Art Kunkin walks into the Ma Rouge Coffee House in Yucca Valley on a late fall day carrying a large portfolio and hugging a sealed glass jug containing six red “magic apples.” Maybe it’s those apples, but at eighty-three, Kunkin has nary a tinge of gray in a mane of thick, wavy hair that falls past his shoulders. And while Ma Rouge’s air conditioner is clearly losing its battle with the 115-degree heat, Kunkin is placid; his hazel eyes are clear and his voice calm, despite the shock of his tie-dyed T-shirt, a relic from a different age.
Kunkin sits down at a large, wooden table at the otherwise empty café and spreads the contents of his portfolio: laminated covers of The Los Angeles Free Press and magazines with such names as Fortean Times, Gnosis, and Alchemy Journal featuring articles on his (and others’) adventures in the esoteric/exoteric, mystical mash-up of alchemy. Presently, they serve as artifacts of the long, strange spiritual journey Kunkin has taken since he left Los Angeles and took to the desert near Joshua Tree.
Here he pursues immortality, or something close to it, with enough commitment to be his own guinea pig. See, the apples are sealed off for a reason—to keep their radiation to themselves. At least until Kunkin eats them. Kunkin says his hair grows twice as fast as it did before the magic apples and claims the same for his fingernails. He has the locks and the claws to back up the claim.
As radical as all this sounds, it doesn’t surprise me. As the founder, editor, and publisher of The Los Angeles Free Press, Kunkin has been a part of my cultural heritage ever since I was kid growing up in Hollywood in the late 1960s and Kunkin’s street-corner distributors exhorted passersby to “don’t be a creep, buy the Freep.”
The Free Press introduced me to the Beats, radical politics, and the counterculture, and it helped form the tribe into which I’d eventually seek membership. The Free Press celebrated great writers, artists, and minds. It’s where Charles Bukowski’s first column, “Notes of a Dirty Old Man,” blossomed after its original home, Open City, shut down. Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and Abbie Hoffman, to name a few, also wrote for the paper. More generally, it, along with The Village Voice, were prototypes for the alt-weeklies that are now staples in most major cities, including Los Angeles’s own, much-celebrated L.A. Weekly.
The Free Press debuted in July 1964, entering into a world reeling from the assassination of John F. Kennedy. On the near horizon were the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, which would jump-start the 1960s, and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which would push us into the quicksand of the Vietnam War. Kunkin and the Free Press became a clarion for the antiestablishment side of the culture wars when the battle lines were just being drawn.
And while it may be hyperbolic to claim (as some are wont to) that the Freep was instrumental in ending the Vietnam War, it’s not a stretch to say Kunkin was one of the major provocateurs who helped shake the Fourth Estate out of its Eisenhower-era slumber and launch it into a period of activism that climaxed with Woodward and Bernstein taking down Richard Nixon.
Kunkin lost the Free Press to bankruptcy in 1972 and began practicing meditation. By 1976 he had established his own school in Los Angeles. Then, in 1980, one of his students suggested to Kunkin that his meditation classes were a form of spiritual alchemy. This brought Kunkin to Salt Lake City, where he studied with the alchemist Frater Albertus Spagyricus (Dr. Albert Richard Riedel), founder of the Paracelsus Research Society, a sort of alchemy university that no longer operates in the United States.
Which brings us back to those magic apples. While learning to mutate minerals into medicine, Kunkin began experimenting with a homemade version of radiation homeostasis. The idea is that low levels of ionizing radiation stimulate the immune system and cell regeneration—it’s basically the same molecular process behind irradiating foods to give them longer shelf lives. This is a fairly radical approach even for the freewheeling “science” of life extension, a $50 billion industry that encompasses antioxidant supplements, hormone-replacement therapy, stem-cell therapy, and a variety of other questionable practices in search of the proverbial fountain of youth. If there’s only one irony in all of this, and that’s unlikely, it’s that the uranium ore Kunkin uses to irradiate his apples is the key component in the nuclear bombs he railed against during the Freep’s heyday.
