(Last year’s big counterculture memoir was “Just Kids” by Patti Smith, and 2012’s might turn out to be “Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side” by Ed Sanders, an American writer, musician, happener and activist I’ve long admired. I’m proud to present this new interview with Ed Sanders by Beat scholar and librarian Alan Bisbort, and I’m looking forward to reading this memoir myself. — Levi)
Ed Sanders has been a cultural force in America for the past half century. Arguably best known for his satirical 1960s rock band The Fugs and his perennially wide-selling 1971 book The Family: The Story of Charles Manson’s Dune Buggy Attack Battalion, Sanders’s appeal to readers is also grounded in his deep Beat Generation roots. As a high school senior in Missouri, he read Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and then, after a failed attempt at a college education in Columbia, Missouri, hitchhiked east to see what all the Beat commotion was about.
Sanders was founder of a legendary literary “scrounge lounge”, the Peace Eye Bookstore, remembered as a Greenwich Village version of San Francisco’s City Lights Books during the hippie era; editor of the seminal Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts; publisher of works by Charles Olson and Ezra Pound; underground filmmaker (Amphetamine Head); prose author (Tales of Beatnik Glory); poet (America: A History in Verse); antiwar and anti-nuclear activist; he also seems to have known anyone and everyone affiliated with the American underground.
In his new book, Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side, Sanders ties all of his earliest threads—up to 1970—together in the most engagingly idiosyncratic memoir of the new year. Helpfully subtitled “An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture on the Lower East Side,” Fug You comes at you from all sides of this complex, rugged individual who appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1967, emerging from splatters of Pollock-like paint as “a leader of the Other Culture.”
Still placing his shoulder to the cultural wheel, Sanders, 72, is today the strongest living link between the Beat Generation, the hippies and all other underground currents that have trickled along the countercultural pipeline since then. Sadly, his partner in Fug crimes, the irreplaceable Tuli Kupferberg, died in 2010 after 86 years of stirring up trouble and mirth.
On November 17, 2011 I spoke with Sanders by phone at his home in Woodstock, N.Y., where he lives with Miriam Sanders, his wife of more than 50 years.
Alan: The events you describe in the new memoir are so rich in detail that many of the chapters and sometimes even individual paragraphs would be worthy of entire books. Did it seem this complex at the time or is this true only in retrospect? In other words, did you just get up every morning and do all these things on instinct and now look back and you can’t believe all the ties to all the things and people?
Ed: I was very young, had a lot of energy, didn’t need to sleep a lot. Plus, I really believed that I was helping to make fundamental changes in the ways the economy works, in spiritual and personal freedom. Even though there were all those deaths and assassinations, the countercultural activities fueled the idea that there was a lot of hope throughout these years up to the early 1970s, which is where I stopped the book.
Alan: It’s a good stopping point. It makes sense. It’s at the end of the first phase of the Fugs, and just after the big moratoriums against the Vietnam war and Woodstock and I think, but I could be wrong, before Altamont …
Ed: No, Altamont was in Dec. 1969. But I didn’t go to Altamont.
Alan: One thing the book reminded me of was that your roots were firmly in Beat culture. In the book, you talk about coming to New York City partly, or primarily, because you had read the Beats in high school, in particular Ginsberg’s Howl. And you wanted to head east to see where they action was. You felt the clarion call.
Ed: I don’t know if I put it in the book, but in early 1958 I applied to UC Berkeley and New York University simultaneously, and NYU answered right away. I hitchhiked from Missouri to New York in the summer of 1958. I wanted to be a rocket scientist. It was the era of the Mercury program. NYU had a good engineering department and initially I was going to study mathematics and was thinking of joining the Mercury program. But I’d read Howl and was fascinated by the Beats in New York City and soon I began frequenting the Greenwich Village bookstores and buying more and more Beat literature. Then in 1958 and 1959, I began going to Beat poetry readings. I saw Gregory Corso and others at the Living Theater [another major Beat launch pad, run by Judith Malina and Julian Beck].
