Authored by Dr. Jeremy Guida –
Many authors, publishers, and readers of underground papers understood these periodicals as alternatives to what they considered mainstream news sources (what they eventually came to call the “aboveground press”: network television news, daily newspapers, national magazines). The dailies covered the war in Vietnam, racism, and youthful unrest, but always holding certain assumptions: that the Vietnam war was potentially justifiable (at least before 1968), that dope and drugs were inherently bad for society, and that violent protest was never justifiable. They did so while touting themselves as upholding the time-honored tradition of “objective reporting.” Underground authors, because they were often participants in the counterculture who did not share in these assumptions, vehemently opposed the idea that daily, mainstream news sources were objective. They felt the differences between the daily papers’ assumptions about the world and their own. In fact, much of these papers’ success stemmed from the fact that they were written and published from perspectives that they shared with many readers, but that they felt were not being given fair representation in mainstream media.
This likely sounds familiar. Since Trump’s election and subsequent claims that what many would consider mainstream news sources like CNN are in fact “fake news,” the terms “fake news” and “alternative news” have become the subjects of many articles, both on-line and in print. Of course, few people agree about what counts as “fake” or what it means for something to be “alternative.” However, with the underground press, we have an entire genre of periodical in which publishers, authors and readers identified themselves and their papers as “alternatives” to mainstream press. There were certainly those who believed the papers were a menace (perhaps that will be another blog entry). Congressperson Joe Pool of Texas said of underground papers, “These smut sheets are today’s Molotov cocktails thrown at respectability and decency in our nation” (The Rag, November 20, 1967, pg 1). In statements that are eerily similar to contemporary accusations, Pool went on to suggest that these papers were corrupting the young and confused, and that they were likely the result of a Soviet conspiracy.
As much as they might have engendered similar accusations, underground periodicals fall on the opposite end of the political spectrum as many alternative news sources today. Conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones and the producers of Alt-Right news sources would hardly find much to applaud in the pages of these countercultural newspapers. These papers were anemic to the US military, to racial injustice, and to any form of conservatism. Still, they share with many of today’s alternative news sources a belief in the corruption of mainstream news. Like today’s alternative news outlets many underground papers touted conspiracy theories about UFOs and JFK’s assassination. And like much of today’s alternative news, because of the ad-hoc ways in which they were published, underground papers were prone to the occasional rumor.
One of the most entertaining rumors to which underground papers contributed is what historian John McMillan calls “The Great Banana Hoax of 1967” (McMillan, 66). In the Spring of 1967, publishers of underground papers printed a recipe for smoking banana peels. The recipe involved freezing the peels, blending them into a pulp, baking the residue at 200 degrees, and then smoking it in a cigarette or pipe (The Berkeley Barb, March 17, 1967, pg 3). The belief was that smoking it produced a similar experience to that of smoking marijuana. In an interview, Kent of the San Francisco Mime Troupe explained that he only smoked bananas, saying that “It makes-everything-look-very-lush-and-green” (Helix, April 13, 1967, pg 8). According to the FDA and a very few skeptical readers of underground papers, Kent’s “lush-and-green” visions were placebo effects.
Despite the lack of any scientifically identifiable psychotropic effects, in a few short months, banana smoking had become a nation-wide phenomenon, and bananas a symbol for the counterculture. The recipe was reprinted in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley, Seattle, Detroit, Austin and New York. Because of these alternative newspapers, banana-smoking went nation-wide. The Sun in Detroit reads, “Thousands of turned-on hippies all over the country are rushing to their neighborhood stores and boosting the economy by snapping up all the bananas in sight!…Chiquita Banana stickers are turning up everywhere” (Sun, April 1, 1967, pg 3). The article features a presumably turned-on young woman sporting a Chiquita Banana sticker on her forehead.
Many participants in the counterculture basked in the quirkiness of the fact that something so innocent and so commonplace as a banana could be used to expand consciousness. For as long as people believed that smoking bananas was effective (the fad lasted a matter of months), they printed posters of bananas and incorporated banana-smoking into demonstrations. The Berkeley Barb printed a large advertisement that humorously reads, “Trip on a Banana Peel” (Berkeley Barb, April 7, 1967, pg 4). The East Village Other contains multiple ads for countercultural posters promoting consciousness-expansion. In June 1967, the posters advertised included images of Ken Kesey’s bus “Further,” morning glories (whose seeds are hallucinogenic), and “Banana Power” (East Village Other, June 1, 1967, pg 22). Perhaps the most visible moment of banana-smoking occurred at a Human Be-In attended by at least 10,000 people in New York on Easter Sunday in 1967. According to Students for a Democratic Society’s New Left Notes, cameramen were eager to film a “Banana Deity and its parading followers” (New Left Notes, April 13, 1967, pg 1). The followers reportedly “waved Chiquita emblems, gave the banana pledge (‘one nation, under Banana, with liberty and justice for all…’) and the Banana salute (middle finger up and bent)” (2). The banana was featured a few months later in August at a demonstration for the legalization of marijuana (East Village Other, August 1, 1967, pg 17).
As fun, if not necessarily effective, as banana-smoking might have been, it was not without risks. According to the Rag, two people were taken into custody for possession of what turned out to be a banana peel and according to the Los Angeles Free Press, Donald Arthur Snell of Santa Fe Springs was charged with driving while under the influence of drugs – the drug being banana peel (Berkeley Barb, May 26, 1967, pg 15). Apparently underground newspapers had also inadvertently informed some gullible authorities of the newfound powers of the banana.
Although kind of ridiculous, the Great Banana Hoax is not without significance. As McMillan points out, the speed with which this rumor spread throughout the country is evidence of the national influence that underground newspapers had in the late 1960s. It also reflects countercultural values and the quirky aesthetics by which they often expressed them. In light of contemporary controversies like “Pizzagate,” the banana hoax is evidence that many readers believe simply what they want to (even if there is little evidence). It also reminds us that even though alternative news might be, like mainstream news, prone to bias and misinformation, it is hardly a recent phenomenon and it has been produced in diverse contexts and with wildly divergent biases.
Perhaps the Banana Hoax would not have turned into the sadly overblown excitation that it did had readers of underground newspapers consumed their news about bananas with a grain of salt.
McMillian, John Campbell. Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.