Berkeley Barb, Underground Newspaper


Berkeley Barb

Berkeley Barb Office: 2042 University Avenue

Max Scherr launched the Berkeley Barb on August 13, 1965, at the dawn of the age of the underground newspaper. The Los Angeles Free Press had been around for a year, the East Village Other started the same year, and a year later The Oracle appeared in San Francisco. Most of the work on the Barb in the early years was conducted in Scherr’s home on Oregon Street. Circulation and staff grew, so an office was opened on University Avenue.

Scherr, a hands-on editor, wrote and produced much of the paper. He relied on a large, youthful, low-paid, and politically left staff. Cartoonist Joel Beck and ground-breaking sex-advice columnist Eugene “Doctor Hippocrates” Schoenfeld were two high-profile presences in the paper. Most sales were made by street vendors who bought the paper for a nickel and sold it for fifteen cents. Much of the paper’s revenue came from advertisements.

The Barb for a few years in the late 1960s was the popular voice of counterculture Berkeley, speaking for and to a generation intent on change. It mixed radical politics with counter-culture social values, celebrating opposition to the war in Vietnam, and the cocktail of “sex, drugs and rock n roll.” It was both irreverent and serious. In 1967, the paper published a hoax claiming that bananas contained a psychoactive substance released when the skins were smoked. In 1969, by way of contrast, political activist Stu Albert helped shape Berkeley’s counterculture politics for the next several years when Scherr published his call for seizing control of People’s Park.

The paper’s lack of financial transparency and the feminist movement’s distaste for the sleazy pornographic advertisements that had become the Barb’s main source of revenue led to a revolt in 1969. Staff members launched the Berkeley Tribe: a more purely political and radical paper, fonder of armed struggle and committed to feminism.

As the counterculture and political activism of the 1960s subsided, so did the Barb and the Tribe. The Tribe folded after publishing for three years. The Barb limped on for several more years. In 1978, the sex advertising which had carried the Barb was split off to the Spectator Magazine. Without a counterculture readership and without the revenue from pornographers’ advertising, the once ever-present Barb ended with a whimper, folding in July 1980.

Contributed by Tom Dalzell, 2014

  • University Ave. site of Barb office, photo (2014) Tom Dalzell

  • Scherr Residence, 2421 Oregon St., photo (2013) Tom Dalzell

  • Advertisement for Berkeley Barb sales (1968)

Photo credit abbreviations:
BAHA: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Assn.
BHS: Berkeley Historical Society