The Barb staff assembles by their office on University Ave. Photo by Dave Patrick, courtesy of Gar Smith

In 1965, a bar owner named Max Scherr stitched together a small leftist publication he called The Berkeley Barb. The “I” key on his typewriter was broken, so he drew the letter by hand each time it appeared. On the heels of the Free Speech Movement that had rocked the city one year earlier, the amateur publisher put those principles to practice. His first issue covered FSM arrests and a protest that blocked a train carrying troops en route to Vietnam.

The Berkeley Barb quickly grew into a weekly underground newspaper that, for the next 15 years, served as the voice of the local counterculture and a model for alternative press across the nation. This week, 50 years after that first issue hit the streets, “Barbarians” – former staff and readers – are reuniting. The program includes panels on Thursday, Aug. 13 at the Berkeley Public Library with Barb staffers and cartoonists, a 1960s film festival, and a party tonight at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse with musical performances by Country Joe McDonald and others.

The Barb’s pages – on display at the central branch of the Berkeley Public Library – tell the stories of the struggles for civil rights, the anti-war movement, and the sexual revolution, as well as burgeoning fights for disability rights, gay rights, and environmental awareness.

The Barb staff “was interested in both documenting needed change and provoking it,” said Gar Smith, the paper’s “peace beat” reporter for over a decade. “We did reporting that broke stories that the mainstream press had to follow up on.”

Smith’s investigative repertoire includes an exposé on poor working conditions and environmental safety hazards on a nuclear-powered Navy aircraft carrier in the Bay, and a story on BART safety issues that he says prompted changes.

It wasn’t all hard-hitting. One cover photo features two naked Barb staffers posing for a guide to the Bay Area’s bathhouses and saunas.

“This is what you might call embedded reporting,” Smith said.

Smith is responsible for naming the Barb’s “Midsection,” a pullout of the paper’s sexual content, including personals and ads for massage parlors not unlike those that fill the back pages of alternative weeklies today. The Barb’s strict adherence to even the most explicit of free speech earned it the reputation of a pornographic magazine, which Smith resented. He recalled feeling “heartbroken” when he watched businessmen coming out of BART trains in the evenings and heading toward the Barb newsstand, only to pluck out the Midsection and discard the political reportage that surrounded it.

But for others, the Barb’s sexual content was critical.

Diana Stephens was 13 when she moved to the Bay Area from Wisconsin. One of the first places her mother took her was Telegraph Avenue, because she “wanted to see what all the fuss was about.”

“Normal curiosity drew me to the Barb – it wasn’t the political stuff!” Stephens said. As a young woman, she appreciated the frankness, and counts the Dr. Hip(pocrates) (Eugene Schoenfeld, who will be at the anniversary celebration) sex advice column among the empowering sexual education sources that were just hitting scene, including Planned Parenthood and Our Bodies, Ourselves.

Gar Smith, former Barb peace reporter, revisits the paper of his past. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Gar Smith, former Barb peace reporter, revisits the paper of his past. Photo by Natalie Orenstein

Stephens was reacquainted with the Barb several years ago while working on her Master’s history thesis on changing gender roles in the 60s and 70s. From her accounts, the Barb both served as a platform for the women’s liberation movement as well as a reflection of the gender discrimination of the era. One anecdote captures the paradox. One time Scherr agreed to print a feminist op-ed – yet his headline was a disparaging pun: “Why Women Are Revolting.”

Through her research, Stephens became close with the former Barbarians, and considers herself a little sister in the greater Barb family. Last winter it occurred to her that the Barb’s 50th birthday was approaching, so she called up her friends and proposed a party. There was mild interest, some hesitation, and then, to her pleasant surprise, overwhelming interest.

Stephens described the former Barb crew as “terribly factious.” One cause of contention was money. At first, Barb reporters were unpaid. Then Scherr started paying 25 cents per column inch, which he later raised to 50. He carried his money around in a shoebox, so staff assumed it wasn’t much. When they realized he was earning much more than he divulged, the staff defected and started their own paper, the Tribe.

“We felt kind of betrayed,” Smith said. “We’d been out there risking arrest, being physically harmed by police. We thought our work should be recognized by some of those funds.”

Yet the former reporter doesn’t harbor any ill will toward the publisher, who died in 1981. Scherr was a kind-hearted, funny, and “very unpretentious” man, Smith said. When Smith was arrested, Scherr bailed him out immediately and never expected reimbursement.

“He didn’t really like money,” he said. “He wouldn’t use it on himself, and by the same token he didn’t spend it on anyone else.”

Stephens has described Scherr as “full of contradictions.” Her research turned up stories of the publisher’s sexism and sweetness, and of his simple lifestyle and deceitfulness.

One doesn’t have to travel far to hear those stories or other Barb memories. Many Barbarians have stuck around the Bay Area all these years, working as journalists, teachers, and professors – and even one as a prosecutor, Smith said.

The legacy of the Barb lives on off the page. Even People’s Park owes its existence to the paper. In 1969, Stew Albert wrote an article calling for volunteer gardeners to show up ready for work at the derelict university-owned lot.

Not all of the artists profiled on the pages of the Barb – or those who illustrated them – are still around (Bob Marley was interviewed in one issue) but plenty are.

McDonald, whose connections to the Barb were plentiful, is looking forward to providing the soundtrack to the celebration. Shortly after he arrived in Berkeley in 1965, McDonald spotted Scherr selling his first paper at Caffe Mediterraneum. (“I don’t know if I bought one,” he admitted in an email to Berkeleyside.) Later, Country Joe and the Fish frequently made the pages of the newspaper. McDonald even wrote the theme song for Dr. Hip’s radio show.

The Barb was a “means of getting our side of the news out to people and there was plenty of news in Berkeley and all over the country,” wrote McDonald, who plays a free show with limited space at Freight & Salvage on Wednesday, in the middle of the week-long extravaganza.

“Berkeley is going to revisit some of its history,” Stephens said.

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...