MAY 15, 2012
IN NON-OBSCURANTIST CIRCLES, Ed Sanders is best known for two things. The first of these is his book, The Family. Originally published by Dutton in 1971, it represents Sanders’s deep delve into the murderous Manson family and their weird, paranoid take on the hippie dream. Ed’s underground cred was so firm by the late sixties that he was able to easily access Manson’s social circle and the deep pockets of mania it harbored. He had a true understanding of where and how the group’s motivational-impulse originated and the societal forces (real and/or imagined) that sustained it. Not that he agreed with or was sympathetic to their conclusions or methods or much of anything else, but he produced an essential read, a very whacked-out chronicle of the Manson trajectory. The Family is one of the more honest accounts of the era of hip mind control, a trend David Felton aptly termed “acid fascism.” That it’s still in print four decades later is a testament to its validity.
Sanders’s other best-known persona is that of the leader of the Fugs. The Fugs were (and are, once more) a musical combo who combined an avant-garde stance re: poetry, humor, freedom, and cussing in a way that prefigured and had a profound influence on everything from the Mothers of Invention to the punk rock explosion. Musically they were rarely sophisticated, although they did get into some very abstract arrangements on later records. But their legend really rests most heavily on the early work, which is basic garage rock with songs like “I Couldn’t Get High,” “Kill for Peace,” and “Frenzy.”
Here’s a sample lyric from The Fugs’ Songbook:
You ask about my philosophy, baby
Dope…peace…magic…gods in the tree trunks…
Group Grope, baby
Group Grope, baby
Back seat boogie for high school kids
Studes fug the teach
Daughters fug the preach
Group grope, baby
Group grope, baby
Group grope group grope group grope baby
Down on that Kataleptic Farm
Where we farm that old asparagus
We have that K-Y community
Down on that Kataleptic Farm
& Group Grope, baby
Group Grope, baby
If you didn’t know better, you might think it was one of Richard Meltzer’s lyrics for his 1979 punk band, VOM. But it ain’t.
The Fugs are most often associated with New York’s ESP-Disk label, which was the premier font of unfiltered underground sounds in the late sixties. Questions repeatedly crop up about ESP’s business practices, but the records they released (by Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Pearls Before Swine, the Godz, and Manson, among others) were totemic symbols of pointedly non-commercial music at its most raw and powerful. ESP’s records looked, felt, and sounded like nothing else, and the Fugs were, in many ways, their flagship group. Many young minds were blown by late night dorm room spins of the eponymous second Fugs LP (later retitled The Fugs Second Album). Greil Marcus should probably write a book about it.
In more obscurantist circles, Ed Sanders is considered one of the true cultural heroes of the last 50 years. His work as a writer, editor, publisher, musician, visual artist, political agitator, archivist, and all-around provocateur is virtually without peer. Certain contemporaries — John Sinclair, d.a. levy, Charles Plymell, Douglas Blazek, Wallace Berman, and a few more — have the same legendary semiotic heft in American underground circles, but Sanders has outlived a couple of them and out-produced all the others in terms of sheer extended creative gush. The vast bulk of Sanders’s work is poetry, a wide shelf that rewards deep and careful study, but he has written important prose works apart from The Family. His 1977 book The Party is a great report on a notorious incident at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, involving nude poets and naked power. And Fame & Love in New York, published in 1980, is a bent, in some ways prescient, sci-fi vision of what Manhattan’s SoHo will become.
Sanders’s first book, Poem From Jail (written after being busted for boarding a nuclear submarine in 1961), was published by City Lights in 1963. This was five years after Ed had left Missouri for New York City, riding the seismic wave of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl with vague plans to become a rocket scientist. He discovered the splendors of ancient languages instead: Latin, Greek, Egyptian. All of these would be crucial elements of his poetic inventions. Instead of rockets, Ed fired some of the earliest and loudest blasts of the sixties by founding Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts in 1962. The mimeo magazine went on to publish many of the era’s leading voices: Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Charles Olson, Frank O’Hara, Diane di Prima, and so on. Fuck You Press also did amazing one-offs like Bugger (an all-star anthology of, as the subtitle has it, Anal Erotic, Pound Cake Corn Hole, Arse-freak & Dreck Poems) in November, 1964, and Despair: Poems to Come Down By (done essentially as a response to the murders of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer) in July of the same year. Fuck You also published important solo books by Burroughs, Claude Pelieu, W.H. Auden and Sanders himself — books like Toe Queen Poems, a slurf-freak classic, describing the erotic life of a female foot fetishist in riotous detail.
