Russ Nobbs guided counter-culture in Spokane

Russ Nobbs  Photo from Facebook.

Russ Nobbs
Photo from Facebook.

Russ Nobbs died today. He will be missed. Nobbs is noted for a number of things he accomplished in Spokane. Including what he did for the music scene promoting free rock ‘n’ roll music Sunday’s at High Bridge Park. But that was not all that he did. His intention in 1967 was to bring counter-culture, as observed in San Francisco, to Spokane. He not only accomplished this, he also helped change journalism in Spokane by bringing to the public’s attention its de facto segregation of African-Americans, the protests against the war in Viet Nam, sub-standard low income housing, unabated pollution in the Spokane River, and First Amendment issues regarding the publication of underground newspapers. For those people that published, edited and wrote underground newspapers in the sixties, Russ Nobbs was legendary.

The Spokane Natural, the counter-culture underground newspaper started by Russ Nobbs, Ormos Otvos, and George Maloney in May of 1967 printing at first on a mimeograph machine, had in 1968 switched to printing a tabloid size paper on newsprint , which gave them increased credentials as a legitimate newspaper. They followed this up with better reporting and an increasing urgency to challenge the establishment.

It was their newspaper’s subject matter in 1968 that led to a magnification of their newspaper’s money troubles eventually leading to holding a benefit dance for themselves at the Grotto in January of 1969. The dance, it turns out, was a milestone event for Spokane Rock ‘n’ Roll music as it heralded the beginning of the ability of counter-cultural organizations to actually make money with one of their music schemes.  The Grotto benefit dances that winter and spring in 1969 were hippie extravaganzas never before seen in Spokane, and will go down in Spokane’s music history as an event that more people claim to have been there then who were actually there.

While Nobbs and Maloney were busy publishing their underground newspaper taking on social issues in Spokane such as segregation, racism, insufficient housing codes, the war in Vietnam, and the culture wars at home, they were charged with obscenity by the Spokane Police. The obscenity charges began with a Buzz Vinyard poem published in 1967, and the use of these kinds of words continued throughout the next year of publication until Nobbs and Maloney, hearing rumors that Spokane’s establishment wanted the paper closed for good, decided to confront authority head on.

In addition, Maloney was in court charged that spring with vagrancy for selling his underground newspapers on school grounds without permission from the administration at Spokane Community College’s Fort Wright campus.

The writers, editors, and activists were pushing the red hot buttons of Spokane’s establishment with stories about race relations, housing for lower income families, the war in Vietnam, and first amendment rights.


America seemed to be at war with itself in 1968. It was the year that Martin Luther King was assassinated. His murder resulted in unrest of Black youth populations in numerous cities across the U.S. Previous to King’s murder, in February, Spokane students from various college and universities in the area, organized under the Black Student Union banner to address issues of race in Spokane. The Natural staff wrote stories of the new organization and their quest for equal relations with the huge majority of white population in Spokane. After King’s murder Nobbs and Maloney continued to write about Black issues in East Spokane which took on new emphasis. This was rather new to many citizens in Spokane that didn’t think that there was a problem with racism. The stories gave the underground newspaper street cred with journalist of the leading media in Spokane. Though not as professionally polished, the Natural was reporting on stories that the other media tended to overlook.

In February Nobbs attended as a reporter a Washington State Legislative Committee hearing on segregation and racial imbalance to hear testimony from authorities in the area. Included were remarks from Carl Maxey, a Spokane lawyer, Don Johnson and Don Phelps from the Washington Education Association, and Glenn Minard from School District 81.

Exhibiting behavior that was taboo for a professional journalist employed at establishment newspapers, Nobbs himself got up at the hearing to testify saying that “The local schools have tried to cope with the problems of racial imbalance, but the public, seeing only their white middle class neighbors, do not admit the existence of the problem and thus hold the school administration back.”

Nobbs went on to say that racial tension and violence are hidden from the public and that the committee was not dealing with the urgent need to take action, or face more violent outbreaks in the coming summer.

In another story Nobbs followed Tom O’Neal the head of Spokane’s Student Coordinating Committee for Positive Action, another organization consisting of students from all the area’s colleges and universities. O’Neal organized a tour for Spokane’s Mayor David Rodgers to see what the East Side really looked like.

