Saturday, November 30, 2013

Remembering `Downtown'-`Aquarian Weekly' Editor James Rensenbrink (1932-2013)

In the Spring of 1990 the office of the East Coast Rocker/Aquarian Weekly’s sister publication in the East Village, Downtown, was located in a small rented back room inside somebody else’s store at 151 First Avenue, near E. 10th Street. And it was in that tiny back room--filled with a lot of clutter, piles of back issues and current issues of Downtown, a typewriter, a radio and a few telephones, desks and chairs--that I first met Jim Rensenbrink.

A few weeks earlier I had picked up a free copy of Downtown in the doorway of some Lower East Side restaurant. And--after noticing a “Writer for Downtown wanted” ad on one of the counter-cultural weekly newspaper’s inside pages--I mailed Downtown a copy of a column I had written to mark the 20th anniversary of the March 6, 1970 West Village Townhouse explosion (in which three members of the Weatherman faction of Students for a Democratic Society were killed) that a college student newspaper had recently published. A few days later, Jim contacted me and invited me to meet with him after 5 p.m. at the Downtown office.

Jim was sitting alone behind one of the desks reading and editing some copy when I arrived at the Downtown office. But after a few seconds, he noticed I was standing in front of his desk. And when he finally looked up, I introduced myself and reminded him that he had asked me to come meet with him.

Wearing jeans (and not a suit-and-tie like the editor of The Nation magazine had worn when I had visited that magazine’s plush office a few years before), Jim looked more like an aging hippie, beat poet or New Left professor—with a gray and white beard, but hair on his head that had been cut short—than like either a publisher/editor/owner of a youth market-oriented entertainment/arts weekly or a shrewd small businessman. And when—still wearing his glasses—Jim stood up, he revealed himself to be a lot taller than most of the other poets, writers and counter-cultural journalists I had previously met.

Jim—among his various other earthly material-world identities—was an anti-Establishment, politically radical green environmentalist, an anarcho-pacifist cultural and political revolutionary, poet-writer-journalist. And he wanted to use his Downtown newspaper to provide a media outlet in the 1990’s for Downtown Manhattan poets, artists and writers whose anti-war counter-culture rebel voices could not be found on the pages of mainstream corporate newspapers like The New York Times, plastic hip capitalist publications like Rolling Stone magazine, or weekly newspapers like the Village Voice, that claimed to be “alternative” in 1990, yet was then owned by billionaire New Jersey real estate developer Leonard Stern.

So after our chat in the Downtown office indicated that Jim and I pretty much agreed that an authentically hip counter-cultural weekly newspaper like Downtown should both include articles that Lower East Side readers would not find in the Village Voice and promote radical democratic change in the United States, I offered to write an expose' of the Village Voice’s then-owner: Billionaire Leonard Stern. And, before departing from the Downtown office, I asked Jim how long the article I was going to write should be, and Jim replied: “As long as you need to write it.”

In 2013, if a writer wants to write an article for Lower East Side readers that they would not find in the Village Voice, he or she can just post it on a blog and link it to his or her Facebook, MySpace or YouTube page or some other internet blog, comment form or social network page on the web. And if a Lower East Side reader wants to read an article like an expose’ of the Village Voice’s current ownership in 2013, he or she can often just type “expose Village Voice” inside google, yahoo or metacrawler search and eventually find such an article to read on the internet.

But in 1990 alternative places to allow readers to find articles that did not appear in newspapers, magazines, books or self-published leaflets and zines were rare. So if an article or poem wasn’t accepted for publication in some newspaper, magazine book or self-published as a leaflet or a zine, the rejected article or poem would often just end up in the bottom of a writer’s desk drawer. And that’s why Jim’s willingness to publish in Downtown the kind of anti-Establishment writing and poetry that the underground counter-cultural press of the 1960’s had been willing to publish—but the now-corporatized “alternative” newspapers of the 1990s like Rolling Stone magazine and the Village Voice were by then unwilling to publish—helped fulfill an important counter-cultural need for both writers and readers in the East Village during the 1990s.

After I researched, wrote and shoved inside Jim’s Downtown office mailbox the expose’ of then-Village Voice Owner Leonard Stern later in the Spring of 1990, Jim seemed to be taking a long time to publish it. So about three months after my initial chat with Jim, I spoke with him again briefly over the telephone in the Summer of 1990 and he indicated, in a businesslike tone, that he planned to publish the article in September 1990. Then—to my surprise—Jim highlighted the “Boss of The `Voice’: A Look At `Village Voice’ Owner Leonard Stern” article in a big way on the front page of Downtown's September 12, 1990 issue.

