The Georgia Straight: A 50th Anniversary Celebration looks back on five decades of coverage

Writer Doug Sarti and publisher and cofounder Dan McLeod ventured into the newspaper equivalent of a time capsule to tell tales of the past

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      Earlier this month, one of the Georgia Straight’s most popular employees, Doug Sarti, sent an email to the staff letting them in on the company’s latest news.

      “Hey everyone,” he stated, “Dan and I wrote a book!”

      “Dan”, of course, is the Straight’s publisher Dan McLeod, and the book is called The Georgia Straight: A 50th Anniversary Celebration. Published by Rocky Mountain Books, it features dozens of covers of the newspaper dating back five decades, along with Sarti and McLeod’s general descriptions of what was included in each of those issues.

      “We pretty much just holed ourselves up in the archives and went through the printed copies of every single issue—more than 2,500 in total,” Sarti said. “Just getting through them all took a huge amount of time.”

      He likened it to climbing into a time capsule, because he and McLeod were reviewing articles on everything from the Summer of Love to Watergate, from the punk explosion to Expo 86.

      “In this age of cultural sensitivity, it’s easy to forget that Vancouver of the mid-’60s could be a pretty repressive place if you were anything other than a middle-class WASP,” Sarti noted. “A lot of people just didn’t have a voice in the media of the day. The Straight provided a platform for a number of disenfranchised groups, such as gays, Aboriginal people, and of course, the rapidly expanding counterculture.”

      That's Dan McLeod on the left being busted in 1968 by the New Westminster police for selling the Georgia Straight.

      The book’s centrepiece is a breathtaking array of Straight cover images, which were compiled with the assistance of the family-owned company’s general manager, Matt McLeod.

      In the early years, covers included a photo of the bullet-ridden body of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a Peter Almasy illustration of a cartoon character named Acidman, and a devilish drawing of former mayor Art Phillips by Doug Bennett of Doug and the Slugs fame.

      One of the most famous covers of the mid-1970s was a Rand Holmes illustration of Mick Jagger riding on top of a huge inflatable pink penis. The book includes another memorable Holmes cover illustration of a giant whale near the water’s surface with a harpoon-bearing ship nearby.

      “There are probably 10 or 15 great Rand Holmes covers from 1975 alone,” Sarti said. “He was just at the top of his game. We couldn’t put them all in the book.”

      Rand Holmes was in his heyday as a Straight cover illustrator in 1975 when he created this image of Mick Jagger.

      Sarti’s father, Bob, wrote for the Straight in the late 1960s, and Sarti visited the paper’s Gastown office as a boy. He wistfully recalled it as “this weird, mad, mystical place with all manners of counterculture things going on”. The sign on the door said “Sorry We’re Open”.

      “In the early days there was so much heat from the cops and a lot of trumped-up charges that people did not want to put their real names on articles,” Sarti revealed.

      In the early 1980s, the Georgia Straight morphed into an entertainment paper, which helped it survive the deepest economic slowdown since the Great Depression. In that era, there were cover photos of David Suzuki, Ozzy Osbourne, Joan Jett, and k.d. lang.

      “I haven’t had much chart success in terms of radio play,” lang acknowledged to the Straight at the time, “but I’ve been able to rub shoulders with those I most admire.”

      The brains behind the Clash, Joe Strummer, appeared on the cover in 1984, the same year a new craze called break dancing received cover treatment.

      “The book wouldn’t have been possible without the Straight’s production and art departments, who did all the hard work of scanning and cleaning up the cover images,” Sarti emphasized.

      Weed freedom isn't a new issue for the Georgia Straight—it was also featured prominently in the late 1960s.

      The Straight’s first serious coverage of Nardwuar the Human Serviette came in 1990. But the beloved Nards didn’t make the cover until 2004 in an extraordinary Rebecca Blissett photograph replicating the Subhumans’ Incorrect Thoughts album. Nardwuar is still going strong—and for proof of that, check out Mike Usinger’s article on page 113.

      The city’s first Stanley Cup riot was featured on a 1994 cover simply headlined “Stupidville”. Vancouver’s second Stanley Cup riot, in 2011, also received cover treatment with a young man in a white Canucks jersey standing on the hood of a car engulfed in flames. The James Maclennan photo was punctuated with a cover line asking “Is this normal?”

      That wasn’t the only time fire appeared on the cover. In 1994 Little Sister’s bookstore’s then manager, Janine Fuller, appeared as Joan of Arc being burned at the stake. This highlighted her homophobic persecution at the hands of Canadian customs officers.

      Artist Peter Almasy created Acidman.

      The next year, race moved into the spotlight with Stanley Q. Woodvine’s cover illustration of the human brain. It accompanied a Taras Grescoe article entitled “White Peril”.

      Sarti and McLeod described Grescoe’s piece as “a subversively tongue-in-cheek treatise on race and crime statistics, showing that anyone—even those of European descent—can be painted as a villain”.