Kunkin would be the first to tell you that alchemy and life extension are no panaceas for illness in real life. Soon after our last meeting in December, he was hospitalized with stomach-ulcer problems that have plagued him since the Free Press days.
Kunkin underwent surgery and remained in the hospital for a couple of weeks, but was back home and in good spirits at press time. He was eager to report that the surgeons told him his organs looked about thirty years younger than a typical eighty-three-year-old’s. Now, Kunkin is back to plotting the second half of his life.
SLAKE: Why did you start The Los Angeles Free Press?
Art Kunkin: I’d been a business manager for The Militant, a Trotskyist newspaper, and I left to join the Socialist Party. I was on the National Committee of the Socialist Party and became its Southern California spokesman. But I felt the Socialists were missing the boat. They were basing themselves on a European perspective, and living under the image of a working class that was organizing the strikes of the 1930s. They weren’t speaking the American language to the American people.
So in 1964 I started the Free Press. I knew of The Village Voice in New York, and I decided that I wanted a paper like that, but without ties to the Democratic Party. We would be independent, and eventually the principle could emerge that every reader is a reporter.
How much money did it take to start the paper?
My initial investment was $15. When Dun & Bradstreet interviewed me, they didn’t believe it. I was an unemployed machinist starting a newspaper with $15.
Did you have any newspaper experience before the Free Press?
I was working as a toolmaker and had gone back to school to become a history professor. There was this group of Mexican Americans at East Los Angeles College who wanted to do a publication, The Eastside Almanac. So I was helping as their editor. I was listed on the masthead as Arturo.
Yes. I wrote an article about Lyndon Johnson, who was supposed to come to Los Angeles to meet with the California Democratic Council, an offshoot of the Democratic Party. It was a bad conference from the Mexican American standpoint. The council focused its attention on minorities primarily toward the black community. My article wasn’t calling Johnson names or anything; it basically said the division within the Democrats was a problem. The story got picked up by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
When Johnson came out again with a similar agenda two weeks before the Kennedy assassination, two well-dressed Anglo men came up to one of our guys who was distributing the Almanac and said, “You’re the paper that attacked Johnson last summer.” They asked him if he was a communist. So I wrote about that.
The article appeared the second week of December when Johnson was already president, so he was very sensitive to press criticism at that time. The first week of January 1964 I got a visit from the FBI. They went to everybody on the paper, then came to my door and asked if I was a communist, and I said, “No,” and then said, “You must know all about me and my program on KPFK doing political commentaries. I’m a friend of Norman Thomas and Erich Fromm and I’m not a violent terrorist.”
They just said, “Thank you,” and walked away. The next day, I go to work [at the machinist job] and my last check was waiting for me. I had been there a year. I had just rebuilt a big German lathe and I was kind of a hero because not many people knew how to make gears and stuff. I could have gotten a job. I was a competent machinist, a toolmaker. Instead, I decided I was going to start a paper.
Being unemployed and broke, how did you manage to publish your first issue?
I went to KPFK, where I had my program, and as I was going through the Rolodex, the station manager came running through the halls saying that somebody didn’t show up for a program and does anybody want to go on the air? So I raised my hand and for an hour I talked about this paper I wanted to do. I was so excited after the show that I called Phyllis Patterson, who was just starting the KPFK Los Angeles Renaissance Pleasure Faire. I asked if I could put up a card table to put out a leaflet about the paper I wanted to do. She said she had been planning a Faire paper—perhaps I’d like to do it. So the next day I got dressed up in a hot suit, with a tie, and I went out to the Faire grounds to meet her. She told me afterward she never thought I would pull it off.
I asked some students I was working with to write up some articles and we came out with The Faire Free Press. The front and back cover had articles geared toward the Faire—an article criticizing The Mona Lisa, an article about Sir Walter Raleigh bringing tobacco back to England and the health problems, and one with Shakespeare being arrested for disorderly conduct. Stuff like that.