“Even though he’s the mayor . . . ” said O”Neal, “I’ll bet we can show him homes, conditions, and whole blocks that he has never seen before. We’ll tell him something he hasn’t heard before: how the Black people of Spokane think and feel about the conditions.”

After King’s murder there was a story that week in the establishment media that a dozen or so windows were broken out at businesses centered along the commercial area of East Sprague. In the Natural it was reported that the response of the Spokane Police and the Sheriff’s Department was to beef up the graveyard shift, including bringing in a number of reserve officers, as well as civil defense volunteers armed with baseball bats riding with sworn officers on patrol. In addition, the National Guard headquartered at the Spokane Armory called in all of the Guard troops they could muster, with the rest of the units on call in case of trouble.

Maloney walked around the campus selling newspapers at Eastern Washington State College as often as he could, and at Spokane Community College (SCC), Fort Wright. One day at SCC he was asked to accompany the Dean of students, a Mr. Erling J. Hjortedal, to the office of President Dr. Howard Johnson. Sargent Dick Byrnes from the Spokane Police Department arrived and tried to talk Maloney into leaving.

At Eastern Bill Winkler of the Esquire Veteran’s Club publicly took offense at the selling of a hippie paper on the campus. An editor of the Easterner, the campus’ newspaper, Ralph Cady, took exception to Winkler’s remarks. In an editorial Cady stated that the Natural was a legitimate newspaper and deserved Constitutional protections.

Meanwhile, at SCC, the administration took a recommendation to ban the Natural from the campus for reasons that it was obscene and made it into school policy. Maloney would challenge that policy by going to the campus again to sell the Natural to students.

The Spokane Daily Chronicle’s article of the Board’s meeting where the new policy was discussed noted were a number of issues taken up by the trustees including the construction of a fence that was objected to, a statement of revenue, and the price of a parking lot at the Fort Wright campus. Nobbs and Maloney tape recorded the meeting, as well as standing up to say they objected to the policy. The board accepted the wording of the policy relating to sale and distribution of materials on the campus to “commercial solicitation may be subject to reasonable rules and regulations.” The policy as amended attempted to specifically keep the selling of the Natural off campus. Neither the Spokesman-Review or the Chronicle made any mention of the suppression of First Amendment rights.

So on April 16, after the board of trustees approved of the new regulation concerning the selling of the Natural on campus, Maloney, along with Richard L. Arnold, went to SCC to sell papers again to the students. They were approached again by Hjortedal who confiscated Arnold’s stack of papers, but because Maloney was taller by far, he kept the papers out of Hjortedal’s reach holding the papers above his head. It most definitely was a Marx Brothers moment in Spokane counterculture.

Nobbs and Maloney were forcing the administration at the campus to act on their recently revised policy. The Dean of Students, Hjortedal said the administration has a duty to control the behavior of visitors to the campus.

In the ensuing tug of war over the newspapers, a visitor to the campus, a 25-year-old black man, bought a newspaper from Maloney. The student responded to Hjortedal by expressing his contempt for the school’s censorship policy. An SCC staff member told the “boy” to leave. Addressing him in a way that angered the man who then told the staff member that he was 25 years old and a military combat veteran having served in Viet Nam. He called the SCC staff members “a bunch of fascists.” as he walked away.

Arnold said he would leave, and Hjortedal accompanied him to the sidewalk giving him back his papers before Arnold crossed the street and off of the campus. Before Hjortedal returned to confront Maloney again, Tom O’Neil, an SCC student, and member of the Black Student Union, was conversing with Maloney about a future article he hoped would appear in the Natural. As O’Neil started to walk away he was told by Hjortedal to shave his goatee off, and that his appearance was not acceptable. Because of that remark, the Black male students said they will grow beards in protest the Natural later reported.

A Spokane police officer appeared on campus and Maloney was arrested soon afterwards. Another patrolman driving through the area arrested Arnold as well. Maloney was booked for vagrancy, while Arnold was booked for disorderly conduct. But, as they pair were being processed, the charge for Maloney was changed to disorderly conduct while Arnold was now charged with vagrancy. They acquired attorney Tom F. Lynch for their hearing, and were ordered to post $250 bond. Arnold’s charges were dropped after he signed a statement that he would not sue the police for false arrest.

Maloney went to court April 26 and was found guilty of loitering, apparently, and a vagrancy charge along with being disorderly. He posted $250 bond again and appealed the verdict to the Superior Court.