So my future wife [Miriam] and I would roam around lower New York City bohemia, and I got more and more attracted to poetry and the Beats. Meanwhile, I switched my major over to Greek and Latin. My mother had said that a gentleman knows Greek and Latin. She died when I was a senior in high school. And in her honor I took a beginning Greek class in 1958 and that’s where I met a blonde girl from Queens named Miriam. Three years later, we were married. And, she’s still here, with me, in this house.
Alan: You quickly entered the Beat inner circle. It might be partly due your personality, genial and respectful of your elder Beats, but pretty quickly (and, I might add, enviably) you were rubbing shoulders with your heroes.
Ed: Well, I wrote them all. When I started publishing my magazine Fuck You / A Magazine of the Arts, I sent out copies to all the Beats. I sent one to Allen Ginsberg, but also to Nikita Khrushchev, Fidel Castro, Pablo Picasso and Samuel Beckett. I had kind of catchy title for my journal and so I attained a sort of instant status and began getting quality manuscripts from my heroes. I sent a copy to Ginsberg in India. I had gotten his address from the owner of the Eighth Street Bookshop, who told me he was depressed. So I sent him a copy of the magazine and an upbeat letter. He responded and later told me that my magazine had helped pull him out of his depression. Anyway, when he got back to New York from India, in 1963, we became friends, and then really were good friends for many years up to his death.
Alan: I wrote Ginsberg a couple of times and he always responded with fairly long, thoughtful letters. And I had a nice long phone interview with him that ended up in my book, Beatniks: A Guide to an American Subculture. He really opened some doors, he was a real facilitator …
Ed: That’s right. I miss him a lot. He and I talked a lot over the years and saw a lot of capers together [laughs]. [Among the funniest of the capers, which is described in the book, was an exorcism rite that Sanders and Ginsberg performed at the grave of Sen. Joe McCarthy, not to mention the exorcism that they performed at the Pentagon, which Norman Mailer wrote about in Armies of the Night].
Alan: Getting back to Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts, have you thought of putting together an edition of all the back issues, partly to save people like me hundreds of dollars trying to get them on eBay? I mean, the contributors’ list is a real who’s who of American culture and literature, and the writing quality was as good as any journal of its day. Better, in some ways, because of the unrestrictive editorial policy.
Ed: I have had offers, for facsimile editions. I don’t know, I’ve turned all of them down so far, but I might think about it. Someone is coming up here to see me in a couple of weeks and I think one of the proposals will be for an edition like that. I don’t know, we’ll see.
Alan: I don’t want to get sidetracked, but it strikes me that that journal and all your other endeavors, the underground film, the Fugs, your so-called “mimeograph revolution”, all of it was sort of a precursor to the punk movement. You wanted to meet your heroes. What better way than to start a magazine and have them contribute!
Alan: It created almost a maelstrom, a sort of one-man revolution.
Ed: It was a very intense set of years. Of course, you get into your 70s, I’m 72, and you realize that you don’t have the energy to stay up three straight nights, party, publish, drink, smoke pot, forget about sleep …
Alan: You mentioned that you knew you had entered the Beat inner circle when several things happened. Among these is that you were propositioned by Allen Ginsberg [respectfully unrequited] and were conned out of some money by Herbert Huncke, who was sort of the quintessential Beat, having provided that word to Kerouac, “beat”.
Ed: Yes to both of those.
Alan: But you were also given a rather harrowing ride by Mr. Neal Cassady, weren’t you?
Ed: Oh yeah … he took Peter Orlovsky and I down to La Honda to Ken Kesey’s place —
Alan: Cassady always ends up behind the wheel! It’s just amazing …
Ed: Yeah, we had a Volkswagen bus that we, meaning the Fugs, were traveling around in, all five of us. Neal had stopped by my bookstore in September, just before the band went West on tour. He pulled up at the curb in front of Peace Eye Bookstore in a small Studebaker that only had a second gear.