Inside were four pages of real articles. The FCC was accusing the KPFK network of being radical, so I published the whole FCC statement. There was also a review by Seymour Stern of a Ken Anger film, and I wrote an article talking about how we planned to publish a weekly newspaper, catering to the liberal, intellectual population. Contents similar to that of The Village Voice with a weekly calendar of events, in-depth reporting on the problems of Los Angeles not subject to political or commercial pressures, new productions, experimental cinema, and a reprint of an article by Joan Baez on tax refusal.
Since I didn’t know if I was going to get the paper out, I had a “bill me” subscription. So people could sign what said, “I agree that I’ll pay at the rate of $5 for one year,” which was 10 cents an issue. I sold a thousand copies at the Faire and made a thousand dollars.
Where was the first Free Press office located?
Al Mitchell, who had the Fifth Estate Coffee Shop, gave me an office in the basement. It was the perfect location, right there on the Sunset Strip, just west of Laurel Canyon. I sat in the office for a month and restuffed the papers left over from the Faire in a Los Angeles Free Press cover, then went out to art fairs and places around the city and gave them out.
While doing this, I met Harlan Ellison, the famous science fiction writer. I didn’t even know who he was. He began writing for the paper when it started. I went to Larry Lipton, who had just written a book about the Beat Generation, The Holy Barbarians. So he did a column in the paper starting in the second issue.
I had the thousand dollars at that point to start, and borrowed $800 from two other people. I had enough to put out a couple of issues. Printing was very cheap then; it was $125 to print 5,000 papers. We typeset the paper ourselves.
When the Watts Riots hit, the front-page of the Free Press read, “The Negroes Have Voted.” Did this bring you closer to the Black Panther Party?
Oh yeah. When I was in the Socialist Party, I was very active in the civil-rights movement. So even when I was in New York, where I was originally from, I was on the executive committee of the NAACP branch. I had a long-standing relation with the civil-rights movement during the fifties. Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver used to have committee meetings at my house.
The Free Press is often credited with helping to put an end to the Vietnam War. Do you agree with this?
As important as it was doing the Free Press, just as important was the fact that I encouraged and supported other newspapers around the country. We were the first paper to really use offset printing and to establish ourselves as an alternative. The normal way of producing a paper for the previous hundred years had been with expensive lead-type machines.
In 1958 the first commercial offset press was built. With the offset printing technology, you could type out a sheet, or even handwrite a page and photograph it, and make a printing plate for leaflets and fliers. The Free Press was the first newspaper to use that technology. We taught that technology to all these other alternative papers. So alternative papers could exist because suddenly there was a cheap way of printing.
Then I supported the formation of the Alternative Press Syndicate, which eventually became 600 newspapers and in a significant way the antiwar sentiment was expressed. But I don’t think we stopped the war. The war ended because they were militarily defeated. We played a certain role, and in a sense, I feel that my work on creating the Alternative Press Syndicate was the natural follow-up to the Free Press. It established these papers all over the country, which became one of the most significant voices against the war.
How did you get involved with the Peace and Freedom Party?
My interest in doing the Free Press was to start a third party, an alternative. When the Peace and Freedom Party organized in 1967 as a national left-wing party opposed to the Vietnam War, I knew many of the people involved. At the beginning, I wouldn’t support the Peace and Freedom Party because they wanted to get on the ballot and then hold a conference to establish their real principles. I was against that. I said, “You have to establish your principles before people sign up with you.”
So they were carrying on a signature campaign, and I wrote an editorial that I wasn’t going to support them because I didn’t feel that they were being honest with people about their platform. The week before we went to close, they were doing very badly, and the American Independent Party and the George Wallace people got on the ballot. So I ran an editorial expressing that I changed my mind and I felt people should sign the petition. At that point, they got an incredible number of signatures. And the assumption was that I had helped in that. I’m not sure. But they got on the ballot.
Is it true that you had inside information on Watergate before anyone knew, and no one would listen?
There was a guy who came into my office named Louis Tackwood, a black guy, very well dressed. He was a pimp. He had seen an article in the Free Press where some people at the Rand Corporation had written a story for us about Nixon having commissioned them to do a secret study to determine on what basis a president could cancel a national election.
