Art Kunkin: Rebel With A Cause

Joel Bellman

The late Art Kunkin, who recently died at the age of 91, was much more than just the founder-publisher of the Los Angeles Free Press, one of the nation’s oldest, most influential, and for a time, its most successful underground newspaper. For local Boomers, Art was our shaman, our guru, our spirit animal—and “The Freep” was our weekly portal into a forbidden universe of sex, drugs, & rock ’n’ roll, as well as avant-garde culture, radical politics, environmental consciousness, social justice, mass-media critiques, alternative lifestyles, and non-traditional medicine.

For a time, Art was even a Topangan. But more on that later.

There’s no question Art’s paper had more than the usual quotient of “crazy”—but there’s also no denying that in terms of progressive politics and challenging the dominant cultural narrative, Art was far ahead of his time. Social inequality, political repression, rogue law-enforcement agencies, artistic censorship, ecological dangers, American adventurism abroad, the perils of the military-industrial complex and the surveillance state—all received serious and intensive coverage to a degree largely absent from most mainstream publications, even in the 1960s. Not to mention the underground comic, “The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers” and the gut-punch political cartoons of Ron Cobb.

Art launched the LA Free Press in 1964, and I was lucky to encounter the paper a few years later, at the relatively young age of 13. It would exert a powerful influence on the rest of my professional life. My maternal grandparents lived in a little apartment in what is now the City of West Hollywood, and every couple of weeks our family would drive into town for a deli lunch my Grandma Sonia would lovingly prepare. Afterward, when the adults retired to the living room, my younger brother and I would escape out for a walk in the neighborhood, which included the Sunset Strip, where we ran the gauntlet of head shops and picked up the weekly Freep for a quarter ($1.74 in today’s prices) from a news rack or the local hippie newsboy. It was the cheapest ticket around for admission to the forbidden world.

Art initially managed to wangle free rent for the paper’s offices in the basement of a coffee house called The Fifth Estate near Sunset and Roxbury, an area then known as the epicenter of hipster LA. In 1967, they relocated to Fairfax Blvd. and opened up the first of several Free Press bookstores conveniently up the street from Canter’s, a favorite restaurant of my grandfather. By 1969, Art had built a small counterculture empire comprising the Freep, whose circulation then numbered 100,000, three bookstores, a commercial printing firm, and a book publishing arm—not bad for a utopian socialist with little business acumen who started from scratch with a few hundred bucks only five years before.

Within a few months, however, it all came crashing down. In a bad business decision, Art had overextended himself to buy a costly new printing press and offered up as collateral his equity stake in the paper to get the loan—which was co-signed by one of his principal advertisers, Covina-based pornography kingpin Marvin Miller (who not long after, was the subject of a landmark 1973 obscenity case, Miller v. California).

In an even worse editorial decision, in August 1969, Art published a purloined list with the names and addresses of 80 state narcotics agents with the headline, “Know Your Local Nark.” He was charged with receiving stolen property, fined, and then sued by the families of the outed agents. The out-of-court settlement and legal fees ruined him financially and forced Art to default on the loan, leaving the “King of Smut” as the new owner and publisher, and Art as his employee. The paper, by then little more than a porno rag, soon folded; fitful attempts to revive it have repeatedly failed.

Art’s subsequent adventures included a seven-year apprenticeship in alchemy in Salt Lake City (yes, really), and a stint publishing Whole Life Times and running the associated Whole Life Expo. In the 1990s, he moved to Topanga, where he served as “editorial director” for Ed Lange’s Elysium Fields nudist colony (“clothing optional” as Lange marketed it) and tried again to jump-start the Free Press, operating out of a Topanga Canyon Boulevard office that today houses the Birds Nest Salon.

Soon he was off again. Art lived out his final years at the Institute of Mentalphysics retreat in Joshua Tree where, as a “New Age esotericist,” he lectured on alchemy and life-extension health regimens (he favored fruit irradiated with pitchblende, a uranium ore). Home was a trailer filled with books, records, and the remnants of his storied and peripatetic life.

In April 2017, after chasing him down for several years with only intermittent success, I caught up with Art again out in Joshua Tree, and he agreed to meet me at the local Denny’s. He brought with him a raggedy folder with mounted front pages of famous LA Free Press issues, including the notorious “know your nark” story that proved his undoing. He reminisced a bit and gamely struggled with my questions, but by then, at the age of 89, his memory was seriously fading, and conversation was difficult. But there were still flashes of the old rebel spirit, and occasionally, even a glimpse of the mischievous shaman whose fearless publication had ushered me and so many of my generation along with him on a mysterious voyage of exploration and discovery far beyond the insular realm of our safe and conventional existence.

Now he is gone. But for those whose lives he touched and whose minds he opened, he won’t be forgotten.

 

Joel Bellman
Joel Bellman

Joel Bellman worked in journalism and local government in Los Angeles for 35 years. He now teaches and writes on politics and pop culture. He can be contacted at jbellman@ca.rr.com

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