Alan: What had he done to that poor car!
Ed: [laughing] I had a friend who had some amphetamine and Cassady traded the Studebaker for an ounce of amphetamine. Anyway, a couple months later, we were in San Francisco and Neal was there. He said he’d drive us down to Kesey’s commune in La Honda. Oi, oi! He was pretending he was like Sterling Moss, going into a power slides around hairpin turns along the coast.
Alan: Were you on Pacific Coast Highway, going through Big Sur?
Alan: Holy shit.
Ed: Yeah … hairpin turns on the outside lane … no guardrails … whew … but you know Neal was a good driver and he got us there safely.
Alan: People tend to think that the Beat Generation just sort of petered out and was replaced, or subsumed, by the hippie generation. Which really wasn’t true, especially in New York. It seemed that all the same people simply walked forward into the hippie scene, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, William Burroughts, etc., They were all there, just another wave of fashion … the best part is that the Beat sensibility brought an active rather than passive sensibility, or infusion, to the hippies.
Ed: They brought some good writing, too. Hippies could be pretty vaporous in their literature. You know, I figure it must have been around February 1967 that we began to see the changeover. Instead of someone sneering at you and calling you “a dirty Beatnik,” they were now calling you “a dirty hippie.” I remember when Allen Ginsberg came over to our house on Avenue A around this time and said, “Now I guess we’re going to have to be hippies.” Miriam wasn’t even sure what he was talking about.
It was a mysterious switch over. It went from tire-soled sandals to Merlin curved-toe shoes and gowns, and men wearing necklaces, which was a big deal for a man. Suddenly you have to wear a necklace, toe ring or go barefoot in the street, and burn incense. It was pretty strange. But the Beats ultimately prevailed. There are still conferences on the Beat Generation where young people come dressed all in black. It’s very interesting.
Alan: Yes, I’ve written about, collected and studied the Beats and the hippies. I co-wrote a book with my old college pal and longtime collaborator Parke Puterbaugh about the next generation, the next wave, so to speak, Rhino’s Psychedelic Trip. I only bring that up to show how interwoven the roots of these two so-called subcultures really were. The tapestry is so rich. It’s not as simplistic as people want to make it. You saw this graphically in the transcript of the William F Buckley Firing Line show that you provided in the book. I have never been able to find full footage of the show, only snippets are included in documentaries about Jack Kerouac. But to read the entire show in its full context, wow, a new meaning emerges.
Ed: I put additional information about that in my book [Fug You] because I was there and I remember this stuff so clearly. It was indeed a strange hour or two of life.
Alan: It’s taken on an iconic life in documentaries. But the whole thing was staged by Buckley to set up a false argument, between conservatives and “the hippies.” And Kerouac was like his little pet salvation project, the prop to prop up his specious arguments.
Ed: Right, exactly.
Alan: To pit an icon of the Beats against a so-called hippie. And I guess you were the one he had on to represent the hippies.
Ed: Well, in the middle of the show, Kerouac fell off the riser. He was drunk, really drunk. He had come down from Lowell with a couple of old friends and they had been drinking the whole way. This happened in an early section of the show and Buckley threw up his hands in frustration and said, “That’s it, that’s it” and they thought they would try to get Allen Ginsberg, who was in the audience, to come up on the set to replace Kerouac. To substitute for Kerouac, who they thought could not go on. And we all shouted, “No no, let him do it”. Kerouac was one of my heroes.
Alan: Oh my gosh. It’s heartbreaking, really, to think about it. You spoke for all of us when you told Kerouac “It’s all your fault,” meaning that he helped open the door, in a good way… And “you’re a great poet”. Essentially, you were thanking him for what he did in his writing and showing your sorrow for the way he ended up, this bloated, red-faced drunk sucking up to the likes of the viperous William F. Buckley. Or so it seemed to me.