Although he has a background in the classics, and does refer to their template frequently, most of my favorite Sanders’s poetry is wildly idiomatic. It takes the metric and topical freedom offered by the Beats in crude, funny directions that presage the drug-, drink-, and sex-soaked work of the Meat Poets (William Wantling, Steve Richmond, Charles Bukowski, Linda King, et al.) An excellent way to sample Ed’s work is to check out the two volumes released by Coffee House Press: Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century: New and Selected Poems 1961-1985 (which won the 1988 American Book Award) and Let’s Not Keep Fighting the Trojan War: New and Selected Poems 1986-2009 (2009). They both run the gamut from sacred to profane and back again. Superb stuff.
Sanders also founded and ran the equally legendary Peace Eye Bookstore. Housed in a former kosher butcher shop in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, The Peace Eye sold many of the key texts that would create the sixties underground consciousness. It also sported Warhol silkscreen banners and hosted all sorts of happenings, such as Ape Rape, the first ever exhibit of then-underground cartoonists Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Kim Deitch, Art Spiegelman and others. The Peace Eye was home base for the Fugs, and their story is pretty much the story of the American sixties, which is why this book was so hotly anticipated from the very start.
In many ways, Fug You delivers everything it promises. It dishes dense details on early-sixties bohemian scenes we can scarcely imagine in the twenty-first century. There’s all sorts of literary frolicking, debauched sex scenes, and vividly sordid drug scenes. Some of the most jaw-dropping sections of the book are those detailing Ed’s ill-fated career as an underground filmmaker. Prodded and advised by Harry Smith (shaman/folk music anthologist/hand-painted filmmaker supreme), Sanders bought a battlefield-ready 16 mm camera and carried it everywhere for a while. He had a whole secret apartment he set up mostly as a stage for crazy movie shoots. The most zonked passage details a free meth buffet Ed set up in an empty apartment while filming Amphetamine Head – A Study of Power in America. He got word out that there was a big bag of meth up for grabs and just filmed what happened after that. The action that ensues is as truly fucked up as anything Sanders has ever written. Girls peel their lip skin off with razor blades while people fight over pots of glue, and blood from hypodermic needles squirts everywhere. Too bad the footage was gobbled forever by the New York Police.
Sanders’s detailed (if not exactly linear) chronology of the beginnings of the Fuck You Press and Peace Eye Bookstore also offer many new facts and explanations: why Burroughs suppressed the Fuck You Press edition of APO-33 (the layout didn’t follow Burroughs’s line breaks), where Auden’s graphically homosexual manuscript The Platonic Blow originated (a poet with access to Auden’s notebooks in Manhattan’s Morgan Library), and so on. There are also golden nuggets (to fanatics, anyway) about the Fugs’ early days. Most interesting to serious researchers are the bits of information about previously apocryphal early band members like Al Fowler and Bill Szabo (both poets and druggies). For amateur historians, Fug You is a goddamn bonanza of arcane bohemian trivia.
The years covered in Fug You are (more or less) 1958-1970. Sanders is in his late teens when the tale begins and in his early 30s when it’s done. The first half of this period is probably the most interesting since, for many people who lived through these years as young adults, it’s the time between 1963 and 1965 that is generally described in the most ecstatic terms. As Peter Stampfel (one of the musicians on the first Fugs album) told me, “The thing about the early sixties in New York was that it got so wide open that almost anything could happen. The elemental feel of the scene was maybe the most amazing aspect of it.” One gets a sense of this from Sanders’s book as well. True, his (and everybody’s) world is rocked by things like the assassination of JFK and the suicide of Marilyn Monroe, but things mostly roll right the heck along. As the decade drags on and things everywhere take a turn for the worse, Sanders, discovering himself suddenly thrust into the then-suspect over-30 demographic, opts to toss off his R&R shoes and to concentrate on his writing.