A note in the Natural at the end of an article about the trial stated “George was found guilty of selling the Natural on the SCC campus, not of loitering. His disorderliness consisted of his insisting that he be arrested if selling a paper on a college campus constituted a crime.” The bond came to $105 and the Natural staff entertained contributions. This helped seed the idea for the Grotto Benefit 1, as Maloney and Nobbs were not making much money publishing the paper.

Is the word DUCK three-quarters obscene?

In July Nobbs and Maloney received a call from Detective Phyllis M. Marsh assigned to the Spokane Youth Peoples Bureau. She informed them that there was a warrant issued for their arrest. They were charged that on June 12, 1968 the two editors were “lewd, disorderly, and dissolute persons” because on that afternoon they showed Marsh and Det. James R. Albright a copy of the March 29, 1968 issue of the Natural complaining about a sentence presented in a column inch on the left-hand side of page 11.

Inspecting the page there can be found a small, bordered area down in the left hand corner of the page where the words “This is our token FUCK” with the word fuck printed in a ludicrous Victorian font reminiscent of a Terry Gilliam cartoon for Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

The word was placed in the paper with the purpose of confronting the police calling them to action.

After their arrest, Nobbs and Maloney placed their own announcement in the July 19, 1968 newspaper. It asked the question “is DUCK three-fourths obscene?” asking that people who read the paper to attend their trial set for July 30, at 1:30 p.m. to face charges of lewd, disorderly and dissolute persons. It asked they “Dress Formal Freak,” to witness the one performance. It was a call for action to make a circus out of the courtroom.

In an article on the same page Maloney addressed Det. Marsh directly

An Open Letter to Mrs. Marsh.

You can go home at night and watch the battle reports from Vietnam (in dying color, if you so desire) and watch several additional homicides during the course of the eveing [sic]. You can go to any newstand and buy the NATIONAL INQUIRER, CONFIDENTIAL, or POLICE GAZETTE, and see pictures of deformed and/or mutilated children and [sic] read about the burning of witches, what really happens in an LSD Sin Club or how Tommy Smothers kissed Cynthia Casey’s belly button. You could do it, or any 12 year old [sic] kid could do it.

There is, however, a profound difference between the NATIONAL INSIDER and the NATURAL. The NATIONAL INSIDER panders to a value system that cherishes hate, fear, violence, and prejudice; the NATURAL questions it.

Maloney said that though they had published the word “fuck” in various other articles previous to this, he feels that pressure was being put on the police department to press charges on the two because the newspaper was “starting to get advertising and become solvent.”

On the given date for the trial it was announced it would be postponed to August 14, although Maloney announced in his update in the Natural that interested parties “Numerous hippies, civil libertarians, and just possibly a few Birchers,” were told that the trial would take place on August 29. They felt that it was a deliberate attempt to mislead their friends who were planning to attend the trail.

Nobbs and Maloney had obtained the services of lawyers Sam Fancher and Gordon Cornelius, who had received notice the day of the trail of the postponement without a reason given. Nobbs and Maloney were out on $500 bonds each, a considerable amount of money for the two, and hence the need to raise money.

On the day of the new trail date, a motion was filed by Maloney’s and Nobbs’ attorneys for a change in venue. No new trial date was secured.

By this time, Nobbs had published a series on housing in Spokane that did not meet city code, was inspected by the City, but was not repaired or updated to current codes, allegedly because the property was held in trust by Norman dePender, the City’s prosecuting attorney.

On October 30, Mayor David Rodgers called a news conference to denounce the Natural for being a “hippy paper, dedicated to spreading deliberate obscenities.”

The same day the defendants’ attorneys were called and told that the trial would be held in “Twenty minutes.”

An article appeared in the next Natural.

The trial was held on December 2 in Justice Court with Judge Elsworth P. Gump presiding. Witness for the prosecution Detectives James R. Albright and Richard R. Oberding testified that Maloney and Nobbs respectively had admitted authorizing the printing of  ‘THIS IS OUR TOKEN FUCK’ and that each had stated that the purpose of the act had been to affront Spokane.

The writer of the article, unnamed, but either Maloney or Nobbs, had said that it “appeared that Norman dePender, whose duties with the city include deciding which cases are to be prosecuted, had issued an order to Get the NATURAL’ in retaliation for our expose of his conflict of interest,” from the housing issues story Nobbs wrote.

