New England Music Scrapbook
The Real Paper (1972-1981)

Hardest hit was journalism. Financial problems caused the Real Paper to cease publication, silencing a voice that was devoted to community-based efforts--in the arts as in other cultural fields. The Phoenix won new readers with the Real Paper's demise, but its arts focus is more national than local... -- Jeff McLaughlin, Boston Globe, January 4, 1982, referring to the ups and downs of the Boston arts scene in 1981

The Real Paper, a Massachusetts alternative weekly, was descended from the Cambridge Phoenix, which began publishing in the fall of 1969.1 The '60s counterculture was building to high tide, and it was an auspicious time to launch an underground journal.

The decade's alternative press in the Boston area got its start much earlier, apparently with David Wilson's newsletter, The Broadside,2 in December 1962. Its purpose was quite straightforward--to let Boston folk music fans know about upcoming shows. The Boston-Cambridge coffeehouse community, just like today, was quite strong. And though the musicians and fans were not necessarily very political, nonetheless it makes sense that the area's counterculture should begin with its folkies--they were numerous, their music was a clear alternative to the commercial-radio/major-label mainstream, and a few of the artists were known to draw '60s-style inspiration from certain chemicals of questionable legality.

Other underground publications that followed The Broadside included the radical Old Mole and the eccentric Avitar. The mighty arts and entertainment weekly, Boston After Dark, published its first issue on Wednesday, March 2, 1966. So when the more political Cambridge Phoenix came into being in October 1969, it joined an already crowded field.

The Cambridge Phoenix
From the Donna L. Halper Collection
Used with Permission

In August 1972, after a two-week writer's strike, the Cambridge Phoenix was sold to its rival on the opposite side of the Charles. This merger resulted in an expanded publication, the Boston Phoenix; and "Boston After Dark" was used as the name of its arts and entertainment section.

For many of the staff who had built the old Cambridge Phoenix on a 1960s youth-movement foundation, its planned purchase by the more commercial Boston After Dark was a bitter pill to swallow. They banded together to form a new alternative weekly which made its debut on Wednesday, August 2nd. Thinking they represented the counterculture and the true spirit of the old Phoenix, they called the new enterprise the Real Paper.

The Real Paper reported political, social, and cultural events on both a national and regional level; and a new feature, "Local Color" by James Isaacs, provided coverage for the resurgent Boston-Cambridge music scene. In a way, "Local Color" is still with us; for Isaacs, also known as Henry Armetta, went on to found the Boston Phoenix column, "Cellars by Starlight."

The Boston Phoenix, as I recall, was the better-known journal in the early days; but the Real Paper had a few great writers who might bring that publication some needed attention. Columnist Jon Landau was one of the best. By 1974, Landau had heard a lot about Bruce Springsteen, who was becoming a major draw in East Coast clubs and was particularly popular in the Boston area. After hearing Springsteen in Cambridge that May, Landau's Real Paper column carried this: "Last Thursday at Harvard Square Theatre, I saw my rock and roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen."3

The publicity staff at Columbia Records knew a great headline when they saw it. Soon, ads that quoted liberally from Landau's column were plentiful; and they ran under the banner, "I have seen rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen." That piece certainly helped get Springsteen's name around; and, as a side effect, it told the world that interesting things were happening at Boston's Real Paper.

The Real Paper ceased to be a workers' cooperative in 1975, when it was purchased by Ralph I. Fine, David Rockefeller, Jr., and others. It is doubtful the weekly was ever a serious money-maker; but cash was invested in its operations, and readership and gross income grew for several years. The Real Paper reached its peak around 1978. About that time, the proprietors are said to have decided that the publication must make it on its own--no more money from investors. A steady slide in circulation and revenues followed.

The editorial direction and format of the Real Paper changed in August 1980; but by then, it may have been too late. Published estimates of the losses for that year were in the range of $250,000, and 1981 was looking no better. It's my own guess that the financial situation facing the Real Paper was even worse than reported. The last issue was dated June 18, 1981. The very next week's paper was to be the annual Summer Guide, which was traditionally quite profitable. Closing the doors immediately must have been the one and only option, at least in the minds of the owners.

It was the end of an era, and the Real Paper proved to be another broken dream. It wasn't the last one. Just three days later, on June 21st, the short-lived but legendary Allston nightclub, the Underground, closed its doors. Whereas members of the Who once ended their shows by smashing their instruments, club-goers terminated the Neats' unforgettable set by smashing the Underground. So just a few days apart, important institutions of the old and new countercultures bid New England a sad farewell.

Certainly the faltering economy caused some of the financial woes of the Real Paper. President Ford's years in office were marred by a stagnant economy and high inflation. (The term, "stagflation," was coined to describe this unusual state of affairs.) Then the Carter administration was given a knock-down punch by double-digit inflation. All the while, the Real Paper was facing new competition for the music fans among its readership, from periodicals such as the Noise, Take It, and especially Boston Rock.4

One might judge from numerous articles that ran around the time the Real Paper ceased publication that the Boston Phoenix management had been more willing to change with the times. Just a few months later, Stephen M. Mindich of the Phoenix wrote, "[I]f a publication is to become and remain successful, it must speak to the readers about what they are interested in. If we didn't change as the times were changing, we would cease to exist."5 So the interests and concerns of those who bought alternative newspapers shifted; and the Phoenix carried on while the Real Paper folded. But the Real Paper left this world the way it came in.

Jeff McLaughlin of the Boston Globe quoted Ralph Fine as saying, "I deeply regret the necessity of closing The Real Paper ... [it] has cared about issues in which I believe--an end to racism and sexism, a concern for the disadvantaged among us, fair treatment in the workplace ... I am proud of what The Real Paper has meant to this community over the years."6 -- Alan Lewis, 5/14/2001

The Real Paper has been issued on microfilm by Bell and Howell.

1. Evidently the Cambridge Phoenix published its first issue on Thursday, October 9, 1969.

2. Later, The Broadside was known as The Broadside of Boston and finally as Broadside and the Free Press.

3. Evidently this passage was patterned after a scene from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

4. I'm not certain when Sweet Potato first hit the newsstands.

5. Boston Phoenix, November 24, 1981.

6. Boston Globe, June 13, 1981.


Copyright © 2001 by Alan Lewis.
All rights reserved.

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