: a now almost entirely faded sign reading “Yipster Times”—incongruous among the street’s upscale boutiques and wine bars.

Kay calls his tactic “assassination without a bullet,” and “monkey warfare”—as opposed to guerilla warfare. And that aptly sums up the spirit of the Yips—irreverent, flamboyant, proudly subversive, but good-humored and at root humanistic.

Being at “Number 9” flashed me back to my first contact with the latter-day Yips—way back to March 1979. I was still in high school in Queens then. One day a classmate boasted that he had got the autograph of Cheap Trick’s guitarist at a gig at CBGB, the famed punk rock venue on Bowery at Bleecker. But I was more interested in the piece of paper the signature was scrawled on—a leaflet for the opening conference of the US Rock Against Racism movement, to be held at a new punk venue at 10 Bleecker.

I was aware of the British movement of that name, which mobilized after Eric Clapton’s vile anti-immigrant diatribe at a Birmingham concert. But I had little idea what I was getting myself into when I took the subway into the East Village for the conference. The corner of Bowery and Bleecker was pretty seedy at that time, and I felt a little intimidated. But when I crossed the threshold into 10 Bleecker—to be immediately enveloped in cannabis fumes and plied with literature on numerous activist causes by a roomful of long-haired freaks—I felt like I had found my new home.

The grungy new club that served as a venue for Rock Against Racism (RAR) was called Studio 10—a takeoff on the celebrity-haunted Studio 54 discotheque in midtown Manhattan. I helped arrange for bands from my Queens neighborhood to play there. As President Carter brought back draft registration in response to the Iran hostage crisis and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, I got involved in a youth anti-draft group that formed in the orbit of RAR.

I soon became aware that the rock club was actually adjunct to the collective of proudly self-identified “freaks” who lived and worked across the street at 9 Bleecker—in whose dank halls the overwhelming smells of cat piss and sinsemilla merged in a sickly miasma. (The mommy and daddy cat—two foul-tempered and inbred Siamese—were named Sacco and Vanzetti, for the two anarchist martyrs executed on dubious charges in Massachusetts in 1927.)

I inevitably started hanging out at what we all called “Number 9”—first to use their type-setting equipment (big, clunky forerunners to word-processors) to produce the anti-draft newsletter. But I was drawn into various other activist projects being organized amid a constant haze of fragrant smoke in the decaying building: RAR concerts in public parks, countless street protests, and police-defying cannabis “smoke-ins.”

And I gradually became aware of who the core group at Number 9 really were—a surviving remnant of the notorious ‘60s radical group the Yippies. Studio 10 was officially the Tom Forçade Memorial Multi-Media Center. Forçade, I found out, was the founder of High Times magazine who had killed himself in November 1978. Forcade, like the Number 9 denizens, was a veteran of the “Zippies.” When the original Yippies like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin decided to support anti-war Democratic candidate George McGovern in 1972, a younger and more militant generation broke to form the Zippies, and mixed it up with the police at the Democratic Convention in Miami. Hoffman was subsequently busted on a coke charge and went underground; Rubin “went straight” and dropped out of activist politics. So the Zippies became the new Yippies, and inherited the meeting place at Number 9.

With the launching of RAR and Studio 10, the Yips adopted a punk aesthetic in a bid to bring in young kids like me. Their old underground newspaper, Yipster Times, changed its name to Overthrow. As Reagan rode the hostage crisis to power in 1980, the new hard edge fit the zeitgeist.

Overthrow, in addition to cannabis-glorification, ran some really smart journalism—on the mounting wars in Central America, Native American struggles, the anti-nuclear movement. There were also explicit instructions on “phone-phreaking”—cracking credit card codes to rip off the phone company with free calls.

This brings us to what one observer of the scene at Number 9—Mitch Halberstadt in the Village Voice back in 1981—called its “somewhat paranoid and destructive edge.” In March of that year, a bomb exploded outside the door of Number 9, injuring two members of the NYPD bomb squad who were examining it. It was never determined who was behind it.

Despite the anarchistic ethic at Number 9, the scene had a clear if de facto leader in Dana Beal. He was one of the original Zippies, but his leadership was due more to his control of the purse-strings than his dark and cryptic charisma. Soho Weekly News journalist Doug Ireland wrote a piece called “Jonestown on Bleecker Street” portraying Beal as a cult-master. Beal responded by hurling a live firecracker into a waste-bin at the paper’s office, getting himself arrested and playing right into the unflattering depiction. (Beal claimed he was motivated by the paper’s promotion of “heroin chic,” portraying his stunt as a blow for cannabis in a cultural war with smack.)