Though Maloney’s and Nobb’s attorney’s argued for dismissal on grounds of the Redrupp Decision by the U.S. Supreme Court dealing with obscenity, the City argued that the Natural editors were being prosecuted for being disorderly, thus the Redrupp Decision did not apply.

Judge Gump ruled on December 6 that Nobbs and Maloney were guilty of “offending the peace and dignity of the city.” They were given six months in jail with all but 30 days suspended. Released on $250 bail for each, they appealed the judgment in Superior Court.

By January 1969 the newspaper was $2,000 in debt and the printer would not print the newspaper unless paid in advance. The issue this article was published was printed on the Gestetner Duplicating machine that they thought they had no use for since going to newsprint.

Nobbs was warning that unless they pay down the $2,000 they owe, the Natural would cease publication despite being recognized as one of the best underground newspapers in the nation by their peers. They must have found some money because the second issue of the year was back to newsprint, and in it was a notice that a benefit for the newspaper and its editors legal problems would be held at the Grotto on January 25.

On January 7 in Superior Court, Maloney was convicted of state vagrancy as a result of selling the Natural newspapers on the SCC Campus after being told to leave. An appeal to the Supreme Court was planned at the time by his lawyer Gordon Cornelius. The benefit at the Grotto would help defray the costs of this appeal. Maloney then resigned from his position at the paper. Financials improved for the newspaper that month. They received about $350 from subscriptions that month, as well as making money at the benefit. In addition they were getting favorable results from their solicitations for advertising.

At the end of the month Maloney was sentenced and fined $100. The appeal bond set at $250, then led off to county jail. Bond was raised and Maloney was released.

The night of January 25 at the Grotto, Pacific and Browne, the benefit dance featured all local bands: United States of Mind, Pearce Arrow with John Currier, Wilson McKinley, Cold Power, Legal Jesus, Jack Nixon (Blues Guitarist), Southern Comfort, folk guitarists Buzz Vinyard and John Werr, and a presentation of Underground Films by Steve Dompier. The event was MC’d by Pat Kinney. Light Show by Light Karma and Light MOHS. Produced by Ted Bellusci and sponsored by “Spokane Hip Independent Traders.

The advertisement for the event, an illustration drawn by Sharon Nobbs, said that “Dress is a mere formality.”

Nobbs, Russ. “Spokane Schools Provide Inferior Education.” Spokane Natural. Vol. 2, No. 5, 1 March 1968: 3.

“The Mayor Takes A Walk.” Spokane Natural. Vol. 2, No. 12. 7 June, 1968.

“The EWSC Cancer Spreads . . . and Spreads to SCC.” Spokane Natural. Vol. 2, No. 3, 2 Feb. 1968: 3.

“College Trustees End Controversy: Chronicle headline, Feb. 21.” Spokane Natural. Vol. 2, No. 5, 1 March 1968: 7.

“College Trustees End Controversy.” Spokane Daily Chronicle. 21 February, 1968: 9.

“2 Arrested for Selling Newspapers.” Spokesman-Review. 18 April, 1968: 6.

“Develop Your BUST, naturally.” Spokane Natural. Vol. 2, No. 9-10. 3 May, 1968: 13.

Maloney, George. “Develop your BUST, naturally.” Spokane Natural. Vol. 2, No. 15 19 July, 1968: 3.

“This is our token FUCK.” Spokane Natural. Vol. 2, No. 7. 27 March, 1968: 11.

“is a Duck . . .” The Spokane Natural. Vol. 2, No. 15. 19 July, 1968: 3.

Maloney, George D. “All My Trials, Lord.” Spokane Natural. Vol. 2, No. 16. 2 August, 1968: 3.

Spokane Natural. Vol. 3, No. 1. January 1969: 1

“The Politics of Justice or Here Comes Da Judge or **** ***** ****.” Spokane Natural. 6 December, 1968: 3.

“The Changes We’re Going Through.” Spokane Natural. Vol. 3, No. 3. 31 January 1969: 2.

“Benefit. ”Advertisement. Spokane Natural No. 3, Vol. 2. January 17, 1969: 16.

Copyright © 2014 Robert G. Schoenberg


About Robert Schoenberg

Writer - Blog is about the history of rock 'n' roll in Spokane Washington, from 1955 to 1980 View all posts by Robert Schoenberg

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