Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, the co-founders of Phoenix New Times, recently hopped in the Wayback Machine with this reporter for a mini-tour of temporal touchstones in Tempe, where the paper began 50 years ago this week, in response to the outrage over the Kent State Massacre on May 4, 1970.
As our sedan wound its way through streets largely emptied of humanity by the ongoing pandemic, Lacey recalled how President Richard Nixon’s decision in April 1970 to widen the Vietnam War with an incursion into Cambodia sparked demonstrations on hundreds of campuses nationwide.
The situation turned volatile at Kent State University in Ohio, where National Guard troops opened fire on student protesters, killing four and wounding nine. The slayings further hardened opposition to the war, inspiring the classic anti-war anthem “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, with its haunting refrain, “Four dead in Ohio.”
“It was the trigger for us,” says Lacey in his roiling baritone. “The anti-war movement had been going on for several years, so that was not a new thing. What was new was the killing of American students by American armed forces.”
Lacey, then a skinny dropout from Arizona State University, helped organize a demonstration on campus demanding that the U.S. flag there be lowered to half-staff to honor victims of the tragedy.
Now in his 70s, Lacey remembers how Arizona’s reactionary one-eyed governor, Jack Williams, demanded that the flag be defended from the students “with whatever force necessary.” Newspaper accounts of the standoff show campus security personnel encircling ASU’s flagpole while being pelted with flowers by the protesters.
The situation was defused by the head of campus security, John Duffy, who allowed the flag to be lowered in deference to the students. (Later, in a fit of childish pique better suited to a Gilbert and Sullivan character, Williams countermanded Duffy, ordering the flag raised to full mast.)
There also had been a takeover of the ROTC building on campus that same day, but no violence ensued.
But things got sketchy a couple of weeks later at ASU’s Goodwin Stadium, where a memorial for the Kent State dead brought out counterdemonstrators, so-called “hard hat” construction workers, who supported the war and Nixon.
“The Arizona Republic under [conservative publisher] Eugene Pulliam had called for the hard hats to come out to that demonstration to show the students what America was all about,” Lacey explains.
Pulliam’s political cartoonist, Reg Manning, recently had dehumanized the student activists in ink as “campus terrorists,” depicting a scruffy character with a torch in one hand and a bloody knife in the other beneath the words, “Hang ivy on me and call me a student.”
Lacey recalled how one hard hat dude descended from Goodwin Stadium’s seats to coolly sucker-punch a man named Joe Gerson, head of the Tempe Peace Center, “knocking out his front teeth and dropping him like a sack of potatoes.”
Gerson’s offense? An American flag patch sewn upside-down onto the backside of the activist’s jeans, the international sign of distress.
Lacey’s interview with that assailant and other hard hat goons appeared in the paper’s first issue, which debuted — after the newbie journos missed their initial deadline — on June 9, 1970, as the Arizona Times. The paper soon rechristened itself New Times, thus beginning a five-decade run of investigative journalism, cultural reportage, and opposition to the powers that be. During their 40-plus years of ownership, with Lacey as editor-in-chief and Larkin as publisher, the two men built an alt-weekly empire of 17 papers, which eventually would score some 3,800 awards, including a Pulitzer.
An occupational hazard of aggressive journalism is that one often crosses swords with law enforcement officials and powerful politicians. New Times’ blood-feuds with establishment figures were not without consequence. In retaliation for what they’ve published, Lacey and Larkin have been investigated and arrested more than once. Having sold their papers in 2012 to Voice Media Group (an ownership group made up of longtime company executives who own New Times to this day), Lacey and Larkin are still brawling over the First Amendment — this time against the federal government and the attempt by the U.S. Department of Justice to put them in prison for the rest of their lives.
To understand it all, you have to go back to the ’70s, to a dusty alley in Tempe, as unremarkable now as it was then.
The campus flagpole that once caused so much ruckus is no longer extant. And ASU tore down Goodwin Stadium years ago.
But the site of New Times’ first office remains in place, off to the side of a building now occupied by the Spot Rx pharmacy, which shares a parking lot with a long-running Western-themed hamburger joint, the Chuck Box, located at University Drive and Forest Avenue.
Lacey says the Chuck Box was in the same place in 1970, though the Spot Rx building was inhabited by a women’s clothing store.