Ed: The Beats were divided into Democrats and Republicans. And Kerouac voted for Nixon in 1960 and again in 1968. Ginsberg was of course a very liberal sort of Democrat. This was a cultural divide in the Beats. And, of course, Kerouac had this ultra right-wing mother.
Alan: She was a piece of work.
Ed: She was always there … always there hovering in the background.
Alan: That weird divide in the Kerouac family still extends to this day. Just to get permission to quote some short parts from his work in my book, it cost me the bulk of my allotted expenses. And this was money going to people who had no blood connection to Kerouac. Meanwhile, they did everything in their power to deny money to Jan Kerouac when she was near destitute and terribly ill.
Ed: She ultimately got a good slice of it. Now I think her cousin has the estate.
Alan: Good, at least it is going to the Kerouac bloodlines …
Ed: Yeah, they proved that his will was forged. Or, rather, his signature on the will was forged. And they worked out a deal.
Alan: Can we talk a bit about the Fugs?
Ed: Sure, go ahead. I’m enjoying this.
Alan: Are you familiar with the website Pandora? You key in a musical artist and they compile a playlist based around that artist.
Ed: No, don’t know about it.
Alan: Well, out of curiosity, I decided to key in “The Fugs” and see what the great Internet swarm locks on to as your kindred spirits. Oddly enough, they play a couple of Fugs songs from compilation albums then stuff like early T. Rex, the 13th Floor Elevators, Lovin’ Spoonful, the Yardbirds, all of which is fine, of course, but it doesn’t seem to be the kindred spirits I would choose. I would think more in line with bands like the Mothers of Invention and Country Joe and the Fish. Did you feel you had kindred spirits?
Ed: We did gigs with the Mothers of Invention. I remember Dick Clark yukking it up when he introduced the Mothers and the Fugs … ’uhhh, I guess that means they’re Motherfugs’ yuk yuk … and Frank [Zappa] was a friend. We played theaters near each other in 1967. Mothers played the Garrick Theater and the Fugs were at the Players Theater in Greenwich Village and we’d hang out after the shows. We were at the Essen Song Festival in 1968 together. We were not close to the whole band but very friendly. Everybody knew everybody then. I knew Jim Morrison, saw Jimi Hendrix a lot, was pretty good friends with Janis Joplin.
Alan: Yes, in the book, you mention you even tried to set Joplin up with your hero Charles Olson the great poet.
Ed: Right. I tried to be a matchmaker there but it didn’t quite work out. I was acquainted with so many people on the music scene. When you are caught in a band, you travel in a vortex and you are pretty much confined to who is connected to that band. All other connections go by the wayside.
Alan: In those days, they would put together these bills that seemed just random combination, disparate bands, you know. You can see the ads in the old underground papers for shows at the Fillmores and other rock ‘n’ roll venues and music clubs. I was talking to Bert Jansch awhile back and he remembered The Pentangle being on a bill with Canned Heat and Rhinoceros. Can you imagine? That seems so random but so great, in a way.
Ed: It wasn’t computerized then. Every band had a Rolodex with all the promoters in it. The managers would make calls and try to patch together a tour and the Rolodexes would commingle. I can remember when Fleetwood Mac was our opening act on a Scandinavian tour in early 1968. Fleetwood Mac opening for us, imagine that.
Alan: That was the good Fleetwood Mac, though, fronted by Peter Green.
Ed: Right. Peter Green was quite a guitar player … You never knew who you’d be billed with. For example, our last gig in the 1960s was with Grateful Dead and Velvet Underground.
Alan: What a bill, that’s unbelievable!
Ed: That was an intense night. Of partying, too.
Alan: Did Lou Reed deign to speak with you?
Ed: Oh no. I didn’t know him well. But I went to see the Velvet Underground in the early days when they were totally undiscovered, playing the Café Bizarre in the Village [before Mo Tucker joined the band, when Angus MacLise was the percussionist]. Summer of 1965, must have been. And then they were with Andy Warhol. Nico would hang out at my bookstore. And I knew Andy pretty well. He made the banners for my bookstore. He came to some Fugs shows. There was a kind of cross pollination.
