A Last Act of Defiance
On the day Jerry Rubin died I called his home telephone number for comment from someone close to him.
No one answered, but his message machine clicked on and Rubin’s voice exploded in my ear, full of the relentless energy that characterized his life.
“I’m back in town, and looking forward to talking to you and everything’s great and I’ll call you back and make your day fantastic!”
By the heat in his delivery, Rubin could turn the simplest phrase into a call to arms, and his telephone message was no exception. It said, Stand by , America , Jerry Rubin’s comin’ at you!
It was a voice on the brink of doing, a message from the soul of those who rebel and defy, whose clenched fists glorify the commandments of freedom that allow them to rage.
That’s why I liked him.
Though later in his life he would slip into the warmer robes of affluence he once scorned, Rubin remained true, at least, to his insuppressible nature, defying even his own past and those old rebels who mocked his new standards.
And, at the end, he perished defying the most modest of regulations, traffic lights, in favor of dodging cars to cross a dangerous thoroughfare.
Struck by an automobile, he lay in the street like a fallen flag and died two weeks later, leaving us his voice and his memory to ponder.
I began writing about Rubin 25 years ago when he was a screaming Yippie. He and Abbie Hoffman had come to symbolize a time of fire in the streets and violence at the barricades of those who demanded a war’s end.
Rubin’s voice at the trial of the Chicago 7 still rings in history’s ears, mocking the process, challenging the Establishment and daring authority to silence his rage.
He was, as a reporter put it long ago, a radical’s radical who could never be silenced, the very epitome of those who shout defiance.
I met him last February in his $5,000-a-month high-rise condo, still a living superlative, the salesman’s salesman, a network marketeer, hustling health powders instead of world peace . . . but with no less stridency than he displayed a quarter of a century before.
The meeting took place because I had written about another Jerry Rubin, the Venice peace activist, and the ex-Yippie Rubin had telephoned to demand clarification. The Venice Rubin, I had said, was out of work and needed money. The Yippie Rubin was incensed.
“They think it’s me!” he said over the phone, in a voice that managed to be both pleading and uncompromising. “My landlord thinks I can’t pay the rent! My girlfriends think I’m broke! You’ve got to clear this up!”
I knew it was a gimmick to get him back into print, but in gimmickry often dwells the stuff of ideas. I got the two Rubins together. Before the Venice Rubin could even sit, the Yippie Rubin fixed him with a stare that could melt steel and said, “I want you to work for me! I want every Jerry Rubin in America to work for me!”
The Venice Rubin sat quietly as his namesake, a man he deeply admired and was often mistaken for, paced the room, answered telephone calls, promised wealth and demanded that I heed every word he uttered.
He was, for that instant, the Rubin we all remembered; not a “people’s capitalist” in pin-striped suit, but the bearded, wild-eyed, frizzy-haired kid in jeans whose rage and rhetoric helped end a war and bring down a President.
Watching Rubin last February was to watch the energy of social activism abruptly redirected, a transformation so total and miraculous it belied the very existence of the Yippie who had cursed what he was to become.
In his new persona, he loved America, hated drugs and believed that power belonged not so much to those who seized it as to those who could afford it. He understood the irony, and gave it the finger.
Even that was true to his character. He was defying every word he had once uttered, and the smoke of that defiance filled his penthouse that day we sat together, the Venice Rubin, the Yippie Rubin and me.
As I look back on it, I realize that Rubin, the eternal Yippie, was what he had always been, part hero and part hypocrite, and totally defiant of both elements of that nature.
At his best, he was a kid in the streets, burning flags and raising hell, and saying what had to be said in the context of his era. I would wish him now to rest in peace, but this wasn’t the kind of peace he was seeking.
Instead I’ll say to those who remember, raise a fist and bow your head. A rebel lies uneasy in his grave.
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