History

March 23, 1967: The Cocoon Breaks, the Helix Emerges

Helix, Vol. 1, No. 1, March 23, 1967
Helix, Vol. 1, No. 1, March 23, 1967

Seattle has a long history of local alternative newspapers, some better than others, all vital in the collective process of stirring the complex pot of a healthy local media scene. Most, if not all, of the past four decades’ worth of such endeavors owe a great debt to Helix, the groundbreaking chronicler of Seattle’s counterculture whose debut issue was published on the date in focus here.

Helix was conceived in late 1966 during discussions at the Free University of Seattle, an alternative college and countercultural meeting place located in the University District. These discussions were inspired by the recent flowering of underground newspapers in other counterculturally rich cities, such as San Francisco’s Berkeley Barb and Oracle, and New York City’s East Village Other. Helix‘s prime instigators included Paul Dorpat, then a wayward University of Washington grad student, and Paul Sawyer, a Unitarian minister. This circle quickly grew to include future famous novelist Tom Robbins, Seattle Post-Intelligencer cartoonist Ray Collins, and Jon Gallant, co-founder of Seattle’s legendary underground radio station KRAB-FM.

Serendipitously named after Watson and Crick’s famous description of DNA during a particularly productive session of beer-drinking and brainstorming at the Blue Moon Tavern in February 1967, Helix emerged from its fertile countercultural cocoon to immediate success. The debut issue’s cover announced the new paper’s mission in an editorial that began as follows:

You have in your hand the first issue of a fortnightly newspaper. It is dedicated to no cause, no interests, no point of view; it is dedicated to you.

The first 1,500 copies of the 12-page, vividly colored, wildly illustrated tabloid were quickly snapped up off the streets of the U District, and its initial success would eventually become a three-year reign of weekly publication. During that time, Helix would sponsor a number of important countercultural events in the Puget Sound region before finally folding in June 1970.

Among such events was the Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair, a three-day concert series held near Sultan (50 miles north of Seattle) from August 31 to September 2, 1968 — a full year before the more famous Woodstock festival — featuring such luminaries as the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, and Santana. Helix also played an important role in promoting local political activism, serving as both catalyst and chronicler of many local protest events organized by the antiwar, environmental, and black liberation movements.

Among other positive effects Helix provided for Seattle’s countercultural community, it provided a decent (albeit modest) living for a number of the hippies who served as the paper’s street vendors. It also launched the media career of Walt Crowley (1947-2007), the much-revered local writer, historian, and rabble-rouser, who joined the paper’s staff, first as an illustrator and later as an editor, in May 1967.

Crowley would later attribute the paper’s demise to the splintering of the American Left, both in Seattle and nationwide, in the wake of the Kent State Massacre — as well as other dark turns the American counterculture had taken by mid-1970. “After Kent State, the left had gone totally wiggy,” Crowley told Seattle Weekly in 1989. “And the drug scene was brutal.” In the wake of Helix, the media needs of Seattle’s counterculture would be served — if only temporarily — by the more overtly political and militant Sabot and Puget Sound Partisan.

Today, Paul Dorpat has made a name for himself as a celebrated Pacific Northwest photographer-historian, mainly as author of the long-running Seattle Times weekly pictorial feature “Seattle Now & Then.” Crowley would also go on to broader local fame as a KIRO-TV news commentator in the 1980s. Meanwhile, Helix‘s heady brew of radical politics and groundbreaking graphic design has rarely, if ever, been surpassed locally, its closest competition arguably being The Rocket (1979-2000), Seattle’s greatest music-centric monthly to date. An ongoing digital archive of complete issues of Helix can be viewed online in PDF form at Paul Dorpat’s blog.

Sources: Howard Aubrey Mills, “The Seattle Helix: An Underground Looks at the Times,” M.A. thesis, University of Montana, 1970; Peter Blecha and Charles R. Cross, “When Seattle Went Psychedelic,” The Rocket, May 1987, p. 21; Bart Becker, “The Beats Go On,” Seattle Weekly, November 29, 1989, p. 34; Walt Crowley, “Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle” (University of Washington Press, 1995).