These Rand Corporation people came to me and told me that they were doing this study, and the conclusion was that if one of the national Republican or Democratic conventions were bombed, under those conditions the Rand Corporation felt there would be enough public sentiment that they could cancel an election. So I ran this story under the headline, “Will Nixon Cancel 1968 Elections?”
Tackwood came into my office and he said, because he had been busted by the police already, he was being used by the police as an undercover agent and they were sending him into campaigns of various black politicians like Mervyn Dymally [former congressman who was the first African American elected to the California state Senate]. So he had access to the Glasshouse, the police headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. Tackwood told me that some LAPD officers were planning to bomb the Republican Convention and blame it on radicals. Tackwood came in to tell me the story.
I felt that this story was too big for the Free Press. I went to a journalism convention that week in Washington and met Ben Bradlee. I also met Woodward and Bernstein and told them that there was a plot to cancel the elections. So Woodward and Bernstein said that they couldn’t do anything unless Bradlee gave them the okay to investigate. At first Bradlee wouldn’t talk to me, and then I got very out of character and actually yelled at him to listen to me. He finally did, but they never used the story. Eventually I helped Tackwood write a book called The Glasshouse Tapes from his experiences with the LAPD.
Publishing the Free Press put you in danger at times. Did you ever fear for your life?
The offices were bombed three times, but they were all done by amateurs. They blew down a door and broke windows and stuff. So I put wire mesh on the windows. One time I was driving by about 2 in the morning, and I saw several sticks of dynamite wrapped together with the fuse lit in the driveway. So I get out of my car and start to run toward the bomb, and as I was running I was saying to myself, “What are you doing? What are you doing?” I managed to stomp it out before it blew up. It was very stupid.
Legend has it The Mod Squad based an episode on this.
Yeah, the episode was about the bombings at the Free Press office, but they distorted the facts. They just made stuff up. Their story was that I was a thinly disguised publisher and that I had done the bombings myself for the insurance money.
Did you ever bump into Charles Manson?
No, but his girls used to hang out at the office during the trial. Squeaky Fromme and a few others. Initially, my reporters were very friendly to Manson and they felt like he was being unjustly charged. But that soon changed. Ed Sanders, who was reporting every week for me, rapidly realized that [Manson] was just another scoundrel. Ed ended up using his columns from the Free Press to write his book The Family.
Charles Bukowski also had a column in the Free Press that became a book, Notes of a Dirty Old Man. Did you like Bukowski as a writer?
Yeah, it was difficult at times to publish some of that stuff. There was one time he was having a romance with Liza Williams, one of the other writers on my paper, and both of them had columns. Well, Bukowski wrote a column about how Liza’s false teeth fell out during one of their arguments and I told Bukowski that I didn’t want to publish it. But Liza said to go ahead. They would argue back and forth in their columns. Bukowski was an interesting character. He was this big, burly guy, and not good looking at all, but when he would come into the office and speak to a woman, his voice would change. It would become smooth and silky and seductive. It was really interesting and funny to watch.
Allen Ginsberg was part of the Free Press. Were you close with him?
Yes, Ginsberg and I became really good friends. I interviewed him several times for the paper, and I published some of his poetry. He was like my brother. When he died, I ran the memorial for him in L.A.
You also had people on the streets selling the paper all through Hollywood, a job that everyone loved!
Every week there may have been up to a hundred kids out there selling the paper. I set up a separate office on Hollywood Boulevard, a big garage to store papers. So there was a place where kids who were homeless and didn’t have any money could go and get an immediate job. They would come there and leave a wallet or some ID, and they’d get a bundle of papers on credit and go out and sell them. So on Sunset Boulevard we would have thirty to forty kids along the Strip selling papers.
Is it true that the Free Press published the names and addresses of California narcotics agents, and because of this, the state of California sued you for $25 million?
Yes, the official charge was for obstruction of justice. See, we had a front-page headline that said, “There Should Be No Secret Police,” and the story was about these anonymous narcotics agents doing things without warrants and breaking into people’s houses, all kinds of nasty police things. So I wrote this story about how there should be no secret police, and on an inside page I printed eighty of their names and addresses.