Alan: You had an affinity with bands. I mentioned the Mothers of Invention, but I would think Country Joe and the Fish would be a pretty good fit for the Fugs.
Ed: Oh yes, we played with them on their first performance in the fall of 1965. We were billed with his band and Allen Ginsberg.
Alan: I think Country Joe deserves much more credit that he’s given. First of all, his band was great, but he also took strong antiwar stands, wore military fatigues and really took chances at a time when it was physically dangerous to say and do and wear the stuff he did.
Ed: Yes, true. And he’s still here. I did a gig with him in Detroit a couple of years ago. He’s out there playing. He’s a big collector, I understand. He has a big collection I’ve heard of underground and psychedelic ephemera and posters.
Alan: You were friends with Phil Ochs, one of my other heroes.
Ed: Phil was a good friend of mine. We had some capers together.
Alan: As we said before, the Fugs had some strange bill sharings, but I can’t imagine a less likely pairing that the gig you mention in the book, with Little Anthony and the Imperials, at the El Patio Beach Club. Where was that place?
Ed: Oh yeah! It was in Queens. Again, it was the battle of the Rolodexes. We were pretty popular then. We were selling out our off-Broadway show [at the Players Theatre] and had other offers around the New York area. But it was relentless, being in a band. You had to get up, write a song, write a press release, get on the phone, etc. Every day.
Alan: You and Tuli Kupferberg had these other aspects of your creative impulses outside the band that must have felt somewhat thwarted or confined by the endless touring and promoting. Among many other things, you were ahead of the curve on underground film. You describe in great detail films like Amphetamine Head and some “blue movies,” which you made “at a secret location on the Lower East Side.” You were also an early promoter of underground commix, plus trying to run a bookstore. The cartoonist Spain Rodriguez helped you out with your store.
Ed: Yes, Spain made the banners in front of the store. Spain is still alive and working, out in California.
Alan: At some point you knew that the Fugs had to step up the game musically, so to speak.
Ed: That was part of my early agenda, to step it up. I ended up in San Francisco in fall of 1965, played Café au Go Go, and then kept running into all these bands who were so tight, like the Blues Project, the Youngbloods, Howlin Wolf’s band, Richie Havens. So we were dumbfounded and amazed at the quality of people like the Blues Project. And we realized we had to bump up the quality of our music after that first album [The Fugs First Album, released on Folkways in 1965]. So I started just collecting musicians, trying to put together a really topnotch band.
Alan: You had some great musicians filter through the Fugs, beyond the core group of you, Tuli and Ken Weaver. Danny Kootch, for one.
Ed: Yeah, Kootch was an important player for us. He really bumped up our quality.
Alan: Did Bob Dylan ever come see the Fugs?
Alan: Did he give you any feedback?
Ed: No, he swooped into a show one night and took a listen. There were a lot of people did the same, Keith Richards, a lot of people came to the shows.
Alan: The funniest thing in the book and one of the funniest things I’ve ever read is a description by Elizabeth Hardwick. She came to see The Fugs and wrote up her impressions for the New York Review of Books. I could picture her sort of standing in the back holding her nose while she jotted notes. She wrote a piece that was mostly favorable — for the breaking of cultural taboos that the band was doing — but she referred to you as “a sort of foul Bob Hope.” In a way, it’s like the greatest backhanded compliment of all time.
Ed: She [laughs] … yeah, it was a real moment.
Alan: Hardwick was actually indirectly responsible for me writing a book. I came across a collection of her essays a while back and found in it an essay about the execution of Caryl Chessman. It really stopped me in my tracks. I had long heard about Chessman but I really hadn’t done any research. After reading her piece, I was moved to answer the question, “What ever happened to Caryl Chessman?” Well, we know what happened. He was executed in May 1960. But what happened to his legacy and his writing? He was once on the cover of Time and Life magazines. He wrote and published four books in his Death Row cell, three of which became international bestsellers. I ended up getting access to his papers and writing a biography of Chessman and his legal struggles.