Apparently pleased by the reception Downtown’s “Boss of the Voice" article received from readers, Jim seemed very eager to discuss with me what the next Downtown article I wrote should be about, when I next visited the Downtown office to pick up the paycheck for the article that was in my Downtown mailbox. And we both agreed that I would next do an expose’ of Time magazine’s corporate connections for one of Downtown’s October 1990 issues.

During the next few months, the administration of George Herbert Walker Bush prepared to launch its 1991 Gulf War I attack on Iraq—on behalf of the special economic interests of the Kuwaiti royal family and U.S. transnational corporations—which initiated over two decades of U.S. military intervention and deadly economic sanctions in Iraq that have caused millions of Iraqi deaths between 1991 and 2013. So in our periodic discussions in the Downtown office between October 1990 and December 1991 when I visited there to pick up my paycheck, Jim and I also agreed that—besides writing more monthly articles about the hidden corporate connections of different U.S. mass media conglomerates—I should also sometimes write articles exposing the economic motivation for the endless U.S. military intervention abroad in countries like Iraq during the 1990s. Then, in November 1991, Jim decided to include a news briefs and comments column, "Brief" (which later evolved into a report and comment on power elite connections in the U.S. column, “Connections”), that I wrote in each issue of Downtown, until it ceased to be owned and edited by Jim in early 1997.

Unlike many other U.S. newspaper and magazine editors, Jim was a non-interventionist editor who didn’t try to substitute his own voice for the original writer’s voice when he edited copy, and who didn’t require writers to rewrite their articles over and over again, until they conformed to some pre-existing, already-established, often conventional and mainstream-defined plastic editorial standard. He was also a morally courageous rebel editor who was not afraid to print articles that expressed unpopular, dissident opinions, exposed unpleasant truths and hypocritical politicians, or challenged the criminal or immoral actions and policies of the U.S. power elite and U.S. power elite institutions. And he was an editor who opposed all forms of literary censorship, whether or not the censorship expressed itself in the form of state censorship, political censorship, commercial censorship, corporate censorship, academic censorship, fundamentalist religious-based censorship or self-censorship.

Unlike many other U.S. newspaper and magazine editors, Jim also sought neither the approval of the politically and economically powerful “1 percent” nor wealth; and he had no desire for personal celebrity or material goods. In the 1990s his main motive for publishing Downtown on a shoe-string budget and non-profit basis seemed to be altruistic and authentically philanthropic; and he once mentioned to me that if he ever felt that publishing Downtown was no longer a valid way to both serve artists, writers and the counter-cultural community of the Lower East Side and promote politically radical environmentalism and personal and collective liberation in the USA, he would gladly cease being its publisher/editor and “just spend my time writing poetry and enjoying nature.”

A check of all that Jim wrote and published in his various counter-cultural newspapers in the late 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s probably would make it obvious to most people that Jim left behind a journalistic legacy that was special and unique; and that Jim, himself—as the negative political and economic drift of early 21st-century U.S. history revealed—provided a prophetic warning in the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s of what U.S. society was turning into, as well as a prophetic vision of what could be done to avoid a future environmental/political/economic/moral catastrophe, if people in the USA—the “99 percent”--eventually rise up in revolt against their Wall Street Corporate Oppressors.

And besides his novel, The Basketball Player, Jim also left us poems like his “Snakebit” poem, which contained the following text:

“Who would have thought that the Germans would acquiesce?
Who would have thought that the Austrians would confess?
Who (but begrudgingly) gave Diamond Lil a nod
When she told the cowboys she believed in God?

“Who dare write letters to a pious pope,
when their veins and arteries are screaming for dope?
Who dare read the Bible in the month of May,
when the sex of Divinity is blooming with play?

“Disciples are wandering; the Messiah is dead.
The scientist proposes new drugs instead.
The Germans are telling their girlfriends the news.
What’s left to believe in; what deodorant to use.”

James Rensenbrink Presente!


Anonymous said...

Wrote for Downtown in the 80s. But I'm curious because I must have overlooked your byline- what is your name?
Marc Furstenberg

b.f. said...

I remember also reading your articles in Downtown during 1990 or 1991, before an apparent disagreement involving the main ad salesperson for Downtown led Jim to--unfortunately--become reluctant to keep publishing your great writing.--bob feldman