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. Those discussions were inspired by the recent flowering of underground newspapers in other counterculturally rich American cities, such as San Francisco’s Berkeley Barb and Oracle, and New York City’s East Village Other. Among Helix‘s prime instigators were Paul Dorpat, born in Grand Forks, North Dakota, on October 28, 1938, and Paul Sawyer, a Unitarian minister. This minuscule 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, and published from a rented storefront walking distance from the Blue Moon at 4526 Roosevelt Way Northeast, Helix emerged from its fertile countercultural cocoon to immediate local 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 vividly-colored and wildly-illustrated 12-page tabloid were quickly snapped up off the streets of the U District, and its initial success would eventually become a three-year-long reign of weekly publication yielding 125 issues averaging 24 pages apiece. During that time, Helix would sponsor a number of important countercultural events in the Puget Sound region before publishing its final issue on June 11, 1970.

Among such events was the Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair, a three-day concert series held near Sultan (40 miles northeast of Seattle) from August 31 to September 2, 1968 — a full year before the more famous Woodstock festival — featuring such now-legendary San Francisco musical luminaries as Country Joe and the Fish, the Grateful Dead, 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, black liberation, and environmental movements.

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

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 May 4, 1970, 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, among other local radical rags.

Several years after Helix‘s passage, Paul Dorpat would make a local name for himself as a venerated Pacific Northwest photographer-historian, mainly as the author of the long-running Seattle Times weekly pictorial feature “Seattle Now & Then,” which debuted on January 17, 1982. Walt Crowley would also ascend 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, 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).