“The owner of the dress shop was kind of sweet on me and agreed to give me, like, her closet,” Lacey remembers with a grin.
North of the dress shop was a notorious pathway known as “the alley,” where students lived in houses that lined the dirt thoroughfare. At the other end of the alley was Campus Drugs, an old-fashioned drugstore with a neon sign that the hippies would routinely sabotage so that only the word “Drugs” glowed in the dark.
“Everybody who lived in the alley was a drug dealer,” Lacey cracks. “It was a journalist’s dream come true.”
An exaggeration, no doubt, but there were plenty of drugs around, according to others who lived in the alley.
As an ASU student, Tom Walsh says he resided in a house right across from New Times, where he could watch Lacey and other early contributors such as Karen Lofgren and Gayle Pyfrom paste the paper’s content on white boards for offset printing.
According to Walsh (who would later serve as editor-in-chief of the New Times papers in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida, and San Francisco), cheap Mexican marijuana was plentiful in the alley. Ditto hallucinogens.
A famous photo from the paper’s first anniversary party in 1971 shows Walsh in the midst of a crowd of about 80 or so men and women who look like they’d just stepped out of the Woodstock documentary, which had been released to movie theaters the previous year.
Atop Walsh’s head is a plastic gallon jug that he claims contained “an orange drink” laced with mescaline. Many at the party partook of the potion, he says.
“It was like the zombie apocalypse walking around the alley, and people are babbling and walking off in different directions,” Walsh says, describing the libation’s aftereffects.
Walsh’s memories of that day generally dovetail with those of Lacey. The future newspaper mogul is seated dead center in the photo, with long hair and a porn star ’stache.
Also in that 1971 photo is Barry Friedman, a budding comedy scribe who would go on to write for The Arsenio Hall Show, stand-up comedians like Rodney Dangerfield, and show-biz legends such as Johnny Carson.
Friedman, too, was an alley cat and lived in a house next to New Times. For many years, Friedman contributed what he calls a “humor column masquerading as a music column” called Sound Advice.
Friedman later became infamous for penning several successful spoofs for the paper, like “Yemen Aid,” an imaginary, free rock concert that was to take place at Canyon Lake atop a floating stage, with the Goodyear Tire Co. providing millions of inner tubes for fans to float in as they listened to acts like The Rolling Stones, The Who, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and anyone else Friedman could think of to cram into the star-studded lineup.
The unlikely tale was picked up by 200 newspapers nationally, and Good Morning America did a segment on it. People believed the hoax and flooded the U.S. Forest Service with calls.
Then, there was the time Friedman informed readers that the paper his column was printed on had been coated with a newly discovered Brazilian hallucinogen called Apima, which would “make you feel like you’re 10,000 feet tall.”
Laughing, Friedman remembers how some guy called up the paper claiming to have eaten three columns to no effect.
“Where do I get stronger [columns]?” the caller wondered.
From Commune to Coup
Despite such high jinks, Lacey had a schnoz for serious news and liked focusing on timelier topics, such as the details of Republican Senator Paul Fannin’s arrest for DWI, or the secret files kept on precinct committeemen by a local rising star in the Republican Party. He liked the stuff that was too hot for the Arizona Republic.
Problem was, Lacey, a working class kid from Binghamton, New York, was broke-ass poor, and so was everyone he knew. He first sold blood, then plasma to survive and keep putting out the paper.
In 1972, Jim Larkin came aboard after New Times moved to a slightly larger office situated behind a Pete’s Fish and Chips near Mill Avenue and University Drive, where a Chase Bank now sits.
As a letter of introduction, Larkin, who’d been born and raised in Phoenix, sent a four-page, handwritten note to Lacey, outlining the history of the local power structure. Larkin, the paper’s future publisher, knew he wanted to be in the newspaper business, and Lacey invited him to join the nascent publishing enterprise.
“I remember going over to Michael’s house . . . and he had just come back from giving blood [to raise money for the paper],” Larkin says. “And this is the guy that hired me? I thought to myself, ‘I better keep my night job at the restaurant.’”
Unlike the others at the antiwar rag, Larkin, an affable, broad-shouldered young man, had a family and a regular gig as a waiter at the Nantucket Lobster Trap in Scottsdale. But like Lacey, he took a dim view of the communal nature of the paper, where everyone who contributed their labor to the effort had an equal say in the paper’s content.