This didn’t help on the public relations front when the landlord at 10 Bleecker announced eviction of the rock club to make way for luxury housing—an early harbinger of the Bowery’s gentrification. Young Yips attempted to occupy the premises to resist eviction, but were removed just days after the bombing.

I personally found out the lure of the destructive edge.

The Yips held three big smoke-ins each year: May Day and Halloween in New York and July 4th in Washington DC. On the night of Oct. 31, 1983, with a few fellow Yips, I staked out the middle of Washington Square Park, to have a big pot party going there for the arrival of the crazily costumed masses of the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. Fire-jugglers, musicians and hip-hop kids with boom boxes shared the space with us. I was decked out myself in an enormous tasseled fez and purple star-studded cape. I had a big shoulder bag filled with hundreds of joints we had stayed up rolling the night before. As we unfurled our big banner reading “FREE THE WEED,” the crowd exploded into cheers. We passed out flyers announcing the smoke-in, and anticipation mounted.

One of the more adventurist Yips had urged me, “Throw the joints up in the air so everyone scrambles for them, and start a riot!” I had no intention of doing so; I was just going to light them one at a time and pass them around the crowd. The point was to get high in public, not to needlessly start a riot... So I told myself.

But there in the middle of the crowd, with all eyes on me and the sense of imminent explosion seductive—an alluring hint of menace—I betrayed my own good intentions. Before I knew what I was doing, I reached into the bag, pulled out a big handful of joints... and threw them up in the air so everyone scrambled for them, and started a riot!

I was instantly mobbed. The bag was grabbed and fought over, most of the joints were trampled, and I lost my magnificent fez. I made an escape just as the cops dived in, but a comrade was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. I had to go to court to testify as a witness that the cops had grabbed him randomly, which was true. He finally got off. I didn’t tell the judge that I was really the guilty one.

Despite this foolishness, there was a serious political commitment to the Yips. In its final days, Studio 10 hosted a “National Resistance Conference” that brought in original Yippie founders Hoffman (recently come out from underground in a deal with the authorities) and Paul Krassner (editor of The Realist satirical magazine who was credited with coining the name “Yippie”), as well as representatives from Black community groups in Harlem, the American Indian Movement and striking coal miners in Appalachia.

On June 12, 1982, New Yorkers made history by gathering a million strong in Central Park to demand nuclear disarmament. The protest coincided with the UN Special Session on Disarmament, a farcical affair in the Reagan-era arms race. But dissidents rejected the coalition’s single-issue focus, demanding that Israel’s invasion of Lebanon (then just getting underway) be added to the agenda. The Yippies joined with these dissidents to organize an alternative action that made our point. The coalition planned a civil disobedience action two days after the march, targeting the UN missions of the five “official” nuclear powers: the US, USSR, UK, France and China. On the same day, we committed civil disobedience at the missions of the “secret” nuclear nations: apartheid South Africa and Israel.

And Yippie actions in these years resulted in two landmark Supreme Court decisions—one negative and one positive.

The first concerned the annual RAR concert in the Central Park bandshell, usually held within a few days of the May Day smoke-in. At the 1984 concert, the police cut the sound mid-song, citing excessive volume—of course sparking a little riot. The following year, NYPD commissioner Benjamin Ward insisted that the city provide its own sound system and engineer for the event. The Yips challenged this on First Amendment grounds. In 1989, the Supreme Court found for the city in Ward v. Rock Against Racism.

Later in 1984, the Yips were leading protests at the Republican Convention on the very hostile turf of Dallas, Texas, where Reagan was re-nominated. At the inevitable riot, one young hothead named Joey Johnson (actually an adherent of a Maoist youth group) used kerosene to set alight a US flag that had been pilfered from a public building. He was arrested and charged under Texas’ flag desecration law. Represented by the Yippies’ longtime attorney William Kunstler, he fought it all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1989’s Texas v. Johnson, the Supremes found for Joey and effectively struck down desecration laws coast to coast. Yippie!

Kunstler was the Yips’ big legal gun, but their real secret weapon was Dean Tuckerman, the indefatigable and exasperatingly annoying paralegal who was sicced on local authorities, to great effect. Dean had cerebral palsy (the first time I met him at Studio 10, I wrongly assumed he was drunk) and tended to gesticulate wildly and sputter when excited. But he was a crack paralegal who knew his rights and always had his ducks in a row. Police bureaucrats were said to have begged, “We’ll give you anything you want, don't send Dean!” A true nonviolent freedom fighter.

