Village Voice -- scaling the underground's heights

THE Village Voice is 30 years old. The shock comes like discovering your ``child'' has grown up -- and then some. The weekly newspaper that began as the prime example of underground press now boasts a circulation of 150,000. On the open market, the Greenwich Village enterprise founded by Norman Mailer and friends is worth $5 million a year in profits -- or at least that's what Hartz, the pet-supplies empire, was assured. It paid $55 million to the last owner, Rupert Murdoch, in June as the Grand Acquisitor headed off to buy up Hollywood.

The Establishment press should be doing so well.

Then there's the definitely middle-class matter of those ads. The Voice still runs sales pitches for overage hippies -- loft beds and futon convertibles, ``Meditation & Mantra'' classes and Kung Fu lessons, socially significant T-shirts and tattoo parlors. Here's everything the Big Chill generation could ask for, including personal ads that begin: ``Desperately seeking . . . .'' But sharing the space with updated '60s nostalgia are ads that the earlier Voice would never have dreamed of attracting -- Eas tern Airlines inviting the affluent to escape winter in Florida, rental car agencies promoting their Lincolns. Their Lincolns!

The Village Voice, if not big business, is a going concern, sponsoring its own ``Literary Tea,'' at $18 a ticket, with such mainstream cup-rattlers as Alison Lurie and Jay McInerney.

A little fuller around the tummy, a little thinner on top, the Voice thrives on its own youthful illusion that the real world is New York, and the real part of New York is Greenwich Village of 30 years ago. Los Angeles and the Heartland are treated as dubiously exotic cultures, best left to the anthropologists.

The snobbery can get as dated as the old term for it -- ``hip.''

Staff members themselves are given to grumbling in print that nothing's as good anymore, including their paper.

But a regular reader is regularly surprised at how good the Voice can be. James Ridgeway's column, ``The Moving Target,'' brings an unusual depth of research to bear on everything from South African divestiture to abortion. Nat Hentoff, one of the old hands, is combative and opinionated on whatever subject he happens to be attacking at the moment -- the failure of public education, the threat to the Constitution from the left as well as the right. But he, too, does his homework and remains the smartest kid in the class, as well as the most stubborn. On his original subject, jazz, he quiets down and writes gracefully -- a trumpeter with a mute.

Eliot Fremont-Smith, one of many book reviewers who have filed through the columns of the New York Times and a former editor in chief at Little, Brown & Co., writes some of the freshest and most thoughtful criticism in print, often on slighted books or neglected themes.

The Village Voice can be a little too determined to be different, if not outrageous, even in a gossip column or a chic essay on the ``politics of tanning.'' The writers of the Voice strut freedom indiscriminately. The freedom to write too long. The freedom to abuse the first-person singular -- flagrantly. The freedom to stage their private squabbles in public.

But the more important freedoms are exercised, too. The Voice remains inquiring, controversial, and sassy -- all the lively things journalism is supposed to be -- at a time when the rest of the press seems to be clearing its throat and going tentative. Chilling effect? What chilling effect? The Voice doesn't seem to know or care that a newspaper nowadays is supposed to be intimidated by the threat of lawsuits, the frowns of the Reagan administration, to say nothing of the preferences of a publisher like

Rupert Murdoch.

Maybe the world outside New York -- the world the Voice so magnificently ignores -- doesn't need two Village Voices. But what would we provincials do without the one we have?

A Wednesday and Friday column

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