Ed: Oh you did? You wrote a book about it?
Alan: Yes, I found his literary executor in Florida. Joseph Longstreth, a wonderful man. He gave me everything. Chessman had a cottage industry on death row for 12 years. Tons of unpublished manuscripts and letters, which formed the basis for my book When You Read This, They Will Have Killed Me. What sparked this digression is that you, in your new book, are the only chronicler of the 1960s who made the obvious point of how significant the Chessman execution was to the decade.
Ed: Marlon Brando was there. Abbie Hoffman was there. Shirley MacLaine. I took part in a protest walk past the Plaza Hotel in New York. It was a tense moment. It was ghastly. I wrote a short story about Chessman’s execution in Tales of Beatnik Glory. Yeah, it was a real change in my life.
Alan: I mentioned in the book, and it struck me talking to people who lived through it and knew Chessman. In a way his execution so tainted Jerry Brown’s father, Pat Brown, then governor of California, who claimed to be anti-death penalty but allowed Chessman’s execution to go forward, that he was persona non grata at the Democratic Convention that fall. He really wanted to be nominated as the presidential candidate. Instead, a little known, or lesser known, Senator from Massachusetts got the nomination.
Ed: He didn’t get the nomination because of Chessman, you think?
Alan: I believe so. I’ve never had that disputed. I talked to Brown’s granddaughter who was making a documentary about her grandfather and she wanted to interview me for the film, but when I started in with this line of talk she dropped me like a hot potato. Never heard from her again. And yet, there it is. His handling of the Chessman execution essentially ended Pat Brown’s political career. He eventually drifted back into private practice as a lawyer.
Ed: Miller Leavy was a prosecutor at the end against Chessman, and he was involved in the prosecution of the Charles Manson family. I used to see him around the court house when I was working on The Family, and he reminded me of J. Edgar Hoover, kind of dour, bloodless.
Alan: Yes, that sounds about right for that guy. I got to know Chessman’s lawyer, George Davis, who sent me a lot of good material for the book, lived into his 90s and died a couple of years ago in Hawaii. Davis was the one who got the last-minute stay from the judge but they didn’t make the phone call to San Quentin in time and the execution went forward when, in fact, it should have been stopped and the chamber cleared. I think it was deliberate foot dragging. They wanted Chessman dead, they didn’t care. He was a pain in the ass to them, a thorn in their side, a reminder of the capriciousness of the death penalty. Anyway, Chessman and the wave of protests that accompanied his execution provides a fascinating door into the 1960s and I was so glad to see that you had written about it in that way, too. Just look at the photographs of the protesters at Chessman’s execution in May 1960, and then look at the photographs of the protesters in Chicago in 1968. It’s like the same group of people. The hair is growing out, there are moustaches and beards, military fatigues, desert boots, etc.
Ed: One of my favorite historians Richard Drinnan was there, very involved in trying to save Chessman’s life. Well, I don’t know … you’ll just have to find a good home for that Chessman archive. That’s important stuff.
Alan: I wanted to ask one final thing about the legendary episode that took place up here in Connecticut. You once tried to board a nuclear submarine in 1962?
Ed: It was 1961 in Groton [home of the U.S. Naval Submarine Base].
Alan: Did you dive into the Thames River and swim toward the damn thing?
Ed: Yes, I tried twice. Once in June and once in August. Both times it involved swimming in the Thames River outside the shipyard. I was a good swimmer then. But the frogman they sent after me was wearing flippers and caught me and I was hauled off onto a barge. I wasn’t able to get on board the submarine. The workers were throwing bolts at us in the water. There were a few of us doing this. It was frightening. We were going to stand up on top of the submarine tower in protest.
Alan: You may not have stopped the nuclear proliferation but it did lead to your first book, Poem From Jail, in 1963.
Ed: Yes. [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti published that book on his City Lights imprint.