As the ‘80s wore on, I joined the hordes of young gringo rads who vagabonded down to Central America to witness the revolutionary movements then gaining ground there. I reported for Overthrow from Nicaragua and Guatemala, my first excursions into real journalism.

Overthrow ceased publication in 1988, perhaps marking an official end to the underground press movement of the 1960s. The East Village gentrified, but yet another generation of Yips kept the New York smoke-ins alive, and expanded the May Day affair into the internationally coordinated Global Marijuana March.

Dana Beal, who remained the focal figure, started promoting a drug called Ibogaine, derived from the African shamanic vine iboga, as a “cure for addiction,” allowing junkies to go cold turkey without withdrawal. It would be safer to say it has addiction-interrupting properties, but it does seem to have some positive effect. It is of course illegal in the US, but treatments are conducted in Europe and Latin America.

Another original Zippie and frequent visitor at Number 9 was Ben Masel, a Bronx transplant to Madison, Wisconsin, where he launched the Great Midwest Marijuana Harvest Festival, now an annual gala. He frequently ran for public office—including sheriff of Dane County—on a pro-legalization platform, and sometimes on the Republican ticket, just to tweak the local GOP establishment. He died of lung cancer in 2011.

In a legal tussle with the landlord over the future of the building, in 2006 Beal decided to remake the space as the “Yippie Museum.” After a few managers, Michael McKenna, a veteran activist from Rhode Island, finally rose to the occasion in the fall of 2011—just as Occupy Wall Street was getting off the ground. It was his team that cleaned out the stench of cat-piss (through means I don’t really want to think about), brought in the coffee bar, and turned Number 9 into a space where young activists would want to hang out again. An Occupy Comedy Night has really drawn the young blood.

By then, Beal was in prison, busted on apparent cross-country pot runs in Wisconsin and Nebraska. In September 2011, he suffered a heart attack in prison in Wisconsin, survived, and had the rest of his sentence there voided. But he was extradited to Nebraska, where he remains incarcerated. In January 2012, he did manage to stick his nose back in Number 9 for his own 64th birthday, while awaiting trial in Nebraska.

It falls to Mike McKenna to keep the flame alive. When I spoke with him at the cafe a few days after Aron Kay’s birthday bash, he was preparing to officially launch the museum in December, with displays from Yipster Times, Overthrow and the old Yippie archives. McKenna emphasizes he wants the space to be “open to all communities,” and points to recent Haitian and Taino acts performing there, in addition to hip-hop and rock. He also stresses that the operation is done on a proverbial “shoestring.”

So another generation of kids are passing through Number 9 for an activist education—and the atmosphere is clearly more wholesome today than in my time.

“Occupy is repeating a lot of this stuff, and they think it’s original,” McKenna remarked, comparing the new crop to the old veterans. And he thinks the sometimes solemn Occupy activists could learn from the Yippies’ “prankster spirit.”

That prompted a wry smile from me. I’m all for humor as a weapon, and even a touch of chaos. But I’d like to think most of today’s young Occupiers would think twice before gratuitously starting a riot.


This story first appeared in Skunk Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 5

This reprint is dedicated to the memory of Dean Tuckerman, 1951-2024

Photo: CelebStoner

Updates & related:

The Yippie Museum Cafe is closing
EV Grieve, June 28, 2013

An old freak in the new East Village
by Bill Weinberg, The Villager
AMNY, March 14, 2012

The East Village is replaced by its own simulacrum
by Bill Weinberg, The Villager
AMNY, July 10, 2014

Hippies, Yippies, Zippies and Beatnicks – A Conversation with Dana Beal
The Stoned Society, July 12, 2015

Veteran cannabis activist Dana Beal busted —yet again
Global Ganja Report, Dec. 19, 2017

Dana Beal plots Idaho pot defense, Ukrainian ibogaine offensive
The Village Sun, March 30, 2024

NYC Cannabis Parade press release
NYC Small Business Services, May 3, 2023

From our Daily Report:

OWS: Yes, we are anti-capitalist!
CounterVortex, Nov. 6, 2011

See also:

by Bill Weinberg, The Villager
CounterVortex, June 2016

How a Yippie Conspiracist Changed America …and was destroyed by his dream
by Bill Weinberg, Cannabis Culture
CounterVortex, March 2007


Reprinted by CounterVortex, June 24, 2024