You were WikiLeaks before WikiLeaks?
Exactly. There was this list of the agents that had been prepared as a Christmas card mailing list. And it was distributed inside the attorney general’s office, and a mail clerk brought it to me.
What were the actual charges against you?
Receiving stolen property. That was the basis for the criminal case and the $25 million civil lawsuit, because I’d interfered with the justice system. I won the case, because in order to receive a stolen document, you have to know that it’s stolen.
The state attorney general threatened the printer of the Free Press with a lawsuit.
The attorney general’s office got a hold of the printer and threatened to make him part of the civil lawsuit. The printer got scared and gave me four weeks to get out and find other arrangements. That’s when I bought a printing plant, and that’s when I got into financial trouble. I spent a quarter million dollars in 1969 for a printing press that didn’t work. Basically I made a business mistake at that point and kept this plant going, even though the press didn’t work well, which led me to going bankrupt. I put up the stock of the Free Press in order to buy this quarter-million-dollar printing plant.
What do you think was the lasting legacy of the Free Press?
I felt I made a contribution, the idea of every reader being a reporter. It was a new kind of journalism. However, toward the end we were having conferences with all the alternative papers and it became apparent that there was more concern with advertising than there was with editorial. Toward the end of the sixties, businesspeople started buying up the alternative papers and making something else out of them. It was a different period.
When did you become an alchemist and get involved with life extension?
After the bankruptcy I got interested in spiritual issues and I started a meditation school in Los Angeles in 1976. By 1979, I had about 300 students. In 1980, a guy joined who was a student of Frater Albertus in Salt Lake. He told me after a couple of months that I was teaching alchemy. I had no idea what alchemy was about—lead into gold was my reference. He said that the meditation that I was teaching was the spiritual equivalent of the laboratory work he was learning. What I was teaching and what attracted me to this form of meditation was that we divided the emotional, mental, and physical, and then trained each segment of those three in isolation.
I went to Salt Lake in 1980 to learn more about these alchemical concepts. It was a seven-year course. I did the whole seven years’ work in four years. Then, the goal with alchemy was to do transmutations with a special mineral, and if you could do that, it was proof you could access the mineral—they believe that the minerals are alive and that you can make a medicine that would give you life for hundreds of years, maybe immortality.
So, based on my initial successes with the alchemy, I spent until 2006 doing hundreds of experiments to try to find out what the secret mineral was. I determined that it was a radioactive mineral and began working with uranium ore, the same ore that the bomb was from. Except to make the bomb, they have to do an incredible purification of this uranium, and the uranium that I use is straight from the ground and has very low radioactivity. It doesn’t go more than an inch or so out into the atmosphere. So what I’ve been doing is taking fruit and I put it in contact with this radioactive material in a glass jug, which prevents the radioactivity from leaking out so it’s not dangerous. I’ve been experimenting on myself eating an apple a week, and I’ve been doing it for five years now.
As a result, my hair is growing down to my belly button and my finger nails are growing rapidly, and I have a lot of energy. I have a theory and it’s very simple—that every living cell has in it a number of mitochondria, a little bacterialike entity, outside of the nucleus, and this mitochondria takes in free energy, takes in electrons that are in the atmosphere and produces a chemical called ADP, adenosine diphosphate. Every living cell, plant, or animal lives on this chemical, no matter what they do. A kidney cell purifying the blood or a muscle cell or a heart cell, these mitochondria feed the cell. But in the course of producing the ADP, they also produce free radicals, chemicals that the body doesn’t want. The mitochondria kill themselves and this, I believe, causes aging, and eventual death, because the cell doesn’t get enough ADP.
How do your spiritual beliefs relate to your work with life extension?
We die at seventy or eighty or become feeble, when we’re just beginning to have enough experience to be wise and really know how to live and pass it along to others. It’s a tragedy. We die too young.
Ring Shout in the Rain
Mar 30, 05:08 PMPurchase or Subscribe to Slake: Los Angeles
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