Still, there are many great Fugs stories. Their exorcism of the grave of the notorious red baiter, Senator Joseph McCarthy, is but one of the many events that should have been filmed. And where the hell is the footage of the Fugs and the Velvet Underground appearing together (along with other Warhol superstars) on The David Susskind Show? This question (and a few others) remain unanswered. But, on the whole, Sanders leaves few stones unturned. It feels as though he had a million factoids written out on index cards and was determined to get them all shoehorned in.
Short sections are grouped in rough chronological order under subheads like “THE ATTEMPED SET-UP OF ALLEN GINSBERG FOR POT ARREST.” Ed then writes about that particular nugget of history and the reader gets the feeling he’s pretty happy to have gotten another list entry checked off. The following section doesn’t necessarily follow strict chronology or even always evolve directly from what went before. This lends the book the feel of an oral history and gives it a certain choppiness. Because of the jumpy structure, the narrative sometimes changes gears too quickly, leaving the reader stranded when Ed shifts topics. It also would have been gratifying if some more space had been devoted to explaining who some fairly obscure characters — Gil Sorrentino, Ray Bremser, Carol Bergé — are. People not deeply conversant with the NY poetry scene of that era may end up scratching their heads at more than a few points. But hey, if you know who these guys are, you’ll get your full money’s worth. Trust me. And if you don’t know who they are, well, most of them are on the web somewhere.
A somewhat firmer editorial hand might have helped structure and streamline the pieces, cutting out distracting repetitions. Since no editor is listed in the acknowledgments of Fug You, it may well be that Ed was left to edit himself. Sanders is a well-established hardass of a writer, after all, and has been an editor for over half a century, so maybe nobody at Da Capo felt like doing battle. Which is a bit of a shame, because it turns what could have been a long, stirring narrative into something that is perhaps best read on the toilet.
As a book qua book, it lacks some of that smooth gonzo coherence, the hallmark of Sanders’s best historical work. This is surprising, since a bunch of the info has surfaced in different forms in some of Sanders’s earlier books, specifically Shards of God (a 1970 Yippie novel published by Grove Press), Tales of Beatnik Glory (two volumes published as one by Citadel Underground, 1990), 1968: A History in Verse (Black Sparrow, 1997), The Poetry and Life of Allen Ginsberg (Overlook Press, 2000), and America: A History in Verse, Vol. 3 (Black Sprrow, 2004). It would have been cool if Sanders had a trusted co-conspirator with whom he could have smoothed everything into a long sweet slide through the glop and blood and pus. But I suppose that’s not really what he’s shooting for, since the structure of the text resembles a scrapbook more than an extended prose piece.
And it’s dandy for that. There are tons of illustrations, which Ed uses to highlight events both trivial and cataclysmic (The Levitation of the Pentagon and photos from Jack Smith’s Beautiful Book, for instance). There are also a goodly number of lists — like, what songs the Fugs recorded at unreleased sessions. There are loads of lo-fi reproductions of Sanders’s fantastic mimeo illustrations for Fuck You Press (which must be seen at full size to really be appreciated), as well as Fugs promo stuff (“Win a Fug Dream Date Competition”), newspaper reprints (“Publisher Picked up in Pornography Raid”), and whatnot. But as profusely illustrated as Fug You is, the repro quality leaves a bit to be desired — and the matte stock doesn’t help. There’s also a bit less information and spewage about Tuli Kupferberg and Ken Weaver (the other two main Fugs) than you might wish, even if it is Ed’s book.
From the pre-dawn of the decade, when he hitch-hiked to Manhattan to attend NYU, right up to the end of the Fugs (their final gig was at Austin’s Vulcan Gas Company in February, 1969), Fug You illustrates how Sanders spent the decade. Two more Fugs LPs came out posthumously, but once Ed was done with that he found himself at loose ends. Of course, it’s not like he was lazy. He recorded a pair of solo LPs and wrote a novel and many poems and essays, but it was at this point he decided to go west and unravel the truths of the Manson Tribe. It’s obvious Sanders didn’t put the same amount of effort into Fug You that he put into The Family, but funny and fact-filled, it should be part of any decent library related to the decade that time will not forget.