      “There’s always been the idea of social justice in the Straight,” Sarti said. “Even in the days when we were just concentrating on entertainment in the ’80s—movie, music stuff—the social-justice aspect was always in the background.”

      So was McLeod’s long-standing concern for environmental issues. A 1996 cover illustration by Rod Filbrandt, headlined “Temperature’s Rising”, underscored an article by Crawford Kilian warning of the looming local impacts of climate change. The paper’s first coverage of the perils of rising greenhouse-gas emissions dates back to the late 1960s.

      One of the book’s more recent covers features a joyful Melanie Mark, then the newly minted NDP MLA for Vancouver–Mount Pleasant, with her two adorable daughters all dressed in First Nations attire. It wasn’t her first appearance in the paper. More than a decade earlier, Mark’s efforts to change how Vancouver police interacted with Indigenous people received extensive coverage.

      The Georgia Straight: A 50th Anniversary Celebration also includes essays by two former employees, Bob Geldof and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson. In addition, there are contributions by two prominent Vancouver residents who’ve graced the cover: former mayor and ex-premier Mike Harcourt and musician and writer Bif Naked.

      Geldof’s introduction describes Vancouver as a “sleepy sort of town” when he arrived in the mid-1970s and found work at the Straight as a music writer. He also points out that it “was the first paper in all of Canada to trumpet the coming environmental battles” and, “outlandishly for the time, raged for rights: gay, women’s, First Nations and on and on”.

      “Me, I loved it,” Geldof writes. “I did my music stuff. I argued (I think successfully) that music, and not the dull doings of some local council, would be the vehicle for social change, that you could transliterate the work of the rock greats into a relevance for Us, not Them and Now not Then. I tried. He [McLeod] let me. Fun! Man, I had fun.”

      As premier, Gordon Campbell appeared on the cover of the Straight in this Rod Filbrandt illustration, which reflected the contradictions inherent in his environmental policies.

      Harcourt points out in his essay that he was still in law school when the first issue of the Straight rolled off the presses in 1967. He draws links between the successful fight against a freeway through Chinatown and Gastown and the rise of long-term sustainable land-use and transportation planning in the region. The early issues of the Straight included critical coverage of the freeway proposal, offering a platform for “alternative voices who opposed the destruction of cherished neighbourhoods”.

      “It’s been great to live in a city like Vancouver, which spawned Greenpeace, David Suzuki, community law offices, and the livable city and region plans,” Harcourt writes. “Plus, Vancouver is the only major city in North America without a freeway gouged through it.”

      Watson describes the Straight as his “journalism school”, noting that he has contributed to the paper off and on for 44 years.

      “I was 19 in 1970, and my grammar was so poor in those early days that music writer Bob Geldof and managing editor Bob Mercer eventually presented me with a book called Learning Effective English Grammar, which today holds a place of honour on my bookshelf,” Watson writes.

      The celebrity sea dog, as he was called on the cover of the Straight in 2011, spent his early years covering crime, movies, and food and drink. Watson was also an ace environmental reporter and spent a great deal of time as the paper’s foreign correspondent. This included covering the American Indian Movement insurrection in 1973 at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

      He and fellow environmental activist David Garrick even became citizens of the “independent” Oglala Nation that was created at the time. Watson learned a great deal observing the courage of AIM leader Russell Means in the face of bullets being fired by the FBI, U.S. marshals, and American soldiers.

      “In fact, I would venture to say that the Georgia Straight was the anvil upon which was forged the modern environmental movement,” Watson declares in his essay. “The paper didn’t just report the news; it created the news. It didn’t just report on art and culture; it created and inspired art and moulded culture.”

      Bif Naked was on the cover of the Straight in 2001 in connection with a feature written by Mike Usinger.

      Bif Naked, of course, is part of the city’s musical culture, which has been chronicled in detail within the pages of the Straight. Her essay reflects on how wonderful Vancouver was for her at the turn of the 21st century.

      At the time, she was touring, releasing music and videos, appearing in movies, and headlining local venues like the Commodore Ballroom. When she appeared on the cover for a 2001 Usinger feature, Naked was wearing her favourite SNFU T-shirt.

      “I was elated; it was better than being on the Tonight Show,” she writes. “I could have died happy.”

      The book features cover images of many other Vancouver cultural figures who’ve left a lasting mark, including Douglas Coupland, Shane Koyczan, and Joy Kogawa. Sarti said that in reviewing all the back issues, he was astonished to see that so many high-profile politicians, A-list Hollywood celebrities, and top musicians showed up in the paper.

      Pierre Trudeau, for example, appeared on the cover in 1968. There are also amusing cover images in the book of Stephen Harper, Gordon Campbell, and George W. Bush—the last under the title “Moron of the Year”.

      “Almost everyone of note in Canadian culture has been either interviewed or referenced in the last 50 years,” Sarti said, “and a lot in American and world culture, too.”

      A book launch for The Georgia Straight: A 50th Anniversary Celebration will be held at Book Warehouse Main Street (4118 Main Street) on Wednesday (September 27). Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the event begins at 7.