No topic was taboo for the tabloid, so everything from lyric poetry to the use of a speculum for self-examination earned privileged page space. It was the era of the women’s liberation movement, Ms. Magazine, the Equal Rights Amendment, and the groundbreaking tome Our Bodies, Ourselves.
The paper reflected this cultural shift, though not without blowback from the local morality police.
For instance, prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, abortion remained illegal in Arizona.
“Our response to that was sending a writer to San Diego to describe how to get an abortion in California, where the procedure was allowed,” Lacey says.
Clinics in San Diego began advertising in New Times, and the city of Tempe took the paper to court over the ads. In 1972, New Times was found guilty of violating a state statute banning such advertising. The paper appealed and won, with the state appeals court overturning the statute in the wake of Roe v. Wade.
That successful legal battle foreshadowed many to come involving the paper’s First Amendment right to publish the satire, news, opinion, and advertising of its choosing.
Perhaps the most famous of Lacey and Larkin’s legal triumphs would come in 2007, when the two men published a cover story revealing the existence of a grand jury looking into the paper and its readers as a consequence of the New Times’ investigations into Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s land holdings. Though illegal, revealing grand jury secrets is only a misdemeanor. Still, Arpaio’s deputies arrested Lacey and Larkin the night the issue hit the stands, trundling both men off for a night in the pen. The following day, a national outcry forced the County Attorney to drop the charges and the grand jury with them.
Lacey and Larkin sued the county for wrongful arrest and imprisonment, settling for $3.75 million, which they donated to local Hispanic groups through their nonprofit, the Lacey and Larkin Frontera Fund. The gesture was fitting. For years, Arpaio had terrorized Latino neighborhoods with sweeps seeking undocumented residents.
The 1973 legal win over abortion advertising also presaged Lacey and Larkin’ ongoing battle with the U.S. government over adult ads posted by users to the now-defunct website Backpage.com, for which the septuagenarians face 100 counts of “facilitating” prostitution, conspiracy, and money laundering.
Their trial is scheduled to begin August 17. Both men have pleaded not guilty and vigorously maintain their innocence.
But back in 1974, the respective fights with Arpaio and with the feds were far in the future. It wasn’t even clear that the paper would survive, much less expand beyond the confines of Tempe.
When selling ads didn’t raise enough cash to keep the collective going, the paper sold stock, pulling in $38,000, but Lacey and Larkin, among others, were exhausted. They both bailed on the paper, turning it over to a local accountant to run, while retaining their voting shares.
Larkin went into the printing business, while Lacey headed to Boston and considered studying architecture. But they missed the newspaper game. The two men reunited on a trip to Los Mochis, in Sinaloa, Mexico, where they plotted a coup with a handful of others.
With their stock and the proxies of other disgruntled shareholders in hand, they called a stockholder meeting in March 1977 at the New Times’ office, which had moved from its old home outside Pete’s Fish and Chips to the old Casa Loma Hotel on Mill Avenue and Fourth Street.
“We asserted our rights, amended the articles of incorporation, and named ourselves the operating officers,” says Larkin.
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The Levi’s-wearing corporate raiders immediately loaded up their old Studebaker truck with New Times’ files and equipment and headed to Phoenix and the paper’s new abode, the Westward Ho Hotel — one of many safe harbors over the years before the paper found a permanent space at the Booker T. Washington School in the mid-’80s, saving the historic building from the wrecking ball and rehabilitating it.
Epic battles were still to come after the move from Tempe to Phoenix. In the 1980s and 1990s, Lacey and Larkin would take on a sadistic Phoenix Police chief named Ruben Ortega, a corrupt developer known as Charles Keating, and a Janus-faced, carpet-bagging politico, Senator John McCain.
But the rage for justice, skepticism of authority, and passion for alternative journalism born from the crucible of the Kent State Massacre and opposition to the Vietnam War never dissipated. Together, those qualities, honed in the ’70s, remain the paper’s lodestar. Without them, it’s unlikely you’d be reading this today.
Stephen Lemons is a former New Times columnist and staff writer. He is now an independent journalist who writes for numerous publications, including Front Page Confidential, a First Amendment website operated by Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin.